A-frame in the Montreal Gazette

Mark Abley writes about the A-Frame in the Montreal Gazette:

MONTREAL – Go to rural New Hampshire, and you can visit the Frost Place outside Franconia, a house where the American poet Robert Frost lived for five rewarding years. It’s now a museum and a non-profit centre for the arts. Go to rural Wales, and you can visit the Boathouse in Laugharne, where the poet Dylan Thomas spent his last four tumultuous years. It’s now a heritage centre. Yet in this country, the house that was constructed and inhabited for more than 40 years by one of our finest poets, Al Purdy, may soon be lost to the public, even demolished. Efforts to preserve it for the future have so far failed to raise enough cash.

“Words do have smell and taste,” Purdy wrote in a poem called “Prince Edward County,” / “these have the taste of apples / brown earth and red tomatoes / as if a juggler had juggled / too many balls of fire … ” Not for him the linguistic bravado of Thomas or the rhyming certainties of Frost. Purdy’s was a plainspoken, provisional grace – even in his best poems, you feel him trying the language out, exploring the way English Canadians speak and feel, stretching a languid conversational tone and rhythm into something original and tough.

Many of those poems are set in the accessible backwater of rural Ontario to which he moved in 1957. He and his wife, Eurithe, were fresh from a few years in Montreal, inspired and challenged by the literary life of this city. Purdy had become acquainted with Irving LaytonF.R. ScottLouis Dudek and other Montreal poets, and the freedom with which they wrote stood in sharp contrast to the constraints of his own early, unsuccessful work. But Purdy was not a Montrealer at heart, not a city-dweller of any sort, and the rolling, unkempt mixture of forest and farmland south of Trenton was a landscape he would make his own.

With the help of his wife and father-in-law, he began by building his own home – a modest A-frame cottage near the shore of Roblin Lake, constructed of wood and stray stone, a morsel of this, a fragment of that. Nobody would call it an architectural masterpiece. But it’s redolent of literary history. The young Michael Ondaatje, an aspiring writer new to Canada, went to stay there; Purdy welcomed him, as he did so many others. His poem “House Guest” describes an earlier, longer visit by the Communist writer Milton Acorn; for two months the pair quarrelled about politics, drank, wrote poems, and listened to “how the new house built with salvaged old lumber / bent a little in the wind and dreamt of the trees it came from.”

Purdy despised pretence. He loved the landscape, indeed the entire country, with a rough and sometimes awkward passion; and he had a rare gift for transforming awkwardness and silence into words that could catch fire. In the second of his poems called “Roblin’s Mills,” he imagines the forgotten, inarticulate lives of people who lived there long before him: “The black millpond holds them / movings and reachings and fragments / the gear and tackle of living / under the water eye / all things laid aside, discarded, forgotten / but they had their being once / and left a place to stand on.” The elegy is all the more beautiful for being, unlike so many elegies, honest.

I met him only once, in southern England; he was hopelessly out of place. It was the early 1980s, and he gave a surprisingly well-received reading at Oxford University, a china shop through which he charged like an aging bull. After the reading he and I drank too much whisky and he signed one of his many books for me, “with lack of elegance & erudition but with best wishes.” Needless to say, I treasure it now. In fact he had much erudition. I only wish I’d taken up his offer to visit him at Roblin Lake.

He died in 2000, a year before Mordecai Richler, nearly six before Irving Layton. We have lost giants, sometimes without quite realizing it. Eurithe Purdy is now 87, and she needs to sell the A-frame soon. A last-ditch attempt to raise the funds to buy and preserve it, spearheaded by cultural activist Jean Baird and Howard White, Purdy’s publisher, is under way. But how sad, and how revealing of this unliterary nation, that after years of effort, the outcome is uncertain. “Reality is an overdrawn bank account,” Purdy once wrote, “my myths and cheques both bounce, / the creditors close in; / and all the dead men, / chanting hymns, / tunnel towards me underground.”

For more information about the campaign to save Al Purdy’s house, including details on how to donate, visit purdyhouse.ca.

Mark Abley is a Montreal writer. His Watchwords column appears in The Gazette on alternate Saturdays.