Al Purdy and The Country North of Belleville

A wonderful photo from 1965 of Al Purdy at work in his A-frame house in Prince Edward County. Recently I spoke to John Reeves, the photographer, who has graciously allowed his images of Al to be used in the campaign to save the A-frame. He told me he was commissioned to do the shoot by The Canadian magazine (sadly, long defunct), as Al was “just getting a bit of liftoff as an eminent eccentric and intellectual.” Photo by John Reeves

Al Purdy (1918-2000) is one of the greatest poets this country has ever produced. His voice is as authentic as it comes: “The Voice of the Land,” the League of Canadian Poets named him not long before his death. That title was also given to the statue of Purdy that’s now in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Paul Vermeersch wrote a great article about Al, his work, the statue, and more for Open Book Toronto; you can read it here.

I have long been an admirer of Al’s poetry. Knowing this, years ago my sister, Melanie, gave me as a gift a cassette recording of him reading his own poems. I remember hurtling along the arid Highway 401 between Montreal and central Ontario, laughing as Al gruffly informed me: “…you can see that I am a sensitive man / And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too…” (“At the Quinte Hotel“)

I love his poetry for many reasons, but first among them that he comes from a place that I know in my bones. He writes about that place like no one ever has or ever will.

Al was born in Wooler, a village north of Trenton, Ont. His wife, Eurithe, was from Trenton. They lived in many places in Canada; they had a mid-century stint in Montreal, where they rubbed shoulders with masterful poets such as Irving Layton, F.R. Scott, and Louis Dudek.

But then they built an A-frame house in Ameliasburgh, in Prince Edward County, close to their families and their roots. It was there that Al found his voice. If you read this wonderful article from the Montreal Gazette by Mark Abley, you’ll find out more about Al’s life and work, and especially about the urgent campaign to preserve that A-frame as a lasting tribute to Al Purdy. Here is another story about the campaign from the Toronto Star.

Many people think that Al’s poem The Country North of Belleville is one of his best; some feel it’s the best of all. It is my favourite, but not just because it is a great poem; I love it because it’s the best description of, and reflection on, the beautifully desolate country where Queensborough is, the country where I grew up. The country on the very edge of the Canadian Shield. The names of the townships – Wollaston, Elzevir and Dungannon: they take me back to my Grade 4 classroom, when our teacher, Mrs. Carmen, was determined that we learn the names of the townships in our county, in geographical order: Elzevir, Dungannon, Grimsthorpe…

Here is what many of us feel is Al Purdy’s masterpiece.

The Country North of Belleville

Bush land scrub land –

              Cashel Township and Wollaston

Elzevir McClure and Dungannon

green lands of Weslemkoon Lake

where a man might have some

              opinion of what beauty

is and none deny him

                                    for miles –

Yet this is the country of defeat

where Sisyphus rolls a big stone

year after year up the ancient hills

picknicking glaciers have left strewn

with centuries’ rubble

                                    backbreaking days

                                    in the sun and rain

when realization seeps slow in the mind

without grandeur or self-deception in

                                    noble struggle

of being a fool –

A country of quiescence and still distance

a lean land

              not like the fat south

with inches of black soil on

              earth’s round belly –

And where the farms are

              it’s as if a man stuck

both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled

                                    it apart

                                    to make room

enough between the trees

for a wife

              and maybe some cows and

              room for some

of the more easily kept illusions –

And where the farms have gone back

to forest

              are only soft outlines

              shadowy differences –

Old fences drift vaguely among the trees

              a pile of moss-covered stones

gathered for some ghost purpose

has lost meaning under the meaningless sky

              – they are like cities under water

and the undulating green waves of time

              are laid on them –

This is the country of our defeat

              and yet

during the fall plowing a man

might stop and stand in a brown valley of the furrows

              and shade his eyes to watch for the same

              red patch mixed with gold

              that appears on the same

              spot in the hills

              year after year

              and grow old

plowing and plowing a ten-acre field until

the convolutions run parallel with his own brain –

And this is a country where the young

                                    leave quickly

unwilling to know what their fathers knew

or think the words their mothers do not say –

Herschel Monteagle and Faraday

lakeland rockland and hill country

a little adjacent to where the world is

a little north of where the cities are and

sometime

we may go back there

                                    to the country of our defeat

Wollaston Elzevir and Dungannon

and Weslemkoon lake land

where the high townships of Cashel

                                    McClure and Marmora once were –

But it’s been a long time since

and we must enquire the way

              of strangers –

Copyright (c) Al Purdy. From Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, Harbour Publishing www.harbourpublishing.com. Used with permission.

To learn more about the campaign to save Al and Eurithe’s A-frame, and to donate (please donate!): purdyhouse.ca

To purchase Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, check with your local bookseller or go to Harbour Publishing here.

6 thoughts on “Al Purdy and The Country North of Belleville

  1. Brilliant post…brilliant poem.
    The sense of place in his poems leaves me weak at the knees.
    I feel so moved, and hopeful that recent publicity might lead to a resurgence of interest in the A-frame property preservation. I had a peep in past the cedars to the little house on Sunday. Hallowed ground.

  2. I remember reading this at some point during university and having a revelation– someone understood! So much of my family’s farm has gone back to forest. So many old stone fences are scattered through the woods on our land. This poem has always given me goosebumps. Thanks for the refresher!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed rediscovering the poem, Laura. Goosebumps, yes – that pretty well says it. I am so pleased that Howard White, Al Purdy’s pubisher, so kindly gave me permission to reprint the poem. And it was through Howard that I learned of the efforts to preserve Al’s A-frame in Ameliasbugh. Still hoping to get a message from him sometime soon saying that a deep-pocketed appreciator of literature (or a lot of shallower-pocketed ones) has/have come through with the needed money.

  3. This is a most beautiful post written about a gem of a poet. Thank you. Have you had any one reblog your work before, Katherine? I would really like to post this to my blog some time when I get home to Calgary. At the loss of my beautiful mother at the end of May, I drove out to Belleville to spend time with Dad and have been here in Belleville since. I’ve been an art and english teacher for thirty years and I’m so pleased that I will be able to visit the A frame open house on the 27th…Mom’s birth date. Long-story-short…your blog…all of it…speaks to what is beautiful about this part of Canada. Your journey is very inspiring and I wanted to let you know the impact it has had on me. The poem, At Evergreen Cemetery by Al Purdy has been resonating with me for weeks now.

    • Hello, Kathleen! I’m so happy you found Meanwhile, at the Manse and particularly my Country North of Belleville post. Because we all need Al Purdy’s work in our lives – maybe especially at times when our lives change dramatically. I am so sorry to hear of your mother’s death, but I hope that your time with your dad in Hastings and Prince Edward counties that has resulted from it has been a blessing, and perhaps even strikes you both as a gift from her. Today I am on the road with very limited internet access so I have not been able to see much of your blog, but the Picton CFB post is amazing. I never even knew there was a base at Picton! Those photos are haunting and lovely. I really look forward to exploring more of your work when the internet is being more friendly to me; shortly, I hope. Re reblogging: I would be honoured and even thrilled, but I would ask you to contact Howard White at Harbour Publishing, Al Purdy’s publisher (easy enough to find online – I apologize that I can’t send a link, but did I mention that I have sketchy internet?) for permission to post the poem. That’s what I did way back when I started the blog, and I was so happy that Howard said yes. And lots of good things came of that! Meanwhile, enjoy the Purdy Picnic tomorrow – I hope you’ll meet my friend Lindi Pierce, author of the In Search of Al Purdy blog; and maybe Eurithe will be there. And finally, thank you so much for steering me to Evergreen Cemetery. I see Al mentions something in the first of the two Evergreen Cemetery poems that I remember from my Hastings County childhood, and I bet you do too, and it’s a happy memory: fireflies!

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