There was wonderful news today in the Canadian literary world, and the centre of gravity of this news was not all that far from Queensborough and the Manse.
The news is this: the legendary A-frame house at Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County, built by hand by the late Al Purdy, one of Canada’s greatest poets, and his wife, Eurithe, has been guaranteed preservation, and is well on its way to a new life as a Canadian literary centre with a writer-in-residence program – and, of course, as a memorial to Al and his work. You can read all about it in this piece by Mark Abley from my own newspaper, the Montreal Gazette.
Raymond and I are not exactly disinterested bystanders in all of this. I have long been a huge fan of the work of Al Purdy, and my (and many people’s) favourite of his poems is The Country North of Belleville. That is, of course, the very country where Queensborough is located, and where I grew up – and to which I have now, with our purchase of the Manse, returned, even if only part-time. The poem captures that country perfectly:
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 …
… A country of quiescence and still distance
a lean land …
… lakeland rockland and hill country
a little adjacent to where the world is …
Yes, that is the country in which one finds Queensborough. And the poem even cites Elzevir, the lonely and starkly beautiful township in which Queensborough is located.
From the very beginning of this blog I had wanted to post that poem. Late last winter I contacted Howard White of Harbour Publishing, Al’s longtime publisher, to ask permission to do so, and Howard very graciously gave that permission. (My March 2012 post, with the full text of the poem and more about Al, including a great photo by John Reeves of Al at work in the A-frame, is here.) Howard also seized the opportunity to tell me that efforts by himself and cultural activist (and friend of the Purdys) Jean Baird, among others, to raise enough money to buy the A-frame so it could be preserved and restored (rather than torn down by some property speculator) had stalled. Well, I’m a news person, and that struck me as a news story, and I passed it on to Montreal writer Mark Abley – who produced a wonderful piece for The Gazette about the A-frame, and Al and Eurithe, and their years in Montreal, and the problems that those trying to save the house were having. And after The Gazette’s story came one in the Toronto Star, and one in the Globe and Mail, and one in the National Post. And interest was generated, and money was raised or pledged, and things began to look a little brighter.
And then recently Eurithe Purdy, with whom I have had the great pleasure of speaking by phone several times and whom we hope to visit in person very soon, made an extremely generous gesture that allowed everything to come together. Basically, she offered a financial arrangement that allowed the purchase of the A-frame by the recently formed non-profit Al Purdy A-frame Association to go through; and the house is now in the hands of the association. And Raymond and I have both volunteered our services to help as needed.
There is a great deal of work ahead: fixing up the A-frame, getting the writer-in-residence program started, basically getting the whole thing off the ground. Lots of money is still needed – and you can (and should!) make a donation here. It’s wonderful to see all the activity going on in many places across the country on the Purdy A-frame project. Jean Baird and Howard White are continuing their tireless efforts from their bases in British Columbia; supporters and helpers in Prince Edward and Hastings counties – including film students at Belleville’s Loyalist College who are planning a documentary project on the A-frame – are hard at work; and volunteers are putting together a major fundraiser in Toronto in February 2013. It’s all very exciting.
“So we built a house, my wife and I,” Al wrote in his poem In Search of Owen Roblin:
… our house at a backwater puddle of a lake
near Ameliasburg, Ont. spending
our last hard-earned buck to buy second-hand lumber
to build a second-hand house
and make the down payment on a lot
so far from anywhere
even homing pigeons lost their way …
What would Al and Eurithe have thought if, back in 1957 while they were building this house with their bare hands, despite having no money and no carpentry skills to speak of, scavenging materials wherever they could, someone had told them that 55 years later people from across Canada would have rallied to save the A-frame and preserve the memory of what they went on to accomplish there?
Well, I think they would have been surprised. And pleased. (In Al’s case, probably gruffly.)
Today’s announcement is good news for the Purdy legacy; good news for the Canadian literary world, which has taken a bit of a beating recently what with well-regarded publishers disappearing and so on; and good news for the place that Al and Eurithe chose, Prince Edward County.
Which is, I might add, in the country south of Belleville.
(You can – and should – read Al Purdy’s poems. You can order books by and about Al, including The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology and Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, from Harbour Publishing, harbourpublishing.com.)