Here is a downright poetic thing to do this long weekend

Purdy - Active Arts August Ah, the last days of summer. They are upon us, people. It is hard to believe how quickly July and August have passed. And now we have shorter days and cooler nights – and, looking on the bright side, the glories of autumn in North-of-7 Ontario soon to come.

But hey, we still have the long Labour Day weekend to look forward to! And this evening I am here to tell you about an event that you should attend, should you be of a literary bent, or of a local-cultural-events bent, or of a Prince Edward County bent, or really if you’re just interested in something cool and different to do, on the Saturday of this Labour Day weekend.

It is an event celebrating Al Purdy, perhaps Canada’s greatest poet and a local Hastings County boy (by way of Wooler – which, yes, is probably actually in neighbouring Northumberland County, but only just – and Trenton). Longtime readers will know that I am a huge fan of Purdy, in part because his famous poem The Country North of Belleville so perfectly describes the landscape where our beloved Queensborough and Manse are located. In fact, I’ve made so many references to Purdy and his work, and to Purdy-connected events, since this blog started that tonight I’ve gone and got myself organized and created a new Al Purdy category right here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. If you click on that category on the home page you’ll find all kinds of stuff by me connected to Al.

Anyway: the event I’m going on about is a fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, a non-profit group that has done a miraculous job of preserving and restoring the very rustic A-frame cottage that Al and his wife, Eurithe, built on Roblin Lake at Ameliasburgh. That cottage, as I’ve written here, was the place not only where Al wrote many wonderful poems, but where he and Eurithe welcomed generations of Canadian writers, both established and famous and unknown but up-and-coming. It is a very important place in Canadian literary history – and for those of us in Hastings and Prince Edward counties (and Northumberland County and Lennox and Addington too) it’s right here in the back yard.

While the cottage has been purchased and mostly fixed up, there’s still lots to be done – not only on the property, but to ensure the continuance of a new writer-in-residence program whereby young Canadian poets stay for a few months at a time at the A-frame, pursuing their literary work but also keeping the flame burning for Al and his legacy, and for the magic of poetry in general.

Now, I could tell you all the detaila about Saturday’s event – which takes place at Rednersville, on the shores of the beautiful Bay of Quinte – but you can get a lot of it from the poster that you see at the top of this post. And what you really should do is check out the entertaining and enticing stuff in posts here and here and here and here at the marvellous Purdy-themed blog In Search of Al Purdy, written by our brilliant friend Lindi Pierce. I urge you to go enjoy those posts  – and, if you’d like a good laugh, Al’s poem When I Sat Down to Play the Piano, which Lindi makes reference to in this one.

Raymond and I will certainly be on hand for the event, having been involved to a greater or lesser extent (greater for Raymond, considerably lesser for me) in the A-frame project for the past few years. We’d love to see you there – and to raise with you a glass of a new beer being made by Prince Edward County’s Barley Days brewery in honour of Al, and to financially support the A-frame. Its unusual name, A Sensitive Man, is taken from Al’s legendary poem At the Quinte Hotel, wherein he proclaims himself (even as he is drinking rather large quantities of beer at that classic old tavern) just such a man. As I’m sure he was.

Anyway, an afternoon of music, poetry, theatrical readings, food, celebration of Al Purdy, support of a good cause, and beer called A Sensitive Man – what more could you ask for on the last weekend of summer?

At the poet’s house, as at the Manse, company for dinner

Raymond at the A-frame

Here’s Raymond outside the Al Purdy A-frame house, just after we arrived there for a work bee last Saturday morning. What a thrill it was to finally see this famous rustic cottage!

Raymond and I had an interesting morning this past Saturday, joining about a dozen other volunteers to do some repair and cleanup work on a very modest home that is a very important piece of Canadian literary history.

The home is the A-frame house that poet Al Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, built in 1957 in Ameliasburgh, down in Prince Edward County. (Which is the county due south of us here in Hastings County.) They built it themselves because they had no money to pay professionals to do it – a poet’s income being, then as now, pretty sparse – and they built it largely out of materials they managed to scrounge up. It always remained a pretty rustic place, outhouse and all, but over the years everyone who was anyone in Canadian literature paid a visit to the Purdys there, and many of them paid repeat visits. It was a place to talk poetry and literature while enjoying libations – perhaps some of Al’s wild grape wine – and the view out over Roblin Lake, on which the A-frame is built. There are photos of Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood and all manner of writer types hanging out at the A-frame, enjoying the hospitality that Al and Eurithe offered. (You can read more about all that, and see some of the photos, here.)

Chaises longues at the A-frame

I can just picture Al and Eurithe Purdy – or one of them with some famous or not-so-famous literary visitor – relaxing on these chaises longues at the A-frame. (Later in the day of our cleanup bee the grass did get mowed, by the way.)

Regular readers will know that I have a very great admiration for the poetry of Al Purdy, due in part to the wonderful way he describes my own part of the world – the Canadian Shield country where Queensborough is – in The Country North of Belleville and several other poems. I’ve written multiple times about that, and here I told you about the campaign to save the A-frame. The project’s goal was to preserve the rustic old place because of its singular place in Canadian literary history, and to carry on Al’s legacy by setting up a writer-in-residence program so that young poets could come and live and work where Al did.

Well, that campaign has come together nicely. The first crop of writers-in-residence has been named, and the first of them will be living at the A-frame come this summer. Which is why we volunteers were out there Saturday morning, hammering planks for a deck, moving rocks and debris, mowing the grass, washing out cabinets and cupboards, and just generally getting a good start at making the place – which had suffered from water infiltration and weather, and from simply not being lived in – ready to welcome residents. Here’s one photo of the workers doing their thing, on the front deck:

Working on the A-frame deck

(You can read more about the cleanup bee, and about Al Purdy and the A-frame project in general, here, at our friend Lindi Pierce’s excellent blog In Search of Al Purdy. Lindi, an architectural historian, history buff, and writer, has been a driving force behind the A-frame project.)

Our A-frame experience Saturday was the first time Raymond and I had ever been at, let alone inside, the building we’d both read and heard so much about, and I have to confess that I felt more than a little in awe. To walk through the rooms where one of my literary heroes had lived and worked, to touch the furniture and see the books on the shelves and examine the pictures on the wall – well, it was quite overwhelming at first. But there wasn’t much time for being overwhelmed or awestruck, because there was work to do.

One of the jobs that I helped out with was going through household linens – tablecloths, curtains, seat covers, napkins, towels, etc. All were a little on the musty side, but most will be fine for re-use once they’ve been washed and aired out. But while going through them, I found something that I found endearing and, in its own way – I’ll explain – familiar.

It was the placemats. So many placemats!

A-frame placemats

Just look at the depth and variety of Eurithe Purdy’s collection of placemats!

One might wonder why such a small household – Al, Eurithe and their son Jim when he was young – would need all those placemats. Ah, but remember what I said about the Purdys welcoming generations of Canadian writers to the A-frame? Well, those people had to be fed when they visited! And what did Eurithe feed them? Spaghetti. Eurithe made a lot of spaghetti, doubtless because it was cheap and would feed a lot of hungry people at once.

What this all reminded me of was my mother, Lorna, in the days when I was growing up here at the Manse. As I’ve reported here, it was incumbent on the minister and his wife in those days to invite parishioners for dinner. And so pretty much every Sunday evening of all my childhood years at the Manse, my mum made a great big roast-beef dinner, mashed potatoes and gravy and all the vegetable accompaniments (including, of course, jellied salad), plus homemade pie for dessert, for a big group that included the company and our own family of six. And she did this after a long week of looking after four growing children and a big old Manse and working full-time as a high-school teacher. Yikes! (Which might be about how Eurithe felt when she saw yet another carful of visitors coming down the driveway of the A-frame.)

One last thing that I found very endearing about those placemats. Here’s a closeup that I think will allow you to see it:

Spaghetti-sauce stains

People, I am pretty sure those brownish-orange marks are… spaghetti-sauce stains.

“The whole world smells of lilacs”

A gorgeous lilac bush on Frankford Road, Hastings County.

A gorgeous lilac bush on Frankford Road, Hastings County.

No matter what differences we in Queensborough or anywhere else in the world may have, I think there is one thing that we can all agree on: that lilacs are beautiful.

That was reinforced for me when I tossed off a quick post the other night (because it was late – Raymond and I had just come home from a dinner party – and I was tired) about how much we had enjoyed the lilacs in Hastings County during our Victoria Day long weekend at the Manse. Much to my surprise, that post had a very high readership, and I got a lot of reaction to it in the form of comments and emails. (Including a lovely offer of some lilac cuttings that we can transplant at the Manse!) Clearly people love lilacs.

One commenter asked me to post more pictures; hence the one at the top here, which was a quick snapshot of one particularly beautiful lilac bush outside a place where Raymond and I stopped last Saturday at a yard sale (where we bought books! Imagine!) on Frankford Road between the villages of Frankford and Stirling.

But your response has kind of got me thinking that there might be something in this lilac business. Remember how I mentioned that pretty little Warkworth (a village in Northumberland County, the next county over, to the west, from Hastings) has a lilac festival? (As, I have subsequently discovered, does the town of Lindsay, in nearby Victoria County – and yes, I know it’s now called Kawartha Lakes or some such foolishness, but it’ll always be Victoria County to me.)

Well, perhaps Hastings County needs a Lilac Trail – a driving (or cycling, or motorcyling) route that people could follow to see beautiful lilac displays and pretty countryside and nice little villages and hamlets. And maybe we could do some cross-county promotion and team up with Warkworth and have the Hastings Lilac Trail end up at the Warkworth Lilac Festival. What do you think?

Meanwhile, in a bit of serendipity that was another encouragement to revisit lilacs in tonight’s post, we got an email today from the good people working to raise money for the Al Purdy A-frame project, to restore the late great Canadian poet‘s hand-built house in Prince Edward County and use it as an arts centre. It was about a fundraiser being held in Toronto June 7 (a screening of the movie The Shape of Rex with a party to follow; it’s at the Royal Cinema, 608 College St., 7 p.m., and if you’re in the Toronto area, go!). The message included some lines from a Purdy poem that I had not previously known, called May 23, 1980. That same poem was also the theme for the latest post on a wonderful blog about Al Purdy and the A-Frame Project, called In Search of Al Purdy; that post is here. I don’t want to infringe on copyright so I won’t reproduce the poem, save for a couple of lines; I urge you to buy one of Al’s books (try Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, which you can buy here) and read it for yourself. It’s lovely.

Basically, Al starts the poem by recounting what he was thinking about on – well, May 23, 1980. (And as it happens, as I started writing this post it was also May 23. Serendipity again.) He had got home – home presumably being the A-frame in Ameliasburgh – after a long day of driving,

and you know
– the whole world smells of lilacs
the whole damn world.

He goes on to reminisce about a young woman he’d met at a party a long time ago, a woman with violet eyes. Now, he says, he’s grown old, though he still thinks of the night he met her:

tell her for me
there will come one May night
of every year that she’s alive
when the whole world smells of lilacs.

And that is true. For the young woman with the violet eyes – and for us all.

A celebration of Al Purdy

On display at the Al Purdy Show: a papier-mâché rendition of Al. Perched on the bar. Unfortunately I do not have the name of the artist, but perhaps a reader can help me out.

On display at the Al Purdy Show: a papier-mâché rendition of Al. Perched on the bar. Unfortunately I do not have the name of the artist, but perhaps a reader can help me.

A week ago tonight I was doing something that I hardly ever do: visiting Toronto. Raymond and I were among the capacity audience at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music for an evening celebrating the life and work of poet Al Purdy, one of Canada’s greatest poets and one who truly heard, and conveyed, “the voice of the land.”

(One of the first things I did when I started this blog about the Manse was to seek permission from Al’s publisher to reprint my favourite of his poems, The Country North of Belleville; that post is here. The country north of Belleville is precisely where the Manse is.)

The Toronto event was a fundraiser for a project that I have written about before, notably here: the campaign to preserve the humble A-frame house that Al and his wife, Eurithe, built in the late 1950s in Prince Edward County, and put the house to future use for a poet-in-residence program. As admirers of Purdy’s work, of vernacular mid-century architecture, and of Prince Edward County, Raymond and I were happy to support the cause.

"A happy makeshift vision" is a nice description of Al and Eurithe's A-frame, a place of pilgrimage for generations of Canadian poets. They came to talk poetry with Al, and they stayed for beer and Eurithe's spaghetti. This was a display at the Al Purdy Show in Toronto Feb. 6.

“A happy makeshift vision” is a nice description of Al and Eurithe’s A-frame, a place of pilgrimage for generations of Canadian poets. They came to talk poetry with Al, and they stayed for beer and Eurithe’s spaghetti. This was a display at the Al Purdy Show in Toronto Feb. 6. Note the photo of Al outside his beloved outhouse at bottom right.

It was a terrific evening of poetry and music featuring the likes of Gordon Pinsent, George BoweringDennis Lee, Dave Bidini, Gord Downey and Margaret Atwood. (You can read Michael Enright‘s interview with Atwood on the occasion here, and my thanks to my pal Jim Withers for sending me that link.) But you don’t need me to tell you all about it; if you’re interested, here is an excellent report from the Random House of Canada blog Hazlitt. (My thanks to my friend Lindi Pierce for drawing that article to my attention. Lindi, the mastermind behind the wonderful Ancestral Roofs blog on Ontario architecture and heritage, has also started a blog called In Search of Al Purdy – Lindi being a native of Prince Edward County and a literary sort, she has been a big supporter of the A-frame project.) And if you’re interested in learning more about the A-frame project and donating to it, you can do that here.

It’s kind of fun to rub shoulders with a large roomful of literary folk; it’s not something we do all that often. I liked the fact that a lot of them (though not all, by any means) were pleasantly rumpled. “Rumpled” is my kind of people. And I’m pretty sure that it would have been just the word to describe how Al would have looked, had he been there. Which, come to think of it, he was.

No more drinking at the Quinte Hotel

The sad ruins of the landmark Quinte Hotel in downtown Belleville, Ont. (Photo from the Belleville Intelligencer)

The sad ruins of the landmark Quinte Hotel in downtown Belleville, Ont. (Photo from the Belleville Intelligencer)

Hello people, and welcome to 2013! My apologies for being so absent lately. It has been a combination of weariness/illness (the aftermath of The Dreaded Christmas Flu), and being on the road with no reliable internet access. But tonight I am feeling better than I have in quite a while, energized and (thanks largely to a great note I got today from my friend and indefatigable Queensborough-booster Elaine) all revved up about what this year is going to bring for Queensborough, and for Raymond and me and our life at the Manse. It is going to be a good year!

But first, some news from Hastings County that won’t be news to those of you who live there or keep tabs on it, but will perhaps be to others. It’s rather sad news, because it involves the end of not one but two historic buildings that have a certain place in the Canadian literary canon, thanks to poet Al Purdy. These places are none other than the Quinte Hotel – or should I say, the Quinte Hotels. One is – or rather, was – in Trenton, a small city in the southwestern corner of Hastings County (and for some unknown reason sometimes more associated with neighbouring Northumberland County); the other, currently in ruins and semi-demolished, is in Belleville, the Hastings County seat about 45 minutes due south of Queensborough. Both experienced devastating fires over the course of the past couple of months – first the Trenton Quinte (which in recent years has been a strip joint called the Sherwood Forest Inn; details on that fire here and here) and then, just before Christmas, the historic landmark building that was the Quinte Hotel (or, in more recent times, the “Hotel Quinte”) in the heart of Belleville; you can read about that one here and here and here.

If you know anything at all about Al Purdy you probably know At the Quinte Hotel, one of his most famous poems. “I am drinking/I am drinking beer with yellow flowers/in underground sunlight/and you can see that I am a sensitive man/And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too…” Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip did a video based on it and here it is (though I recommend fast-forwarding through the first couple of minutes and getting straight to the voice of Al reading the poem):

It kind of gets all gauzy in retrospect now, but if you grew up in rural Ontario in the middle part of the 20th century, you will probably have a good idea of what places like the Quinte Hotel were like in the days Al was drinking in them. In a small town or city, “the hotel” was a synonym for “the bar,” or better yet, to use a classic Canadian phrase, “the beer parlour.” These were generally three- or four-storey brick buildings that once had been real hotels, with respectable rooms for rent, and restaurants with fine meals served as well as bar service. But once there was no longer much call for hotel rooms or fine dining in Ontario’s small towns and cities, the proprietors of these establishments had to make ends meet any way they could, and that tended to be turning the ground floor into a large bar serving primarily draft beer (generally purchased in sets of two glasses, salt shaker on the side) primarily (especially in the unenlightened days before the late 1970s/early 1980s, when women were finally allowed in, for better or for worse) to men. (There would in the olden days be a separate room for “ladies and escorts” that was never particularly populated.) The food served in these beer parlours was mostly from giant jars of pickled eggs and preserved sausages on the counter; there would be a cigarette machine doling out Mark Tens and whatnot in exchange for a whole bunch of quarters in the corner of the room; and on Friday and Saturday nights, as likely as not, there would be live entertainment in the form of a band that might be half-decent and, then again, might not. The room would be always a haze of cigarette smoke, fights would be common, and if you happened to be there past closing time (when the lights went up, a ghastly – though eminently predictable – event immortalized in Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time) it was always entertaining to watch and listen as people outside the locked door tried to wheedle their way in for one last late-night drink.

Gee, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, don’t I?

Well, let me assure you that my experiences in old-fashioned Ontario beer parlours have nothing whatsoever to do with my growing-up-in-Queensborough years. They came when I was older and much less wise. But suffice to say that while I never darkened the door of the Quinte Hotel in Trenton or the Quinte Hotel in Belleville, I am perfectly aware of what those places were like. And since Al Purdy was very fond of beer, and of shooting the breeze, I am equally sure that many of his afternoons and maybe evenings were spent drinking beer at the Quinte Hotel, in whichever town he happened to be in.

It turns out it was the Quinte Hotel in Trenton he was referring to in his famous poem, though I’d be shocked if he hadn’t enjoyed the hospitality of the Belleville establishment as well. I remember that place (the Belleville one) in the 1960s and 1970s, when my family would visit Belleville (usually because my dad, the minister, was making pastoral calls on parishioners who were in the hospital there) because of the oval rotating red and white and blue sign proclaiming “Quinte Hotel” that was something of a landmark in the downtown (though damned if I can find a photo of it on Google – anybody?).

Anyway, these are fond memories, stinky tobacco-hazy beer parlours and all. But here is some news you need! The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust people, the good folks working to restore the humble A-frame house that Al and his hardy wife, Eurithe, built by hand in Prince Edward County and that was a home away from home for generations of Canadian writers, are holding a celebration and fundraising night this coming Feb. 6 (that’s a Wednesday) in Toronto. Details here, and you can order tickets here. Gord Downie will be there, as will Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent and many others. Awesome things – like, say, books from Al’s own library – will be up for auction. And all for a good cause: remembering and celebrating and carrying on the legacy of your friend and mine, Al Purdy.

A sometime drinker at the Quinte Hotel.

The Al Purdy A-frame has been saved!

Al Purdy (1918-2000), one of Canada’s greatest poets, at the house he built with his wife, Eurithe: the A-frame on the shores of Roblin Lake, Prince Edward County. (Photo from purdyhouse.ca)

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.

Al and Eurithe Purdy at the A-frame. (Photo from purdyhouse.ca)

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.

Al Purdy at the A-frame’s outhouse, one of his favourite parts of the property. (Photo from purdyhouse.ca)

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.)

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.