Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan. Edited by Brian Bartlett. Icehouse Poetry. Icehouse Poetry is an imprint of Goose Lane Editions. Fredericton, New Brunswick. 2017.
Three reminders of why I love this poetry game. Earlier this week we finally heard from our Sr. Editor, Max, who had gone on a bit of walkabout. He's fine, keeping out of the bad weather and we are greatly relieved to hear he is okay. Today's book of poetry also got a phone call from our Southern Correspondent, the Twangster. A phone call from his lair is as rare as hen's teeth but more welcome than Christmas. Damn it, for the first few minutes of the call my short-term memory left the room and my old brain didn't even recognize the voice.
Why were these calls so important to Today's book of poetry? Max knew me back in the day and tolerated my poetry just enough that I kept going. The Twangster, through a variety of selfless acts of charity has helped Today's book of poetry renew his love for poetry and our small community.
The third. Sir Alden Nowlan. I gave him the Sir moniker and if you want to make something out of it - you know know where I live. Alden Nowlan (1933-1983) was around when there were real giants roaming the poetry earth, Laytons, Cohens and such. But Alden didn't get quite the same sort of press or recognition or fame. I'm here to tell you that long before I worshipped the legendary Irving Layton I was hip deep in Alden Nowlan. The perfect gateway to a life of loving poetry.
Bread, Wine and Salt (Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1967), The Mysterious Naked Man (Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1969) and Between Tears and Laughter (Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1971) were cornerstones of my early poetry world. Today's book of poetry never met or knew Alden Nowlan but we loved him because his poetry was real to us in the most important sense of being real. The emotions I felt as a young man reading Sir Alden of Nowlan have never gone away. When I read these poems they still feel fresh.
Did I say Sir?
Saint Alden of Nowlan is a genuine Canadian poetry hero. Brian Bartlett, the editor of this massive completest's joy, the Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan says it all much tidier and with less emotional bombast. Here is his opening salvo:
Czeslaw Milosz once wrote of another great twentieth-century Polish poet,
Wislawa Szymborska: "Poetry that speaks to the enduring and irreversible
coordinates of human fate -- love, striving, fear of pain, hope, the fleeting
nature of things, and death -- leads us to believe that the poet is one of us,
and shares in that fate." The same could be said about one of Canada's most
distinctive and beloved poets, Alden Nowlan. He once wrote of a desire to
leave behind "one poem, one story / that will tell what it was like / to be
alive" ("Another Poem"). Many times he did just that, with candour and
subtlety, emotion and humour, sympathy and truth-telling. Only now is the
true range of Nowlan's poetic achievement finally available between two
covers. Collected Poems offers in one volume all his poems previously
published in three early chapbooks, eight full-length collections, "new
and selected" compilations, and the script of a long poem for voices.
And here is mine. The first time I opened a book by Alden Nowlan I was in high school, I graduated over 47 years ago. Alden Nowlan was one of the first poets on my bookshelf. Because...
In Those Old Wars
In those old wars
where generals wore yellow ringlets
and sucked lemons at their prayers,
other things being equal
the lost causes were the best.
Lee rode out of history
on his gray horse, Traveller,
so perfect a hero
had he not existed
it would have been necessary to invent him--
war stinks without gallantry.
An aide, one of the few who survived,
Country be damned, general,
for six months these men
have had not country but you.
They fought barefoot
and drank blueberryleaf tea.
strung up Grant
like a carrot,
made him a Merovingian.
They stole everything
even the coppers from Lincoln's dead eyes.
In those days, the vanquished
surrendered their swords like gentlemen,
the victors alone
surrendered their illusions.
The easiest thing to do for a Cause
is to die for it.
Today's book of poetry's old copies of Bread, Wine and Salt and The Mysterious Naked Man have been rifled through so many times the bindings are loose, they have so many paper page markers sticking out of the tops -- they look like they've grown plumage.
What Today's book of poetry found in Alden Nowlan was a voice that sounded so real and true and fine you wished he were your Uncle. Your smart/wise Uncle who wrote poems like this:
The Hollow Men
They tell me they have never aspired to be poets.
Their jobs, when they were young, were more
demanding than mine.
With their sweetest smiles: "Nothing great was ever
by writing before breakfast; to create a man must
Someday, perhaps, they'll live in Mexico or Italy.
Meanwhile, they endure as they must...
Then hand me the poem
they've preserved since their last year
The Last Waltz
The orchestra playing
the last waltz
at three o'clock
in the morning
in the Knights of Pythias Hall
in Hartland, New Brunswick,
Canada, North America,
world, solar system,
centre of universe--
and all of us drunk,
to the music of rum
and a sad clarinet:
each with his beloved.
Our morning read was splendid. The air in Ottawa is crisp, the way it always is before the first big storm of winter. The sky that foreboding sunless gray.
The minions did Sir Saint Alden of Nowlan proud, we read poems from every lovely section of the Collected Poem of Alden Nowlan as though they were the Psalms and we were all religious. Even though we are not.
Here's the truth of it. Alden Nowlan never seemed to be speaking over us, he spoke directly to us, me. It felt like I was being included in an erudite conversation about things that mattered, it was a conversation I wasn't expecting to be included in.
It takes even more than this to make you cry
when you are old enough
to find a forgotten snapshot of yourself,
take it up in your hands,
hold it close to the light,
and for the first time
you were almost
Nowlan was a gem factory. A high class jeweller. Try this jewel on for size:
Fireworks are being set off
from the highest point in the city
and because explosions scare me
I sit here sullenly, bracing myself for the next one,
hoping it will be the last.
After all, we've set off so damn many
explosions this past seven or eight hundred years
it stands to reason God must be getting sick of them.
One of these days he's going to hear a firecracker
and decide that's it, I've had it, they've gone far enough.
What a hell of a bang there'll be when that day comes.
Icehouse Poetry and Goose Lane Editions have done a national service with this handsome book. The Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan may be the most important book of poetry published in Canada this year. Every poetry bookshelf in the country should have this book on it!
Why I am not more afraid of the dark
is the name
And the darkness
your terrible brightness
of bats caught
in a furnace, not
behaving like humans.
Still I all but
say it aloud:
And am grateful
that I possess words:
unknown to animals.
Sir Alden Nowlan, bard, poet-Saint and namer of things, names it here. "I possess words: / charms / unknown to animals.
Today's book of poetry has looked up to Alden Nowlan since we first picked up Bread, Wine and Salt in it's tidy small paperback format. It didn't take me long to realize it was one of the biggest books on my shelf. Over forty years later -- nothing has changed.
Alden Nowlan should be remembered from that time when giants strode the earth for he was their equal in every way. I know, he took giant steps into this poet's heart all those years ago. And just like Mr. Coltrane and his own Giant Steps, they are there to stay.
ABOUT THE AUTHORBorn in Hants Co., Nova Scotia, in 1933, Alden Nowlan moved to Hartland, New Brunswick, when he was nineteen, and worked on the Hartland Observer as reporter, editor, and general facilitator until he went to Saint John (and the Telegraph Journal) in 1963. In 1968 he was invited to take up the position of Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Alden Nowlan died on June 27th, 1983.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Brian Bartlett has published many books of poetry and non-fiction, including The Watchmaker's Table, Ringing Here & There: A Nature Calendar, and Wanting the Day: Selected Poems. He teaches creative writing at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Alden Nowlan: The People's Poet
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