Sunday, August 30, 2015

When We Were Old - Peter Unwin (Cormorant Books)

Today's book of poetry:
When We Were Old.  Peter Unwin.  Cormorant Books Inc.  Toronto, Ontario. 2014.

When We Were Old not only echoes the title of the great and under-appreciated Raymond Souster's When We Were Young, the poetry contained within maintains the high standards of Saint Raymond of Souster's work.  That is no small accomplishment.

But it is another excellent Canadian writer that comes to mind when I read and reread these hard packed gems.  Many years ago I had the honour of sharing a scotch or two with Alistar MacLeod. MacLeod  is absolutely one of the best writers ever and I'm willing to bust heads on this one. MacLeod is sacred territory in this house so when I tell you that Peter Unwin's poems impart some of that same sense of hard earned wisdom, that sense of urgency towards kindness, I am not giving faint praise.

The Family Place

The children are up
even if we are not.

The dew is on the land
even if we are somewhere else.

The mice are in the traps,
even if we prefer to think

otherwise about ourselves.
The brush is in the hair, the birds

are at it, the coffee's cooked
and the day

is about to get cracked
by us.

Unwin writes with a great sweetness that is entirely devoid of saccharine.  These poems are never sentimental but they are deeply tender and moving.

There is also a feeling of hope and we here at Today's book of poetry are big fans of optimism of any kind.  These poems make clear that it's a thin, thin line, perhaps even that old razor's edge that Somerset ranted so eloquently about - but there are reasons to hope.  We do have a chance.

As I'm typing this blog up from the tatters of the notes my staff confettied I realized Unwin has a dark sense of whimsy under his encyclopedic noggin'.  Dark whimsy and hope, that's the ticket.

The Cost of Life

It doesn't get any cheaper than this;
to be wide awake at an early hour, partnered
to a sleeping woman who snores softly,
the cat yawning from the corner
of the bed, the stupid but inoffensive
dawn chatter of birds who mean no harm
unless you're a worm. The children
are spent, but soon they will bolt from bed
in search of Cheerios and tales of Athena;
the part where she explodes from Zeus's
head is irresistible to them and they can't
get enough of it. Outside the window
the sunlight puts poetry on the leaves
of the maple tree. I am enriched by this but
I can't describe it, it beggars both
the imagination and the family budget.
We are set for now; there is no milk
in the fridge, the washing machine
is broken and the clock ticks too loudly
but all of the household cancers
are in remission, the medical bills
getting paid by an imaginary uncle
who made a fortune in the Maldives.


Unwin's When We Were Old is his first volume of poetry although he is well established in other writing fields - we will be wanting much more from Mr. Unwin.  It is clear he has much to say and now that we know how excellently he says it - we want more.

This is mature poetry and it sings an adult song with humour, grace and intelligent candor.  Raymond Souster would be tickled.

Cabin at Night

At night this cabin is a ship
captained by you and me
lit by kerosene
and lurching to the North Star.

Over us the constellations fall
like harpoons. We have survived
every phase of the moon
you and me, but we will drown

with the smell of each other's hair
in our nostrils. This cabin
will wreck for generations
without us

but it will sail, it will lurch on
with another you tapping
at the face of a compass
and another me, straining at the pumps.


Today's book of poetry is very fond of the poetry of Peter Unwin.  Once you read When We Were Old you will be too.

Peter Unwin

Peter Unwin was born in Sheffield, England, and raised in Southern Ontario. He studied at Carleton University in Ottawa.
His previous fiction includes the short story collection The Rock Farmers, which was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and the novel Nine Bells for a Man.
His non-fiction includes The Wolf’s Head: Writing Lake Superior and Hard Surface: In Search of the Canadian Road.   Peter published a collection of short stories, LIFE WITHOUT DEATH (2013) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award in 2014.
He has travelled extensively in the Canadian north. Currently, he is a Master’s candidate in Culture and Communications at York and Ryerson universities. An avid practitioner of martial arts, baseball, and literature, he lives in Toronto with his wife and two daughters.

Peter Unwin
Reading his poem "Fighting in Poetry"
Video: clipin

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Today's book of poetry would like to acknowledge our recent sporadic posts.  I'd like to blame it on my horrid staff of lolligagers and miscreants, but in fact, it is all my doing.  My father, Russell William White, passed away recently and as a result there have been some logistical difficulties.  A great door has closed and in my mind a great man has passed.  My father was as kind as any man you've ever met.  The world is slightly off kilter but we are righting our ship.

We will continue with a flexible schedule for another couple of weeks and then it is back to our regularly scheduled program

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