Saturday, November 18, 2017

Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan - Edited by Brian Bartlett (Icehouse Poetry/Goose Lane Editions)

Today's book of poetry:
Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan.  Edited by Brian Bartlett.  Icehouse Poetry.  Icehouse Poetry is an imprint of Goose Lane Editions.  Fredericton, New Brunswick.  2017.

Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan

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,
told him,
Country be damned, general,
for six months these men
have had not country but you.
They fought barefoot
and drank blueberryleaf tea.

The politicians
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
     be free."
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
in university.



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,
swaying together
to the music of rum
and a sad clarinet:

comrades all,
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
or laugh
            when you are old enough
to find a forgotten snapshot of yourself,

take it up in your hands,
hold it close to the light,

discover slowly
     and for the first time

that once
     long ago
             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

You are:
is the name
                    for you.
And the darkness
and behind
                      your terrible brightness
is not
           the wings
                            of bats caught
in a furnace, not
something nameless
                                  rising, but
and women
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.

Photo credit: A painting of critically acclaimed Canadian poet, novelist and playwright Alden Nowlan by Stephen Scott.

Alden Nowlan

Born 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.

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.

"Both the Ukraine and Russia lay claim to Gogol, Wales has Dylan Thomas, and America, Poe. We (in Atlantica) have Alden Nowlan. He might tell you you've got the balls of a bull moose to say something like that. Just think how hard as a youngster he was treated by his native place. That doesn't matter now, since he turned it all to gold. Nowlan reminds us our English is good. Our cold winter-tempered Irish English, modern, spare, and mythological. These poems are enough to make you want to put your guitar down." 
     — Al Tuck

"The publication of this book is an historic event in our literature. The collection is a life's work, and like the work of life, this writing wrestles with ancient forces that are pure and unchanging. Nobody else saw the world with Alden's kind of clarity and nobody else worked the language so hard — trying to make it hold, or embrace, our shared experience with such furious tenderness. If you still think honesty is possible, if you worry sometimes about truth and the struggle for sincere connection, Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan will give you comfort." 
     — Alexander MacLeod

"Well over thirty years after his death, Alden Nowlan's poems are still hot-blooded — living, breathing incantations that beat with the pulse of Eastern Canada. Imbued with what Brian Bartlett dubs "the illusion of speech," Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan brings together the work of a master craftsman, a writer whose rangy, conversational poems benefit from appearing where they emerged within his career arc. A definitive volume that consolidates Nowlan's standing in Canadian letters." 
     — Jim Johnstone

"After I was brought up on the Romantics in school, my love of Alden Nowlan's poetry began with his dense, metrically perfect lyrics, some of them so dark they made me shiver. Later, his plain-speaking voice, his honesty and vulnerability drew me in. My husband and I hold Alden in such high regard that shortly after his death we named our first cat after him. He is our laureate of human frailties. No one makes me feel less alone in life and in literature than Alden." 
     — Lorna Crozier

Alden Nowlan: The People's Poet
video: Norflicks Production



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