Edited by: Paul Vermeersch
Publisher: Harbour Publishing
I first heard of Al Purdy in a title “Sitting Quietly with Al Purdy” a poem published in Descant #161. Notwithstanding that poets are generally not known outside the poetry community, Al Purdy is a name that will at least make you cock your head and think ‘yeah that name sounds familiar’
FYI for all you head cockers, Al Purdy is one of the greatest poets Canada has produced, and the greatest Ontarian poet ever produced. “Sitting Quietly with Al Purdy” is written proof that this guy’s so awesome that poets are writing fan-poetry about him.
He’s also awesome because he peed on Margaret Atwood’s car, “to mark his territory” as the librarian who recommended this book to me joked. Of course this was back when Margaret was a doe-eyed token female who visited Al Purdy in his cottage, along with many other writers, some of whom have contributed pieces to this anthology. Wait “doe-eyed” Margaret Atwood? Okay I may have misheard it in oxymoron terms, but from 1957 and intermittently to his death, Al Purdy, along with his wife Eurithe, did live in a cottage they built for themselves in Ameliasburg Ontario (for those who want to know where that is, Google it).
What is immediately enjoyable of this book is the structure. ‘Chapters’ if one were to be crude in describing the anecdotes and reflections circling and piercing what Al Purdy, the A-Frame and those who visited were. They are no more than a snacky read of a couple pages with a poem by Al Purdy at the end like a happy meal toy. Al Purdy poetry in a book about Al Purdy come quite frequently, and eschews more conventional autobiographies which would be thick in reflection or elongated facts and poetry there for analysis, instead allowing the poetry complements the articles as much as the articles the poetry.
Convention would also invoke interview bites, and long commiserations of someone who knew Al Purdy as a rival/friend (not difficult as Al Purdy passed away in 2000) or some other wet behind the ears writer who knew of Al Purdy and went on a search for him.
Beyond that, as opposed to a plot with a beginning, middle, end, this anthology flirts with it. The articles are roughly in chronological order, a mixture of late night ‘debates’ Al Purdy had with friends, to having to chop up chunks of ice out of the frozen lake beside the A-frame (A-Frame being those cottages with more roof than wall) for water.
What makes this biography so alive is that it wasn’t written post-Al Purdy where everything would have been reflection and reminiscing from those who knew Al Purdy. Most of the articles are from Al Purdy writing out about and to writers, some still living, some now dead, those who were his friends, those who were visitors to his A-frame.
To get into the meat of my final recommendation, for those wanting to get a crack into poetry, read poetry first. As awesome as this book is, it was written for those who knew who Al Purdy was, maybe read a book of poetry he wrote, and can appreciate it. For those who haven’t read poetry, don’t fret some enjoyment can be gleaned for the biography/memoir enthusiasts in the unorthodox approach for Al Purdy and his A-Frame (there is nothing about his life in B.C.) and the letters and articles he wrote.
Recommendation: A main course, after having wet one’s tongue on an afternoon of poetry reading from the Canadian greats.
By Joshua P’ng, A North York Writer.