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Poets Remembered

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

There are poets who remain famous, poets whose names have vanished, and a few in between, half-remembered names of those who were once recognized and respected.

I was weeding one of the flower beds when my neighbour Charles Gillis dropped by on his way to the post office to tell me about an old book he owns. He lives just up the road in a frame houses built in the days when Eldon was a much bigger town than it is now—five stores, a bank, a public library.

The book he later showed me was found in a house owned by the Moore family. Years back, when they were clearing things out, they passed it on to him—a collection of the poems of Thomas Moore, a small thick book, with an embossed cover and the marbled endpapers that were common in books of the Victorian period.

The still-famous poets are mostly those studied in schools or universities. Moore is not one of them now, but he was illustrious in his day. Born in Dublin in 1779, the son of a grocer, he lived until 1852, though the final years of his life were lost to dementia. What’s been best known of his work is a group of poems called Irish Melodies, some of them set to existing tunes, some apparently to tunes of his own. Moore himself was a singer, and if you’re a fan of Irish tenors you might have heard some of them—The Minstrel Boy, The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls, The Last Rose of Summer, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms—pretty, sentimental ballads.

But what is now best remembered about Moore is his involvement in the burning of Lord Byron’s autobiography. When the two met, Moore was probably the better known poet, but within a few years Byron was famous (and infamous) in England and through much of Europe, the archetypal romantic, the Leonard Cohen of his day, but more profligate and doomed. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” one of his lovers said. He was surrounded by scandalous rumours about his sex life—the reasons for the break-up of his marriage, the possibility that he had committed incest with his half-sister. In the last years of his short life, Byron wrote a two volume narrative about what he’d been up to. He gave the manuscript of his memoir to his friend Thomas Moore, making it quite clear that Moore, who needed money, was free to sell it. Moore sold it to a publisher, but after the wicked Lord died, it was thought too dangerous to exist and was burnt. There’s some evidence that Moore argued against this, but the fire was lit and the memoir is gone forever: however, Moore, who had read it, wrote the first biography of Byron, published in 1830.

In the front of my neighbour’s book is an inscription: Mrs James Moore, December 25, 1876. It was a Christmas present, I assume, and it makes you speculate on whether the family was related to the poet, or hoped they were.

Increasingly Thomas Moore’s name is known as a footnote to the tale of the wicked Lord. But in Eastern Canada he’s not without local interest. Early in his life, Moore travelled through parts of North America, and the landscape of early nineteenth century Canada is documented in the poems he wrote on his travels.

One of the poems is about a phantom ship. It was written in the Gulf of St Lawrence, while passing Dead Man’s Island, which, according to the note in the old collection, was one of the Magdalens. I have to wonder if Mrs James Moore of Eldon read her Christmas book on a winter night in that house just up the road from ours and imagined seeing that same phantom ship off the coast of Prince Edward Island. Perhaps it was the same one which sometimes appears (or so I’m told) just off Tea Hill.

David Helwig, the author of many volumes of fiction and poetry, has lived in Eldon PEI since 1996. His book of memoirs, The Names of Things, has recently been published.

Persona Re-Lived

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A critic once said that all art aspires to the condition of music. I thought of that recently while watching an old Ingmar Bergman film.

It was in England in 1960 that I first discovered Bergman’s movies. The famous ones in those days were The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night, and last year when I bought a DVD player I went back to them, and began watching some of the ones I’d missed, most recently, Persona, released in 1966 and a tour de force—nearly the entire movie performed by two actresses, and one of them never speaks.

The film opens with a series of unexplained shots, an electric arc, a film breaking, bits of cartoons and silent movies, some grisly shots of bloodshed, bodies, a young boy trying to touch an out of focus face, all this a little reminiscent of the portentous art film techniques that Mordecai Richler parodies in Duddy Kravitz, perhaps meant to suggest some kind of nightmare unreality, and all pretty much of a yawn. Then the film settles down to tell its arcane and haunting story. Liv Ullmann portrays Elisabet Vogler, an actress who is in hospital after a bizarre moment on stage when she interrupted her own performance, first lost and confused, then gripped by inexplicable laughter. Now she has lapsed into silence. Her woman doctor finds her to be in perfect physical and mental health, yet she has retired into an existential vacuum. A young nurse, Sister Alma, played by Bibi Anderson, is assigned to her case, seeing her first in the hospital and then in a seaside cottage owned by the doctor where the two women settle down—since the hospital stay seems to be accomplishing nothing.

The two grow comfortable together, and in the face of Elisabet’s silence, Sister Alma finds herself compelled to talk, telling stories about her life, gradually revealing its secrets. As time passes the relationship grows more intense, more fraught and painful.

The performances by the two actresses are of an astonishing range and intensity. Both were favourite performers for Bergman. Bibi Anderson, a pretty blonde, had been his lover when she was making her first films, in which she was usually cast as the embodiment of various kinds of innocence, and the statuesque, strong-featured Liv Ullmann became Bergman’s lover after they made Persona, lived with him for some time, and even after they separated remained a close friend and colleague, appearing in his movies, directing a film of one of his scripts.

The shooting of Persona is in black and white, the stylized and haunting images brilliantly realized by Bergman’s favourite cameraman Sven Nykvist. The mute figure created by Liv Ullmann takes on an iconic power. At moments she has the weight and formality of an archaic goddess. The lighting of the huge close-ups of both actresses is often cruelly revealing of every imperfection and oddity of their faces. The editing is delicate and yet at moments brutally simple.

The film explores its scenes without explaining them. The close texture of the shooting suggests literal truth, and yet there are moments that might be dream or fantasy. The relationship of the two women is full of dangerous possibilities, intimacy and force. The film sets free the intensities of its two brilliant actresses, trusting them to perform without tricks or easy ways out. Like music: lyrical passages then violent percussion, intimations, grim intensities, two beautiful women offering emotional nakedness, breaking through the borderlines of our experience. Now and then the art cinema techniques return. Perhaps they are intended to be a little bit silly, to offer us a release from the claustrophobic inwardness.

Image after image, each one compelling, a duet for faces, chamber music of strict purity that suggests that we are both fortunate and impoverished not to live at this intensity. Who was it said that if we lived every moment of our lives with entire commitment we would go mad?

Way Of Life

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Country, city: how much different are the ways of life? I live in Eldon, a village surrounded by farmland and a few acres of bush, but I like to visit Toronto and Montreal, and I have children and grandchildren living in big cities. Recently I found myself in The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, one of the newly renovated buildings of Toronto’s Distillery District, a story unfolding on the stage in front of me.

The distillery district is in the east end of the city, near the waterfront, and the buildings are stone monuments where Gooderham and Worts used to manufacture their strong liquors. Public transit doesn’t bring you close to the area yet, and we travelled there by taxi, through the heavy traffic of the downtown as we travelled from the west end of Toronto to the east. Then walked down dim cobbled lanes between high stone walls, a perfect set for a film, maybe a Victorian thriller.

The performance I saw, produced by Soulpepper, a Toronto theatre company, was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play about life in a Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. An Island actress, Martha MacIsaac (once Emily of New Moon) played the central character, Emily Webb. When we first see Emily, it’s 1901 and she’s a school girl in her late teens. Three years later, in Act Two, she marries, and nine years after that, in Act Three, she dies in childbirth. Women still did in 1910.

The play is partly about the passing of time, and things change in the course of the action. The Stage Manager, who introduces the piece and comments on it, talks about the changes. “Chief difference,” he says, “is in the young people as far as I can see. They want to go to the moving pictures all the time. They want to wear clothes like they see there…want to be citified.”

Movies, then television, and then the internet: we’re all citified now, wherever we live. From what I’ve read and been told, the old ways lasted longer on PEI than some places. It was the 1950s before electricity and the Trans-Canada attached Eldon to the big world. Was life better before that? Wilder’s play is perhaps of two minds about the question. There’s a powerful strain of nostalgia for the world of the horse and buggy and a middle class innocence. There are other moments when the Stage Manager suggests that life in ancient Babylon or Greece wasn’t all that different. “Families sat down to supper, and the father came home from work, and the smoke went up the chimney—same as here.”

Near the end of Act One, young Rebecca Gibbs tells her brother how someone addressed an envelope with all the usual information and then added “the Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God.” And the postmen delivered it all the same.

Wilder’s play teeters on the edge of sentimentality. Comedy controls it some, as does the graveyard scene at the end, the recently deceased sitting straight up in rows of chairs, still able to comment on the action in a cool and distant way. Emily arrives to be one of them, then insists on going back to live one day over again. What she learns is that time goes past so quickly, that men and women (and children I suppose) never quite see the uniqueness of what’s in front of them.

So it ends. The dead go on being dead, and the town goes to sleep. The Stage Manager wishes us good night, and we applaud Martha MacIsaac and the other solid and moving performers, and then we go out into the darkness of the big city, maybe thinking that city or country, all our little lives are surrounded by eons of time and the vastness of endless space. The mind of God, if you like to put it that way.

David Helwig, the author of many volumes of fiction and poetry, has lived in Eldon PEI since 1996. His book of memoirs, The Names of Things, was published in April.

Joseph Sherman: A Cultural Life

by David Helwig

By one of the ironies of fate, I knew Joe Sherman before I ever met him. In 1973 I was editing books of poetry for Oberon Press, and he submitted the manuscript of Chaim the Slaughter. In my dealings with him, he was passionate, voluble, concerned. I would send a short note and he would reply with a long worried letter, but we came to an agreement over the manuscript, and after only two drafts of the cover illustration he decided it was OK. He didn’t take things easily. Right, yes, they had to be got right.

Always self-aware, Joe called his new book Worried Into Being. In it he went back to moments of his life and wrote evocative prose vignettes about them. Cape Tryon, one of his favourite places on PEI, appears more than once. The Nova Scotia childhood that had inspired poems in his first book was revisited but with a new and gentler touch.

It was more than twenty years after our first encounter by manuscript that I moved to PEI and one Saturday I was at the Farmers’ Market, and there he was selling subscriptions to Arts Atlantic. I introduced myself. Then somehow—that mysterious inexplicable simple thing—we became friends. You don’t explain friendship. It just happens. You see him and think oh good, there’s Joe. Such a complicated simple thing.

Joe was a serious man, but he had a wonderful, sometimes anarchic sense of humour. His publisher for many years was Oberon Press, founded and run by Michael and Ann Macklem. It was their habit to sell books by travelling from coast to coast, largely by car, Michael driving or reading manuscripts, while Ann went to the libraries and bookstores to get orders. Came the day that Joe was walking along Richmond Street and there, in a parked car, immersed in a manuscript, was Michael Macklem. Joe opened the car door, got in the passenger seat and sat there in silence. Now Michael is a high-strung, always alert to possible threats, and there was a long terrified silence before he turned his head to discover that the mugger who was about to kill him was in fact a small amiable poet.

Joe could be an unconventional husband and father. He liked to recall the occasion when, due to a family crisis, he was left alone with the children at Christmas. Joe admired Ann’s cooking and had never felt he ought to interfere in the kitchen. He solved the problem of Christmas dinner by sending out for pizza. His children loved it. Ann was not amused.

Joe Sherman was born in Bridgewater Nova Scotia in 1945. For many years his family lived in Whitney Pier where his father ran a store; then they moved to Fredericton, where he managed a hotel. Joe attended the University of New Brunswick where the study of literature, especially Canadian literature, prompted him to think he might become a poet. Alden Nowlan was a friend and an inspiration. Kent Thompson, Robert Gibbs, Bill and Nancy Bauer, a gang of young writers that included Brian Bartlett and David Adams Richards were his colleagues as he began to write seriously. It was also in Fredericton that he met Ann, who had come to Canada planning to work for a while and move on. She married Joe and stayed.

Joe was offered a teaching position in Edmundston, and a few years later he accepted an offer to move to Charlottetown to edit Arts Atlantic and continued as editor for more than twenty years, one of the central figures of the arts scene in the Maritimes. In those days Arts Atlantic was part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts, the centre of town in more ways than one. Joe was a popular and influential figure in the arts community in PEI and throughout the Maritimes. He published three more books of poetry, The Lords of Shouting, Shaping the Flame, and American Standard.

The later years at Arts Atlantic were difficult ones. The Confederation Centre withdrew much its financial support; fund-raising became a preoccupation; Revenue Canada refused to give the magazine charitable status; and, finally, members of the board pushed him out, believing that they could do the job better. What they did was run the magazine into the ground.

It was late last spring that Joe discovered he was ill, and that the illness was terminal. I recall an afternoon late in the summer, when he and Ann were driving by and stopped to visit, and I noticed him almost stumble as he was crossing the lawn. He wasn’t strong any more. He was pale, and the dear familiar face wan and endangered.

But he went on putting things down on paper, determined to get them right. He kept up his column for The Buzz, and in one of his later columns he suggested that now the province had a poet laureate, what it needed was a biennial book prize. The Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs took note of his suggestion, and the founding of the prize has been announced. If there is any justice, they will name it after Joe—The Joseph Sherman Book Award, that has a nice sound.

Joe kept on working through the months of his illness. I remember the day he told me how he was pleased to be writing still, polishing poems, going on with the commitment he’d made when he was a young man, justified in his choice of lives by how he could cling to this against the darkness. But he was afraid he was losing his concentration, missing things. They had to be got right. And in spite of the illness, he got them right.

He worried, as always, now worrying that he was not dealing with cancer as stoically as he might. He was grateful for Ann’s commitment as a care-giver, in awe at the love she showed him, almost frightened of how much he’d come to need her.

On December 23 he received the first copies of Worried into Being, and in the week after Christmas he finished work on a new manuscript of poems called Beautiful Veins, the title taken from something one of his nurses said to him when he was being tested and treated. It will be published by Acorn Press sometime this year.

He died on Monday January 9.

I’ll miss him terribly.

Joseph Sherman received the Order of Canada in 2003.

Other awards he received include: The Queen’s Jubilee Medal 2003; The Betty and Morris Aaron/Henry Fuerstenberg Prize in Poetry, 2002; and The PEI Council of the Arts Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts in PEI, 1997.

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