Review - The Collected Works of David Wevill

Andrew Duncan

Meditation on a Pine-Cone : David Wevill, Works (Shearsman, 2022. In 5 volumes: as Collected Earlier Poems; Collected Later Poems; CasualTies; Translations; Translations from Ferenc Juhasz)

First, an inventory. The set consists of five parts including two of translations, and a set of his 1983 prose poems (or just pieces?), Casual Ties, as a separate book.

Wevill was born in 1935, a Canadian, and lived in England for ten years (roughly 1954 to 1963). The first trace is 4 poems in Cambridge Poets of 1958. His first book was published in 1964, but he had already been part of a Penguin Modern Poets volume (#4); he has lived in Austin, Texas, for the last 50 years. His poetry was well-known in Britain during the 1960s, even up till 1973.

I didn’t find much written about Wevill, but I did like a review by Richard Freeman, of Where the Arrow Falls, in Ambit. “He is obsessed with contradictions; things that should cancel each other out don’t. Therefore he often takes a dilemma as his standpoint.” (1973) “Wevill is actively pessimistic and this is what makes his poems a kind of survival kit. I think one is unlikely to go anywhere, emotionally, that he hasn’t already been.” So “Wevill shares some qualities with surgeons, salvagers, and firemen” –because when they arrive they expect the worst.

Freeman finds a preponderance of “stone, sun, sea, blood, bone, death, dark, fire, and rain in Wevill’s poems. They are precisely the things that we cannot do without. They made evolution possible. That is why these poems are about what it’s all about.”

The jacket of A Christ of the Ice-Floes says “Silence, restlessness, loss, growth, exploration, childhood events, birds, animals, the search for lost or new roots and for a way forward, are some of his themes.”– this is also good.

“Wevill is also the former editor of Delos, a literary journal centred on poetry in translation and the poetics of translation.” There was that concentration of poet-linguists at Austin, to an extent which intimidated me. They produced Delos and included Wevill, Christopher Middleton, and Lars Gustafsson; probably others too. I was actually relieved to find that he taught English literature at the University of Texas, Austin – he wasn't formally part of that translation centre. We have here a whole volume of his translations of the Hungarian poet, Ferenc Juhasz – which I read in the Penguin Modern European Poet series around 1974. This, especially Juhasz’s Stag poem, struck me as the best translation I had read at that time. They still do; we are entitled to set them alongside Logue’s Homer translations, but I think Wevill is ahead. Maybe Juhasz was the specific entry which led him into original mythic poetry. There are many possible sources.

This brings us onto a strange neglect of his work both in Canada and in Britain. He is not in the index of Nick Mount’s large-scale Arrival. The story of CanLit, which starts in about 1959, when Wevill was already writing. I can’t explain the politics of literary reputation in Canada, but they are clearly highly factionalised. The sources I have accessed from time to time have left key people out, in every case. (Why don’t you talk about Peter Dale Scott?) The neglect in Britain is even harder to explain, although Shearsman did a selected poems in 2003. Much of his work since 1974 has come out from Exile Publications and/or Exile magazine, in Toronto.

The first volume was Birth of a Shark. The title poem is contained within the physiology of an animal, temporally restricted to a moment of origin, constrained to the biologically predictable acts of the shark. Birth, physiology, and behaviour tightly specify each other – the poem is a system which clasps itself at every point, and which leaves nothing loose. Remarkably, it describes the whole story through the visual stimuli reaching the shark. The projection of an animal, with the poem shaped by an anatomy, was critical for his first two books. Perhaps this linked to an existentialist preoccupation with the individual and with the dominance of the physical situation.

     This sea has many coasts,
     And every inch and brown pool
     Is a fingerprint. The gannets come
     Plunging, wreck their sight; the sea-salt keeps
     The crab-flesh it corrodes; and the grape-
     Avenging Dog Star locks
     These fiery lives to the pillows we drown on.
     (from ‘Fugue for Wind and Rain’)

The poetry of the 1950s was preoccupied with limits, with the unreality of anything except what impinged on the sensory cells at the edges of the body, to be analysed cautiously and empirically. Writing poems about animals accepts incarnation as the basis, but opens onto the unlimited and onto myth. The focus on the edges of a body was a metaphor for the washing and ebbing edges of a poem – anyway, this period saw Wevill emerge with a perfect grasp of the edge. He learnt how to say everything in a small compass, and still imply a world beyond the poem. The emphasis on exact physical detail and action sequences, and on human marginality in a violent landscape, seems to match themes of Canadian literature identified by Northrop Frye (The Bush Garden) and Margaret Atwood (Survival). It resembles E.J. Pratt in that combination of action sequences and an atmosphere of latent violence. The jacket text of my copy of Christ of the Ice-Floes (1966) says “The tone of the poems throughout is emotional yet controlled”, a claim which was probably made on the jacket of every book of poetry in the 1950s, and about to fall silent in 1966. (A poem which was “unemotional yet out of control” would be a collector’s item.) (I wish you wouldn't ask me what “grape-avenging” means because I don’t know. The Dog Days are very hot, so possibly we are seeing the Dog Star as burning men to avenge their plunder of the grape. Vendange and vengeance are somehow kindred words.) He says

     So when summer came
     He’d practise, sketching the pine trees,
     All lines and circles like the birth of a dream.
     He was falling in love with himself
     With the numbers in his heart –
     With the memory of those forests whose
     Wholeness grew from a single seed,
     From one, the common seed
     Which was everything, or just itself
     Hardening in him: this stone which was waiting to flower.

Pine-cones, ice-floes, ‘wolves, beaver, water-rats’: the landscape is Canadian.

Each poem showed a singular and arresting image. The vividness and strangeness were connected to a purge of ideology, a preoccupation of conservative spokesmen; in the idiom of the time, empiricism implied not just attention to detail but also a rejection of Marxism. The explosion came a few years later. Linked by an experiential metaphor to the vast unobstructed spaces of Texas, the expansion to book-length poems could be seen as a totalisation of the animal poems: they were staged around a (projected) body, but here the projection was an entire world.

     Lose no sleep over this re-entry into the condom of
     daylight and dust. Here the moon's vulva opens. The Sea of
     Tranquility is a dripping cave where blind shell creatures,
     colourless, crawl.

     In the clear cooling pool the skeletons will harden again,
     both male and female.

     We wake washed in the sweat where all seas meet.
     Bone to bone, our breath sifting through our ribs like wind.
     (from Firebreak, 1971)

Firebreak “is a journey, or a series of episodes in a journey, within a defined territory or circle. The background is mostly America” – I would guess this is not a long poem but a road movie, a rational reaction to the terrain of North America. In 1970 Wevill translated “The Boy turned into a Stag Clamours at the Gate of Secrets” for the Penguin Juhasz volume. This explores the shamanistic traditions of Hungarian folklore (often, even too often, said to be a connection to the Western Siberian origins of the Magyar) and the vital but doomed quality of the revolutionaries of 1956, facing the Red Army almost with bare hands. Its density is due to the circumstances of dictatorship – everyone knew it was about the events of 1956 but it couldn't have been published if it had been specific about that. The boy’s stag transformation is simultaneously a trap and a transcendence, he becomes a myth and a hunted object. How does this relate to Wevill’s earlier animal poems (such as ‘Birth of a Shark’)? Just a matter of shared themes, I think. The point remains that translators do better with a subject which is already part of them.

Martin Thom, Tom Lowenstein, and Nathaniel Tarn are some of the poets who drew on anthropology at that time. The pressing question of English poetry over a long period had been how to write mythical poetry in the emptiness after Christian and Greco-Roman myth ceased to work. The discovery of non-European myth required perseverance and great exactness of technique. Animal poems led into animal myth and then into the dizzying self-referentiality of creation myth – Where the Arrow Falls (1973) draws extensively on Hopi cosmology, narrates a world which the characters create every morning. It is their anatomy translated into space. The extension of scale and the jettison of a 20th century Western semantic frame drew the poetry audience into darkness– this is where a shared cultural memory stops. The jacket explains that the 'Hopi maze of emergence' represents the child's path towards birth; in its almost infinite possibility is 'where the arrow falls'. The Hopi are Indians of the southwest USA; the maze is illustrated on the dedication page. It is often realised in woven baskets. The first page opens with 'We have lost our natural images. All the images we make are twisted, hammered, brilliant.' This is a development on from Firebreak – the transition from the careful, short, tense, ideally self-contained poems of his first two books into a huge field of continuous relations, where the semantic frame never really closes. This moment was a great relief – collective and, no doubt, individual. The comment on the jacket that the poems are ‘loosely related’ cannot quite be accepted. In fact, the book falls into three tightly coherent blocks – which are also related to each other. The discontinuities in the plane of Arrow seem to me to be shifts in frame of reference within a greater whole. Part 1 is a series of poems, set in the landscape of Texas. Their language is paratactic, simple, the imagery elementary and mythic. The first one is about the poet's year-old child – presumably the motive for the 'emergence maze'. This poem seems still to be about that child:

     where in the whirl is the self
     blood-of-bone, though you

     may dance and speak
     with tongues of the older dead
     who are you? what
     gift but your loss
     do you bring

     to the listeners
     the hill -

     Maya, Navajo
     Yaqui, Hopi, Tlingit etcetera

     those sleepers
     beneath your fjords and farms

     your city’s
     secret arrowhead

     its closed

– but opens out to address Americans as a community, as successors. Inheritors through death, as is the custom. We heard “surgeons, salvagers, and firemen”, like these Wevill is asking what caused the death. The Tlingit lived on the coast of British Columbia so this includes Canada. In part 3, the 30-page long prose story 'The Ritual', Wevill is opening the poem onto the whole range of personal experience, while simultaneously making the domestic mythical. 'Cawdor rose up from his day bed and shook out his hair. He stumbled to his typewriter. Day rose and fell. By nightfall he had written 300 cantos of his World. A new generation of insects had lived and died outside his windows. The sun from which he took his energy saw many people born and many injured...'

Cawdor is writing a book of the world because he is inside a marriage which is a world on its own; but as the book is more and more written he can no longer invent the world but has to live inside what is written. Where the Arrow Falls is about a marriage – the theme has grown to engulf the writer, and its internal relations are unbearably rich and yet frequently loose, irrational, unseizable. It is existential, in the sense that the 50s fought for, and which, yet, no 50s poet seemed to get at. Presumably, the ability to write about personal relations without any lapse into the prosaic and economistic took a long time to develop. 'The Ritual' has moved completely into myth – a shared organism which is the marriage of the two central figures, which is itself vulnerable in all directions, so that the sensitive surface of the poem touches the whole environment. I wonder if we can see the road movie as a later form of the journey through the emergence maze.

Society came to talk more frankly, and more frequently, about emotional relations, but poetry could not make full use of these topics – the risks were too high. Fiction and distantiation were needed safeguards. His contemporary George MacBeth mainly wrote game poems. Indeed the Sixties had a great deal of dressing-up, of spoof and pastiche. MacBeth’s longest game poem, The Domesday Book, was originally (1964) a performance, set in a Paris metro station and played by people sheltering from a nuclear war. It was certainly a displacement activity, an act of cultural despair when time had to be filled but every move was pointless. Fall of the Arrow is a creation story in which the writing of a text makes a world spring up. Is this a game? no, because it is also about a marriage, the story is not a game because it is confined by the moral reality of a second person. Arrow is part of globalisation, part of a bold campaign to wear down the differences between European culture and the creativity of tribal cultures without writing. It was about freedom, the anthropological perspective in which the new culture could jettison its past and become something new, but it never withdrew into neurosis and the unnourishing riches which it produced.

If we look at the image of a pine cone, as it appears in two poems from 1966, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Meditation on a Pine-Cone’, it is a compact, dense thing which contains many seeds and which can broadcast an entire forest. In fact, large parts of Canada, outside the Arctic, present a forest which was created by pine cones (or seeds of other conifers) which spread into a post-glacial wilderness following a simple geometrical series. These birth paths seem to anticipate the scheme of ‘Arrow’, the idea of an empty world and of a process of filling it with abundance. The cone is like the maze.

What I didn’t know until now was that the next phase of his work, the next four decades, now in the Later Poems, were even greater. The theme of the next phase seems to be making a home – and making a loving family for children. Here, the mythical vastness and everyday reality coincide. My feeling about the late work is that it is so great that it points out the limits of poetry – you can't simply make feelings larger, and the glass-like clarity which such poetry attains shows how limited human beings are and how attachment to real people and to their limits is wisdom. It is free from neurosis and fantasy, mechanisms of defence which by their nature hide the real geometry of things, true memory. Wevill is here not a detached speaker but two voices of which one is attached and one is so far back that it diminishes the human figures almost to nothing. The figures are perspectivally reduced to fragments on the horizon, yet in that the depth of time is visible and offers to heal pains and longings which exist on a shorter time-scale. The sense of scale is crucial and a strain but still the source of the most powerful effects. The poems have an idea of time which mocks short-term goals.

Actually, my main feeling is doubt that I can write about it adequately. This is as great as any modern poetry I have seen. It doesn't create a world of its own but stays with the world we live in; it is curiously lean, as if it had to cover vast distances and also contained great distances. I suppose some of its qualities may come from having to meet Christopher Middleton and Lars Gustafsson most days, and realizing that they know everything about European poetry. “I think one is unlikely to go anywhere, emotionally, that he hasn’t already been.” – this should be written above the lintel. Of course fantasy, sickness, etc. produce different tunes.

Villa Blanca: rincones and other poems follows Arrow but does not seem to have been published when composed. These poems embody a depth of time and sometimes of loss which is almost overwhelming – 'We have what we're not while it lasts.' I think rincòn (literally, corner) means 'my haven, my home', almost like niche or Heimat:


     corner has no exit. If I remember
     it is satisfaction of remembering & not
     even a body or face to go
     under for, strings in my hand
     vibrating still with earth's winds.

     Orpheus is too old to meet his question.
     Above & below there are greater
     certainties than love
     remembered, a person.
     ('Rincòn of the heady abstractions')

I like the idea of a haven for heady abstractions. Like a bar, you go in and they’re all there. And that night they’re all true. You stagger out, it’s cold, suddenly none of them is true. I think Wevill is interested both in abstractions and in “being a poet”, but thinks other matters are more fundamental.

The subject of Child Eating Snow is the death of his brother and the address is of consolation to the brother’s orphaned children. This is not a matter which most modern poets could broach without banality (or therapy babble). He does not say specifically that these are emotions which you have to move through and past, but that is obvious without being said. So poetry even has to move on from emotion – its task is higher. It is significant that Wevill’s technique had been building up to a point where he could write with such seriousness while retaining artistic grace. We are used to bad and manipulative poems about the family process, about loss and the vulnerability of children, but not really to great poetry on those themes. His poetry evokes wishes and does not see being human as the realisation of an elaborate wish, but does not see life as a series of frustrations. Instead, it offers us life as the object of knowledge which is almost too deep for us, which we block out with fantasy, but which satisfies what is deepest in us. 'Figure of Eight' (1987), a long poem, discusses attachment and detachment through a geometrical figure that replenishes itself; physically, it is the motion of a coral snake jumping between two branches of a vine. The figure draws itself against a lack of resistance which implies a deeper emptiness of its ground; with autobiographical pictures and a meditation on the high points of 20th century poetry.

     Summer too long where is fall the keen
     Canadian wind
     the clear streambeds of eyes, the
     lassitude of honey.
     Means and ends
     'The honey of peace in old poems'
     the clear viscosity clouded by the cold
     of living fragments.

In the early work he wrote often about animals as bounded entities. The boundary separating them from the world around them was significant. It matched short self-contained poems in a magazine up against, or underneath, other writers. A major development was the effacement of boundaries so that not only was the poet rarely separate from other people, but also space dominated the parts of poems and any objects (or animals) were simply parts of the space, not autonomous. This space was also open – the insistence of behavioural drives has lost any prominence. The journey pattern imposes this, or exposes it. In Child the fading of the gap between Western and ethnic semantics is the direction of travel. Northrop Frye’s surprising claim that “A parallel and possibly more accurate statement might be made of Canada: that it has passed from a pre-national to a post-national phase without ever having become a nation” can be seen as a prediction of Wevill’s shift of centre. This transition to the world as a frame of reference involves awareness of three thousand human cultures with the West as just one of them. A typical move for Canadian artists (of English or Scottish ancestry) has been to adopt (appropriate?) symbolic structures from indigenous cultures. There are five “ethnic poems”, one of which is:

     A baby hung in the wind
     from an apple tree. The hills beyond
     were high and endless, there were
     patches of snow in the fields
     or limestone showing through the grass.
     Though the pictures told me no date
     I had come here before, whether by foot
     or by horse and in whose company
     I couldn't remember. And this time
     the baby seemed more personal, a
     thing I had been sent here to account for
     to imagine its name its father’s eyes
     and mother’s hands. They had said
     you will come to this mountainous land
     and find there what you came to find
     far from your own life and touch it
     and give it your name. Is it
     a girl or a boy I asked the lingering wind
     for nothing else moved. Then let her
     remember I came. Let her hear at least
     my footsteps on the loose stones
     as I walk away and do not look back.
     (‘Ethnic Poem II’)

The motive may be that this is part of the baby’s story, and that having a stranger arrive and tell the people what its name is could be the start of a heroic legend. For a child to acquire the name Cù Chulainn is a special chapter of the Tàin. But in fact the poem is integral rather than having a single moment which is the Point, above others. Is ‘Ethnic Poem II’ recounting a dream or is it a translation of a traditional poem from some other culture? and if so, which culture? We can consider the virtues of Dutch painting as a summary of the European style; so reproduction of the shapes of objects, curiosity about physical processes, reproduction of people as they appear to the eye, accuracy in reporting textures and relative sizes, an abundance of detail. He had written, back in 1964 –

     At the tip of my gun the groundhog sits
     Hunched in the sun a hundred yards away.
     At this range my Hornet's steel-lipped
     Bullet could bleed him dry as a star,
     As a rag in the pitching drought-drugged field.

The poem is precise in the same way that the round is precisely cast and milled. Critics at that time always praised precision, they praised it here, but was it actually near the core of the poem? Do we need the brand name? The poem is about hesitation and the finality of someone’s power to destroy. By the 1980s Wevill is indifferent to reporting, and it emerges that what he is declining has to do with the commodity system and its interest in precise qualities of objects (in relation to their price, actually). The slipping out of the object world leaves more room for human information – which is inherently true but slippery. The objective knowledge reveals itself as another defence mechanism. Ethnic poetry stops seeming primitive in a context which is sympathetic to it. The project is to efface the glaring differences between European poetry and its “ethnic” counterpart. Without quoting at length, I would like to claim that the five “Ethnic Poems” are not very different from the other poems in Child. Removing the “documentary” function leaves more room for human feelings and interactions, always.

The last two books collected date from 2001 and 2007 and represent a late period. It is like the Late period of other major artists, I suppose. Wine from vieilles vignes. The work becomes simpler, more original, more demanding. It is steadily developing away even from what was there in the 1980s. It is like music without a beat – distaste for repetition and emphasis acting to reveal something rarer and more essential.

I don’t think poetry has always to be about politics. That calls for too much functionality, a tunnel effect whereby large extents of poetry lead to a predictable end and not to a way out. There is a more basic function of teaching people how to feel, how to make compulsion fall silent in order to empathize with other people, how to take the Stone Age skill of empathy and make it more accurate in living with people who are modern in their needs. This is much closer to where we live than ideas about the State. Also, the project of using “close reading” of ethnographical literature to move outside the Western pattern, and to understand that pattern by looking from a point outside it, is arguably more important. Wevill has let his poetry migrate outside the compulsive linguistic patterns both of Christianity and of legal argument and edict, their foregone conclusions, and this is part of the wider migration out of the Western field of force. A moment where he might be political is “Our Lady of Kovno” (in Ice-Floes), where the site can hardly be other than the Third Reich's reign in Lithuania. (Kovno is Kaunas on today’s maps.) The poem is startlingly unlike familiar political, or Christian, poems

     The brittle armies kissed and passed
     The formality of the soldier's boot –
     He let them pass; but as the sun went down
     With a scuff of disgust he thinned a few;
     The ants made a ladder of her hair,
     They pieced it out among them, strand by strand
     Life crawled back to the girl,
     While a scarecrow played
     In a nearby field
     With a flock of crows.

The girl has been crucified – hung up like the scarecrow. The “life” which “returns” is the ants; as also they are “the brittle armies”.

Reviewers like repeating patterns because it means that they win the review and that their cursory account captures the subject. I think the level of repetition in this poetry is too low to be measured – so the idea of describing 700 pages of it in a short space is nugatory. I can talk about it, I guess. It is beautiful and deep. It asks for responses which are unfamiliar and complex.




Copyright © Andrew Duncan, 2022.