A Handful of Earth
Poetry by Al Purdy.
Review by Clay Everest.
Al Purdy’s poetry has always acted as a compass for me. When I need to reinvigorate the poet in me I read At the Quinte Hotel, when I become sure of something I read Trees at the Artic Circle to remind myself I can be stupid in a poem and when my thoughts flirt too much with regionalism and become bitter towards other provinces, that’s when I read A Handful of Earth (To Rene Levesque).
The poem comes from Purdy’s collection, which takes its name from the poem, ‘A Handful of Earth.’ Published in 1977, after Levesque and the PQ won their first provincial election, the poem is very much a response to the promise of Quebec separation. Purdy’s most telling lines come when he reminds the reader that Canadians have become more than their cultural beginnings. In the last stanza Purdy writes, “but French no longer// nor are we any longer English…”
While the first lines can be read with a mocking tone, there is a sincerity to them that makes me consider doing away with the history of Wolf and Montcalm, forgetting about the rivalry between the Nordiques and Habs, and working a little harder to improve my French. Purdy is more interested in Canadian origins, painting a picture of the hipped roofed houses on the isle d’Orleans, log cabins in Ontario and prairie sod huts.
It is when the poet addresses Levesque, saying, “I say to him now: my place is here// whether Cote-Des-Neige Avenue Christophe Colomb// Yong Street Toronto Halifax or Vancouver// this place is where I stand…”
In the moments Purdy crosses the country with the reader, like in the quote above, the poem stops being about separation. Purdy doesn’t write an ‘Us vs. Them’ poem, he doesn’t write a reactionary poem, he is writing a reminder, This is us. “…French no longer// nor are we any longer English.” The poem wants to remind us that we live in a country that touches three oceans, contains a number of climates, a variety of people, cultures, forms of speech and languages.
I was familiar with this poem before reading the collection, ‘A Handful of Earth.’ and was surprised to find one of my favorite lines had been changed after the initial publishing of the poem. The earlier version reads, “In fact the flur-de-lis and maple leaf// in my bilingual guts// bloom incestuous…” I believe that Purdy knew the power that these lines could further have and changed them to, “in fact the fleur-de-lis// and maple leaf// are only symbols// and our true language speaks from inside// the land itself…” I like that more, reminding us that language or origin does not matter here. It is being here that is the important part.
Purdy urges the reader, whether they be Canadian or Canadien living in the seventies or a more modern reader living in the seemingly cynical Molson age of Canadian identity, that Canada doesn’t have a proper origin, that it is in flux, always beginning again, “Those origins// in which children were born// in which we loved and hated// in which we built a place to stand on// and now must tear it down?”
A Handful of Earth (for Rene Levesque) came out of a time of national anxiety, but the poem stands as one of the best definitions of what Canada is, as an invitation everyone to take their turn at defining it themselves.