I met Richard Outram through a pleasant happenstance of poetry. He had been looking for a young poet whose work he admired to include in an anthology, and I had just published my first book. On the same day that this book received a flatteringly positive review in the Globe and Mail, the telephone rang and Mr. Outram was on the other end. I say “Mr. Outram” because until we were on more familiar terms, Richard referred to me only as “Mr. Murray” (that’s the kind of fellow he is—what some might call old-fashioned, and others might call polite). “I suspect you may be the kind of poet I am looking for,” he said, or something to that effect. I mailed Richard a copy of my book, and an inscribed copy of his Phoenix Poetry Series title, Turns, appeared in my mailbox in exchange. Thus began my rewarding and frustrating pastime: collecting Outram.
I say “frustrating” because I’ve found several of Richard’s works hard to come by. It may be my own poor scanning of the raggedy shelves of used bookstores, but more likely it’s a matter of when I jumped on the bandwagon. Richard Outram is one of Canada’s only poets (along with A. F. Moritz, Eric Ormsby and a few others) whose work is viable on a global scale. He is comparable more to the likes of Richard Wilbur or Geoffrey Hill than to most poets writing in Canada, yet he seems to have made a sport of avoiding fame. He publishes almost exclusively with small literary presses and self-publishes his Gauntlet Press chapbooks and broadsheets in tiny runs of sixty to eighty. This has led to a dearth of his titles in both the big-box chains and used bookstores. People who buy or receive his work tend to be fans and will hang onto whatever titles they have.
But I can boast something in my Outram collection many others cannot: a copy of his Toronto Book Award–winning Benedict Abroad, published by the St. Thomas Poetry Series in 1998. Astonishingly hard to come by as award-winning books go, yet richly rewarding for those who find it, the sequence of poems contained in Benedict Abroad is Outram at his playful, farcical best. It is comedy and tragedy, bawdy and raucous, yet also something else entirely.
Benedict Abroad is a difficult read. Whenever I pick it up, the book’s highly allusive nature and skewed universe keep me off-kilter for days. The interactions of its cast of mental patients and assorted caregivers can be read as anything from simple nonsense to the goings-on of a defunct pantheon of gods—aged and decadent, mad and diseased—perhaps awaiting a following, a believership, to restore their power. And just as the players are part nutbar, part avatar for the act of creation, so too is Benedict Abroad part ars poetica, part creation myth. As with other Outram works, unpacking this relies on the intellect, education and persistence of the reader. (If I sound self-congratulatory here, you must forgive me: the book is a monumental task and, frankly, I deserve the praise.)
Benedict himself dies in the first poem yet reappears, without explanation, in the next. Time is askance here, as is space. Is the action set in the mundane offices of a downtown mental institution or in some stranger, Purgatory-like space? Are the characters speaking in a code that requires one key or many? Is anything here meant to be taken as real, or is this book a catalogue of what thoughts are being played out in Benedict’s dying mind? Has he indeed gone as far “abroad” as one can?
Outram’s facility with form is playful even in his darkest poems. In “Likeness,” for example (one of the poems in which the central character is, to some extent, considered dead), Benedict, interred in the earth, rolls through the seasons one at a time, his state altered by each. As expected, in the winter Benedict is a frozen “vegetative clod”; in the spring he begins to thaw; in the summer “fetor will resume” and he will “bloom”; and in the autumn he will be “wasted lopped discarded” by the cosmos. Yet in the last stanza Outram pirouettes masterfully, deifying his decomposing cipher (and mystifying his reader):
He will not die:
Benedict has fashioned
one rib from his side
into an immortal
This is Outram at his most mischievous. He is both rewriting and poking fun at religious myth while engaging in his primary love: the play of language. Benedict lives on through the vegetation that grows from him, but he is also turning in his grave. In fact, he’s rising from it (or turning up from it: a rutabaga = a turnip = a turn up.) But if you read with the dictionary beside you—and with Outram you always should—you know that a turnip is also “a large thick old-fashioned watch” (Oxford). Clever Benedict has just fashioned himself some more time.
Benedict Abroad is not for the faint of poetic heart. As with Geoffrey Hill’s most recent work, it requires reading upon reading to fully access its riches—a task that requires a clockmaker’s good eyes and a geologist’s patience. It’s a book I return to over time and read anew, often coming up with different interpretations. It’s not often one can exclaim, “Now I understand!” ten or twelve times for the same book.
So my collection is holding now at six books and numerous broadsheets. By the way, Richard, you still owe me that lunch I requested shortly after I received Benedict Abroad. You said you’d explain the book to me, which would settle several long-standing arguments I have with myself. If you don’t have the time or inclination to explain, I’ll take the following chapbooks and broadsheets in lieu …
Maisonneuve Associate Editor George Murray’s latest book of poetry, The Hunter, was published in 2003 by McClelland & Stewart. George is the co-editor of Bookninja.com.