Register Wednesday | June 12 | 2024
Looking for Al Purdy Photograph by Duncan Patterson.

Looking for Al Purdy

The poetry of a land left behind.

We couldn’t dig here.

Across the dirt road from the house where I grew up was a young forest. All skinny birch and poplar, the kinds of trees you’d find in any forest on the Canadian Shield, still small enough that we could break them to make things. It was a place of magic for the neighbourhood children: we filled it with forts and hideouts, with castles and caves. We made temporary homes there in summer, bending and snapping the saplings to build the furniture for our imaginings. The terrestrial world was malleable.

But underneath, the earth was hard.

Scraping with our small hands or broken sticks we’d try to hollow out space enough in the ground to keep things that were dear to us, whatever they were that year. Hockey cards, perhaps, or dirty magazines. Stones, shale and sand always prevented the creation of our subterranean stashes. Eventually we’d tire of digging and go home to dinner. A year or two later, the twisted and broken tree forts we’d made would be dead, frozen by the hard winters or toppled over by the wind. Destroyed, they’d look entirely ordinary. We’d move on. We were transients in a great green playground.

Our neighbourhood, in the country north of Belleville, Ontario, was no more than a dozen houses scattered across 25 square kilometres. Draft-dodging hippies, artists and flailing subsistence farmers sprouted log cabins and bizarre, angular glass homes at unpredictable intervals across an area previously home to the local middle-class rich; those families grown stable and safe on the spoils of the land from some earlier era: the mines and the logging trails. Both gone now. We children wandered, we played on the old stone walls that ran between the houses.

Our parents couldn’t dig either, but it meant more to them. Nothing grew, not properly. They couldn’t wander off, yet how they must have dreamt of it: the batten siding was coming loose and the paint was flaking; the potatoes planted in the old boat were being dug up and eaten by something that came out of the forest at night; the barn had started to collapse; the grass in the field was coming up too fast to keep short and orderly. Money disappeared into mortgages, businesses, marriages, children and second mortgages until suddenly there was no money left to move away.

Then, finally, something grew. We cultivated a rural Ontario mantra, a fundamental settling, embodied by a simple, seasonal act. On summer evenings, my father would sit on an old deck chair with a few beers and watch the sun go down. How beautiful, he might say. That’s why we’re here.

As though the sun never set anywhere else.

A HUNDRED AND FORTY-TWO KILOMETRES south and twenty years later, I’m helping an old woman rip a cedar fence from the ground. “We need to pick this up to get it behind that tree,” she says. She’s dropped her cane to yank on the gnarled wood, lifting hard and wresting it free of its wire supports, of the ground, of everything. This is Eurithe Purdy, the widow of Al Purdy, Canada’s guayabera-shirted unofficial poet laureate, herself born in this same hard country to the north. Her struggle with the fence is fitting, her husband having spent decades chronicling their struggle with Ontario’s stubborn land. Now, she’s fixing up their cottage for the last time before selling it.

Eurithe dropped by her house in Ameliasburgh on this warm summer’s afternoon because she heard I’d be there. Rather: she heard that someone would be there to do some work, and that happens to be me, a long-time Al Purdy fan in the midst of an escape from a failed marriage to the wrong woman and a house in the wrong city. She doesn’t know that; she’s just here to direct.

She leads by example, really. The fence is the priority right now: Eurithe is determined to get a few more inches of land. Once the fence has been lifted, pushed, pulled, dropped and secured in place, she points out the stands of some invasive tree and the branches of the old pines that she wants removed— they’re crowding out the older trees and blocking the view of Roblin Lake. Instructions so delivered, we sit on the deck and eat cinnamon buns.

There are only two chairs on the deck at the Purdy A-Frame, but what chairs they are: having once cushioned hundreds of illustrious Canadian rumps, the Muskoka loungers are the furniture of the nation’s artistic history. Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Lynn Crosbie, Milton Acorn, Dennis Lee, Stephen Heighton, George Bowering. Writers who were just becoming writers, writers who weren’t yet writers and writers who had stopped being writers, all passing wild grape wine and words between the chairs. They fought over ideas, laughed and swore, and, by almost all accounts, kept on drinking.

Eurithe leans back in the sun and I ask her question after question about Al, whom I never got to know. That is to say, whom I never met. These are failings of mine: having been born a little too late or having learned to drive a little too late to visit him here, having not read good Canadian poetry, and his poetry in particular, while he was still alive. He died in 2000, quite far from where his wife and I sit in Ameliasburgh. Eurithe is patient and funny as she gives me his advice on writing (“you’ve gotta chase the money”; “write for anyone who will send you around the world”) and on what life at the A-Frame was like—cold at first, then warmer; always full of voices, Ondaatje’s leonine purr or Atwood’s cantering drawl.

This year marks Eurithe’s last chance to fight with the land to make it fit the image in her mind. It occurs to me, as we finish off the cinnamon buns, that I’ll be the last writer to visit Purdy here. Then I realize he’s not.

FOR YEARS, I’ve been looking for Al Purdy. But not before I spent years avoiding him, in the same way I avoided everything from the place where I grew up. I had the firm conviction that when you leave home—especially if home is a farm that doesn’t work as a farm, where the power is sometimes shut off because the electricity bill hasn’t been paid, on a laneway populated with tarot card readers, glass-blowers, playwrights and a woman firmly believed to be a witch, near a small town with no industry other than tourism and barely that anymore—you want to stay gone. You scorn home when it peeks its head into the new life you’ve built: during a casual run-in with an elementary school classmate on the streets of your new city, or when a poem about it appears on a third-year university syllabus.

So entered Purdy into my early twenties, a lumbering force I was determined to dislike. “The Country North of Belleville?” When I said the name of his most famous poem in my head, it was always posed as a question. What, in the country north of Belleville, in the country I was trying to forget, could be worthy of a poem? What was there but rocks and hills and kind-of-pretty trees and funny names left behind by families who settled there and failed to build much? And who the hell was this Al Purdy?

Well, he was this. Born outside Wooler, Ontario—the country just west of Belleville—in 1918 and educated in nearby Trenton, he dropped out of school in grade ten and headed west, by rail, to Vancouver. He married Eurithe in 1941. They lived in Vancouver during the war, where Al was stationed with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Peace came, they had a son and they headed back home to Ontario. They divorced. Al married Eurithe’s friend, had another son and divorced again. He and Eurithe remarried and moved back to Vancouver, where he worked in a slaughterhouse and a mattress factory. Then, in 1955, it was Montreal and a tepid entry into the poetry scene until Al’s ailing mother drew them home to Ontario. He was a smart guy who worked hard and wrote poems, the kind of local tavern academic that every small town has: big, burly, well-read and too clever by half.

I wouldn’t be reading his poem about my hometown, I decided. But my english literature professor had decided otherwise. And so here was home, pinned to a board and dissected by an eager mind and a practiced hand: its residents, Purdy explained, had no sense of grandeur or self-deception. No, these were hard-working people whose hard work runs them in circles and who are left only with aching bones and perhaps the realization that this area is beautiful and impossible both. The struggle here, says Purdy, is Sisyphian: an effort to conquer—to plow, to chop, to cut—that creates deep convolutions in the mind. Try, fail, repeat: but in the trying and repeating begin to see flashes in that life, or place, to justify the failing. A spot of colour in the distant hills. A spot of beauty. That’s why we’re here, my father might have said. 

In the townships of my youth, Purdy found us. I knew I had to find him.

I read everything, then. I bought his collected works, Beyond Remembering, and dug in. If he could explain Monteagle Township to me, what about India, or Japan, or Canada’s North? Purdy was known as something of a travelling poet: he went, he wrote, he published. In poems, he was rarely political, often crass, usually honest, always self-deprecating, and never took himself too seriously. He was a Canadian poet.

While he may have shown me a little something about those faraway places, mostly he taught me how to search for myself. Because Purdy was looking for something, too. His longest poem, “In Search of Owen Roblin” (a forty-page epic that he wrote in the 1970s), is the literary equivalent of digging through a musty basement. In the poem, as so often in his life, he’s staring across tiny Roblin Lake at the former town of Roblin’s Mills, at its vanished grist mill, and tracing his finger over Ontario, looking for his grandfather, for Owen Roblin, for his own father and for himself. He struggles with the search, both eager to find out everything he can and afraid of what he’ll find, if only because of what the discovery would mean. His search was literary and literal; he wrote about it, but he lived it too—he wandered the grist mill and the graveyards of Prince Edward County, finding traces of Roblin but never finding the man himself.

Toward the beginning of “Roblin” and the start of his life as a writer, he and Eurithe built the A-Frame in Ameliasburgh. To have something to show for wasted time, he says. When the house was built, in 1957, Purdy was a failure. (His words.) He was a failure at writing plays and at anything in Montreal—“poems plays prose and just being a human being, which including everything I can think of that was my own situation”—so he built a house. Getting back home to nowhere, he calls it. To find him, I’d have to find it.

I WAS THIRTY YEARS OLD and getting divorced. She was a nice girl and I was a nice guy and we were good friends in university. There wasn’t any more to the relationship than that. No sparks, no passion. Her parents didn’t like couples living together before they were married: we got married. It seemed like the first step on the path to what I hadn’t had as a child in the forest. Her family was large and solid and likeable. they owned houses and cars where my family had none; they believed in Jesus where mine believed in sending kids to bible camp only because it was free and had swimming lessons; they forbid living together before marriage where my family was a motley crew of unmarried young couples living in sin.

Desperate to prove myself in an adult world of property owners and lawn comparers, and too afraid to admit that the relationship was only a friendship, I said yes to a union that would let us live together and yes to a baptism that would let us be married in her family’s church, even though I didn’t really want either. I moved into the house her family picked out (and bought), in a neighbourhood where her family lived, in a city they had always called home.

Unsurprisingly, moving to the suburbs didn’t create sparks or passion. But still I plodded on, now living in an Ottawa cul-de-sac. I painted the deck and sat out there sometimes, unable to see the sun setting or much of anything but hedge and other houses. I painted the walls and watched a lot of TV. I filled the place with my stuff. I ate and slept there, moving ever-farther into the wilderness of my half of the king-sized bed. It took me almost two years to admit there was none of me in the house or the relationship.

After I left a marriage I’d never fully entered, I stayed in my old town for a few weeks, a reluctant returnee to the country north of Belleville. I’d come home from the site of my failure to the site of my parents’.

Most of my things were in storage with family and friends, but Purdy’s collected works always stayed close. I reread “In Search of Owen Roblin” again one hazy night with a couple of beers and a setting sun. Surrounded by the beauty my father sometimes found, with the poem’s roads and counties and lakes all around me, I decided to make a pilgrimage. I’d drive some of those roads in the poem. I’d go in search of Al Purdy.

My mind circled Ameliasburgh, but I expected that the house had long been sold. He’s been dead for more than a decade, I told myself. But a few emails and a few phone calls led me to Michele Lintern-Mole, a drama teacher in Belleville and the temporary housekeeper and groundskeeper of the A-Frame, and Jean Baird, the Vancouver-based head of the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, who asked if I wouldn’t mind bringing a truck when I went down to the cottage; there was brush that needed moving. But the day I went to Ameliasburgh, the dump was closed. I turned up instead with a hatchback, some sunscreen, a pair of hedge cutters, garden gloves and $25 to buy a copy of The A-Frame Anthology, a collection of short stories, poems and memoirs from the Former drunken Inhabitants of the Deck Chairs, Canada’s literary elite.

Within a few minutes of being toured around the property by Michele, who pointed at a cut-down tree and confessed her life-long crush on Purdy’s friend Leonard Cohen, we heard a car pull up.

“You know what that means, don’t you?” she asked.

I didn’t.

“Eurithe has come to see you.” I didn’t know she was in town, or still alive, or anything. I didn’t know anything.

“Hi, Eurithe!” said Michele.

“I’m Drew,” I managed to get out. 

“I’ve brought cinnamon buns,” Eurithe said.

LIFE IN RURAL ONTARIO is hardship and failure, our literature has always told us, from Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In the Bush down through Purdy, then onward to Richard Wright and beyond. Ours is a vast, unsettleable province, its furthest reaches given to the least desirable immigrants—those patches of land that form communities named after great and not-so-great European cities, as far from the fertile south as possible. It was in these townships and counties that Purdy’s heroes lived and worked and died.

Another place north of Belleville: Plevna, Ontario. A small town, folded into the Shield, in that inhospitable bushland and scrubland. Here, it’s the tail end of winter and two other writers and I have escaped from the city to hide in a cabin, to write, think and drink. We substitute wild grape wine with cheap Canadian sherry and local beer. It’s cold and the car has trouble starting in the mornings to drive to town for more booze.

Plevna has a small school with few students, a grocery store with four aisles, a restaurant, a liquor store, a garage, a closed-down corner store and a smattering of cottages. It could be Ameliasburgh, if you took away the rocks. Could be any number of small Ontario towns near pretty lakes.

Like most of these, Plevna seems to survive on tourism; its locals are happy to see new faces and to complain about how the cook at the restaurant is off sick that day, how the bread delivery didn’t come on time. Plevna’s survival in the low season is one of the wonders of rural Ontario.

Beside the checkout counters at the grocery store hang two hand-drawn maps of the area, laminated and tacked to the wall, half-obscured by a metal rack piled high with safety salt and anti-freeze. The borders of these maps, drawn in the early seventies, are filled with labelled illustrations of local flora and fauna and an abridged history of the region, which the author has squeezed in between the sketch of Little Mosque Lake and his own scribbled legend of dots and dashes representing roads or trails. His history tells us that Plevna was struggle and misery, hard work and more struggle. And now, because of the hard work, we learn, it’s quaint. It’s beautiful. Let’s keep it that way, the author urges. Look what it cost to get here—let’s not fuck it up. Having worked hard, we must continue to work hard. To not repeat the struggles is to admit defeat.

This is the rural philosophy. Our past struggles become noble as we move further away from them and to repeat them is to persist: against impossible odds that no one is keeping track of, against snow, against everything. Since we cannot progress, through repetition we become ennobled experts in getting by. Sit quietly in any roadside diner along any small highway in Ontario and you’ll hear people speak proudly of sacrifice and near-failures that are, likely, actual failures. That’s how we survive. 

From that struggle comes a deep desire to find meaning and beauty, here in what Purdy calls “the country of our defeat.” Canada’s rural poor (and even some of its rural rich) make condolences to ourselves. Where something must be fought for, failure is an abstract; success is fleeting and seasonal, and so the only true success comes with good, old-fashioned hard work. The pain in our lower back is rewarded by the way the corn looks blowing in a certain warm wind; the furrowing in autumn made worthwhile when we spot a distant smattering of colour in the valleys (and by the whisky stashed away in a drawer in the barn, or kitchen, or desk, or dresser).

As Purdy searched for Owen Roblin, he found traces of himself scattered across Prince Edward County. As my own father uprooted his family from a small city and moved north in search of a pastoral vision glimpsed briefly during a drunken weekend with friends, he found little but an unworkable plot of land, broken-down machines and stone fences in the woods that showed him where people had lived before and left. Yet where Purdy and the townsfolk of his poems found sufficient consolation in the land around them, my father had too few fleeting moments on the back deck to make it worthwhile. Instead he saw signposts on the way to his destruction: vegetables full of bugs, an overgrown lawn and a van that was broken as often as not. Never was the sacrifice made to count for something. After fifteen years, my mother left him and he left the town, alcohol finally consumed him and he was gone. A fading picture to me now.

Purdy tells us that the only comfort in this land comes from within, from finding meaning in our surroundings and seeking joy in the small things. Getting interested in the place, because what the hell else can we do? He made sour wild grape wine in summer and chopped ice off the lake in winter. He was filled with wonder by the drifting snow and the shiny spire of the church across the water. From within the land he created some of the best Canadian poetry of the twentieth century. And in it all was a warning that the search for something needs to be peppered with joy along the way. And that it falls to us to find it in ourselves, here in the country of our defeat.

EURITHE IS READY TO GET BACK TO WORK. She’s spent the past few minutes pointing from the deck at the low-hanging branches of trees that irk her. She hates one particular invasive tree species especially, and has marked hundreds of them for death. And the path to the outhouse needs to be cleared. And the view of the lake is blocked by some brush, which needs to be chopped and hauled to the burn pile. And these chairs could use some new paint, too, now that she’s looking at them. 

I’m ready to start performing odd jobs, but she insists on showing me Al’s writing room. The little cabin was a late addition to the property. It sits only a few feet from the A-Frame’s front door, but was built later and by necessity. Al couldn’t stop working in the house. If guests were over, he’d disappear for hours, laying propped on one arm on the bed and pecking away at his typewriter with a single finger. By the end, the writing room was a dual-purpose shed-slash-creative space, with lawn tools and wasps’ nests in one half and his typewriter, a chair, books of poetry and rural Ontario history and posters of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence in the other.

Some of the room’s contents were Eurithe’s doing (the tools in particular), and she’s filled Al’s half with a few of his things to turn it into something of a museum to his life, or perhaps a shrine to it. It was here, in the damp, bug-filled room, where I finally found myself.

On a folded-up mattress that leans against the back wall sit three framed posters: one from a speaking engagement Al made, one a signed copy of one of his poems and the other from an academic conference called the Ivory Thought—a literature symposium at the University of Ottawa from years ago, when I was still at school there, considering a Master’s in English Lit with a focus on his work. I’d been a volunteer at the conference. At first, I didn’t recognize the poster. Then a realization dawned on me, and I flashed nostalgically back to a week in which I’d met half of the experts on Purdy in Canada and half of his friends. 

I looked more closely, scanning the names on the poster for some I might recognize. At the bottom of the poster, one stood out: my own. Me. I was there. My name is in Al Purdy’s writing room.

I stared at it quietly for a few moments while Eurithe swatted wasps. Later, when I told her, she laughed, almost hysterically, and smiled. “Well, then of course you’re here,” she said. “Al would have liked that. Now, you see those trees over there

TWO HOURS NORTH OF THE A-FRAME is a small road that bends away from a different small road toward the crest of a hill in Monteagle Township. When my brother and sister and I were quite young our father would drive us to this spot beside a communications tower to look out over the trees and stones of the place we now lived. We’d stand atop a boulder discarded by the glaciers thousands of years ago and say the names of things we could see: a ranger station in the woods, types of trees, other boulders, the farms in the distance. When the wind dropped, there were no sounds but our breathing. It was magical. That cataloguing of the space around us was a family ritual, and by identifying the things that were dear to us we justified why we were there. Of course we were there.

Now, beneath a stunted tree a few yards from that boulder, some of my father’s ashes still linger. A wind chime he built out of other wind chimes is hung precariously on a low branch, the winters having yet to claim it. When the wind drops, there are no sounds by the boulder at all. Of course he’s there.

We end up where we end up because we do. We don’t see where it is we’re going until we’re there and once we’re there we can choose to find joy or to find pain in our surroundings. Or we can choose to go somewhere new. Purdy found consolation and comfort in the people around him, found pride in their struggles and created obelisks out of it. Here someone fought hard to be him or herself, and here perhaps they found pride in themselves. Perhaps.

Eurithe Purdy now splits her time between Vancouver Island and Belleville, a short drive from the property she no longer owns. On that warm summer’s day, as she looked around her property, a sense of pride peeked out from behind her frustration. Sixty years and she seemed no closer to having it look the way she wanted. Her dog circled her, panting and playful, as Eurithe walked back to her car on the grassy hill that constituted the driveway, a driveway that wouldn’t be hers for much longer. Like the rest of her land, it would be purchased by the A-Frame Association, which picked up the repairs where the Purdys left off, and has now turned the A-frame into a writer’s residency. I won’t be the last writer to visit Al’s house. More of the right people will be here. Of course they’ll be here.

We shake hands and Eurithe leaves her number in my notebook, asking me to call if I’m back in town. She climbs into her car and rolls down the window, then points at some of the trees she’s come to despise. “They grow so fast, these things. There’s just no keeping up with them.” She drives off.

I’m left alone at the Purdys’, clippers in hand, the heat of the afternoon bearing down. I walk back into the writing shed.

This was the beginning of feeling like I was in the place I belonged. I lock the shed and get to work on the trees.

They grow so fast, these things.