Register Sunday | December 17 | 2017
The Bard of Bordeaux Illustration by Priscilla Yu.

The Bard of Bordeaux

Kyle Carney rereads Al Purdy’s Wild Grape Wine.

To make five gallons of wild grape wine, you first need to gather twenty pounds of grapes and acquire ten pounds of sugar. You then wring out the juice, and if you don’t wear gloves, your hands will be stained for several days. After letting the mixture sit, covered, for twenty-four hours, add two tablespoons of yeast nutrient and allow a week of fermentation. Next, extract the pulp and siphon the wine into a carboy. From there, you wait at least a month, carefully employing devices like airlocks and hydrometers. When the liquid becomes clear, siphon it once more, and toss in five crushed potassium metabisulphite tablets. The resulting substance is a potent, deeply purple swill that reddens your teeth and leaves you with a terrible hangover.   

Canada’s quintessential bard, Al Purdy, made plenty of the stuff while living at his fabled A-frame in Ameliasburgh, Ontario, and in 1968, published a book of poetry entitled Wild Grape Wine with McClelland & Stewart. The collection brims with colloquial free verse and imagery that lingers as readily as the purple of its namesake. Wine enthusiasts use the term “terroir” to describe the environmental factors that influence a crop of grapes, and Purdy’s poetic voice—in this book and elsewhere—is similarly affected by his local terrain. He longs to be the mother of unborn robins in “St. Francis in Ameliasburg[h],” and poverty compels him to eat roadkill rabbit in “Ameliasburg[h] Stew.” In his widely cited “Wilderness Gothic,” he conjures a “Dürer landscape”; he watches attentively “Across Roblin Lake, two shores away” as a workman “hangs in the sky,” “sheathing the church spire.”

The book is dedicated to his longtime pen pal and fellow poet, Earle Birney. On the cover, a bunch of grapes is formed from quotation marks; inside, primitive drawings by P.J. Moulding illustrate the poems. In “Shopping at Loblaws,” Purdy pursues a woman in a fur jacket through a grocery store, simply because “the fur piece / looked well worth trapping.” Through the lines of “Last Year’s Cabbages (in a Field near Stouffville, Ont.),” he notices that the rotten vegetables “acquire human features,” but, when stepped on, “give a rotten squelch.” Earthiness abounds, almost as if the poet was in the process of tilling his identity—he released the book under the abbreviated A.W. Purdy (Alfred Wellington) instead of Al, the more approachable moniker he’d come to use later in his career.          

Nearly eighteen years after his death, some of Al Purdy’s wild grape wine still remains. Steven Heighton, a writer well-acquainted with the A-frame, says he has a few litres in his cellar. His encounters with Purdy are explored in his essay “On Trying To Wear Al’s Shirts,” which he first read in 2006 at a University of Ottawa Purdy symposium. When Heighton sampled a glass of the wine some years ago, he noticed it tasted like a cheap sherry—prune-coloured and “filled with evil-looking sediment.”

Over time, Purdy’s homemade vino has generated its own literary folklore. In her review of his book Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets, Judith Fitzgerald mentions interviewing the poet in the eighties, when he accidentally knocked “a brimming glass of wild grape wine all over the front of my best white summer dress.” In his critical study Al Purdy, George Bowering remembers visiting Doug and Hannah Kaye’s bookstore in Vancouver just as a box from Purdy was delivered. The package was labelled “Books,” but instead contained a “Seagram’s 83 bottle” of “some dark purple fluid.” Recounting a relatively tense confrontation with “Big Al” in the A-Frame Anthology, Joe Rosenblatt recalls asking the poet how his wine was made; Purdy—“stoned on his special elixir”—declines to answer. Margaret Atwood even mentioned Purdy’s homemade wine in her Canlit Foodbook, though she ultimately chose to exclude the recipe, writing, “It’s been known to frighten a lot of people, since it comes out about the same colour as it goes in.”

Between 1964 and 1974, Purdy shared a somewhat obscene and inconsistent correspondence with Charles Bukowski. Their letters are collected in A Decade of Dialogue, published by the Paget Press, in 1983. Both poets were known for their hard-drinking lifestyles, and they discussed alcohol extensively throughout their exchange. In Purdy’s first letter to “Buk,” he writes: “I am drinking homemade wine, I make wild grape stuff that stains your mouth and makes your shit look like the oily blackish grease inside auto wheels.” He includes a single, purple fingerprint in the middle of the page and the words: “Sample above.”

After publishing his critically acclaimed The Cariboo Horses in 1965, Purdy’s return address changes constantly. He writes poems from Baffin Island, spends a “rather drunken three weeks” in England, and then resides in Ottawa for three months. From there, he informs Bukowski: “Since my next book will be called Wild Grape Wine I thought I’d better make some, so have three bushels of grapes in this apartment.”

Seven of the poems in Wild Grape Wine—including “Mackenzie King’s Ruins,”  “John Diefenbaker” and “A Ghost in the House of Commons”—were written about the nation’s capital, and they illustrate Purdy’s keen interest in the politics of his country. In “Is This the Man?” Purdy appraises Parliament Hill politics, finding that “none here seems remotely capable / of running the affairs of my small / village of Ameliasburg[h].” In “About Being a Member of Our Armed Forces,” he turns the critical lens on himself, admitting that he had never truly been a soldier, “only a humble airman / who kept getting demoted and demoted and demoted / to the point where I finally saluted civilians.” Like his grapes, politics and war are rooted in the lineage of the land, and from these Purdy wrings poetry as memorable and legendary as his wine.

The most poetic account of Purdy’s wild grape hobby can be found in the verses of “The Winemaker’s Beat-Étude,” where he describes a “veritable tug-o-war with Bacchus” while “picking wild grapes last year / in a field.” Becoming lyrically and literally entangled in the process, Purdy claims to be “thinking what the grapes are thinking”—wrestling savagely with the fruit, he “become[s] part of their purple mentality.” But his concentration is distracted by a group of cows grazing nearby, and the remaining stanzas explore the feminist principles of the bovine. Over the last line break, he announces: “O my sisters / I give purple milk!”

Bottling his own wine was in keeping with Purdy’s self-made spirit. He and his wife Eurithe built their own house using scrap materials recovered from across Ontario (a recent restoration revealed an unpublished poem between the walls), and Purdy fashioned himself into a great poet without formal education; he eventually became known as Canada’s unofficial poet laureate. Much like his wild grapes, Purdy’s verse was cultivated from his country, and both his own history, as well as Canada’s, gain a mythological quality in his lines. His efforts predated the burgeoning vineyards of Prince Edward County, but he worked from the same limestone soil.    

Beyond its earthy works, Wild Grape Wine includes some intensely personal poems: “Elegy for a Grandfather,” in which he grieves a private loss; and “Love Poem for My Wife,” where he praises Eurithe’s dedicated work ethic as a teacher. While examining this fertile period in his poetry, it can be a struggle to reconcile the textual Purdy with other writers’ personal accounts of “Big Al.” At six-foot-three, he was a towering figure, and his influence on Canadian literature is equally immense. He was a poet who simultaneously wrote about his experience in the drunk tank and managed to win the Governor General’s award—twice. His talents as winemaker are a part of this rich and complex legacy.

A photograph taken by John Reeves in 1965 captures the poet in his element. The photoshoot was commissioned by the Canadian magazine, and in the A-Frame Anthology Reeves admits that he didn’t remember taking the shot—because, of course, he’d been drinking. However, he does recall discussing the poverty and necessary self-sufficiency of those early years. In the image, Purdy sits cross-legged on his lawn, a framed picture of Eurithe propped in front of him, his unfinished house in the background. He wears sunglasses and an earnest expression, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and a glass of wild grape wine in his hand.