Negotiating the Past in Poetry

My essay ‘Negotiating the Past in Poetry’ was published recently in The New Quarterly. It’s about post-traumatic stress disorder, time, and poetry.

I was on a cycling trip in Prince Edward County when I was told that we would shortly be arriving in Ameliasburgh, the setting of many of Al Purdy’s finest poems and the place where, as everybody else knew except me, he is buried. I realized in a wry flash that the thoughts flying through my head were only partially my own—I had been unconsciously revisiting Purdy’s oeuvre, and this was what had contributed to both my burgeoning lyricism and sense of déjà vu. I began to wonder if the ruined farmhouses we coasted past were the same ones I had paused to admire in his poems years earlier, maintained in a miraculous state of disrepair by some canny historical society.

We swerved off a main road lined with sagging houses down a green tunnel, catching bright glimpses of the sun-dazzled headstones through the leaves. Standing before his grave beside a winding river recreated even more powerfully in me the dizzying sensation I have when lost in a poem I like: that of stepping outside the flow of time and into the curious spaces beyond linear narrative that poetry seems to occupy. It was then that I saw the square of fresh white paper. Someone had left Purdy a letter, as crisply folded as an origami flower. I still congratulate myself for walking away without opening it—to do so would have been the moral equivalent of picking a rare orchid. But I thought about the letter and wondered what was in it long after Purdy’s fields and toppling barns disappeared behind me in a blur of dusk.


There is a sense in which a poem is always partly a letter to a dead poet, written with varying degrees of rebellion or gratitude, as an acknowledgment of the ways in which those who have lived and created before us continue to shape our experiences of the world. This is one of the reasons why poems so often have a timeless quality: they are poised between worlds, and the result is a kind of creative dialogue between the conventions and formulae of different generations. Sometimes this temporal negotiation can itself become the subject of a poem, as in Matthew Zapruder’s “Come On All You Ghosts,” where poetry is described as a kind of time machine: an ‘ancient transmission device’ that zooms backwards into the past and then forward into the minds of future readers. In this poem, which brilliantly invokes and reworks many of the central images and themes in T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the dead are brought to life not in a macabre sense but in a way that re-affirms the value of their continued presence in the minds of the living. The narrator’s rallying cry to the ghosts who accompany him becomes an exhortation for more and greater meaning—enough to stop his descent into what he calls the ‘black crater,’ which, like Eliot’s ‘world of perpetual solitude’ is ambiguously depicted as death, and also as a place of non-meaning.
The Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim has written that a poet doesn’t need time. Set in a country ravaged by violence, his long poem “Plague Lands” weaves the lyrical, highly personal memories of a poet in exile with the brutal images of a dehumanizing regime. The poem creates a temporal haze in which figures step out of the poet’s past and out of Sumerian mythology to directly address the narrator, while political and religious ideologies sweep across the landscape, infecting people like the poem’s titular plague:

Sacrificed blood stains the tunnel of my boyhood:
the one that leads to the myth.
At the entrance to an alley—out of which poured everything—
I imagined Gilgamesh.

It is an inner landscape that Karim is presenting, an imaginary space in which ‘wandering through us, the slain are on tour.’ The poem is an exploration of how and why our minds fall prey to ideas that cause us to act against our own interests, and the ways in which art and literature can be seen to propagate these ideas. Gilgamesh is anything but an iconic embellishment. Disguised in modern dress, the mythical warrior waits on the shores of the Tigris in a land strewn with bodies bearing the marks of recent torture to warn the narrator that what has happened before will happen again and again, going on to pronounce:

‘The present masks the past
In this long-extant polis where humanity
dies of a broken heart’

Both Zapruder and Karim depict in poetry the mind’s wavering negotiations between memory, our imagined futures, and lived experience. The past, present, and future are not distinct realms but continuously interwoven. As T.S. Eliot—influenced by the philosopher F.H. Bradley’s argument that time and space are mental constructs—states in “Burnt Norton”: ‘to be conscious is not to be in time.’


As a war veteran and a longtime sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, my father was a tragic example of how a past event can resurface to disturb, borrowing a phrase from Eugenio Montale, ‘the usual illusion’ of one’s immediate surroundings. Living between two worlds and belonging fully to neither, the resulting liminality left him in a state of almost constant unease. His struggle against disintegration impressed upon me how much of what we perceive as being real is mediated by the potent but often irrational collection of myths, beliefs and past experiences circulating in our minds. As is common in sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, shame was a dominant note in our house, despite the fact that he was a decorated hero. Perhaps as a way of hiding this, and much to the horror of his friends and family, he came to admire the triumphalist rhetoric of political leaders like Reagan and Thatcher towards the end of his life. He loved to watch parades, the tears sliding down his cheeks as the drum corps marched across the screen.
Just as his experiences of the war left him with a profoundly altered vision of the world, his illness throughout my childhood and his eventual suicide has had an enormous impact on my life. A great deal of my writing has related to the legacy of trauma and abuse on both a personal level and in a broader cultural context. Like many others, I view with suspicion the idealized hero of classical myths, comic books, and movies and its privileging of value systems that are detrimental to both men and women. When I write about my father, I write not just about my own father, whose death was grievous to me, but also about Father, with all the patriarchal and symbolic connotations that the word carries. Thus he appears in my poems as an ambivalent presence, handing down to me a cultural legacy that is both beautiful and cruel. He is a haunting figure, who steps out of the past tense and into the present tense of a poem in the manner of a Shakespearean ghost. He is a quasi-mythical figure who descends like Orpheus into an underworld of dreams and nightmares, doomed to re-live his traumatic ordeals in a kind of ancient Greek punishment.
Although my father rarely spoke of his own wartime experiences, our house was a repository of twentieth century atrocities. The walls were lined with books about Stalin and Mussolini, decisive battles and accounts of concentration camps. Frost-bitten Russian POWs crawled out of books and into our imaginations, their broken boots stuffed with straw. Like the heroine at the end of Dr. Zhivago who disappears in a crowd of anonymous women moving towards any number of grim fates, my father was carried off by a horror that was larger than his own private experiences. His efforts to contextualize and to understand what had happened to him within the larger picture of the war caused his already imperiled sense of self to disintegrate further. The spectacle of the mass grave—that led Joseph Brodsky to call Hitler a kind of Michelangelo in reverse—is the opposite of the humanist project, an annihilation of the integrity and sanctity of the individual. He was defeated finally, by the same set of circumstances that inspired the existential writings and philosophies of Sartre and Camus, and that reinforced the fractured, fragmentary modes of modernist poetry catalyzed by the horrors of the First World War.
My father was a handsome man, the idol of his younger siblings. He was a man’s man, but also imaginative and well-read. When we were small, he used to tell us elaborate fairy tales and bedtime stories that he often made up as he went along. After he could no longer work as a teacher and high school principal, he decided to write a novel and set himself up with a red Olivetti typewriter at our kitchen table to write for a few hours each day. After he died, my brother and I experienced that moment of horror in Kubrik’s “Shining” when the typewritten pages on Jack Torrance’s desk are encountered. What my father had spent those long hours writing was a mass of nonsense, snatches of TV and radio ads mixed with doggerel, or the same words typed over and over again. It is a terrible irony that a man who tried to sustain his morale by reciting Rudyard Kipling and Tennyson had in his own daily life become a character in Beckett’s theatre of the absurd.


On my bicycle ride back from Ameliasburgh, the poem of Purdy’s that asserted itself most powerfully in my mind—and which asserts itself now as I sit here at my desk a couple of years later—was “Wilderness Gothic.” The central image of the poem is a workman replacing the roof of a church spire. The poem slides in and out of a naturalistic autumnal landscape to the absurd image of a man who is repeatedly taken through various subtle linguistic feats and enjambments out of his immediate context and left hovering, like a cartoon character whose clifftop has crumbled beneath him:

Across Roblin Lake, two shores away
they are sheathing the church spire
with new metal. Someone hangs in the sky

The poem veers between the present to an imagined apocalypse and backwards again to the prophetic moment ‘flashing beyond and past the long frozen Victorian day’ that occurs to the gothic ancestors that Purdy sketches into the backdrop of his Durer landscape. The worker is transformed into a kind of metaphysical Don Quixote in a world without a stable notion of time, wrestling heroically with various airy concepts: gravity, sky navigation and mythopoeia. He might be Purdy himself, a master craftsman who often adopts a gruff workmanlike voice to complicate the lyricism of his poems. For me, the man in the blue void is also my father. As the years pass, I continue to reconsider the eleven days he spent alone in a lifeboat on the North Sea after his ship was torpedoed, and what effect that might have had on his mind as it listed between absurd hope and existential despair on the vast blank of the sea. It was an odyssey he never fully returned from.


One of the most distinctive features of poetry is its ability to evoke the restless music of the human mind: enchanted by the sensory experiences of the present, retreating backward into the mists, imagining itself forward into visions of the future. I love the way poetry lays bare those invisible movements and temporal variations, so that we may consider at greater leisure their effect on each other. What is perhaps even more important is its capacity to demonstrate what John Burnside calls the essentially provisory nature of the seen world: a poem always moves beyond the immediate sense of the words on the page to wider vistas of potential meaning. This quality of intangibleness is elegantly captured in the first stanza of W.S. Merwin’s “On the Subject of Poetry”:

I do not understand the world, Father.
By the millpond at the end of the garden
There is a man who slouches listening
To the wheel revolving in the stream, only
There is no wheel there to revolve.

My attempts to understand the suffering that my father underwent have had a profound impact on my artistic practice. I have chosen to write about him because I believe we all suffer to some degree from the effects of violence and its trace in our collective human story. His manner of departure has been a troubling legacy, and has caused me to engage in a kind of ongoing dialectic. If suicide can be read as an assertion of the meaninglessness of existence, my response has been to assert the world of the imagination and the ways in which poetry in particular can expand consciousness and increase our understanding of ourselves and our minds. If ghosts and angels are emanations from the cerebral cortex, it doesn’t make them any less wondrous—and fully acknowledging as much may go some way towards finding explanations for the irrational and destructive behaviours that perpetuate trauma and lead us to dehumanize ourselves and others. It is a world in which a letter placed on the grave of a poet makes absolute sense, because you are sure to get a reply.