Saturday, 14 June 2014

More Poetry Last Month


Poem about Canada
by Douglas Le Pan

No monuments or landmarks guide the stranger
Going among this savage people, masks
Taciturn or babbling out an alien jargon
And moody as barbaric skies are moody.

Berries must be his food. Hurriedly
He shakes the bushes, plucks pickerel from the river,
Forgetting every grace and ceremony,
Feeds like an Indian, and is on his way.

And yet, for all his haste, time is worth nothing.
The abbey clock, the dial in the garden,
Fade like saint’s days and festival.
Moths, years, are here unbroken virgin forests.

There is no law – even no atmosphere
To smooth the anger of the flagrant sun.
November skies sting string like icicles.
The land is open to all violent weathers.

Passion not more quick. Lightnings in August
Stagger, rocks split, tongues in the forest hiss,
As fire drinks up the lovely sea-dream coolness.
This is the land the passionate man must travel.

Sometimes – perhaps at the tentative fall of twilight –
A belief will settle that waiting around the bend
Are sanctities of childhood, that melting birds
Will sing him into a limpid gracious Presence.

The hills will fall in folds, the wilderness
Will be a garment innocent and lustrous
To wear upon a birthday, under a light
That curls and smiles, a golden-haired Archangel.

And now the channel opens. But nothing alters,
Mile after mile of tangled struggling roots,
Wild-rice, stumps, weeds that clutch at the canoe,
Wilds birds hysterical in tangled trees.

And not a sign, no emblem in the sky
Or boughs to friend him as he goes; for who
Will stop where, clumsily constructed, daubed
With war-paint, teeters some lust-red Manitou?

When I was an undergrad, the man who wrote this was my professor for an overview course in English Literature geared to orient students in the Honours English stream. At that time the English department at my university was engaged in a debate as to whether it was relevant to consider the life and times of a poet, his reading and personality, in considering his work. Prof. Le Pan was on the 'no biography' side of the debate. And it never occurred to me to cheat and look him up. 

That may be one of the reasons why his poetry was opaque to me then. It was bitter, mannered, thick with allusion, dark to me. I could not extract much from it. I felt much the same about T S Eliot. And I recall my mother, who was a university lecturer in English literature at that time, telling me that when I grew up I would be able to grasp their meaning and grow to love T S.

My father-in-law fought his way up Italy in WW II, as did Le Pan. Perhaps none of us who have never been so seared can find their way into the world view that war engendered. I think Le Pan must have loved the quiet storied towers of his university a lot and was permanently scarred by being torn from them. He was the most impatient and exigent teacher I have ever had; my impression was that he despised us all, clumsily constructed poor fools that we were.

 "And now the channel opens. But nothing alters,"

What age and maturity have brought me is the ability to pity him. And while I have lines of Eliot's work echoing in my head, I have not reread Le Pan for decades, until today.


  1. I hope that he wasn't impatient and exigent from what you thought. Instead, perhaps he was under academic or even practical pressures from his peers or higher-ups.

    But his poem indicates a true dissatisfaction with everything. Even his gorgeous descriptions of Nature fall flat into his disdain. It's so sad.

  2. Mary--just reading this now. I love it. As someone who taught literature, I think I would advocate the biography informs side, but I would always tell students NEVER TRUST THE AUTHOR. That is, an author uses what comes into her or his life, but can alter it and shape it and misuse it, etc.
    I do so love how this post of your stirs up my teaching instincts, even though I left the classroom 5 years ago.
    Hope you are doing well...