Beer in hand, poet Al Purdy sat in the fading light of his living room, contemplating the recent changes in his life. Outside the window of his house in Ameliasburg, Ont., 170 km east of Toronto, the familiar expanse of Roblin Lake glinted in the late autumn sunshine. Inside, the bookshelves lining the walls were strangely empty. After more than three decades on the lake, Purdy and his wife of 49 years, Eurithe, are gradually moving their belongings to a second residence in Sidney, B.C., near Victoria. The winters on Vancouver Island, Purdy explained, are a lot easier for a man of 71. Yet it is obvious that the eastern Ontario landscape still has a profound hold on his imagination. It continues to inspire memorable poems, including several in his 1990 volume, The Woman on the Shore (McClelland & Stewart, $9.95). And it provides the setting for the poet’s first novel, A Splinter in the Heart (McClelland & Stewart, $26.95), an affectionate coming-of-age tale
based on Purdy’s own boyhood in nearby Trenton.
With his more than 30 poetry collections and two Governor General’s Literary Awards (for The Cariboo Horses in 1965 and The Collected Poems of Al Purdy in 1986), Purdy has carved himself a lofty place in the pantheon of Canadian writers. Poet and children’s writer Dennis Lee claims that Purdy has done for Canada what Walt Whitman once did for the United States—he has made it recognizable to its inhabitants. “He has mapped the Canadian world,” Lee once wrote, “with an ampleness and beery precision.”
Lee’s use of “beery” is instructive. Purdy, whose fondness for beer is legendary, writes with the voice of an ordinary working man who can drink and brawl with the roughest of them. But behind the apparent ordinariness lies a skilled poet who, at his best, can touch the visible world with a tenderness and visionary clarity few writers can match.
Purdy is also a skilled prose writer who, over the years, has turned out short stories and articles, as well as radio dramas. But A Splinter in the Heart is his first major attempt to treat in fiction some of his favorite themes, particularly the influence of the past in shaping the present. Purdy said that the idea for a boyhood novel has been with him for years, but that he was finally goaded to write it by a West Coast bookseller who doubted he could do it.
The book’s hero, 16-year-old Patrick Cameron, is—like Purdy himself once was—a fatherless boy growing up in Trenton. An avid long-distance runner, Patrick takes long jaunts into the surrounding countryside. His running, expertly evoked by Purdy, toughens his body, opens his spirit—and leads him to the door of a romantic young woman called Jean. He falls in love with her, but loses her in the end. “Patrick is nervier than I was,” Purdy said. “I was scared of girls.”
Coming from Purdy, much of A Splinter in the Heart seems surprisingly tame. But its predictable character portraits and conventional prose are balanced by passages of hypnotic vividness. The description of Patrick’s dare-fulfilling jump off a high bridge into the Trent River, a feat Purdy himself once accomplished, is a small masterpiece. “The river felt thick as he entered it, neither liquid nor solid,” he writes. “He went down like a slow bullet; his lungs a precious bag outside himself.” Purdy also infuses a lot of suspense into the climax, when Patrick races his rival, Kevin, to save several people from the imminent explosion of
a Trenton munitions factory—a real-life event that Purdy has incorporated into the book.
The novel is set in 1918, the year Purdy was bom in the village of Wooler. After his father, Alfred, died when Purdy was 2, his mother, Eleanor Louisa, moved the family to Trenton. Purdy was a self-described “spoiled only child” who wrote his first poems, for his school magazine, because “they offered $1 apiece. It was an easy way to make a buck.” He dropped out of school after failing the ninth grade. Two years later, the unemployed teenager was hopping freight trains across Depression-era Canada. In a hallucinatory poem in The Woman on the Shore, Purdy says that he may have accidentally killed one of the men who rode the freights with him. When the man tried to sexually molest him, Purdy struck back— knocking him off the rushing train.
During his six-year wartime stint in the Royal Canadian Air Force (high blood pressure kept him from active combat), Purdy remained in Canada and continued to write verse. In 1941, he married Eurithe, then 16, and they had their only child, Jim, four years later. After the war, Purdy ran a short-lived taxi business, worked at a mattress factory in British Columbia and then took odd jobs in Ontario. Frequently unemployed, the writer said that at times he and his family were so poor that “if the neighbors ran over a rabbit, they’d bring us the corpse to eat.”
Purdy was in his 40s before he found the distinctive poetic style that emerged in his 1962 volume, Poems for All the Annettes. He credits the example of his friend, the populist poet Milton Acorn, with helping him jettison his earlier, highly academic poetic style. “At his best,” Purdy said, “Milton was the best poet in the country. Of course, at his worst he was also the worst.” A carpenter by trade, Acorn also helped Purdy build his A-frame house on Lake Roblin—although Purdy claims that he had to rip out everything Acorn had installed and nail it in straight. He has commemorated their argumentative friendship in a wry poem called “House Guest,” and he speaks of Acorn—who died in 1986—with affectionate humor. “The great thing about Milton,” Purdy said, “is that you could smell him around two comers, not just one. He never took a bath.”
Purdy seems to have a large enough store of reminiscences to supply several more novels, but he says that he has no definite plans to write another. As for the move to British Columbia, he expresses mixed feelings (“I hate beautiful trees,” he said). Certainly, saying goodbye to the house on Roblin Lake is difficult for Purdy, who has filled it with half a lifetime’s associations and accomplishments. He has written about such farewells in The Woman on the Shore, where he speculates that, when he is gone, people will think of him as “sharing a last drink with friends/long after closing time.” But while the A-frame on Roblin Lake may sit empty, closing time has not come yet. From Vancouver Island, the matchless writing, like the beer, will undoubtedly continue to flow.
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