An Alphabet of Poets – M is for MacEwen

Dark Pines Under Water

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

Gwendolyn MacEwen from Gwendolyn MacEwen, Volume One – The Early Years, Exile Editions, 1993

There is something down there and you want it told. This sentence may be one of the finest expressions of why we poets write. And why sometimes we write at our own peril. This writer certainly did. She wanted  it told .She was an acclaimed poet, one of the best of her time. She wrote 26 books including poetry, novels and plays. She won the Canadian Governor General’s  Award for poetry twice. Her poems have a troubling power, do not offer easy comforts, and in the end all her attempts to write against death did not prevent her far-too-early death from alcoholism at age 46.

Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) seemed to stalk, and be stalked by, darkness, a darkness that she, in so many ways, wrote against in her poems but paradoxically that “long dark” seems to be the matrix out of which her best words came. In the end the darkness claimed her as she died alone, penniless, in her small Toronto apartment.

The last poem The Tao of Physics, in her last book Afterworlds, published posthumously, was hauntingly prescient:

The Tao of Physics

In the vast spaces of the subatomic world where
Matter has a   tendency   to exist
The lord of  Life is breathing in and out,
Creating and destroying the universe
With each wave of his breath.

And my Lord Siva dances in the city streets,
His body a fierce illusion of flesh, of energy,
The particles of light cast off from his hair
Invade the mighty night. The relative night, this dream.

Here where events have a   tendency   to occur
My chair and all its myriad inner worlds
Whirl around in the carousel of space; I hurl
Breathless poems against my lord Death, send these
words, these words
Careening into the beautiful darkness.

from Afterworlds, McClelland and Stewart, 1987

Oh, and how she hurled her poems, how they made such beauty careening into the beautiful darkness. And that hurling cost her. Her writing was decorated with metaphor but it was no mere decoration. They could cut.

You Can Study It If You Want

One of these days after my thousandth poetry reading
I’m going to answer the Question right.

The question is Why Do You Write.

Every time I hear The Question I get this
purple blur in front of my eyes, and
I fear I will fall down frothing at the mouth
and spewing forth saliva and
mixed metaphors.

You can study it if you want, I’m just the one who gets to do it; or,

Don’t ask me I just work here.

You know the answer and still I have to say it:

Poetry has nothing to do with poetry.
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder
is the sound you make when you come, and
why you live and how you bleed, and

The sound you make or don’t make when you die.

from Afterworlds, p. 35

Those last five lines show her utter mastery of metaphor, her confident voice and the price she paid to write the words of power she wrote. And with what withering precision she says: You can study it if you want, I’m just the one who gets to do it. I wonder, are any of us who write poems, truly poets, if our own words don’t come at deep cost. Not, I hope, at the cost of her words, but high enough to mean something really, important.

If you don’t know MacEwan find her poems, buy her books. And find and read, especially, her masterpiece Mazini Escape Artist: …listen-/ there was this boy, Manzini… We must listen to her. This is how she should be, must be honoured. And after reading her I do not call myself a poet with the same ease or lightness. It weighs heavier. It should. It demands much if our poems are to be true, important enough for others to read.

Patrick Lane ,in his wonderful 2007 volume, Last Water Song,  honours many of his friends, Canadian poets, long gone, in a series of haunting and elegiac prose poems. Here are the terrible/wonderful last lines of his tribute to the poet he knew as Gwen:

When I was in my last room trying to swallow a mouthful of blood I thought of you, the bottle of vodka almost gone, morning coming on, sleep the only thing I could imagine, the kind of sleep only the dead drunk drunk knows, the dreaming so terrible there is nothing to remember no matter how far down you reach. The closer I get to your poems the worse I feel. My students try, but there’s no telling them they have to go deeper than their wrists in dark water. I remember so little now, Gwen. Listen, there was this boy….

Last words to Gwen from her poem dedicated to the great Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:


I tried to find a stone for you to paint on, Yanni,
                 and I found that
Stones are lost sheep in golden dust
Stones are the blind eyes of lost gods
Stones are stars that failed and fell here
Stones are the faces of watches without hands,

Stones are the masters of time.

And we would become the masters of time, Yanni,
                  in the great loneliness which is God,
In the mad, dynamic silence poems and ikons adore.

We would paint the universe the colour of our minds
                  and flirt with death, but
Whether we dance or faint or kneel we fall
On stones.

Stones are old money with which we rent the world,
                  forgetting that the landscape borrows us
For its own time and its own reason.

The way is open, it is paved with stones;
They are the fallen eyes of angels.

Antiparos, Greece, 1976

from Afterworlds


  1. Posted April 19, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Mr. Osler,
    It is my opinion that you have done a superlative job of capturing Gwen’s poetic swagger. Congratulations on casting an artistic and accurate light on her body of work, with two exceptions.

    You have written: “…her attempts to write against death did not prevent her far-too-early death from alcoholism at age 46.”

    On examining her body, the coroner’s office could not find even the slightest trace of alcohol, or any other intoxicating or lethal drugs, in Gwen’s system. After weeks of inability to find a cause of death, they finally wrote it off as a PROBABLE case of metabolic acidosis, closed the book and left it at that.

    While metabolic acidosis can be caused by a binge drinker quitting booze “cold turkey”, returning their system to normal too quickly (and, yes, Gwen was an alcoholic), it is invariably accompanied by the DT’s and other outwardly visible signs, which she did not display. Yet her reputation has suffered from that slander ever since her death.

    For that reason I would have preferred to see one word added to the quoted text, “…death from PROBABLE alcoholism…”

    The other part of this otherwise excellent essay that, to me, chafes like a tiny grain of sand between the toes, is the line, “…after reading her I do not call myself a poet with the same ease or lightness…”
    And I must preface my thought that, for all I know, she made have later given in to conventional speech structure. But during the time that I knew her, she made it very clear that the designation of “poet” was not an honour that one could bestow upon themselves. It was for others to say that this or that person was a poet. But for one to call themselves a poet was as pompous as saying “I am a very pretty girl” (her words).
    If a piece of work had been deemed a fine poem by someone else, then she could say “I write poetry”, But, she said, to utter the phrase: “I am a poet” was too egotistic. In the years that I knew her she was quite firm on this particular subject. “I am a Poet” was a grammatical error, it simply could not be conjugated that way.

    In closing, well done. I thank you deeply and sincerely for bringing Gwen’s work back into the public spotlight. She deserves it.

    Yours truly,
    Lorne S. Jones

  2. Luz
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much Mr. Osler for such an excellent essay on this magnificent writer, Gwendolyn MacEwen, though I share Mr. Jones’ opinions as well. For me, MacEwen is not only a poet, but The Poet. I never tire of reading her poetry, not even after working on her work for more than 15 years. It is alive, ever open to new alphabets, new readings.

    All the best,


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