“A Rich Random Tapestry (Dennis Lee)” – Guest Poetry Blog Series # 20 – Part Two of Two – Canadian Poet Mary Ann Moore Features the Canadian Poet Bronwen Wallace (1945-1989)

The Collected Poems of Canadian poet Bronwen Wallace (1945-1989) published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020


It gets handed down
along with the china fruit bowl
and it’s a good story about
my great-grandmother
getting so angry with
her husband’s drinking that
she went right into the bar
one evening and ordered drinks
on the house my great-grandfather
so embarrassed he never went back
this being 1895 or so when
respectable women never went
to bars

That’s about it,
Not enough for a poem really
even with the fruit bowl
which is delicate and well-made
but both of them just kind of
sit there refuse to relinquish
the appropriate metaphors
And my mother can’t give me
much else only remembers
sitting with her in the evenings
her parents out somewhere
and the old woman’s hands too shaky
to light a lamp so my mother
would stick kindling in the stove
wave it flaring in the room
like a torch

her grandmother never saying a word
never warning her about fire
Something begins to emerge then
the shape of the old woman
the little flares of light falling
to a glow around her
the kitchen suddenly quiet as
the bar became when she entered
the triumphant flicker of a smile
beside her husband’s silence
on the dark walk home
Not much to build a poem on
shapes so delicate
like the china bowl filled with fruit
glowing in the centre
of my kitchen table

Bronwen Wallace, from Marrying into the Family, Oberon Press, 1980


Connecting is a poem from Bronwen Wallace’s Marrying into the Family  and, though difficult to choose just one, is an example of her conversational approach to poetry. I love her letting us in on the conversation with personal aspects of her family ancestry as well as the writing of her poem with her line: Not much to build a poem on.

Following her first stanza, the poet figured it wasn’t enough for a poem really / even with the fruit bowl but by her fourth stanza, although not much, the shape of the old woman is glowing, as well as the china bowl filled with fruit, and, as we can see, so is the poem.

The exquisite details of everyday objects and the people in Wallace’s life continued to be lifted to a luminescence in her poetry published in four collections before she died of cancer at the age of forty-four.

Fellow poet Dennis Lee’s obituary for Wallace published in the Globe and Mail on August 26, 1989 said of her style: It’s a loopy lopey canter through domestic vignettes, childhood memories, snatches of yarning and yack with women friends, plus alternate takes and digressions all hopscotching through lives and generations linked in a rich random tapestry . . .

Wallace described herself in a poem Sentimental Poem for My Mother:

a statistic of the sixties
marched to ban bombs    end wars
discovered Marx and Women’s Liberation
abortion  marijuana    brown rice
moved as far as I could
from the suburbs.

Sentimental is one of her “early poems” published in Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020, edited by Carolyn Smart) which also includes the text and wonder of Wallace’s five published collections of poetry (one of them posthumously.)

Kingston, Ontario was Wallace’s birthplace as well as the city where she attended Queen’s University to study English language and literature. She abandoned her doctoral studies when political activism was taking up most of her time.

She and her partner Ron Baxter travelled across Canada and settled in Windsor, Ontario in 1970. There Wallace founded a women’s bookstore and became active with union organizing and helping those fleeing the Vietnam War draft to find shelter and new identities. The couple’s son Jeremy was born in 1974.

Signs of the Former Tenant (Oberon Press, 1983) won the Pat Lowther Award. A favourite poem of many in that collection is A Simple Poem for Virginia Woolf  in which the poet sets out not to mention the countless gritty details/ of an ordinary woman’s life / that never appear in poems at all and does precisely that with dips and dives and personal revelations that most women will find themselves in.

Here’s a portion of it:

This started out as a simple poem
for Virginia Woolf
it wasn’t going to mention history
or choices or women’s lives
the complexities of women’s friendships
or the countless gritty details
of an ordinary woman’s life
that never appear in poems at all

yet even as I write these words
those ordinary details intervene
between the poem I meant to write
and this one where the delicate faces
of my children faces of friends
of women I have never even seen
glow on the blank pages
and deeper than any silence
press around me
waiting their turn

Bronwyn Wallace from A Simple Poem for Virginia Woolf from Signs of the Former Tenant, Oberon Press, 1983

Wallace admired the poetry of Philip Levine and the stories of Alice Munro. She felt most at home in Eastern Ontario, where her parents’ families had lived for over 150 years, and moved back to Kingston where, in the mid-eighties, she became a counselor for Kingston Interval House.

I remember going to Kingston in the Fall of 1983 for a weekend meeting of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres. I was a rape crisis centre volunteer at the time (in another city) and may have unknowingly crossed paths with Bronwen Wallace, a poet I came to greatly respect.

Intervals in The Stubborn Particulars of Grace (1987) includes a section, Interval House, referring to Wallace’s work as a counselor for women and children. It begins: This is for Ruth, / brought in by the police / from Hotel Dieu emergency / eyes swollen shut, broken jaw wired / and eighteen stitches closing one ear.

The poem was used as “evidence” by Crown attorney Jennifer Ferguson in 2017 in the conviction of Robert Francis for the long-term abuse of his common-law wife [the subject of the poem] of forty-five years. (Poetic Justice by Anita Lahey, The Walrus, May 2020).

Keep That Candle Burning Bright and Other Poems (Coach House Press, 1991) was published posthumously. In it are prose poems inspired by country-music singer Emmylou Harris and “scientific facts” Wallace gleaned from the tabloids.

In a talk Wallace gave for the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets AGM in 1987, she described the writing of her poetry as women’s stories, women’s conversations which she would recreate on the page. She would listen to the voice that told the stories and found it becomes the voice I have heard in so many women’s conversations, a voice that explores both the events in the story itself, and something else that lies within those events . . . What I hear in ‘ordinary conversation’ is that moment that goes on among us when we feel safe enough or confident enough or loved enough to explore the power within us.

Bronwen Wallace also wrote short stories, essays, correspondence (with Erin Mouré for instance, published as Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-1987, 1993 and directed two documentaries with her life partner Chris Whynot in 1982 and 1984.

Her memory lives on with her poetry and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers founded by her friends and the Writers’ Trust of Canada. In 2021, the age restriction (under thirty-five) was lifted and the annual prize is given to two Emerging Writers in poetry and short fiction, who are unpublished in book form.

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