An Alphabet of Poets – N is for Nowlen


Old mare whose eyes
are like cracked marbles,
drools blood in her mash,
shivers in her jute blanket .

My father hates weakness worse than hail;
in the morning
     without haste
he will shoot her in the ear, once,
shovel her under in the north pasture.

        leaving the stables,
he stands his lantern on an over-turned water pail,
      cursing her for a bad bargain,
and spreads his coat
over her sick shoulders.

from Alden Nowlen Selected Poems, Anansi Press, 1996

Alden Nowlen (1933-1983), a Nova Scotia native, was another of our finest Canadian poets who danced fast and hard and died far too soon. In this he was like his near-contemporary Gwendolyn MacEwan. By all accounts he was  a character.  One of his close friends laughs when he tells how vociferous Alden was about properly pronouncing his last name. It was Now-len not No-len. You needed to get it right to avoid incurring his wrath!

It is strange perhaps that this poet, his poems so rooted in the particular of the people and the place where he grew up and lived has struck a universal chord and has achieved a substantial recognition outside Canada. Early on he was championed by Robert Bly, no mean feat, who lauded  his bravery and the fear he allowed to stay “unconquered” in his poems.

And in 2009, David Whyte, the poet, non-fiction writer and charismatic public speaker featured a poem of Nowlen’s in his bestseller – The Three Marriages  – Reimagining Work, Self and Relationships. This poem, The Seasick Sailor, and Others, has a larger scope than some of Nowlen’s poems rooted in the particular of people and their place. The poem is, among other things, a literary puzzle. Can you guess the six major authors he refers to? Try and guess before you look for the answers. I will mention one author after the poem but will attach the names of the others at the end of the blog. Here’s the poem:

The Seasick Sailor, and Others

The awkward young sailor who is always seasick
Is the one who will write about ships.
The young man whose soldiery consists in the
Of candy and cigarettes to the front
Is the one who will write about the war.
The man who will never learn to drive a car
And keeps coming home to his mother
Is the one who will write about the road.

Stranger still, hardly anyone else will write
so well
About the sea or war or the road. And then there is
the woman
who has scarcely spoken to a man except her
and who works in a room no larger than a
she will write as well as anyone who has ever
about vast open spaces and the desires of
the flesh:
and that other woman who will live with her
rarely leave her village, she will excel
in portraying men and women in society:
and that woman, in some ways the most wonderful
them all,
who is afraid to go outdoors, who hides when
she will write great poems about the universe inside her.

Here is what Whyte says about the poem: Far from undermining the credibility of the authors, Alden Nowlen’s poem is an encouragement to all of us who look at what seems like an unbridgeable distance between our present lives and the work we want to accomplish. He adds: He is asking us, in effect, to have confidence and even faith in the particular form our own exiles take.

Surprise alert. Here is Whyte on the last author mentioned in the poem: Emily Dickenson’s refusal to leave home is an encouragement to all of us to make a universal life out of the particular, sometimes tiny, house we have chosen to call our own.

In their introduction to Nowlen’s Selected Poems, Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier wonderfully echo Whyte’s  comment on making a universal out of the particular when they describe Nowlen’s poems:

Nowlan’s  world is indeed made up of the local, but his neighbourhoods and streets are all settings for exploring a larger humanity. This is what makes Nowlan great. He has the power  to reveal our frailties and our loves, the smallness of our behavior and the largeness of our spirit.

As another indicator of Nowlen’s  reach, The Writers’ Almanac daily poem feature has included three of his poems during the past year or so. And I was surprised a few years ago at a workshop led by well-known poetry therapist, John Fox, to find that he featured a poem of Nowlen’s called  He Sits Down On The Floor Of A School For the Retarded. The poem is a knock out – an anecdotal poem that is deeply crafted, not just lineated prose. It creates the “issness” that the poet Pete Fairchild calls the distinguishing mark of the best poetry.

In the poem Nowlen tells the story of his awkwardness and discomfort when he visits a home for the handicapped especially when one of the  female residents snuggles up against him and asks him to hold her. Not sure if it is the right thing to do he holds her anyway. Here is the last part of the poem:

It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.

What mastery. Only the best poets can pull off a plain style “telling” such as in the first two stanzas. And he does it by adding the astonishing lyric leap in the last stanza. He goes from the universal “telling” back to the particular of him and the retarded woman, then adds the metaphors – brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son, husband and wife and then ups the metaphoric ante with this lyric leap:

We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.

Lane and Crozier say: It is the rare poet who can reach this far into his understanding of compassion and human need and speak of it so clearly. They also add that in  those last three lines Nowlen is not just talking about himself or the woman but anyone who reads his poems. We become the lovers, the couple by the fire two hundred thousand years ago.

To close, here is another of Nowlen’s signature poems and as he does so often and well the last lines come as an utter surprise.

 The Bull Moose

Down from the purple mist of trees on the mountain,
lurching through forests of white spruce and cedar,
stumbling through tamarack swamps,
came the bull moose
to be stopped at last by a pole-fenced pasture.

Too tired to turn or, perhaps, aware
there was no place left to go, he stood with the cattle.
They, scenting the musk of death, seeing his great head
like the ritual mask of a blood god, moved to the other end
of the field, and waited.

The neighbours heard of it, and by afternoon
cars lined the road. The children teased him
with alder switches and he gazed at them
like an old, tolerant collie. The woman asked
if he could have escaped from a Fair.

The oldest man in the parish remembered seeing
a gelded moose yoked with an ox for plowing.
The young men snickered and tried to pour beer
down his throat, while their girl friends took their pictures.

And the bull moose let them stroke his tick-ravaged flanks,
let them pry open his jaws with bottles, let a giggling girl
plant a little purple cap
of thistles on his head.

When the wardens came, everyone agreed it was a shame
to shoot anything so shaggy and cuddlesome.
He looked like the kind of pet
women put to bed with their sons.

So they held their fire. But just as the sun dropped in the river
the bull moose gathered his strength
like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns
so that even the wardens backed away as they raised their rifles.

When he roared, people ran to their cars. All the young men
leaned on their automobile horns as he toppled.

Here are the authors from The Seasick Sailor and Others: Herman Melville, Earnest Hemmingway, Jack Kerouak, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen and Emily Dickenson.


One Comment

  1. Posted April 19, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “… let a giggling girl
    plant a little purple cap
    of thistles on his head.”

    I hear a reference to another head and another crown.

    Richard, these poems by Nowlen bring me to tears, from the first to the last. Thank you.

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