Reviewed by Joel Deshaye
Collected Poems. Breakwater, 2015.
Al Pittman’s career began in the countercultural 1960s when he adopted a tough stance against distant injustices such as war while perpetuating nearby injustices, notably sexism and racial stereotyping. He was not alone in this, of course. Although Pittman’s origins in Newfoundland might suggest remoteness, he was connected by reading and travel to the Montreal scene where Irving Layton presided, and yet he had moderated Layton’s early influence by the time of his final book, Thirty-for-Sixty (1999), where “My Daughters Write Poems” (347) and “For Kyran in Full Flight” (348) are apologetic and encouraging to his children: “I’ll be there with you, soaring somewhere / alongside—winging it all the way” (349).
Pittman’s first book, The Elusive Resurrection (1966), owed much to Layton’s lesser personas. In “Shades of Irving Layton,” the speaker claims that he always wanted to write a poem that includes the word “thighs” (37), thereby alluding to Layton’s poems “Misunderstanding” (1954) and “Success” (1964). If Linda Hutcheon’s oft-quoted definition of parody as repetition with a difference is correct, then Pittman was a parodist. But he was also indulging in an homage that can seem like naive and problematic imitation.
Where does a poet go after such an influence? This edition prompts comparison of revised and republished poems. In “The Stripper” (46, 70), Pittman implies that writing is sexual; “I roar with excitement” not because of the stripper, the speakers says, but because he “had just hit / upon an idea for a poem” (46). The same title appears two years later in Seaweed and Rosaries (1968). In this version, the speaker is with “twenty or so” other men whose eyes are metaphorically tied to the woman’s “golden nipples” (70). The poetic self-reflexivity and relative solitude of the 1966 “Stripper” is gone, replaced with a homosocial environment of many men whose gaze might leave them “blind men” if she tugs her invisible strings. The implied woman-as-spider metaphor gives her marginally more power, because a spider weaves a web, and weaving has long been a metaphor of writing—but in “The Feminist Movement” he compares women’s power to a cruel bowel movement (239).
In the two poems entitled “Boys at Baseball” (82, 204), ten years apart, the imagined woman is more innocent. In the 1968 version, the boys are caught up in an astronomical image of the baseball as the sun, which illuminates everything including the girls bicycling around the field who “would have their attention / reflect itself / in the mirror of their thighs” (82)—yes, thighs again. The boys ignore them because of the game, but Pittman suggests that they will soon be interested in them. In the 1978 version, the reflection on thighs is not the girls’ own narcissistic gaze but “the players’ athletic attention” (204). As with both “Stripper[s],” the gaze multiplies in the later version of “Boys at Baseball,” suggesting perhaps a multiplication of points of view that would later mean sensitivity. But the first “Boys” is better: it seems to be one year earlier in their lives, when their sex dreams were still in the future. This juvenile eros becomes needlessly obvious in the second version. Regardless, these two pairs offer some insight into which texts Pittman thought to be either dissatisfactory or worth reimagining, and both pairs are about sexual distance.
Perhaps such distance is one reason why Pittman was so interested in the genre of the Western: the boys and men of the frontier are hardly worldly, and women who are not merely dichotomized as virgins or whores are few and far between. In “Wanted—The Lone Ranger,” he imagines drafting the Lone Ranger to Vietnam (45). In “The Haunting,” Pittman’s speaker is “playing cowboys and indians” (97). In “Survival,” he identifies himself as “a savage” (101). Similarly, in “Butterfly Creek” he and a friend are again “pretending / to be indians” (107).
And he identifies strongly, too, with the last of the Beothuk, Shanadithit, who is the namesake of one of his longest poems. He recognizes that he has “[his] own images of you and they are / much too mixed up with technicolor movies / and my own boyish musings” (129); “my love for you has nothing / to do with you” (130). When he exhorts, “do not, do not, forgive those / who trespass against you” (131), I suspect that he wants instead not to forgive himself for not knowing any “indians” except through Westerns. He later matches the intensity of Shanadithit with “Notes to No One” (171-180), the ten-part prose poem that concludes Through One More Window (1974), but the fascination that he demonstrates toward Shanadithit is otherwise rare. He puts her in the company of Billy the Kid and Jesse James in “Jesse James Rides Forever” (216), but in “Ashes! Ashes! All Fall Down!” the passing comparison “of Jesse James / or Jesus Christ” (251) shows his usual gestural approach.
Although his poems can describe a generic West, and mainland cities such as Montreal and New York, Pittman writes most often about places and pastimes in Newfoundland. The list is long. He ends Thirty-for-Sixty with a brash, desperate, but very fine poem about “Newfoundland’s national pastime,” a card game with thirty-for-sixty as “the ultimate bid” (359). The speaker tells of his father’s deathbed advice to bet big and then says, “I’ve been going thirty-for-sixty / ... ever since” (359). This echo of his “winging it all the way” suggests paradoxically that his masculinism was prescribed by his role models but also dependent on luck and improvisation. Ultimately, prescription seems more accurate, and Pittman’s Collected Poems generally seems stuck in the prejudices of his own early career—even if it is a relevant document for anyone interested in men’s poetic influences and their relationships to place.
Joel Deshaye is an assistant professor at Memorial University. His articles and reviews have appeared in various Canadian and international journals. He is the author of The Metaphor of Celebrity: Canadian Poetry and the Public, 1955-1980 (2013).