Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish
Anne Wilkinson (ed. Ingrid Ruthig)
The Essential Anne Wilkinson. Porcupine’s Quill, 2014.
I’ve been reading Anne Wilkinson’s writing—poetry and prose, published and unpublished—devotedly for nearly a decade. She was the subject of my M.A. thesis and of my current research into the larger group of mythopoeic mid-century Canadian modernists to which she belonged. To review The Essential Anne Wilkinson is therefore a difficult task, because my default position is that all of Wilkinson is essential. How could anyone not wish to gather and hoard all of Wilkinson’s jewel-bright poems like Smaug with his gold? How could I not judge an editor (harshly, I fear) on her decisions about what to include or reject? But I am nonetheless impressed with The Essential Anne Wilkinson. Working within the limitations of the Porcupine’s Quill Essential Poets format, Ingrid Ruthig has succeeded in ways that few of Wilkinson’s previous editors have: she has selected the best of Wilkinson while representing the full scope and sweep of her poetic achievements.
Like all of the volumes in Porcupine’s Quill’s Essential Poets series, Ruthig’s volume sandwiches the poems—twenty-five, in this case—between a short foreword and concluding biographical sketch. Like much Wilkinson criticism, Ruthig’s foreword situates Wilkinson’s work first within the context of her notable family, the Oslers, but effectively (if secondarily) places it within the context of Wilkinson’s personality and approach to art, as well as within the wider social and historical contexts in which her poetry grew. Also like many other critics, Ruthig suggests that Wilkinson was an outsider in the Canadian poetry scene—noting that “Canadian poets were few and far between” (7) when Wilkinson started writing and that “she was not a graduate of a university where professorial luminaries like Northrop Frye held court, and she did not belong to any particular established literary group such as the Montreal Group of modernists” (7-8). Although Wilkinson began writing later in life and her career was short, she was by no means isolated from the wider currents of Canadian literature; the fifteen years during which she was most prolific were also the period in which she formed close relationships with many of Canada’s major modernist poets and editors (including P.K. Page, Alan Crawley, F.R. Scott, and A.J.M. Smith, among many others) and she was also an active supporter of the little magazines Here & Now and Tamarack Review. Ruthig could have done more to situate Wilkinson in the context of Canadian post-war poetics and to acknowledge the connections between her work and that of her contemporaries—especially P.K. Page, Jay Macpherson, Wilfred Watson, and Douglas LePan.
Ruthig does distinguish herself in important ways from earlier editors of Wilkinson’s work. The poet’s first (posthumous) editor and former partner, A.J.M. Smith, made debatable editorial choices—as a grieving lover, he chose to foreground her more sensual and macabre poetry at the expense of her mythic, metaphysical, and political verse—in The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson and a Prose Memoir (1968) that guided Wilkinson scholarship for decades; Douglas Barbour’s "Day Thoughts on Anne Wilkinson's Poetry" is a perfect example of his influence. In contrast, Ruthig’s sense of Wilkinson’s person or praxis does not lead to an overemphasis on any particular aspect of Wilkinson’s varied poetic praxis. Rather, she astutely identifies those characteristics that make Wilkinson’s work both distinctive and quintessentially of her time: “the voice, wit, ear, language, sensibility, preoccupations, craft, and poetic range that fuse to identify the work as her own” (10), and the “toughness and honesty” that “surface, alongside the elemental and universal, the mythopoetic, metaphoric, and metaphysical” (10). Ruthig’s selection of poems is clearly intended to showcase Wilkinson’s full range.
Ruthig includes poems from across Wilkinson’s oeuvre, published and unpublished, including those contained in Dean Irvine’s Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson (2003). The poems and concerns for which Wilkinson is best known are amply represented. Elemental, nature-obsessed poems—rife with the red-green images and acts of transformation into the natural world that so dominate Wilkinson’s work—include “Theme and Variation” (14), “In June and Gentle Oven” (25), “Variations on a Theme” (47) and “The Red and the Green” (27). Just one of Wilkinson’s many metamorphoses concludes the last, when “My new green arteries//Fly streamers from the maypole of my arms,/From head to toe/My blood sings green,/From every heart a green amnesia sings” (27). Other transformations—key to Wilkinson’s personal mythology—are represented in the Empedocles-influenced “I was born a boy…” (21), the Jungian “Poem in Three Parts” (35), and the lament, “Nature be Damned” (40), she writes after the death of her mother. Recognizing, I suspect, how much Wilkinson has to teach readers about the challenges of being a woman and an artist, Ruthig includes “Lens” (23), “Untitled” (50), and “Letter to My Children” (51). These are some of Wilkinson’s most important poems about gender, motherhood, and art: they showcase speakers who, like their creator, struggle to reconcile the demands of family and art during an era when motherhood, not art, was assumed to be every woman’s highest calling. It is especially noteworthy that Ruthig chose to include the full version of “Letter to My Children,” rather than reusing the needlessly abridged version that earlier male editors privileged. What better expression is there of the tension between gender and poetic vocation than “My woman’s eye is weak/And veiled with milk; My working eye is muscled/With a curious tension,/Stretched and open/As the eyes of children” (23)? While these socially sensitive poems are vital inclusions, Ruthig did not reproduce many of Wilkinson’s political poems, which is a noticeable absence and a part of her poetic that has long been ignored. To her credit, Ruthig includes “Notes on Suburbia” (57), a poem that according to the editor, “flare[s] with political and social satire” (9), but it would have been useful to include one of Wilkinson’s Cold-War poems; “Fallout” or “Split Atoms” would have been valuable additions.
The strength of The Essential Anne Wilkinson is its editor’s ability to distil the best examples of Wilkinson’s ludic humour, polished lines, intimate voice, wide-ranging allusion, and ability without sacrificing the reader’s immersion into a mythic, green world that is both rich and strange. Ruthig’s collection is an excellent introduction to the work of a gifted and often forgotten poet, and the fresh take on Wilkinson will, I hope, bring this poet to a wider audience.
Melissa Dalgleish is the Program Coordinator for the Research Training Centre at The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute and a PhD candidate in English at York University. She co-edits the #Alt-Academy project Graduate Training in the 21st Century, which focuses on the changing nature of graduate education, and writes for the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye. She primarily researches and writes about the myth-obsessed poets and theorists whose work dominated Canadian literature in the 1950s and 60s.
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