Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish
Richard Outram (ed. Amanda Jernigan).
The Essential Richard Outram. Porcupine’s Quill, 2011.
Richard Outram was not a name I had heard (despite his strong connection to the University-of-Toronto-based modernist poets about whom I typically write) until a few years ago when I met the editor of The Essential Richard Outram at a conference. Jernigan and I connected over belonging to a very small group of scholars interested in Canadian mythopoeic modernism and its inheritors, a circumstance that left me unsurprised that I hadn’t heard of Outram before meeting her. I was all the more curious to read her edition of his work.
Outram’s prodigious poetic output is in contrast to his relative obscurity; he authored more than twenty books of verse over his forty-five year career (which ended with his suicide in 2005), most of which are represented in The Essential Richard Outram. Picking poems to include in a selected volume always requires difficult choices, and Jernigan suggests that “To select from among … Outram’s hundreds of poems some ‘essential’ few, to sever these from their companions, and to present them here, seems almost an act of violence” (7). Given that Outram is “pre-eminently concerned with sequence” and “with the capacity of poems in sequence to present a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts” (7), the removal of poems from their original context does leave visible wounds. As a remedy to this textual “violence,” Jernigan works to create a new sequence out of the poems she selects for inclusion in the volume, an attempt that is mostly successful. Jernigan looks to “Story,” the volume’s opener, to describe the new narrative she attempts to create:
Let us begin with death…
That for what it is worth,
We may all thereby
End with birth. (11)
As Jernigan notes, “I wanted to give a sense of the way in which Outram wrote from endings to beginnings … conflat[ing] , even confound[ing], the two” (7-8). “Only a green landlubber figures,” Outram’s Vince argues, “that he can tell a beginning from an end” (22), and the futility of trying is demonstrated in “Adam in the Very Act of Love” (11), where it is impossible to tell “Just whether [Adam is] breaking/ In or out” (11) of Eden. Outram’s Adam is close kin to Jay Macpherson’s, and his early poems are clearly written in conversation with her The Boatman (1957). Macpherson and Outram’s conversation continues in “Epitaph for an Angler” (13) where fisherman and his catch are confounded in the figure of Macpherson’s Boatman.
The frayed edges where poems have been torn from cloth of their collections are particularly visible as the volume moves beyond Outram’s early work and into his later narrative sequences: Hiram and Jenny (20-6), Mogul Recollected (27-9), Benedict Abroad (30-4), and Miss Cassie (46-50). With no indication provided in the main text of where poems originated—this information is provided only in the table of contents—the reader is abruptly and repeatedly shifted into the midst of a new narrative sequence peopled with a distinct set of characters: the banjoist Hiram and his lady Jenny, then Mogul the elephant and Percy his hapless handler, the players Benedict, Portland, and Amanda, and the prophetess Miss Cassie. In one way, however, this repeated disorientation is entirely appropriate, as Outram’s speciality is disguising the mythical within the mundane, effecting the shocking but subtle swerve that displaces the reader from everyday reality. In “Hiram’s Rope,” Vince shows Hiram how to tie “the lover’s knot; the one no mortal can tie or untie ever” (22), leaving readers to wonder, as Hiram does not, just what kind of immortal Vince is. In “Rogue Legend,” the galloping rhythm of the poem seems headed toward a conclusion in which the Major wins the day—and yet it is Mogul the elephant who triumphantly proclaims that “The ways of Man…//and God and elephant incensed/will never coincide!” (28). In “Miss Cassie in Bed,” it is the Angel of Death, and not the mortal, who will regret the pact she has made (50).
Perhaps the most powerful irruptions of the miraculous into the mundane happen in Outram’s poems about the everyday nothings of real life, a life lived with his collaborator and wife, the artist Barbara Howard. Outram once stated in an interview that “nothing much has ever happened to me, except absolutely monumental and wonderful things in terms of language and thought and reflection, and my true loves” (62). Outram’s typical short lines and simple language—the language of a life in which nothing much, and yet everything, happens—make the pain and longing of “Torture” (54), “Farewell” (55), and “Midsummer Lovers” (56) felt all the more strongly. In the poems written after Howard’s death, Outram’s speaker clings to “Bright death” as his “first Hope” (55) to regain the monumental love he has lost. And as the volume begins in death, it ends in birth—the end of life as rebirth into communion with those who have gone before, the chance to “see the cycle through,/ then, in good time pass,/ desirous, after you” (58).
Designed to encapsulate the essential works of a single poet, the constraints of Porcupine’s Quill’s “Essential Poets” series are felt beyond the limitations of the volume’s poetic contents. The series’ cover designs are lacklustre and particularly unsuitable for Outram, whose work should rightly be prefaced by one of Howard’s innumerable and powerful images. While much of Outram’s later poetry was written in collaboration with Howard, and many poems—especially those in Miss Cassie—have an integral visual component, only the simplest of engravings are reprinted in the volume (with the exception of the dynamic “Salamander” ), and most of these image pairings are omitted. Readers must visit the Gauntlet Press digital collection in order to see the poems as they should be seen. But while the design and structure of The Essential Richard Outram are problematic and occasionally disappointing, the volume achieves precisely what it aims to as an introduction to Outram’s work: it lights up the contours of Outram’s vision, his verse style, and his voice, and it whets the appetite for more. Outram might be one of Canada’s lesser known poets, but his ludic, mythic, and heartbreaking work is essential reading.
At press time: Melissa Dalgleish is the Research Officer in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and a doctoral candidate in English at York University. Her research focuses on Jay Macpherson’s modernist work and the mythopoeic turn Canadian poetry takes in the 1950s, as well as graduate training and reform. She is also a founding editor of Pivot: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies and Thought and an Editing Modernism in Canada graduate fellow.
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