Love’s Remains

Canada’s poets have left a rich epistolary trail.

W here the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets, an anthology edited by David Eso and Jeanette Lynes, is more than 400 pages in length. As such it is a hefty collection, a representative and inclusive collection of letters to, for, about and against the absent beloved. It is also, in the best sense of the words, a hybrid monster: an anthology of romantic epistolary narratives by Canadian poets. So many genres are annexed in this classification that it is clear that Eso and Lynes are less interested in cross-referencing a stable body of chronologically accurate amatory narratives than they are in producing a quirky, imaginative history of the desires and devices by which Canadian poetic lovers express passion, discontent, jubilance, mournfulness, ecstasy, penitence—in effect all the varieties of love, what Ivan E. Coyote calls that “tricky bastard.”

Indeed, when the editors attempt to define their collection, they fall comically and perhaps consciously short of their stated aims. These are letters but they are also telegrams, text messages, doodles, collaborative dialogues, emails and love poems. Eso coins the term “epistolary love poem” to describe the latter, a category of poetry that he claims as the purview of the letter since both poems and letters arrange themselves around the haphazard, dire and overdetermined amatory subject. As well, some liberty is taken with the term “poets” because the contributors include fiction writers, a visual artist (Roy Kiyooka), a revolutionary leader (Louis Riel) and a scholar (George Woodcock) among other writers and thinkers not known primarily as poets. The subject of love, it seems, is too wayward and unruly to fit within traditional constraints, and Eso and Lynes wisely allow their collection to buckle and bulge with charming incongruities.

At the same time, Where the Nights is arranged according to a stated set of aesthetic and organizational criteria. One of the joys of reading this book is the discovery that the letters are arranged according to the poets’ ages at the time of writing rather than by way of a historical timeline. Biographical rather than strictly chronological, the sections are arranged by decade from “Poets in Their Teens and Twenties” to “Poets in Their Sixties, Seventies and Beyond.” Beginning with the love letter of an exuberant, voluble 16-year-old Malcolm Lowry, the collection ends with a tender yet sober poem by George Woodcock at 80 years old. The experience is the opposite of listening to a nostalgic radio station—we are not reading the decade but rather experiencing a poetic chronology of age where a particular writer’s romantic persona may be traced at different times, with various partners and in diverse moods. I love that the editors have elected to challenge the historical imperative of time and chronology that is so much the norm when organizing an anthology. Such a disruptive approach asks a necessary question: if age and time and manners are the variables in a particular amorous equation, then what is stable? Love, it would seem, that tricky bastard, or at least the collective weight of love’s longing for its own reflection.

The lovers in Where the Nights know that love is an outrageous, seductive myth, an elusive if radiant absence. Indeed, an anthology of love letters is itself a conundrum of this captivating play of absence and presence: the materiality of the letters, the volume we hold in our hands, has come into existence precisely because the lover is absent, missing, evasive. The second person “you,” so ubiquitous in these poems and letters, is the universal honorific of the absent beloved. “I’m reaching for you in these words, and I’m reaching for words, too,” writes Richard Harrison. While Harrison is searching for both the “you” and the words to woo her, other writers such as P.K. Page are seduced by the voluptuous, self-annihilating experience of amorous love that is available precisely because the lover is absent: “There is nothing in the world I want at the moment but the all-clamouring, ever-present want,” she writes.

Despite this construction of love as wholly unreachable, slightly illusory and inclined to disappear when observed, the letter is a material artifact, one that the reader is confronted with at every turn. These letters are beguiling physical objects and they exist in a realm that vexes the animate world. Bliss Carman teases that he must hide his ink bottle, P.K. Page writes of watching her letters disappear “into the maw of the letter box,” and Raymond Knister describes waiting impatiently for the mailman to deliver his beloved’s letter by way of two horses and a buggy. Red ink is sexy, observes Irving Layton, while Miriam Waddington describes her feverish typing, and Ian Ferrier presses a keyboard and imagines his message “fly[ing] three thousand miles.” If love is ineffable, indescribable, impossible to capture in mere language, at least these letters are, in theory, real, material, tangible.

Part of the appeal of Eso’s and Lynes’s anthology is that the lover’s discourse is revealed as tricky and duplicitous. At once mythic and collective, it is also intimate and particular, directed not to an imaginary world of readers and writers but to a certain somebody, an often unnamed but nevertheless profoundly known beloved. The declarative words, the repeated, pervasive “I love you,” what Malcolm Lowry calls, “a word in eight letters beginning with I and ending with u,” is disseminated over the decades and pages and particulars of this collection to examine love in all its multiple and radiant forms. At the same time, since these are apparently private letters sent to and from public figures, the reader becomes a participant, even a voyeur, an onlooker upon the field of Canadian writing, politics, history and personality. Some of my favourite correspondence occurs within the broadsheet of the CanLit canon. Nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn MacEwen writes with punctilious yet dramatic flair about her reluctance to marry Milton Acorn, and Acorn’s bereft, painstaking responses are interspersed throughout the book. At 27, P.K. Page writes incandescent, passionate letters to F.R. Scott expressing her conviction that nothing “mammother” than their love affair can ever happen to her. The mournful, humorous correspondence between an incarcerated Stephen Reid and poet Susan Musgrave is especially poignant, as are the letters of Miriam Waddington who, in her correspondence with Allan Donaldson, refers to herself as a flawed and monstrous creature. And, of course, nothing is more entertaining than the towering hubris of Irving Layton whose love letters, while ostensibly addressed to his lover, remain focused on the absorbing spectacle of his own art: “What magnificent poems I’ve written these past few weeks. Incredible, even to me who knew what powers lay within me.”

At what point did these writers and poets, one wonders, make the decision to display their private correspondence, to open their personal wounds and wonders to a wider readership? In a graduate course—on constructions of love in fiction—I remember my professor, Robert Kroetsch, talking about extreme self-consciousness, the moment when one takes a carbon copy of one’s own correspondence. This archival moment, the abrupt shift from lover to writer, is fascinatingly preserved in this collection, most especially by way of a subgenre; the responsive letters written as a romantic exercise between lovers. This category includes the abstract text messages between C. Isa Lausas and Tyson John Atkings as they cross Saskatoon, the highly wrought email exchange between Elizabeth Rainer and Michael Blouin, and the collaborative poem sequence, “Subject to Change,” authored by Betsy Warland and Daphne Marlatt. These are not single letters saved by a reluctant lover or rescued from the archives but rather constitute a performative poetics of call and response.

The anxiety that the outer world is encroaching on the short circuit of love presides over these letters and poems. In her poem “And In Our Time,” 27-year-old Phyllis Webb writes movingly about the futility of love in a fallen world: “Oh my darling, tell me, what can love mean in such a world, / and what can we or any lovers hold in this immensity / of hate and broken things?” Other poets are more explicit about the seething quotidian world that crowds at the margins of their love letters. Dorothy Livesay, writing to her lover Duncan Macnair, complains of the weather, about the fact that it has “rained old bones all weekend,” 20-year-old Robert Kroetsch discusses the books he is reading (The Unknown Country by Hutchison and MacLennan’s Two Solitudes), while Roy Kiyooka’s eloquent descriptions of his artistic practice, his aesthetic choices, are punctuated by the chaos of trying to shop during “Bay Days.” Earle Birney gossips about Al Purdy, Irving Layton speculates about Leonard Cohen’s love life and Peter Trower’s trippy correspondence details the hip scene and drug culture of spring 1966, including musings upon fellow poets Bill Bissett and John Newlove.

Of course, Louis Riel’s 1885 letters home to his wife refer to the somewhat pressing exigencies of his life beyond the marital bed, as do Stephen Reid’s rather more humorous accounts of his life in a state penitentiary: “Why is it that every time someone gets killed they take all my extra underwear?” Relatively few poets write in any detail about poetry, which is disappointing. One exception is Shane Neilson whose Valentine’s letter to his wife includes a painstaking critique of love poetry, “Even if the happy ending doesn’t work out in real life, I want these poems to document what I intended. This is how I cherish you!” But, perhaps the most brazen of the writers whose letters encroach upon a world beyond the lovers is John Glassco who, in his letters to Elma Koolmer written while he was in Royal Edward Laurentian Hospital, includes a spirited and shameless account of his seduction of one of the nurses: “There’s something that’s been on my conscience for the last week. I know you won’t really mind, but on the last night of the [nurse’s] period of duty up here or whatever they call it, she came in at 9 o’clock and bared her virgin heart. That would have been allright (sic), but the fact is things didn’t stop there. God forgive me, she was a virgin and she isn’t anymore.”

Many of these accounts are so full of the dictates of the heart and the edicts of the world—whether these digressions are political, cultural, aesthetic or atmospheric—that the reader is startled when the letter ends. What happens to the lovers after the letters have been sent, received, returned to sender, opened or ignored? What, for example, did Mary Fanton do after receiving Charles G.D. Roberts’s remarkably dignified letter conceding the field after he finds out that she has always loved his brother, Will? “Do you want to give us another chance?” asks Myna Wallin, but the absorbed reader unlike, presumably, the lover, never receives a reply. The contributors’ notes, while informative about the poet’s oeuvre, remain stubbornly silent on the matter of their autobiographies. At first I found this frustrating—what, for example, incited Robert Service to beg forgiveness of Constance MacLean while expecting “excommunication” and what circumstances—tragic or banal—elicited Malcolm Lowry’s abject and repeated apologies to his wife, Margerie Bonner Lowry? Yet I soon came to enjoy the letters as their own raison d’être, cut off from considerations of history and circumstance, and creating the imaginative possibility of a narrative that moves off the page, and so continues to live in the reader’s mind.

Where the Nights Are Twice as Long offers an intriguing, witty and often quirky view of Canadian lovers, writing lovers and amorous poets. It is also excessively long, and I wondered if the editors might have better controlled the length by not creating the category of epistolary poems. In his introductory preface, David Eso explains that the poems were initially included to redress a gender imbalance (apparently more men write love letters, or perhaps are willing to publish them, than women). Although this is a laudatory aim, the two genres—love letters and love poems—are simply not the same creature. While including poetry in an epistolary collection implies that the editors are fully aware of the performativity of letter writing, it also confuses the already hopelessly blurred boundaries between public and private writing.

At the same time, I would have been sorry to miss the opportunity to reread favourite poems by Lorna Crozier, rob mclennan, Phyllis Webb, Steven Heighton, Barry Dempster and Anne Szumigalski. It seems that the poetic, amorous discourse that overflows this twice-as-long night is seductive enough to overcome even this gentle criticism.