Incandescent Poems

A Review by Sharon H. Nelson

This review appeared in Matrix, 1991.

Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie

Edited and translated by Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder

Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1990. pp. 172.

Unfinished Dreams has achieved remarkable success for an anthology of translations; a volume containing the French originals of the translated poems was published in response (Rêves inachevés, Les Éditions d'Acadie, Moncton). Editorial acumen is only part of Cogswell and Elder's success; the poems in Unfinished Dreams sing off the page. The book is worth its price for the beauty of some of its lines. Raoul Boudreau's introduction, "Poetry as Action", and the Translators' Preface frame the poems usefully and gracefully. Paul Édouard Bourque's "Deux oiseaux survolant un paysage" is used to notable effect for the cover. My only quibble with this collection is the disproportionate number (two-thirds) of male voices and poems (74%) by male poets chosen by the translator-editors, who confess they selected the poems that yielded to their own process.

For those unfamiliar with the voices of Acadian poets or the geography of Acadie, Cogswell and Elder provide a wonderful document, the sort of travelogue that inspires readers to make actual journeys to physical locations. Though we are not likely to find Acadie on a map, it exists in these poems which evoke it with a wealth of images, as in Jeannine Landry-Thériault's "Earlier Seasons".

White Easter shoes were brought down from the attic,
yawning, in their cardboard boxes . . . The poplars and
the cherry trees green at last . . . Coupling on the
yellow grass reserved for woolly caterpillars, future
innocent butterflies . . .
Azure sea, August 15 matins; ancestral turquoises;
washed-out colours of a restored flag.

The forcefulness of these poems grows from the blending in imagery of the mythic and the actual. The poets' spiritual journey is made concrete and communicable by homely details that enable the reader to follow the poets into myth-making and spiritual quest. Even when the ship of imagination sails far, as it often does, there is still a strong, umbilical attachment to "the terrestrial harbour of our maritime homeland." (Léonard Forest, "Former Seasons")

wasn't it always the saturday before easter that
    the ice broke up in the bay.
wasn't it always at three o'clock on the friday
    of jesus christ
that a soft sadness lit up our feelings
    of complicity.
wasn't it always the daylight of that glorious
    sunday,
at the hour of innocent vespers,
that a new vigour sounded the celebration in the
    back-country,
the terrestrial harbour of our maritime homeland.

Or as Huegette Légaré puts it in "Beside the Hotel", "We shall always hear love with some difficulty because/the ears of the wind are full of salt".

Regionalism as a critical perspective often obscures - or conflates - more than it illuminates. In the poems of Acadie we get a sense of what regionalism might mean. (Boudreau warns us that however regional the poetry of Acadie, "it is no longer regionalist.") We are shown not only an emotional attachment to the physical objects in a landscape but images and metaphors that arise from it, as in Herménégilde Chiasson's "Red".

Acadie, my too beautiful desecrated love, you whom I
will never take into white sheets, the sheets that you
have torn to make white flags like the fields of snow
that you have sold like your old fence posts, your old
barns, your old legends, your old dreams, white as an
old wedding dress in an old cedar chest. . . .

Chiasson's poem, like a number in this collection, rises in waves through economics and politics ("who speaks on credit to say things one must pay in cash"), and religion ("church steeples that are stretched too thin, filled with/saints up to a heaven that is too far away") and returns to a grounding in imagery that combines political aspirations with, in Boudreau's words, "the simultaneous creation of an image and its linguistic expression."

The poets in this collection struggle to define Acadie. That definition encompasses the real spaces and places of a physical territory familiar to them and the spaces and places of a mythical territory they delineate and make present. Their struggle, as Boudreau points out, and as many of the poems collected here show, is one of "visceral patriotism". The nationalism of these Acadian poets relates more closely to the particulars of a particular land, and a particular sea, than to the particulars of a conceptualized nation-state. Calixte Duguay's "To Have A Homeland", for instance, begins with a nationalist, overtly political statement in its first stanza but moves, in the second and thereafter, to the physical realities and images of the region. "To have your eyes wide open/As if to catch the messages/Of its trees and flowers/Of air fire salt and water". The poem turns again, politically, to language: "to call out to your Acadian woman/Because you want her to love/The words of an archaic speech/Brought up to date/For the staging of a new kind of play", and returns to the particulars of place and human habitation, "the hands of a Cap-Pelé fisherman. . .the green water of the Restigouche/That is what is meant by having a homeland".

Many of the poems address Acadie and Acadian experience with a rootedness seldom displayed in Canadian writing. Images and metaphors are used not as slick literary devices but to share experience and to speak a language of shared experience. The act of making poems is integrated into the mise en scène of familiar, loved objects, as if that act too were a physical object, a landmark. Gérald Leblanc's "acadielove" exemplifies the grounding of political aspiration in poetic imagery and in the act itself of making the poem.

i love you
and Bouctouche awakes in me
with my father's speech
(my country is a chain of villages
or a drunken jig or a clothesline)
i love you
in the dawn of images to be born
in a poem
at the bootlegger's
to the rhythms of a mad violin
on the road to Tracadie
in a field of clover
in the dirty streets of Moncton
you are there
and my roots are singing

Leblanc's "January Stillness" gives us the key to many of the poems, and perhaps to the experience of Acadie, which, at least as drawn in this collection, combines the quest for poetic voice and the quest for community as if human experience exists only as it achieves vocalization. "to speak of love. that is to come back to words once/again. parlez-moi d'amour like the song. once upon a/time like in the stories. . . . it is a story of here, a story with a local flavour,/a sense of place."

Wherever these poems turn, they circle back eventually to the language of poetry as a constructive, cultural device. For instance, the lament that ends Ulysse Landry's "Screaming Against Tomorrow's Silence", "misery/how cold am I from all this stillness/misery/how hard it is/to learn to talk out loud" is answered by Henri-Dominique Paratte in "I Read Poetry".

I read poetry beyond words, I read poetry in the wind from
Evangeline Beach that comes to whip our faces when
our steps are marked in sand, . . . I read poetry
which belongs to no one, no more to us than to others,
poetry which leaks, like sand through our fingers, like
light through our eyes, . . .I read poetry in the warmth of
the world when the apple trees in the valley are in the
midst of bursting into enormous snow-flowers.

In Unfinished Dreams we are shown the lineaments of a loved place and one we may enter in a journey of imagination that admits no borders. The creation and publication of this collection of powerful and incandescent poems is a significant event. It provides a demonstration of the meaning in and for a culture of "poetry as action". Raymond Guy LeBlanc speaks for many of the poets in this collection in the final lines of "Land-Cry". "And every word abolishes the hard lie/The shameful caverns of our silence".

Sharon H. Nelson. 15 March 1999.