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Al Purdy


The house where al purdy lived is on the block
You can find his widow, Eurithe, on the roof, caring for the Eastern Ontario cabin in which her husband morphed from tortured writer to poetic icon, and where fellow wordsmiths Laurence and Ondaatje once sought sanctuary. But at 84, Eurithe knows the writing's on the wall. Patrick White reports from Ameliasburgh, Ont., on the almost-certain demolition of a Canadian treasure

July 12, 2008

At midday in a summer haze, 84-year-old Eurithe Purdy is sweeping cedar boughs off her roof.

"Come on up," she says, when two visitors appear in the driveway. "The view is much better up here."

"Where's the ladder?"

"Oh, I just climb that," she says, pointing her broom at a 15-metre latticed-steel TV antenna climbing the south side of the house. "Don't worry: 200-pounders come up here all the time."

The visitors, both roughly a third the woman's age, scale gingerly.

Roblin Lake - a "backwater puddle of a lake," her late poet husband once wrote - soon shimmers into view. Cedars tower overhead. Willows rustle in the breeze. An asylum of birds chatter. It's no wonder Al Purdy called this little corner of Ontario's Prince Edward County his "tangential backyard universe."

When Purdy died in 2000, he was hailed as one of the greatest Canadian poets of the last century. He had written more than 40 books, won a trophy case of awards, circled the globe. In May, a larger-than-life bronze statue of him was erected in Toronto.

Despite the caviar receptions and gold accolades, he always returned to this jury-rigged little A-frame tacked to a low-slung, leaning bungalow. The whole edifice, he observed, "bent a little in the wind and dreamt of the trees it came from." Here, he could observe all his poetry's recurring themes: love, death, ego, "the glories of copulation."

"He was definitely his most productive here," says his widow.

But after a half-century as a sanctuary for birds, bugs and broke poets, the Purdy place may soon be demolished. In the coming months, Eurithe Purdy plans to put it up for sale. "It's become too much for me," she says.

Four months ago, she floated the idea of preserving the house as a writers' retreat with some literary friends. There was little interest.

A realtor just appraised it at $275,000, but she cringes at the thought of listing the place. "It will be a real wrench," she says.

"Whoever buys it," she adds, leaning on her broom, and staring out at the manicured lawns and vinyl-sided houses that have encroached on this forested lot in recent years, "I think they would change it beyond recognition, if they didn't tear it down."

There may still be time to save it. But any effort would take a great deal of cash and organization, says Don Oravec, executive director of the Writers' Trust of Canada, which runs Pierre Berton's childhood home in Dawson City, Yukon, as a retreat, and raised funds to purchase the Vancouver house where novelist Joy Kogawa grew up. "The trick is not just buying the house." Oravec says. "It's also creating an endowment to maintain the place.

"Certainly there are some philanthropists that really do revere Purdy's memory and his poetry," he added, referring specifically to Scott Griffin, who donated funds for the Purdy statue in Queen's Park.

Anyone familiar with Purdy's work would recognize the cottage's literary and historical significance. The Purdys bought the Ameliasburgh, Ont., property in 1957, desperate to escape Montreal, where, according to one poem, Purdy had failed at "poems plays prose and just being a human being." They dropped their last dollar on a down payment and moved "so far from anywhere / even homing pigeons lost their way / getting back home to nowhere."

The move soon paid off creatively, inspiring what is perhaps the most famous metamorphosis in Canadian literary history. Once a struggling writer of tortured romantic verse, Purdy and his work changed forever along the shores of Roblin Lake.

"It was really when they left Montreal and built that house that Al went into a kind of hibernation and came of age as a poet," says Purdy friend, poet and House of Anansi co-founder Dennis Lee, who first visited Ameliasburgh in the sixties to ink a book deal with Purdy.

Today Ameliasburgh - a two-hour drive east of Toronto - lacks a post office or grocery store, but does feature the Al Purdy Library, Purdy Lane and the poet's book-shaped gravestone bearing the inscription "This is where I came to / when my body left its body / and my spirit stayed / in its spirit home."

It is a village of allusions. Roadsides are crowded with vines the poet once reaped for garbage pails of fermented brew and a title for one of his books: Wild Grape Wine. Along the gravel road leading down to the lake, the world stopped turning one afternoon when the poet eyed "a young lady in summer attire / On her way to the rural mail box."

The home itself was the product of two months' worth of amateur carpentry and drunken squabbling between Purdy and fellow poet Milton Acorn.

After clambering down the antenna, Eurithe Purdy shows her visitors around the eclectic home: rows of sturdy bookshelves salvaged from a law office; used volumes of Virgil and Dostoevsky; a plaster bust of D.H. Lawrence; a discarded electric composting toilet; an adoring inscription, written in white ink, from poet and novelist Charles Bukowski ("For Al Purdy - who writes it down the way the sky lights up."); an Olympia typewriter; a backyard writing shack; a bed where Purdy used to lie and write.

"He would spend a long time on one elbow writing and writing," says Eurithe, taking a round of ground chuck from a plastic bag. She insists on frying hamburgers for her guests before they leave. She's a generous host, having practised on the procession of literary giants - Margaret Laurence, George Bowering and Earle Birney among them - who once filed through the door.

Michael Ondaatje, Tom Marshall and David Helwig hadn't published a single book between them when "Al and Eurithe simply invited us in," writes Ondaatje in the foreword to Purdy's collected works. "And why? Because we were poets! Not well-known writers or newspaper celebrities. ... These visits became essential to our lives. We weren't there for gossip, certainly not to discuss royalties and publishers. We were there to talk about poetry. Read poems aloud. Argue over them. Complain about prosody."

That role as literary salon has faded since Purdy's death. Eurithe Purdy now divides her time between her home in Sidney, B.C., and her son's in Belleville, Ont.

As her full-bellied visitors get ready to leave, she tosses her broom back on the roof and bounds up the antenna again. "Have to finish the job. I'm flying back to Sidney on Thursday."

Part of her, though, will never really leave her favourite perch, just as her husband never really left his. As if anticipating this moment, just before his death Purdy wrote, "On a green island in Ontario / I learned about being human / Built a house and found the woman / and we shall be there forever / building a house that is never finished."

For Al Purdy

Who writes it down the

Way the sky lights up

And the glass fills

In the electric light of

The bar, and the way the dogs walk; who

Writes it like Bacon frying, who

Writes it real; who

Makes the little nose-

Pickers angry. One of

The few very good

Poets since 1900.

Hail to you, baby!

Charles Bukowski June 6th., 1965 Los Angeles, CALIF