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Al Purdy

We've Lost One of Our Greatest Voices

When poets die, a silence settles on the world.

Al Purdy wouldn't have agreed with me. Silence was something he abhorred. His was a large voice much like the man he was, tall, gangly, seemingly awkward, but with a grace that carried through from his hands and eyes into his poems. He wanted poems that had "all the big wild emotions/that ramp and roar in the bloodstream."

He wrote of farmers, loggers and lumberjacks, drinkers and carousers, people big as the life he lived and he wrote those people into our country. He was our poet. The stone-riddled farms of Ontario were as close to him as the tundra of Pangnirtung and the rain forests of Haida Gwaii. He named us and turned our people and our land into poetry. His poems are muscular, many of them long and seemingly awkward and discursive with their many allusions to history and geography and literature, but they all have the binding thread of lady's insight as he pulls words into our understanding.

But today I don't want to think just of that. I loved Al Purdy. I loved the man. I first met him in The Cecil Hotel Bar in Vancouver in 1966 when I was a young poet. He tolerated me with humour. We drank, shouted and argued poetry for hours. When Last Call came we filled our pockets with bottles of beer and went to John Newlove's house to wake him up. The three of us argued till dawn, telling stories, disagreeing about Auden and Pound, Yeats and Williams, Lawrence and Donne. For the next 35 years Al and I crossed paths. Lorna Crozier and I drank coffee in his room heated by an electric frying pan where recently he'd fried his breakfast. I was chased through a blizzard by him in Winnipeg because I had the last two beers and we got mad at each other in Ameliasburgh, his home at Roblin Lake in Eastern Ontario, but always I turned around for his friendship and his poetry. "To see everything and to realize the best and worst/of everything/is to love and not forget," is what he said in a poem, and I won't forget him.

Al travelled the world and raked it clean with poems about Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, blue-footed boobies and Eskimo huskies. But if I had to choose, I'd choose the love poems, so many of them about Eurithe, his wife of more than a half-century. He showed such strength and tenderness. As he said, we rest "in our rumpled beds/like small untidy coffins/drifting among the cold lights in the sky/as if we had ways known/where we were going/ Reach out your hand my love."

The day before he died, I went into his bedroom where he lay propped on a pillow reading The Globe and Mail. He couldn't speak more than a few words, but his eyes were as clear as ever. He wanted to show me something but had no words to name it. It was the last time we saw each other, Eurithe sitting there on the foot of the bed and Al reaching out for help, for her to name what he couldn't name that day. There were so many things he showed me: a love for this country, the greatness and the frailty of poetry, the need to pay attention to the things of this earth, the Arctic rhododendrons that "are small purple surprises/in the river's white racket," an ivory swan carved by the last Dorset - "after 600 years/the ivory thought/is still warm."

We've lost our greatest poet. That is a huge thing in a huge country.

His life covered the century from the First World War to the millennium. In a poem about the death of Milton Acorn, he said, "My friends die off one by one." Later in the poem he said, "I noticed someone moving in the shadows/ coming toward me at a great pace/and they cried out as I had done/'Wait for me ...'" He spoke once about what it was like to get older. He said the hardest part is that all your friends die and there is no one left who was there when the story happened, no one to share the memory with. There are days when I feel the same.

In 1966 he was a hero, in 2000 he was a friend. I will miss his rough voice, his leaning into me as he talked, his fierce quietude. I will miss him. Al wrote of his grandfather, "who spent some time on Olympus/and took no shit from the gods." Al Purdy won't either. If there's a heaven and a hell, Al has a foot in both camps as he argues first with God and then with the Devil. I think I know who's winning the argument or, if not winning, at least breaking even in eternity.

-Patrick Lane (originally published in The Globe and Mail)