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Praise for Reaching for the Beaufort Sea

"There are moments in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea that remind the readers of why Purdy has been so compelling a poet - moments when his wry tone, his mock serious language, for example, strikes a note of humour underlined with sadness. And despite Purdy's determined, and largely successful, attempt to avoid self-awareness, his character and temperament come across with real force in the pages of his book."
-The Toronto Star

Maclean's Review: A Poet For The Ages
A hundred years from now, one of the few Canadian poets whose work will still be read is Al Purdy. A handful of his best poems, from books including The Cariboo Horses (1965) and Piling Blood (1984), already have the feel of classics: they are uncannily powerful meditations on fate, landscape and history. Purdy has published a lot of lesser work, too, poems that seem more like comfortable, familiar gestures than thrusts into new territory. Both facets of the writer are on display in his new autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (the title is a quote from a song by Canadian Stan Rogers). Purdy, 75, has produced a book that alternately catches fire with its eloquence and insights - and sputters through patches of awkward diction and indifferent narration. The whole warts-and-all performance is vintage Purdy, right down to his explanation for his own inconsistency. "I am both brainless and shatteringly intelligent," he writes, "as well as somewhere in between like most people."

When Purdy calls himself brainless his tongue is at least partly in his cheek. He is really referring to his strong dose of childlike naivety that allows him to see the world afresh. "Some part of me still remains a child," he confesses, and it seems true: both in his occasional clumsiness with language and in his ability to confront experience from odd angles, there is something of a young child's untutored candor.

Like so many poets, Purdy lost a parent early in his life. He was two when his father, Fred, a Trenton, Ont., farmer and businessman, died of cancer in 1920. Yet his mother, Eleanor, managed to give Purdy a happy childhood. He was a poor student but a great enjoyer of life along the Trent River, where he swam, fished and perhaps most important - daydreamed. And if he lacked a father, he had a fair substitute in his rugged grandfather, Ridley Purdy, a former lumberjack and backwoods wrestler who filled his grandson's head with the lore of the northern bush. Purdy writes extremely well of his childhood. Like the English poet William Wordsworth, he often felt a stranger to life, as if he had come from some other world.

As a teenager he was big for his age and terrified of girls: he compensated by writing poems in the mawkish style of his literary hero of the moment, Canadian Bliss Carmen. When he dropped out of high school, he decided to seek adventure by riding the freight trains to the West Coast. In Northern Ontario he was arrested and jailed for breaking the seal on a boxcar. He escaped, then wandered lost in the bush for two days. In his terror, he felt that his mind had split, producing an inner presence that he calls "the Other," a shadowy yet powerful figure who seemed to watch over him.

That railway episode - so grippingly told - marked the end of Purdy's boyhood and a raw initiation into a life that, for decades, would be marked by struggle and failure. Purdy is one of those rare poets who was not able to uncover his gift early in life. Through his 20s and 30s he wrote verse that, he now admits, was awful. His wartime career in the air force (he was kept out of combat by high blood pressure) was characterized mainly by punishment and demotions. Later, settling in Belleville, Ont., with his homemaker wife, Eurithe, he worked at a series of menial jobs. A taxi company that he ran with his father-in-law went bankrupt. And although his marriage survives to this day, Purdy admits that he has been a poor father to their only son, James.

Purdy and his family reached their low point in the late 1950s, when they were so poor that they were reduced at one point to eating a road-killed rabbit. Yet through those same years, when the family was living in the unfinished house that they were building in Eastern Ontario's Prince Edward County, Purdy was somehow transforming himself into a first-rate poet. . . His book The Cariboo Horses won the 1965 Governor General's Award. At 47, an age by which many poets are burned out or dead, Purdy was just getting started. That award, it seems, turned his life around. For the first time, he began to expect success rather than depression and failure. And he clearly enjoyed a poet's celebrity: the readings, the grant-assisted trips abroad and the literary friendships. His biography reflects the change, and becomes a breezy tour of the second half of his life. It brims with goofy jokes and gossipy stories: a beer-throwing fight with Margaret Atwood, a brush with an arrogant young lawyer named Pierre Trudeau.

But the real impact of Reaching for the Beaufort Sea lies in its first half, especially the description of his long years of obscurity. In one of his most moving poems, Purdy describes the area north of Belleville as "the country of our defeat." It is evident from his autobiography that he knows, intimately and triumphantly, whereof he speaks.
-John Bemrose, Maclean's

Poet Al Purdy Still a Scrapper
The child is father to the man, even when the man is 75. White-haired Al Purdy is still a bratty kid who gets into naughty scrapes and then, protesting innocence, charms his way back to a state of grace. He is also one of Canada's finest poets, and has won two Governor-General's awards for poetry, in 1965 and again in 1986 for his Collected Poems. Now many of his generation are gone or almost gone - Milton Acorn, Frank Scott, Malcolm Lowry and Margaret Laurence are dead and Earle Birney languishes in hospital. But Purdy is still making noise. He has just fired off an autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea - unrepentant, bristling with bragadoccio, bright images, and disarming honesty. He is currently at work on his next collection of poems, To See The Shore. The title, he says, comes from something he said in the introduction to his Collected Poems: "if I were in a rowboat, afloat on all the beer I've drunk, I couldn't see the shore."

Lounging in his chair in the restaurant, he orders mineral water to go with lunch. Mineral water? "No booze now, doctor says. It's been causing numbness, in my feet.? But abstinence does not muffle Purdy's style. He's a striking-looking man with a hawk nose and big hands. ?I'm 6'2?, used to be 6'3" but you shrink he booms in a voice - that hollows out the inner ear. Although amiable, he seems capable of crashing off the neck of the mineral water bottle and challenging you with a grin to step into the alley.

On the evidence of his new book, Purdy has had a volatile life, beginning with the munitions plant that blew up in 1918, shattering every window in the town of Trenton, Ont., just weeks before he was born - "the explosions no doubt accounting for any oddity and eccentricity, in my character.? Then there were the drunken rights when he rode the rails in the Depression and served in the wartime air force, followed in mid-life by inebriated battles with fellow poets about the merits of one another's work.

He prolongs those fights in his book. He tells of how he spritzed the young Margaret Atwood with beer for being "too academic" with him ? ?I still chuckle at that. Peggy can't shut me up." And how the distinguished Montreal poet Louis Dudek continues to bug him: "You can't be a friend of Dudek's unless you allow him to teach you something." Scrapping is still a big part of Purdy's life.

"I'm not a brawler," he protests. "I'm a sober, god-fearing Presbyterian, well, not exactly god-fearing. But what would you do if someone called you an ?unprintable?. I'll hit him no matter how old I am. There are times when there doesn't seem to be anything else to do." Then he Protests again, 'I've been timid
for much of my life.?

He was a darling only child of an obsessed widow. When Purdy began writing, he says, his underlying impulse was to find a way of saying "Ain't I wonderful, Maw?"

He doesn't paint a very clear picture of Eleanor Ross Purdy - nor indeed of most women in his life (and there have been many). His wife of four decades, Eurithe, comes across simply as Our Lady of Eternal Forgiveness and Perpetual Responsibility. Purdy's homage to her is affectionate but hardly romantic: "When I married her I robbed a great corporation of a great CEO. When we travel I immediately instruct her on learning the language and she does. She manages money, she manages me."

Purdy's portraits of the men in his life are much more vivid. He adored his mighty patriarch of a granddad, a figure out of D. H. Lawrence who brawled and boasted of his women and crackled with energy well into his 80s. Throughout his life, Purdy has sought other men with whom he could test his mettle, from his father -in-law with whom he once shared a taxi-driving company, to Irving Layton and Milton Acorn. When speaking of them, he uses the word 'love.?

And then there was God. Young Alfred, spoiled but bright, feared the dark. God, though no comfort, was an Authority to whom appeals could be made. In his teens, hitching through Northern Ontario, Purdy got lost in the woods. So he made a deal with The Almighty ("He in his blue sky conning tower who knew everything I was thinking. 'Get me outta here,' I prayed, 'and I'll do anything at all, go to church, return to school, obey my mother, anything.') After two days, he found a river, then a railway bridge. And to hell with his promise.

Last winter Purdy was very ill with pneumonia. Then he produced this autobiography, with all its stories of fearing the dark and sin and deal-making with God when in extremis. Is Purdy a believer now? "Aw, god no, it's ridiculous, except for people in poorer countries, who need hope." He switches quickly to topics he's more comfortable with: boasting about more bad behaviour, and talking poetry. "I'm banned in the public library in Fenelon Falls. Isn't it wonderful? I just treasure that."

It turns out he is savouring not only the banning but also the name. "It's like Isombard, Kingdom of Brunel, or Quintana Roo - these names have a magic spell. 'Fenelon Falls' does too." Words at their most surprising charge him with energy - "as we're talking, everything we say comes from our minds white hot, eh?"

Before long, everyone in the restaurant can hear him raving exuberantly about his favourite poet, Lawrence - "In a poem he wrote in Sicily he talks about 'Some horrid hairy God the Father in a William Blake imagination.' Now isn't that wonderful?!? Who in hell would think of a thing like that?"

At the end of his autobiography Purdy says, "Writing to me is still a happy discovery of word and thought that send me back to being a simple child finding a new toy." At 75, Purdy can still conjure up that boy.
-VAL ROSS, The Globe and Mail

The Importance of Being Al
What gives a writer the courage, or audacity, to ignore, censor, embellish, and cut-and-paste his or her experiences into a shape for public consumption? The question seems even more compelling when the work purports to be autobiography, as in the case of Al Purdy's Reaching for the Beaufort Sea.

When I interviewed Purdy in 1968 for inclusion in 20th-Century Poetry & Poetic, he was reluctant to be pinned down, labelled, defined. He rejected the term "epic" because it made his work sound grandiose" he did not like to be seen as travelling in search of poems; he dismissed the notion of a single poetic voice on the grounds that people are inconsistent, full of contradictions; and he criticized Irving Layton for becoming fixed and predictable, rather than remaining open to change and becoming.

"I'm self-conscious about being self-conscious," he said, laughing. His comment hardly adds up to the blueprint for a conventional autobiography which seems postulated on the belief that there is a pattern, a figure in the carpet, known in advance to (or discoverable by) the writer.

Sections of the autobiography have already appeared in print, particularly the engagingly anecdotal Morning and Its Summer, which appeared as a Quadrant title about 10 years ago. Using Chaucer's aphorism for an early book title, Purdy considered poetry the craft so long to lerne; he appears also to have made the difficult discovery that autobiographical prose takes even longer,

Part of the excitement for me in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea has been discovering how self-consciousness and anxiety about the authorial stance can be put to the task of rethinking and de-constructing our notions of autobiography.

There is a section called "Bad Times" around the middle of the book which seems to me to reveal extremely well not only Purdy's particular limitations as a self-analyst, but also his uniqueness in constructing a public persona.

This chapter, ostensibly about returning from Montreal to the hometurf of Belleville and building a house at Roblin Lake, is peppered with references to his wife, Eurithe, the first of which adopts the combative pose and imagery of the poems: "There was no shelter at the lake. We had to drive back and forth to Trenton every day. There was a shithouse, a small shed which I had adapted to this honorable usage. But the sunlit scene of lacustral splendor was a bit grim in our eyes. Eurithe and I regarded each other that way too.

"Our personal relations were somewhat wary and careful. Volcanic quarrels would be succeeded by armed truce, or a disguised tenderness. Sexual relations were always nocturnal, occasionally resembling combat in their hostile preliminaries. But - let us say there was love, although I avoided such words, If not, how could we possibly have tolerated each other?"

At this point, the autobiographer even pauses to quote his poetry.

A lack of communication

A few pages later, under the guise of telling us about wine-making, Purdy returns to the subject of his wife and son, telling us in an aside that he hadn't known his son was unhappy at the country school in Ameliasburg and that there has been a lack of communication between them, and praising his wife offhandedly, for her fortitude and taciturnity, while publicly confessing that their relationship, while anything but ideal, did allow them "to reach each other on some unidentifiable level of feeling."

The urge for surface-honesty, so often undercut with self-mockery, is sometimes at the expense of any deeper, or sustained, exploration of his own motives. I think this has as much to do with temperament as with the discomfort Purdy feels with so-called rational discourse and its inability ever to accommodate and explain feelings.

However, there is a passage here which wonderfully illuminates Purdy's strengths as a writer and his habit of telling us important things in the guise of asides.

"Sometimes all the studding, fibreboard, planks and nails danced in my head, like those ephemeral little flies that dance in bright sunlight. A dance of nothingness it seemed to me. And I felt dubious about the house ever being built. And I must do the things I do for their own sake, their own worthwhileness. Anything else was illusory. The poems I wrote must live in themselves, exist as entities and dance in their own sunlight. Without an audience, minus acclaim, even from a few. Thinking such things is treading gingerly close to a 50,000 gallon tank of bullshit, teetering even, I wallow and rejoice in self-pity, my stiff upper lip is a dirty dishrag. In short, we built a house."

In short - nothing! The method of writing parallels the method of building the house, taking bits and pieces from here and there, working without plans, getting on with the emotional structures that need continual reassessing, shoring up, and returning again and again to the poems, which are as ever-present and inevitable as mice. The language, too, for a moment, leaves logic and prose behind, taking its delight in objects, in metaphor. Briefly, I say; for then, of course, the self-conscious Purdy returns, building a little bridgework of mockery around his delicate moment of self-revelation.

Purdy describes his younger self as neurotic and spoiled, most at home in the imagined worlds of his own creation, a condition which seems to have prevailed throughout his life. And yet he has created an engaging persona and an impressive body of work that have deeply touched two generations of Canadians, embodying both our aspirations and self-doubts as a people, our hard-to-shed colonial arrogance and insecurity.

The autobiography winds towards its own inconclusiveness in an endearingly erratic and garrulous way, as if we are sitting with Purdy in the beer parlor of the Quinte Hotel, items appearing in the "conversation" to make a point or merely because of recall. There are cameos of other poets, even a brief, gossipy five paragraphs alluding to Earle Birney's romance with Ikuko Atsumi (unnamed). Finally, and not surprisingly, after frequently dismissing his own work as "not world-class, but good," Purdy can't resist musing aloud about reputation and speculating on what Canadian might win the Nobel prize.

Who says our poets are not consistent, even when wearing the masks of prose?
- Gary Geddes, The Ottawa Citizen