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Books in Canada Review
Al Purdy's collected prose, Starting from Ameliasburg, provides a profile of the artist as a youngster, young man, and not-so young man.

Although these pieces, sixty-two in all, dating from 1958 to the present, are a round-up of travel and biographical articles, as well as book reviews, Purdy himself emerges as the main source of attraction here - not in any egregiously egotistical way but more quietly, something like a verbal Clint Eastwood, laying down the law regarding proper literary conduct.

As well as dispensing favourable judgements on other poets such as Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, and Dorothy Livesay, he hands out, literally, swift justice to a fellow for sneering at Canada Council funding. He punches the guy out.

We see Al Purdy as a child, faking sickness for two months so he could stay in bed, reading. Then in his teens during the 30s, he rode the rods. After this he worked for a number of years in a mattress factory before establishing himself as a major poet.

Concerning his artistic values, Purdy objects to the Black Mountain school of poetry, which he considers to be "corrupted in narcissistic love of technique itself." He believes that "despair and bitterness are sometimes good material for poems, but some kind of magnificence and/or profundity has to come out of them."

This book is an absorbing, generous-spirited account of Canada and its literature.
-John Parr, November 1995


People's Poetry Letter Reviews
Eyes narrowed to sharp focus behind tinted glasses, the man looking into the distance stands in sharp contrast to the blue sky, blue water behind him. An imposing figure - one of his own favourite words, magnificent, comes to mind - with eyes that are hungry, searching, probing, composing. Eyes that have seen - I mean really looked, considered, explored, studied - a hell of a lot since 1918. Forget the thirty odd other books he's published in the last fifty some years. Forget the two GGs and the other awards (including the People's Poetry Award in 1991: ed.) and other accolades. Forget the long line of writers, scholars, and critics who are willing to proclaim him "one of our greatest poets". (Even tho they're right - he is.) Look at him, with him. Follow the eyes to another unexplored place, somewhere just beyond the cover of this book. Al Purdy's not gonna waste his time looking at you right now, or wait expectantly for your praise or blame. Give up on the idea of stasis. He's not gonna give a rat's ass. There's more stuff out there. There's more to look at, to read, to be written.

Starting From Ameliasburg: The Collected Prose of Al Purdy is as much a "How-to" manual as it is a collection of essays. And Purdy is a gentle, provocative, and inspiring teacher. His lesson begins with the book's cover. A tower of a man against a beautiful, natural background whose posture compels you to stop what you're doing, to try to see what he's seeing, to listen to what he's saying about what's there on the horizon. In the pages that follow that horizon becomes a home to innumerable people, places, writers, ideas and, events. A world where nothing's taken for granted, one where everything from beer to mattress factories or the complexities of friendship and national identity are just as important as the writing of a Margaret Atwood or W.B. Yeats.

The most remarkable thing about this collection - despite the incredible range and scope of its subject-matter - is its consistency.Purdy's intense and insightful analysis works as rigorously upon Judge Haig-Brown "watching the old tracker Cougar Smith, pull out the makings for a roll-your-own" as it does upon the poetry and fiction of Leonard Cohen. Whether he's writing joyfully and anecdotally about helping out with the "love problems" of Mike McNulty, one of the young deck hands on a 8,500 (on lake freighter he's taking from Thorald to Baie Comeau in "Streetlights on the St. Lawrence" or reviewing the first book of a twenty-five year old poet like Bill Howell who "has a lot of good ideas, and sometimes ... makes use of them". Purdy is both affable and uncompromising, gracious yet concise and conservative in his criticisms.

That Purdy manages to achieve this kind of unified and startling clarity of thought in a collection of occasional prose pieces sampled from over four decades is a testimony both to the direct and engaging tone of his writing, and to ironically, this book warns that he might "grow talons and claw" me for thinking this - his honesty. I call it honesty because there's no better way to describe - how Purdy refuses to allow himself to get in the way of what he's looking at. There's no solipsism, no "navel-gazing" here. Sure he takes a long look at the world and tells us freely about what he sees, but he doesn't try to make everything he writes about more important because he's writing about it. It's important because it exists, because it's there. The best examples of this come in the first third of the collection, the travel essays his editor, Sam Solecki, wisely foregrounds because their very process establishes Purdy's sense of what the world has to teach us. It's in these pieces that Al Purdy himself becomes exemplary. He listens to the voices of the real people he meets from one coast of this country to the other, and he allows those voices to stand as they are, to speak for themselves. In short, he listens and hears. In representing these voices Purdy demonstrates how to come by his kind of honesty; take nothing for granted, learn something from everything, from everyone. Acknowledge where an acknowledgement is due and do it with your own voice - recognize the way your own ideas have been shaped and influenced by your experiences, and tell it that way, plain and simple, straightforward and true.

I've mentioned Solecki only in passing here, but he should be congratulated for the way he's shaped this collection by letting it shape itself. The fact that there's little critical or scholarly apparatus works to the book's advantage. These essays speak for themselves, and then, deserve the respect of being allowed to do so. Purdy has written some incredible, engaging prose over the years, and Starting From Ameliasburg is a book I know I'm going to keep coming back to for the way it discusses just about everything. Hell, the greatest praise I can give it is to say that after all of the ink that's ever been spilled over the Canadian north, this collection's opening essay, "The Cartography of Myself," is the first thing I've ever read about that part of the world that makes me to want see it for myself.
- Michael Holmes