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A Bridge to Naridive: The Poetry
of Andrew Suknaski
The literary career of Andrew Suknaski, Canadian
Poet, provides an extraordinary lesson on the ability of language
to express the non-verbal. In his hands, art becomes a bridge
to narrative. This immigrant son from Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan
left home at seventeen and went everywhere, living in several
major Canadian cities and traveling the world from England to
Australia before returning home seventeen years later, to stay
(at first). His art during the period away reflects a desire to
make “the world his home” (The Ghosts Call You
Poor 68-9) but the eclectic results of such a venture has
made interpretation of his work as a whole an elusive task. Instead
critics have focused on his Wood Mountain Poems, which is comprised
of three books, Wood Mountain Poems, The Ghosts Call
You Poor, and In the Name of Narid. While these
books are significant they are by no means the only ‘good’
things Suknaski has written. His career is best viewed as one
continuous book. Creative acts are guided by a character-driven
design, or as George Bowering writes in Harry’s Fragments,
“character is fate.” Suknaski’s life and art
represent this only too well.
Beginning his career as a fine artist (painting, drawing, clay,
wax sculpture) Suknaski soon found he was writing haiku and pressing
them into clay pots. The writing started late but it had begun.
There would be many more words to follow and, just like in grade
one, when Suknaski heard English for the first time, he had some
catching up to do. The late sixties and early seventies saw Suknaski
produce work for at least ten concrete poetry chapbooks (including
two anthologies) while publishing many titles by others (Dennis
Lee, Stephen Scobie, bp Nichol, Earle Birney, and Sid Marty, to
name a few) as well with his own Elfin Plot Press. He floated
poems and magazines rolled up in Al Purdy’s cigar tubes
down the North Saskatchewan River. He folded an issue of Elfin
Plot into paper airplanes and had them dropped from an aircraft
flying north out of Edmonton. He buried others on mountaintops,
or left them on beaches melted into tablet-like candles abandoned
for strangers: something to light them home. It was undoubtedly
actions like these that prompted Douglas Barbour’s wry comment
that Elfin Plot was “the most underground of underground
magazines.” The output during this time was frenetic, sprawling,
brilliant, compulsive and voluminous, especially considering his
transitory lifestyle and constant poverty.
This is the characteristic milieu of Suknaski’s early
work; he is an artist compelled by some eternal/internal imperative.
Leaving home at seventeen he stayed away for another seventeen
years. Such deep divisions in life mirror a work also deeply
divided. Curiously, his eventual migration home coincides with
an increasingly narrative tendency in his work. His concrete
poetry had always employed both picture design and lettering
(hieroglyphic, ideogrammatic, phonetic, Cyrillic, Hebraic) but
as Wood Mountain drew him back so too did the narrative structure
begin to take hold of his creativity. What pulls him home is
a story that has to be told and that he has learned how to tell.
The narrative here is prodigal. Coming home he transcends the
non-verbal and carries the inarticulate of Wood Mountain with
him. That is Suknaski’s gift, whether he is lending voice
to the silent ghost’s history, or the non-English speaking,
or the chaotic and inarticulate self, he is able to build bridges
to narrative, between this and that, us and them, here, there,
now, and then.
Suknaski’s career divides naturally into three phases.
The first, dominated by concrete poetry experiments, displays
tendencies of the anti-hero’s anarchy and iconoclasm and
becomes a natural lead into the radical poetry of revolution.
This is presented in the Celestial Mechanics trilogy,
which comprises the third stage of his career, leaving his Wood
Mountain poems as the second phase. A bibliography of his work
divided into three phases would look like this:
1) 1966 – 1976: Circles*, This Shadow of Eden Once,
These Fragments I’ve Gathered for Ezra, In Mind ov Xrossroads
ov Mythologies*, Blind Man’s House*, Four Parts Sand*
(Concrete Poem Anthology), Rose Way in the East*, Zen Pilgrimage*,
Old Mill*, Y th evolution into ruenz*, The Night Watchman, Storm
Warning (anthology), Suicide Notes, Writing on Stone*
2) 1974 – 1981: Leaving, On First Looking Down from
Lions Gate Bridge, Wood Mountain Poems (chapbook), Philip
Well (chapbook), Wood Mountain Poems, The Ghost Gun
(chapbook), The Ghosts Call You Poor, In the Name of Narid,
Octomi (chapbook), The Land They Gave Away (selected)
3) 1979 – 1986: East of Myloona, Montage for an Interstellar
Cry, Silk Trail. (Although there are no chapbook publications
that I know of in this period there are several magazine publications,
some of which are concrete.)
* denotes concrete; although Suknaski’s work can be separated
into concrete and lyric narrative, most of his work contains
strong visual elements.
This is an impressive and varied twenty-year career. It makes
one wonder why so little has been said about his work as a whole
or even why both his later and earlier work are virtually ignored.
I venture that this is in part attributable to his being damned
by both camps (the lyrical and the concrete.) In his essay on
Suknaski in ECW 18/19 Patrick Lane summarily dismisses
the early concrete work as substandard and “imitative
of bill bissett, bp nichol, and others who worshipped Rimbaud’s
‘disorientation of the senses’ and Blake’s
prophetic New Jerusalem,” but really, the experimental
edge of poetry as sound and vision just isn’t Lane’s
‘thing’. In what is a significant contribution to
a critical dialogue on Suknaski, Lane shows a particular blindness
to the attributes of concrete and sound poetry. Much of Suknaski’s
concrete work has a definitive style, and is rooted in the process
of fine art. From the other side, concretists complain that
Suknaski went ‘traditional’ and was never really
a concrete artist anyway. Here are two responses to such posturing.
The first is a pox on both their houses, and the second,
more reasoned rejoinder, is that this merely adds to the overall
coherence and design of Suknaski’s work. It becomes an
example of a deeper inherent irony by relegating his verse,
in modern Canadian poetry circles, to a kind of immigrant status,
the realm of the half-breed or outsider, which is entirely in
keeping with the content and intent of the work. As with all
gifted poets, there’s just no getting around their aesthetics.
Suknaski’s work has the power to make us all implicit,
all participatory. This too works in several ways as the poems
themselves are often written from the viewpoint of the outsider
and necessarily impose such a perspective on the reader.
This notion of the outsider is present in all of Suknaski’s
work as he seems to be always either designing a code or revealing
one, and we, the reader, are forced to follow the tracks of
the poet-prophet-guide through the land of unknowing where to
decipher is to speak out of the unknowing. In all of this there
is an aesthetic consistency that makes his entire oeuvre deserving
of attention right from the concretist’s wax candles,
monotypes and mimeographs through to the prairie narratives
(naridives) of Wood Mountain and into the utter rage against
darkness and injustice of Montage for an Interstellar Cry
and Silk Trail. All his work is deeply imbued with
notions of struggle, struggle to articulate, struggle to survive,
struggle to know; in his art Suknaski grapples with all the
gods. The consistency throughout is that of the psychologically
driven aesthetic of true art. Suknaski’s work is layered,
complex, and erratically literary, pointing, as it does, to
traditions that lie beyond the conventional scope of the accepted
It is clear that he has always written from under the shadow
of Ezra Pound’s mythopoeic and radical poetry. One of
his early concrete works is titled These Fragments I’ve
Gathered for Ezra (Punch Press, 1973). Suknaski also often employs
the postmodernist provision of a subtext to the present text.
In his own Deodar Shadow Press publication from 1971, In Mind
ov Xrossroads ov Mythologies (Elfin Plot 9), there are three
such subtexts sighted in a foreword note.
these poemdrawings draw their energy
from the following sources: THE EGYPTIAN
BOOK OF THE DEAD, THE BOOK OF THE HOPI,
THE TOURIST GUIDE/DIRECTORY/DICTIONARY
FOR WESTERNERS GOING TO RED CHINA (not
exact title because cover was gone when
KEN LEONG gave it to me— this title
was the best he could recall), HEBREW &
ARABIC & ENGLISH alphabets (a basis for
design, theme & whatever).
Silk Trail also begins with such a note directing
the reader to Cantos LII - XCII as well as other texts. Pound’s
influence is evident as well in a letter Suknaski writes to
bp nichol in 1970: “Hope yew get elf plot three leviath
izzyew cause eye sent it to yr ole walmer address.” Such
homophonic spelling owes much to the letters and style of Pound.
Suknaski’s later work, often overshadowed by his Wood
Mountain Poems, is a powerful redemption of his early career.
In Montage… he puts it all together: the concrete,
the narrative, the iconic, the mythopoeic, the particular in
the universal, the anger, the craggy hope, the futility, the
vernacular, the unsayable, the madness, the human. Part one
begins with allusions to cayin, which is the gutteral predecessor
of the letter O (Sacks 251) as well as Hebrew for Cain, and
yodh, which is the Phoenician arm and hand that eventually became
our letter I. What begins this 1982 book first appeared in a
collection of concrete collage pieces in Suknaski’s self-published
chapbook from 1971, In Mind ov Xrossroads ov Mythologies.
Suknaski is reminding us of his early rebellious career and
giving warning that he’s still ‘kicking against
the pricks.’ This is a book that challenges our conceptions
of what poetry is. After redefining the local in Canadian poetry
with his groundbreaking Wood Mountain Poems he sets
out to claim the territory of the political as well by challenging
the art for art’s sake school. Through direct references
to the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and the atrocities of Pinochet
he places the political and ethical in the regions of the poetic.
Truth, Suknaski says, is not all about beauty. And only when
this is so, when poetry can face both ways, into hell and heaven,
is it a voice capable of fighting for justice. Only by broaching
the unspeakable may it speak up against the tyranny of atrocity.
In order to engage in a fight for justice, poetry must break
the code of silence that shrouds humanities’ darkest misdeeds.
The human struggle is to speak the unspeakable, to translate
the wordless void. As an artist Suknaski has never avoided such
subject matter, but he is willing to present the other side
of the issue. In Montage, he quotes Hasishi Sakamoto
as saying “man made catastrophe…has nothing to do
with literature,” but Suknaski’s book has a lot
to do with man-made catastrophe and literature. Indeed, a great
deal of his work does. In a 1969 monotype entitled “hirosheema
krakanosh” Suknaski works with the same raw material:
human tragedy in a night of death. In the painting, the word
“Hiroshima” is written descending the page but is
spelled like this: ‘hiroshimahhhhh.’ This is what
Suknaski later names the cry, and the poem, the painting,
the drawing, the book, is a kind of cry, or a Montage for
an Interstellar Cry. This is what mahzahkahzah, a character
from the poem, tells muzhik (Russian for peasant), who is also
Suknaski, at the end of the book:
the right of the cry
we all have
the right of the cry
that’s all we’ve got man
in this abyss (Montage 74)
This is revolutionary, especially in Canada. Montage
doesn’t just rock the boat, it wrecks it, and then floats
away on the remains (splish\slash). But Suknaski never stays
in one place for long and neither does his poetry. If the earth
is his house, then poetry is a mountain.
Silk Trail is again very different, though in keeping
with Suknaski’s poetic perception. Prophetic and compressed,
it anticipates the direction of Canadian poetry by twenty years.
Minimalism and haiku are the early fashion of our 21st century
but Suknaski’s already done it; look back down the silk
trail and you’ll see him shyly wave. This is a text of
infinite compression, every word a strand of silk, a precious
trail to hope: gold mountain.
In this preliminary sketch of Suknaski’s career we can
see it is typified by change, by an alteration in style, but
within that change is an irrefutable, unmitigating constancy.
This core remains throughout his work as he roams over much
of global history, through several languages, cultures, mythologies
and poetic forms; yet even so a coherent critical strategy becomes
necessary if one is to make intelligible links throughout Suknaski’s
work as a whole. I will illustrate the potential for these strategies
along the way but this essay is by no means an attempt at being
definitive. What I intend is a continuation of what Stephen
Scobie begins in his preface to the selected work The Land
They Gave Away, which is a late mid-career retrospective.
Even as I attend to the various threads running through Suknaski’s
work many shall be left untied, though with the hope that they
too will be taken up by others and woven in: the silk trail.
* * * * *
Enter bifrost (pronounced bee-frost), or what I call,
a bridge to naridive (read narrative.) Suknaski’s
poetry has always tended toward the mythopoeic, as any student
of Pound’s will see, making interpretation of his work
in mythological terms a pragmatic approach. In Montage…
an over-riding myth is that of Yggdrasil, the great
world ash of Scandinavian mythology. Yggdrasil reaches
from the underworld of its roots to Asgard (heaven)
in its crown where the gods reside along with the lucky souls
of afterlife. Midgard, middle earth, is where humankind
exists and bifrost is the bridge between Midgard and
Asgard, which in Suknaski’s work can be translated
as the bridge to narrative. There is also Utgard, which
is the domain of elves, trolls, and dwarves at the base of the
tree between the human world and the land of the dead ruled
by the goddess Hel. In Suknaski’s work this is a defining
myth. Elfin figures have always been prominent in his work going
back to the original Elfin Plot publications as well as to his
Polish/Ukrainian roots. Slavic folklore is full of elfin figures
like the bearded old woodsman Krakonosh who appears in several
Suknaski pieces (see poem “Mountain Climbing” from
Leaving 26, 27). In northern European mythologies the
elf is a trickster, a puckish figure, by turns malicious and
benign, gluttonous and giving. These semi-magical, semi-human
figures populate Suknaski’s poetry and become at times
actual figures in the landscape (langscape) of Wood
Mountain with the two often merging as one becomes the other.
The poet himself appears as a kind of elf, holding light and
dark in either hand and bringing them together: kerblam!
Narid, is a dialectical variation of the Ukrainian
‘narod’ meaning the people or nation and first appears
in Suknaski’s work as the title of his 1981 collection
In the Name of Narid. In the sagas narid is
also a mythical plain or desert plateau and field of battle.
Geologically this corresponds with the Wood Mountain region,
also an arid plateau. Coincidentally it translates as well into
the Arabic word for light. Narid, in Suknaski’s
work is Wood Mountain, is home, is wisdom, is light. Another
defining metaphor in his work is that of the bridge, or bifrost,
and where it goes is to narrative, and by that I mean naridive.
The narrative impulse in poetry, like the third dimension in
art, is a natural extension of the medium. Just as language
is self-propelled into narrative so to is drawing drawn into
the third dimension. Curiously, both the experimental in painting
and poetry depend upon upsetting these natural tendencies. Modern
abstract art resists the third dimension while getting as close
as it can; so too modern experimental poetics short-circuit
the conventional use of language by obstructing narrative sense
and syntax. What results in the latter is a ‘new’
narrative, a narrative created by the reader who imposes a structure
upon the words even as the poet attempts to resist such impositions.
The third dimension of art is akin to narrative in language.
Suknaski’s concrete work often plays with both, at once
inviting and rejecting; his landscapes often function as a kind
of langscape. An example of this is “The Chess
Game” (Writing on Stone, see appendix). This
concrete collage presents history as a human narrative. The
backdrop to this narrative of the people is the land, making
the poem a bridge to naridive. The chessboard squares where
the battle is played out at the foot of adjacent hills present
a three-dimensional space just as the images combined with the
words present a kind of broken narrative history of people and
place. Suknaski uses the militaristic image of the Chinese board
game, chess, to tell the story of the native’s final defeat
at Wounded Knee and the betrayal of them by the Whiteman. This
is the voice of the people of the land.
In his other concrete poem drawings, which are often mimeographs
allowing for both drawing and typing, word and image always
encroach upon one another and are made, deliberately, to co-exist
on the page. Almost any early concrete poem of Suknaski’s
presents the reader with simultaneity of world and word. This
is significant for several reasons but what I’d like to
highlight is how united the verbal and the non-verbal are in
his work and how the work itself functions as a kind of bridge
to narrative between the two. In the drawings themselves one
image is often moving into another in a surreal continuity which
is also typical of the shamanistic or plenipotential. His ideogrammatic
pieces are word sculptures, or iconic langscapes, that move
in and out of narrative.
In the poem-picture “Light” (In Mind ov Xrossroads
ov Mythologies, (see appendix) Suknaski uses the Chinese
ideogram for light as the structural center of the piece which
suggests again the third dimension as landscape and space, as
a time/space complex of ply on ply; this visual sculpture is
coupled with the words (and sounds) of an emerging narrative.
The ideogram itself merges with a langscape of Egyptian
hieroglyphs, the sign for water and the placental moon; it also
metamorphs into leaf and feather. The ideograms shape suggests
a wheel with spokes; spoke to spoke this feather image predicts
the appearance of a ‘handful of feathers’ which
is mythological in several aspects, the least of which is not
Icarus flying too close to the sun, the source of all light.
The pictures here again are bridges to the narrative of literature
and myth. Not merely the oblique Grecian reference to Icarus
but also much more to Egyptian mythology as presented by the
words neter xert and the outline of an owl that reaches
from the top right of the page to the bottom. There is a hell
of a lot going on in this poem. In Egyptian neter is
the masculine law, which is similar to the Chinese concept of
yin. The hieroglyph for water ^^^^^, mem, becomes in
the poem metonymic for sea, and see, division of water and air,
light and dark, heaven and hell, up and down: just like Icarus,
and humankind, passing through both in a hurried descent. The
poem functions as a kind of bridge to the meta-narrative
The third dimension in abstract art like the narrative in experimental
poetry is either avoided or employed only obliquely. Suknaski’s
visuals do both consistently. In his ideogrammatic drawings
he often makes horizontal lines across the page creating the
divisions of landscape – cloud / sky / earth which are
also mythical and elemental – and he does this overtop
of language and languages. These drawings are langscapes,
bridges to naridive: bifrost.
Further explorations into Suknaski’s concrete merits
a venture into the works included in the Oberon anthology from
1972 Four Parts Sand. The tripartite series Imago #1,
#2 and #3 (see appendix) tells a story outside of language and
inside, or upon, a landscape though it employs the non-verbal
icon of the cross as a “t” atop the “mtn”
[mountain]. While this series avoids verbalization of narrative
it does so in a three-dimensional landscape: our stories are
of the land and our voices are figures of the land. Here, Wood
Mountain, is a figure of speech.
That Suknaski’s poetry is a potent distillation of icon,
myth and landscape is evident in the abbreviation for mountain.
Written in lowercase letters as “mtn” the visual,
the verbal, and the iconic are inextricably fused. The “m”
and the “n” rising on either side are mnemonic of
a mountain and the “t” between them a Christian
cross atop a hill. This is bifrost, the bridge
to naridive, the cipher to gold mountain. I will
elaborate on this further in relation to Suknaski’s later
book Silk Trail but for the moment I’ll continue
discussion of his concrete work, which is just as vast and sprawling
as his later creations. Thinking of narrative as a journey through
language provides an interesting perspective. When applied to
Suknaski’s homophonic translations the results are mythopoeic.
The homophonic translation abridges narrative by averting it
and establishing a patter of sound within the mytho-linguistic
context of the poem. This is the story of language. The sound
and sense may exist outside of reason yet they are reason by
virtue of being language, which is a sound container for meaning,
vessel of reason.
The concrete poem “Blood” (In Mind ov Xroads
ov Mythologies, see appendix) presents such an example:
“bird/ bur den/ man age/ bird in/ cage.” This poem
portrays the ideogram for blood as a chambered heart, over which
is written a hieroglyphic sequence that merges heart with mind
from which a backward-looking face expels a word-breath which
trails across the page to invoke the magic of the bennu/phoenix
in the lower left corner. The homophonic translations alter
the words so similar sounds evoke an opposite response; in Egyptian
terms this is the ka of being. Very much a poem focused on mortality,
freedom and fetter, it becomes a bridge between the afterlife
and this one. A cipher to the barred door of the heart to which
access is gained by way of the bard as mystical prophet. All
of this depends upon, and is, narrative. Without disclosure.
There are only a handful of published typewriter concrete poems
of Suknaski’s that I know of but they too can be seen
as bridges to narrative. The poem reproduced in the
appendix uses quotation marks [“]to form the outline of
what is likely a Henry Moore sculpture as the author had recently
visited a museum featuring Moore’s work while traveling
through London, England. Moving as it does from the verbal to
the non-verbal this translation of a three-dimensional sculpture
onto a page’s two-dimensional surface using a sign (cipher
/ key) that denotes dialogue is a brilliant example of his art
as a bridge to narrative. The narrative here is also
alluded to by the use of a typewriter, which is an instrument
of language, and by the words that descend the left margin of
the page: “woman/ ….” With the aid of hindsight
this poem is also ‘a life fragment’ (what Suknaski
calls his later unfinished Celestial Mechanics) and
belongs in sequence with the poems in the chapbook Leaving.
This and the other typewriter poems in Circles are
Before continuing this survey of Suknaski’s poetics I’d
like to point to the relevance of translating sculpture into
poetic form by moving the non-verbal towards the verbal. There
is always something to be said about recontextualization and
translation. What sculpture and concrete poetry have in common
is visual space, however the nature of that space is different,
one being three-dimensional, the other two. The use of sculpture
as a starting point for the poem is an interesting way of redefining
the two-dimensional limits of the page, of poetry. While the
poem tests its own spatial limitations by translating sculpture
so too does the sculpture itself move beyond its own non-verbal
realm and into the verbal by being represented with words, signs
or letters, which in turn are often being used in a non-representational
mode. Back we go again to Suknaski’s Henry Moore, which
is an outline of a sculpture using quotation marks. What the
poem does then in essence is quote the non-verbal, quote the
silent speaking sculpture and, in essence, quote space in time
and build a bridge to narrative: bifrost.
Another aspect of Suknaski’s poetry as a bridge to narrative
can be seen in the opportunities for cultural exchange that
it provides. In Mind ov Xrossroads ov Mythologies crosses
cultural boundaries within the west by fusing English to Ukrainian
to Egyptian to Hebrew to Hopi to art history (Goya) while creating
a common linguistic ground for East and West. This later point
is critical in Suknaski’s work as he uses Ukrainia, geographically
positioned as it is, as a symbol or vessel of transport over
the bridge between East and West. In Suknaski’s work the
poem, the page itself, becomes a place for cultural exchange,
where differences are bridged, dialogue created, similarities
found, silence averted. All of Suknaski’s work is involved
in the project of translating and travel, translating the non-verbal,
the non-English, the foreign, and finally the self. Translation
becomes, in his work, equivalent to a spiritual journey, or
quest; a kind of mental pre-positioning in, out, over, across
and through. This is the self as art, art then becomes the way,
path, or bridge. This is also narayan, a term used
in Montage…, which is from the Sanskrit meaning
“man path.” Art is devotional, a spiritual journey
open to all, a manner of speaking in all manners. This is narayan.
The following piece, from Silk Trail, shows how Suknaski
draws cultures together by pointing to inherent linguistic similarities.
Y Babylonian god of wisdom / Ukrainian for Heaven
* Chinese political and celestial term
Here it is necessary to add a note to the footnote from the
text quoted above. The symbol I use, Y, is not the symbol used
in the original text. The original uses an old world cross shape,
which my computer isn’t equipped with, forcing me to substitute,
translate, and narrate – to construct a bridge explicating.
That this is even worthy of explanation is testament to the
compression of Silk Trail as a long poem; even the
footnotes are in the poem. Suknaski’s early concrete career
has been successfully integrated into his poetic narrative.
The symbols introduce their own meaning, and they do so in a
way that’s integrated into the poem. Further to this is
the phonetic and metaphoric similarity of the footnoted words
nebo and nebiu, which in turn unite the differing
cultural sources of the words. This poem fragment of eight words,
two symbols, and five punctuation marks is a bridge into the
workings of much of Suknaski’s work; the poem is its own
cipher. Heaven is in the self and is reached by going out there.
Art then is this bridge, or the key to the bridge that spans
the heavens to this place, home of the self, a people’s
From the outset Suknaski’s work has been that of the
sorcerer, dipping into the poetry of myth, mysticism and knowledge,
the sort that is a lantern lighting the way. Possibly, the poet
then is a prophet, also a shaman baubled in iconic symbol, babble,
and lore. This leads to decoding and secret writing that is
further steeped with interpretations of the universe as being
a place of order. Ultimately, if one is possessed of the key,
a secret knowledge, the universe is predictable and knowable.
The irony of such a positing, that the universe is knowable
and ordered, is that it leads to the theory of predestination
which is itself an argument against the existence of free will.
In Jars Balan’s essay “Voices from the Canadian
Steppes” he decodes a Ukrainian phrase used in the visual
poem “Autumn Equinox” (see appendix). As is typical
of Suknaski’s concrete work he breaks words into sounds
and altered (altared) meanings through homophonic translation.
The Ukrainian phrase ax tum, (in the Cyrillic alphabet
x makes a ch sound as in Bach) which then becomes “ah
tumn \ au tumn\ autumn” is translated by Balan as a colloquial
expression simply meaning “Oh there.” This is a
curious phrase to interject into a piece with such mythic and
epistemological roots. It’s like throwing up your hands
at the edge of the abyss: “oh there.” The poem,
balanced as it is, is ultimately suggestive of Autum Ra, god
of both the beginning and end of Egyptian mythology. ‘Oh
there,’ we say when confronted by eternity, the Egyptian
‘au’ of expansion. Here the Chinese ideograms provide
both figure and landscape, hence, langscape. The abstract
tease of a third dimension, as a figure of speech, appears in
a language of space: language becomes a land bridge to narrative,
story, myth, which is a creation of the self (I) and the eye.
In drawing as in language the eye concludes a third dimension
via the mere presentation of a foreground. This occurs only
in the mind’s eye however as the illusion is not present
in the drawing. The illusion then is the conclusion, or vice
versa, thus making of existence and knowledge an eternal paradox.
The end, while under suspicion, in Suknaski’s work always
presents this hilarious edge, letting us in on the killing joke:
mortality and life, “oh there.”
This too is a bridge to naridive. It is a struggle
to utter the simple phrase of a people, “oh there,”
which is something that would be said almost lightly but with
the intent of warding off further ill luck, a curse to accompany
the dropping of a cup or some other small thing, akin to “oh
damn.” Or to take this further “oh hell.”
“There” becomes synonymous with “hell.”
The phrase “ax tam” appears in the nether region
of the visual piece. “Oh hell” is said from hell,
which is “there” as in “oh there.” It
comes from, and goes to, too. Round and round we go; “oh
there” this is an utter attempt to escape what is invoked
by not saying it, the power of euphemism is code. “Hell”
is “there.” Not here. Narrative as naridive
is the life of the people, on the land. Art, culture and religion
are the bridge to heaven – bifrost.
The underrated, though admittedly uneven, East of Myloona
contains the concrete sculptural poem “Inukshuk”
(see appendix). Inuksuit (plural) are stone figures
that the Inuit build on the tundra as direction markers, sentinels,
caribou herders, and memorials. In the Inuktitut language it
means “in likeness of man.” Suknaski takes this
raw material and fashions it into art. He writes a poem about
Inukshuk in its own shape and an Inukshuk
is made of the raw materials of the land and fashioned into
art. This is art with utility, it provides necessary information
as well as the spiritual sustenance of memory: people have been
here and made a mark, told their stories. The poem as Suknaski
writes it, in block letters, is informational in much the same
way an Inukshuk is. This, is memory, or ‘pamiat,’
as Suknaski calls it, which is Russian for memory of the
heart or, heartland. And art is a kind of memory, a translation
of the past or bringing forward to the present those past spirits.
Art is history as naridive; a bridge to the past depicts
our future: a document of prophecy. East of Myloona
is a wonderfully unique book that is unfortunately weakened
by an authorial voice that seems at times somewhat strident.
From the outset, with the beautiful drawing on the cover to
the illustrations inside the book we are reminded both of Suknaski’s
training and talent as a visual artist firmly grounded in the
non-verbal, non-representational. These drawings are typical
Suknaski creations with figures placed in a landscape of mythical
reality. The cover illustration shows polar bears on an arctic
landscape / map scaling a snowy bluff that is a man’s
hat that has an image of polar bear on it. This is an inspired
recombination of the surreal and the starkly real. There is
nature, and there is human industrial reality. Suknaski looks
at both, he doesn’t turn away, or avert the eye, he builds
bridges, these are realities, and they should be talked about.
East of Myloona is a break from the Wood Mountain mode
and a movement towards the documentary style he employs in Montage….
This new floating format allows Suknaski to bring all his talents
to bear upon his work by incorporating his fine art skills as
well as his concrete experimental experience. East of Myloona
is a bridge to Celestial Mechanics.
What I like about Montage… is how it challenges
a poetry of convention. This book breaks all the rules, makes
its own, and in doing so, breaks none. In the end these scraps
of modern horrors and the abyss of being an artist during the
late 20th century create fragments of beauty; tragedy is tailored
somehow into song. What Suknaski makes of the ash pit remains
of the 20th century is a narrative reconstruction of history
and humanity, a mosaic of time – in time, a montage of
the age. The egalitarian manner of the text extends from content
to form, pan-national, pan-poetic. This is the poetry of prophecy,
and it’s not a prophecy of affirmation but rather doom.
There isn’t much to cling to here, adrift. Stepping onto
the bridge we are soon pushed back. Entering narrative we are
pushed out again, into ourselves and into the unsayable: beautiful
mystery is a deathly void, where the bridge was, now a yawing
There are several concrete bits in Montage…
the erratic alphabetizing of part I, the “ Mike Olito
Box”on the cover and the second page, the flagman signals
and deaf hand signs of part VIII are some of them. “Even
the deaf receive the flagman’s message” (42), Suknaski
writes with wry humour.
Mike Olito becomes Mike Odin in the poem. At first he appears
to be making art out of self destruction. Drinking 30 beers
a day for 312 days he takes a photograph of himself everyday
at the same time in the same chair drinking. Then looking back
at the pictures and noticing no change Odin decides “he
may as well cut her down/ to a “20 bottle a day clip!/
and turn to art” (34.) Ostensibly the result of this is
“The Mike Olito Box” (see appendix) which is presented
as a monochrome on the front and back covers as well as in a
black and white photograph on the second page. It is also referred
to in the poem itself. The box, large enough for a man to stand
in, is fitted in front with a long window and shutters which
are opened in the picture (open shutter,/ open shut her, /o
pen shudder). In the box, in the window, stands Mike Odin, a
naked bearded Metis: a kind of God to self-reliance, to the
resilience of the artist as an impermanent part of the landscape,
or an imaged voice of the land, a very nearly visceral bridge
to narrative. This is how the people get to the promised land,
through themselves. At this point in our analytic journey I
feel at an impasse, cast outside of sense, where only poetry
may speak of poetry . The following is my own, by way of explication.
The Guide Thru Hell is a Blind Prophet
Thru hell be guided
By a blind prophet, the one who has lost
both eyes to truth
The blind prophet will instruct you as you go amongst cataclysms.
The self is the artist’s
last refuge, and the artist
What we need
is ourselves, but not
alone on the land, together
the people – narid.
This is the cry of Montage… The end
song, the wail. And to what avail, the reader may ask? Well,
to avail all, to unveil.
Looking again to Silk Trail we are presented with
the possibilities of art, of what art the people are capable
of, the resultant beauty, of nature and humanity in a kind of
harmony. Despite this affirmation of the social possibilities
of art, how utility and aesthetics are woven in silk, Silk
Trail refuses to affirm current art and culture, but this
is not the book’s failing. In the end, that is our own.
The Prairies are where east and west have met, where the final
drama unfolds and falls as ashes, the silk trail at last abandon
ended. This is Suknaski’s final book to date. The second
part of Celestial Mechanics, Divining West, remains
uncompleted: bifrost, the bridge, is destroyed, the
people ultimately betrayed by themselves. That is how the story
ends, with silence. We fall back from the bridge, mute and resigned
to what is ultimate and unknowable, this is our fate.
Suknaski now lives in a group home due to poor health. He has
abandoned art, and chosen silence, his rage, given over, to
the age. It also seems almost possible, or at least it isn’t
impossible that Suknaski may return, hit the concrete so to
speak and make that “sound of one foot step aheadda the
other” (Montage…) and returning, manage
again that sad goodbye wave.
In a remarkably prophetic painting from 1969 Suknaski seems
to prophesy (prophet\see) his own literary career. The text
on the monotype print reads “see palm\ sea palms \ see
waves\ sea waves.” Amongst other things this is a vision
of goodbye, of going out to sea, of waving while riding the
final wave into nothingness. Drawn into the paint, as this is
the method of monotypes, is a hand, palm out and fingers up,
and on the hand an eye. Above the hand is an image of a palm
tree and circling all of this a wavy line. The painting adumbrates
through word, image, sound and meaning. Though done at the beginning
of Suknaski’s career it could also be an epitaph. We are
guided by character- driven design: what we see, is our fate.
But wait, maybe it is that the hand beckons, the eye upon it
suggests the way has been found, this is narayan, the
man-path. Forward, to the bridge, what the hand signals:
bifrost. Again, our fate although certain, is uncertain.
What is it the flagman signals? We must be sure and watch. Does
the hand wave hello…or goodbye?
Balan, Jars. “Voices from the Canadian Steppes: Ukrainian
Elements in Andrew Suknaski’s Poetry.” Studia
Ucrainica 4, U of Ottawa P, 1988. p. 120-8
Birney, Earle et al. Four Parts Sand. Toronto: Oberon
Bowering, George. Harry’s Fragments. Toronto:
Coach House P, 1990.
Lane, Patrick. (1980). “The Poetry of Andrew Suknaski,”
ECW 18/19: p. 90-9
Sacks, David. Letter Perfect: the A to Z history of our
Alphabet. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004.
Suknaski, Andrew. Circles. Deodar Shadow Press, 1970.
---. East of Myloona. Saskatoon: Thistledown P, 1979.
---. In Mind Ov Xrossroads ov Mythologies. Deodar
Shadow Press; 1971.
---. Montage for an Interstellar Cry, Andrew Suknaski.
Winnipeg: Turnstone P, 1982.
---. Personal letter to bp nichol from Andrew Suknaski dated
august 7th 1970 from
Lake Louise to Toronto. The original is held by Nelson Ball.
---. Silk Trail. Toronto: Nightwood Editions, 1985.
---. The Ghosts Call You Poor. Toronto: Macmillan,
---. Writing on Stone (poem drawings 1966-76): Anak
Kemeny Babineau lives in Mt.
Pleasant, Ontario with his wife and two girls. He writes poetry,
fiction, reviews, and the occasional essay. His latest book of
poetry is The Incomplete Tree Guide (Wot Press, 2005).
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