A Bridge to Naridive: The Poetry
of Andrew Suknaski
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.
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:
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 Western canon.
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
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:
that’s all we’ve got man
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 of mythology.
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 well-worth preserving.
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.
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 narrative: bifrost.
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.”
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 canyon.
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.
Thru hell be guided
The blind prophet will instruct you as you go amongst cataclysms.
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 P, 1972.
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
---. Silk Trail. Toronto: Nightwood Editions, 1985.
---. The Ghosts Call You Poor. Toronto: Macmillan, 1978.
---. Writing on Stone (poem drawings 1966-76): Anak Press, 1976.