The Book of Were by Wayne Clifford
The nature of the Deity, illuminated first through a prism of found nineteenth-century steel engravings, is subsequently reconsidered by the most famous lost Canadian poet of the 1960s.
The medieval church fixed man on a balance beam between angel and animal. WereBook proposes that at present our scale makes us the center, and the animal shifts between adoration and veneration at one end, and contempt to extinction at the other.
Publisher Tim Inkster proposed to poet Wayne Clifford a bestiary based on old engravings, and the poet responded with verses that seem perhaps at first simplistic, but ask the reader to question deeper the relationships between creatures and humankind.
So. A Were-Book tells us about were-animals or were-folk, changlings at the edges of those stable and self-congratulatory worlds connected directly to Platonic forms. The fox in Japan is a powerful, unfriendly figure, but follows a version of human culture, in some tales playing music on local instruments. The Medusa in Greek gossip had immortal sisters, but a human enough face. An African frog becomes a model for our mutation experiments. O, Moreau, we hardly knew! A state of Were is where the worlds seethe still truly wild, the garden in which the ancestors stroll with the conversant god, and good and evil are being decided in the manner of a family living out its most ordinary conflicts.
Table of contents
The Wakeful Closet Door
The Tides of Pampas
The Weight of Memory
A Japanese Tale
After Their Trip to Guatemala,
Charm against Jaguar
A Dog’s Lesson
The Genome Project’s Appeal to the NRA
How Sin Evolves
Before the Mystery’s Gone
‘The superbly crafted and enthusiastically recommended poems comprising Wayne Clifford’s ‘‘The Book Of Were’’ are based on old engravings representing were-animals and were-folk, changelings at the edges of our known worlds and ordinary lives. One very nice touch is the inclusion of animal images accompanying the poems. ‘‘How Sin Evolves’’: The medieval catalogue of character defects/was meant to drag man’s dialogue up near where God expects,/until America’s analogue brought home the sin’s effects.//The sloth proves neither strifeful brute, nor sanguine, but sincere./The problem of so slow a life is simply being here./Since sleep can make the stay more brief, the less there needs to fear.//So blessed be sloth, the mossy beast, who’s camouflaged in grace,/that even when he’s shot beneath, his claws hold him in place;/his vision upwards thus bequeaths suspension of god’s face.’
—Michael Dunford, The Midwest Book Review
God? Hmmmm ... God’s a quaint sound old relatives make, home, when those necessary times off take you back to greet them. They’re so sentimental. You know you’re alone in the city with only your most trusted-in-this-moment significant other(s).
Then what was that animal flattened pulpy in the front gutter last week? Should you have called someone? A businesslike voice at the other end; a promise the mess would disappear? Pick up. It’s some guy who’s been wondering just such things.
Those critters preferring the twilights of day and the stars’ lit night learn the city, too. Lamps dim down residential streets where they still live among us, fitting in, invisible as the stars have become, and more artless than us, since they know what they like.
Their back homes are harder to get to. But if you’ll follow the crumbs ...
Excerpt from book
He started Gandalf, ended Gandhi,
and venerable when he went.
He talked with me by what sound handy
got across just what he meant.
He’d been my eldest daughter’s pet,
outgrown before his so long stay
embarrass grade nine. As the debt
for having brought him first away
from pet store with his litter, wheel
and water bottle, pellet feed,
(for all my troubles, quite a deal)
I was who bought replacement stuff
and meeped back welcome getting home,
until, blind, bald, he’d had enough,
and left for plateaus hamsters roam
who have been good and true and kept.
And what he left, eared purse of skin,
which insignificance I wept
to lose such listener within.
Wayne Clifford was born in Toronto in 1944. He studied English at University College at the University of Toronto in the mid sixties during which time he came to be associated with a small coterie of students that included Stan Bevington, Dennis Reid, Doris and Judith Cowan, and David Bolduc. Wayne also remembers Tangiers Al, but not clearly, which says something about the time. While still an undergraduate Clifford won numerous Norma Epstein prizes for his poetry and also one E. J. Pratt Award (1967) that he shared with Michael Ondaatje. (One poet kept the money, the other, the medal. In the end each felt equally cheated.)
Stan Bevington had started his fledgling Coach House Press in 1964 and asked Clifford to acquire a few poetry manuscripts suitable for book production of an experimental sort. Wayne secured early work from George Bowering, Victor Coleman, bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. At the founding meeting of the League of Canadian Poets (1966) Wayne proposed a Writers’ Anonymous akin to other, similar, twelve-step programmes. Clifford’s idea was not seriously considered. Shortly thereafter, Clifford left Toronto to pursue graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Clifford began working at St. Lawrence College in Kingston in 1969, when the College was just new, and was involved in the Creative Writing program and the Fine Arts Program, until both were discontinued in the 1980s. Clifford then joined the General Arts & Science Program (GAS -- and yes, he does enjoy this irony of this acronym) and began teaching remediation in language. He retired in June of 2004. He was working on a poetry collaboration (unpublished) with bpNichol at the time of bp’s death in 1988.