South of North by Richard Outram and Thoreau MacDonald
A posthumous collection of uncommon plainsong from the poet Richard Outram, with drawings by Thoreau MacDonald.
Richard Outram has long been accused (there are those who will protest, wrongly accused) of being a ‘difficult’ poet. An ascetic traditionalist perhaps, as opposed to a populist the likes of cigar-smoking Al Purdy or whiskey-ravaged Milton Acorn. Some, notably the formidable critic Peter Sanger, prefer the term ‘challenging’ in describing Outram’s poetry. Alberto Manguel has written that Richard Outram is ‘one of the finest poets in the English language’. But then there are those fervent, vocal dissidents who will insist that not only is the thicker of Outram’s poetry ‘impenetrable’, but also that Sanger’s criticism is equally incomprehensible, if not more so. South of North presents a very different side of the polarizing Richard Outram. Consider ...
‘Outram’s ‘‘perfect burden’’ is the necessity of human ignorance and confusion, the burden of the ‘‘sad man’’ in ‘‘Autumn’’ which, like the riddle-work of material lattice both intercepting and allowing the passage of light in The Promise of Light, is the only possible preliminary to an accurate and profound experience of love.’ -- Peter Sanger, ‘Her kindled shadow,’ An Introduction to the Work of Richard Outram
In South of North, by way of stark contrast, Outram’s azure mariner compares the ‘waves of Whiffinspit’ with the ‘waves of Pond Inlet’ and finds the waters to be remarkably similar. As might be expected; nothing more complicated than that. South of North depicts a landscape that is distinctly rural -- a weathervane, dogwood in a marsh, and raucous crows; the whitened skeleton of a vole in a fallow field. Tantramar Marsh, the Saugeen River and the horses of Bonavista. A summer storm building over Cobourg; the hefty bulk of a snapping turtle surfacing, trailing a rank ooze.
2008—ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year,
‘Outram’s elegant poetics are complemented by MacDonald’s evocative graphics, tastefully selected by Anne Corkett and Rosemary Kilbourn, who also provide an informative introduction plus notes on both author and artist. Poems such as Outram’s ‘‘Arctic Myth’’ evoke complexities of being, creation, and psychic movement over a wind-drift landscape. Travelling from Vancouver to Tantramar, across mountain, foothill, lake country, farmland and wetland, Outram provides a travelogue of sharply focused poetic snapshots charged with immediacy and the breath of a moment, as in ‘‘Dawn’’: ‘‘Blinds still down: but thin blue smoke / arrows up from the farmhouse, / Swiftly ribbed light climbs, feral, / up and over the furrowed drumlin. / Beyond the cedars a dog fox coughs. Once. / An axe-blow cracks daybreak.’’ The Zen-like precision of these poems extends perceptions of earlier visionaries such as Wallace Stevens.’
—Karl Jirgens, Canadian Literature
‘Outram deliberately—though not completely—set aside allusion and a thickly layered poetic narrative, to fine-tune his efforts to the aural and visual, and in so doing, offers up a simplicity that is surprisingly rich and resonant. More so in this posthumous collection than before, he embodies the artist as well as the wordsmith, painting with language his experience of a world he treasured, while never failing to aim for and reach deeper, earthier places....
‘Even in their own lifetimes, both Outram and MacDonald resisted comparison with their peers. As gathered in South of North, their work remains, granting us the spirit and feeling of place, regardless of label or definition. It continues to spread its intricate rings in all directions.’
—Alex Boyd, Northern Poetry Review
Introduction or preface
A year before his death on 21 January 2005, Richard Outram presented the editors with a manuscript of 115 unpublished poems entitled South of North: Images of Canada. The collection was in no particular order. The poems were written in the space of three months in response to a request from the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. To celebrate the Club’s ninetieth anniversary in 1998 they had asked him to provide the text of a song cycle commissioned for the composer Srul Irving Gluck. Of the fifty-four poems presented to him, Gluck chose eight, setting them for baritone/mezzo-soprano and piano. The songs were performed with the title of South of North: In Honour of Thoreau MacDonald 1901-1989.
Thoreau MacDonald was the son of the Group of Seven’s J. E. H. MacDonald, a member of the Arts and Letters Club. Richard had long admired Thoreau’s work, maintaining he was the finest graphic artist of them all. He insisted simplicity and restraint are among the most difficult achievements of art. Thoreau agreed, writing of his work, ‘These pictures are attempts to show the Harmony and Design of Nature in a small space ... as a picture is so limited it is best to eliminate the unnecessary and accentuate the essentials ... they represent more the spirit and feeling of the place and time than outer appearance.’
Thoreau’s spare, evocative pictures drew from Richard a different aspect of his mastery. The poems are quick, vividly immediate, instant of access. They are the visible, audible delights of a consummate poet’s recognition of an artist as passionately involved -- as Richard was himself -- with animals, country and the practical accomplishment of tasks. Both men were deeply grieved by the despoilation of this world.
Unable to sort and arrange the poems and choose illustrations to make a coherent manuscript, Richard had many conversations with us about its possibilities. He lived to see a preliminary draught. We selected these poems close to the spirit of Thoreau’s pictures by season, vocation and place. Richard was the guiding hand in placing the poems beside those which were their direct inspirations.
The last poem was chosen, not for an obvious relation to any illustration, but for its quiet, profound melding in nursery rhyme, of Babylon, that destroyed cradle of civilization, with Canada. It lies on the page as a dignified statement and warning of the extent of the loss occurring around us. ‘Unless the prevailing misrule is corrected ... a heritage loved and inhabited as such’ will be gone. We will not find it again. ‘Not before dark.’
Outram was born in Canada in 1930. He was a graduate of the University of Toronto (English and Philosophy), and worked for many years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a stagehand crew leader. He wrote more than twenty books, four of these published by the Porcupine’s Quill (Man in Love , Hiram and Jenny , Mogul Recollected , and Dove Legend ). He won the City of Toronto Book Award in 1999 for his collection Benedict Abroad (St Thomas Poetry Series). His poetry is the subject of a significant work of literary criticism, Through Darkling Air: The Poetry of Richard Outram, by Peter Sanger (Gaspereau Press, 2010).
Richard Outram died in 2005.
Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989) was born in Toronto, Ontario. His formative years were spent in rural areas near High Park, and in Thornhill, north of Toronto. Thoreau’s drawings and writings about the wild plants and animals native to these regions reflect his deep concern for and support of nature conservation.
Thoreau created thousands of images including pencil sketches, pen and brush drawings, stencils, linocuts, woodcuts, silkscreens, watercolours and oils. He is perhaps best remembered for creating detailed line drawings of natural objects set within their stylized habitats.
Under his Woodchuck Press imprint, Thoreau designed and published sixteen books or booklets of his own work. His drawings and calligraphy have adorned hundreds of books written by others most notable among which are Flint and Feather, E. Pauline Johnson, 1924; Lyrics of Earth, Archibald Lampman, 1925; The Chopping Bee and other Laurentian Stories, Brother Marie Victorin, 1925; West by East, J. E. H. MacDonald, 1933; Maria Chapdelaine, Louis Hemon, translated by W. H. Blake, 1938; Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1942; and David and Other Poems, Earle Birney, 1942.
Thoreau MacDonald was the son of Group of Seven member J. E. H. MacDonald. His work is found in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Hart House at the University of Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection amongst others.