Maureen Scott Harris Re-reads Three Favourites


This summer, free of deadlines for the time, and without complicated holiday plans, I decided to ignore the stacks of unread books lurking in my study and go back to some favourites—reading for the sheer pleasure of the re-encounter three books I’ve read happily before.

The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968Louise Bogan (Octagon Books, 1975)

I first read Louise Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries, Poems: 1923-1968 in the late 1970s, when I was starting to take my own writing seriously. What a discovery she was! I felt she shared some of my preoccupations, and delighted in her musicality and formal skill. Several of her poems seemed (and seem still) perfect.

The Alchemist

I burned my life, that I might find
A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief.

With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh¾
Not the mind’s avid substance¾still
Passionate beyond the will.

It strikes me this is not the sort of poem I read often now. Bogan’s diction is a far cry from the conversational and colloquial registers that reign in much contemporary poetry. Her syntax is more complex and formal than our every-day sentences, and often plays rhythms counter to the metrical one, layering and intensifying the poem. Her poetry is modern but firmly rooted in the English lyric tradition of Wyatt and the Metaphysicals. Her vocabulary is extensive, but for the most part the language feels unornamented and deceptively simple. Her themes are the traditional great lyric ones: beauty, love, loss, sex, death—“the flawed light of love and grief.” Her music is pretty much faultless. Mythology is part of the way she thinks.

It’s been a pleasure, and also tonic, to be reminded that song and thought together, fueled by deep feeling, lie at the heart of lyric. Marianne Moore wrote: “…Louise Bogan’s art is compactness compacted. Emotion with her … is itself form, the kernel which builds outward form from inward intensity.” Bogan’s been called “a minor poet” and “one of the finest lyric poets American has produced.” Read The Blue Estuaries and decide for yourself.

Bogan’s critical writings (A Poet’s Alphabet), her selected letters (What the Woman Lived), and Journey Round My Room, an “autobiography” compiled by Ruth Limmer also make good reading, and will enlarge your sense of her wit and intelligence.


A Peepshow with Views of the Interior: Paratexts, Aislinn Hunter (Palimpsest Press, 2009)

I’m reading in my backyard, nearing the end of Aislinn Hunter’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior. I’ve read this book of essays (or paratexts, as Hunter names them) three times since last November, each time delighted, watching my mind go spinning off in its own several directions as I read. Now, to pull myself together, I’ve put the book down. A power saw whines fretfully somewhere down the block, and somewhere in the yard a young robin practices a squeaky note over and over using varying intonations. The garden is dappled summer green, light shifting and falling through the tree boughs overhead.

Reading Peepshow today I’m getting hold of something beyond the pure pleasure of being carried by Hunter’s thinking and language, her willingness to follow thought and imagination as they roam among books and among things. Now I can almost say what this lovely mix of lyric essay and elegant prose is “about” … resonance, the shifty quality of experience, engagement with the material world of human-made objects, reading, writing, seeing and illusion, longing, how to use objects in fiction, the thinning sense (and knowledge) of language among her students, lyric thinking, nineteenth-century fiction by women… The list could go on, but taken as a whole Peepshow is a phenomenology of the imagination.

Dedicated “To the Unmoored Imagination,” the book continues overleaf with “and to being cast about by books.” Consider paratexts: Hunter acknowledges Gerard Genette’s thinking about those things—title page, contents list, acknowledgements, dedication, preface, appendices, and so on—that accompany the main text of a book. She is engaged by his notion of the paratext as a threshold, that space between. Peepshow is full of thresholds, things about to happen, spaces about to open, ideas about to flower—and the imagination heads straight for them. What a treat for a reader, these invitations to enter what is unfolding. But Hunter herself puts it this way, and ups the ante: “Paratexts are the edges of the road rutted from summer rain. They are the small stone cairns incised with numbers that sit between villages. They tell travellers how far they’ve come, how far they might be going. … The paratext is what lies outside (para-) the thing we are trying to say.” With the imagination we often get somewhere else than where we thought we were heading—or write/speak something other than what we thought to say.

The robin has given up its voice practice and sits quietly on the fence. The saw has paused its whining and I’ve finished the book. Once again I’ve been thoroughly cast about by a book. I couldn’t ask for any better reading experience.

Aislinn Hunter is also a fine poet. Read The Possible Past if you want to see how she approaches some of the same concerns in poetry.


Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems, Nancy Holmes, editor; introduction by Don McKay (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009)

The word “anthology” comes from the Greek, its root meaning “a collection of flowers.” What could be more appropriate for summer reading than a bouquet of essays or poems, a gathering that allows one to read straight through or by picking and choosing? This summer I’ve been rereading Open Wide a Wilderness but also reading it for the first time as I come across poems I haven’t yet gotten to.

Open Wide a Wilderness lets you sample English-language poetry written in Canada about Canadian nature, from the very end of the eighteenth century to the present. It’s a hefty but not unwieldy volume, so stuff it in your suitcase when you head to New York, say, or Rome, so you can read a poem or three each night before falling asleep, to clear your head of the city’s clamor and stimulation. Or troll through it in leisurely fashion, looking up from the pages for long stares across the piazza or the lake, while musing over the words you’ve just read. If it should be a lake you’re contemplating, or the bush, you may find its presence doubled by what was on the page.

Don McKay’s fine introductory essay rises from years of thinking about, and writing, nature poetry. McKay gives a reading—and, in keeping with his ecological cast of mind, concludes with several alternate readings—of Canadian nature poetry that is attentive to the resonances he finds among poems, placed in their contexts of time and thinking.

As for the poems, over and over again I’ve been surprised by this collection, even though I thought myself knowledgeable about Canadian nature poetry. Organized chronologically by authors’ birth dates, the book is indexed by author and title. An additional subject index (“The Alternate Guide”) also allows you to read by obsession. Quotation bests description when it comes to poems, so here are samples from some of my discoveries, featuring my own obsession.

From “Catbird,” by John Glassco:

eh  ‘rhehu ‘vrehu
eh  villia villia ‘vrehu, eh villa ‘vrehu
eh velu villiu villiu villiu!
‘tse daigh                  daigh  daigh
‘tse-de-jay ‘tse-de-jay ‘tsee-‘tsee ‘tsirritse ‘tsirritse
‘tsirao ‘twitsee
‘wititss ‘wetitsee ‘wetitsee wit ‘yu woity woity woity

From “Vision of a Woman Hit by a Bird,” by Erin Mouré:

The flutter in my blood after the bird hit, as if
I would fall too,
into my throat, a soft body shaking its wings
& fallen
past me, the shock of it, its fury

From “How crow brings spring in,” by Dennis Cooley:

or no not that exactly
they are magicians in capes
whisk it in from under their arms
crepes of sun
or egg

foo yung in black tights acrobats tightly wrapt
out they strut in those black shorts
& march crashes
them onto a trampoline wet with lights

From “A Question of Questions,” by Phyllis Webb:

The error lies in
the state of desire
in wanting the answers
wanting the red-crested
woodpecker to pose
among red berries
of the ash tree
wanting its names
its habitations

Another good thing about anthologies—they lead to other books. If you run out of things to read you can just hunt up work by the poets who appeal most to you. You’ll find their books listed in the bio notes following the poems.

[Editor’s note: due to the limitations of WordPress, we can’t reproduce the spacing and line breaks of a number of these poems; you may have to get off the Internet and find the books…]

One Comment

  1. Sheila Stewart
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate Scott Harris’s reflections on these three important books and the grace with which she brings us along into her summer return to favourite books. A good idea to return to our favourites.

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Maureen Scott Harris

Maureen Scott Harris is a poet and essayist who grew up in Winnipeg. Her third collection of poems, Slow Curve Out, will be published by Pedlar Press in late September this year.