Sunday, 12 May 2013

Those Who Came Before

Steven Heighton, proud owner of "a loud blue polyester shirt" once worn by Al Purdy, remembers the last time he saw the famous Ameliasburgh poet.
In the spring of 2000 I saw him for the last time, dying at home in Sidney, BC. Jay Ruzesky and I drove up from Victoria and sat at his bedside for a couple of hours, talking with him and at times just sitting there as we waited for him to wake from another short nap. At one point he tried to eat a piece of bread we brought him, but he couldn’t manage. Some people may die in their boots, but no one really dies on his feet. And no eighty-two-year old, horizontal for the last time, exhausted and unable to eat, rages at the dying of the light. That, after all, was a young poet’s prescription. A heroization of the mechanics of dying....And what do you, the apprentice, feel now in watching the mentor leave? Along with the inevitable sense of loss, you suddenly feel (like a child watching a parent die) much older. You sense how promise is no longer enough and it’s necessary for the real work to begin. You feel the truth of George Eliot’s insight—that it’s never too late to become the man you might have been. Death as the gift of a call to life. Seems the front-line trench, long occupied by elders, who stood between you and mortality and other apparent failures, has suddenly been vacated. You and your generation are going to have to fill it, as you’ll have to fill, or try to fill, the shirts of those who came before.
Emily M. Keeler recounts a story by Margaret Atwood from her on-stage interview at the Al Purdy A-frame fundraiser:
Atwood keeps calling Purdy a terrible tease, and recalls the time he, drunk and thinking it funny, peed on her car. Enright asks if she cleaned it up, and she sensibly says, “What clean? It was just pee!” Everyone laughs, and she says something about rain eventually falling. Atwood tells us one of her favourite stories about the six-foot poet. “I was in Montreal working on a screenplay with an English producer,” she remembers, “Al happened to shamble along the street. He was wearing galoshes—it was winter—and they were unbuckled.” Atwood imitates, for a second, the rhythm of clomping around in unbuckled boots. “He had a mermaid printed tie that he got at the Sally Anne, and a great baggy overcoat.” She introduced him to the stuffy Englishman, who, after Purdy had ambled away, said to Atwood, “Now that is a real Canadian.”

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