On Mark Dickinson’s Canadian Primal: Poets, Places, and The Music Of Meaning

Canadian Primal

for Stan Dragland

We live in a country we have barely begun to perceive.
– Don McKay

By J.S. Porter

Canadian Primal is a collective biography of five poets in shared conversation redefining and re-imagining home, a work of appreciative criticism that uncovers layers of deep philosophic and poetic thought, an expedition into an authentic spirituality for our time, and a large conversation on Canada’s heritage of wilderness and Indigenous wisdom.  So, how can a writer fuse biography and literature and spirituality and heritage and do justice to each?

The task sounds daunting, but Dickinson’s conversation is so warm and welcoming, so full of love and affirmation, that you follow happily to wherever he leads.

Dickinson pays attention to five poet-thinkers – Dennis Lee, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn—who inhabit the country from Quadra Island in British Columbia to St. John’s Newfoundland, with stops in Saskatchewan and Ontario.  For each poet, Dickinson finds a key word that suggests their inner life:  Polyphonic Soul for Lee; Shapeshifter for McKay; Renaissance Man for Bringhurst; Lyric Philosopher for Zwicky and The Conversationalist for Lilburn.  Dickinson also has an image for each, usually a wooded area or field, although in the case of Lee the accompanying image is of the Henry Moore sculpture The Archer in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, befitting the former Poet Laureate of the city and author of Civil Elegies.

The five poet-thinkers form a kind of symmathesy, a group that learns together through interaction. They correspond with each other, see each other when they can, and write about each other. Periodically, Tim Lilburn scoops up his friends and puts them in a book (Poetry and Knowing and Thinking and Singing), binding the compañeros in their common pursuit of rethinking and renaming here.  Dickinson outlines their core achievement in his Preface: “the recovery of a mode of musical thinking open to ancestors, non-human beings, natural processes, and the genius of specific places.”

Lilburn crystallizes what he has learned from each fellow poet-thinker: “from Robert…the translations, Dōgen; from Dennis, Grant and a sense of striving’s beauty; from Don, the trail, Charles Wright, and Levinas; from Jan, Plato, the pre-Socratics. From all came a sense of a community of thought.” What Lilburn has perhaps given the others is encouragement to keep the conversation large and inclusive.

Lee: “Perhaps your job was not to fake … a space of our own and write it up, but rather to speak the words of our spacelessness. Perhaps that was home.”*

McKay: “In my work…the other remains other.”

Bringhurst: “Home…is where the stones have not stopped breathing and the light is still alive.”

Zwicky: “The gift of the lyric is to see the whole in the particular; and in so doing, to bring the preciousness, which is the loseability, of the world, into clear focus.”

Lilburn: “The tree as it exists in relation with its loving observer, the tree-known-in-love, is greater than the tree in isolation.”

You can tell by these few quotations that none of Dickinson’s poets is an easy read.  They challenge, provoke, interrogate; they get under your skin. They also lead us back to, or forward to, what is primal: the essentials, the necessary, the unavoidable, in the drive to bring this land, and this heritage, into consciousness and language.  As Dickinson himself so eloquently says:

Without a creation story—without an account of how the land birthed the soul of a people who defer to its genius and who do not look elsewhere for meaning—that people will have neither the guidance nor the interior resources to survive through time.

At last, in Dickinson, an academic comfortable with the word soul! If Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven, and Emily Carr have painted the soul of the country, poet-thinkers, including Dickinson’s five, have attempted to give voice to the country in wholeness with all its blessings and blemishes.

In a note to the reader, Dickinson personalizes his journey, which began by his reading Lilburn’s Thinking and Singing and included walk-talks with each of his subjects on their home ground:

I paid new-found attention to everything because everything mattered – the coming and going of birds and insects and mammals, the rise and fall of the wind, changes in the light, the phases of the moon, and, most of all, the arrival of unexpected insights and feelings. I tried not to approach the land empty-handed, and found that the simple act of giving, regardless of what I gave, shifted something inside me and, in turn, made me more approachable.

An implicit question undergirds Dickinson’s Canadian storytelling: what does it mean to live here after the Indigenous land-theft, British colonization and American re-colonization?  How can we re-listen to the land, to the ancestors and elders, and the poet-thinkers, and renew “our capacity for the practice of attentiveness” (Lilburn’s phrasing).

Like Lilburn, Dickinson’s attentiveness is keen, and, like Zwicky, his embrace is deep and wide.

We will see things

stark and dead if we see only things

themselves and not the pattern that informs them.

What must be understood, not collectivity, not

substance, is the depth of an embrace. (Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies)

Dickinson sees in patterns and relationships, in connections and convergences.

If you only have time for one book on Canada’s past and future and the poet-thinkers who are carving out a map for living here, then choose to read this book on ensouling a language worthy of this strange and majestic place.


*Dickinson draws attention to George Grant’s ground-opening essay “In Defence of North America” in Technology and Empire, a small masterpiece edited by Dennis Lee in which these powerful sentences continue to echo: “That conquering relation to place has left its mark within us. When we go into the Rockies we may have the sense that they cannot manifest themselves to us as ours.  They are the gods of another race, and we cannot know them because of what we are, and what we did. There can be nothing immemorial for us except the environment as object.”

A movie trailer for Canadian Primal:

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