The sense of place and history in the poetry of A. W. Purdy
Wilson, Jean Lenore
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In "Tent Rings", a poem included in Alfred Wellington Purdy's 1967 collection of poetry, North of Summer, the poet remarks that entering ancient Eskimo settlement sites marked by rings of stones gave him a sense of "mingling with the past", of "being in two places". Similarly, in an article accompanying several of his North of Summer poems in The Beaver, Summer, 1966, Purdy remarks that he would not have been surprised to wake up one morning and find that several recently abandoned winter houses, located on the Kikastan Islands, which he and two Eskimo families inhabited for two weeks, had been re-occupied, "the people having just returned from founding a colony in Carthage or Antarctica".1 These remarks, though specifically referring to Purdy's experience with the Eskimos and their culture, seem to me to express aptly his sense of place and history in all his poems. Purdy is acutely aware of an intimate relationship between the present and his place in it, and the past, in which he can only participate objectively, from a distance of years or ages, but which fascinates and intrigues him and which he incorporates into his subjective response to the present. In "Tent Rings", for example, he is entranced by: a thousand year old spell relayed and handed down a legacy from dead to the living (North of Summer, p. 69) Even as he lives with the Eskimo and adapts to their hunting culture, Purdy is conscious of the imposition of the past upon the Eskimo way of life and, by his intrusion into the Eskimo world, upon himself as an exile from twentieth century Canadian urban culture. this consciousness is directly expressed in almost every poem in North of Summer. It is not, however, a state of mind restricted to the particular geographical and social environment which Purdy describes in this volume. It is simply his most recent and most explicit expression of it. The relationship between national or cultural history and Purdy himself as a twentieth century poet in Canada, has been evolving as a significant theme in his poetry since the forties. 1. A. W. Purdy, "North of Summer. Arcitc Poems and Prose", The Beaver, Outfit 297 (Summer, 1966), p. 24.