MacMillan Company of Canada, 1978
Facebook. Love it or hate it (and I confess to both), it can certainly lead you to places you never expected to go. Last night one of my friends (a Toronto poet I've actually met in person) commented on the link to Michael Dennis' (an Ottawa poet I've not met) latest blog post where he talks about a poetry book, The Essential Tom Marshall (Porcupine's Quill, 2012; poems by Marshall selected by David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje). I'll likely end up getting it. Tom Marshall has a very special place in my heart as he signed my very first rejection slip, back in the mid-seventies, when he was poetry editor at Canadian Forum. On it he scrawled, "I like the general idea of this one." I no longer have the slip, but I remember it well.
So back to Michael's review. He tells us that Marshall died twenty years ago, and then in one brief paragraph he rattles off the names of "fine Canadian poets I knew who died young, before their time", adding, "You most likely never heard of them when they were alive and the odds of hearing anything about them now are slim and none." This sent me off to my poetry shelves in search of one of the poets he named, one Linda Pyke, to dig out my copy of her first collection of poetry, prisoner, published in 1978.
That was the year a friend of mine found himself well and truly immersed in Canada's correctional system by getting a fairly long minimum sentence for bringing some stuff into Canada that wasn't/isn't permitted.
That was the year I found myself somewhat obsessed by all things correctional, so of course I picked up a copy of this book. If I remember correctly, I found it at Longhouse Books on Yonge Street.
I noted that the author and I were the same age. I read the book, found it ever so much braver than anything I was attempting to write, especially when it came to prisons, and eventually shelved it (as well as my relationship with friend-who-found-himself-immersed). I probably haven't read it right through since I first got it, so it was interesting revisiting it today.
The poems tell the story of a young woman who enters into a correspondence with a man who is in prison for a crime-of-passion murder.
through devious means:
my poem in a magazine,
and now we write back and forth
sooner and sooner as if somehow
this ritual exchange of photographs
and books life histories and poems
could help us transcend touch
one the other
(from the captive prince)
As the poems unravel their attraction to each other grows. The reader is taken through the prison system—the visiting room, the family day picnics, the waiting, the news reports of prison riots. The longing, for these are very sensual poems. The longing.
beneath your open hand,
my body is a map
spread out upon a table.
There's another story going on at the same time, as the narrator's mother is dying in hospital. The narrator likens the hospital to an asylum, to a prison.
i travel your corridors,
sealed, clinical, clean,
it is like an asylum
(hospital, chronic care),
where the cure is
not a cure,
but a warehoused
limbo-life where years
are short as days,
and days as long as nights.
(from the cure)
The year after prisoner was published Linda Pyke died in a street accident in Toronto. I found an interesting editorial by Bob Eby in The Communicator, a prison publication out of a correctional facility in Springhill, Nova Scotia. (It's a pdf and is slow to load, but it comes up eventually). He talks about his shock in learning that Pyke has died. "Her poems soared", he says. And yes, they do, quite often, even as they display signs of a poet just getting started. It would have been so interesting to have been able to see what she'd have done with a longer writing life.