A high-school teacher once told a young Margaret Avison to eschew the first person singular in her writing for 10 years. It was a directive the naturally withdrawn Avison readily took to heart. Nevertheless, the quintessential Canadian literary question is Alice Munro’s: “Who do you think you are?” It is a question an older Avison consistently demands of herself in this posthumously published autobiography.
With the exception of her conversion to Christianity (from agnosticism) in 1963, Avison’s life was generally lacking in dramatic incident. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she had a peripatetic, but by her own reckoning happy, childhood. (She was hospitalized as a teenager for anorexia, but this event is dispensed with briefly and matter-of-factly.) She went on to study literature at the University of Toronto and from there to work a variety of jobs in support of her writing. She cared for her mother in her old age. If she had any romantic relationships, she refrains from mentioning them. (The closest thing to salacious gossip is her recollection of a chaste skinny dip with married poet A.J.M. Smith.)
She enjoyed success in poetry, winning two Governor General’s Literary Awards and a Griffin Poetry Prize, but was uneasy about it, calling two of her big wins “ridiculous.” Perhaps as a result, there is surprisingly little about poetry in this book, with individual poems mostly mentioned in relation to places Avison lived or worked.
Her narration nevertheless accretes into a fascinating portrait of a serious-minded, semi-ascetic woman with a “jackdaw” approach to learning, whose existence was an attempt to balance life, art, and devotion. Despite the fact that Avison dedicated her life to poetry, she “never wanted to ‘be a poet.’” Until her retirement at 68, she was a “wage-earner,” never applying for a Canada Council grant and quitting several jobs whenever they threatened to evolve into a time-sucking “career.”
Avison didn’t quite finish her autobiography before her death in 2007. Consequently, and perhaps to fill gaps left by her preternatural reticence, editors Stan Dragland and Joan Eichner have appended a substantial and well-chosen clutch of letters, interviews, and other documents.
This autobiography is unlikely to interest a general audience, but poets, Avison devotees, and scholars alike will find it well worth reading.