It’s been almost two years since Margaret Avison, one of Canada’s most significant poets, died. Now that her “last poems” have been published, we can stop wondering what she left on her desk.
Books of this kind are tricky, as writers rarely leave behind a complete, edited manuscript. Avison’s literary executors, Stan Dragland and Joan Eichner, tell us that “a few changes … have silently been made” to the poems in Listening. In particular, they highlight a central sequence, entitled “Our ? Kind,” which was “very close to being finished.” For a poet, that phrase can mean anything from needing an additional line break to another whole poem to complete the sequence. We’ll likely never know. What is evident is that it’s far from the strongest work in the book.
Fortunately, a handful of poems in Listening measure up to Avison’s best. While this is manifestly a late work, often preoccupied with mortality and the diminishments of age, Avison does not succumb to the sloppiness and self-indulgence that older poets often do – probably because she was always more intent on looking and listening than on speaking.
Avison’s syntax is nimble as ever, following the quicksilver – or quicksilvery, to use a more Avisonian word – flow of her fluid imagination into recesses of outer and inner worlds, and into resonant turns of phrase (“Awe is heartwhole”) we might never have imagined on our own.
Avison is often called a religious poet, but as in past books, the overtly Christian poems are among the least lively in this collection. One of the best pieces in Listening is “Still Life,” which offers a perspective more pantheistic than Judaeo-Christian: “The only future for/ a dying flower is/ compost-mash: its lingering/ memorial, when the first/ eggshell dawn/ lifts up a new/ horizon, all/ in stemless daffodils,/ flowering.”
Flawed and unfinished though the book might be, two or three of its poems belong in any essential selection of Avison’s oeuvre. And that’s no small thing.