Poetry Review by Phil Hall

Phyllis Webb, Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb, edited by John F. Hulcoop (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014). Hardcover, 512 pp., $45.

In 1965, George Woodcock, in an overview of Canadian poetry for Volume III of thePeacock Blue Literary History of Canada, said of Phyllis Webb: “This scantiness of publication seems linked with philosophical difficulties in dealing with her dominant themes of loss and unfulfilment, complicated by a purist aesthetic that demands a way of statement stripped to the essential bone.” Since then, we have lost a country in which publishing three books of poems (Woodcock ignores the first shared book, Trio, with Gael Turnbull and Eli Mandel) would necessarily warrant a paragraph in the history of poetry in Canada—the latest book by Webb was “very sparse” by Woodcock’s estimation (Naked Poems).

At 87, Phyllis Webb presents us with a glorious Collected Poems. This collection offers Trio, plus those three early books, plus the later three Coach House books (Wilson’s Bowl, Water and Light, Hanging Fire), along with forty-nine uncollected poems. Six books, then, (plus Trio)—with major poems in each one—this is remarkable, because Webb’s prominent male contemporaries—Birney, Layton, Purdy—were publishing about a book a year toward the ends of their writing lives, with much dross. The increase in publishing opportunities since 1965 means that poets now tend to do their growing in public. We watch them widen or stagnate, book by book. In contrast, Webb did her growing in private, so that each of her books came as a surprise, an unexpected turn, a leap past the expected next step.

There is no “scantiness” in Peacock Blue, though George Woodcock was half-right—Webb’s publishing pattern is linked to “philosophical difficulties.” She wouldn’t accept a poem until it solved something—in her caring, or her politics, or her poetics:

all evidence, both external and internal,
is now proven and visible;

balance, delicate
yet fibred,
proves a pivot
around which are described
immaculate arcs.
(“Chung Yung”)

Woodcock is wrong, though, about the “purist aesthetic” and the “essential bone.” As the lines above show, Webb was thinking from the start like a painter, following those fibred (blue) arcs, aiming wider. And one narrative of this life’s work is its struggle against a purist aesthetic. Pauline Butling calls this “Webb’s refusal of a poetics of mastery.”

The last poem in The Sea Is Also a Garden (1962)—is Webb’s inimitable poem “Poetics Against the Angel of Death.” All of the early formal poems of travel and lament culminate in this one poem that does exactly what it says it wants to do as it enacts a breakthrough to “Yes!”

                                                I run ragged to elude
the Great Iambic Pentameter
who is the Hound of Heaven in our stress
because I want to die
writing Haiku
or, better,
long lines, clean and syllabic as knotted bamboo. Yes!

What to do after such an exclamation: Naked Poems is legendary now, hard to find and expensive in first edition. It is essential, but there is no bone—there is a lit blouse on a floor. This book is a cult classic: important to queer culture; important for its elegant restraint in our quick-text age; important, too, for its mothering of the long poem in Canada. The last book ended with “Yes!”—this one ends with “Oh?”
For the next fifteen years there is something else legendary: silence. During this period, while Wilson’s Bowl is gestating, let us consider (by quick documentary) the (writing) life of our poet:

  • as a young woman, Webb runs for provincial office as a CCF candidate in Victoria in 1949 (she lost, thank the gods);
  • by 1958 she is living in Paris, learning French;
  • in 1968 in Vancouver she interviews Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg;
  • in 1967 see her on CBC TV reading in chorus with bill bissett & bpNichol;
  • listing the major events of her life year by year, she enters for 1976 only: “Read Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born;
  • during this period, Webb visits Russia—she is exploring anarchy and Kropotkin;
  • in the late 70s is also when Michael Ondaatje introduces Webb to the ghazal form, which she embraces, makes her own, and takes further than John Thompson did (his Stiltjack, the model);
  • in 1982, The Vision Tree—Selected Poems wins the Governor General’s Award;
  • in 1992, Webb receives the Order of Canada.


From this montage, come down—to the majesty, and the step-aside, that is Salt Spring Island, long Webb’s home.

“My poems are born out of great struggles with silence,” says Webb in her forward to Wilson’s Bowl (1980). From this “landmark” (Northrop Frye) book, here’s one small poem, “Father,” which delights me:

The light is mauve
my eye’s iris blooms
into the nightmare of
riderless horse, the sleep honey
sings through the lilac
and I smell ash.
I touch the skin of the
horse, his pelt, thinking
of Father’s military ride
Father’s pomaded hair brushed
back, brown, and his long beautiful
hands holding the reins
just so, horse dancing.
And at the end, Father
smiling his great Rosicrucian smile
sniffing the light
flicked whip of lilac
his eyes seeing beyond me
the Rosy Cross.

This is not the most famous or ambitious poem in Wilson’s Bowl, but it illustrates the tendencies: again the painterly attention to colour; the personal taken toward the impersonal by craft; the momentary jarring of “blooms” and later “light” as they hover, both verbs and nouns; the otherworld hint of phrases such as “the sleep honey”; the importance of the tightening at “just so”; how “Father” is a distancing name, though its repetition suggests a plea. Who else writes like this? Stanley Kunitz, another long-living poet. Also, John Newlove’s poems and career come to mind: Apology for Absence, Newlove called his Selected Poems 1962-1992; Webb’s absence comes without apology, and without the booze. Instead, to the waiting page, she has applied clear and tense patience. The last poem in Wilson’s Bowl is “The Day of the Unicorns.” Who else could write about unicorns and not sound flaky? Webb manages a political poem, no less, linking imagination with “the common good.”

In Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals (1984) we find a mastery of the two-line cadenza. Here is another legend: the poem that inspired Timothy Findley to write his novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage: “I am half-way up the stairs / of the Leaning Tower of Pisa…tilting in this stranded ark” (“Leaning”).

Each book seems a culmination. Hanging Fire (1990) contains some of my favourite poems by Webb—how they jump and gather! Much has been said of this book’s anger, but I hear instead its frustrated reclaiming of the integrity of eclecticism: animal rights, women’s rights, “the glamorous national debt,” pride of place, etc. Webb says, “I put my foot down.”  I admire the prosier inclusiveness of poems here—in “Seeking Shape, Seeking Meaning” Webb says, “The syntax of deep structure composes on the harp, / strings along.” (Again, the double-take on “strings”—verb and noun—is what invites meaning into song.)

The “Uncollected and Unpublished” poems are important to this full collection—they complete the design, the arc. They are mostly occasional, written to or for. If published alone, they might not hold up, but it was a good call to include them here. They offer confirmations and echoes. From a woman who writes so well, we want to hear everything. We want to hear the fish star of Naked Poems become Ishtarin the ghazals. Where “Yes!” becomes “Yet—” we are sustained:

   I stand in one place risking almost everything.
I weep for the last notes.

The river stones are polished
by the blue-veined hands of Ishtar.

Poor Fishstar! Yet—all is not lost.

                (“Middle Distance”)

Surely, Peacock Blue is the literary event of the year. Reading this life-in-words, it is obvious that Al Purdy is not now our reigning voice—Phyllis Webb is. She has engendered her full scope—by silences—by retreats—unto a woman’s lyric authority.

—Phil Hall

As in The Malahat Review, 190, Spring 2015, 79-83