Poetry Review by Rhonda Batchelor

The Essential Elizabeth Brewster, edited by Ingrid Ruthig (Erin: Porcupine's Quill, 2021). Paperbound, 64 pp., $14.95.

The Essential Elizabeth BrewsterAfter reading editor Ingrid Ruthig’s insightful notes “About Elizabeth Brewster” that follow the thirty-five poems gathered here, I felt a co-mingling of awed admiration and rueful sadness. How Brewster (1922–2012) achieved so much in her life—more than twenty volumes of poetry, seven books of prose, and inclusion in many anthologies over seven decades, numerous awards and honours including the Order of Canada—yet still flies under the radar of “well-known” Canadian authors remains a mystery. Yes, she is firmly within the canon, and yet “[d]espite accolades,” as Ruthig succinctly puts it, “Elizabeth Brewster has remained at a distance. Whether due to circumstance, her wariness of affiliation, or the persistently gendered view of canon-minders, she has been the poet whose work is included in critical anthologies while her name is missing from their introductions.”

Brewster was born in Chipman, New Brunswick, the youngest of five children. Her father was often unemployed, in ill health, and depressed. The family’s poverty was extreme and the Depression years only compounded their desperation. At one point she was taught at home because she lacked shoes to allow her to make the long walk to school. As she describes in “Bridge,” her mother sometimes took her to find refuge with relatives: “I remember walking the bridge across the river / one evening in spring with my mother / when I was thirteen. / We took turns carrying a suitcase / which had in it just about all we owned, / and we were not sure with which relatives / we might spend the night.” The poem “Inheritance” also looks back candidly, lovingly, at her father’s fear and despair, her mother’s pride and optimism. “Green was my mother’s favourite colour, / colour of grass and hope. / All her life she wanted / a green velvet dress / and never had one.”

A bright and studious child, Brewster could read at an early age and it was only a matter of time before she began to write her own poems. Her proud father submitted one to a local paper, marking her first publication at twelve. She then entered a high-school poetry competition and was encouraged by P. K. Page, one of the judges, with whom she remained friends for the rest of her life. A scholarship to the University of New Brunswick introduced her to other writers, including Fred Cogswell and Desmond Pacey, and in 1945 she was “integral” to the founding of The Fiddlehead. Her pursuit of higher education continued for the next couple of decades (a Masters in English from Radcliffe, a Bachelor of Library Science from University of Toronto, a PhD from Indiana University), and she moved about the country from job to job (including a stint at the University of Victoria in the mid-1960s) until settling, finally, in the English Department of the University of Saskatchewan, where she remained until her retirement in 1990, and where she wrote the bulk of her work.

That work is quiet and plainly spoken, but also questioning and questing, and always with a feminist sensibility. From “Nobody (26 May)”: “If Penelope had written poems, / would there have been more about weaving in them / than about war and the wine-dark sea?” In “On an Exhibition of Paintings by Mary Pratt,” Brewster points out what should be obvious, but sadly isn’t: that while others have painted similar subjects, the difference “is the female / eye seeing jars / of jelly on windowsills, a bowl of whipped cream, / ketchup bottles on the supper table, / raw fish ready for cooking / or a wedding dress on a wire hanger / against a closet door // trifles placed / to advantage / in a clear light / all at a point / of repose in which there is still / life.” Brewster’s eye, translated not by paint but words, is perfectly in tune with the “second wave” of modernism that galvanized mid-twentieth-century verse. A poem such as “Afternoon Snow,” marked by a simplicity that was anything but simplistic, is a perfect example of her spare and delicate touch, each word exactly right and perfectly placed. “I want you to come, and am afraid you may. / You might walk past, in the soft dark street, / And I would never know.” In “November Sunday,” Brewster gives us another love poem, wherein intellect and an urge for the preservation of selfhood battles physical longing. “I wonder again, as always, / if I truly love you / or if only my breasts love you, / wanting your hand.”

I met with Elizabeth Brewster a few times when she visited Victoria to escape the prairie winters. On our first meeting, I gave her a ride home from a party, and although it was late we sat talking for at least half an hour about our dreams. Not dreams as in aspirations, but deep-in-the-night dreams. It was years ago and I don’t remember any specifics, only how wonderful it was. Another time she invited me for tea, and the time after that I brought her to my house before then driving her to see her old friend, P. K. Page. I wish we had talked more about poetry, or that I had known what questions to ask, but it didn’t seem to matter at the time. The “rueful sadness” I mentioned earlier has more to do with lost opportunity than this beautiful book. Both Porcupine’s Quill and editor Ingrid Ruthig are to be commended for drawing a new generation’s attention to this important poet.

—Rhonda Batchelor

As in The Malahat Review, 217, winter 2021