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Breakfast at Mels and other Poems of Love and Places by Douglas Lochhead

Breakfast at Mel's and Other Poems of Love and Places, Douglas Lochhead

Douglas Lochhead


Douglas Grant Lochhead (25 March 1922-15 March 2011) was born in Guelph, Ontario. His father, Allan Grant Lochhead, had received a PhD from McGill in 1919 and in 1922 was employed as a bacteriologist at Malt Products Co. in Guelph. A year later he became Dominion Agricultural Biologist at the Dominion Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

Douglas Lochhead’s mother was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her maiden name was Van Wart. The Van Warts were Loyalist immigrants and had roots in the farming community of the Saint John river valley. Helen Van Wart was a gifted pianist and piano teacher. She had a BA from the University of New Brunswick, and at the time she met Douglas Lochhead’s father she was studying at the Leipzig Conservatory while he was pursuing post-graduate work at the University of Leipzig. Only two or three days before the outbreak of the First World War, Helen Van Wart managed to leave Germany. Allan Grant Lochhead, however, was trapped in Germany and interned in the famous Ruhleben camp for the duration of the war. During those four years, Helen Van Wart exchanged letters with him. Helen Van Wart and Allan Grant Lochhead married in 1919. Four years after Douglas Lochhead was born, his only brother Kenneth (1926-2006) arrived. Kenneth Lochhead was to become one of the major twentieth century Canadian painters. His work profoundly influenced Douglas Lochhead’s poetry and thinking.

Both Douglas and Kenneth attended Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, where an English teacher encouraged Douglas to write poetry during his senior year instead of submitting prose compositions. The brothers spent their holidays, usually together, in two places, both of which were to become focuses for that attention to nature and region for which Douglas Lochhead’s poetry is known. One was a summer cottage that Lochhead’s parents built in the forest on the banks of the Gatineau river north of Hull, Québec. This is probably, the setting of one of Lochhead’s finest poems, the three part “Open Wide a Wilderness.” It is certainly the setting of the ten part sequence “Gatineau Revisited” dated to ten days in July 1986. By then, Kenneth Lochhead had built a painting studio on the site after returning to Ottawa in the 1970s. Here, during the 1990s, he created a series of landscapes, among them “Fall Arboretum 2,” “Cathedra Light,” and “Concept: Grosso,” which inspired poems in Douglas Lochhead’s last book, Looking into Trees (2009) where they are also reproduced. For Douglas and Kenneth Lochhead, the Gatineau property was an experience of Eden. Their parents attempted to let the property develop naturally. Kenneth Lochhead recalled, “My mother didn’t want anything cut; the trillium would come up, and that was a sacred rite of spring ... And my brother looking at birds and mother waiting for certain birds to appear; these images were poignant in the excitement of their experience and connection.”

The second early experience of archetypal place Douglas Lochhead had was New Brunswick during summers he and his brother spent with their maternal grandparents, the Van Warts, in Fredericton and on the New Brunswick shore of the Bay of Fundy. In one of the few pieces of autobiographical prose Lochhead published, “The Hearse was a Nash,” he describes these visits, his grandfather’s store, and his building forts in the forest. He speculates, “Is it trivia? Are such details of place and people simply romantic fall-out from one’s past? I suppose they are. But for me, they help to explain the sense and feeling of place and people, which have become part of my poetry. They help to account for a closeness, a confidence which I have in being in the Maritimes.” Two of Lochhead’s best early poems, “View from Scotch Settlement” and “Uncle Amos,” are set in this matrix of childhood, family background, and place.

Lochhead entered the pre-med program at McGill University in 1939. He quickly discovered he was not suited for medicine, transferred to the arts faculty, and graduated with a BA in 1943. In that year he joined the Canadian Army, training first as an artillery officer, then switching to the infantry with the hope of fighting in Europe. He was sent to England in preparation for embarkation to the Continent, but the European war ended. Lochhead was shipped back to Canada. He then volunteered to go to Japan as part of the newly formed Canadian Far East Force. But before he could undertake yet another course of training, this time as a paratrooper, the Pacific War ended. Lochhead was proud of his military service, proud to be one of the veterans of the war, but that pride did not prevent him from writing a sometimes sardonic account of his military experience in the fifty-eight part prose-poem sequence “The Panic Field,” first published in 1984.

Between 1945 and 1947, Lochhead was enrolled in the MA course in English at the University of Toronto. His thesis supervisor was the novelist and poet Philip Child who had fought in and written about his experiences during the First World War. The subject of Lochhead’s thesis was the English war poets of 1914-1918. Between 1947 and 1950, Lochhead was an advertising copywriter in Toronto and worked in publicity and advertising for an Ottawa newspaper. His life, as he told me once, was at this time adrift until he met his future wife in 1948 while she was working as a librarian in the Toronto Public Library.

She was Jean St. Clair Beckwith (1924-1991). She was born in Sydney, Cape Breton. Her mother Rhoda (neé Fraser) came from Boularderie Island, just off the Cape Breton coast. Her father, John Harold Beckwith, began working as an auto-mechanic then started and successfully ran one of Cape Breton’s first car dealerships. Jean Lochhead died of cancer in 1991. She is a presence in a number of Lochhead’s early poems and in the sequence Millwood Road Poems (1970). Upon her death, Lochhead elegized her in what many regard as his finest collection, Black Festival (1991), and in “Elegies 1-10,” a sequence published in Homage to Henry Alline & Other Poems (1992). It was she who brought more order to Lochhead’s life after they married in 1949 by suggesting he become a university librarian.

In 1951, Lochhead received a Bachelor of Library Science degree from McGill University. Over the next two decades he served in university library and teaching positions of progressively more responsibility. From 1951 to 1952, he was librarian at Victoria College, Victoria, BC. In 1952 he worked at Cornell; from 1953-1960 he was University Librarian at Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS. (“Here I feel I have roots,” he would later write.) From 1960-1963 he was Director of Libraries at the then-new York University in Toronto and also an Associate Professor of English. From thence in 1963 he was recruited by the novelist, essayist, and playwright Robertson Davies, who had just been appointed Master of the new graduate facility at the University of Toronto, Massey College. There Lochhead was the College Librarian, and also Professor of English at the University of Toronto, and was in charge of and gave instruction relating to bibliographical studies and the Massey College letterpress printshop collection.

In 1975 Lochhead left Massey College. He deliberately chose the Maritimes as the place where he wished to teach and write. He became Edgar and Dorothy Davidson Professor and Director of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University, Sackville, NB. He and his wife bought a small modern house at 9 Quarry Lane, a few minutes walk away from the Mount Allison campus. Their two daughters had by then left home to follow careers as librarians. Lochhead filled several rooms of the house and his basement study with hundreds of rare or recent books, with paintings by his brother Kenneth, and (during the 1980s) with paintings by Maritime primitive artists such as Joe Norris. Lochhead also assembled a large collection of shorebird decoys as winter memorials of the huge shorebird flocks of plover, sanderlings, and sandpipers he spent hours watching while they rested and fed on the beaches and mudflats of nearby Shepody Bay and the Cumberland Basin every August and September. And almost every day Lochhead would take time to drive and walk along the High Marsh Road just outside Sackville, watching for geese, harriers, and bobolinks.

After retiring from teaching in 1987, he became Writer in Residence at Mount Allison in 1990. In 2002 he was deeply moved and grateful to be chosen Sackville’s first Poet Laureate. He regarded the position as verification that he had become a significant, recognized, regional voice. Despite increasing physical frailty brought to a crisis by heart problems leading to a triple bypass operation in January 1998, he continued living, writing, and publishing in the Quarry Lane house until August 2009. In November 2009, after a period of hospitalization, he moved to the Drew Nursing Home in Sackville, where he died on 15 March 2011.

Poetry & Poetics

The flyleaf of the last poetry collection Lochhead published, Looking into the Trees (2009), lists thirty other titles. Although there are overlaps and repetitions of collections and poems among many of these volumes caused by Lochhead’s energetically re-circulating his work, he produced a very large body of poetry. It matches in size that of his Canadian contemporaries Souster, Layton, and Purdy. In addition, there is a significant body of unpublished poetry. Some of Lochhead’s poetry, in fact, remained unpublished in this cache for up to twenty or thirty years and then was published without accurate indication of its date of creation.

There are certain gains and losses consequent upon Lochhead’s methods of publishing. On the one hand, he kept his work before the public; on the other, he blurred, obscured, or even seemed to contradict his stylistic and thematic development. The most striking instance is that of the sequence A & E, published under one of Lochhead’s private press imprints, Harrier Editions, in 1980 and in another edition in 1998. It is a dated, diary-entry, day-by-day sequence (a form Lochhead particularly favoured), with entries running from 16/3/80 to 23/3/80. Taken on that face evidence, the sequence would seem to have been written in Sackville five years after Lochhead arrived. But there exists a transcript of this sequence, circulated privately by Lochhead in an edition of six copies dated 1973, while he was still in Toronto. This typescript shows only very minimal variants upon the wording of the 1980 and 1998 version (for example, “luv” in the 1973 typescript, “love” in the 1980 and 1998 texts). To complicate matters still further, the poems in the 1973 version are dated 16/3/66-23/3/66. Similarly The Lucretius Poems, published under the Harrier Editions imprint in 1998, would seem contemporaneous with Breakfast at Mel’s (1997). But judging by their form and style, by their short lines and improvisational expansiveness, The Lucretius Poems were written at about the same time as the 1966 A & E. A third example is the late publication Orkney: October Diary (2002). It resembles A & E stylistically, like The Lucretius Poems, and that reason alone suggests it belongs in their company. But there is another reason for that inference. A privately circulated typescript issued by Lochhead in 1997 prefaces the text of Orkney: October Diary with the dedication “for Kulgin.” The dedication was omitted from the 2002 publication. “Kulgin” was the name of a Scottish bookseller with whom Lochhead had many good times (including a whiskified session with Hugh MacDiarmid and a more decorous visit with George MacKay Brown) while Lochhead was on purchasing trips for the Massey College Library during the later 1960s and 1970s.

Chronological anomalies were demonstrably not Lochhead’s concern. For him, poetry was not something located behind us in time, or in front of us; it is around us. But the anomalies are a kind of negative proof of a central characteristic of Lochhead’s work. He is a highly syncretic writer who, throughout his life, adopted and adjusted a number of styles acquired from writers he admired at the time. To all these styles he imparted his own original, particular gifts of lyricism, nimbleness, and quick-wittedness. Discussing these styles in chronological order is one way to trace the leading themes of a richly diffuse body of work.

Like several Canadian poets of his generation, including, for example, Purdy and Outram, Lochhead was heavily influenced in his early poetry (the later 1940s and early 1950s) by Dylan Thomas. In 1952, in fact, Lochhead travelled from Victoria, where he was then working, to Vancouver, where Thomas was giving a reading, to invite Thomas to read at Victoria College. The invitation was Lochhead’s initiative, and he had managed to cobble together a suitable fee. After Thomas read, Lochhead gave up trying to meet him because of the press of people, but later, by accident, he came across Thomas in the pub of the Hotel Vancouver and they spent some drinking time together. The Victoria College reading could not take place because of Thomas’s schedule. But he did sign Lochhead’s treasured, battered copy of Dylan Thomas: Selected Writings (New Directions, 1949). Images in Lochhead’s early poems “Phoenix,” “In the Green Night of Summer,” and “The Word, the Word” are, like Thomas’s, highly wrought, loose, and impacted. Like Thomas’s, the rhythms of these poems are incantational and uncolloquial. The poet is at their centre: vatic, celebratory, and eirenic. He will, in fact, retain that centrality throughout most of Lochhead’s work.

Thomas’s is not the only influence perceptible in these early poems. Several emulate the distancing ironics and abstractions of Auden and, in the case of “Recruit,” the best of Lochhead’s early war poems, Henry Reed. Others, for example “NS Fisherman,” “Drill Sergeant-Major,” “At the Fair Ground,” and “Rose in Sea-Captain’s Garden,” are inflected by the work of Earle Birney and the short free-verse poems of E.J. Pratt.

In these early poems there is an unresolved tension of influences, a tension between the vatic stance and rhetoric of Thomas and the colloquial, pragmatically realistic stance of Pratt and Birney. During the 1950s and 1960s in Canada, the latter stance became more fashionable and dominant in the hands of writers such as Layton, Souster, Purdy, and Nowlan. Lochhead made the same shift towards colloquialism during the 1960s and 1970s, but he never seems to have been thoroughly satisfied by it. He never stopped seeking more verve, polish, and playfulness of language and form. That impatience with the flatly demotic and its expression in innovations of language and form may, in fact, be Lochhead’s most important legacy to later writers, particularly in the Maritimes.

Millwood Road Poems (1970), the first of Lochhead’s mature collections, registers the effect of his moving away from Thomas’s diction. It is written in loose, colloquial free verse with often quite improvised enjambments and stanzas of irregular length. Its subjects are those of daily life. They are those of a young family man living in a comfortable middle class Toronto suburb. The setting is so defining of the process that it is used as the collection’s title. In effect, Millwood Road Poems is the first of Lochhead’s many regional collections. The epiphanies in some of the poems are small and simple. They belong, as the title of one of the poems says, to “No Eden, No Hell.” There are moments of joy, grace, wit, and comedy, but they are mild enough to disrupt no surfaces. Their equability, one senses, is not quite what the poet (here, as always in Lochhead’s work, identified in the first person) had always hoped for. There is sometimes an undertone of wistfulness, a tone of diminished possibilities, a restlessness in the poems.

These inhibited feelings are less overt in the poems than they are in what amounts to a running visual commentary upon them that appears in the collection’s first limited press edition and is republished in a Harrier Editions reprint in 1998. The commentary consists of 32 abstract-expressionist, black-and-white graphics, one for each poem, painted by Lochhead’s brother Kenneth. The graphics are often mocking, puckish, and sometimes erotic. And they suggest sources for Lochhead’s poetry during the 1960s and 1970s other than suburban realism.

In 1974, four years after Millwood Road Poems, Lochhead published evidence of this countervailance in his poetic thinking. Prayers in a Field (1974) is an eight part ranting celebration of God and nature in which formal syntax is exploded into fragments and conventional typography often capitulates to line after line of ecstatic capitals. Significantly, Prayers in a Field was first published in a private press, William Reuter’s the Aliquando Press. With its exuberant experimentation and idiosyncratic high style which show the influence of two writers by no means popular in 1970s Canadian poetry circles, Hopkins and Thomas, Prayers in a Field could only have been published as a single collection privately. The sequence is a report from the edge, an aggressive assault on the compromising and inhibited.

A number of other poems Lochhead wrote during this period show the same energy, without as much syntactical bravura. “October Diary,” a six-part sequence dated by day and month, 25/10 to 31/10 (a typescript version supplies the year: 1966), inaugurates the characteristic Lochhead dated diary form. The sequence consists of six short-lined, many line improvisations that could remind readers of the kind of action painting created by American painters during the 1950s and 1960s, the most famous of whom was Jackson Pollock. The frequent appearance of the word “field” in Lochhead’s work during the 1960s and 1970s suggests he was interested in contemporary art theory and, in particular, by his brother Kenneth’s part in its Canadian development, especially during the period of the Emma Lake painting workshops. During this period, indeed, Douglas Lochhead painted abstract canvases, one of which was still hanging in the main bedroom of the Quarry Lane house when he finally moved into hospital in 2009. The concept of art as immediate not premeditated or retrospective activity, a central concept in abstract expressionism, made a lasting impression upon him. It is key to reading all his later poems. He found confirmation and example of this concept in the poetry of the American A.R. Ammons and in the polemics of John Cage, both of whom believed that art should not be constructed from memory by a technique of recapitulation, but had to be created as part of the moment and movement of immediate perception. Ammons’s frequent pattern of setting a solitary wanderer (a variation on the Baudelairean flâneur) free to observe the natural world as it happens around him became a common device for many of Lochhead’s sequences, as did Ammons’s use of short lines, loosely unwinding.

These characteristics of what might be called Lochhead’s “action poetry”—the equivalent of “action painting” (think of the expressive spatters and drips of Jackson Pollock’s paintings)—became clearly apparent in the latter half of Lochhead’s first book of collected poetry The Full Furnace (1975). The second half is entitled “Poems Roughly Divided.” That title itself suggests accurately the brusque temper with which Lochhead took leave of Millwood Road Poems, which are reprinted in the collection’s earlier part. Perhaps that temper or, more accurately, that temper’s ambition is part of the explanation for Lochhead’s leaving a prestigious position as Head Librarian of Massey College in 1975 for a position at Mount Allison University. Lochhead knew some of his Toronto acquaintances regarded his choice (a thoroughly Cagean one) as equivalent to being buried alive. But Lochhead moved to Sackville precisely to escape being buried alive in Toronto. Lochhead’s creative response to nature could no longer be satisfied by fleeting visits on the weekends to the intensively cultivated farmlands around Toronto, or to the beaches of Lake Ontario, or to Whitby Marsh (part of the setting of Prayers in a Field). Nor were memories of childhood summer vacations at the Gatineau cottage or in the Maritimes enough. Given Lochhead’s developing poetics they were not even particularly valid. Place and poetry of place had to be the same.

Ironically the Toronto skeptics were wrong not only about the needs of Lochhead’s imagination, but also about the supposed marginality of Sackville’s intellectual life. Lochhead was to find generous scholars, artists, and friends in Sackville. They helped shape his work. Among the most influential was John Thompson (1938-1976) who since his death has become increasingly acknowledged as one of the major Canadian poets of his generation.

Something must be said about Thompson’s life here because his work had notable effect upon Lochhead’s poetry. When Lochhead and Thompson met (at Thompson’s initiative) in the autumn of 1975, Thompson had been teaching in the Mount Allison Department of English since 1966. Thompson had just returned from an academic sabbatical spent mainly in Toronto during which he had struggled with personal relationships, clinical depression, alcoholism, and had suffered a major nervous breakdown. None of these problems had been resolved. As a poet, Thompson continued writing a series of ghazals he had begun in September 1973. He gave Lochhead a typescript of those he had completed (thirty-one by October 1974) and would give Lochhead typescripts of others as he completed them during the rest of their friendship. When Thompson died of an overdose of prescription pills and alcohol in March 1976, it was Lochhead who typed Thompson’s last ghazal, number xxxviii, from Thompson’s holograph copy and sent the full typescript of the collection, Stilt Jack (1978), to Thompson’s publisher, The House of Anansi Press.

While Thompson was entering the final three months of his life (January-March 1976), Lochhead started work on a collection heavily indebted to the Stilt Jack ghazals for narrative subject, structure, and style. On 1 January 1976, Lochhead made the first entry in a daily poetic diary that he was to keep until 31 December 1976. The full typescript of this sequence has not been published. Entries for three months, dating from 1 September to 21 December were published as High Marsh Road (1980). In the same year, the collection was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Award.

Like Thompson’s Stilt, Jack Lochhead’s High Marsh Road is set on the Tantramar Marsh. Sackville is built on rising ground on the edge of the Marsh which is an area of thousands of acres of hayfields, occasional corn fields, cattle pasture, and tamarack studded swales formed by dyking and draining the swampy isthmus joining New Brunswick and Nova Scotia at the head of the Bay of Fundy. The Marsh was first cultivated by Acadians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the Acadian expulsion, settlers, who were mainly from Yorkshire, continued draining and farming the land. The Marsh reached its highest agricultural value during the late nineteenth century when its hay fed horsepower in the New England states and elsewhere. Now, although still cultivated and inhabited, the Tantramar Marsh is mainly an area of abandoned barns and fallen houses.

In Lochhead’s High Marsh Road, the protagonist, who is presented in the first person as if he were Lochhead himself, drives or walks along the High Marsh Road, or walks in the fields to which it gives access. The real High Marsh Road is a gravel one which runs easterly from the outskirts of Sackville along the northern side of the Marsh. The protagonist records the natural events he sees in his diary entries, but they are not recorded objectively. They are part of the intensely subjective language the protagonist uses to meditate upon the pattern of his life as a poet and lover. Those two functions are prime. There is no mention of anything similar to Lochhead’s life as a university professor or in Quarry Lane. As a poet, however, the protagonist is fascinated, like Lochhead, with spontaneous immediary and energy and the similarities of natural and, as he believes, poetic form. As a lover the protagonist is obsessed by a mysteriously named, shadowy X, who is alluded to in several entries or addressed directly as “Dear X” in draft letters which are made into daily entries at several points in the sequence. We are told almost nothing about X. She is the unknown quantity in an algebraic equation of strangely compromised desire. We know she lives thousands of miles away from the Tantramar. The protagonist must have met her in some previous part of his life, and the imagery of the entry for 1 December suggests their relation was sexual. A draft letter entered under 14 September describes X and “I” setting type and tantalizingly suggests a printing shop connection. Is X then “real”? Certainly the presence of her absence (or the reverse) eroticizes the landscape for the protagonist. Her body (entries for 4 October and 1 December) becomes earth’s body. But arguably, given even the specificity of the typesetting entry, X could be some kind of semi-allegorical, semi-symbolic figure representing the muse. Lochhead was asked by the Italian translator of High Marsh Road if X was a real woman. He replied she was “largely fictional”—a response that both denies and affirms by what must be termed paradox or contradiction or evasion. Perhaps what the Italian translator should have asked Lochhead, since she had had the nerve to ask the question about X, is: “Is I you?” As we shall see later, transliterating “I” to “he” and “my” to “his” in reading some of Lochhead’s poems can make for the difference between reading them as comedy or tragedy.

One of the possibilities that Lochhead’s answer opens is discussion of the relationship between High Marsh Road and Thompson’s Stilt Jack. As noted already, Lochhead was familiar with Thompson’s book. Thompson, in fact, walked and drove the High Marsh Road intensively. In 1973, he moved with his wife and daughter to an old Acadian farmhouse on the road. This house burned down, probably the target of arson in the autumn of 1974, after Thompson and his wife separated and while Thompson was on sabbatical leave in Toronto. The house was the setting of some of the early ghazals. Most of the other ghazals are set on the Tantramar Marsh where Thompson, as his own protagonist, his own “I,” endures a night-sea journey towards self-knowledge and sexual stability. For all its plangent acceptance, he fails to attain either in Stilt Jack’s final ghazal. High Marsh Road’s “I” enacts a parallel love quest. X, in her removal and mystery, parallels Thompson’s absent lover, the publisher Shirley Gibson, in Toronto. The parallels develop further if the reader notices three references to Thompson in High Marsh Road. Two (entries for 9 November and 27 November) are overt. They name him. One (for 24 November) is a moving elegy for him. The third, the entry for 18 November, is covert. It refers to a story involving Shirley Gibson, the hymn singer at the bar, that was well known in Canadian poetry circles at the time. Another parallel of narration remains to be told: the love quest in High Marsh Road ends in failure, as it does in Stilt Jack. But there is also a radical difference at this point between the books. In High Marsh Road, the failure is treated as farce. The protagonist suddenly discovers his apparent love has had a child by someone else. The sequence ends in laughter on 21 December; “the music / heaves. The conductor is Charlie / Chaplin.” Thompson’s last ghazal, by contrast, was written a day before his self-inflicted, semi-accidental death. Stilt Jack ends in tragedy. Its final music is funereal. It is possible to read High Marsh Road as a parody of Stilt Jack.

Thompson’s work influenced the style as well as the narrative of High Marsh Road. Although Thompson was sixteen years younger than Lochhead and although Thompson was an Englishman who arrived in North America at the age of twenty-two while Lochhead was, by several layers of ancestry, a Canadian, educated nowhere else but in Canada, they shared a common ground of poetic interests and fidelities. As a young writer, Lochhead had been a disciple of Thomas. So had Thompson. One of his earliest poems was an elegy for Thomas, very much evocative of Thomas’s devices of imagery and diction. The elegy was published in an American book of funeral tributes to Thomas in 1963. Lochhead and Thompson independently shared the need to move beyond clichés and soft diction and predictably wrought situations of pre- and post-war British neo-romanticism while being temperamentally estranged from the solutions proposed by the sardonic, social realism of the Movement verse of the 1950s, most notably the poems of Philip Larkin. Both Lochhead and Thompson found direction in American modernism of the 1960s and 1970s, in Thompson’s case, not in A.R. Ammons, but in the Anglo-American Denise Levertov, whose sense of economy and structure contrasts with Ammons’s fluidity and foreshadows a major difference between Thompson and Lochhead. Finally, both Lochhead and Thompson were very heavily influenced by the work of the French poet, René Char (1907-1988). Thompson’s doctoral thesis (1966) for the Department of Comparative Literature at Michigan State University consisted of a long critical introduction to Char’s poetry followed by two hundred pages of translation of it into English. Thompson’s Stilt Jack ghazals quote from these translations and allude to them several times. Lochhead owned a copy of Thompson’s thesis and had read it; but he also knew of Char through other translations before he met Thompson, especially Cid Corman’s version of Char’s Leaves of Hypnos (1973).

Char’s book is a combat diary made up of aphoristic, sometimes cryptic, and always highly pitched entries he wrote while serving as a resistance fighter and leader in the south of France during the Second World War. One of Char’s basic premises—that the poetic word (la parole) is more accurate than the word (le mot) of ordinary, unimaginative negotiation—was shared by both Thompson and Lochhead. All three men believed that the poet’s place in society is ordinary, in the sense that it is representative, and extraordinary because of an access to the archetypal world of human freedom to which the poet’s word is key. In addition to providing workable definitions of what a poet does and is, Leaves of Hypnos suggested the narrative pattern of Thompson’s and Lochhead’s books, their aphoristic bite, and their knots of paradox often expressed in descriptions of the natural world. Since Lochhead did not read French with any confidence, he inevitably was drawn to Thompson’s versions and transformations of Char’s work in Stilt Jack, all the more so since they concerned, like Lochhead’s perceptions, the Tantramar Marsh.

What he did not emulate in High Marsh Road was Thompson’s stanza form. That Lochhead took from Leaves of Hypnos. It was, in Lochhead’s case, a variation upon the lyrical prose poem, seldom longer than six lines, often only three lines, sometimes as short as one or two. The lines are not centered. The left margin is perpendicular, but on the right hand side all words are complete. Hence that side’s margin is not straight. But the words on the right side are often definite or indefinite articles, propositions and adjectives carrying no calculated stress. Therefore individual lines, as lines, often have no poetically structured enjambment. Essentially, Lochhead’s prosody in High Marsh Road is a nonce form. It looks like poetry, looks like prose, but is not quite either. It is a form of endless malleability, most easily composable on the typewriter or computer where the composer can see fairly precisely what the length of each line will be on a published page. It was to become one of Lochhead’s favourite and most characteristic forms.

High Marsh Road has since its publication been the collection by which Lochhead is remembered. It is likely to remain so. Lochhead was not a particularly allusive poet, but in High Marsh Road he obtains the advantage of almost being one. He achieves the allusive poet’s compressed, cryptic suggestiveness and energy, which can open poetry to many levels of combinatory or contradictory reading. It is possible to read High Marsh Road as a diary of natural observations, as a sequence of love poems, as a gesture of action poetry involved in the immediate circumstance of its utterance and, by the end of the sequence, as a deconstructive farce, mocking the protagonist-poet’s illusory belief that he and X shared much of anything, and undermining the more solipsistic premises of romantic love.

Lochhead was to repeat elements of the narrative and style of High Marsh Road many times in subsequent collections. Book length sequences doing so are Cape Enragé: Poems on a Raised Beach (2000), in which the protagonist-poet makes undated daily visits to the beach of Cape Enragé on the Fundy coast not far from Alma; Yes, Yes, Yes! (2001), which is probably set largely in the Quarry Lane house; Midgic: A Place, a Poem (2003) and Love on the Marsh: A Long Poem (2008). The latter two collections return to a Tantramar setting. A fifth collection belongs in the same category as these books although it is not devoted to a single sequence. Breakfast at Mel’s and Other Poems of Love and Place (1997) contains four sequences set in a wide range of places, not only the Tantramar Marsh, Sackville, and Wood Point (just west of Sackville), but also Toronto, northern Scotland (Stromness, the Isle of Harris), Atlanta, and Barbados. As a regionalist, Lochhead was always international. Each of the books named and of the sequences in Breakfast at Mels involves an X-like figure and a poet-protagonist’s love affair with her.

It is difficult to read these books and these shorter sequences without feeling that a troubling ambiguity compromises all these X-like figures, as it does also the motives, capabilities, and real intentions of the poet-protagonist. There are, it must be said, moments of lyric grace and acute perceptions of natural beauty in the work; and the reader may be moved to realize that the poet-protagonist is repeating, with each X-like figure, the same physical and psychological journey in an attempt to find a balance between life and art. But even so, it is difficult for a careful reader not to be left thinking awkward questions, though embarrassment and respect for the autonomy of art may make them very difficult to put directly. They are questions like these: Why are there so many X-like figures? Why are they shadowy, virtually fantasy entities? Why, nearly without exception, do the poet-protagonist’s relationships with them end in failure? How much self-knowledge does the poet-protagonist have? Is he a purely lyrical persona? Is the “I” of these sequences convertible into “he” in our minds; and, if so, must we therefore read them like comedies of error, although their farce is not signalled as it is by the appearance of Charlie Chaplin at the end of High Marsh Road? How much was Lochhead aware of such problems of interpretation? It is difficult, for instance, not to read the first and title poem of Breakfast at Mel’s and Other Poems of Love and Place—in which an “I,” the poet-protagonist, is waiting at Mel’s Diner in Sackville thinking about the arrival of a nameless X-like figure, a fourth or fifth in the book’s temporal order—and not feel she should be intercepted and warned of what lies ahead.

If the books and sequences under the dominance of X-like figures, or more accurately perhaps under the dominance of the poet-protagonist’s obsession with them, were all that remained after the publication of High Marsh Road in 1980, it would be difficult to argue that Lochhead continued to develop as a poet. That he did so argues for resources of introspection, objectivity, and critical self-judgement that the increasingly loosening forms and narratives of the amatory poems do not clearly reveal.

Among the X-free poem is the title poem of The Panic Field: Prose Poems (1984). It is a fifty-eight-part sequence based upon a pocket-diary that Lochhead kept while in the army between 1942 and 1945. Lochhead has obviously thoroughly re-worked and added to the original entries. The collection shows no resemblance to his early poems or to the kind of prose being written in English in the 1940s. But the collection does show considerable syntactic and structural similarity to Char’s Leaves of Hypnos. An interesting tension exists between Lochhead’s diary and Char’s. Char wrote a combat diary, in which there is death. Lochhead’s diary is about his never fighting, about a man training to die, prepared to die, but never entering combat. He lives both a reality and an illusion, a situation reminiscent in its suspending irresolution of High Marsh Road. The sequence “The Panic Field” is one of Lochhead’s most successful works. It is lucid, objective, and economical. It respects it occasion without strained rhetoric.  It is often funny about the irrationalities of army life. Unusually for Lochhead’s work, it contains character portraits. Perhaps one reason for the sequence’s freshness is that the protagonist has not yet identified himself as a poet. He talks about Baudelaire with a fellow trainee, but poetry for this particular version of “I” belongs to a world outside the one with which he must immediately cope. The last entry in the diary records the narrator’s arrival by troop ship in Quebec City. Bands play dockside. The troops on board sling English pennies and packs of cards and suddenly, floating in the air, are inflated balloons of condoms.

A similar lightness of touch and objectivity characterizes the poems of Dykelands (1989). The collection is a sequence of twenty-six poems Lochhead wrote to accompany the same number of photographs of Tantramar Marsh landscapes made by Lochhead’s Mount Allison colleague and friend, Thaddeus Holownia.  Lochhead wrote the poems in unrhyming couplets that owe something to Thompson’s ghazals. There are a few moments in them when a facile lyricism flattens the diction, but Lochhead makes the couplet form his own by extending the lines into flexible runovers emulating the Tantramar Marsh’s expansiveness.

Although the landscape is eroticized several times in the poems, any X-like figure is undistractibly absent. At times the poems have the impersonal precision of scientific and historical fact. They are objectively focused, literally, on Holownia’s photographs. Lochhead, in fact, placed each photograph on an easel to observe as he was working on the matching poem. The first person singular is nowhere used. The poet-protagonist pilgrim so familiar from Lochhead’s other work does not appear. The result is that the poems open out to the reader—like the Tantramar, like Holownia’s photographs of the Tantramar—without the reader being put into the position of having to assess a poet-protagonist’s reliability and balance.

Similar lucidity and modesty mark the collection published after Dykelands. In 1991 Lochhead’s wife Jean died of cancer. The same year Lochhead published the fifty-three-part sequence Black Festival: A Long Poem, an elegy dedicated to her. It first appeared in a limited edition of one hundred copies under Lochhead’s private press imprint, Harrier Editions. It is more readily available in Lochhead’s Weathers: Poems New & Selected (2002).

The poems in Black Festival are undated, but they are essentially another diary sequence describing and responding to the events of the last weeks of Jean Lochhead’s life during which Lochhead visited her in the Sackville General Hospital. Most of the free verse poems are only five or six lines long. None exceeds eight lines. Their lines usually consist of three or four words. The poems seldom use metaphor. They are prosaic, yet they are not prose poems. Their syntax is simple and declarative. They are spare, concise. They might be called clinically detached were it not that their reticence is the reticence of deep feeling. Lochhead is at a loss for words, and the few words he can find must be measured for weight and validity against the reality of his wife’s suffering and death. For a poet of Lochhead’s normal and usually celebratory expansiveness this is the equivalent of an abstract-expressionist painter’s decision to use black or white. Black Festival is an act of minimalism. It is, in that way, atypical among Lochhead’s collections. Paradoxically, although it is private and reticent almost to the point of silence, Black Festival has more public resonance than many of Lochhead’s extroverted collections. Its tact conveys some touch of the transcendent impersonality of great art that can speak most personally to and for us.

Two other sequences belong to the group of his major works published by Lochhead in the dozen years that begin with High Marsh Road. Both sequences appeared in Homage to Henry Alline & Other Poems (1992). One, “Homage to Henry Alline,” begins the collection; the second, “Vigils & Mercies,” ends it. Both sequences contain thirty single stanza parts written in the free verse, semi-poem, semi-prose-poem form variation Lochhead developed in High Marsh Road. Both sequences turn away from the minimalism of Black Festival. Their syntax is thickened, sometimes baroque in its ornamentation. And in both sequences the poet-protagonist turns up once again to claim the dominance from which he had receded in Dykelands and Black Festival. In both sequences he is often clearly identifiable as Lochhead himself.

By title, “Homage to Henry Alline” presents itself immediately as a tribute to the itinerant preacher, evangelical Baptist, hymn writer, and journal keeper who lived between 1748 and 1784. As a young man, living on his parent’s farm in Falmouth, near Windsor, NS, Alline had an intense spiritual awakening which led him to travel for the rest of his life preaching his form of New Light, ecstatic theology through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and parts of New England.

There is no doubt about the sequence being an homage. Lochhead teases Alline at times, but he obviously admires, even envies, Alline’s strength of conviction, his courage in the face of opposition and of the tuberculosis that will eventually cause Alline’s death, and Alline’s gifts as a writer. But there is something more subtle in Lochhead’s homage. It is partially apparent in Lochhead’s foreword to the sequence where he explains there are three voices in it: there are direct quotations from Alline’s hymns, sermons, and journals; there are paraphrases of historical accounts; and there are “questions which are the poet’s.” To take these one by one, the quotations from Alline’s work are visible because they are set in italic type. The historical accounts subsume the eighteenth century historical trappings of the sequence and the biographical details of Alline. But the third voice, the voice of the poet’s “questions,” is more complex and elusive.

The ambiguities of the third voice become evident in the syntax of the sequence. It is characterized by extreme looseness of pronoun-antecedent relationship. Within the run of two lines, first person pronouns can shift from designating Alline to apparently designating Lochhead without any shift of contextual definition. As the first poem in the sequence indicates, this is the voice of “Me. Henry.” It is a double-voiced single voice, an equivocal voice posing “questions” that it also answers.

Despite the realistically weighted presence of Henry Alline in the sequence, the poems are, in fact, firmly under the control of a twentieth century poet, Lochhead, whose religious faith oscillates between a profound reverence for God, in what some readers would call a traditional sense, and an unpredictable, clownish at times, semi-pantheistic, epicurean, naturalistic exuberance—between, that is, a self-conviction of deep guilt and a trust that paradisal redemption is possible and expressible in poems which are themselves valid signs of redemption and reconciliation. If the subplot of “Homage to Henry Alline” is constituted by the narrative of his pre-conversion, conversion, ministry, and the semi-martrology of his death, the supra plot is an overlay in which the poet-protagonist suggests the validity of his own poetic redemption and reconciliation. The two plots coincide at the end of the sequence.

To put it another way, “Homage to Henry Alline” is an equivocal performance by two, not three, voices. It narrates two biographies, Alline’s and Lochhead’s. Alline’s life is often used as a masked analogy to Lochhead’s. Alline’s self-accusations of sin before he experienced conversion, for example, are paralleled by Lochhead’s looking into “the blackness / of myself” in poem XVIII and the sexual “sweat / of ecstasy” encounter in poem XIX. Alline’s life becomes an analogous parallel for Lochhead’s, complete with Fall, purgation through preaching the Word, and deathbed Redemption. The last words of the sequence, “Go out to Glory tidy and all. I know my needs. / The creatured universe is a little song of love / His love. And I would listen,” are said by both Alline and Lochhead.

“Vigils & Mercies,” the second major sequence in Homage to Henry Alline & Other Poems, concludes the volume. It follows even more explicitly the pattern of fall, redemption, and salvation. In its case, instead of using an historical figure to crystallize and objectify his spiritual and psychological conditions, Lochhead uses a nineteenth century abandoned farm house located at Peck’s Point, on the Cumberland Basin of the Bay of Fundy, approximately fifteen kilometres west of Sackville. The house was still standing until quite recently, a weathered, windowless, gradually caving-in and rotting-out ruin.

For Lochhead, as poet-protagonist (there is no doubt the reader is meant to identify him as such), this “old hack of a house” (poem 2) is a semblance of his soul “in the midst of rout and debauch” (poem 3). The house is also a spiritual cosmos, infernal and purgatorial (not, as it turns out, paradisal). There are several references emphasizing Dantescan parallels. Lochhead writes, for example, that he is “my own Virgil” (poem 15). He locates himself as being “in a dark wood” (poem 12). He notes: “This is the inferno part” (poem 12) and “This is still the inferno part” (poem 20).

Although the sequence is structured by Lochhead’s favoured journal entry pattern, which could easily have been adapted to clarify transitions from Hell, to Purgatory, to Paradise, those divisions are not clear. (Lochhead’s poems are romantically intuitive not Thomistically consistent.) What is obvious is that the infernal suffering of the protagonist is locatable in the second circle of Dante’s Hell, the circle of the lustful. He faces his “knocking guilt” (a reference to slang such as “knocking shop” and “knocked up”) most dramatically and terrifyingly in the Last Judgement setting of poem 14, where he wonders: “Are / the watchers frozen because they slept with women?” And in poem 18, he faces the guilt of a former self-exculpation: “Only others were lechers.”

There is no identifiable moment when the protagonist’s guilt is forgiven, if in fact it is forgiven. In that sense, “Vigils & Mercies” secularizes its Dantescan model. The spiritual formula the protagonist contrives as mercy for himself is the following: “The answer / is to live it. Come up” (poem 23). Paradise reveals itself as not within the house (which would have been a theological accuracy), but as the natural world outside the ruined house, the natural world of sun, sky, and the beautiful shoreline of Peck’s Point. And suddenly with them, part of them, without preparatory introduction, without any context, is an unnamed feminine presence: “A surprise you are. Memory is dead. / Window frames as gold. Highlights / of nipples. Smooth rounds. Lip and tongue. /  Start golden bride” (poem 25). With her, the last four poems of the sequence dissolve the ruined house into choreography of a cosmic dance.

The finale of “Vigils & Mercies” runs with fluent energy and delight. But it is ambiguous. Whoever she may be, the feminine presence is too sexually present in poem 25 to be an equivalent to Dante’s Beatrice or the Bride of the Lamb who appears in The Revelation of Saint John. The latter may have been Lochhead’s intention; the term “golden bride” suggests so. But she is more a vision of Venus Pandemos. More realistically, she is a version of X. As such, she belongs to the occasions of guilt and lust that the protagonist of “Vigils & Mercies” has suffered to expiate throughout the first twenty-three poems of the sequence. And she will dominate collections and sequences following Homage to Henry Alline, the first of which is Breakfast at Mel’s and Other Poems of Love and Places.

Is the ending of “Vigils & Mercies” a repudiation of the guiltiness with which it began? Is the ending a contradiction of the ending of “Homage to Henry Alline”? Or is the ending of “Vigils & Mercies” another deconstructive farce like that of High Marsh Road? Such questions are not ones that could occur to the reader of Black Festival.

Perhaps what the ending of “Vigils & Mercies” shows is that Lochhead felt able to move freely among paradoxes so extreme that some of us would regard them as radical oppositions. Proof may lie in one of his last books, a collection of eighty prose poem aphorisms, probably written during his eightieth year, which he published privately as the chapbook Fragmenta (2003). Among the aphorisms are “suffering / leads only / to laughter”; “the kiss / is / life”; “to go / is / to return”; “the cost / is never / paid”; “I am you / who are someone else / so, we are all one”; and “GOD / is ALL, / around.”

The aphorisms (doctrinal as they really are) are intended as a non-doctrine phrased to encourage the movement of perception in a universe of continuous creation where, as another Fragmenta aphorism states, “there are no opposites.” They are the aphorisms of an old poet looking back on his own continuous creation and remaining faithful to the principles of abstract expressionist spontaneity that enabled him, as a young poet, to find his mature voice. But they also release us into the essential amorality of Lochhead’s work. Taken as a whole, it can be construed as a paradox, eliciting paradoxes of responses: nothing is more original than the eclectic; the lyric must be down to earth; the outside of a poem is always its inside; to be secret, go public; repetition is a form of continuous freedom; and tell everything but the telling. Lochhead’s poetry offers us the choice of reading on, above, or below its surface. That is its real courage and generosity.

Peter Sanger
Dalhousie University

For more information on Douglas Lochhead, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.


Lochhead, Douglas. Millwood Road Poems. Illus. Kenneth Lochhead. Toronto: Roger Ascham Press, 1970. Rpt. Sackville, NB: Harrier Editions, 1998.

---. Prayers in a Field: Ten Poems. Toronto: The Aliquando Press, 1974.

---. The Full Furnace: Collected Poems. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1975.

---. High Marsh Road: Lines for a Diary. Toronto: Anson-Cartwright Editions, 1980. (Rpt. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1996.)

---. A & E. Sackville, NB: Harrier Editions, 1980. (Rpt. 1998.)

---. The Panic Field: Prose Poems. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1984.

---. Tiger in the Skull: New and Selected Poems, 1959-1985. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1986.

Lochhead, Douglas and Thaddeus Holownia. Dykelands. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1989.

Lochhead, Douglas. Upper Cape Poems. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1989.

---. Black Festival: A Long Poem. Sackville, NB: Harrier Editions, 1991.

---. Homage to Henry Alline and Other Poems. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1992.

---. Breakfast at Mel’s and Other Poems of Love and Places. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1997.

---. All Things Do Continue: Poems of Celebration. Toronto: The St. Thomas Poetry Series, 1997.

---. The Lucretius Poems. Sackville, NB: Harrier Editions, 1998.

---. Cape Enragé: Poems on a Raised Beach. Toronto: Wolsak and Wynn, 2000.

---. Yes, Yes, Yes!. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2001.

---. Orkney: October Diary. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2002.

---. Weathers: Poems New and Selected. Ed. David Creelman. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2002.

---. Fragmenta: 80 Wisdoms. Sackville, NB: Mud Room Press, 2003.

---. Midgic: A Place, a Poem. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2003.

---. That Place by Tantramar: Sackville, New Brunswick Poems. Sackville, NB: The Town of Sackville, 2007.

---. Love on the Marsh: A Long Poem. Sackville, NB: Sybertooth Inc., 2008.

---. Looking into Trees. Sackville, NB: Sybertooth Inc., 2009.


Creelman, David. Introduction. Weathers: Poems New and Selected. By Douglas Lochhead. Ed. David Creelman. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2002. 11-17.

Fancy, Margaret. “To Remember a Landscape: A Checklist of the Works of Douglas Lochhead.” The Red Jeep and Other Landscapes: A Collection in Honour of Douglas Lochhead. Ed. Peter Thomas. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1987.

Fraser, Ted. Kenneth Lochhead: Garden of Light. Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 2005.

Hersey, Linda. “Q & A: Douglas Lochhead “[An interview]. Moncton Times & Transcript 17 December 2005: H4.

Lochhead, Douglas. “The Hearse Was a Nash.” The Fiddlehead 132 (April 1982): 42-46.

Munton, Ann. “Return, Toronto to the Tantramar: Regional Poetics, the Long Poem and Douglas Lochhead.” The Atlantic Anthology: Volume III, Critical Essays. Ed. Terry Whalen. Charlottetown, PEI: Ragweed/ECW Press, 1985. 251-61.

Rorai, Judith. Introduzione. La Strada di Tantramar: Versi per un diario. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2004.

Sanger, Peter. “The Real Round of the Saying: An Introduction to the Poetry of Douglas Lochhead.” The Antigonish Review 76 (Winter 1989): 129-50.

 ---. As the Eyes of Lyncaeus: A Celebration for Douglas Lochhead. Jolicure, NB: Anchorage Press, 1990.

Shanahan, Noreen. “Douglas Lochhead” [Obituary]. The Globe and Mail 15 April 2011: R5.

Vogan, Nancy. “The Maritime-Leipzig Connection.” The Red Jeep and Other Landscapes: A Collection in Honour of Douglas Lochhead. Ed. Peter Thomas. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1987.