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The Authority of Roses, Ross Leckie

Ross Leckie

Ross Leckie was born in Lachine, Quebec (a suburb of Montreal), on 17 September 1953. His parents, Robert and Doris, grew up on the prairies during the Depression. His father left an engineering degree to take a job in a factory in Montreal; later, after his service in World War II, he did technical writing and support for the Uniroyal rubber company. Doris Leckie received a diploma in education before moving to Montreal to teach the deaf, eventually becoming principal of the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf and a prominent figure in her field. Her family history had strong ties to Loyalists from the areas of Moncton and Saint John, so the Leckies spent many summers in Shediac, leaving Ross with, in his words, “striking memories of NB” that proved to be highly influential in his work (Personal interview).

Although Leckie summered in New Brunswick at an early age and returned to the province during his twenties, his early schooling and academic career saw him traversing the rest of the country and part of the U.S. Growing up in Montreal as an Anglophone, Leckie attended Summerlea Elementary School and then Lachine High, graduating in 1970. Afterward, he attended Dawson College for two years when it was still housed in a converted pharmaceutical factory. He received his first degree from McGill—a Bachelor of Arts with a joint honours in English and philosophy—and while his later degrees focused on English literature, the philosophical strain still factors strongly in his work. Leckie attended the University of Alberta in 1975-76 to receive a diploma in education. He went on to earn a Master of Arts in English with a concentration in creative writing from Concordia, where he met important figures such as Gary Geddes and Robert Martin. From there, he went to the University of Toronto, receiving his PhD in 1989.

On a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, he did postdoctoral work at Princeton, researching John Ashbery. There he joined a weekly workshop organized by prominent American poet Alicia Ostriker, and he credits her as well as Rick Tibbits for influencing his second publication, The Authority of Roses (1997, poetry). Afterward he returned to the University of Toronto, where he taught for three years alongside A.F. Moritz (whose illustrations were used in The Authority of Roses). This experience added Toronto to the list of cities that left its mark on his work. Leckie spent three years in Prince George, BC, where he was granted tenure at the University of Northern British Columbia in 1994. From there, he applied to the University of New Brunswick’s Department of English in 1996, drawn by the job’s creative writing program and the opportunity to work on The Fiddlehead. He reached the final stages of the hiring process before the job was cancelled for lack of funding. However, in 1997, he was offered the same position, and he has remained in Fredericton since then.

The geography of Leckie’s publications marks roughly the arc of his life: he has released three volumes of poetry, the first of which, A Slow Light (1983), was published by Montreal’s Véhicule Press before he left the city. His second book, The Authority of Roses (1997), was produced through Brick Books in London, Ontario, while he was transitioning to New Brunswick. Finally, Kentville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press is responsible for his latest work, Gravity’s Plumb Line (2005).

Throughout his creative career, Leckie has sought to explore, in his words, “the epistemology of metaphor,” and the primary role of poetry in the individual’s relation to the material world. To do this, he mixes close observation with metaphor in a form of “humanist, materialist, leftist eco-poetics” (Personal interview). An abbreviated list of his influences includes Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Glück, W.S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery.

His first publication, which demonstrated his philosophical approach, was well received and recognized as the first stage in the development of an intellectual poet. Cathy Matyas says of A Slow Light:

Ross Leckie’s first collection of poems is a promising, though not unflawed, beginning for a new writer. A Slow Light suggests a struggling intellect, a mind that’s preoccupied with philosophical ideas, but that hasn’t yet integrated these into a unique, poetic form of expression. (38)

Leckie achieved the integration that Matyas and other critics such as W.J. Keith called for in the release fourteen years later of The Authority of Roses, an illustrated volume described by Keith as “a witty metaphysical meditation on the connections between natural objects and the human mind” (233). However, it is with Gravity’s Plumb Line that Leckie has met the most critical success, moving his metaphysical meditation from witticism to the deeply personal. The book was written in New Brunswick, but more importantly, to New Brunswick. Leckie said in an interview with Anne Compton:

When I arrived here, I deliberately set out to write poems about New Brunswick as a way of arriving and as a way of beginning to inhabit a place that I [expected] to live in a very long time, perhaps for the rest of my life … I thought there was a kind of settling I was doing that required my imagination of the place. (351)

Gravity’s Plumb Line is most celebrated for its opening sequence of poems which, according to Compton, are characterized by “clarity, balance, and civility” (337). The sequence follows the flow of the St. John River through towns such as Hartland, treated as follows in a poem of the same name:

I knew that I could die, but looking through
the wooden slats of the covered bridge,
an eight-year-old, a comfortable hand in

my father’s, I realized he would die too.
It was pleasant to stand in the gloom,
aware of the blistering brightness at each end.

I wondered why the timbers weren’t painted
like a house. We both loved the “thunka-thunka”
of the planks as a rusted pickup lumbered over them.

“The world’s longest.” From one end to
the other. A name can tell you everything
you want to know. A name can say that

this is a place where everything is dear.
For a moment I thought the heart carved
in the board was my father’s: RL loves DB.

I looked through the boards at the tawny
colour of the water, lit by the light, so
heartlessly transparent, its hands washed clean. (18)

As head of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick, Leckie has dedicated himself not only to teaching, but also to bringing together a community of writers. He organizes readings and fellowship at Alden Nowlan House and coordinates UNB’s annual Poetry Weekend, an event that enjoys robust attendance and allows poets from all career stages to share their work. Leckie’s position in the Department of English also entails that he serve as editor of the longest-running literary journal in Canada, The Fiddlehead. His work as an editor, teacher, and writer, combined with his exuberance for bringing together the creative community, makes him an important figure in contemporary New Brunswick literature.

Greg Everett, Winter 2014
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Leckie, Ross. The Authority of Roses. London, ON: Brick Books, 1997.

---. Gravity’s Plumb Line. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005.

---. A Slow Light. Montreal, QC: Véhicule Press, 1983.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Compton, Anne. “An Admirable Clarity: Ross Leckie’s New Collection, Gravity’s Plumb Line.” Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews. Brighton, MA: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 337-63.

Filip, Raymond. Rev. of A Slow Light, by Ross Leckie. Books in Canada 13.2 (1984): 21.

Keith, W.J. Rev. of The Authority of Roses, by Ross Leckie. Canadian Book Review Annual. Toronto, ON: Peter Martin Associates, 1997. 231.

---. “Review: Gravity’s Plumb Line.” Canadian Book Review Annual. Toronto, ON: Peter Martin Associates, 2005. 220.

Leckie, Ross. Personal interview. 1 Nov. 2011.

MacLeod, Alexander. “‘Having a conversation with the place you’re in’: Discussing the Past, Present and Future of Atlantic-Canadian Poetry with Brian Bartlett, Ross Leckie, Lindsay Marshall and Anne Simpson.” Dalhousie Review 89.1 (2009): 25–37.

MacLeod, Sue. "At the Edge of Sky and Water: Two New Brunswick Poets Invite Us Inside Their Worlds." Atlantic Books Today 48.2 (2005): 24.

Matyas, Cathy. Rev. of A Slow Light, by Ross Leckie. Quill & Quire 49.8 (1983): 38.