- I Am Here and Not Not-There: An Autobiography
Born in Galt, Ontario, in 1918 to a Methodist minister and a musically gifted mother, died in Toronto in 2007: between those dates Margaret Avison lived a life of disciplined commitment. The first commitment was to poetry, which she began writing in quite early childhood. On its account she avoided any work where success could lead to a career, threatening her 'hours of reading, feeling, working at poetry' - 'I had to move on whenever 'career' threatened.' This meant from college graduation to age fifty a series of part-time, short-term, or freelance jobs (one as mother's help), a life she described in a letter of 1945 as 'absurd, terrible, beautiful, rigidly defined.' Her second commitment came only when at forty-five, after two years of 'bewildered' scripture reading she 'encountered the living Jesus,' and thereafter, following graduate work in English and two years' teaching, during some twelve years she was employed by, consecutively, two downtown missions. The two commitments did not, as she at first had feared, pull in different directions: '[C]oming to faith enriched my subject matter.' In the same year as her conversion, 1963, her widowed mother came to live with her, dying blind and very old in 1985: this further responsibility she accepted with grace and cheerfulness.
Apart from two periods of relative freedom, her Guggenheim year in Chicago and a writer-in-residence year at Western, her chief pleasures were friendships, walking, mainly between work and home, and occasional concerts, including jazz. The business of her life, apart from actual writing, was seeing, hearing, listening - sending her 'optic heart' to explore, to press through what we think we know to the unfamiliar, [End Page 326] the disconcerting: 'Poetry longs to crash through into depth, at least.' And the search for a new, unmediated poetic language meant 'hiding the rhymes, complicating the rhythms.' It was perhaps this need to force a way beyond the well-worn that, at least in part, made her leave university teaching, that haven for so many poets: witness what seems her unlikely choice, when Homer's language was snatched from her by the death of a willing supervisor, of Byron's as her MA thesis subject. 'I chose Byron for my thesis on purpose. If God is anywhere, if He is present, you can study anything.' And, it follows, anywhere. As might be guessed from the earlier poems, she had at first, before a deflection by illness, meant to study maths and physics.
Reporting on this autobiography, it has seemed mostly more apposite to quote from the 'Documents,' seen by the author as well as her editors as essential parts of the book, but which she did not live to incorporate. Attractive as the text is, its smooth flow makes it, certainly for this reader, less illuminating than the letters and interviews. Warm thanks are due to Stan Dragland and especially Joan Eichner, her old friends and eventual editors, for giving the book its form and providing - especially valuable in view of the author's lack of interest in dates - a chronology. I miss an index, but assume there were reasons.
If the body of Margaret Avison's work is a treasure, so is her personality - quiet, dedicated, intensely original - 'a private person always': we are fortunate to have this record.
Jay MacPherson, Department of English, University of Toronto