Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The late, great Al Purdy

--this is a poem i "re-discovered" the other day, after not having read it for many years.

Al Purdy was a canadian poet-- Charles Bukowski once said: "There are only two living writers worth reading. Al Purdy is the other one."

Lament for the Dorsets

(Eskimos extinct in the 14th century A.D.)

Animal bones and some mossy tent rings
scrapers and spearheads carved ivory swans
all that remains of the Dorset giants
who drove the Vikings back to their long ships
talked to spirits of earth and water
– a picture of terrifying old men
so large they broke the backs of bears
so small they lurk behind bone rafters
in the brain of modern hunters
among good thoughts and warm things
and come out at night
to spit on the stars

The big men with clever fingers
who had no dogs and hauled their sleds
over the frozen northern oceans
awkward giants
..........................killers of seal
they couldn’t compete with the little men
who came from the west with dogs
Or else in a warm climatic cycle
The seals went back to cold waters
and the puzzled Dorsets scratched their heads
with hairy thumbs around 1350 A.D.
– couldn’t figure it out
went around saying to each other
..............'What’s wrong? What happened?
..............Where are the seals gone?’
And died

Twentieth century people
apartment dwellers
executives of neon death
warmakers with things that explode
– they have never imagined us in their future
how could we imagine them in the past
squatting among the moving glaciers
six hundred years ago
with glowing lamps?
As remote or nearly
as the trilobites and swamps
when coal became
or the last great reptile hissed
at a mammal the size of a mouse
that squeaked and fled

Did they realize at all
what was happening to them?
Some old hunter with one lame leg
a bear had chewed
Sitting in a caribou skin tent
– the last Dorset?
Let’s say his name was Kudluk
carving 2-inch ivory swans
for a dead grand-daughter
taking them out of his mind
the places in his mind
where pictures are
He selects a sharp stone tool
to gouge a parallel pattern of lines
on both sides of the swan
holding it with his left hand
bearing down and transmitting
his body’s weight
from brain to arm and right hand
and one of his thoughts
turns to ivory
The carving is laid aside
in beginning darkness
at the end of hunger
after a while wind
blows down the tent and snow
begins to cover him

After 600 years
the ivory thought
is still warm

© Al Purdy, 2000


Sky Onosson said...

That is absolutely amazing. It makes me think of all the lost non-history that has not been passed on to us in this time, all the knowledge and stories and legends that have utterly vanished from human memory. And while that is sad, it is also inevitable. The richness of history is matched only by the richness of the unknown and the unknowable.

TheBlueMask said...

read the review he (wolfie)did in today`s Free Press. The art outlasted the people. riveting.

wolfboy said...

aw shucks, thx dude. i've been in a slump lately--sort of feeling creatively blocked, if you will as far as the articles go. this article was a re-breakthrough, and this poem certainly was a big part of that. halfway through looking at the show, i was suddenly like: "aha! the al purdy poem!"

p.s. the curator of that inuit exhibit at the WAG is giving a tour of it on Wed, Nov 8 starting at noon.