Review of Archive for Our Times: Previously Uncollected and Unpublished Poems of Dorothy Livesay


Review of Archive for Our Times: Previously Uncollected and Unpublished Poems of Dorothy Livesay edited by Dean J. Irvine

by Linda Morra
Jan. 14, 2000

A version of this article originally appeared in Praire Fire Magazine. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

In the editorial postscript to Archive for Our Times: Previously Uncollected and Unpublished Poems of Dorothy Livesay, Dean J. Irvine quotes a portion from Livesay’s own foreword to her Collected Poems (1972): “Because publishing poetry in Canada during the thirties, forties and fifties was nothing like what it became in the sixties–a bonanza!–my books that surfaced had layers of poems beneath them which were forced to remain submarine” (251). Irvine patently wishes to surface these poems from the vast archival depths and to display his salvaged finds as a kind of “archaeological exhibition” in the form of a collection. In so doing, he observes, he is following her own “practice of selective recovery from her unpublished and uncollected oeuvre“(250).To some extent, then, Irvine must shadow and anticipate what would have been Livesay’s own practice and artistic motivations: such a self-imposed task suggests how much skill and sensitivity is required and also how much Irvine as editor must act as a creative counterpart to Livesay. Fortunately, he is apt in the selection and the thematic organization of the poems, even if some of the poems themselves are less of a felicitous discovery. Divided into seven sections which follow chronologically Livesay’s own writing history, the collection includes an opening tribute by Miriam Waddington and an afterword by Di Brandt, and moves from Livesay’s work in the early 1920s in “In Her Cupboard” to work from the 1980s in “Anything Goes.” The title arises from this final section: “Above all / a poem records speech: / the way it was said / between people animals birds / a poem is an archive for our times” (245). Unfortunately, not all poems in the collection proffer such richness. As a whole, they provide an interesting narrative not only of twentieth-century persons and events, but, more pointedly, of Livesay’s perception of these events in relation to her personal life. Irvine thus correctly argues that his approach obliges one to overlay several of her histories to contextualize her work properly: “her writing history, her publishing history, her personal / professional history, and the history of her archive” (251).

Irvine has selected and arranged the poems so that the ideas within play against one another not only when juxtaposed back to back, but also from one section to another, even as they show her development in thought. In the first three sections, many poems address the notion of silence and the difficulty of articulating experience. For example, the titular poem of the first section is recalled when one encounters “In the Cupboard” in the section “I Keep Preparing” and is most certainly echoed in “Osmosis” in which Livesay hears “the voice” of her husband “echoing from the cupboard” (236). At the same time, the “dumb expectancy” of shoes in “In Her Cupboard” reverberates thematically with the “unspoken words” in “The Gardener,” the “silence” of the priest in “The Priest,” and “the silence [of] the heart” in “She Justifies Herself” (16;15;18;25). The notion of silence is counterbalanced with the inefficacy of language as explored in “Invitation to Silence”: “Words! I am ashamed to use words, you have so abused them / They were lovely once: now they have been corrupted / Crushed under the weight of too may meanings” (47). Although the struggle against silence and the difficulties of articulating experience are the central focus in the first two sections, the overflow of language and meaning become increasingly the focus in the latter half of the collection. In “Thoughts after Meditation,” for example, Livesay wonders “how to close out words / once language has / seized the brain” (224).

Irvine’s organization of the material is judicious, yet not even such insightful editing can disguise some of the poems which are of lesser interest and quality. Livesay’s assertion about the publishing world already referred to earlier would suggest that the poetry scene in the early half of the twentieth-century imposed greater restrictions: her comment suggests that such constraints were akin to some espionage movement which, by coercion, “forced” some of her poetry to remain in hiding. Irvine seems to corroborate such an idea when he argues “every poem” in this collection “was once silenced in the process of selection” (257). Yet some of these restrictions (not ones which suppressed political or gender concerns) probably demanded greater poetic rigour, and thus, many of the poems were suppressed because they were either incomplete or artistically weak. Her own frustration with editors, as expressed in “Carman and His Editors,” could easily applied to Livesay: “Come off it, [Livesay], how could you write that line?” (170).

Despite some of the mediocre poems, others are delightfully–and typically–evocative. One example is a jewel of poem titled “Spain,” found in the second section, “Invitation to Silence: the 1930’s.” Not the “Spain” found in other anthologies, such as Gary Geddes’ Fifteen Poets Times Two, it is worth quoting in its entirety:

The rowan berries bunched in red grape clusters
Beckon like wine to birds who winter with us;
See how the tree has clenched her ripening fruit
As though a thousand fists were offering
Their tangible testimony to withstand
All winter’s bullying blasts.
A little country on the map of Europe
Stands so, as firm
And in the clenching of her fists
A harvest yield is spread
For those who’ll not take flight, but stay
And winter with us. (54-55)Livesay is at her best here; if some of the poems in this collection are inferior, they are a reminder that even when Livesay is not at her best, she is still a much better writer than many who are publishing poetry today.
Linda Morra is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Ottawa.