Suknaski, Andrew 1942–
Suknaski, a Canadian poet, examines in Wood Mountain Poems the multicultural history of the small prairie town where he was born. Influenced by the concept of found poetry, Suknaski enlivens his harsh portrayal of prairie life with Indian, Ukrainian, Chinese, and other dialect speech. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)
[On] one level Suknaski's Wood Mountain Poems are elegiac records of Saskatchewan's past; of the Indians, Sitting Bull and all the others, who were only memories in Wood Mountain by the time he grew up there; of the pioneers, including his father, who broke themselves in the process of breaking an ungrateful land and who survived to populate the poet's youth.
There is thus a great deal of sheer history to be sifted out of these poems, and no prairie archivist worth his salt would fail to note it, but Wood Mountain Poems has other dimensions. It is, to begin, not merely a record but also a judgment, of white rapacity that killed the Indians' culture, of urban indifference that allowed the way of life replacing the Indian way to expire in its turn of neglect. For Wood Mountain, as a white village, is dying as the nomadic Indian villages died before it. And Andrew Suknaski, in the flat eloquence of reproach and regret, laments alike the Indian life that drained away into survival, and the wasted lives of European immigrants who gave their manhood and often their sanity in the thankless task of taming a region—the south Saskatchewan prairie—that should never have known the plough…. [For] if the Indians have already become wronged ghosts, the old pioneers are there in all their individual idiosyncrasy, from the poet's father, unpredictable violence turning his life into five decades of terminal solitude, to the farmer...
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Over the years Suknaski, like any poet groping for a personal understanding of his art, has used an assortment of poetic devices and formats, ranging from the concrete, through the abrupt lyrics of some of his "Suicide Notes," to the more free-flowing forms of most of his work…. Wood Mountain Poems is a cohesive grouping of poems which are complementary in style, tone and (of course) their Wood Mountain subject matter. At well over one hundred pages, the book is … not without a few weak poems, "Principal in a Prairie Town" being one.
As important as the selection is the evidence that the poems have been extensively reworked and strengthened since they first appeared in the little mags…. More often than not,… the reworking has been done with care and a poetic energy equal to that evident in the creation of the original. "Leaving" has been re-written, becoming a new (and better) poem; "Leaving Home," and the newer version of such poems as "Sandia Man" is ample evidence of confident, well-directed revision….
In his unpretentious, straightforward style Suknaski displays a finely tuned ear for phrasing, an eye for vivid yet natural expression, and powerful imagery…. The Ukrainian and native Dakota languages serve as seed material for many of the poems, with words such as soongeedawn, loshka, mashteehka and shugmanitou often entailing the first line of a poem. While these explorations of...
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Suknaski's poems [in Wood Mountain Poems] are multiculturalism in action. With dogged determination he packs his poems with Ukrainian and Dakota Indian words or with the broken English of accent-laden ethnics. In his own way, he is defending multiculturalism as part of the Canadian literary reality. His daily language is the dialect of prairie people shouted in beer halls, in fields, at church dinners.
In a sense, one can think of his concern for ethnic voices as a lamentation. These voices are dying. Indigenous cultures are disappearing. The old immigrant voices are passing away in the West as fast as their agrarian civilization which sprang up so suddenly a brief 75 years ago. (p. 17)
The Indian of the West provides a prehistorical, mythic consciousness; the ethnic experience is a painful history. Suknaski is both the itinerant campfire storyteller and the historian, (he collects material for his poems from books and old manuscripts as well as from conversations and personal memory)….
[He] has turned the shame of speaking broken English into the pride of being poetry. His poems do not run away from his origins, his class, his ethnicity; he's transcended the usual derision and discrimination by turning into his origins, making the ugly, beautiful….
He's tried to get away from the concept of poetry as a theory of language. Instead, he's developed a poetic form and a...
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[Suknaski's poem, "West Central Pub",] is about identity, change, process, the poet. And it deploys with beautiful subtlety several prairie motifs: the beer-drinking or wine-drinking philosophers; the beer-parlour as seminar and place of initiation; the poem as parody. But it also locates the poet for us in a striking use of an old image out of Gilbert & Sullivan: a thing of rags and patches, the wandering minstrel, ineffectual lover and singer, prince in disguise. And it's that sense of identity or patchwork, a now patched up of then and no longer the same, that gives Suknaski's work its authenticity. Al Purdy, in his introduction to [Wood Mountain Poems] says rightly, "This book is in no sense a history of the area, although it does deal with Wood Mountain people and history. Nor is it an autobiography of Andy Suknaski, although his own life is both marginally and centrally involved." For Purdy that means the book gives us, as he says, "a clear look at people and places," and exploration of the territory of time, a sense of place unequalled anywhere else, an overriding sense of sadness, and nostalgia and affection as well. Fair enough…. What I hear in Suknaski's work differs from Purdy's version only in emphasis, I think. Purdy chooses the metaphor of territory or place for time, the double sense of time in Suknaski's poems. Place, then, is in Purdy's phrase "Multi dimensional" so that whatever a clear look at place means,...
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A. F. Moritz
The Ghosts Call You Poor widens and deepends the vein Suknaski first explored for a large public in Wood Mountain Poems…. The hallmark of this poetry is a reverent contemplation of facts: facts about Canada, the Prairies, Wood Mountain, its inhabitants and their predecessors…. [The] sense of returning to a widowed, bereaved people and landscape, in danger of dying owing to neglect, dominates Suknaski's work.
For all his evocation of the hardihood of the plains-dwellers and their tough, resinous speech, Suknaski deals mainly in ruins, in the reminiscences the aged and semi-derelict indulge in about the mighty pioneer images of their forefathers, and in the dim presence of the shattered, dispersed Indian. For him these are the fugitive remains of a tradition that held an infinite promise. His Wood Mountain is a place visited, destroyed, and abandoned by progress, eaten and spit out by man's confused double quest for wealth and for the severe, terrifying, vague beatitude expressed in the word "North." The best poem here is "Dreaming of the Northwest Passage," a meditation on this quest in the concise, rhythmic, charged language that Suknaski too seldom achieves.
His poetry is often prolix and prosaic, apparently without sufficient care for (or interest in) words. In form, style, and diction many of the poems are only magazine verse of an unadventurous kind. This fault largely vanishes if one is prepared...
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I had read a number of books that dealt with family history but Suknaski's [Wood Mountain Poems] had an added dimension that both startled and intrigued me.
What attracted me most was the radical departure he had taken from his earlier imitative work. These poems contain a clear open honesty, a willingness to risk, and a kind of humility…. They are absolutely rooted in the Prairie and in the immigrant culture that has flourished there for the past seventy-five years: terrifying testaments to the pain that Suknaski had experienced in growing up. These poems are the songs of Wood Mountain, the small village in Southern Saskatchewan where he was raised, the son of immigrant Ukrainians who had carved a place to live on the Prairie.
When Andy was still young he left the Prairie and travelled to the Pacific coast…. The escape from his heritage gave him the ability to see in a special way the place where he had lived and the people who influenced him. The hate and love of his own personal history, along with his omnivorous reading, provided him with the essential tools to write. (pp. 93-4)
The form he used was the parable: narrative poems on the moral and spiritual relationships between himself and his people. They are discourses, emblematic teachings by a Prairie prophet. (p. 95)
Andy Suknaski is emblematic of the new Canadian. By this I do not mean the immigrant, but rather...
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The cultures behind [Andrew Suknaski]—Indian, Métis, Ukrainian, Chinese, homesteader, farmer, labourer—move as spirits through his landscape, usually prairie. [In his collection of poems The Ghosts Call You Poor all] the people who have died, who are dying, in his place are the ghosts, each with a story to tell. Suknaski listens to the ghosts, guiltily…. (p. 129)
A poem titled "Augusta née Hoffman" gives some clues to the characteristic Suknaski poem…. Suknaski cherishes [the] unpolished, uneasy, open, self-taught approach to storytelling. His poetry is often written in such a self-deprecating tone, echoing the voice of one of his most obvious models, Al Purdy. As he tells us in another poem, he sometimes feels "uncomfortable in this silent language/of the prairies."
Suknaski lets Augusta Hoffman tell her own story. Two-thirds of the poem is direct quotation from her family history, the rest is close paraphrase. The focus is as much upon the unique storyteller, as upon the representative story…. Many of Suknaski's poems follow the same approach: the title names a specific person, the poem records his/her voice. This form of narrative monologue is one Andy Suknaski has mastered as well as any Canadian poet.
The effect is documentary: we sense a character recorded, rather than a persona shaped and created. The result is not, as Augusta Hoffman feared, difficult to read, but fluent...
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