Andrew Suknaski

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Laurie Ricou

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

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 and relaxed. More difficult to read are the poems in which Suknaski stops listening and starts commenting, as he does when reacting to a newspaper article about a three-year-old boy killed by a pack of stray dogs…. I don't doubt the sincerity of [the poem], but I do doubt it as poetry: it's far too engineered an attempt to be meaningful. Similarly, Suknaski is not impressive with tighter lyrics and compressed images. I was disappointed to find the collection ending with … [this] lyric, weak and clichéd: "the vague meaning of home/you carry within you/moving back and forth/across this vast country." Suknaski is not, yet, a poet who savours his words like wine.

But he tells a story compactly and sensitively, with touches of humour and acres of affection. He builds the legends of the labourer's history of this country, he bubbles with the hyperbole of the barroom extravaganza, he moves us with the stories of inarticulate love. (pp. 129-30)

Laurie Ricou, "Words & Wine," in Canadian Literature, No. 86, Autumn, 1980, pp. 129-30.∗

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Patrick Lane