Andrew Suknaski

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Patrick Lane

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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 part of the first generation that sees itself as an actual part of the landscape. In a way, a new Indian. Part of his desire in documenting the history of his people in Wood Mountain is to point out their unwillingness to see the land as an imaginative extension of themselves. Andy loses his own European ties once he perceives that the Prairie is himself. He is, in a sense, a spiritual nationalist, the first of the Prairie prophets, who states unequivocably that this land is our history.

But his language also destroys him. His awareness distances him from the people he writes about. The result is a hatred for the very medium in which he expresses his love and fear. Poetry becomes a betrayal of spiritual action, the poet a Judas. One of his most signal poems, "Teo's Bakery," shows this acute sense of transgression in being the observer/listener. Suknaski outlines the breakdown between generations and on a number of symbolic levels explains Teo's pain. During the day, the poet shares oral songs with Teo, the father, and then, later at night, as Teo goes to work, he looks through the bakery window at him…. He watches as the man kneads the communal bread and reaches below the counter to take a drink from the wine bottle he keeps hidden there. The baker cries but the poet does not share his pain beyond a compassionate understanding. The Christian symbols of the devout father, the son who refuses to take part in the communion, and the poet/Judas who observes and records the division, are standard elements in these poems. Language, particularly written English, cuts the poet/outsider off from his community, turning him into an ex-communicant. By placing his people within poems, then, Suknaski captures their souls and limits their lives. His influence as anguished prophet can only isolate people, though in remembering them he painfully grows toward a special wisdom of his own. (pp. 95-6)

When Suknaski returns to Wood Mountain and spends his evenings in the Trail's End Pub, he begins to see that the stories told to him when he was a boy and the stories...

(This entire section contains 786 words.)

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re-told to him as a man are the mythic events of his town. He also comes to see that the telling of these stories is a sin…. The friends, neighbours, and family of Wood Mountain are Andy Suknaski's private parishioners. By revealing their confessions to the outside world, the poet becomes an immoral priest violating their trust. By writing them down, he separates himself from them…. Suknaski's rare gift is his willingness to articulate the experiences of his family and friends in a language of high order, even though he suffers the exile which such uncovering inevitably brings upon him. (p. 97)

Suknaski is finally not a betrayer. Instead, he discovers the necessity to preserve the proud lives of his people in the days of their Prairie innocence, now almost lost.

The teepee rings, evoking memories, become Suknaski's mandalas of the contained perfection of life on the Prairie. They also represent for him the continuance of life, the repetition of innocence through birth/rebirth. (p. 98)

Patrick Lane, "The Poetry of Andy Suknaski," in Essays on Canadian Writing (© Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd.), Nos. 18 & 19, Summer-Fall, 1980, pp. 90-9.

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