Jay Macpherson James Reaney - Essay

James Reaney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Boatman] has made a great difference in the world of Canadian poetry. Let us proceed to explain the greatness of this difference.

First, what one must remark about Miss Macpherson's whale or "Leviathan" is that it is so very skillfully carved, and so are all the other beasts inside it, for her Leviathan turns out to be a Noah's Ark as well. It can also be said that she is the first Canadian poet to carve angels at all well. No one before had ever told Canadian poets that the Angel was or could be a very suitable and good topic for poetry.

Miss Macpherson's angels, of course, have a lot to do with the fact that she does some very natural but very hard things connected with the Bible. The Bible is still a vexatiously ill-known work in Canada…. I mean that it is ill-known as a key to art and as a source for new art. Miss Macpherson knows her Bible, knows that the natural world about us is not natural, knows how her Bible shows you how to deal with this unnaturalness; so nothing seemed more amiable probably than to have lots of angels, for they are the structure of the Bible and they prove to be a subject that immediately creates a tension in which any object or animal or being—Egg, Abominable Snowman and Mary of Egypt—begins to have an outline that glows. In The Boatman there is the "faceless angel" of the Storm, the angel who knows what "sways when Noah nods", the "inward angel"—of a poem called that—who has a "diamond self". There are the angels who look on as Leviathan frolics and there are the seraph forms within the "caverned woman" which are later named "flowers, fountains, milk, blood". In this equation we see that what the poet means by an angel is anything or anybody or any being seen in its Eternal aspect, that is, at its most glorious and most real, its most expanded. Actually, in leafing backwards through The Boatman and tracking down the angels, I've forgotten to mention the very important angel in the last poem:

The world was first a private park
Until the angel, after dark,
Scattered afar to wests and easts
The lovers and the friendly beasts.

This angel represents the giant and supernatural force all Creation lost at the Fall. This force, like a cork in a bottle, stands between us and Paradise in the sense that we must attain to it again before we can return to Paradise. This significant angel and his companions are a great part of the reason why The Boatman is such an exciting book…. To have landed and handled [the concept of the angel] is a real achievement.

Not only is this poet able to arrive at a skill with a very important symbol; she knows also how to deal with a great variety of topics in a carefully modulated variety of ways. The variety of methods or ways or tones is so cleverly arranged that by the time the reader has finished the volume he has boxed the compass of the reality which poetry imitates. This should be an ability an enthusiast for poetry would naturally expect from the author of any volume of lyrics. (pp. 23-5)

One of the proudest conclusions the author of The Boatman might draw about her own volume is that very few of the experiences described are "real" or "natural" experiences....

(The entire section is 1388 words.)