Articles & Reviews

"The Last Modernist: Eldon Grier in Canada," by Stephen Morrissey

A review of Eldon Grier: Collected Poems, 1955-2000
Ekstasis Editions
Victoria, BC, 2001

Published in The Pacific Rim Review of Books, Spring 2006

The publication of Eldon Grier's Collected Poems, 1955-2000 establishes Grier as a modernist Canadian poet, and allows for an excellent overview of his poetry, gathering work written over four decades and published in eight previous books. Grier considered the book as his "autobiography in poems"; indeed, the different periods of the poet's life are the background or content of many of the poems. Some readers who are acquainted with Eldon Grier as a poet are not aware that he was also an accomplished visual artist, or that he spent over half of his life living in Montreal before moving to Vancouver in 1968.

Eldon Grier's Collected Poems, 1955-2000 is a portrait of a creative man. Already a visual artist, Grier turned to writing poetry in the early 1950s, after contracting tuberculosis and being confined to a sanitarium for over two years. Still, Grier is primarily a visual artist who also wrote poetry and his poetry needs to be seen in this context. He is not a poet who is concerned with creating the perfectly crafted poem as much as he is a poet of self-expression. P.K. Page, the modernist poet and a contemporary of Eldon Grier, is primarily a poet but she is also a visual artist under the name P.K. Irwin. There is an established tradition for this kind of cross-over of the arts. For instance, bill bissett is well-known poet but also a painter. Kenneth Patchen and e.e. cummings are known as poets, but they were also visual artists. The French-German artist Hans Arp is another example like Grier of a visual artist who also wrote a great amount of original poetry.

Grier's Collected Poems, 1955-2000 is divided into seven sections. These sections are largely autobiographical in content, beginning with growing up in Montreal; time spent in Mallorca; more poems on Montreal; his long poem "An Ecstasy"; time spent in Mexico; another section of poems on Montreal; and, finally, later poems on Montreal and British Columbia. Grier's poetic and psychic centre is Montreal. Norman Levine's book title, Canada Made Me could be applied in a modified form to Grier; it would be "Montreal Made Me". Grier is one of the English-speaking Montreal modernist poets, along with Louis Dudek, F.R. Scott, Irving Layton and others.

One of Grier's Montreal poems is "November 1956". This poem describes a panoramic view of city. He refers to the refineries in the east end of the city, the University of Montreal, and so on. Another poem, "Lafontaine Park", is an opportunity for Grier to remember

My father and his brother Harold,
You should have known them,
Left no works only legend.

Grier, the artist, has left both works and legend. The poem is a reflection on family, and concludes with a memory of his daughter,

Strolling in the park with Sharon,
Doing the backward multiplication
Of conception—
Awaiting the new words.

Grier also writes a poem entitled "Point St. Charles", about the working-class neighbourhood in Montreal that David Fennario writes about. Grier seemed to live and breathe the city, to go beneath the surface of things to find the essence, which then became a part of his very being as a human and an artist.

While teaching at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in the early 1950s, Grier met his wife, the artist Sylvia Tait. Among his colleagues in Montreal were Arthur Lismer, Jacques de Tonnacour, and Goodridge Roberts (see Grier's poem "Following Goodridge Roberts"). He also studied fresco under the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. "Meeting in Paris" is about an uncomfortable meeting with John Glassco; Grier, in the poem, describes feeling somewhat inferior to the urbane Glassco. One of Grier's most vivid portraits in words is of another of his teachers, the artist John Lyman, with whom he had a personal relationship; this helps make the poem more engaging and Lyman more sympathetic to the reader. Grier writes,

"even before the flattest Quebec landscape I feel moreƉ"
he wrote in his diary 1927
coming home to Montreal
ah the miserly stale
humanity of being "French"
the rootless monied sickness of "English"
ankle-deep in the good grey slush
we stood our ground

Finally, in the second of three poems that make up "Traveling Via Rail" Grier writes,

it's hard to take but
Canada still equates—will always
it seems equate—with "region"
only in the island state of English Montreal did
something rise above those racked preoccupations
dictated to by landscape isolation

Of course, when Grier was growing up in Montreal, the city did seem the centre of Canadian culture and business, although it began to transform during the first years of the twentieth century. This attitude, upheld by the social milieu Grier experienced as a child, is one that he continued to resonate to most of his life; he continued to return to Montreal until only a few years before his death.

Grier's major poem is "An Ecstasy". This long poem doesn't so much talk about the experience of ecstasy as much as provide a vehicle for the poet's experience of writing. He writes, "As a poet I need to experience ecstasy". "An Ecstasy" reminds me of John Newlove's extraordinary long poem "White Philharmonic Novels" (The Night the Dog Smiled, 1986). These long poems by Grier and Newlove don't seem to be held together by much more than the individual author's consciousness, and both poems are amalgams of sometimes disjointed and disconnected perceptions. Grier's poem has an apparent logic that Newlove's poem lacks. Grier's poem is made up of twenty-four sections; in section fifteen he calls for "poems of the insatiable emptiness", and in section sixteen he writes,

Our poets must give themselves to a kind
of insensible madness;
they must hear music not meaning as they write.

Grier dedicates another poem, "I Was Brought Up By The Sea", to the composer Istvan Anhalt, whose composition "Cento" put excerpts of Grier's "An Ecstasy" to music. In "An Ecstasy", Grier writes,

A famished man
I savour the smallest morsels:
a pale blue star at the bottom of a pond,
a rocking headlight swarming with locusts...

The joy of writing, an experience that includes Grier's "ecstasy", is found in creativity, the act of writing in and for itself. With the publication of Eldon Grier's Collected Poems, 1955-2000, this poet who found meaning and depth in creativity, now joins other poets in representing the Canadian vision.

Copyright © 2007 The author