Author: Tanja Cvetkovic
OUR STORIES – SEED CATALOGUE
Seed Catalogue (1977) continues Robert Kroetsch’s tradition of long poems (The Stone Hammer Poems, The Ledger 1975) and is considered one of Canada’s most essential poems. The poem takes on a new poetic form with Kroetsch’s use of postmodern technique of negation and meditation through memory. Kroetsch’s concern about the inability of language to capture reality and the importance of oral tradition resound in these lines from the poem: “We silence words/by writing them down.”
Throughout his poetic career Kroesch was fascinated with the notion of place, with finding a new poetic form that would suit the place he lived in, and with finding a new language expression for physical landscape. In his poetic manifesto “Unhiding the Hidden” (1974), he explains that under the influence of foreign cultures, the language that is used in Canadian literature is not authentic anymore and under the layers of inauthenticity, we must dig for fragments that are our own. The Canadian writer’s task is
“that he works with a language, within a literature, that appears to be authentically his own, and not a borrowing. But just as there was in the Latin word a concealed Greek experience, so there is in the Canadian word a concealed other experience, sometimes British, sometimes American.”1
Writers resolve the tension between being someone else and the demands of authenticity “by the radical process of demythologizing the systems that threaten to define them. Or, more comprehensively, they uninvent the world.”2 Kroetsch’s terms “uninvent”, “uncreate”, “unhide”, “decreate”, denote a cultural process of creating an order which is unique and different from the process of imitating an order and literature. The search for the original language and place of origins is named “dreams of origins” by Kroetsch.
Kroetsch uses archaeological method and oral tradition as the basis for his inquiry into place and the meditation on a common object. While the objects of meditation in previous long poems were the stone and the ledger found at home, the seed catalogue was dug up in the public place in the Glenbow archives by chance in 1975. Kroetsch explains in “The Moment of the Discovery of America”:
I found a 1917 catalogue in the Glenbow archives in 1975. I translated that seed catalogue into a poem called ‘Seed Catalogue’. The archaeological discovery, if I might call it that, brought together for me the oral tradition and the dream of origins.”3
In the poem Kroetsch lifts the seed catalogue, the document, to a literary expression by combining an objective narrative with lyrical elements. The document assumes the element of fantasy and is turned into a poem by the poet’s imagination. The poet retells the history of the prairie town in this palimpsest by unhiding, erasing and recreating meaning through meditation.
The poem rewrites one of the most popular myths of North America, the story of the prairie as garden. Kroetsch again continues the long tradition of prairie writers and poets who present the prairies of the West as the garden to be cultivated offering a new promise of the “unnamed” country. Kroetsch is one of the prairie writers along Ralph Connor, Nellie McClung, R.J.C. Stead, whom Dick Harrison considers as the writers choosing “the garden and not the earlier ‘Frontier Myth’ of the American West when they needed a way of ordering their perceptions of the new environment.”4 What we see at work in the poem is actually the construction of place, the prairie town, as a new world garden where the dominant question is “How do you grow …?” out of the seed advertized in the catalogue. The seed promises the growth and “wondrous beauty/of both flowers and foliage”5, which could bloom “into the dark of January,”6 planting the prairie as the new Eden. The growing of the mythic garden in the plains reminds of the colonial expansion and the westward settlements as the poet indicates at the very beginning of the poem:
No. 176 – Copenhagen Market Cabbage: ‘This new introduction, strictly speaking, is in every respect a thoroughbred, a cabbage of highest pedigree, and is creating considerable flurry among professional gardeners all over the world.’7
The words “thoroughbred”, “highest pedigree”, and even “professional” carry with themselves the whole colonial value system which the poet tries to disintegrate to reach for the authentic prairie value.
The poem is also about the very nature of poem and the way it grows. In section six the speaker asks “But how do you grow a poet?” and answers:
“Start: with an invocation
His muse is
his muse/ if
and you have
no memory then
no song (shit
we’re up against it)”8
These lines show how memory and meditation merge into poem. By using memory and remembering the past events, the poet is engaged in the act of creation while telling the stories and reordering events. In that vein, Seed Catalogue is the poem determined not only by place, the prairie, but also by the meditation on the seed catalogue items: vegetables, flowers, grass, beans and grains, which write the garden poem of the prairie. Since it speaks for the prairie, defining it anew, the poem is the prairie or as the speaker explains:
“This is a prairie road.
This road is the shortest distance
between nowhere and nowhere.
This road is a poem.”9
The poem as a road which leads to nowhere is synonymous with the place which waits to be put into words because place is constructed through language, stories, myths. The speaker points that fiction is most appropriate to denote place, taking Rudy Wiebe’s fiction as an example, who “must lay great black steel lines of/ fiction, break up the space with huge design and, like/ the fiction of the Russian steppes, build a giant/ artifact. No song can do that…” 10 As for the poet, the creator of both poem and space/place, after the poem comes into existence, he leaves “no trace”, only “a spoor of wording/ a reduction to mere black.”11
The garden is both the literal garden on the poet’s homestead in Heisler, Alberta, and the metaphorical garden, the field of his poem, which is grown and dug by way of literary archaeology. Section one of the poem opens by introducing the poet’s garden in the transition season from winter to spring. We find out that the fall has set in before the poet has had a chance to learn how to garden. The poet’s family homestead is barren, unsettling, unstable:
around the house.
Only the wind.
Only the January snow.
Only the summer sun.
The home place:
a terrible symmetry.”12
The poet erases his home place depicting it as treeless, lifeless and waste. The process of de(con)struction of the prairie place starts in section one, and is emblematically represented by the destruction of the Heisler hotel in section four. The Heisler hotel was burnt down one night on June 21, 1919: “Everything/ in between: lost. Everything: an absence.”13 The presence is lost in absence and the poet starts speaking of presence through the string of absences. After the burning down of the Heisler hotel, the poet lists the absence of all these culturally modified things:
“Everything: an absence
of satin sheets
of embroidered pillow cases
of tea towels and English china
of silver serving spoons.”14
But after the destruction, a new beginning is at sight. The poet asks the question of the new beginning: “How do you grow a prairie town?”15
The absence of trees is emblematic of the process of unnaming and erasure that the poet starts. The trope of the tree is particularly important for Kroetsch’s poems. Since Kroetsch deconstructs the garden myth, the tree, as a symbol of knowledge and origins in the garden of Eden, is associated with absence in this poem. In the end of the poem, the description of treeless homestead is followed by the question:”Adam and Eve got drownded -/Who was left?”16 The poet introduces the shade of his homestead, the shade of the myth of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden as well as of his mother from the very first section of the poem. Everything that is left of the garden of his homestead is the voice of his dying mother: “bring me the radish seeds.”17
By erasure and negation, the poet gives the whole list of absences of the European cultural history. On the list we find the absence of “silkworms”, “kings and queens”, “Lord Nelson”, “Sartre and Heidegger”, “pyramids”, “lions”, “Heraclitus”, but also “the Seine, the Rhine, the Danube”, etc. The prairie becomes culturally erased place without history. Thus the poet finds himself in his inquiry in the home place which he calls a “double hook”: a place erased by the poem but still there for the poet to deal with it. After the erasure and unnaming, the poet is in an uneasy situation. On the road leading “between nowhere and nowhere”, he starts asking questions: “How do you grow a garden? How do you grow a prairie town? How do you grow a poet?”, the questions which do not affirm presence immediately. We arrived at the point of place erasure, nowhere, facing the poet who, after uncreating, as an archeaologist, searches for a way to create anew. The prairie road and the poem leading nowhere symbolize the impossibility of language to articulate place.
Destruction culminates in section nine, when the poet describes “the dangers of merely living” and his ancestors who returned to the Old World and died in the bombing of Cologne – “a strange planting”18 - the act marking the absence of his cousins: Anna Weller and Kenneth MacDonald. The poet ends the section in the same way he ends the description of his homestead: “A terrible symmetry.”19
In order to create a fixed and stable home, the poet determines the exact position of his home place:
“the home place: N.E. 17-42-16-W4th Meridian.
the home place: one and a half miles of Heisler, Alberta,
on the correction line road
and three miles south.”20
Kroetsch gives us the address of his homestead: Heisler, Alberta, on the correction line, three miles south. The correction line divides the place into smaller prairie settlements and its importance is underlined by Deborah Keahey:”The correction line and the physicist’s relativity both function wonderfully as metaphors for the fundamental instability of our notions of place, of the way we impose various and changeable perceptual grids on space.”21 That the place is the result of our own imagination and creative perception is witnessed by Kroetsch himself who, in one of his numerous essays, explains that prairie places and farms are remembered, imagined real places:
“On the prairies the small town and the farm are not merely places, they are remembered places. When they were the actuality of our lives we had realistic fiction, and we had almost no poetry at all. Now in this dream condition, as dreamtime fuses into the kind of narrative we call myth, we change the nature of the novel. And we start, with a new terrible, energy, to write the poems of the imagined real place.”22
Kroetsch insists on finding new names for the prairie place and landscape, since the old ones carry with themselves the inherited layers of meaning of the European past and culture which are not a true reflection of the new environment anymore. The impulse of rewriting place and discovering a new sense of belonging to home is inherent in his phrase ‘local pride’. ‘Local pride’ draws on the authenticity of our life and experience. By citing Williams Carlos Williams, he concludes: “the acquiring of a local pride enables us to create our own culture – by ‘lifting an environment to expression.’”23
Seed Catalogue abounds in different prairie stories: the story of the poet’s homestead, of his father trying to shoot the badger, of Pete Knight, king of all cowboys, the poet’s love story with Germaine, the burning down of the Heisler hotel, the bombing of Cologne, the story of Rudy Wiebe, Al Purdy, Jim Bacque. The short fragment about the porcupine trying to cross the road and ending up “dead in the ditch” is especially significant. The porcupine is caught up in the intertextuality crossing from one fragmented text to another. The story can be related to Kroetsch’s essay “The Exploding Porcupine” in which Kroetsch argues in favor of violence necessary to explode narrative conventions making space for new poetic forms. The erasure of the dominant narratives and images of the prairie place leaves a possibility to create and build anew.
The prairie poet, who “under the quick erasure/ of snow, invites a flight,”24 is still in search of traces, fragments, absences that may point to presence in absence. Following the erasure of the home place and the story of the garden of Eden, the poet plants a new garden which marks “the end of winter: seeding/time.”25 The prairie garden is “the other garden” which doesn’t grow the seeds of “wondrous beauty”, but the seeds of plain brome grass resistant to colonial influences and fit for survival in the prairie environment:
“”No amount of cold will kill it. It withstands the summer suns. Water may stand on it for several weeks without apparent injury. The roots push through the soil, throwing up new plants continually. It starts quicker than other grasses in the spring. Remains green longer in the fall. Flourishes under absolute neglect.’”26
The brome grass which “flourishes under absolute neglect” is suggestive of a presence in an empty land that follows erasure. It withstands the summer sun and remains green longer in the fall, pointing to resilience, survival, the qualities which are important in differentiating the prairie from the colonial notions of landscape. The brome grass becomes an important element of writing the prairie into existence since it is congenial to the local environment.
The model for a new place-making strategy is the gopher.
“The gopher was the model.
Stand up straight:
Vanish, suddenly: the
Gopher was the model.”27
The gopher as well as the badger in section two stand for disappearance and erasure. Unlike telephone poles, grain elevators and church steeples, the gopher and the badger live underground and subvert the garden and town. The town buildings vanish suddenly when the gopher appears at the end of the passage. The two burrowing rodents undermine and violate the garden from within the way dominant narratives, images and conventions should be exploded and subverted. The prairie story itself is hidden underground and it is by means of archaeology that the poet brings it to the surface.
Kroetsch subverts and mocks dominant poetic conventions in this poem. The importance of poetry is undercut by the introduction of Al Purdy, the poet of the vernacular, and one of the key figures in Canadian poetry. The setting of the scene is a local restaurant where the sublime notion of Purdy’s poetry is merged with the triviality and marginality of the public place. Reciting poems in the restaurant, in a different context and in a different atmosphere, has a special power but is in contrast with the unusual setting: “the waitress asked us to leave. She was rather insistent.”28 There is a sharp contrast and a resistance of the lyrical to the dominant way of perceiving and representing the prairie. The local landscape and atmosphere that is lifted to literary expression is violated and erased by the socially and culturally performed and accepted norms of behavior.
Kroetsch’s method of subverting the dominant myths of the West is explicit in parodying the cowboy myth and the garden myth. The poet, assuming the role of the anti-hero subverting the overarching Western myths, tells the story/the poem like Al Purdy or Jim Bacque. Jim Bacque perplexes a woman at the airport in Toronto telling her the story of Pete Knight “Bronc-Busting Champion/of the World”29 who died by falling off a horse. The vernacular story, part of the oral tradition, is put down on the pages of Seed Catalogue and silenced into written language. The paradox and irony lie in the fact that “we silence words/by writing them down”30 where the oral tradition and myth lose its voice when turned into a written story.
Kroetsch’s ironic treatment of the poetic figures like Jim Bacque and Al Purdy resembles his treatment of heroic myths in his fiction. In The Studhorse Man, Hazard Lepage is a parody of the questing hero who is neither handsome nor strong, who is never in control of his destiny and is finally killed by his horse. Both the poets and Pete Knight are brought down to a comic travesty like Hazard Lepage and turned into anti-heroes. As Dick Harrison explains, this ironic treatment of popular myths by Kroetsch “does place him nearer than any other Canadian novelist to the ‘New Western’ in America”31 as described by Leslie Fiedler in his The Return of the Vanishing American.
In his essay “Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry”, Robert Lecker describes Seed Catalogue as “a compendium of stories”, “a collection of conceptions, a list of various seeds”.32 Like Kroetsch, Lecker acknowledges the importance of oral tradition and points to the fact that “you grow a prairie town, then, by filling it with listeners”.33 The quality of the poet’s creation depends on the ability to listen to the poem. The aural perception is important for Kroetsch to that extent that it brings him in contradiction when writing poetry. It seems as if written word and language distort reality and Kroetsch turns to unnaming and uncreating or even to the possibilities of preliterate communication as, for example, in How I Joined the Seal Herd.
From the very beginning of the poem, the poet asks for the perfection of his ears, the ability to listen:
“I swear it was not the hearing
itself I first refused
it was the sight of my ears “34
In his discussion of How I Joined the Seal Herd, Lecker concludes that this poem is “a kind of ultimate regression, and in that position it calls for nothing less than the death of writing.”35 In Seed Catalogue the poet is at work disintegrating the inherited layers of meaning of foreign culture including written tradition too. Through the complex strategy of unnaming and unfinding, the poet searches for a voice through memory, the unique voice of the prairie that the readers should hear. By avoiding definite structures and demythologizing dominant social and written realities, the poet arrives at the point of renaming, recreating and recovering of authentic voice of the prairie as his home place.
1 Robert Kroetsch. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989): 58
3 Ibid., 7.
4 Dick Harrison. Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction. (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1972): 72.
5 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8 A continuing poem. (Don Mills, On.: General Publishing Co., 1981).
21 Deborah Keahey. Making It Home: Place in Canadian Prairie Literature. (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press): 4.
22 Robert Kroetsch. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989): 7-8.
23 Ibid. 6.
24 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8 A continuing poem. (Don Mills, On.: General Publishing Co., 1981).
31 Dick Harrison. Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction. (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1972): 207.
32 Robert Lecker. “Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry”. Open Letter Third Series No. 8 (Spring 1978): 85.
33 Ibid., 86.
34 Robert Kroetsch. Field Notes: 1-8 A continuing poem. (Don Mills, On.: General Publishing Co., 1981).
35 Robert Lecker. “Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry”. Open Letter Third Series No. 8 (Spring 1978): 86.