Review byTanja Cvetkovic
REFLECTIONS ON THE STONE HAMMER POEMS (1960-1975)
The Stone Hammer Poems, published in 1975, comprises the poems written between 1960 and 1975. The collection opens with Old Man Stories and includes iconic poems like Stone Hammer Poem, Pumpkin: A Love Poem, F.R.Grove: The Finding, Meditation on Tom Thomson, Poem of Albert Johnson, Elegy for Wong Toy, Mile Zero.
The collection shows Kroetsch’s principle of combining memory and meditation to produce a true poem. His poems convey his vision and prophetic voice as the result of memory used in the process of creation in relation to the past events. The poems are Kroetsch’s examples of the search for the original place and the original voice hidden under the layers of inherited meanings. Sometimes the search is nostalgic as in Elegy for Wong Toy or existential involving the rebirth of the authentic voice as in Mile Zero. The process of finding the authentic voice through memory is something that Kroetsch refers to as decreation, uninventing, unnaming.
Stone Hammer Poem is a poem about the search for the original place and home as embodied by the stone. The poem releases associations and memories attached to the stone hammer. It was found by the poet’s father “on a rockpile in the/north-west corner of what/he thought of/ as his wheatfield”,1 and immediately invokes in the speaker meditation on its origins and its prior history. Linking the history of the stone to the history of the land, the speaker assumes that the stone belonged to a Blackfoot or a Cree man.
The stone makes the connection to place and problematizes the sense of ownership. There is a list of owners/predecessors starting from the Indian, the Queen, CPR, the poet’s grandfather and father who “gave it to his son/(who sold it)”.2 The problem arises with the son who sells the land and who actually owns the land by not owning it anymore. The possession through memory appears to be more lasting than real legal ownership. The land comes into existence in the poem which is the reflection on its origins.
The poet meditates on different uses and meanings of the stone. The stone is “a million/ years older than/the hand that/chipped stone or//”3 It is a symbol of imagined origins:
“It is a stone
old as the last
Ice Age, the
For the poet to retreat into time is to recreate the moment of conception. The stone merges the present into the memories of the past and brings to the surface several ancestors who transformed it to suit their needs. The stone was turned into a maul, and “this stone/become a hammer/of stone, this maul//”5 Eventually it was found as a “paperweight on my desk/ where I begin/this poem//”6 The stone becomes the poem and is firmly connected to the origins of writing.
By searching for the stone’s past and revealing its history, the poet invites us to submerge into the realm of contradictions, to be involved in the process of knowing by way of paradox:
I have to/ I want
to know (not know)
? WHAT HAPPENED”7
The poet wants knowing to meet unknowing (not know) in the realm of the chaos of meanings that the stone produces.
The collection contains four poems dedicated to four people the poet wants to remember: Elegy for Wong Toy, F.P. Grove: The Finding, Poem of Albert Johnson, Meditation on Tom Thomson. According to Peter Thomas ,the poems are “the most richly self-reflective group of poems Kroetsch has published so far.”8 The poems are about the four iconic persons in the history of Canada and are written in the form of elegy.
Through the figure of Wong Toy, the owner of the coffee house in Heisler, the poet speaks of the immigrant who gives his own contribution to the history of Canada. Along with the poet’s memories, we see the man, Wong Toy, whose silent presence plays an important role in Kroetsch’s childhood.
Another “silent man”,9 “the poet of our survival”,10 who was hunted to death by a group of men in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in 1932, “Mad Trapper of Rat River”, is Albert Johnson. Though he became a mythic figure of the North, he “will give no name”11 and his wordlessness and silence expressed the existence of the North in the poem.
Tom Thomson, a member of the Group of Seven, is the subject of another elegy. He drowned mysteriously in Lake Algonquin one morning and became “our story/ and art, man, art is the essential/ luxury the imperative QUESTION (?)”.12 By descending into silence, like Albert Johnson, Tom Thomson becomes one of many characters who suffered death by water in Kroetsch’s fiction, the act which is very Orphic in its nature. Thomas explains the idea of a watery descent “as a return to the undifferentiated source of being, a profound un-naming of the self”.13
F.P.Grove underwent the process of unnaming of the self when he arrived in the New World assuming a new identity. He is in search of “the name under the name”,14 of “a new man” inventing (beyond /America) a new world//”15 Though Grove dreams of Europe “if only to find a place to be from”,16 he can’t rely on European heritage in the New World. His New World self can’t be voiced and “the finding” is lost in the words of the poem whose ultimate nature is still not transformative enough for the new self to be born.
The metamorphic nature of the self is expressed through twelve versions of Blackfoot Old Man stories. In Old Man Stories, the poet explores the trickster principle with the trickster figure demonstrating the instability of the self capable of knowledge and creative energy changing its forms. The central fable is the story of the shaman, Old Man, casting a buffalo chip into a river while predicting the eternity of human life.
Pumpkin: A Love Poem is a symbolic and self-reflective poem. It is about the power of imagination and vision which transform reality into a symbolic order of creation. The poem combines the process of creation with the erotic impulse which the repressed self seeks to release. In the essay “The Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction: An Erotics of Space” (1979), Kroetsch associates the erotic impulse to the creative act of writing. The poet places himself “inside the pumpkin”17 and by doing so says: “I have entered/ new territory”,18 thus fashioning a new head out of pumpkin in the shape of the mind’s new vision. The central part is the mouth as a symbol of voice linked to the metaphor of creation which unites all opposites in the poem into an orgasmic act of freedom. Kroetsch is ironic here and the whole story of a voice caught in a pumpkin is a trick he plays on the reader.
If the reader wants to brush up on Kroetsch’s trickster principle and the way he explores the origins of place and writing, and how his meditations on the object work out different meanings, then this collection of poems, though published a long ago, is worth (re)reading.