THE QUEST FOR THE OTHER – ADVICE TO MY FRIENDS BY ROBERT KROETSCH
Advice to My Friends (1985) is the collection of eight sequences of ‘continuing’ poems. It’s a kind of a poetic journey on which the poet sets his readers on his own quest for the other. Having been privileged to take a short route from “Advice to My Friends” and “Mile Zero” through “Letters to Salonika”, “Delphi: Commentary”, “Postcards from China”, “The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof”, to “Sounding the Name”, and “The Poet’s Mother”, the reader is imaginatively involved in the process of discovery of the meaning of the poems.
Many poems mark a continuation of what has gone before or are part of the texts to come. “Mile Zero” becomes a response to the poem “The Criminal Intensities of Love as Paradise”, “Delphi:Commentary” is juxtaposed to Pausanias’ texts or fragments by Sir James Frazer. Shirley Neuman explains that “in the continuing poem, each sequence becomes a part of the intertext of each new sequence; each new sequence re-reads the poems already written”.1 One poem speaks to another, one text to the next. The poems influence each other and become each other’s intertext.
“Advice to My Friends” is different from other sequences of poems because it uses the sonnet sequence as the poetic form. As Jones argues “the sonnet sequence is here ‘pastiched’, transformed into a collection of postmodern ‘piecemeal’ sonnets, that patch together various discourses, playing with the very idea of the sonnet as a ‘fixed form’ and the lyric as a monologue”.2 Moreover, the poem is written in the tradition of epithalamium celebrating the marriage of two Canadian icons: painter Emily Carr and hockey player Howie Morenz.
The central poem that focuses on the marriage of Emily and Howie is “the bridegroom rises to speak”. The epithalamium of this match is celebrated through their unique painterly and hockey talents in the next poem:
…has about it the air
of a painting of a forest exploding into light,
or of a hockey game, under the lights, exploding.
but the dance, the dance is the first decoding.3
The wedding guests include Roy Kiyooka who gives away to Emily and Howie
an escape plan as a gift. It is a collage
of 1,243 pages, in code, with maps and diagrams,4
and Michael Ondaatje who is the wedding photographer and who explains that this match is not a standard one:
This will not be, Mr. Ondaatje explains,
your standard epithalamium. He is taking
pictures, both in colors and black and white.5
“Mile Zero” is a narrative account of the poet’s journey “through western Canada in the dead of six nights”.6 The poem becomes a response to the question about the origin of language and the process of signification raised in “The Criminal Intensities of Love As Paradise”. The poem has a very specific form. Neuman notices that “’Mile Zero’ is a series of disjunctive forms, narrative and ‘post-surreal’ poetics, passages from the unrealized possibilities for the poem, footnotes (that which is separated from the main text because it is, in content or form, disjunct from as well as related to it)”.7 The poem becomes the process of”the writing of the poem”8 and many possible lost texts on the side become intertexts of the poem. The intertext at the end of the poem reads:
the story of the poem
the poem of the story
What Kroetsch writes and what the reader imaginatively constructs is the poem in the process of becoming.
Most of the poems in Advice to My Friends can be read as Kroetsch’s exploration of the relationship between place/landscape and language, the relationship of place/home and self, the quest for the female figure who is either his lover or his mother, the quest for the other. The poems are the exploration of the other, or as one of the reviewers puts it: “Advice to My Friends is a collection of poems written for and about the other, about the self’s need for and discovery of that other.”10
“Mile Zero” is also about the connection between place and self, the quest for the self west based on his famous pun: “oust/or quest or”.11 In the central poem of the sequence “Descent, as Usual, into Hell”, the Orphic motifs are anticipated by the author persona’s descent into Hell and the search for Eurydice, stressing his quest for the other. In the next poem “Awake, Awakening” the author refers to the deferral of the quest’s fulfillment:
wrong or alone
we live, in delay’s body
after the word (after
which there can be no after)12
His desire for origins conveyed by words: “first, archaic/be, become”13 speak of both his quest for the origin of language and self and place since for Kroetsch self is defined in relation to place through narrative. In Kroetsch’s poetry, the search for the origin of language is a substitute for his search for home and a lover. When he can’t find true home where he could feel comfortable, he turns to language as a home, or a poem and poetry that he creates as a way of self –recognition and self-definition.
In “Letters to Salonika” the poet expresses the inadequacy of language and a poem as home. He does not feel at home in his apartment in Winnipeg while his wife is in Greece visiting her prior home. The poet’s desire for a secure home and woman bring about pain and loneliness:
… You on your quest, me
here at home. I’ve burned up half our woodpile. Loneliness
and a fire. Loneliness is a fire. …
Language, too, gone back to its corner.14
However, while “trying to fill my emptiness with words”,15 he concludes that “I want/ no words, tonight/ dream your lovers”,16 anticipating that the poet can find comfort only with his wife and a real home. The absence of his wife is linked to the absence of his mother or his great-grandmother in the next poems.
In the absence of his beloved, the poet sets out on a journey to China in “The Postcards from China”, while the longing for the absent other, now in the form of his mother, comes to its full light in the poem “Sounding the Name”.
In “Delphi:Commentary”, the poet is in Greece with his two daughters. The whole poem is based on three intertexts: Pausanias’ Description of Greece, James Frazer’s texts and “The Eggplant Poems” which are scattered throughout the poem and for which “we have no reliable text”.17 We can only guess if the poem really exists. The poem is written in two columns where Pausanias’ and Frazer’s fragments are embedded in the Eggplant fragments. Neuman explains the specific structure: “In yet another doubling, the two sets of (inter)text and commentary – Pausanias and Frazer on one hand, ‘The Eggplant Poems’ and the journey of the poet and his daughters on the other – become intertext of Delphi: the site/the poem”.18 Thus Delphi functions as both the poem and the site where the poet encounters his father’s ghost through whom the oracle poses questions:
What are you doing here?
Did I teach you nothing?19
“The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof” finds the poet in Germany where he tries to find the signs of his great-grandmother though his search fails. While he remains lost in the Frankfurt Main Station, he meets his double who points him the right way. The obsession with the absent female figure as an agent of pain and an object of desire starts from “Seed Catalogue” or “The Ledger” where he associates the idea of his mother or his great-grandmother with fear and desire.
Advice to My Friends concludes with the poem “The Poet’s Mother”. The poem relates the poet’s writing, sexual desire and the memory of his mother.
I have sought my mother
on the shores of a dozen islands
I have sought my mother
inside the covers
of ten thousand books.
I have sought my mother
in the bars of a hundred cities.20
The repetition of the phrase “I have sought” emphasizes the poet’s continual quest for his mother and his home, and since the quest is marked by deferral of fulfillment, the poet has no choice but to continue his journey.
In this collection of poems, Kroetsch really surprises us with his skillful manipulation of literary conventions, with new experimental form of his poems, and the new context in which he deals with his old but still new idea of the quest for the other. What would then be Kroetsch’s advice to his friends? It is his writing that celebrates ambiguity and contradiction, the merging and still the opposition of fiction and reality, the marriage of opposites as Emily and Howie’s marriage is, for between giving advice to his friends and publishing the collection of poems Advice to My Friends we can never be sure what his real intention was.
1 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Noting’”. Open Letter 5 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 186.
2 Manina Jones. “Advice Like Snow: Advice to My Friends and the Lay of the Land”. Open Letter. 9 5-6 (Spring-Summer 1996): 70.
3 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).
7 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Noting’”. Open Letter 5 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 185.
9 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).
10 Paul H. Jartarson. “Discourse of the Other”. Canadian Literature. 115 (Winter 1987): 138.
11 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).
17 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Noting’”. Open Letter 5 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 187.
19 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).