Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Robert Kroetsch Tribute #1: Seed Catalogue

The Canadian literature community was saddened by the news that on June 21, Robert Kroetsch - author of more than 25 books and winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction - had been killed in a car crash near Leduc, Alberta. When I heard about Kroetsch's death, I put out a call to various writers I know to participate in a tribute to him on this blog. The assignment was simple: choose a book by Kroetsch and write 1,000 to 1,500 words on what it has meant to you.

First up is my good friend Nathan Dueck, whom I knew during my MA years out in Winnipeg. His bio is at the bottom of the essay. For his essay, Nathan chose Kroetsch's seminal (um, pun intended?) 1977 poetry collection Seed Catalogue. Over to you, Nathan.

How Do You Plant a Poet?


But how do you grow a poet?

This is the voice of Robert Kroetsch. This is how he renders it in Seed Catalogue. Kroetsch repeats the line, a question he asks himself often, throughout the long poem. With every repetition, five times in total, the line becomes a verbal tic: the voice is hesitant to write (Kroetsch Catalogue 37); it is insistent about understanding the process of writing (“How do you grow a poet?” 38, 39); and, it is persistent about developing a writing voice (“How do you grow / a poet?” 40). Another speaker replies to the italicized voice. Where the first speaker considers growing, the second voice, presumably belonging to a “poet,” responds with an anecdote about planting. This “poet’s” lines, which lack italics, sound more confidant than the lines with typographical emphasis. It seems that italics appear to indicate intimacy or urgency within Seed Catalogue. Other portions appear more aware, knowing or, more appropriately, self-reflexive. The “poet” teaches us about writing: “Start: with an invocation” (Kroetsch Catalogue 37). And, he inevitably teaches us about dying: “Killed him dead. / It was a strange / planting” (Kroetsch Catalogue 44). The “poet” speaks with a voice that Kroetsch remembers from childhood in rural Alberta. Repetition of such voices is how he remembers the past with Seed Catalogue. Kroetsch repeats these memories in a long poem that resuscitates his own history. Alternately, forgetting the past is akin to suffocation. Perhaps that is why the “poet” uses the gerund “planting,” which implies planting is ongoing, rather than the past tense, “planted.”

In “On Being an Alberta Writer: Or, I Wanted to Tell Our Story,” Kroetsch writes about exhuming a particular seed catalogue from the Glenbow Archives. “I wanted to write a poetic equivalent to the ‘speech’ of a seed catalogue,” he recalls, “[t]he way we read the page and hear its implications” (“Writer” 8). “The writing the writing the writing,” therefore, matters more to Kroetsch than its alterative, “the having written.” Because of that repetition, the writing seems to take on at least three stages: writing the poem, the writing implied by reading it, and the writing in response to it. Every subsequent commentary, essay, or review of “the writing” engages Seed Catalogue in a dialogue that Kroetsch began with his “explosive seed” of poetry. That way, the writing the writing the writing is “a strange / planting” within readers. The writing, etc., like the speaking, goes on, even without the “poet.” That is how you plant a poet.


I knew she was watching me. She was
watching me grow. Like a bad weed, she liked
to say. That pleased her.

The lesson of Seed Catalogue must be the writing the writing the writing. And, especially after Kroetsch’s death, it seems important that I keep this lesson in mind. My first thought after learning about the tragedy was, “well, I guess the field notes are finally complete.” Weeks later, I still do not know how to feel about this ending for the lifelong poem. I cannot convince myself that death is the end. That is to say, the voices that Kroetsch captured in writing still speak to me. I am convinced his dialogue with readers, somehow both intellectually profound and emotionally provocative, goes on. It seems remarkable to me that Kroetsch achieved such a range (with such rigour) by writing the tones of those who tend the land (instead of the pretensions of those who teach in ivory towers). An example from another long poem, “I’m Getting Old Now” from Sounding the Name, indicates how he engages with his upbringing. In this poem, the speaker relates a dream wherein his mother speaks to him as though he was still a child. It is unclear, though, if she is more “pleased” to watch her boy “grow,” or to repeat what they say about “a bad weed” (Kroetsch “Old” 202). With the next stanza, he speaks of awakening to realize that “I’m getting old now . . . Death is not quite / the enemy it was. It is a kind of watching” (Kroetsch “Old” 202). Then, in the final stanza, he feels that, in his old age, “Death begins to seem a friend that one has almost / forgotten, then remembers again.” If “Death” does not represent an end within “I’m Getting Old Now,” it is because the speaker has come to terms with aging. At the same time, aging necessitates memory in the poem. If forgetting represents a betrayal of history, remembering is a delay, or a deferral, of the inevitable end. I suspect this lesson about memory – a form of aging – from Sounding the Name is comparable to the one about writing – a form of speaking – from Seed Catalogue. If so, the writing the writing the writing is how Kroetsch “remembers again.”


After the bomb/blossoms Poet, teach us
After the city/falls to love our dying.
After the rider/falls
(the horse West is a winter place.
standing still) The palimpsest of prairie

under the quick erasure
of snow, invites a flight.

Driving up the Queen Elizabeth II highway to Kroetsch’s memorial service in Leduc, a friend revealed what she took away from Seed Catalogue: “it shows me the effectiveness of simple writing.” The four of us in the minivan – three friends from graduate school and one of our professors in the Department of English at the University of Calgary – agreed. We had all, at one time or another, approached Kroetsch for help with our writing. And, he generously obliged us all. He read drafts of our dissertations and manuscripts. He introduced us to other writers. I cannot confirm this, but I would like to say the discussion took place as we unknowingly steered around “the home place: one and a half miles west of Heisler, Alberta, / on the correction road / and three miles south” (Kroetsch Catalogue 30). Later, when I returned home, back to shelves that bow with books by Kroetsch, a line from Seed Catalogue went over in my mind. “Poet, teach us / to love our dying” (Kroetsch Catalogue 45). Now, with the long poem in hand, I am struck by the implications of another verbal noun. The italicized voice speaks of “dying” instead of “dead.” Farther along that column, the speaker provides a sense of what archaeology means to Kroetsch. Throughout Seed Catalogue, archaeology is a practice that forms the object of which it speaks. It offers us a way to speak of the past and of the shifts in epistem√© to organize memories in writing while referencing the limits of the writing itself. In the opposite column of the long poem, the “poet” speaker repeats a principle theme of the long poem. He refers to an earlier passage where he remembers falling off a horse when he was a child. “The horse was standing still,” of course (Kroetsch Catalogue 29). Because of that repetition, it seems necessary to consider what compels the “poet” to embarrass himself. Perhaps he wants us to share the pathos of his memory. If so, he can align with his readers to experience “a strange planting” of voice on the page. The effect of this identification is why reading Seed Catalogue makes me uneasy. It is also why I feel compelled to remember how Kroetsch, the poet, affected me. His death is not the end, but it is a line break.

Nathan Dueck is the author of the poetry collection King's(mere) (Turnstone Press, 2004) and has had poems appear in CV2, Canadian Literature and other places. Originally from Winkler, MB, he now lives and writes in Calgary.

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