Finalist for CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2006
For the first time in its five-year history, Canada Reads, the CBC Radio program that encourages Canadians to join together each year in the reading of a single book, has shortlisted a book of poems. The book is Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets, a selection of best hits by the man often called Canada's greatest poet, the late Al Purdy.
Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets was nominated by the poet and novelist Susan Musgrave, who will defend her choice in head-to-head debate with champions of four competing titles in a marathon debate next April. Leading up to the great debate, the CBC network will undertake intensive promotion of all five shortlisted books, including biographical sketches of the authors and readings from the works. Purdy will also be the subject of a one-hour film on CBC television starring Gordon Pinsent. In past years Canada Reads has been highly successful at promoting awareness of selected titles, increasing sales by up to 35,000 copies.
Howard White of Harbour Publishing considers the selection of Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets "an inspired choice," calling Purdy "Canada's poet."
"Anybody can read him, and have a ball doing it," says White. "I can't think of a book that would do all Canadians more good to sit down and read at this point in our history. It might save us yet. It's just too bad Al isn't here to see this happen. He would have been over the moon and probably would have written a poem to celebrate."
Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets comprises three decades' worth of Purdy's finest work, including poems from the Governor-General's Award-winning The Cariboo Horses to Naked with Summer in Your Mouth. Purdy made the selection himself, assisted by Professor Sam Solecki, his biographer and editor of Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy. In these poems, Purdy ponders the remains of a Native village; encounters Fidel Castro in Revolutionary Square; curses a noisy cellmate in the drunk tank; and marvels at the "combination of ballet and murder" known as hockey, all in the author's inimitable man-on-the-street style.
Al Purdy was born December 30, 1918, in Wooler, Ontario and died in Sidney, BC, April 21, 2000. Raised in Trenton, Ontario, he spent his life criss-crossing the nation as he developed his reputation as one of Canada's greatest writers. He twice won Canada's most prestigious poetry prize, the Governor General's Award, first for Cariboo Horses (1965) and then for Collected Poems (1986). Later in life he travelled widely with his wife Eurithe while alternating their permanent residence between Ameliasburg, Ontario and Sidney, BC. In addition to thirty-three books of poetry, Purdy wrote a novel, an autobiography and nine collections of essays and correspondence. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1983 and the Order of Ontario in 1987. His ashes are buried in Ameliasburg at the end of Purdy Lane.
The four other books on the Canada Reads shortlist are Deafening by Frances Itani (HarperCollins 2003), Cocksure by Mordecai Richler (McClelland & Stewart 1968), Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (Penguin 2005) and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (Vintage, Random House 2004). In April 2006, all five panellists will engage in a five-day "battle of the books" and each day, one book will be voted off the list until only the winner remains.
Read an Excerpt
Riding the boxcars out of Winnipeg in a morning after rain so close to the violent sway of fields it's like running and running naked with summer in your mouth and the guy behind you grunts and says
"Got a smoke?"
Being a boy scarcely a moment and you hear the rumbling iron roadbed singing under the wheels at night and a door jerking open mile after dusty mile riding into Regina with the dust storm crowding behind you and a guy you hardly even spoke to nudges your shoulder chummily and says
"Got a smoke?"
Riding into the Crow's Nest mountains with your first beard itching and a hundred hungry guys fanning out thru the shabby whistlestops for handouts and not even a sandwich for two hundred miles only the high mountains and knowing what it's like to be not quite a child any more and listening to the tough men talk of women and talk of the way things are in 1937
Riding down in the spit-grey sea-level morning thru dockyard streets and dingy dowager houses with ocean a jump away and the sky beneath you in puddles on Water Street and an old Indian woman pushing her yawning scratching daughter onto a balcony to yell at the boy-man passing
"Want some fun? - come on up" - and the girl just come from riding the shrieking bedspring bronco all the up and down night to a hitchpost morning full of mother and dirt and lice and hardly the place for a princess of the Coast Salish
(My dove my little one tonight there will be wine and drunken suitors from the logging camps to pin you down in the outlying lands of sleep where all roads lead back to the home-village and water may be walked on)
Stand in the swaying boxcar doorway moving east away from the sunset and after a while the eyes digest a country and the belly perceives a mapmaker's vision in dust and dirt on the face and hands here its smell drawn deep thru the nostrils down to the lungs and spurts thru blood stream campaigns in the lower intestine and chants love songs to the kidneys
After a while there is no arrival and no departure possible any more you are where you were always going and the shape of home is under your fingernails the borders of yourself grown into certainty the identity of forests that were always nameless the selfhood of rivers that are changing always the nationality of riding freight trains thru the depression over long green plains and high mountain country with the best and worst of a love that's not to be spoken and a guy right behind you says then
"Got a smoke?"
You give him one and stand in the boxcar doorway or looking out the window of a Montreal apartment or running the machines in a Vancouver factory you stand there growing older
NECROPSY OF LOVE
If it came about you died it might be said I loved you:
love is an absolute as death is,
and neither bears false witness to the other --
But you remain alive.
No, I do not love you hate the word,
that private tyranny inside a public sound,
your freedom's yours and not my own:
but hold my separate madness like a sword,
and plunge it in your body all night long.
If death shall strip our bones of all but bones,
then here's the flesh and flesh that's drunken-sweet as wine cups in deceptive lunar light:
reach up your hand and turn the moonlight off,
and maybe it was never there at all,
so never promise anything to me:
but reach across the darkness with your hand,
reach across the distance of tonight,
and touch the moving moment once again before you fall asleep --