This Land Like a Mirror Where I Met Gwendolyn MacEwen

I met Gwendolyn MacEwen after she died in 1987. In fact, it was many years later in the early twenty-first century at York University back when I was in its Creative Writing Program. My teacher read us–and then had us read–some of her poems. She chose Dark Pines Under Water and it really left a powerful impression on me.

I recall trying to talk with my teacher about that at the time and I wasn’t even able to remember the poem’s name. I was so ashamed of that fact that when we had to memorize a poem for an assignment, I choose the above. Over the following years, I read all of Gwendolyn’s poems that I could find: though reading poetry is quite different from prose and sometimes difficult to read never mind even explain.

Gwendolyn was a poet deeply concerned with her craft and the power of mythology and the mythopoeic. She approached matters of mysticism along with darkness, sensuality, and a profound sense of psycho-geography: of history and the echoes of all people in the land they used to–and still-live in. Gwendolyn wrote many books of poetry and two published novels: Julian the Magician and King of Egypt, King of Dreams: both of which are dense but incredibly charged and multi-layered stories. An ex-girlfriend of mine bought me the last book as well as two of her selected poetic readings.

What really gets to me, however, is that this woman–who was shy, quiet, small and sleight with a round face, dark hair, and kohl-lined intensely dreamy blue eyes in her youth–was born and lived in Toronto. I think about it sometimes: that she once walked and biked to many of the places I’ve walked or drove on the bus past. She lived in the places that I visited and somehow made poetry and art there. From the sixties to the eighties she did this: learning Kabbalah, a multitude of languages, and she read her poems a loud. And while she did travel from time to time: to Israel, Egypt, Greece and England she tried to find herself–and find–Toronto’s spirit. Her series of short stories in Noman and Noman’s Land are some of the best Canadian literature I’ve ever wanted to read. I remember my time taking those books out of York and the Toronto Public Library fondly: especially since they meshed so well with the mythological writing I was doing, developing and planning on doing.

She was a complex character in herself, something that Rosemary Sullivan explores with a certain creative flair in her Shadow-Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen: a book that I liked for the most part, though there were some psychological intimations on some of Gwendolyn’s behaviour on Sullivan’s part that I found to be very reductionist and necessarily the result of simply one particular potential trauma. Nevertheless, I really liked how she incorporated Gwendolyn’s life and works together into her narrative and it gave me another glimpse of the emerging literary scene and talent in Toronto at that time.

I won’t lie. Gwendolyn MacEwen and I have a lot of similarities, and despite years and death I sometimes felt close to her in a way. We both really like Star Wars and, as she knew it, the Marvel Family: though I wonder what she would have thought of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s interpretations of the latter. She even wrote a poem about it called Fragments From a Childhood: a superhero poem which I found online and fell totally in love with. It is also no coincidence that I wrote a glosa in undergrad of her poem Shadow-Maker: something I won’t show here … at least not for some time.

I wanted to write a story somehow from all I learned about her. I still have that idea. I spent a significant amount of time at the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto going through the collection of manuscripts and notes that she left open to the public: including an unpublished novel about a female musician’s life growing up in the early years and turmoil of modern Israel called Gabriela. It was so strange to see someone writing about a culture that I grew up in, something that she did not grow up in, and yet get many of the nuances that were there along with some insights I’m not sure even I knew about.

When the Fisher was open until the evenings on Thursdays, I would spend many a time holding the very pages she did when creating her own works as the light of the afternoon sun turned into evening. It was some of the most peaceful and exciting times I had traveling to St. George campus to take a look at her works and hold them in my hands.

I wish I could have met her. I think we would have had a lot to talk about. I also know that she was a genius and she deserved to be acknowledged as such. She did a tremendous amount of research for her second published novel King of Egypt, she wrote prolifically and she did and learned to do so many things having not even been a high school graduate. Although she gained praise from her peers, I feel she deserved much more than she got. Gwendolyn MacEwen, as far as I am concerned, is one of the best Canadian and Torontonian creators we ever had and it is a shame that she’s gone and her work is not that well-known outside Canadian writer and academic circles.

Sometimes I thought about visiting her in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, but I’ve never gotten around to it and I’m not sure I ever will. I am glad that I looked through her Fonds at the Fisher however. I wish I could convey how it felt to look through the notes, drafts, and unpublished manuscripts of a writer and person that I respect: who influenced me so much and came into my life long after her own had ended so unexpectedly and easily like she was always there without it sounding creepy and ridiculous. But there it is. People come into your life for a reason and I believe she made my life richer for it.

In case you are interested, Gwendolyn’s collection can be accessed by anyone with a registration card at the Fisher. You just need to go and provide an address and ID and you are all set. I really recommend Gabriela because it is still very relevant and timely to today: especially with continued Israeli-Palestinian and Arabic relations being as they are. I wish it had been published, but I also loved reading it in that lovely Reading Room with the miles-high levels of bookshelves that the Fisher possesses.

I also want to link you to a review I did on Julian the Magician–Gwendolyn’s first published novel–on my Goodreads profile. It does get full of a bit of literary jargon, but I am pretty proud of it and what I got out of it. Sometimes I wonder if Neil read Gwendolyn, and if he hasn’t he definitely should.

Finally, I would add that Gwendolyn loved to read her poems aloud and at gatherings such as those at the Bohemian Embassy Club. There is a documentary made about her called Shadowmaker: The Life and Times of Gwendolyn MacEwen by Brenda Longfellow that has some filmed shots of her giving interviews and reading her poems. She has a melodic, resonant voice. It is worth seeing and listening to because her works make up a land that does, in the end, turn you inward.

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