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Oh, Canada

Nick Mount’s survey of CanLit provides a panoramic scope, but largely avoids lingering close-ups BY BARDIA SINAEE


Arrival: The Story of CanLit

Nick Mount

House of Anansi Press

THE VICISSITUDES of time and gentrification notwithstanding, it can be difficult to comprehend Toronto through its writers. The bust of poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, who dropped out of school in 1959 at age 18 to teach herself ancient languages and write occult, mystical poems, is marooned on a prim traffic island in a part of the Annex where no one with such outlandish ambitions could afford to buy these days. A block north, near Jean Sibelius Square (“Sibelius Park” in Dennis Lee’s iconic 1972 collection, Civil Elegies and Other Poems), the gothic houses, whose “squiggles and arches and / baleful asymmetric glare” are reflected in the eponymous poem’s unmoored left margin and restless tone, now sell for seven figures.

Which is just as well, because throughout Canada’s literary awakening from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, poetry was “an easy and inexpensive challenge to bourgeois respectability within the safety of bourgeois respectability,” according to University of Toronto professor Nick Mount. In Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Mount posits that the lasting contribution of the likes of MacEwen and Lee has been how they “mythologized each other and themselves” at a time when Canada “needed storied writers even more than the stories they wrote.”

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