Al Purdy’s 1965 trip “North of Summer,” to Baffin Island

“I enjoyed myself tremendously,” writes Canadian poet Al Purdy of the summer he spent in and around Pangnirtung. “None of the travel books about the north gave me a specific sense of place, being more concerned with fact and not impression, size and not colour, information and not feeling.”

The sense of delight is a good quality in a poet and Purdy’s book North of Summer is a good antidote to the dearth of impression, colour and feeling he rightly diagnoses. 

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“Queerly enough I didn’t have the sense of a vast and lonely barren distance in the Arctic, even tho it certainly is vast and lonely. Why didn’t I? I’m not sure. Perhaps because I looked at things close up, flowers, rivers and people: above all, people. Besides, you’d have a helluva time shoving vast lonely distance into poems.”

I don’t read much poetry and I can’t even compare this to any other Al Purdy, but I agree with Purdy’s description of his own book: it’s a close-up, close-read of the North he experiences. 

Purdy doesn’t waste a lot of time on description. His poems are all action, what little of it he finds, and the people he meets spring constantly to the foreground. “Suzanne the stewardess/is a French Canadian agnostic/which surprises me a little,” or “The Public Works guy I’m with/says you always find good gravel/for concrete near a graveyard.” 

Purdy is candid about his inability to communicate with the Inuit who take him in, and he always puts himself in the picture. “They grin at me/I grin back/and we sit there like a bunch of monkeys/about as phony as you can get.”

He writes a lot about dogs. Out of work for the summer, sled dogs patrol settlements, camps and islands where they’ve been stranded until freeze-up. Purdy is given the job of hoisting one old dog in and out of a boat he’s ferried on. An entire poem is dedicated to the challenge of taking a crap in Pangnirtung while hungry dogs circle, waiting to devour the result (Purdy has a young boy stand by throwing rocks and still comes away smarting). 

These descriptions are historically interesting because one year later, according to the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, an RCMP officer in Pangnirtung had 250 dogs destroyed. The entire dog population was nearly wiped out by 1968, replaced by snowmobiles and a few dog teams kept for tourism.

One poem in this book made a dark impression when I first read it shortly after I moved North. In “Sculptors” Purdy is rummaging through a box of damaged carvings, looking for a souvenir he promised someone; “one slap-happy idiot seal,” or an “anthropomorphic walrus singing Hallelujah I’m a Bum in a whiskey baritone.” But all the carvings are flawed.

And I have a sudden vision
of the carvers themselves
in this broken sculpture
as if the time & the place & me
had clicked into brief alignment
and a switch pulled
so that I can see and feel
what it was like to be them
the tb outpatients
failed hunters
who make a noise at the wrong time
or think of something else
at the trigger moment
and shine their eyes
into a continual tomorrow
the losers and failures
who never do anything right
and never will
the unlucky ones
always on the verge
of a tremendous discovery
who finally fail to deceive
even themselves as time begins
to hover around them
the old the old the old
who carve in their own image
of maimed animals
and I’d like to buy every damn case

In 2004, this poem upended my view of carving and Inuit art in general. Reading it now, confining its meaning to the actual broken carvings at hand, and applying my finely-attuned appreciation of failure generally (and of art in particular), I find I love it even more.

There’s a lot more in this collection: on boating, on doing laundry with ladies who don’t speak his language, on seal hunting, on drinking endless cups of tea. 

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The photo of Purdy on the back is almost a parody of 1960s poetry, and a perfect aid to the personality we encounter inside the pages: the one whose charm is stripped away by an inability to speak Inuktitut, or hunt seal, or drive a boat. The one who recites poetry at full volume to nobody, struggles to explain why he’s there, always trying “to decide if all of this is a poem.”

One thought on “Al Purdy’s 1965 trip “North of Summer,” to Baffin Island

  1. I am a long time Al Purdy fan and appreciate the perspectives in your review of his North of Summer. When I was a very young teenager living in Scarborough, Ontario, I found a copy of Thrasher on the shelves of the Bendale Public library. Why it was there and what compelled me to read it remain mysteries. But, it turned on so many lights for me at that time, impressions that I have carried with me for many years. Thanks. Keep on with the writing.

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