Pauline Butling / Remembering Robert Kroetsch

Pauline Butling

Kroetsch has hovered at the edges of my awareness since his sudden death last summer. I often see his face (usually in listening mode as Bowering reminds us), sometimes hear his voice. I’ve been dipping in and out of his books, re-reading favourite poems or discovering new ones or finding new readings of old ones. I suppose that’s the silver lining to his passing, that it’s taken me back into his writing. Completed Field Notes, the early chapbooks, Rita K’s Hornbooks, The Snowbird Poems and many more: Kroetsch’s capacity to invent ways to subvert, disorder, mock and play around with settled meanings and forms seems endless. We should award him the medieval title of “Lord of Misrule.”
But as I start this blog, it’s a personal memory that comes to mind, of the first time I met him, when he came to read at Selkirk College in the West Kootenays sometime in the 1970s. My husband and I were both teaching Kroetsch’s books in our classes and were eager to meet him. He was supposed to fly into the Castlegar airport but there was a big snowstorm so the plane had to land in Cranbrook and the passengers were put on a bus for the 3-hour trip over the Kootenay pass to Castlegar. By the time Kroetsch arrived at our doorstep in the nearby village of South Slocan the journey had taken on epic dimensions, complete with surprise shifts and turns that lead off the path, unexpected perils as the group travelled into the darkening night on a treacherous, snow-covered highway over the mountains, a woman sitting across the aisle who kept reaching out to touch his arm while saying, “we could all die.” He saw an archetype at every turn, including their final entry into a magical valley. As he told us the story, his eyes sparkled with boyish, golly-geewhiz excitement at the journey’s phantasmagoric turns, its Marquez-like magic realism, its archetypal echoes. He loved the unexpected.
For sure he sought out all of the above in his writing, most obviously in the crazy plot twists in his novels, but I’m thinking here of his poetry. The puns, double entendres, surprise turns, comic reversals, and banal/sublime remixes make for a bumpy ride in his language bus. You never know what’s around the corner.
Even a simple “journey” up a short flight of stairs to visit a bathroom—a poem from the “Advice to my Friends” series that supposedly offers words of wisdom—quickly becomes multi-layered, veers off on tangents ranging from the wisdom of Lao Tzu to the banality of plumbing. The poem was written after another visit to our home, hence the title, “To the Wahs, on the Kootenay River.”

Lao Tzu was right about these matters.
I forget what he said—the way concealed
in its namelessness, or something like it.
Anyways, one by one we climbed the stairs

to visit your newest bathroom, under,
as they say, construction, up on the roof
of your old house. Even the Queen must pause,
allow a smile, apprehending the throne.

Need is an insufficient cause. Laughter
has other fears. We climbed the starlit stairs
where Fred and his brother, having opened
the roof, let out the bottom of affairs.

Twinned in the higher darkness, not with stars
but with the plumbing, I heard myself call
down to my own absence, Where’s the light switch?

Poet, a voice replied. Let the chips fall.
Think of yourself there as your own shadow.
Consider submission. Forget desire.
(CFN 99, UAlberta 2000)

I like the comic juxtaposition of plumbing and stars, the mix of scatological and philosophical in “the way” and “the throne,” the laconic tone of the poet/narrator who nevertheless speaks in carefully measured lines. Talk about multi-layered. “Where’s the light switch?” the poet asks. The answer is to forget about finding an answer. You will not find a eureka moment or epiphany here, or anywhere else in a Kroetsch poem. And that’s his great gift: we are left in the midst.


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