Marya Fiamengo: Nationalist Poet Extraordinaire
Date: Monday, November 07 2005
Nationalist Poet Extraordinaire
Marya Fiamengo is a nationalist, and a moderate feminist. As
a nationalist, she leans toward the Red Tory position.
Patience After Compline
The day (October 25 2005) promised to be a full and packed one. Robin Mathews, Glenn Woodsworth, Arnold Shives and I caught the early ferry from Horseshoe Bay (BC) to Gibsons. We had planned to visit Vivian Woodsworth, Dick Culbert, the Woodsworth home in Gibsons and Marya Fiamengo.
The trip from Horseshoe Bay was thick with the ripest of conversations.
Glenn Woodsworth (grandson of J.S. Woodsworth) had just published a missive on the family tree and lineage. There are many letters yet to publish that Glenn has in his keeping. The recently published booklet, A Prophet at Home: An intimate memoir of J.S. Woodsworth, with three of his previously unpublished letters, left the press to coincide with a conference at Simon Fraser on Woodsworth a few weeks earlier. Glenn pondered, in all frankness and honesty, while on the ferry, the immense contributions his grandfather made to Canadian political life and some of his limitations, faults and failings. Robin, Arnold and I were all ears and eager to hear more about the Woodsworth line and heritage.
We reached Gibsons by midmorning, and drove to Vivian Woodsworth’s (Glenn’s mother’s) place. The tales told by Vivian (as well as many memories) were not something that was often read in books. Canadian social and familial, political and economic history was opened up before us in a most attractive and compelling, gracious and hospitable way. We could have lingered with Glenn and Vivian most of the day. We knew there was much more yet to hear about early CCF days.
We had been invited by Dick Culbert and Maggie Citrin for lunch, so our lingering moments with Vivian soon came to a close. Dick Culbert, like Glenn Woodsworth and Arnold Shives (an important BC mountain painter) are now part of Canadian mountaineering lore and legend. The Canadian Mountaineering Anthology (1994) and Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering (2000) have designated 1960-1975 ‘The Culbert Era in the Coast Mountains.’ Arnold and Glenn factor large in such a tale of Coastal Range mountaineering history. We all discovered, to our delight and joy, that Robin had written a short story in the 1950s on a hiking trip in the Coastal range, and his brother (Tony) has climbed many peak, opened many a trail and been a significant search and rescue person in the Powell River area. Mountains, politics and literature became one in this journey into the Canadian way.
We were well fed and watered by Maggie and Dick, and the conversation, as anticipated, was thick with politics, mountaineering lore and ripe memories. We then slipped over to the old Woodsworth home. The well known Canadian folk musician, Lowry Olaffson (his wife Shannon and their young daughter), live in the home. Lowry was away on concert, so Shannon kindly walked us about the place explaining what the home would have looked like when the Woodsworth family lived there around the time of WWI. This was a period of time when J.S. Woodsworth took a pacifist stance, and he was asked to leave the Methodist church as a minister as a result of his courageous position. The family was large at the time, and finances thinned out because of such a decision taken. We pondered all this, and the price paid for making hard choices.
Lunch now behind us, we headed to upper Gibsons to visit with Marya Fiamengo. There is no doubt that Marya is probably one of the most important nationalist poets in Canada today. She has known such worthies as Dorothy Livesay and Milton Acorn, and she has worked closely with Robin Mathews for many a decade. Marya has just finished writing her ‘Memoirs,’ and threaded throughout each animated, incisive and insightful page, is the tale of the battle for the Canadian way against Canadian compradors and American imperialists. The memoir will be published in the forthcoming book, The New Romans, Canadian Compradors and Canadian Nationalism.
Marya’s nationalism has not always been as potent and committed as it now is, though. Her first book of poetry (now a collector’s item), The Quality of Halves (1958), reflects aspects of West Coast literary and artistic life in the 1950s, but there is much in it about Eastern Europe, also. The Quality of Halves was published by Klanak Press, and Klanak Press was one of the first West Coast publishing presses that dealt with an up and coming generation of substantive Canadian writers and artists. I am quite fortunate to have a copy of The Quality of Halves with many of Marya’s notes in it.
Overheard at the Oracle (1969) and Silt of Iron (1971) positioned Marya as a prominent and probing Canadian poet. She had worked closely with Earle Birney at UBC, and her unique poetic voice was maturing and deepening. Jack Shadbolt did many an evocative drawing and sketch for Silt of Iron, and the combination of poet and artist in this slim volume was most appealing. Those who were listening knew there was yet more to come, though. The rise of Canadian nationalism in the late 1960s and 1970s touched a significant cord in Marya’s nationalist soul.
The publication of In Praise of Old Women (1976) signaled a substantive shift in Marya’s poetic output. The book is dedicated ‘To Robin and all those who struggle against the Americanization of Canada,’ and there is no doubt where this poetic tract for the times is heading. There is an earthy realism In Praise of Old Women that is rooted and grounded in the Canadian experience that is not found in earlier books by Marya. There are many of the same themes and concerns, of course, but the reader cannot help but sense and feel a new season is afoot. This new poetic season ripens and begins to bear the fullest nationalist and political fruit in North of the Cold Star (1978). This book of poetry, without a doubt, is Marya’s most mature and direct poetic reflections on Canadian nationalism and the Canadian way. The spear point cannot be missed. Few are spared the sting and swing of it. North of the Cold Star brings together some of the best poems from Marya’s previous missives, but moves the poetic reach in a more demanding direction. ‘New Poems’ in North of the Cold Star place Marya in a class of political poetry that few have and could equal. The heart burns vision and the imagination cuts clear diamond images. The message cannot be missed.
The publication of Patience After Compline (1989) and White Linen Remembered (1996) are more muted in tone and texture than North of the Cold Star. The deeper religious themes emerge in white heat warmth and clarity, and some of life’s late stage challenges emerge to be pondered. The intense and riveted political passion of North of the Cold Star is still there, but it is more diffused, more integrated into a larger poetic vision.
Ron Hatch, from Ronsdale Press, published White Linen Remembered. White Linen Remembered was dedicated to ‘Joseph Plaskett for his inspired art and Russell Thornton with gratitude for his assistance with my work.’ Seymour Mayne published many of Marya’s earlier books of poetry. We should be grateful for the fact that Seymour Mayne, Janice Fiamengo (Marya’s niece), Ron Hatch and Russell Thornton are working overtime these days to have a book in the hands of the public on Marya’s poetry by 2006. There is no doubt Marya Fiamengo is an extraordinary Canadian nationalist poet that most Canadians know little about and most should know a great deal about.
I sat and chatted with Marya in the car while we were in Gibsons. Robin, Glenn and Arnold huddled away in the restaurant. I just sat and listened to Marya, as she spoke from deep and committed places. The poetic fire still burns strong in her, and many a new poem longs to be born. There is no doubt the nationalist vision holds a high place in her poetry, and as we sat in the car, and her coffee cup swayed in many directions and food was consumed with exuberance, I felt pleased and honoured to sit with an elder of the Canadian nationalist way and hear such a tale so well told.
The ferry demanded its exacting due even though it was delayed and late in reaching the dock. Arnold, Robin, Glenn and I drove over the ramp and settled into our comfortable seats for the trip across the water back to Horseshoe Bay. I thought of who I had been with throughout the day. There was Vivian and Glenn Woodsworth. They pointed the way to some crucial political battles for the Canadian soul. There was the Culberts, Arnold and the Canadian Coastal Range mountaineering lore and legend. There was the nationalist poetic vision of Marya. And, there was Robin Mathews sitting across from me, a man who has fought the good fight since the 1960s.
The ferry docked, and we soon parted. The day was now part of history, but the history we were part of did much to inspire each of us to live in history with a greater vision, belief and commitment to the possibilities and challenges of the Canadian nationalist way.
[Editors' note: an edited version of this article was sent by Mr. Dart and updated 2005/11/09]
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on November 9, 2005]