|This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
— "Dark Pines Under Water," The Shadow Maker (1972)
Long considered a marvellous talent, Toronto's Gwendolyn MacEwen, the author of more than a dozen volumes of exquisite verse and prose, was found dead in her Robert Street flat in 1987, a few months shy of her 47th birthday. This one suggests suicide; that one argues alcohol-related causes. Yet no one disputes the authenticity of MacEwen's oracular voice nor the veracity of her electrifying poetic vision.
Look no further than "Dark Pines Under Water," an unforgettably haunting 13-line lyric continuing to yield meaning and expand in both range and scope. It is tempting to recycle the received wisdom surrounding this highly stylized monument to modernism: the notion of its "you" turned upsy-turvy; the myths of Echo and Narcissus or that carousing nymph-chasing boozer, Pan; its relationship to the seventh book of Paradise Lost, The Boatman by Jay Macpherson, or even Margaret Atwood's lines from The Journals of Susanna Moodie ("turn, look down:/ there is no city;/ this is the centre of a forest").
But consider an alternative interpretation: MacEwen's poem may well bear scrutiny as a lament for Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson (1877-1917), the intrepid explorer whose aesthetic legacy galvanised the Group of Seven.
An expert guide and woodsman, Thomson brought the North's austere and majestic vistas to the attention of the world. Influenced by the Impressionists, the consummate colourist-cum-catalyst for a bold new direction in Canadian painting spent the final years of his too-brief life striving to "get the greens right" in much of his work, most notably in Pine Country (1916), an arresting canvas providing an eerie visual complement to MacEwen's prayerful offering.
His mysterious death by drowning on Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake was eventually ruled accidental; as in MacEwen's case, alternative explanations for Thomson's demise (suicide, murder) stubbornly resurface.
Attending to considerations of aural composition and visual perspective as carefully and conscientiously as Thomson, MacEwen resolutely casts her unflinching gaze upon the fundamental dualism of sacrament and sacrifice, the appearance and disappearance of both figure (self) and ground (other), with unique alchemical bravado.
Somehow, it's not surprising the daughter of an embittered working-class alcoholic brute, with a mentally unstable wife, would "turn inward" and "reach downward" to pair the archetypal anima/animus while shackling the manifest and mythological "with a kind of heavy largeness." The same must be noted of her symbolically twinned opposite, Thomson, whose "memory is a row of sinking pines . . . in the green" of his time.
Praised for its closely metred line lengths, its elaborate mnemonic devices, and its vivid evocation of the inexpressible rendered with meticulous clarity and mesmerizing rhythmic precision, "Dark Pines Under Water" rushes inexorably forward upon cresting waves of green in a world made primeval even as it drags readers along in its ever-widening wake — and then, boom!
The "anguished dream" pivots upon that point of no return when momentum stops dead, and the sensuously liquid slowing of the sleeper "sinking, sinking" deeper in "an elementary world" opens into a chilling calm, effortlessly resolving itself in shiverous surrender: "There is something down there and you want it told."
So be it.
"Gwendolyn MacEwen's 'Dark Pines Under Water'" was originally featured in The Globe and Mail's 16 June 2001 edition.
© 2001-2011 Judith Fitzgerald, The Globe and Mail, and the Estate of Gwendolyn MacEwen. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. (Special thanks to Carol Wilson.)