"What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must."
— Mark Twain, 1871
I'd like to tell you what I know about Gwendolyn MacEwen; I'd like to tell you about the profound difference she made and continues to make in my life; and, I'd like to tell you the truth.
These past several years I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Gwen, about the way in which I knew her (and could never know her), about the differences between biography and fiction, memories and official facts and, predominantly, about any serious attempt to objectively communicate what one person actually does know about one other person, absent or present, living or otherwise.
It's Casa Loma, March 1977, several degrees below freezing, and it's an official literary event. We gather for the glitzy celebration of Irving Layton's milestone 64th, an unforgettable evening topped off with Sylvia Fraser popping out of a tank-sized cake. That was the night I first met Gwen. She and yours truly, scrunched in back of a rack of checked coats, drowned our stories with Scotch and Vodka sans rocks.
What a night! What a time! Intensity squared. Air porous with radiance. Energy palpable and raw.
"It doesn't get any better than this," confides Gwen, doffing her bottle in the vicinity of elsewhere, whispering ruefully, "let's just hope it doesn't get any worse."
Over and over, these past few decades, Gwen's simple confidence reverberates in ways I could not, at 22, either understand or guess. That's life. The gift that happens. The thing that reaches its own conclusions.
That night, at Toronto's Casa Loma, Gwen and I began a decade-long friendship that continues to variously haunt, fortify, and terrify me, a friendship I now consider a blessing and a treasure, a memory worth its weight in time.
In the midst of the maelström, I thank God for Gwen. Daily, I thank Him we remember now what we hardly considered memorable then: That poetry mattered; that our world reeked of promise; and, that the pall had already begun to descend. Look no further than the tragic deaths of Emile Nelligan, Hubert Aquin, Juan Butler and, of course, my friend, Gwen.
During the last decade of her existence on this planet, Gwen fought the raw. (The raw won.) Gwen on Albany Avenue. Gwen on Robert Street. Gwen gone off to write at a university so she might finally make ends meet. All for poetry. All for God-given talent. All for doing what she could not not do. And, when she simply gave up, consumption was a two-way street. Later, when I would examine and reflect upon the full magnitude of Gwen's conviction women were more treacherous than men, she'd already left us in the dust.
I think often of the afternoon talks on Robert Street these days, recalling Gwen's sparsely decorated flat all smudges of blues and slate greys offset by a handful of icons and a few pieces of art with nary a book in sight. (She felt oppressed by them.) One afternoon, sipping tea, we get down to brass tactics on the subject of jottings and keeping journals and such.
Gwen holds up a sheet of paper. "See this? This is my journal." I walk over to her desk and glance at it. "No," she says, "read it. Go ahead." I read it. What I read is a day inthe life of Gwen. A list of tasks. A couple of numbers and dates scribbled down during telephone conversations. Doodles. A few lines of a poem she'd decided to write and polish (and would later excitedly make sure I saw the moment it had been completed. She dedicated it to me).
Then, she picks up the journal page, tears it in half, in quarters, in eighths, into a flotilla of magic carpets fluttering into the trash.
"This way," she reasons, "I take what I need before I tear it up; but, this way, you don't have to worry about who's going to really get to know you after you're dead. Nobody's ever going to 'know' me once I'm gone, anyway. It's mine and mine alone, this way." She taps her temple. "Besides, it's all up here."
Another time, in the middle of a discussion concerning Frank, her last lover, Gwen expounds upon her Theory of Invisibility. She feels she's got two options, disappear or become invisible in the eyes of the all-important CanLit Cronies. "Either way, you're just invisible," she explains, smiling wisely, "invisible plus the F-word."
Fucked. Right. After all, it was Gwen herself who once warned me to watch out for the parasites and whores who'd siphon it off and blow hard for anybody who might add lustre to the almighty CV. C'est la vie. Invisibility's looking pretty damned fine to me.
"Gwen and Yours Truly," originally featured in Judith Fitzgerald's April/May 1999 "Critique" column (Confluences), is posthumously dedicated to the memory of Gwendolyn MacEwen. © 1999-2011 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.