Dennis Cooley. The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry. xi, 361. $39.99.

When, in 1985, I first read Robert Kroetsch’s poetry, I had been to Alberta only once, as a child. I knew nothing of stone hammers, ledgers, or seed catalogues. As a graduate student studying literary theory, I’d just read Roland Barthes on the death of the author. I’d never heard of Robert Kroetsch and was suspicious of authors anyway (not having yet met many who were women). But when a grad school friend said I had to read Robert Kroetsch’s Field Notes (1981) if I wanted to work on contemporary poetry, I was determined to try.

The friend who recommended I read Kroetsch was young, gay, of mixed-race, and from South Africa so I was surprised to find that Kroetsch was middle-aged, white, heterosexual and from Alberta. But my friend was cool. His seminar on Lacan had blown me away. If he said I had to read Robert Kroetsch’s Field Notes, I would. I loved what I found there, especially the attention to the ordinary, the kitchen, garden – the significance of contemporary domestic space, frankly — that I’d never seen valued in literature before. Consider, “Sketches of a Lemon,” for example one of the early poems collected in Field Notes that Cooley doesn’t cite:

 

I said, to Smaro
(I was working on this poem),
Smaro, I called, is there
(she was in the kitchen)
a lemon in the fridge?
No, she said.

 

I loved it so much that I wrote my doctoral dissertation and first book on Robert Kroetsch’s work, or rather, on my reaction to the work of Robert Kroetsch.

I haven’t written about the concept of “home” in relationship to the work of Robert Kroetsch before, but it strikes me that, as a young feminist, the concept of “home” was already problematic for me and it clearly was for Kroetsch as well. As Cooley writes, “He wants to sit and visit at the kitchen table and he can hardly wait to get on the road again.”

Home was a place Kroetsch left early and often. Despite living in Leduc during his final years, I would argue that he never quite returned to Alberta. His place was in the imagination, in writing, in thought. But this might be my own desire speaking. As the epigraphs to Cooley’s book make explicit, “the home place” is “one and a half miles west of Heisler, Alberta, / on the correction line road / and three miles south.”

I had recently left home myself, after years of not feeling at home there, and yet I’d also set up a new home. I’d taken, not a room of my own, but a husband. Clearly Kroetsch had experienced similar restlessness and yet returned repeatedly to the familiar. For me, Kroetsch was an ethnographer of the contemporary. At precisely this historical moment it was becoming possible for masses of us to leave home in ways that were unimaginable to previous generations. But what would we find there?  These were the questions the work of Robert Kroetsch raises for me, then and now.

Dennis Cooley’s experience of Kroestch and his poetry could not have more different. Cooley and Kroetsch, were, in British idiom, mates. Prairie boys who had become English professors at the University of Manitoba, they continued to be writers and poets getting drunk at the pub, what Cooley calls “that home”: “The pub, Kroetsch has long thought, provides sanctuary where people can speak to their deepest needs and to what lies closest to their lives.”

Cooley doesn’t cite a source for his claim about what Kroestch “long thought” about pubs.  His reference is to his own knowledge, based on decades of friendship. What I took from the work of Robert Kroetsch was permission to inhabit larger worlds, move on, ask questions, embrace uncertainty. I’m fortunate that I didn’t take away a darker story, from the night or two I spent in pubs with Kroetsch and the gangs around him. As the stories that have circulated around the METOO campaign suggest, I might have had a very different story to tell. But that story was not my story, nor was it Dennis Cooley’s story. The Home Place is Cooley’s homage to friendship, explication of the significance of prairie poetry, reflection on the cunning strength of home. His book was not, in a fundamental way, written for me.  And yet I can appreciate its gifts and strengths.

The Home Place focuses almost entirely on Kroetsch’s very early poetry, the first sections of what Kroetsch referred to as his “continuing poem,” published in the 1970s. Chapters are organized around Cooley’s readings of these early works: “Stone Hammer Poem” (1975), The Ledger (1979), Seed Catalogue (1979), The Sad Phoenician (1979). Although Cooley’s subtitle suggests that what we will find in The Home Place are essays on Kroetsch’s poetry, the book is also full of biography, reminiscence, homage. The focus of the final chapter is not on poetry at all, but instead on Kroetsch’s talks, essays, and interviews, many of which were as formally inventive as his poetry.

Eli Mandel’s introduction to Field Notes reminds us how innovative the long poem form was in Canada in 1981. The long poem, Mandel writes, “something big enough to hold the world and time, a space for the vast geography of Canada, a time for the hidden history”.

Kroetsch’s tragic and unexpected death on June 21, 2011 – the result of a car accident on his way home[1] from a literary festival in Canmore – left generations of his readers and friends bereft. Cooley’s book is in part a book of remembrance. It is also an extraordinary work of historiography, that draws on the rich archival resources in Special Collections at the University of Calgary library to weave together a story of how Kroetsch’s continuing poem began, where it meandered, what we can learn from it.

[1] He was then living in Leduc, Alberta.

 

This is the long version of Susan Rudy’s review of The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry, by Dennis Cooley, originally published in the University of Toronto Quarterly 87.3. Summer 2018. 404-405.