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writing & reading Glengarry County

The McLennan Homestead

By rob mclennan

Our Glengarry folk, as I have said, were mostly from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They were sturdy, industrious, patient, courageous. They cut their farms out of the forest, transforming the timber into houses with furniture for themselves and into stables and barns for their animals.
                    — Rev. Charles Gordon (Ralph Connor), Postscript to Adventure, The Autobiography of Ralph Connor

Some of my earliest memories of being aware of “literature” surrounded my reading of Ralph Connor's novel Glengarry School Days, published in the early 1900s. I must have been about ten, and my father had a number of Ralph Connor novels around the house that I was starting to pick up, worn 1930s and 40s editions losing thread, and binding cracking into powder, and at least two copies of the old Connor classic — one red, one blue. Left in the house when my parents married, and his parents moved.

My father, who has lived in the same house since he was a year old, pointed out the markers around us as I read, where events in the book had taken place. Many of Connor's novels of Glengarry County relied on his own experiences growing up in the area, the son of a Presbyterian minister, as biography turned into puritanical fiction. His own history, the way he wrote it, became less complicated. About three miles away from our century-old homestead was the old swimming hole on Highland Road, where Connor and his characters swam, behind Hugh Fisher’s farm, and the church manse at St. Elmo where Ralph Connor, pen-name for Charles Gordon, lived with his parents as a young boy; the schoolhouse from that book where he schooled, the same my father’s mother and aunt had, 40 years later. The same schoolhouse moved to Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, near the now-drowned towns. The empty patch has since been taken up by a tower for the village of Maxville to get cable television — Bravo, MuchMusic and the like — the water pump still sitting, rusted solid and untouched in decades.

In 1900, Ralph Connor was one of our most famous Glengarrians, who, at the time, sold up to three million copies of but one of his many novels. The Rev. Charles Gordon, who had helped found the United Church of Canada in Winnipeg. A Presbyterian minister whose father had come directly from Scotland to preach at a new parish in eastern Ontario, eventually overseeing the construction of the new building for the Presbyterian Free Church at St. Elmo. In the 1860s, the religious revivals that overtook the area and three of its churches that Connor wrote about inTorches Through the Bush (1934), tales of the loggers on the Ottawa River in The Man from Glengarry (1901), or the tales of his own childhood in Glengarry School Days (1902), but three in the thirty books he would eventually write.

At St. Elmo, just north of the village, sits the Presbyterian Free Church, its construction overseen by Connor’s father, the minister there in the 1850s and early 1860s, red brick and steepled at the top of the hill. From our red brick farmhouse but two miles east, my father had been an elder there for as long as I can remember, even installing the burglar alarm as I watched, after the church had suffered its third break-in and robbery. His own father and grandfather before him, as he, a member of the choir for the few services during the summer months, the tiny congregation and unheated church written of by Connor's hand.

In 2003, my father told a story of a young girl, killed by disease when the church was young, and buried at the back of the graveyard without a stone to mark her. In the telling, he didn’t know what the disease was, or how far back it happened, presumably before 1900, but what would the girl have infected, from the ground? Not the other bodies, certainly.

The red-steepled church, there since the mid-1800s, and we there as well. Even my father comments what I have always wondered, on how none of our family rest among the small nest of stones, set on either side of the red brick church. Where we lay instead, in another graveyard, well on the other side of the village, south on the same road; in the graveyard where the White Church once stood, well before St. Andrew’s Presbyterian was built in the village of Maxville.

When I was young, I watched my father install the alarm system in the St. Elmo (Gordon) Church, necessary after three robberies, and the loss of one hundred year old stained glass. The system is down, long chewed ragged by raccoons and mice. There is nothing left inside to steal, but the smells of stagnant air and old wood. Four services a year by the 1980s dwindled further to two. A standard of tea and cakes in the church hall after, what was the Congregational Church building, log built in 1837. Sold to the Gordon church in 1920, years after the Congregationalists had left it. Such things standing, still. Their oldest remaining chapel in the province.

In the 1950s, the St. Elmo congregation was absorbed into St. Andrew's, due to St. Elmo’s shrinking population. Every Sunday without fail, our family going in to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, carpenter built by McLennan hands, great-grandfather’s oldest brother, John, in 1899. A mason, even the opening ceremony was done with full masonic ritual. The same reasons, perhaps, he was given the contract for the construction of the new Bank of Montreal building in Ottawa a year later, spending winter 1900-1901 travelling back and forth on the train.

When there were the services at St. Elmo, spread throughout the summer months, there was always the reference to Rev. Daniel Gordon; always the reference to his son, the writer.
In the “Afterward” for one of the McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library paperback editions of Ralph Connor’s Glengarry School Days, John Lennox writes:

The ingredients in his fiction were bound to attract readers — whole-hearted, often-violent action complemented by moral optimism; Christian example confirmed by pictures of material progress; melodrama balanced by realistic detail; an ear for the accents and rhythms of Scots speech. And above the melee, the presiding spirituality of his idealized mother-figures offered the balm of pure, self-abnegating, Christian love. This formula was to make Ralph Connor one of the English-speaking world’s best-known writers in the pre-World War I period.

The potent combination of action and elegy is realized most fully in the two Glengarry books. For all its nostalgic celebration of pioneering life, The Man from Glengarry had as its avowed theme the making of a nation as emblematized in its hero Ranald Macdonald. From the figures and rhythms of its preface and the opening confrontation between English and French to the closing scenes of the successful completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the novel created from its primordial forest abundance the story of the growth to manhood of Ranald, warrior and paragon. His Glengarry youth and his work in promoting the C.P.R. in the west embodied a nation-making epoch which by 1901 had all but vanished with the Glengarry forests.

One of the biggest influences on Connor’s writing was his aunt, Margaret Murray Robertson, who wrote and published 16 novels, including the highly popular Shenac’s Work at Home (subsequently published as Shenac: The Story of a Highland Family in Canada) that was originally published in the United States in 1866 by The American Sunday School Union. With her books published either in the United States or England, it is nearly impossible to find any of her titles in any condition, yet a new edition (and the first Canadian edition) of Shenac’s Work at Home appeared in 1993 by Tecumseh Press, with an introduction by Ottawa poet and critic Gwendolyn Guth. Born in Scotland in 1823 to Elizabeth Murray and the Reverend James Robertson, Margaret Murray Robertson grew up in Vermont, Sherbrooke, Quebec, and studied in Massachusetts, finally living out her later days in Montreal, where she died in 1897. As Guth writes of Robertson in her introduction:

Shenac’s Work at Home abounds in elements characteristic of the sentimental genre of Robertson’s day–religious conversion, a pious death-bed scene, joyful and sorrowful tears. Robertson’s novels are indeed “sentimental”; she herself classified them as “Sunday school” fiction. Such epithets, however, are typically used by critics with a vehement condescension that is inappropriate to an enlightened discussion of any literature.

The most impressive part of Robertson’s lost history includes this passage on her and her sister, Mary:

In time, Margaret and younger sister Mary went on to study at the prestigious Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts (now Mount Holyoke College). The seminary’s varied and rigorous curriculum, included mathematics and the sciences as well as philosophy and composition, guaranteed them an excellent academic education. High intellectual standards and solid religious principles were central to the seminary’s mandate of fostering independence in its young women, in whatever occupation they later chose.

When we consider three of Mount Holyoke’s students as examples — the Robertson sisters and Margaret’s second-year classmate (in 1847), the American poet Emily Dickinson — we can arrive at some idea of the calibre of woman that the seminary attracted and helped to nurture. Both Robertson sisters became teachers at the Sherbrooke Ladies’ Academy. Mary, a brilliant scholar, was later invited to assume the principalship at Mount Holyoke. Although the refused this coveted position (on the advice of her father) in favour of marriage to Scottish Presbyterian minister Daniel Gordon, her influence as a mother proved invaluable: her novelist son Ralph Connor repeatedly praised her guidance and exuberant love of learning as profound influences on his own literary career.

As Guth writes, “Robertson makes Glengarry’s religious revivals of 1864-65 central to her narration of Shenac’s conversion experience. Details in Shenac help us to match particular moments in the novel with the precise events of the “Great Revival” (as Ralph Connor was to call it in The Man from Glengarry, 1901) that affected the congregation of Robertson’s brother-in-law, Rev. Daniel Gordon.”

Without a storytelling tradition in my family, this was history as I read about it in books: the antiquated novels of Ralph Connor, a poetry collection by Dorothy Dumbrille, even C. H. (Marty) Gervais’ Up Country Lines, the only two poetry books we had in the house, much like only reading the newspaper when your name is in it. Apart from mystery and romance novels, Reader's Digest Books, there sat a range of local histories and colour filling the house, Glengarry County this and that, a history and list of Campbells and where we were in it, my father's mother's side. Agatha Christie books. Why did we never get further? Valley writer Joan Finnegan has published numerous aural histories of the Irish in the Ottawa Valley, but never a book on the Scots, because, as she has suggested, the Scots just don’t talk. [Joan Finnegan quote?] I was always disappointed that they never found Don McKay’s Long Sault (1975), a long poem published in the '70s about another community close by, up the St. Lawrence River some. I haven’t found a copy of the original book yet, searching all these years, although I’ve read the piece in reprint, as Don McKay turned the Long Sault rapids into the main character in a poetic drama, writing:

It is a tale full of its endings.
There are all these poems standing
like plumbers amid the ruined buildings
gesturing tool boxes
at the absence of bathrooms in the air, is this
some sort of joke?
And only the Long Sault is laughing:
Fuck your renaissance, get me a beer. (Bedrock, Long Sault)

First published as his second book in 1975 by Applegarth Follies, a precursor to his current Brick Books, currently run out of London, Ontario (for some time now, Canada's sole poetry-only publishing company), the book has been out of print for years, making the only place to find his fantastic early poem on the project either in a library (unfortunately, it wasn't reprinted in his 2004 selected poems, Camber), or (more likely) in a second-hand copy of Michael Ondaatje's The Long Poem Anthology (Coach House Press, 1979), where it appears in full. Written on the Long Sault project, building the dam and drowning towns, just west of Cornwall, where he grew up in Cornwall, making it entirely possible that he witnessed parts of the project has it occurred. It was a project my ex-wife’s father also worked on, as one of so many jobs before his 30-plus years driving a truck for Glengarry Transport Limited. In a statement for Long Sault, McKay wrote:

[. . .] When the hydroelectric dam was constructed at Cornwall, Ontario during the late fifties, the St. Lawrence River flooded upstream as far as Iroquois, submerging a length of shoreline rich in history and tradition. Villages like Wales, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Dickinson’s Landing were ‘relocated,’ and — focal point of this poem — the Long Sault Rapids was drowned. It was only after I got going that I found myself in a longer sequence which then grew by grope and feel. At first I had in mind something short and tough, left jab, angry elegy. But doing that I found other planes of the subject, realized that the moves and power of the long sault weren’t really locked up in the dam, began thinking of all the rapids I’d experienced and found them moving in surprising places and pushing the writing into different forms, looked into historical accounts which touched on the long sault, like those by Alexander Henry and George Hirot (whose words introduce ‘At the Long Sault Parkway’), and I guess generally got sucked in, the way my eyes always got sucked into watching the long sault during Sunday excursions, and still get mesmerized by that furious stillness.

My father has a photograph taken, he says, between 1958 and 1961; the time the new milk-house was built, but before the previous had been torn down. It shows both buildings, one that was just new and the other, that no longer exists. Apparently it became required to have the milk-house attached to the barn, so the original, ten paces or so from the barn door (where he now keeps the gas pumps, one for diesel and the other for ethanol), could no longer be used. He tells a story of his father and a neighbour going out to Long Sault to buy wood as the towns were being moved, his father buying an abandoned shed as his neighbour bought a gas station, bringing both buildings home in pieces on the back of a rented truck, to rebuild what they needed out of the materials. Our milk-house, then, where the tank of milk sat, emptied every two days by the milk truck from Montréal, built from wood taken from an entire small building that once stood where twenty or thirty foot of water now rests, moving slowly out along the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic ocean.

The Long Sault sucks
astonishment into a jaded lung.
The trees, the bald cat, and the telephone
hang on the inhalation till he coughs.
Goddam, he says at last, the absence of a wire
whangs there like a goddam tambourine.
That’s better son, she rocks, you just
keep on knitting them like that. (The Long Sault Rapids’ Grandmother, Long Sault)

As writer and critic Stan Dragland originally wrote of Long Sault (rewritten for Brian Bartlett's Don McKay: Essays on His Works):

Long Sault is a sequence of poem-riffs on the construction, official opening June 1959, of the St. Lawrence Seaway, especially the section near McKay's home town of Cornwall. McKay doesn't hate the Seaway, as far as I know, and he's a customer of Ontario Hydro. But he has strong feelings for the drowned Long Sault rapids, for other rapids still with us and for untouched nature generally. Nature, like poetry, is not appreciated at all if regarded only as useful, as a means to some end.

Another small publication on the Long Sault hydroelectric project is Leo Brent Robillard's small chapbook/poem The Drowning (2005). Before he moved from Ottawa to teach high school in Athens, Ontario, Robillard was editor/publisher of The Backwater Review, a chapbook poetry and fiction journal in Ottawa in the mid/late 1990s (we were heartbroke when he stopped doing it), and later on, the author of the novel Leaving Wyoming (Turnstone Press, 2004).

Much like McKay's infamous piece, Robillard's The Drowning is a short poem on the 1950s project, just west of Cornwall, Ontario, when a number of towns were forced to move or simply be abandoned when the hydro dam was built, before being submerged under 30 or 40 feet of water. If you travel down to Morrisburg (be sure to check out Upper Canada Village when you're down there), you can tourist around a building with various histories of the old villages and lost towns, including those that were moved, and those that were simply abandoned (including the village of Mille Roches, which Robillard references). Here is the opening to Robillard's five page piece:

They blew the dam
at eight o'clock,
but the drowning took
four days.

On the dike at Cornwall,
the crowd
waited for a wave
that never came.
They followed the river's
newborn arms instead—
tendrilling through stone
like the time elapsed photography
of the root
system of trees.
By that time the next day,
the basements
of Mille Roches
had become the real estate of fish.

Born in Owen Sound, Ontario, Don McKay was raised in Cornwall, along with three siblings, including his sister, Kitty Lewis, who manages the day-to-day of the publishing house Brick Books. Over the years, McKay has written a number of pieces referencing the county, going out to the family cabin every year with his former partner, Jan Zwicky, for solitude and work, just outside of Williamstown. Not even a phone in the cabin, he once said, having to walk into town to call his children. The neighbour’s phone, given out for the sake of emergencies.

In an interview conducted by poet Ken Babstock, Don McKay talked about the abandoned farm his parents, then still living in Cornwall, intended to retire on. “The farm’s actually just inside Glengarry County. It’s become a kind of retreat, really. It’s a place to go away to and write.”

This is the story as I grew up with it, the air of significance and legend around historic Glengarry county. One of the most eastern and oldest counties in Ontario, said to be settled originally, in terms of Europeans, by the former Royal Highland Regiment in the late-1700s, with a mass of United Empire Loyalists moving north from the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Current and former Scottish soldiers holding fast, as new ships from Scotland brought settlers in for decades after, trailing off sometime after 1820. In 1784, an entire Catholic congregation packed their community baggage and transplanted themselves from Scotland to Ontario, a new place of their own just north of Lancaster and the St. Lawrence River. St. Raphael's Church, hit by fire in 1970, the year I was born, and now the oldest church ruins in North America. Numerous farms around Alexandria and Laggan were even able to erect signs in the late '80s, announcing two centuries of farming the same plots of land through a single family. Gary, co-owner of the late ice cream / framing shop in Alexandria, joked about the same time that “Alexandria has just entered the 1950s.” The whole area so concerned around its own history, the sense of Celtic and French pride, the Glengarry Highland Games, said to be the largest on the continent, that no attention is paid to what is happening today. Even in those 1980s, walking into the Variety Store in Maxville, to a shelf of women’s magazines and 1930s editions of Ralph Connor novels, the only books of literature that seemed to make it in, and have any sort of presence in the village.

In The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820 (1991), Marianne McLean writes of the rarity of the Glengarry folk, arriving from the Glengarry lands in Scotland not as individuals, small groups or families, but whole boatloads of communities, even holding spaces for eventual United Empire Loyalists. Later groups were even willing to rent bad land at high prices to remain with friends and family, rather than get rich, free land as grants in Rideau County, further west. In hindsight, this becomes a benefit to researchers, as our generations of Highland Scot rarely stray that far. If they do, they simply disappear.

My great-great-grandfather John appeared directly, it seems, from Kintail, Ross-Shire, Scotland to live in Lancaster, Ontario, with parents and siblings, somewhere between 1821 and 1840, landing at the other end of the county away from where my father lives now, and moving to what is now called MacDonald’s Grove Road in 1860, 15 years after taking the original land grant (where my parents and sister remain). I found John and his wife in the same graveyard outside Maxville where four other generations of McLennans lie. My father, himself, was born in the log house across the road from where he has lived since, and his own father, born in the house next door. It seems increasingly difficult to explain these connections as urban centres increase, mobility becoming easier and links to the earth routinely severed without so much as a passing thought. I can remember being particularly overwhelmed by these connections as I grew, the silent weight of constant pressure to be the next in line to take the property, the family farm. Quite possibly the strongest reason I left; what keeps me coming back.

Is there a difference between writing and reading? Every writer that offers advice will say, “write of the time you live in,” with the unspoken suggestion, “write of the place.” William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, New Jersey, or Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Transcona, Manitoba. George Bowering’s Vancouver. Is it all about a placement, a place? Is it all about writing a place or writing eventually through a place? Glengarry County, eastern Ontario; the eastern-most county in the province, and the oldest. The last county in Ontario, they say, to get phone service. A sense of history that my family weren’t active participants in.

When I write of Glengarry, I mean the wider county. Even the historians know enough to do that. Before the distinction of province, when there was still Upper and Lower; larger than the lines the county currently bears, once run from the St. Lawrence River north to the Ottawa. The residents in the north who felt lost, with aggressive swampland in the way, since marking off lines for Prescott County. For Russell. Marking off a line on the west for Stormont. Where there is so much intermingling. Even the Quebec border to the east, and across the lake divide from the Lancaster docks, as the crow flies over Lake St. Francis.

Just north of the county, for example, where writer David W. McFadden did a high school reading, and ended up writing the poem “THE ENGLISH SHEEP DOG,” a fragment from his collection On The Road Again (1978):

Tonight in this peaceful rural home
just outside VanKleek Hill Ontario
halfway between Hawkesbury and Alexandria
I feel I must be the only one awake
in three counties except for a dog
I heard bark in the distance an hour ago.

Do you ever have those moments
when you think your brain will explode
like a rusty old twelve-gauge shotgun?
I’m thinking of the kind of man
who can calmly point a gun and fire
at a defenceless human conceived in love
and there is no shortage of such men
in this, my only century.

Even now, as the lines of township cease. Instead of four townships in either county of Stormont and Glengarry, now a line in half. North Glengarry, South Glengarry. North Stormont. Instead of individual counties, the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.

My own McLennan line — sister, brother-in-law, niece and parents — still in North Stormont, what once called Indian Lands, Roxborough Township, just west of Maxville. I once saw a map of 1860 that had Macdonald’s Grove not as the road, but the brief intersection a little further along at Cameron Road. The possible beginnings of a hamlet that never fully formed, and where not even a house remains.

I used to say, going home, that if you don't know where you are, you shouldn't be here. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, watching streetsigns appear on dirt roads, laneways numbered for the sake of fire departments, mobility increased and movement in and out, MacDonald’s Grove Road now a sign to be pointed to. Before that, it was something you knew. Upon returning, seeing the three differences in the idea of home: the place you recall; the place as it has changed; and the place as it actually was. Not one ever meeting or overlapping any other.

Before my father’s parents were married, my grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse at Sandringham, the corner one road north of where she would later settle. The building remains, painted white, with a sign that reads Sandringham Social Club, and is opened for one day each summer for the Sandringham Social, a remnant of the days of socials, where locals listen to fiddle music, and, for a dollar or two, purchase slices of homemade pie. From the house that I grew, I remember copies of the Ontario School Reader left over from her teaching days, with dates written inside and her maiden name beside, Ellen Campbell, 1929, 1934.

A mile or two east of Sandringham, her great-grandfather Finlay Campbell (b. 1795) and his brother Malcolm (b. 1796) were two of the original settlers of Athol, a hamlet north of St. Elmo along the Highland Road, north of what would eventually become Maxville, and all part of what maps now call the “Glengarry Highlands.” Athol, named for a town in Scotland, was but a number of hamlets and corners that withered away when the rail line in 1881 invented Maxville, incorporated as village in 1891. If there is even still a sign for Athol, it would be the only thing; its intersection, bare miles east along the same road from Sandringham.

Currently, more of Canada’s population live in urban areas than rural, a switch that has happened during even my own lifetime. Those of us who still write from that rural back, that combination of Ontario roughneck and pastoral — Don McKay, and writers my own age such as David O’Meara and Ken Babstock (who grew up close to each other in Pembroke, Ontario, on the other side of the Ottawa Valley). Even though now we live in larger cities, what we can’t help but continue to return. A talk of the woods and the fields out of fashion since the Second World War, returned in Canada at least, through the work of McKay and others that emerged in the 1970s.

Along other McKay lines, it's been interesting, over the past year or two, to watch the poetry of Nicholas Lea and his pal Jesse Ferguson develop. Both are from Stormont County, ten years behind me, and both were residents for a while of the City of Ottawa; both came through Seymour Mayne's creative writing workshop at the University of Ottawa during the 2004-5 school year. Both are working their sides of what they see as Don McKay's pastoral, along with, as Lea puts it, bits of Barry McKinnon line breaths and breaks and surrealism. With a lot of potential between the two, here's a poem from Lea's first chapbook, light years, published by above/ground press in 2005, later to appear in his first trade collection, Everything is movies (2007):

rural mural
for Gordon Downie

conversation,          a beautiful
tool for ridicule

do you cast yr vote
for the small town baron
gone politics

to the local hockey arena
for the speech that’ll save the farm?

it’s an easy
system based on silver linings
on the hard work of hard old men
who drink hard
at the King George Tavern


a gnarled pastoral fresco
painted on one brick side

might read:

metaphor will save us
but never save us

Writing of the King George Tavern in Maxville, Nicholas Lea grew up on Norman Drive, a sideroad near Tayside, just off the 138 highway south of the 417, whereas Jesse Ferguson, writing of Cooper's Marsh in his Friday Circle chapbook, Cooper's Marsh (2006), is from Cornwall. Even better, the fact that Lea not only grew up a mile or two away from where my family still lives, but that when he was in public school, he had a crush on my father's hired man's oldest daughter, Rachel; taking the school bus to her door every morning and waiting for her, the a-frame house where my sister now lives.

One of my favorite of Don McKay’s Glengarry references has to be from his sixth collection of poems, Sanding Down This Rocking Chair On A Windy Night, the poem “An Old Window in Glengarry,” that includes:

A hard man lived here, “a country
barely fit for Scots.” He was distinguished
among many Alexander Macdonalds
by the colour of his door.
Sandy Blue
would make her trot the quarter mile behind his cart
to open up the gate.
Now, in this blur of glass, I see
the tear she never shed, our missing
lens. Nameless
she walks back up the lane, resisting
the stone fences which define each field
and its chief crop, until

she stands here, hands
in her apron, staring through the window where her
wild heart bucks and plunges

After finding a copy at Janet Inksetter’s used and rare bookstore on Bathurst Street, Toronto’s Annex Books a few years back, I sat an hour with the collection at a greasy spoon on Queen West, eventually writing my own response to the piece. Robert Kroetsch has repeatedly said (I’ve since read Alberto Manguel echo), that literature is a conversation. From an unpublished sequel to bury me deep in the green wood, sits the other side of mine, the poem subtitled "(another old window from glengarry)" from the series “the 401 towards montreal,” writing directly of my own window, the hallway window at the front of my parents’ house, on the second floor, facing north.

When he was reading as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2004, author Alistair MacLeod said that “all literature is regional literature.” I don’t think I agree with this; still, he spoke of the concerns of an area being the same as the concerns written from that area, but didn’t continue along any distinctions between region as being part of the content, or region as being part of the author. Doesn’t someone from a particular place write about that place differently than someone else, who is from another place? In that case, who is to say that any literature is regional from a singular point?

After years of living with Don McKay, the poet Jan Zwicky writes of geography but in a different way. Originally from Alberta, much of Zwicky’s poetry talks of philosophy and classical music as well as various prairie landscapes, come home again in her most recent collection, Robinson’s Crossing (2004), as it walks through the spaces of her own pastoral. The author of a number of graceful collections of lyric, she is also a classically-trained musician, and has taught both creative writing and philosophy at a number of universities in Canada, including the University of New Brunswick and the University of Victoria. I love the idea that her poem “The View from the Kitchen Window” from her Governor General’s Award-winning poetry collection Songs for Relinquishing the Earth might have come out of any number of her visits to Glengarry county, but it probably didn’t:

The View from the Kitchen Window

Should be always of a tree, or
trees. Home
needs to be high ground, that is,
secure, and so
a slope, too. Which need not be dramatic,
though water in the near or middle distance
is usually an asset and suggests
a steeper incline.
At the limit, of course, a horizon,
a line at once wild and perfect
like, say, the edge of the world:
a ragged tear of muskeg spruce:
wrack of invisible
clear air.

I very much love the idea of two poets, Zwicky and McKay (lovingly and admiringly known by peers, students former and current, and so many others, simply as “Jan and Don”), spending time in a cabin near Williamstown a few weeks every year, simply writing and otherwise existing, away from the rest of the world. Whenever I return home, driving around the county with my daughter, whether through Williamstown itself or at any point crossing the Raisin River, I think of them, and wonder where the cabin might be. Usually, though, Kate and I are there in early August, and long gone well before the two of them would have arrived from Victoria, British Columbia, where they had been living for a number of years. Another poem of Zwicky’s from the same collection, the eight-page meditation “Cashion Bridge,” is absolutely lovely, and thick with county, and, unlike McKay's work in the same geography, manage to place the little cabin in a way that he had never, making it much easier to potentially find. Referencing such in an email to David G. Anderson, who runs the Glengarry Historical Society, he told me that the Cashion Bridge crosses the Raisin River and connects the South Branch Road with the Street and Indian Lands at Cashion’s Glen, just outside of Williamstown. Dedicated to the mysterious “Charles Barbour,” the poem writes:

You are walking west.
The elderberry’s turned, and some branches of the maples at
are bronze: the colour’s dull this year because of drought.
The Glover’s new canes have come on, though —
just enough rain at the right time; earlier
they lost the old canes and the crop.
Old Mr. Irvine’s lane, Dave Petepiece’s,
then his brothers’ driveways: their mother died
last month: looks like, out back,
someone is learning to drive.
The stretch down the far side of the rise, scotch pine
and two oaks on the north, a maple on the south,
people we don’t know in the place set back from the road.
Up the next rise, Spillers, new,
from Montreal, and the people with the big dog
on the right. The blank unwindowed barn —
and odourless — along the left. Then
cornfields; more cornfields; and the shingle-sided shack,
we don’t know who, red window-frames and plastic on the
and you’re at the Cashion sideroad.
takes you to the swamp — the unofficial
dump — and then across abandoned tracks
down to the Glen: narrow, bush-lined, not kept up, much
by traffickers in U.S. contraband.
North, the sideroad’s wider,
white with gravel, though I’ve never met a car.
An open field of corn on the east side, and on the west
a meadow, heavy with alsike and alfalfa,

and a hardwood bush that rises on the fencelines to the west
                                                              and north;
in fact, the last few hundred feet you walk through shade
after mid-day, though I don’t know how far west
the patch of trees extends: as far as you can see, from the bridge,
but the river bends just upstream
and it’s hard to tell.

One can safely presume that this piece was written from the McKay family cottage, and, from what she writes in the acknowledgments of the collection, “from May 1993 to May 1994, during which time a number of these poems were written,” that the poem came from that space in time, but so much of its content could have been written in any time over fifty years by any number of writers, with its talk of abandoned barns, wild berries and the river itself, the Raisin. Of course, without the strength of Zwicky’s graceful, hard and meditative lyric. Much of Zwicky’s poetry over the years has talked of philosophy and classical music as well as various prairie landscapes, come home again in the collection that followed, Robinson’s Crossing (2004), as it walked through the spaces of her own pastoral. Robinson’s Crossing becomes interesting because it covers much of the same kinds of pastoral ground worked for years by Don McKay, as though after years of writing "pastoral" across his geographies, she somehow decided to focus a collection on her own. It does feel important to start with McKay when talking about her Robinson’s Crossing, and her relationship to writing McKay’s own land, due to the way that she moves across her own. Unfortunately, moving just that many steps away from her strengths, Zwicky's Robinson's Crossing is interesting in parts but not stellar. Built in three numbered sections, the first opens with the poem “Prairie” that begins:

And then I walked out into that hayfield west of Brandon,
evening, late July, a long day in the car from Nipissing
and long days in the car before that; the sun
was red, the field a glow of pink, and the smell of the grasses
and alfalfa and the sleek dark scent of water nearby . . .

Later writing, in the title poem:

                    They say
the dog was crazy that whole evening:
whining at the door, tearing
around the yard in circles,
standing stock still in the cart track,
head cocked, whimpering.
They’d left him out and gone to bed, but he
kept barking until after midnight
when they finally heard him take off
down the railbed, east,
toward the river. Next morning
Ernest said he’d met him
a half-mile from the house.

Where Zwicky shines is in the collection that immediately follows, her Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences (2005), in which she returns again to the small moment. Zwicky’s poetry is strongest at her explorations of those small moments, and through exploring her immediate world and the domestic (with shades of Robert Creeley) comes her optimism, and even through her explorations of known surroundings comes a series of pieces that each open up a joy of new and renewed discovery.

McKay himself has written his own poem on the same river, the Raisin River, published in his collection Apparatus (1997). One of the interesting things about McKay’s writing is that his “pastoral” isn’t limited to Glengarry, writing also of time spent in Southwestern Ontario, living in London (where he taught at the University of Western Ontario for years), the east coast (where he taught creative writing at the University of New Brunswick), the prairies (during time spent teaching creative writing at the Banff Centre), the west coast, and plenty of other locales. Listen to this, two parts of the first of McKay’s “THREE ECLOGUES,” that begins:

The citizens are sleeping or in church, their outhouses
snugged into the banks, each prow
pointing to its Private sign. We slide upriver,
past the Evinrudes and Mercs, the cottages with lawns
right down to the water. To own, to mow.
To say the same river, the same river,
who can blame us?

I wonder if he suffers the same disappointments as I do, with his children born and raised in London, so far away from Glengarry; my daughter, Kate, born in Ottawa and, since she was five years old, living in Nepean, an Ottawa suburb. I wonder if there is that distance of importance that they feel too, of Glengarry. The county will never mean to her what it does to me. Perhaps this is what it means to be a parent, the ability to let your child’s own history define them, instead of your own. Teach, but don’t demand.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011), 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010) and wild horses (2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009), An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( . He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Photo of rob mclennan by Jenn Farr

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