Alden Nowlan Anne and Maddy - Skilliter

Alden Albert Nowlan
January 25, 1933 – June 27,
Canadian poet, novelist,
playwright and journalist
Early Life
• Alden Nowlan’s mother-to-be finds herself “in trouble” (as appears in
Nowlan’s poem, It’s Good to be Here), but becoming a mom at the age of
fourteen is never an easy task, especially when the father of her baby is a
hard-drinking man, twice her age.
• Later, his mom abandons her little boy and his baby sister, Harriet. They
are left to be raised by their father and paternal grandmother, Emma Jane
Nowlan, in Stanley, Nova Scotia.
• Education is not given a priority in such a poverty-stricken rural area, so
after completing four grades, Nowlan begins to work at a local sawmill.
He was a reader from an early age, reading everything he could from the
Bible to a newspaper.
• Nowlan, later, begins a weekly pilgrimage of twenty-three kilometres to
the library in Windsor for a supply of books; his life is enriched.
Adult Life
• Alden Nowlan learns of a position at The Observer, a newspaper, in
Hartland, New Brunswick. He writes a letter claiming that he has
completed school, is twenty, and has worked for a newspaper for
one year, all of which is untrue. He lands the job in 1952 under
false pretences. In addition to his work at the paper, he begins to
write poems and stories, submitting them to magazines. His first
poems were published by Fiddlehead in Fredericton.
• In 1963, he marries Claudine, a typesetter from the office, and
adopts her son, John. At this time, he is now well established in
journalism and accepts the position of night editor at the Saint John
Telegraph Journal, working until he begins a fight with throat cancer
in 1966.
• Alden Nowlan becomes the writer-in-residence for the University of
New Brunswick and makes his home at 676 Windsor Street in
Fredericton from 1968 until the time of his death in 1983.
Alden Nowlan’s early life as a child wasn’t
easy but it didn’t harden him. He shares his
wisdom, “The day the child realizes that all
adults are imperfect, he becomes an
adolescent; the day he forgives them, he
becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself,
he becomes wise.”
Accomplishments, Awards
and Recognitions
• Nowlan’s collection Bread,
Wine and Salt is published in
1967 and earns him the
prestigious Governor
General’s Award for Poetry.
• He also is awarded a
Guggenheim Fellowship for
his poetry.
• Alden Nowlan is honoured to
be writer-in-residence at
UNB, 1968 – 1983.
• In the 1970s, Nowlan meets
Walter Learning and the two
collaborate on play scripts
Frankenstein, The Dollar
Woman and The Incredible
Murder of Cardinal Tosca.
Sample Poem One
All down the morning, women sprinkled crumbs
Of musty laughter, watching Janice Smith
In brazen languor smear her husband’s lips
With public kisses, while he glared or blushed.
And when the Sunday village itched in church,
They thought of Janice, hot as Babylon,
Who lured her Jimmie to the porch and bared
His people’s blanket-buried secrecies.
Or dancing to the snarl of feline strings,
Each Friday at the school, they leered at jokes
That made obscenities of her taut breasts
Against her startled husband’s sweating suit.
For she was city-bred and unaware
That love was bordered by the rumpled quilts
And children bred from duty as the soil
Was ploughed to hide the seed and not for joy.
So taunted by harsh laughter, half-ashamed,
Enraged with rum and manhood late one night,
And shouting like betrayal, Jim came home
To bruise his knuckles on her shameless face.
Analysed Poem One
Aunt Jane, of whom I dreamed the nights it thundered,
was dead at ninety, buried at a hundred.
We kept her corpse a decade, hid upstairs,
where it ate porridge, slept and said its prayers.
And every night before I went to bed
they took me in to worship with the dead.
Christ Lord, if I should die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my body take.
Analysis of Poem One
In Aunt Jane, Alden Nowlan reflects on death. Aunt Jane, though still
alive, has been “dead” for a decade.
The poem is written in two stanzas of four lines each, with lines one
and two rhyming, then lines three and four rhyming, i.e. an aa bb endrhyme scheme. The thunder, as pathetic fallacy, sets the mood. Nowlan
hyperbolizes her body by calling it a “corpse,” even though she is still
living. He uses the pronoun “it” instead of using “she” and “her.” The
reader’s ear is drawn to the hard sound of “ka,” the use of consonance, in
“corpse” and “decade.” It is particularly effective when Nowlan alludes to
the age-old children’s bedtime prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep; / I
pray thee Lord my soul to keep. / If I should die before I wake, / I pray thee
Lord my soul to take.” However, Nowlan adapts the prayer, “I pray thee
Lord my body take” to emphasize his theme. Just being alive isn’t living.
This poem, a succinct two verses, resonates with us. During the week
before exams, a neighbour shared a little about her grandmother, that her
grandmother had had a very debilitating stroke eight years ago, and has
not spoken or moved since. She is tube-fed and rotated every two hours
to minimize bed sores. We, then, found ourselves revisiting our
experiences with our grandfathers’ deaths and began to see their speedy
departures as blessings. In Aunt Jane, Alden Nowlan affirms our
Sample Poem Two
Not all these stones
belong to death. Here and there
you read something
John Andrew Talbot, 1885 – 1955
Mary, his wife, 1887 –
and on decoration day
Mary will come here
and put a jam jar of water and tulips
on her own grave.
The Talbots are people
who make the beds before breakfast
and set the breakfast table
every night before they go to bed.
Discussion Poem
When every pencil meant a sacrifice
his parents boarded him at school in town,
slaving to free him from the stony fields,
the meagre acreage that bore them down.
They blushed with pride when, at his graduation,
they watched him picking up the slender scroll,
his passport from the years of brutal toil
and lonely patience in a barren hole.
When he went in the Bank their cups ran over.
They marvelled how he wore a milk-white shirt
work days and jeans on Sundays. He was saved
from their thistle-strewn farm and its red dirt.
And he said nothing. Hard and serious
like a young bear inside his teller’s cage,
his axe-hewn hands upon the paper bills
aching with empty strength and throttled rage.
Discussion Questions
1. How can our parents prepare us for a future when we ourselves often
do not know what we want to do?
2. Is formal education always a good thing?
3. In giving a child a foundation, education is one of the cornerstones.
Freedom to follow his/her own heart upon completion is essential. To
what degree should parents scrimp and save to educate their child?
How would you feel as a parent if you sacrificed supremely only to find
your child “remained on the farm?”
4. Prior to the 1960s, rural children attended one-room school houses in
New Brunswick, with opportunity to receive a Grade 8 education. For
many, that was the end of their schooling. Envision yourself as one of
these teens. What would you do?
Sample Poem Three
Saint John, New Brunswick
This is a street at war.
The smallest children
battle with clubs
till the blood comes,
shout “fuck you!”
like a rallying cry -
while mothers shriek
from doorsteps and windows
as though the very names
of their young were curses:
“Brian! Marlene!
Damn you! God damn you!”
or waddle into the street
to beat their own with switches:
“I’ll teach you, Brian!
I’ll teach you, God damn you!”
On this street,
even the dogs
would rather fight
than eat.
I have lived here nine months
and in all that time
have never once heard
a gentle word spoken.
I like to tell myself
that is only because
gentle words are whispered
and harsh words shouted.
Analysed Poem Two
He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded
I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, “Are you the surprise they promised us?”
It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favourite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
“Nobody will ever get this away from me,”
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
“Old MacDonald had a farm,” and I don’t know what to do
about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays that part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another thing to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress. They’re all
busy elsewhere. “Hold me,” she whispers. “Hold me.”
I put my arm around her. “Hold me tighter.”
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
or me; I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me,”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.
It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of a kiss).
Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.
She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.
Analysis of Poem Two
In Nowlan’s poem, He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded, a
magazine writer accompanies a musical band to a school for mentally challenged
adults and finds himself in an uncomfortable position when a “retarded woman” begs
him to hold her. Through this experience, he realizes that “to be held” is the greatest
need of mankind.
The repetition of “To be” and “not to be...not to be...not to be...”
forces the reader to realize this as well. When Alden Nowlan begins to consider this
need to be held, he has the reader imagine an elderly patient in a geriatric ward,
calling for his mom in apostrophe. Nowlan then allows “the beach at Dieppe” to be a
synecdoche for the whole war. Here, soldiers would hold a fallen comrade. Nowlan
then sneaks in an allusion when he has the reader or listener picture death as a ship
with the use of a metaphor; he alludes to the “Ship of Death” which happens to be a
poem by D.H. Lawrence.
Verses six and seven are an aside to the story. Herein, Nowlan states his theme
clearly, and the poem’s “story” leads the reader to conclude the same. Nowlan is so
right; it is all we as mankind really want. This need is as old as old, dating back to the
Ice Age (or before).
We all know someone who is mentally challenged and are aware of their childlikethinking and speech, so there’s immediate connection. We can put a face to the man
who acts like a boy, to the woman who still is a little girl. We all know what it feels like
to be in situations where we aren’t sure of the proper protocol, the “accepted
etiquette.” We see ourselves as the “magazine writer” swallows his fear, his
discomfort, and follows his heart, and hugs the girl, resting his chin in her hair. We
both have witnessed that even in the face of tragedy or crisis, complete strangers will
hold one another for comfort. We echo Robert Gibbs’ words as recorded in the
Preface of Alden Nowlan Early Poems, “Nowlan [speaks] not only to us, but for us, as
all great writers do.”
Sample Poem Four
You know what I’m
like when I’m sick: I’d sooner
curse than cry. And people don’t often
know what they’re saying in the end.
Or I could die in my sleep.
So I’ll say it now. Here it is.
Don’t pay any attention
if I don’t get it right
when it’s for real. Blame that
on terror and pain
or the stuff they’re shooting
into my veins. This is what I wanted to
sign off with. Bend
closer, listen, I love you.
Creative Poem
I’m in trouble, she said
to him. That was the first
time in history that anyone
had ever spoken of me.
It was 1932 when she
was just fourteen years old
and men like him
worked all day for
one stinking dollar.
There’s quinine, she said.
That’s bullshit, he told her.
Then she cried and then
for a long time neither of them
said anything at all and then
their voices kept rising until
they were screaming at each other
and then there was another long silence and then
they began to talk very quietly and at last he said,
well, I guess, we’ll just have to make the best of it.
While I lay curled up,
my heart beating,
in the darkness inside her.
Works Cited
Cook, Gregory M. One Heart, One Way Alden Nowlan: A Writer’s Life. Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia:
Pottersfield Press, 2003.
Gibbs, Robert , ed. Alden Nowlan Early Poems. Fredericton, New Brunswick: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983.
Gibbs, Robert, ed. An Exchange of Gifts. Toronto, Ontario: Irwin Publishing, 1985.
Howroyd, Stacy. Alden Nowlan: Writer and Poet. Fredericton, New Brunswick: Literacy Council of Fredericton, 1984.
Lane, Patrick and Lorna Crozier, ed. Alden Nowlan Selected Poems. Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press Limited, 1996.
Toner, Patrick. If I Could Turn and Meet Myself The Life of Alden Nowlan. Fredericton, New Brunswick: Goose Editions, 2000.
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