Anyone who has lived through a New Brunswick April is familiar with the need for resilience -- when the promised warmth of a sunny day is snatched away by a week of cold and rain. “April,” T. S. Eliot famously wrote, “is the cruelest month.” But there’s also the resilience of crocuses and snowdrops, pushing their way bravely into the spring air. If April is cruel it is also hopeful, and hope in the face of hardship is one definition of resilience.
April is also National Poetry Month, and the theme this year is Resilience. An obvious choice, given the year we've all had, but you don’t have to dig deep into the history of poetry to find resilience springing up. There is Shakespeare’s Sonnet VI, where he urges “Then let not winter's ragged hand deface / In thee thy summer”, or Emily Dickinson’s:
’Hope’ is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all.
Poetry itself is a kind of resilience inside of language – a resilience against the homogenizing effects of corporate and political newspeak. Poetry demands that we slow down when we read – slow down and pay attention – and those skills both foster resilience.
Given the variations of our weather (both meteorological and economic), it’s not surprising that Atlantic Canadian poets have spent time considering resiliency.
I think of Kay Smith, who graduated from Mount Allison Ladies College in 1933 and wrote hauntingly of the everyday resilience needed to be a woman and a mother. And of the flame-like resilience needed to be a lover (of any gender):
When under your kindling touch,
I burned in your arms like a forest,
There was no need of words.
Now in this season of frosts and separation
I burn alone, a single torch
Among the leafless columns.
And Allan Cooper, another Mount Allison graduate with a genius for seeing the past curled inside the present, knows the resilience afforded those who keep on speaking terms with their ancestors. He reminds us:
The dead aren’t really dead.
They’re here in our chests,
wandering through our bodies,
wondering what we’ve been up to,
nurturing a flower
breaks into blossom.
Cooper’s friend and teacher, John Thompson, who taught at Mount Allison from 1966-1976, reached through the pain of emotional dysfunction to remind us that, as perilous as our lives may be, language (and poetry) can afford us moments of grace:
This is our misfortune
our small grace:
we throw words at the dark
and the dark comes
back to us; a bird
is still for a moment
in our garden.
O we are muscular at our
tables, in our beds,
cowards under the moon.
Another Mount Allison poet-professor, Douglas Lochhead, noted the not-to-be-taken-for-granted resilience of the Acadian dykes when he wrote:
it is only a matter of time
given one high tide
and the land will shake loose
clearing out the silt’s century
and at low tide there will be
old adzes and saws of lost men
And a newer generation of Mount Allison-connected poets have been considering resilience from various angles: the exuberant verses of English professor Geordie Miller (who reminds us that love is resilient: “Our love exceeds what bodies need”); the mythopoetic eye of alumnus Luke Hathaway (who wrote as Amanda Jernigan) considering the resilience of Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus:
I feel that I could weather death
if only I could tell you of it after.
It’s amazing what we’ve made all right
around this kitchen table.
Find these poems and more in the books listed below:
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