canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Looking for Henry
by Clive Doucet
Thistledown Press, 1999

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Canadian history isn't particularly well known for inspiring poetry. Margaret Atwood dragged The Journals of Susanna Moodie out of the backwoods, and, of course, Longfellow borrowed the story of the Acadiens for his long poem "Evangeline." 

In Looking for Henry, Clive Doucet presents a cycle of poems linked by two of the more dramatic moments in Canadian history: the expulsion of the Acadiens by British forces in 1755 and the 1885 defeat of Louis Riel and his loyal Metis revolutionaries. The two events came together in Doucet's mind after a visit to Saskatchewan, where he discovered that Riel was more than the lunatic spiritualist he is present to be in high school history text books. That is, Riel was also the leader of a unique society functioning on the margins of a larger society with colonial, expansionist aspirations. The story of the Metis reminded Doucet of the story of his Acadien ancestors, defeated over a century before Riel in what is now Nova Scotia.

The "Henry" of the title is Henry Letendre, the artist who painted the painting reproduced on the cover and currently "missing." The poems in Looking for Henry are addressed to Letendre and structured as a one-sided conversation, as Doucet explores the relationships between the stories of the Metis and the Acadiens. As such, the verse is conversational in tone. The poems are written in free verse and in full sentences punctuated in the traditional manner. The effect is to create an intimacy, as if the reader were peeking into the writer's diary, but it does raise questions about whether the line breaks are merely arbitrary, or if they help enforce structure and, therefore, meaning. On the other hand, there are wonderful moments like this one:

Like water
eroding a hillside,
people erode each other.
Like water falling from the sky,
we feel obliged
to create dissonance
to carve valleys in the landscape
and then cry
for lost horizons.

The strongest feature Doucet brings to Looking for Henry is the broad scope of his imagination. His images move easily across vast periods and time and space, unfolding his exploration of two dramatic historical conflicts in an experienced lyrical voice. These are poems written almost outside of time. They appear simple, but they are not.







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