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Sunday, March 04, 2007

essay on Where I Come From

Elizabeth Brewster’s “Where I Come From” is a poem that is rooted in Brewster’s childhood and early experiences in the rural Canada of the 1920s and 1930s. This is a trait of much Canadian poetry (although with notable exceptions, such as Margaret Atwood), although hardly one to complain about. “Where I Come From” is a wonderfully well-expressed work that on repeated readings reminded me of Robert Frost’s depictions of New England. Like Frost’s work, this poem is simple but not inelegant, subtle and understated, and undoubtedly effective. It is a poem that is enjoyable even if one does not look beyond its most obvious level.

The poem begins with a declaration: “People are made of places”. While this might be considered too sweeping a generalization, there is no doubt from the poem that whether or not all people share this trait of Brewster’s, she is certainly very much a result of the places she has lived in and that she most identifies with. The first stanza goes on to give examples of the kinds of places that “make” people: jungles, mountains, the sea and the city. It is with the last of these that the stanza is most concerned. The rest of the stanza consists of a description of the sights and sounds of city life that influence city-dwellers: here the poem is at its weakest, as Brewster’s images are rather generic: museums, glue factories, offices and subways at rush hour. Her city is unmistakably Western, and it would not be too far to go to say that it is Canadian. If so, her poem has renewed interest, as a comparison of two Canadas.

The second stanza is the poem’s heart. Here Brewster introduces us to the place that made her, and in her view made Canadians of her generation. Here her images are less cliched and her language far more evocative: witness such artfully constructed phrases as “blueberry patches in the burned-out bush” and the warm, romantic imagery of “battered schoolhouses/ behind which violets grow”. She closes the stanza by returning to her main theme, the link between nature and the mind. “Spring and winter/ are the mind’s chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice”, she writes, and it is central moment of the piece. This is what Brewster is made of; it is a poem that truly involves the reader, as she is inviting us to consider the places that made us, and to consider how exactly they did so. It is a truly important thought.

Indeed, “Where I Come From” is just as much about things unsaid as the writing itself. Does Brewster truly dislike the city (in my opinion, she doesn’t)? Are her memories of her hometown unreservedly affectionate? Is the poem an exercise in comparing two Canadas, the Canada of the past and the urban, multicultural Canada of the present? How exactly does the landscape affect the Canadian psyche (Brewster describes the place brilliantly, but its importance much more briefly)? How have Canadians changed with Canada?

Brewster’s omissions are, to my mind, quite deliberate. She doesn’t seek to explain everything but rather to invite the reader to think about what she has thought. Her words express those thoughts very effectively, and while it is rather a modest pleasure, it is a decidedly unambitious work and this is almost refreshing. To read “Where I Come From” is to undertake an exercise in the appreciation of subtlety, deep reflection and the quietest kind of beauty. If every reader of the poem uses it as a springboard for clear-eyed self-reflection of this kind, Brewster will have been remarkably successful. I have little doubt that this will be so.


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