- Why Should We Read and Study Compton?
- Literature & Analysis
- “4 April, 1991”
- “The Dinner Party”
- “Heating the House”
- Analysis of “4 April, 1991,” “The Dinner Party,” and “Heating the House”
- “Property Rights, June”
- “The tree in winter”
- “What the construction worker said”
- Analysis of “Jacklight,” “The tree in winter,” and “What the construction worker said”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Anne Compton was born in PEI in 1947 and taught for many years at the Saint John campus of the University of New Brunswick. Because so much of her creative work was conceived in and draws upon New Brunswick, she is included in this curriculum, though critics (and perhaps the poet herself) would place her sympathies with the Island. Regardless, those quibbles as to her placement reveal her worth: she is so good that many want to claim her as their own. Compton grew up in a large farming family whose expansive acreage was the first of her intimacies. She learned the deep grammars of woods, waters, and farm so well that her creative work naturally bent to that knowledge. Over four collections of poetry, the first Opening the Island (2002), she has crafted a body of work in which family, memory, and landscape meld to create a genealogy of place, that genealogy resplendent with births, deaths, trees, houses, moods, fields, tides, and weathers. That emphasis puts her in a line with New Brunswick’s Tantramar poets – she draws on John Thompson’s ghazal form to aid her associative constructions – but also as a practitioner of a uniquely Maritime eco-feminism. Widely celebrated for her work, she has won numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for Processional (2005).
For a much more detailed biography of Compton, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- We read Compton’s work for many of the same reasons we read all poets: for the refined sensibility (the sensitive mind and soul, the searching eye), for the mastery of language, and for the sense of awe in what is both common and extraordinary. Poets are a culture’s minute-takers. They record a culture’s moods, fears, and dreams. They are eyes and ears. In a 2011 interview for Open Book, Compton said the following about her role as one of our minute-takers: “The best thing about being a poet is the change it makes in the brain so that you become daily alert and noticing, wide awake to what your senses are picking up – the sights and sounds of everything around you. The feel of things. In terms of the senses, writing makes you greedy. Even if I were never to write another poem, I’ll always be grateful that poetry, and the note-scribbling that precedes it, came along and revved up my attentiveness” (“Poets in Profile”). In another interview (in The Malahat Review), she observed similarly that “[l]anguage is a way of being awake in the world, a way of knowing, and bringing to consciousness, what’s been experienced” (Leckie).
- Additionally, we read Compton’s work because it is so grounded in place. In her work we meet the mind of a mature and assured poet, a mind that has moved beyond worrying about how its love of place will be read in post-rural cultures of seemingly more progressive concerns. Compton needs no convincing that “home” is the taproot of poetry, the likeness and affection that all people share. Her childhood place is just such a touchstone. The province’s early writers were peddlers of ideas and ideology. The only firm ground they had to stand on was elsewhere, and so they stood there, outside of what we now recognize as a symbolic landscape of place. Many generations later, writers emerged who gave form to that symbolic landscape, crafting an identifiable language of place. PEI poet Brent MacLaine believes that that language of place is as much a construction of the land as of the writer, for “The Poet in the Landscape is Made by the Landscape.” We have, then, come full circle back to an encounter with the land: not the land as foreign and terrifying (as critic Northrop Frye described it in The Bush Garden ) but the land as intimate, complement, and twin. Compton is among the best writers we’ve encountered in this curriculum who evokes that sense of confraternity that Maritime people feel with their lands, their places of becoming and belonging.
“4 April, 1991”
Snow in April should not surprise us
nor should the death of an old man past eighty
whose patrimony is the air of his absence.
April days succeed to sunshine
my father will return no more.
A patriarch they called him
the last of the line of wisehearted men.
We who survive him are not his successors:
the river and woods, the fields and the hills –
these were his.
He will walk no more in his garden by the birch wood
nor gather the bruised and beautiful apples from dewy grass.
His sons will not seek him, nor
his daughters, returning, settle by his side.
Every season will be telling his absence –
the earth will extol him in fruitfulness,
in gold and green, the crops will salute him.
Earth and grove, where he was magnificent, will remember him.
“The Dinner Party”
I want to get back to –
a tree-lined lane
tall poplars obscuring a housefront
the stone steps
the inside / outside porches
– where I came from
the kitchen, its familiar furnishings, patterned
linoleum, the long table, my father at its head,
brothers and sisters, the bustle
of mealtime, my mother mid-way between pantry and
table, the youngest, her place nearest my mother.
It can’t not be. All of that.
Somewhere there are single days I could visit.
Almost, I know how to get there:
a road lying parallel to the one I am on if I could see.
So that suddenly among low-growing brush and thin-stemmed trees
an opening, a lane,
ah, so there it is
as if it had always been there: that feeling
upon arrival of its having been so simple really.
Like the friend’s directions to a dinner party
which seemed so complicated but when followed
so elementary, so perfectly clear.
In relief – home at last – I hurry forward
the long lane, the familiar trees, the stone steps.
They are pulling back their chairs
So many. I had forgotten we were so many –
the family likeness from face to face
and among them, the unexpected guest.
Who is this stranger who sits nearest my mother, privileged
place of the youngest, the stranger whose face, not unlike the others,
bears no welcome.
Who sits where I should sit?
She will not have me here. I have come, she says,
the wrong day. I say the way though was long and hard
and I belong. “Did,” she says, “Begone.”
“Heating the House”
These are the birds you are to detest … the eagle,
the vulture, the black vulture … the cormorant …
The halls were never heated. They had their own weather.
The high-varnished chill of baluster and banister
a place for morning prayer
before the clatter of the kitchen
where serious-sized adults welcomed a youngest child
and didn’t ask – their glances did – if on every step
she’d been mindful of her shortcomings.
In rooms used most, a local heat: pipes that swooped and shone
from range or stove. The illustrious effect of blacking.
Cormorants to a child’s eye. Like character, nasty by nature
until corrected. (There was chapter and verse for that.)
A radiance rated higher than lamplight though less steady.
All error liable to erasure through work: the gospel truth,
I was told and sent to dust the pomegranate design
of the newel posts on the sin-stepped stairs. Oh reckless hour,
when I heard, or thought I heard, a dozen voices
confess desires like mine. An uneasy apostate in the stairwell.
A chimney-heated kitchen loft: winter dormitory for saints
of small stature. The tongue & groove of it around us, over us.
Don’t let the heat out, someone always said, as if it were
some pure-bred pet unable to endure the mongrel world,
and weren’t we though? Unfit, I mean, anywhere beyond
the hipped roof of home
where melancholy birds stirred the frigid air.
Analysis of “4 April, 1991,” “The Dinner Party,” and “Heating the House”
The first two poems above are from Compton’s inaugural collection, Opening the Island (2002). As such, they situate the poet and orient readers, as first collections often do. The “opening” in the title is therefore deliberate. A door is opening for us – and what we see is a family gathered inside. It is the poet’s family re-imagined, her father, the patriarch, at the centre. He has died and is being remembered, but not as we might expect. The poem upsets expectation by altering our sense of lineage. The flesh and blood “who survive him,” writes Compton, “are not his successors.” His successors are “the river and woods, the fields and the hills.” His endowment, his “patrimony,” is the acreage he spent his life cultivating, the acreage that both sustained and shaped him. In two of the most beautiful lines we’ve read thus far, Compton writes that “the earth will extol him in fruitfulness, / in gold and green, the crops will salute him.” That is his inheritance to others: a legacy of growth and remembrance heralded by the seasons. “Earth and grove,” she adds, “will remember him,” for that’s “where he was magnificent.”
The biblical undertow in the poem, and in much of Compton’s work, suggests that bodies are ephemeral, coming from and returning to clay. The Christian burial rite (Genesis 3:19) lays one down in the medium of one’s beginnings: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (King James ver.). The poet has thus delivered her father to the realm of his origins – to the “earth and grove” – a committal that his faith practice would have understood.
But a process of that sort, however natural and expected, leaves the living distant, which is the larger implication of many of the poems that follow. Such lives (the lives of parents) are brief moorings that quickly leave our grasp. We hold them in memory and worry over them because they live longest as the subjects of our grieving. Compton’s equally fine poem “The Dinner Party” examines that aspect of home.
The speaker – again, likely the poet – longs “to get back to” the certainties of childhood: to “the “long lane, the familiar trees, the stone steps.” Back to “the kitchen” and her former “privileged / place of the youngest” next to her mother at the dinner table (Compton, too, was the youngest in a family of eleven children). But like all such dreams, the dreamer is spurned – in this instance, expelled by an insolent younger self. Significant is the self-censoring that takes place. The inner child of the poet, acting here as her deeper consciousness, does not allow the return, for the adult knows that return is not possible. That is the harsh reality of adulthood: the knowledge that what was once safe and certain, even if also despised, can never be re-entered. As the cliché goes, one can never return home. And so, home becomes a landscape of memory and grief, a defining absence that each of us must bear, another kind of “patrimony.” The father’s death in the opening poem is a reminder of the absence that each of us keeps, whether as romance or regret.
That we live in companionship with that absence does not mean that we treat it sentimentally. For careful thinkers like Compton, the memories that feed the absence are as complex and lovely as they are discomforting. “Heating the House” is a good example, the poem a register of both affection and bitterness, of heat and cold. The privileged place for the youngest child did indeed exist next to the warmth of the mother, but so did the cold stare of “serious-sized adults” who ensured that “on every step” the child would be “mindful of her shortcomings.” What is invoked in the poem is both material and cultural: a house and its laws, structure and theocracy. In such a place “[a]ll error [was] liable to erasure through work” and the blacking of stove pipes attained symbolic equivalency with the cormorant, that most detested of birds (Leviticus 11:17). Such memories – even of the rookeries of “[u]nfit … melancholy birds” – constitute the absence that the poet carries, the absence that defines, troubles, and warms her. Each of us harbours similar memories of heat and cold, and each of us must find peace in a wider “mongrel” world – that peace, for Compton, in trees and living things (“Property Rights, June”), in love (“Jacklight”), and in surrender to the larger authority of time (“What the construction worker said”).
“Property Rights, June”
Their constant daily presence I / Rejoicing at did see ….
On the drive home, the trees in ranks,
their rampikes lifted: hieratic, hoary.
The shaggy spruce bearded with moss,
and among them, the birch,
the beautiful limbs of boys, Traherne would say.
It’s his ecstasy I’m reminded of
through the sunlit columnar forests of New Brunswick.
The trees, I think, are good men all –
lovers of the feminine
who keep us down to earth (as sons do).
An immemorial easement women have in land.
Returned again, the red-headed Red Maple, up close,
attending the house. And related,
though off to the sides, the regular Maples
minding the borders.
Where the lane begins its climb,
the Horse Chestnut’s candles aflame.
More celebrant than gate keeper.
A verdant compassion in their standing by.
Trees willing to bear in their arms
the Gethsemane of the human heart: that men die young.
Youngest of brothers, oh much too early
and sons, how safe are they?
And if treed by the she-bear of worry,
how reassuring the branches of the Chestnut
where the frayed ropes of their long-ago play
still dangle though one’s gone a soldier,
one a scholar.
A lot blessed, these guardians.
A light used illegally as a lure when hunting or fishing at night
If you knew the end would you ever begin?
Of two people, one must be after – living
by praxis. Who’s left behind lives another world,
not the past less one.
The perimeter daffodils –
a police tape circling the property. Trees
quizzical in April light.
Here in the house,
an old certainty among cups rattles the cupboard,
and those six fabric buttons for your good shirt –
futile fastenings in a copper bowl.
In the woods, last year turning to leaf mould.
By dusk, the forsythia’s starting up: Its flash-bulb
flowering, penetrative. Someone abroad with a jacklight.
Below it, the tulips, in thirsty abundance, cupping
the warm rain. There is something in us, after us.
“The tree in winter”
The tree in winter is near to pure form –
sonnet without content, ghazal in grey.
Sap sunk to root, fibrous root thirsting its way
to water table, while bare limbs conform
to loss; no conduction can be inferred.
Still, there’s an underground to everything:
The way your absence, even now, is moving
in some element unamenable to word
or syntax. If lingual, let it be what stones
hear: I don’t want to know if you recant,
or why, the beauty you lifted vein by vein
through me. Knowing only, I’ll not be that again.
“What the construction worker said”
last: n. [from the AS], a form shaped like a foot,
used by shoemakers in building or repairing shoes.
– Mountains lose a centimetre and a seventh
every year. Hills round off to the nearest nought.
In its stone foundation – granite and gravel –
the house too seeks sea level, slides some annually.
You see it in shelves – how books come to the edge,
sag in the spine, ready to empty themselves in air.
There’ll come a day, load-bearing words will crumble,
revert to sand on the seafloor of sleep. Footing,
he said, is a misnomer. Angels alone lift their own weight.
When he jacked up the house, a child’s shoe slid from
the space between walls. The last, used in its making,
tucked under the tongue. Harbinger of a future
a hundred years gone.
Analysis of “Jacklight,” “The tree in winter,” and “What the construction worker said”
In this final selection of Compton’s poetry we encounter another aspect of her meditation on loss: her preoccupation with time and mutability (change), both increasingly evident in her last two collections. “Jacklight” and “The tree in winter” appear to examine the loss of a loved one, perhaps a spouse, but do so metaphysically; that is, each poem does so in terms of a larger cosmic process. Time, the poems suggest, is the larger process that we punctuate with life and loss. Try as we might to stall time, it advances, and in advancing it devours us: “In the woods,” writes Compton in “Jacklight,” “last year turning to leaf mould.” What was living has died, returning to earth. Even our great loves pass away, leaving only “fabric buttons for your good shirt – / futile fastenings in a copper bowl.” For a spouse who is grieving the loss of a recently deceased partner, “[s]omeone” indeed is “abroad with a jacklight.” Time, here personified as “Someone,” is indeed “after us,” hunting us down, while other life teems all around us (“the tulips, in thirsty abundance”), that living also punctuating the infinite expanse of time.
Yet the smallness of living things, whether humans or tulips, is not insignificant, for lives flash around singular moments of birth, love, union, etc. When those singular, shining moments are taken away – say, by the death of a loved one – we are reduced to “praxis,” mere reflex and rote. In the common parlance, we “go through the motions,” our will diminished. In such a state we might ask the same question the poem does: “If you knew the end would you ever begin?” That’s a question we normally defer asking, unwilling to contemplate our endings – unwilling, that is, to witness the tree’s “bare limbs conform / to loss” (“The tree in winter”). And this unwillingness despite the certainty that we will companion absence and that time will win out in the end.
Still, though time contains the erosion of mountains and houses, the sliding of books and words “to sand on the seafloor” (“What the construction worker said”), footings, however temporary, do matter. They are all we have. They are the little girl’s half-finished shoe, disgorged by the house a hundred years hence. The shoe never worn, though promised. The hope of that promise for parent and child. Those moments, implies Compton, constitute a life: the only assault we make on the beachhead of time. And so houses and fields and trees matter, as do shoes and lives.
► On first consideration, Anne’s Compton’s work is different from M. Travis Lane’s in its emphasis on rootedness – at least the Compton of the early collections. As Compton’s work advances, the sense of that rootedness changes. Rootedness is still there, central to the poet’s identity, but her contemplation of home changes as the home place becomes more distant and the absence of that place more familiar. This change provides an opportunity to compare Compton’s notions of rootedness with Lane’s notions of the absent home in “Colonial” and “Half Past.” Each poet brings sophisticated thought to the search for stability in a world of impermanence.
► Aspects of Compton’s work also bear comparison with the work of Alden Nowlan (see Confessional Humanism). Not only do Compton and Nowlan open doors to their personal worlds – those worlds refashioned by the poetic imagination – but each is especially honest in doing so. Their early worlds are not refashioned in the afterglow of tranquility, but presented with equal measures of light and darkness. This honesty is evident in Compton’s “Heating the House” and Nowlan’s “Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here.” Those poems present emotional landscapes that are rife with terror, but also with care and tenderness. Religious fundamentalism is also central to both – and in each case part of the scar tissue that the child brings into adulthood. Worth considering is whether this similarity (fundamentalism and limitation) is universal or characteristic of the New Brunswick/Maritime experience.
Strategy 1: Obituaries (“4 April, 1991”)
First, have students review newspaper obituaries. What information is included, and what is ignored? Is it clear what sort of person the deceased was? What motivated her? Was he well loved? (How are students making those determinations?) Then, have the students read Compton’s poetic obituary for her father, discussing the same questions. If students had to create their own obituary, or that of a loved one, would they choose something in the typical newspaper style, something in the vein of Compton’s poem, or something else entirely? Why?
Extension: Have students rewrite a newspaper obituary as a poem, and/or a poem as a newspaper obituary.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 2: The Impossibility of Return (“The Dinner Party”)
In Compton’s “The Dinner Party,” the speaker can’t return to her childhood experience because she no longer belongs; she is a tourist in the foreign country of her own past. Several teaching strategies are offered below.
- Have students compare this poem with Charles G.D. Roberts’ “The Tantramar Revisited” (see Confederation Poets). Roberts’ speaker is reluctant to get too close to a beloved scene of his past because of the certainty that home has changed in his absence – his return will not be to the same home that he knew, and the past is gone forever. When read together, does Compton’s poem shed any new light on Roberts’, or vice versa?
- Ask students to rewrite an ending to the poem where the speaker can return, and resumes her former place at the party next to her mother. What happens next? Is this new ending happy or disturbing? Is it realistic? What new consequences come with such acceptance?
- If the students were able to return to one fondly remembered event or place from their own lives, what would it be? As they are now, would they be able to experience the event as they did the first time? What would feel or be different?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
- Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing
Strategy 3: Illustrating (“Jacklight”)
As an alternative way of responding to this poem, ask students to draw (on paper or digitally) the “something . . . after us.” Ideally, allow students to grapple with this intriguing poem on their own, without influencing their interpretation. Use the completed illustrations as the basis for further discussion: Are there any commonalities in what students visualized? What do they think is hunting us? Why is the “something” using a jacklight, rather than a snare, camouflage, or other hunting method?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on their experiences with and insights into challenging texts and issues
Strategy 4: Traces (“What the construction worker said”)
After reading Compton’s poem, ask students to consider what legacy they will leave: In 100 or 1000 years, what will be the impact of their time on earth? What traces will linger, and where? If the physical traces are gone, will anything remain? Then, to expand the discussion, introduce them to Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us, which examines what happens after all humans are gone, asking “Could nature ever obliterate all our traces?” Students might be asked to browse the multimedia on the book’s website, such as the animation of a house disintegrating over time or the timeline of a post-human world. On the earth’s timeline, the physical trace of the child’s shoe will vanish, but does that mean that what the shoe represents no longer matters?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Speaking and Listening: Examine others’ ideas and synthesize what is helpful to clarify and expand on their own understanding
Strategy 5: Think Aloud (All Poems)
With their accessible but challenging aspects, Compton’s poems lend themselves to a “think-aloud” activity. In these activities, the instructor models how an engaged reader might approach a piece, voicing his/her internal monologue, and revealing the strategies he/she uses to make meaning. (See page 154 of the Atlantic Canada English Language Arts Curriculum for more information on this strategy.)
The “think-aloud” can be followed by guided practice, perhaps by reading a second Compton poem aloud, and asking students to share what they are thinking after each line. It might help to clarify what strategies the students are using (predicting, visualizing, etc.), and it might also help to compile a toolbox for future reference so that students can rehearse with progressively less guidance. Emphasize that these strategies are not meant to “solve” the poem, because poems are not puzzles. Rather, explain that actively engaging when we read or view is enriching and enjoyable in itself – and that students can become part of the conversation rather than bystanders.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Use the cueing systems and a variety of strategies to construct meaning in reading and viewing complex and sophisticated print and media texts
Campbell, Wanda. “‘Every Sea-Surrounded Hour’: The Margin in Maritime Poetry.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 33.2 (2008): 151-70.
---. “Postmodern Ekphrasis in the Poetry of Anne Compton, Anne Carson, and Anne Simpson.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 65 (2010): 9-21.
Carey, Barbara. “You May Have to Return to Get the Grammar of the Ground: Both Anne Compton and Ronna Bloom Manage that Difficult Art of Combining Directness with Subtlety.” Toronto Star 23 Aug. 2009: 7.
Compton, Anne. Asking Questions Indoors and Out. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009.
---. Alongside. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013.
---. Opening the Island. Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002.
---. Processional. Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005.
Compton, Anne, ed. The Edge of Home: Milton Acorn from the Island. Charlottetown, PEI: Island Studies, 2002.
---. Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews. Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006.
Donaldson, Jeffery. “Strolls with Anne Compton’s Processional.” The Antigonish Review 155 (2008): 125-34.
Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada.” The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971. 213-251.
Hickey, David. “The Longevity of Love.” Rev. of Processional, by Anne Compton. Books in Canada 35.1 (2006): 29-30.
Langille, Carole. Rev. of Opening the Island, by Anne Compton. The Antigonish Review 135 (2003): 121.
Leckie, Stephen E. “To Be Moved by a Poem: [A] Conversation with Anne Compton.” The Malahat Review.http://www.malahatreview.ca/interviews/compton_interview.html
MacLaine, Brent. “The Poet in the Landscape is Made by the Landscape.” Essays on Canadian Writing 79 (2003): 83-93.
MacLeod, Sue. "At the Edge of Sky and Water: Two New Brunswick Poets Invite us Inside Their Worlds." Atlantic Books Today 48 (2005): n.p.
“Poets in Profile: Anne Compton.” Interview. Open Book. Open Book Ontario, 4 Apr. 2011. 22 July 2020 <http://www.staff.openbookontario.com/news/poets_profile_anne_compton/>.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Compton, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Anne Compton for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
“4 April, 1991” and “The Dinner Party” appear in Anne Compton’s Opening the Island. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002. “Heating the House” and “Property Rights, June” appear in Compton’s Processional. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005. “Jacklight,” “The tree in winter,” and “What the construction worker said” appear in Compton’s Alongside. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.