- Why Should We Read and Study Brewster?
- Literature & Analysis
- “The Silent Scream”
- “The Young Girl Waits for Love”
- “Return of the Native”
- “Where I Come From”
- “River Song”
- “Atlantic Development”
- Analysis of “Return of the Native,” “Where I Come From,” “River Song,” and “Atlantic Development”
- “Thirty Below”
- Analysis of “Thirty Below”
- “Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods”
- Analysis of “Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods”
- “Reasons for Reason”
- “In Favour of Being Alive”
- “On Becoming an Ancestor”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
One of only a few female modernist poets to publish in Canadian little magazines during the 1940s, Elizabeth Brewster is perhaps the most celebrated poet to have emerged from the Bliss Carman Society (BCS). Brewster was born in the small logging community of Chipman, New Brunswick, in 1922. Having come from an impoverished background, she dropped out of public school at a young age because she did not have warm clothing to wear during the winter. On the strength of her intelligence and self-education, however, she attended the University of New Brunswick from 1942–46. There she became a member of the BCS and played an integral role in the founding of The Fiddlehead. During her time as a member of the BCS, Brewster’s poetry appeared frequently in The Fiddlehead and was principally modernist, displaying imagistic clarity and careful precision. After her first collection of poetry, East Coast (1951), Brewster’s verse became increasingly personal. The themes of place, memory, and emotion are at the center of her work. Employing colloquial language and restraining her use of metaphor, simile, and allusion, Brewster’s poetry has at its core a tough honesty. Her preoccupation with self-identity and the personal, as well as her modest and conversational tone, distances her poetry from the high (and more intellectual) modernism of her early mentor, Alfred Bailey, and invites comparison with that of her good friend and contemporary poet Alden Nowlan. In addition to nearly twenty books of poetry, Brewster also published seven works of fiction, making her not only one of New Brunswick’s greatest writers, but also one of the most prolific.
For a much more detailed biography of Brewster, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- As an early member of the Bliss Carman Society, Brewster was key to the founding of Canada’s longest-running literary magazine, The Fiddlehead, which played an integral role in re-establishing Fredericton as a center for literary activity in Canada. Though she did not edit The Fiddlehead, her significance in the Bliss Carman Society speaks to the immense but all too often overlooked contribution Canadian women poets made to literature and literary publishing in New Brunswick and Canada generally.
- Brewster is also an important transitional figure between modernism and later poetic forms in New Brunswick. While her early verse is definably modernist, her poetry of the 1950s and beyond pioneered a confessional voice that was new to New Brunswick and Canadian poetry. As such, her poetry is illustrative of the evolution of New Brunswick’s literature, an evolution that both reflected and responded to the changing social and political environment of the province.
- Brewster, finally, is one of those poets whose work is immediately accessible. Her poems are direct and always crafted to speak to the heart. Louis Dudek, one of the deans of Canadian poetry, said that readers should consider themselves privileged to be invited into the private world of an artist’s thought. Readers of Brewster’s work walk along with her in that way, recognizing in her thoughts many of their own experiences and emotions.
“The Silent Scream”
When I was seven, playing by myself
near the edge of the woods,
I was almost buried in a pile of sawdust
that gave way spongily into quicksand.
As I sank up to my neck, struggling,
I opened my mouth to scream.
But my voice had gone.
I got out. I survived. Did not tell my mother
Or anyone else for over twenty years.
many times of being buried alive,
nose and mouth choked with earth or sawdust,
no voice ever
because I could not scream.
I wonder if that is why all the reviewers
say I am such a quiet poet.
“The Young Girl Waits for Love”
Love grows within her like a flowering tree
that blossoms at her mouth; she feels its branches
stretching along her veins, and all its leaves
shivering and prickling at her fingertips.
She carries love in her body through the streets
like blossoming cherry, delicate daffodil
wrapped from the winter cold.
At night she feels the January sheets
grow warmer with her love.
She and her unknown lover swim in dreams
on seas where stars float like fat golden fish.
Delight and fear
tingle together with the water’s touch.
They sink into dark caverns, submarine,
to die a hundred deaths and rise again,
floating like seaweed on the rising tide.
They lie all day on daisies, and at night
dance to the moon’s pale music, silently.
“Return of the Native”
This is the true land of fairy tales,
this countryside of sullen beauty
heavy beneath dark trees. The brown smell of wood
lingers about it. Sawdust penetrates
every corner. You smell it, mixed with manure,
in the restaurant with its moosehead, or, like dim must,
in the little movie house.
The short street swims in dust and sunshine, slides
into a country road and crosses the bridge
across the log-filled river where men walk,
balancing on the logs, and a single rowboat
holds a group of boys, their dark, round heads
bent close together. Sunshine, wind and water
carry together the floating smell of boards.
Across the bridge is pasture; later, woods.
This is a land
not settled yet by its generations of settlers.
Wildness still lingers, and the unfriendly trees
suffer, but do not shelter, man, their neighbour.
No Eden this, with parks and friendly beasts,
though hopeful settlers, not far distant, called
their country Canaan, New Jerusalem,
or even Beulah. Yet beauty here is solemn,
with the freshness of some strange and morning world.
At the last house on the edge of the woods, two children
sit on their swings, reading aloud to each other
a fairy tale of children in a wood.
Their mother, hanging up her Monday wash,
stops for a minute and watches flying over
the shining crows flapping their heavy wings.
“Where I Come From”
People are made of places. They carry with them
hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace
or the cool eyes of sea gazers. Atmosphere of cities
how different drops from them, like the smell of smog
or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring,
nature tidily plotted with a guidebook;
or the smell of work, glue factories maybe,
chromium-plated offices; smell of subways
crowded at rush hours.
Where I come from, people
carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;
blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;
wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,
with yards where hens and chickens circle about,
clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses
behind which violets grow. Spring and winter
are the mind’s chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice.
A door in the mind blows open, and there blows
a frosty wind from fields of snow.
Where are the lumberjacks who came from the woods for
Drinking, fighting, singing their endless ballads,
Eating pork and pancakes for breakfast, gravy dripping over?
Where are their wives, milking the cows in winter
Slopping out to the barn in rubber boots,
Shovelling out the snow drifts?
Churning, baking the crisp-scented bread in huge loaves?
Bearing their ten children?
Where is the shrill scream of the mill whistle,
The smell of a town built on sawdust and pine shavings?
Where are the logs afloat on the wide river?
Oh sad river,
Sing a song of pain for your children gone,
Oh glory gone.
Three abandoned churches in a row;
tombstones behind them hidden by waving timothy;
a farmhouse with broken panes,
still shielded by limp curtains, dark with dust;
further along the road, a deserted mineshaft.
In the neighbouring village
the only young men on the street are these granite soldiers
carved on the war memorial in front of the Post Office.
Analysis of “Return of the Native,” “Where I Come From,” “River Song,” and “Atlantic Development”
Each of these poems is clearly and consciously about place – specifically the place of Brewster’s youth around Chipman, New Brunswick. That place, we are told in “Return of the Native,” is “the true land of fairy tales,” a place of “sullen” and “solemn” beauty that is “not settled yet by its generations of settlers.” It is a place where “unfriendly trees / suffer, but do not shelter, man, their neighbour.” It is a place, then, of danger and ominousness where people live precariously on the edge of woods and waters. Still, for all its impenetrable mystery, it is a place, like Fred Cogswell’s “New Brunswick,” that imprints itself on people so that “they carry woods in their minds,” “blueberry patches,” and old “wooden farmhouses.”
Mostly, however, it is a place of memory, for, as “River Song” and “Atlantic Development” make clear, it is a place that has been footnoted to history. Its farms and logging industries no longer vibrant or productive, and many of its people gone to urban centres, it exists most fully in the minds of former residents – and most colourfully in the imagination of the poet. Such has been the fate of many places in rural Canada and New Brunswick, and so we are deeply indebted to artists like Brewster who preserve what once was vital and real.
But that act of recording is only at the surface of each of these four poems. The deeper inference is that what was in the past was no less important than what is in the present. The communities and neighbourhoods that are fully relevant today in the lives of people are differently configured than in the past, but no more essential or important. In fact, the inference is that they may be less essential, certainly less colourful. In moving rapidly to cities, people have become differently imprinted, but are they better served, happier, more fully alive and challenged? That is debatable.
What is clear is that the rural world that now sits largely abandoned was no one-dimensional plane of hard work and scant reward. Yes, it did demand excruciating effort for little reward, often testing the sanity of inhabitants, but meeting those demands took a distinct courage and nobility that Brewster’s poems of place celebrate. It is that nobility that she remembers about her parents, despite her father’s tattered coat (“Thirty Below”) and her mother’s dreams of hope (“Inheritance”). Moreover, it is that nobility – that indefinable social capital, the “glory gone” – that New Brunswick loses every time another of its villages is abandoned.
The challenge for us all, students and citizens of New Brunswick, is to shout this to the rafters, mourning these losses as deeply and publicly as we mourn the passing of loved ones. We must never passively accept, Brewster implies, the loss of our communities as the inevitable change to “national” or “global” systems. Nor must we passively accept our “given” roles as standing reserve – either as raw material for imperial armies or a desperate pool of mobile labourers. Our legacy must not be that of “granite soldiers” memorialized in front of a Post Office, one of the many crown corporations in Canada centralized in Ontario. We may, in the end, not be able to stop the global economic tide, but we can certainly be vocal about articulating what is being lost. Too long have we been silenced on the sidelines, made to believe that such change was in our best interest or out of the control of our political representatives. We must start to act before the entirety of our province is turned to the folklore and footnote of “Atlantic Development.”
At the same time, Brewster reminds us, we must be careful not to romanticize a past that had its share of hardships. The near-slavery of men and women in harness to the “shrill scream of the mill whistle” and “[b]earing their ten children” (“River Song”) is a reminder that we must see history fully, otherwise we misrepresent ourselves. These four poems are thus cautionary tales, their message one of pain and lament – and, importantly, that neither the past nor the present recollection of that past should be built on anything as flimsy as “sawdust and pine shavings.”
The prairie wind sounds colder
than any wind I have ever heard.
Looking through frosted windows
I see snow whirl in the street
and think how deep
all over the country now
and cars are stuck
on icy roads.
A solitary man walking
wraps his face in a woollen mask,
turns his back sometimes
so as not to front
this biting, eye-smarting wind.
Suddenly I see my dead father
in an old coat too thin for him,
the tabs of his cap pulled over his ears,
on a drifted road in New Brunswick
walking with bowed head
Analysis of “Thirty Below”
Though a number of writers from New Brunswick have written about exile, one of our negative cultural signatures, few have done so as sensitively as Elizabeth Brewster. Her treatment of the subject is always psychological, focussing on how exile fragments the self and tortures the soul.
Both those consequences of exile appear in “Thirty Below.” The informing consciousness of the poem (perhaps the poet’s itself) ruminates on a biting Prairie cold but does so removed and thus protected from it. She looks through frosted windows that divide her from the world she is observing. What she sees is a solitary figure trying to ward off the cold, a futile effort at best. The struggle to stay warm reminds her “Suddenly” of her father, always poor and put upon, who trudges toward home. He, too, is cold and unaccompanied on the road.
And there the poem ends. But is that all? If we conclude that it is not, then what else is being implied? What are we being asked to think about? Because Brewster does not make it clear, we are rather limited in our choices, especially if we want to remain true to the text itself.
At base, then, the poem suggests that the past assaults the mind, even the safe and sheltered mind (the mind behind glass, preserved and warm). But the poem infers strongly that no mind can ever be sheltered and safe – and none, as Fred Cogswell’s magnificent poem “New Brunswick” says, can ever “escape the source that feeds its sap.” Nothing “outgrows its roots.”
To live in exile, then, is to live under siege. Not from external forces but from memories of the past: memories of home and formative experiences. To live in exile is also to live divided, as if behind glass. It is to watch not with longing but with regret, and to “Sing a song of pain for your children gone, / Oh glory gone” (“River Song”). These are the consequences and emotions of a broken federalism: to live divided inside oneself. To be a foreigner in one’s own country.
Brewster’s importance is in reminding us that exile is not just a socio-economic phenomenon – the normal dictates of an amoral corporate culture and globalized world – but also an emotional experience that injures the heart.
“Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods”
No, I’m not used to it yet, though it’s over forty years.
My husband was a soldier in the War,
came from these parts. You know how it was in the War.
We were sorry for the boys so far from home,
and England was dreary then, with all the rationing,
and the cold, and the shortages. This country sounded good,
and Ed looked good in uniform. He said I’d never be sorry.
Look at all those woods. Ed thought it pretty country,
but I never got used to all that fir and spruce
and the trees going on for miles and miles.
Not the kind of woods you walk in, like at home.
I used to walk in the woods when I first came over,
go out and sing to myself there, but they thought I was crazy,
and so I stopped. My, how I used to cry
back in those early days. Some women went back;
but there – I’d married Ed, and I’d stick by him.
Well, he was a good man in his way,
never got drunk to speak of, never swore
when I was around. He couldn’t help the country
being the way it is.
What I really wanted
was something, now, like Brighton.
I had a holiday there when I was young –
stayed nearly a week – that was a jolly time.
Brighton was grand. That’s when I was in service
not far from there. But there’s nothing like that here.
Look at the dark, how it’s come on so sudden.
They have no twilight here, as they have at home.
She dips and is gone. There are no softnesses,
but only black and brightness.
No, even the violets here don’t have the smell
they did at home, when you walked down the road
in the April night and smelled them.
Now that Ed’s gone, I think sometimes of going
back home and seeing it. But I’m afraid
maybe the country isn’t what it was.
I wouldn’t know my sisters. All my children
live in these parts. And maybe –
I don’t know –
when I got over there I’d miss the woods.
Analysis of “Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods”
During the Second World War an estimated 48,000 British and European women married Canadian servicemen. After the war, most of these “war brides” came to Canada where they faced a difficult cultural transition. For those coming from cities in Britain and Europe, rural life in Canada was not what they had expected. Brewster’s “Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods” is a poem about one such war bride. Considered one of Brewster’s finest works, it is a poem of voice. Written in a conversational first-person style, its modulated voice reveals the feelings of nostalgia and regret experienced by the war bride. The meaning of the poem is best discerned when read aloud and slowly (even ruminatively), for, when heard, the contours, cadences, pauses, and pace of the voice reveal the emotions of the elderly woman.
The beginning of the poem reads like the answer to a question. We know from the title that the speaker is a woman travelling on a bus, and the opening prompts us to imagine the woman being asked by a fellow passenger of her experience moving from England to rural New Brunswick. What follows is the woman’s answer: a monologue in which the speaker attempts to rationalize and justify her move while recollecting and idealizing her youth in England.
Even after forty years the woman is not used to living in the backwoods of New Brunswick. Nevertheless, she has plenty of reasons why she married a Canadian soldier and moved from England: the British took pity on the soldiers, “England was dreary then,” they had to endure strict rationing of food and material goods, it was cold, and there were food shortages. But Canada also sounded nice; Ed, her husband from the New Brunswick woods, “looked good in uniform”; and, finally, Ed convinced her that she would “never be sorry.”
The second stanza begins with a signpost: we are reminded that the speaker is on a bus when she comments, “look at all those woods.” In addition to strengthening the conversational feel of the poem, these signposts help to draw us into the conversation. Further down, in the fifth stanza, we get another: “Look at the dark,” says the woman, “how it’s come on so sudden.” While these signposts draw us into the poem, they also open the possibility that the speaker is talking to herself and shoring up her arguments. Each time she observes the passing landscape, something in the New Brunswick woods evokes a memory of its opposite, a memory of England. These woods, she states matter-of-factly, “are not the kind of woods you walk in, like at home.”
We also get an image of her husband Ed. He was a good man “in his way”; he sinned, but not in her presence, “never swore / when I was around”; and, as if repeating the words of Ed himself, “he couldn’t help the country / being the way it is.” Her defense of Ed, though, is not nearly as convincing as her yearning for Brighton, a quaint sea-side borough in southeast England that was one of the most popular resorts in the country. Falling back into the language of her youth, she mourns that there is nothing “jolly” or “grand” about rural New Brunswick. Her nostalgia for bygone England swells as she remembers the smell of the violets, a smell that is absent from the violets in New Brunswick.
After forty years, the speaker still identifies England as her “home” – or does she? As the poem progresses we get a sense that this woman is torn between homes, longing for a past to which she cannot return and unable to leave a place, New Brunswick, which will never measure up to the England of her youth. The more she reminisces on her past, the more fantastic and unreal her memory becomes until she begins to admit, albeit hesitantly, the illusory nature of her English home: “I’m afraid / maybe the country isn’t what it was.” Of course, the country can’t be what it was because all places change with time. What is more, it is only in our dreams and memories that violets in one country smell differently than violets in another; nostalgia, Brewster teaches us, clouds both our memories of the past and our perceptions of the present. The poem ends with the speaker revealing an attachment she is afraid to admit, again, as much to herself as to us: “And maybe – / I don’t know – / when I got over there I’d miss the woods.”
The poem is one of multiple journeys: a bus journey through the New Brunswick woods, a journey into the speaker’s past, a journey from England to New Brunswick, and a journey from the foreign to the familiar. Ultimately, the speaker regrets having left her home in England, but she also recognizes that the woods of New Brunswick have become her home – what was once foreign has now become familiar, and vice versa. Her existence is thus contradictory and precarious: she cannot stand to stay in New Brunswick, but neither can she leave. The poem, then, expresses the perennial New Brunswick conundrum, one as real today as it was in the time of this war bride. As such, the poem captures what might be understood as a profound sympathy for humanity: an ability to recognize and communicate those feelings of nostalgia and regret that are common to nearly anyone who has had the experience of leaving one home and attempting to establish another. Like “Thirty Below,” the poem is a meditation on the nature of exile and reconciliation.
It is her ability to convey these profound insights to her readers that has secured Brewster’s place in the history of New Brunswick literature, but it is her mastery of rhythm and tone – her ability to so perfectly adopt the voice of her subjects – that has earned Brewster a place among Canada’s greatest poets.
As a child I overheard my deaf father
talking to himself, wondering
where the next meal was coming from, saying
“All’s lost,” saying
“What will we do?”
Saying, “They’d be better off without me.”
And I followed him about dumbly,
wishing to say “I love you”
fearing where he might walk
or what he might do
wishing to make him successful
brilliant and admired,
and not this shabby man
with mended trousers
and scuffed shoes
stumbling apologetically about the house.
He was a good man, my father,
a childlike man,
never given to violence, afraid of blood,
afraid of hurting others, a gentle man;
yet I think I was ashamed of him a little
because he never won in life,
also because he tried to comfort himself
by pretending to despise those who prospered,
and because he talked too loudly
and repeated the same jokes many times.
But I could never cut him out of myself,
my argumentative, mild father,
arrogant and timid.
I find I also repeat the same jokes.
My mother was always hunting for four-leaf clovers,
and, since her eyes were quick, she found many.
They were stuffed in all her books and Bibles,
but she complained to me once
that they did not bring her luck.
I repeated her words to a neighbour
and she rebuked me later.
“Never tell anyone outside the family”
she warned me then,
“that any of us don’t think we are lucky.”
Green was my mother’s favourite colour,
colour of grass and hope.
All her life she wanted
a green velvet dress
and never had one.
“Reasons For Reason”
My father used to tell me
that one of his first memories
was of walking past the old Saint John Asylum
beneath the window of a girl
who shook the bars
“I’ll kill you, boy!
Boy, I’ll kill you!”
And my mother sometimes showed me the scar
that Cousin Bethiah made
when she went crazy
and chased my mother around the kitchen table
with a butcher knife
before the uncles caught her
and she was taken away
and when I was a child
I read in the Saint John paper
the investigations of that asylum
the lock-and-bolt treatments
the filth, the blows, the straitjackets
so of course I try
to be as reasonable myself as possible,
make sure the butcher knife
is not too sharp
and put it away
as soon as I can
“In Favour of Being Alive”
Twenty-four years ago
I tried to kill myself
but with my usual incompetence
did not manage to.
Not even one good poem
out of it.
I was no Sylvia Plath.
I don’t know
why I write about it now
(and even now
I am not giving details)
except maybe I write
for hortatory or didactic reasons
to say to someone
It’s been a dull life
much of the time
but lots better
than no life at all.
You don’t know how much
you may yet enjoy
just waking up
and peeling oranges
to eat with sugar
while you listen to the clock strike
down at the Town Hall
telling you again
that you’re still here
and Sylvia Plath isn’t.
“On Becoming An Ancestor”
Too late in life
for children, the building
of flesh and bone
out of flesh and bone,
all that blood and guts
other women talk of.
By chance or intention
of body or mind
came too late.
Not my fault, it seems to me,
I would have liked
Or maybe I was scared.
Many things scared me.
Does it matter?
the green blood of grass.
to their original syllables.
There is no avoiding
the process of transformation,
a sort of ancestor,
like the lovers in old songs
from whose buried mouths
grew briars and roses.
My fears were unnecessary
but after all did not change
the end result
which (whether I fear or hope)
is not an end
► Brewster’s “Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods” and “Return of the Native” are deeply concerned with the role of memory in the formation of thought and perception. In this way, both poems are similar to, and may respond to, Charles G.D. Roberts’ “The Tantramar Revisited.” Though some readers of these poems may not have had the experience of leaving home, they will likely have had feelings of nostalgia – for certain experiences in their childhood, for a place they might have visited as a child, for a loved one they have lost, or for a range of other people, places, or events of their past. How do the poems of Brewster and Roberts convey those feelings? How does the experience of nostalgia described by Brewster and Roberts differ from one another, one being the reflections of an aging man returning home, the other the memories of elderly women remembering their youth in and away from New Brunswick? To what extent are the feelings of exile and regret related to New Brunswick, a have-not province that people must leave, or to a new post-war globalism that people are encouraged to embrace?
► “Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods” does not provide a flattering portrait of New Brunswick. In fact, it seems to reinforce notions of New Brunswick as a rural and unappealing wilderness. How does the poem reflect our own perceptions of New Brunswick? At the same time, how does the poem capture the sense of home and rootedness we experience in spite of the negative aspects of living in New Brunswick? Is Brewster suggesting that New Brunswick is an unappealing place to live, or is she using her speaker to reveal something more complex at work?
► Just as Brewster seems to be channelling Roberts in “Woman on a Bus” and “Return of the Native,” so does she seem to be channelling Kay Smith in “The Young Girl Waits for Love” and “On Becoming an Ancestor.” Brewster’s poems are reminiscent of Smith’s poems of young girls and old women. Both poets treat the world of the female imagination as it traverses youth and old age. How is the female imagination, evident in Brewster and Smith, different from the male imagination evident in, say, Roberts’ “The Tantramar Revisited”?
► The final image of the crow at the close of “Return of the Native” also conjures the memory of a similar image of a crow at the close of Francis Sherman’s “The House of Color” (see Confederation Poets). And the recurrence of the crow as image (perhaps as spectre) changes our reading of Sherman’s poem. Are both poets doing something similar with this image?
Strategy 1: The Confessional Urge (Various Poems)
Following an introduction to “confessional humanism,” ask students to consider the similarities and differences between the confessional voice in poetry such as Brewster’s and the confessional style of many YouTube channels, blogs, songs, etc. The latter are sometimes accused of being narcissistic; is this fair? (You might choose to read/show an article or video making this argument, for student response). Why do people have the urge to share “private” thoughts and experiences with an unknown audience? What are the potential benefits for the creator and the reader/viewer?
Ask students to find an example of a current confessional author or personality – and to compare the medium and style of self-presentation with that of Brewster.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
- Speaking and Listening: Listen critically to analyse and evaluate concepts, ideas, and information
Strategy 2: Visualization (“The Young Girl Waits for Love”)
Ask students to close their eyes and visualize while this poem is read aloud. What did they visualize, and what were the quality/tone of the images? For example, were the mental images solid or fluid? Brightly coloured or muted? If their imagination were to be represented in another medium, which would be most appropriate: high definition video, watercolour painting, comic book graphic, etc. This might work well as a paired activity, with students using active listening techniques to understand their partner’s visualization and rationale, before sharing with the class. Alternatively, students could be asked to represent this poem artistically.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how textual features help a reader and viewer to create meaning of the texts
- Speaking and Listening: Consistently demonstrate active listening and concern for the needs, rights, and feelings of others
Strategy 3: Situate the Speaker (“Where I Come From”)
Have students read this poem without any information about the author. Ask them to guess where the speaker comes from, perhaps in terms of time as well as place. Did they recognize the location as New Brunswick? Discuss why or why not, using evidence from the poem to explain their thought process.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate their own processes and strategies in exploring, interpreting, and reflecting on sophisticated texts and tasks
Strategy 4: Where I Come From . . . (“Where I Come From”)
Challenge students to create their own verse, beginning with the line “Where I come from, people . . .” Depending on the class temperament, these verses could remain private, or be voluntarily shared with the group. Even if these remain private, students can discuss the experience: When they write about where they come from, do they consider their past selves or present selves? Their household, social circle, town, province, or country? Which was harder: thinking of what defines their home, or expressing those thoughts in verse?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on the basis for their feelings, values, and attitudes
Strategy 5: Debate the Title and Consider the Issue (“Reasons for Reason”)
Challenge students to formally or informally debate the speaker’s main reason for reason, using evidence from the poem. Students might develop their own positions or represent one of two sides. For example: 1) The speaker is afraid of being or becoming insane; or 2) The speaker is afraid of the societal response to insanity (institutionalization).
This activity could involve, or could alternately be replaced by, a research activity. Students could be asked to explore societal attitudes towards mental health in the era the poem was written, as compared to today. What has changed in our understanding/diagnosis/treatment of mental illness, and what has remained the same? After, ask students to consider whether Brewster’s poem represents a contemporary or an old-fashioned take on mental health.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Speaking and Listening: Adapt language and delivery for a variety of audiences and purposes in informal and formal contexts, some of which are characterized by complexity of purpose, procedure, and subject matter
- Reading and Viewing: Access, select, and research, in systematic ways, specific information to meet personal and learning needs
Strategy 6: Compare to Sylvia Plath (“In Favour of Being Alive”)
Brewster mentions Sylvia Plath directly in this poem, a fellow confessional poet. “In Favour of Being Alive” addresses similar themes to Plath’s earlier “Lady Lazarus.” Ask students to read these poems together, discussing how “In Favour” could be considered a response to “Lazarus.” What are the tonal and stylistic similarities? And how is Brewster’s voice distinct? (For example, students might be prompted to evaluate the simplicity/grandiosity of the imagery in each poem, and consider which technique they find more personally affecting).
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Strategy 7: Compare to Elizabeth Bishop (“Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods”)
The well-known modern poet Elizabeth Bishop spend many of her formative years in Nova Scotia, recalling that time and the Maritime landscape in her mature work. One of her poems, “The Moose,” bears similarities to Brewster’s “Woman on a Bus” in that both works use the New Brunswick landscape as a backdrop against which more profound observations are made. A comparison of the poems would enable students to see how landscape is used as a point of entry into other speculations.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Strategy 8: Ed’s Story (“Woman on a Bus: In New Brunswick Woods”)
Ask students to retell this story from Ed’s perspective, selecting their own form of writing or representing (for example, journal entry, poem, or storyboard). Students could be encouraged to discuss their choices of form, style, and content, and compare their imagined character with that of other students. Is their Ed empathetic to his wife’s experience? Oblivious? How is this conveyed in their work?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing
- Writing and Representing: Evaluate the responses of others to their writing and media productions
Brewster, Elizabeth. Passage of Summer: Selected Poems. Toronto: Ryerson, 1969.
---. Selected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster: 1944-77. Ed. and Intro. Tom Marshall. Ottawa: Oberon, 1985.
Gibbs, Robert. “Next Time From a Different Country.” Canadian Literature 62 (1974): 17-32.
Lockhart, Robert. “The Elizabeth Brewster Story.” The New Brunswick Reader 22 April 1995.
Pacey, Desmond. “The Poetry of Elizabeth Brewster.” Ariel (July 1973): 58-69.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Brewster, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Paul Denham, Elizabeth Brewster’s literary executor, 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.
All poems above, with the exception of “The Young Girl Waits for Love,” appear in Selected Poems of Elizabeth Brewster: 1944-77. Ed. and Intro. Tom Marshall. Ottawa: Oberon, 1985. “The Young Girl Waits for Love” appears in Brewster’s The Way Home. Ottawa: Oberon, 1982. 21.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.