- Why Should We Read and Study Arsenault?
- Literature & Analysis
- “The first Saturdays of the month when I was Catholic”
- “The Wharf”
- Analysis of “The first Saturdays of the month when I was Catholic” and “The Wharf”
- “We Can’t”
- Analysis of “We Can’t”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
One of the original Acadian Renaissance poets to have been published by Les Éditions d’Acadie, Guy Arsenault was born in Moncton in 1954. His Acadie Rock (1973) assembled the poems of his youth, those poems displaying the raw energy and nerve of a talented and rebellious young revolutionary. A painter as well as a poet, his work holds to account the church, the education system, and even his own neighbours for making compromises to fit into Anglophone society. His use of popular reference, including Acadian slang or “chiac” (equivalent politically to Québécois joual), was considered revolutionary in its time.
On most author pages we direct readers to the appropriate entry in The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Though a Guy Arsenault entry is in production, it is not yet finalized. Please check the NBLE periodically for updates.
- We read Guy Arsenault for his energy, defiance, and anger. The most militant of the early Acadian contemporary poets, his work reverberates with the emotion that triggered the student riots in Moncton in 1968–69 and the reforms that followed. His work, however, is rarely weakened by his strong emotions, and so models the kind of literary statement that mixes politics and aesthetics. His aesthetic qualities, in other words, are almost never compromised by strong emotions, a difficult balancing act for a writer to achieve.
“The first Saturdays of the month when I was Catholic”
I left after dinner
sneakers on my feet
to see Art the barber.
I collected some money
for the Evangeline
to have my hair cut at Art the barber’s.
He took 15 to 20 minutes and only charged 50 cents.
Sometimes he charged nothing; it depended on whether he had
paid for his Evangeline.
We didn’t talk much when he cut my hair.
He always asked me the same questions.
“How is your father?” and “Is your mother all right?”
and “Does your grandfather still take his walks?”
and “Do you still go to school? What grade are you in now?”
Also he had a funny saying that he still has when he comes
to see my father. He always said “Well sir”
Well sir time sure flies.
Coming out of Art the barber’s my head was cool and light again
but not empty. My head was not empty because I had plenty
of sins in it. I had lots of sins to confess so
I walked up the street just a block further than Art the barber’s
and I reached the church to get in line to go to confession
I always confessed myself to father Pellerin because he went faster
I confess that I have lied 3 times
I confess that I’ve disobeyed my parents 5 times
I confess that I’ve hurt my little sister 4 times.
I put different numbers in for variety.
For that he gave me 2 rosaries.
Sometimes I stopped at Deluxe to buy some French fries
or sometimes I went straight home where Mom had waxed
the floors and we had beans for supper and we watched
Bugs Bunny and the cartoons on T.V.
wooden planks nailed
worn with age by the sea
of calm waters in Bouctouche Bay
and the cold sea wind
got to him
and made him
shadow on the ground
of a seagull sun
cry of a poet sitting
on the planks of the wharf
at Bouctouche Bay
my arms enfold you
and the blades of grass
pushing out of the tarred
planks of the wharf
receive the caresses
of the sea breeze
and the blue sky shows only
a few traces of clouds on the horizon
the sea is pleased with it
and makes it known
and the poet
sitting on the tarred
planks of the wharf
Analysis of “The first Saturdays of the month when I was Catholic” and “The Wharf”
The unassuming, pedestrian, but masterful “First Saturdays” contains much of the essence of Acadian history and culture as Arsenault sees it. To begin, the poem challenges a literary elitism by adopting un-poetic language, which is difficult to appreciate in translation but evident in Arsenault’s use of chiac in the French original. For example, the translated line “He took 15 to 20 minutes and only charged 50 cents” appears in the original French as “Y prenait 15-20 minutes pi i chargeait yank 50 cents.” The ungrammatical mix of French and English is characteristic of chiac, which is a potpourri of forms and usages. But who said poetry had to be grammatical, its syntax melodious, or its subject matter elevating? The English, of course (or, in this case, the French Academy), and so to undercut those ever-present and distant authorities, Arsenault employs the language of the street. At the same time, he shows that that street language is as poetic as a Wordsworth line, for poetry is not restricted to an educated class or sublime subject matter but to what people hold closest and dearest to their beings. The use of a slangy, pedestrian dialect is therefore both political and poetic. In typical postcolonial fashion, Arsenault “writes back” by upsetting the proper French.
But that is not all he does to upset authority. He also maps the everyday and familiar, guiding us through the wanderings of a typical Moncton teenager. The importance of that mapping is that it fixes a culture and a place in the permanent record. Readers may ask why this map is literary, but, again, why is it not? Why isn’t the barbershop, or Deluxe restaurant, or Bugs Bunny poetic? More to the point, why isn’t Moncton as fitting a place for poetry as Paris or London? To ask the question at all is to have been educated to believe that poetry happens elsewhere. Arsenault asks us to think differently, and rightly so.
Likewise with “The Wharf,” he shifts the centre of concern from some ambiguous place where culture is assumed to reside to a simple wharf on Bouctouche Bay. While that shift is radical – from some unnamed elsewhere to here – so is the wharf, for it may be familiar but it is also rife with significance. We just have to look, and by looking rediscover. Thus comes a new language of “earth-salt / sea-wind / seagull-sunlight” (“The Wharf”), and a language activism that is reminiscent of the Tantramar poets, both groups of poets entering the familiar to discover anew. Places thereby become animated – in Arsenault’s poem “the sea is pleased with it” – and begin to reveal buried truths. “[T]he blades of grass / pushing out of the tarred / planks of the wharf” become metaphors for the resilience of a people. Defying every reason that it should not be there, the grass grows anyway, having rooted itself firmly and swaying contentedly in the breeze. So is it with the Acadian people, their rootedness despite Expulsion, humiliation, and mistreatment. Only when something is named in its own language does it assume identity.
Arsenault is clear on that point. First, language is utility: we speak to communicate, and if we are understood then that communication has been successful. Period. The rules and restrictions that are imposed beyond that utility almost always come from elsewhere – and almost always seek to erase or denigrate our identity. Second, poetry is not the exclusive domain of those “elsewhere” places; any person and any community in possession of language is also in possession of poetry. We must therefore take poetry back from the distant places where it has been kept from common people, says Arsenault, and we must populate our poems with the content of our own places, whether names, landmarks, practices, etc. The inappropriateness of that local content to what we have been taught is poetry matters nothing at all. To suggest that poetry happens elsewhere is a political statement, meant to win control over a field, in this case culture. We must take back control, urges Arsenault. We must decolonize ourselves.
Finally, and with great subtlety, Arsenault uses the occasion of the first poem above to mount a clever critique of the Catholic Church, thus undressing one of those “elsewhere” authorities. Disguising himself at first mention as adherent and victim to the church’s ideological bullying, the young speaker seems to admit that he is a sinner, his newly shaved head still heavy with trespasses. But the manner of his admission suggests no great concern, nor does the manner of his actual confession. He manipulates the telling of his sins “for variety,” choosing the priest who offers the quickest route through the ritual. This, and the fact that the sacrament is presented as being equivalent to a visit to the barber and Deluxe restaurant suggests that Catholicism is mere scenery, its significance eliciting no more concern than waxed floors or a bean supper. The critique is devastating for the casualness and whimsy that Arsenault brings to it. It is as if he is saying that the church warrants nothing more.
The aesthetic choice made in the poem is not to fight institutional bullying with bullying but to relegate the church and its tactics to the irrelevant. The poem is more powerful because of it.
in I should have
if only things had happened that way
as if about to lose the advantages
of our former life
loaf around in the past
and pine in futility
to have it changed
Analysis of “We Can’t”
Arsenault’s final poem for consideration reveals his sharper edge. Where the crimes of the church warranted an understated whimsy as a means of disempowerment, the response of his people to the crimes of imperialism must not be understated. “We Can’t” is therefore nothing less than a call to arms.
It calls on Acadians to break from the timidity imposed by history. Guilt and enervation, it argues, are contagions that must be thrown off. Rather than dwell in the past, whether nurturing old grievances or reliving old glories, Acadians should wake to the present, cultivating the world they desire in the here and now. To do otherwise, the poem says, is “futility,” for victors never atone or accommodate. Instead, the vanquished must rise to become self-reliant once more. What Acadians “can’t” do, the poem infers, is continue to be wards of imperial history. Narratives may be rewritten to alter the past, but outcomes cannot be changed. Only the present and future can be meaningfully created.
Such was the language and tone of the debates of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The times were heady with politics and emotional fervour. To be a poet was to be a cultural citizen and a revolutionary of Acadie.
► To read Guy Arsenault and other pioneering Acadian writers of the late twentieth century is to be reminded of New Brunswick’s early Anglophone writers, specifically late pre-Confederation poets such as Martin Butler and William Leggett (see Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets). Just as second- and third-generation New Brunswick authors sought to develop a native expression, striving for fidelity between language and place, so do the Acadian poets reach for a language that is appropriate to locale, that intersection where place and history meet. Their language is not the language of Quebec or France but of Acadie – and their work is a deliberate mapping, in which place names, historical landmarks, and other characteristics are put front and centre. To begin a tradition is clearly to name place accurately, not on borrowed terms but in the language of that place.
► For readers who know more (or want to know more) of Arsenault’s work, a fruitful examination would compare his Acadian militancy with the Loyalist militancy of Jonathan Odell (see Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets). Both poets are revolutionaries who stand on opposite sides of the revolution, and both use a similar language to rally their readers.
Strategy 1: Just Like at my Father’s House (“The first Saturdays of the month when I was Catholic”)
Dyane Léger, another Acadian artist and poet, explains why Arsenault’s Acadie Rock is her favourite book: “Reading this book gave me permission to take my first gulp of air, to fill my lungs with life, to feel in every fibre of my being the appearance of something real that I suspected existed, but that had up until then remained hidden under a thick layer of fog. The discovery, or rather confirmation, that somewhere in the world, there are people who talk, laugh, cry and live from day to day, just like at my father’s house – that was a revelation for me; it set me free.” In this response, Léger shows why such seemingly ordinary subject matter can resonate so profoundly. By writing about the everyday life in his community, from the popular newspaper Evangeline to rituals like confession, floor waxing, and Bugs Bunny, Arsenault suggests that his locale and the experiences there have significance. His memories do not need to be embellished to be worth writing about. Poetry can be powerful even when – perhaps especially when – it eschews grand statement or gesture for the familiar. Clarity, as in most things, is key.
- Initiate a discussion around Dyane Léger’s quotation. Have students ever had the experience of recognizing their own lives/communities/families in a piece of writing or a television show? Perhaps some students see themselves represented all the time, while others rarely or never do. Or, some students might have the experience of only seeing their culture/family structure/class/age/gender represented inaccurately or stereotypically. After discussing these experiences, and the effects of feeling invisible or misrepresented, ask students to return to the poem. Has the discussion shed any new light on Arsenault’s work, or Léger’s response?
- Ask students to compare this poem with Charles G.D. Roberts’ “The Sower,” Robert Gibbs’ “Conservation Procedures,” or John Thompson’s “Horse Chestnuts.” Each poet wrangles with outwardly prosaic or ordinary subject matter, achieving profundity with quite different techniques.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how media texts construct notions of roles, behaviour, culture, and reality
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Strategy 2: Write a Creative Response (“We Can’t”)
For this activity, assume that the speaker of “We Can’t” is talking to another person. Each student should individually imagine the scene, considering such questions as
- Who is the speaker?
- Who is the speaker addressing?
- What might have prompted these words?
- How are these words spoken: in frustration or anger? Gentle pleading? Etc.
- Would the imagined listener agree with these words? Or would she/he assess the situation differently?
After students have spent some time mentally constructing the story, have them write their listener’s response. Students should consider how their character might express him/herself, including what he/she might be hesitant or unwilling to say. Caution students against the temptation to dump their entire story in the response; the goal in most creative writing should be to show rather than tell. A few brave students might be willing to share their creative response with the entire class. If so, how do the other students interpret the situation based on that response? How close is their reading to that of the student writer?
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
Lonergan, David, ed. Paroles d’Acadie: Anthologie de la littérature acadienne (1958-2009). Sudbury, ON: Prise de parole, 2010. 81-87.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies, we normally direct readers to the appropriate entry in The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Though a Guy Arsenault entry is in production, it is not yet finalized. Please check the NBLE periodically for updates.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Goose Lane Editions 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.
“The first Saturdays of the month when I was Catholic” appears in Poésie acadienne contemporaire / Acadian Poetry Now. Ed. Henri-Dominique Paratte. Moncton & Charlottetown: Les Éditions Perce-Neige & Ragweed Press, 1985. “The Wharf” and “We Can’t” appear in Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie. Ed. and Trans. Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1990.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.