Two-fisted tales inform Al Purdy Was Here

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      A documentary by Brian D. Johnson. Rating unavailable.

      Like CBC Radio and the wilderness-painting tradition, poetry has helped define and connect Canada while locating a certain wintry aloneness in the national condition. One of the last of the two-fisted writers, Al Purdy travelled all the byways before crafting poems for the ages. His skill didn’t mature until he was past 40, but Purdy managed to eke out a poet’s existence for the rest of his life, unsupported by day jobs, grants, or the usual academic resorts.

      A case for his greatness is made in this first feature for critic turned director Brian D. Johnson, who uses much archival footage, plus wry observations from contemporaries and students like George Bowering and Margaret Atwood (with the latter seen playing billiards in a beer hall). Some of Purdy’s better words are read or interpreted by musical figures such as Leonard Cohen, Sarah Harmer, Gord Downie, and Bruce Cockburn.

      Coasting through the 90-minute doc is the diffident figure of Purdy’s wiry widow, Eurithe, sanguine about the poor family skills of her late husband, who died at 82 in 2000. He managed to pretty much ignore their son, who had mental problems. And she even more assiduously avoided Brian Purdy, his son from a previous marriage, who made a late appearance in the poet’s life, with mixed results, as recounted here in the younger Purdy’s own beautifully read poem.

      The emphasis is less on family than on home—in this case, the Ontario cottage-country A-frame that provided sustenance (largely alcoholic) to subsequent generations of poets. The film looks at the loving restoration of that Roblin Lake cabin, now being used as a place for writers in residence. Purdy left his mark, but unlike Kilroy’s, his reveals much more upon closer inspection.