"A Game's Stances": Questions of Language and Unity in Klein's "The Provinces"
by Robin Edwards Davies
In his biography of A.M. Klein, Usher Caplan suggests that "The Rocking Chair was, to a considerable degree, the product of a rare, invigorating burst of patriotism that affected many Canadians in the immediate aftermath of the second World War" (151). Certainly, the "Canadian content" that Caplan and others celebrate in these poems is part of Klein's intent: his earliest titles were "Quebec poems" and, later, "Suite Canadienne" (Caplan 149). Yet Klein's attitude towards the issue of "Canadianism" in poetry was, at best, ambivalent. "I skip the new nationalism and the whole period of the pundits, the foster-fathers of confederation," he wrote to anthologist A.J.M. Smith in 1943. "They have upon me a narcotic effect" (7). Three years later, he admitted in answer to a questionnaire on "Writing in Canada" devised by Raymond Souster that, due to the war, and Canada's new position in world affairs, "Canadians today are more inclined to receive serious writing than they ever were before," but stressed "all English writing as a single entity" ("Writing" 3). Klein did not mention his "Suite Canadienne" to Souster and, when The Rocking Chair and Other Poems was published in 1948, both the specific Canadian reference and the sense of a single subject had disappeared from the title.
Klein's comments on The Rocking Chair volume, however, do reveal an interest in the correspondences between the experiences of the French Canadian minority in Quebec and his own experiences as a Montreal Jew. In an unfinished letter to American poet Karl Shapiro dated December 27, 1948, Klein speaks of the French as "a minority, like my own, which led a compact life; continued, unlike my own, an ancient tradition, preserved inherited values, felt that it belonged" (Caplan 164). From comments such as this, Linda Luft Ferguson builds an argument for The Rocking Chair as a Portrait of the Poet as Province," a portrait of Quebec bounded by Klein's individual poetic concerns. While undoubtably true, such an argument becomes self-defeating when the poem from which Ferguson derives her title ends with the poet's discovery of the map of the world superimposed on "his own body's chart" (Poems 335). What Klein seeks "is the human" ("Writing" 3): the correspondences between one body and another, the French Canadian in the Jew and vice versa. Ferguson faults Klein for failing to explore "the special nature of Quebec" (62); what she forgets, however, is that, for Klein, the "serious writer. . . is only incidentally interested in geography" ("Writing" 3). "The proper study of mankind is Man," he tells Souster, "not paysage. Paysage is important only insofar as it affects the man upon it; but Man, he is the measure" (3). Within this context, "Canadian content" becomes a way of choosing a subject so that the writer's "universal attitudes, since confined to a given locale, may be accentuated the more" ("Writing" 16).
The interdependency between the universal and the specific in Klein's writing has proven to be an area of considerable critical interest. G.K. Fischer, in her "Religious Philosophy in the Writings of A.M. Klein," and, later, Linda Hutcheon and Alain Goldschlager, trace its origins to Klein's celebration of Spinoza in "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens." "Spinoza's basic premise," Fischer argues, "namely the idea that everything is part of the Deity, produced in Klein genuine intellectual excitement which had a lasting effect on his attitude" (38). Zailig Pollock, however, finds Fischer's arguments "unconvincing" ("Source" 38). He suggests that "Klein had very little knowledge of or interest in Spinoza s philosophy, apart from what he could make use of as a poet in one particular poem" ("Source" 35). In "Sunflower Seeds: Klein's Hero and Demagogue," Pollock discusses "Political Meeting" and other poems from The Rocking Chair volume within the context of a much more general vision of unity:
More recently, D.M.R. Bentley has read The Rocking Chair as an attempt "to understand and to negotiate the needs of the individual self, the familiar group, the larger community and the human race," concluding that Klein "would probably wish us to see the humanistic dialectic of his poems as 'Canadian,' yet not exclusively so, in its insistence both on the 'ultimate unity' of mankind and on a 'respect for the individual categories, cultures, boundaries, and creatures that make up the world' " (56).
Bentley first makes his point regarding the balance between unity and diversity, "Canadian" content and universal concerns, in his discussion of "The Provinces;" other critics with similar arguments have also commented on this poem. John Matthews quotes the entire second half as Klein's "answer to the question of Canadian identity" (143), while William Walsh cites the final three lines as evidence of Klein's ability to see "in the Canadian example the universal human thing" (20). "The Provinces" is the only poem in The Rocking Chair volume that focusses on Canada outside of Quebec, moving from the outside in, rather than from a single centre specific to Quebec a rocking chair, a grain elevator, a political meeting out. But Klein provides no proper names for the subjects of "The Provinces," unlike Patrick Anderson, who may have exerted an influence on Klein's poem. Klein owned and marked The White Centre, which includes Anderson's five-part "Poem on Canada." Here Anderson writes of what he perceives as a lack of Canadian identity, tracing the history of Canada as the history of a land that is "still unpossessed" (37). The poem concludes:
Such a personification of "the Canadian" would seem, however, to impose unity at the expense of diversity, an approach to nationalism Klein will not accept. Klein emphasizes that the writer "is concerned with his writing, and not with his passport" ("Writing" 3): for him, content emerges from form, from language. Matthews and Bentley's attention to the double negative of the final line of "The Provinces" hints at the linguistic possibilities Klein's vision of unity opens up. How does the writer write of unity without denying diversity: how is a balance inscribed? "The Provinces" offers some fascinating solutions.
"The Provinces" begins with a catalogue, a technique that both John Sutherland and Zailig Pollock have highlighted in Klein's work. While Sutherland argues that the catalogues grind the poems up into "little particles which refuse to cohere" (51), Pollock sees the listing of the many as a "way of commenting on the One" (50). As title, "The Provinces provides a plural subject, a "many," that suggests a "one," since provinces are by definition divisions within a country, parts of a whole. Klein's catalogue then lists the provinces, not as landscapes per se, but as landscapes made human: here, man is clearly the measure of paysage. Ontario and Quebec are "bunkhouse brawnymen, / scooping a river up in the palm of the hand;" the Prairies are "the three flat-faced blond-haired husky ones;" Prince Edward Island is a "little girl" cradled by the "Great fisherman" Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; British Columbia is a "hunchback" with "fruit/his fragrant knuckles and joints" (297). The provinces personified are not unlike Anderson's gigantic "Canadian;" however, Klein's model is not the individual, but the family. Much like a genealogical tree or a list of progeny in a family bible, Klein's description of Ontario and Quebec as "the two older ones reminiscing/about their fathers' even more mythic prowess" and his introduction of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as brothers establish these diverse personalities as part of a family unit, even, as Bentley suggests, a Freudian "family romance and rivalry" (36). The poetic sequence parallels the history of Canadian pioneer settlements, while the rhythm and diction, particularly in the first stanza, recall labour and birth. In his essay on the "Oxen of the Sun" episode of Joyce's Ulysses, Klein glosses "The door. It is open? Ha. They are out tumultuously . . . all bravely legging it" as "the final parturition" (30). Klein's rapid-fire participles, often two per line in the first stanza of "The Provinces," have much the same effect. Finally, the entry of British Columbia into the family seems "as if of another birth," naming the process that the opening stanzas enact.
The sense of a birth in progress carries over into stanza five of "The Provinces," which summarizes Klein's initial catalogue. Klein empahsizes that the provinces number nine, making a point of "not counting" the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Nine, he observes in his "Oxen of the Sun" essay, is a mystical number" (30). In analyzing "Oxen," he stresses Joyce's inclusion of nine Purefoy children and nine months of pregnancy (30). Klein works out a similar pattern for "The Provinces." The provinces are nine, but the birth process is singular nine may also become one. But this indirect reference to Confederation includes its opposite: nine, as Klein also notes in the "Oxen" essay, is associated as much with destruction as with creation. "Jeremiah is reputed author of LAMENTATIONS written after the destruction of the Temple," Klein writes, "which took place on the ninth day of Ab and is still a fast-day in the Jewish calendar" (41, emphasis in original). The final line of the stanza reinforces the potential of this "mystical number:" no longer a simple total, nine here becomes "a sorcery of numbers, a game's stances," its possibilities multiplying with the indefinite articles.
Klein's interest in the Kabbalah and the numerological method known as gematria, which assigns numerical values to each of the Hebrew letters and allows for their interchange (Scholem 100), gives his "sorcery of numbers" considerable resonance. The principle on which gematria rests is that
"Stances," which suggests local and temporal relations, corresponds within the poem to "numbers" and, hence, to the nine provinces. In gematria, nine is the maximum number of values that any one word may yield when the various gematrical operations are applied. Nine itself is the highest number of units, seen by Kabbalists to "contain all the lesser numbers" (Jewish Encyclopedia 5: 591) just as God, "the first Sefirah, ('crown'), contains in potentia all of the subsequent nine emanations" that constitute the universe (Jewish Encyclopedia 3: 468): for Kabbalists, nine is One. Nine is also the square of three, the "magic square" some Kabbalists use in divinations of character and fortune, for calculating "a game's stances:" Sepharial's Kabala of Numbers works out the charts for several political and geographical unions based on the dates of their confederation (I: 52-53).
The possibilities for the nine as one, for Canadian identity, that "a sorcery of numbers, a game's stances" opens become the focus of the latter half of the poem. The "heart, and also the mind," emotion and intellect, seeks single the thing that makes [the provinces] one, if one." But the use of the conditional and the questions that follow displace "single" and the definite article it postulates. Patrick Anderson, in section five of "Poem on Canada," asks and answers a series of questions concerning Canadian identity. For Klein, there are only questions: the provinces as one, as Canada, is not an achieved end but a search, a question of finding, a quest that is always present. Klein's list of questions parallels his catalogue of provinces; "the quest for unity," as Bentley notes, "leads through 'history,' politics, 'geography,' myth" and so on (36). While in the opening stanzas the repeated, inclusive "and" unites grammatically passages kept separate on the page, here "or" provides alternatives, internal divisions within a single stanza: diversity does not preclude unity, nor unity diversity. The absence of the proper names that this and other critics have so confidently supplied for both the provinces and the country of the poem is itself a measure of Klein's ability to avoid the tendency towards summary that names imply, while inviting the reader to make present, to find, what is absent and thus participate in the vision of unity the poem inscribes.
The critically acclaimed lines with which the poem ends are linked to the list of questions by the repeated "or," but are made to stand as a separate stanza; hence, they are privileged both by the fact that they are final, they close the poem, and by their position on the page. The gesture implicit in "find it, find it, find it" (28) the repetition of a verb which would seem to denote finality and the commas that repetition makes necessary makes of finding not an end, but a pause. This repetition then becomes infinitely extended, pluralized, by the use of "commonplace" to complement "it." But the repetition also creates what Kabbalists call a "latent number:" "find it" occurs three times, expressing "a complete and perfect number" (Judaica 12: 1255-1256) and forming with the tercet it introduces a "magic square." Unity and diversity are again seen to co-exist, to interpenetrate.
Though "commonplace" pluralizes "find it," neither this word nor any other takes a form which is always and only plural. The sense of plurality in these final lines emerges from what can be read as singular or both singular and plural. If we search back through the poem for the subject of "find" (which the stanza suspends), we return to "where shall one find it?" The subject, then, is "one" with the addition of the auxiliary "shall" to create the future tense. Klein's choice of the impersonal here, the non-specific singular subject for which any other singular subject can be substituted, suggests a paradigmatic chain which is present in absence: as anyone "as any I," an infinite number of proper names. In addition to referring back to the future tense and indicative mood of the poem's original question, "find" can now support both the immediacy of the present tense and the urgency of a command, taking as its subject either the individual "I," imperative "you" or collective "we." But neither "I," nor nor is inscribed: once again, what remains unwritten invites the reader to participate.
Working from subject to object, "find" takes the singular but non-specific "it," which functions much like "one" as subject. "It" refers back to "the thing that makes them one, if one," the single object for which the plural is possible. Hence, "it" may be "anything," a reading "commonplace" reinforces. But "commonplace" rhymes (and it is the only rhyme in the poem) with "face," bringing the reader to what is similar, not separate. Klein's choice of this rhyme may reflect the Kabbalists' use of "ha makom" or "place" as a name for God, since God "encloses the universe, but is Himself not enclosed by anything" (Jewish Encyclopedia 3: 460); certainly it reflects the mesuring of paysage by the man upon it. Working backwards from "place" and "face," we find that "common" corresponds with "unsimilar:" a pairing of apparent opposites which are then made one through the modification of "unsimilar" by "not." "Face" recalls the opening catalogue "the three flat-faced blond-haired husky ones" and "the hunchback with the poet's face" and names it "family." Finally, the rhythm of "find it, find it, find it," undercut by the polysyllabic "commonplace," is restored by another group of three as the stanza shapes itself around what is "effective, valid, real," the line end that does not rhyme unity.
The stanza, however, remains a question that refers back to a conditional: the unity that may be achieved in diversity is tenuous. Elsewhere in The Rocking Chair volume, Klein explores how readily the balance between the two disappears. Like "The Provinces," "Political Meeting" concludes with "place" rhymed with "face." But, in "Political Meeting," another rhyme is added which undercuts any sense of perfection the triple rhyme and tercets might otherwise imply: "race" (308). "Race" separates what was "common" in "The Provinces" into "their place" and, by extension, our place. It inscribes a possessive which cannot make present both an individual and a group: the collectivity of race includes some by excluding others. Hence, "the street. . . / flowered with faces" (307) becomes in the concluding rhyme "one face" and the loose terza rina of the opening stanzas becomes regular in the last. Unity is achieved, without question, but it is a reductive unity that precludes diversity.
The reader participates in "Political Meeting," but not as the active supplier of what is absent as in "The Provinces." Here, we are "intent on the scarecrow thing/that shouts to thousands the echoing/of their own wishes" (307). We allow the Orator to substitute his voice for our own; he questions us "Where are your sons?" (305, emphasis in original) but only after he "speaks of war" (307), speaks his answer. The orator withholds language from his auditors, but, for Klein, it is language which makes us human. "The parrot, parrots, and the ape does ape," he writes in "The Bible's Archetypical Poet," "only the human speaks, only the human's gestures are his own" (45, 4). Hence, race is a "body odour," a physical characteristic which recalls the animal.
The "place. . . face" rhyme occurs once more in The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, in the second stanza of "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" (331). In a world dominated by figures like the Orator, the poet may be dead, though "it is possible that he can be found some place /. . . / standing, his eyes staring, and ready to fall on his face." In his absence, "the local tycoon," "the orator," "the troubador" have been "faked with his face" (334). By the conclusion of the poem, however, the poet has re-located the world on "his own body's chart" and is preparing to transform it into language: "a book" which will "pay back the daily larcenies," not merely of the "lung," but also of tycoon, orator and troubador, "by necessity and indirection bring[ing]/new forms to life, anonymously, new creeds" (335).
In his response to Raymond Souster's questionnaire, Klein describes Canada as a body in which "all has changed; our sinews, our muscles, our thinking; only the voice, as yet, is not commensurate" (3). If poetry has a part to play in the Canadian identity, Klein seems to be saying, it is as voice, but only as it is common to all. "Since what I seek is the human," he writes, "I do not confine myself to writing English or American. The good Lord granted the gift of speech also to others" (3). The body of Canada can become the body of the poet and, through a language which includes diversity in unity, the body of the world. The poet's indirection and, hence, the reader's sense of an absence which must be found and made present, allows the universal and the specific to interpenetrate, bringing Klein's vision of unity to life. As "place" becomes "face" in "The Provinces" and the landscape is made human, so the landscape ultimately becomes poet in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape." The transformation of landscape into language will be completed in Klein's final published work, The Second Scroll:
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__________ "The Oxen of the Sun," Here and Now I (1949), 28-48.
___________ The Second Scroll. 1951. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961.
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"Sunflower Seeds: Klein's Hero and Demagogue," Canadian Literature
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I would like to thank faculty and students at the University of Western Ontario, especially D.M.R. Bentley and Michael Groden, for offering valuable information and suggestions to me during the writing of this essay. I would also like to thank Zailig Pollock for directing me to The White Centre and to several sources for Klein's knowledge of the Kabbalah.