Review: Mark Dickinson, Canadian Primal

by Rob Shields (Univ. Of Alberta)

For George Grant, “Canadian Primal” is the founding self-denial of what he calls a technological society, but we might also understand as settler-colonial society: settlers mutilated psyches mirrored their abuse of the landscape and environment. The primal is an event that shapes the national soul.  A disaster on multiple dimensions, deaf to the voices of place and the ecosystem, “Canadian Primal continues to dictate the course our lives take,” says Mark Dickinson in his book of the same title.

Canadian Primal is an intellectual biography of five poets and philosophers of nature and ecology – Dennis Lee, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, Jan  Zwicky and Tim Lilburn. Dickinson searches for the centre of gravity in this constellation, which includes disagreements as well (Bringhurst and McKary on metaphor, Lee and Zwicky on the line between when to speak and when to stay silent (p.234)). The figures have all had professorial positions in Canadian universities, made significant contributions of Canadian culture not only as poets but as editors, publishers and organizers, but they are all also figures of the bush, of out of the way retreats Campbell River and Quadra Island (BC), Saddle Lake Reserve (AB), the Moosewood Hills (SK), the Avalon Peninsula (NL) and rural farms in Ontario, central New Brunswick and elsewhere. These are all figures who were absent from my interdisciplinary Canadian university education in the 1980s and despite some oddly close calls have remained an elusive ground that was hard to grasp ever since.  Until recently when these names came at me from every direction, including an unpublished book featuring most of them, I had never read their poetry or even heard of any of their essays on landscape, place or critiques of Canadian settler-colonial culture.  How was this possible?  Is it that people fail to mention their names or themselves do not have an awareness necessary to articulate the significance I see in these modern-day ecological “mythtellers”?  I guess inspired by an unpublished collection by Joe Sheridan that included many of these contributors (http://wildspirits.ualberta.ca), when I opened Dickinson’s book, I was surrounded by stacks of these Zwicky’s, Bringhurst’s, Lee’s and McKay’s works that I was slowly reading through. 

These thinkers are fugitive figures not referenced in English-language cultural studies or qualitative social science, leaving us to reinvent the wheel. They have a stronger presence in poetry and writing workshops than in geography or discussions of Canadian culture. The absence of this group from more sustained academic and media attention suggests shortcomings in Canadian universities, cultural institutions and Canadian publishing, an area these figures have played a key role in forming.

The five have struggled against the settler-colonial “original sin” of Grant’s “Canadian Primal.”  The close relations and partnerships between these thinkers show the emergence of a common ground for reimagining the relation to nature for the Canadian polity in the twenty-first century. The work of this group has led to the translation and revitalizing of Indigenous languages and ecological myth telling. This is not only an honouring of Indigenous oral traditions but a resource for anyone who wishes to dwell and engage with the land. Dickinson documents these writers’ clear-eyed response to climate change and environmental havoc. This is relevant to Canadians and internationally.  To the biographical chapters, Mark Dickinson adds his own autobiographical Postface on his relation to the landscape, thinking with the land and the sense that the land, or the local ecology, thinks back and with us.  Land and place are a shorthand for the embedded local ecology and sense of a place in human and animal terms.  Local environments are integral to our lives as full-fledged contexts.  They cannot be reduced to ‘bare nature’ as just background resources.  Places structure our possibilities of action, give us our degrees of freedom and contribute to the ways we frame problems and solutions.

All of the figures in this book are worth a fuller discussion and have already been the subjects of theses and full-length books.  Even so, they are hardly household names in their home country, despite their Order of Canada and Governor General awards.  However Canadian culture has seemed determined to ignore their genius and message of the importance of place and ecology to the development of Canadian culture.  The prairies and west coast are key references in the personal geographies of these figures although they have inhabited the East Coast and circulated in the Toronto-based so-called “Canadian culture” scene.  All are of the generation that came of age in the 60s and early 70s.  While this book does not replace reading the actual works by these figures, Dickinson does a wonderful job of filling in the biographical details for each writer, embedding them in life experiences of places. 

Dennis Lee in 1973 in the Toronto Star

Dennis Lee is the best known, thanks to his children’s book of rhymes, Alligator Pie (1974) and TV Muppet show, Fraggle Rock (1984). However, his ambition was to liberate imagination and tap into childrens’ play.  Lee was the founder of House of Anansi Press, an important editor in the Toronto literary and poetry scene whose editorial work included George Grant’s Technology and Empire (1969) and most of the important national poets of the mid-century.  Lee retreated in the 1980s to focus on his own intellectual practice.

Lee developed a rhythmic syncopation and polyphony to break down language to signal the breakdown in relations with the world. He restages the figure of the dichotomy by coining double-voiced words: “yesno,” “fewful,” “wreckabye,” “cosmochaos,” and “gracemare” “compress” antitheses into single words. “Collapse the separation between apparent opposites at the granular level of individual words, holding them together to form a fraught coherence.” (p.49).  Semiotics jumbles and language crumbles. Lee counters the impasse of modern reason, “the inability of technical thought to know the world, except by shrinking its own value-free  categories.” (p.48)  He does this with a kinaesthetic polyphony, a multivoicedness that acknowledges the limitations of human power and attempts to move the human body into a relation aligned with other elements and denizens of the world.  Lee’s key concept for this play of voices and intersecting metre is cadence.  With this demonstration in poetry, he takes geographers and those concerned with place beyond Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis to actually work in rhythms.

Don McKay from The Griffith Trust

Don McKay is one of the founders of ecocriticism in Canada. Like Lee, he is also concerned with energetic signatures of places, some of which may have disappeared but continue to haunt memories, such as Long Sault rapids which were drowned to create a section of the St. Lawrence Seaway near Massena, NY. Also an academic, editor and poet he is concerned with our relation with nature in contemporary society.  He was disillusioned with the ability of denotative language to avoid anthropomorphizing the nonhuman: instead we are “incarcerated in our humanity” (p.71).  McKay uses metaphor as a tool for defamiliarizing the reader from their assumptions about topics and objects.  Metaphor shows up irony, tension and paradox.  This is an important feature these authors share in the form of “lyric”, a key term for the voice and openness of narratives as opposed to the black letter text. 

Metaphor…oscillates between is and is not “reopening the question of reference” and reinvigorating words with a small dose of wilderness.  Metaphor is that pause in language reminding it of its nature as apparatus.  Metaphor prevents language from becoming a closed system.  It is, essentially, the trickster…” (McKay Vis à Vis p.69 cited p.78).

Thus, Dickinson comments, “A work of art should be alive to the circumstances of its creation, but should not aspire to supplant or upstage what inspired it” (p.70).  He argues that late twentieth century thought such as post-structuralism that questioned the relation between language and our world ignored the fact that “ecosystems are made out of relationships, relationships are held together by desire, and to negate desire is to cut deep into the connectedness of the world… Freeing words from the necessity to refer is equivalent to… freeing any creature from its longing for another” (McKay “Some Remarks on Poetry and Poetic Attention” p. 208 in The Second MacMillan Anthology, John Metcalfe and Leone Rooke eds. MacMillan, Toronto, 1989 cited in Dickinson p. 72).  

I appreciated McKay’s identification of ecological grief at the breakdown in connection to place and environment.  This is a constitutive problem of settler-colonists who must build a new culture from traditions transplanted to a colonized landscape.  They may respond to this migrant trauma with “settler affect,” desperately renaming local places in honour of the homeland they have just quit.  This romanticized landscapes “brutalized by colonization, industrialization and militarization…. absolute ownership not only involved the permanent deformation of entire landscapes but also their conversion into symbols,” imprisoning them (p.73-4).

Radical empathy is crucial.  “To make a home,” says McKay, “is to establish identity with a primordial grasp… but also, in some measure, to give it away with an extended palm.” (McKay Vis à Vis, Field notes on poetry and wilderness Gaspereau Press, Kentville NS 2001 p.23 cited p.74).  By contrast “apparatus” is McKay’s term for 

“Processes that pull other beings and things out of their orbits and into ours, where they are melted down into forms that suit our needs and wants.  Even after…something of their original selves remains… Sometimes though, the act of appropriation is complete and total… denying…”access to decomposition” and turning him [them] into a symbol…  In modernity, this male rage thins itself into a methodical, organized violence that hides behind the mask of value-free rationality, spreads out over the land like a metallic rhizome, and threatens all our efforts at home making” (McKay Vis à Vis p.20 cited p.77).

McKay suggests we give everything a face and see that everything in the world looks back at us.  This positions us “vis à vis” in a relation to mutual recognition, validation and homage.  This leads to his “geopoetry”:  It is as if,  “the place came to life and reared on its hindquarters right in front of my eyes,” says Dickinson of a walk with McKay (p.83).  However, there is a lack of address to us as individuals or collectively as humans.   This decentres the anthropocentric project of humanism.

Robert Bringhurst in the National Post

Robert Bringhurst has some similar goals to McKay, but where McKay looks for faces among the nonhuman Others around us, Bringhurst seeks to convert his readers’ identities into something closer to the Other.  A noted translator (of Haida origin myths into English), poet, book designer and typographer, Bringhurst is described as a Renaissance Man.  He has had an itinerant, even estranged life, moving between places, traditions and cultures.  Trained as a translator in the Vietnam era US Army, Bringhurst migrated widely and is a transplant to Canada via UBC and his retranslation Haida origin myths into the lyrical form closer to how they would have been performed orally. This project led him to ground himself, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1982.  

Bringhurst worked with Haida sculptor Bill Reid on a book of traditional stories, Raven Steals the Light (1984) and appears to have stumbled into the “old-growth knowledge” of Haida myth-tellers.  He researched and reassembled the original Haida transcripts collected by John Swanton in the early 1900s for the American Bureau of Ethnology, learned late 19th century southern Haida Gwaii and tuned his ear to Haida elocution of overlapping worlds and beings that interpenetrate.  Bringhurst comments in “Heart of Consciousness” (in Mark Dickinson and Robert Bringhurst Philosophy, Activism, Nature 2019, p.105):

“You become something else by putting on someone else’s skin, or by stepping out of a skin that you normally wear”…. And whenever two bodies shared the same space, it seemed that there was a corresponding overlap in terms of consciousness as well.  Two or more minds could pass through one another like voices in a motet.” (cited p.112)

Bringhurst argues that Haida mythtellers such as John Sky and Walter McGregor, or Skaay of the Qquuna Qiigghawaay and Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas and also Sèayà of the Yanyèdí and a host of others,  must be seen as the original philosophers of North America, authentic thinkers of Turtle Island.  An engagement with these thinkers and voices is long overdue and the focus of Bringhurst’s current work.  He sees in the “noetic prosody” or “thought music” of non-agricultural peoples oral traditions, a poetic pattern of measured, fractal and repetitive patterns of syllables of “undomesticated” language.  

Bringhurst argues that Bakthin is incorrect in elevating the novel as the only polyphonic genre, for poetry was always a bastion of multi-voicedness and the world itself is a polyphonic place, full of different lifeworlds according to Jacob Von Uexküll.  

Jan Zwicky in Gooreads

Jan Zwicky has had a career in classical music, European philosophy and poetry.  As a theorist of place and storytelling, she has influenced geographers and planners such as Leonie Sandercock. She is a critic of technocratic rationality, the stress on machine efficiency and monetized value systems. Zwicky has challenged book design to the point of developing a dialogical approach laying out facing pages with her writing on the left and a mosaic of source texts on the right and publishing her 1999 Governor General’s Literary Award winning Songs for Relinquishing the Earth as a hand-sewn, photocopied book distributed by word of mouth. Zwicky’s guiding interest is the land as a source of enduring affirmation.

Zwicky is the most focused theorist of the lyrical among this group. She has devoted several philosophy books to the concept as an approach to that which defied the grasp of language; “The gift of lyric is to see the whole in the particular; and in so doing, to bring the preciousness, which is the loseability, of the world, into clear focus.” (Lyric Philosophy Brush Education Edmonton, 2014: LH 302 cited p.169-70).  In Lyric Philosophy, facing page layouts, or “duons,” are arranged in “a dance of theme and counter theme” (Dennis Lee “Music of Thinking” Lyric Ecology, Mark Dickinson and Clare Goult eds. pp.19-39 Toronto Cormorant Books 2010, p.28 cited p.157), juxtaposing main themes and developing their variations. This counterpoint structure reveals resonances and details that are otherwise hidden. She most thoroughly theorizes metaphor for this group.  Zwicky told Mark Dickinson, “Understanding is seeing-as” (cited p.167):

“Grasping a metaphor, or recognizing how things do not and tat the same time do resemble one another, was the pure case of the experience of meaning…. Analysis, which broke the world down into smaller and smaller parts in order to understand it, had it exactly backwards.” (p.167)

“Domesticity” and the patriarchal political economic household as developed by Angela Mitropoulos is a critical concept for me in this pandemic time. Redolent of McKay’s home-making (above), Dickinson explains:

“Domesticity is the name Zwicky gives to the taut middle ground between lyric comprehension and technological domination. It recognizes that we are pulled in competing directions by our desire to forfeit the self in radiant fusion with the earth and our capacity to overwhelm it through technological exploitation. Domesticity…asks us to take responsibility for that power so that it does not erase the presence of others” (p.159).

Tim Lilburn from the University of Victoria


Tim Lilburn was unknown to me. He has sought a contemplative relation to place through Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton and Teresa de Avila and spent 9 years in the Jesuit order. He engaged with West Africa and African literature, notably the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo and finally with Cree elders in Saskatchewan. From Duns Scotus and Heidegger he took the notion of Alethea, or “unconcealment,” Duns Scotus second form of the individual, haecceitas, identity in relation – “a charm, a theatricality, a seduction, a personality, a loneliness communicated by things” in a kind of relational knowing of them (“thoughts toward a Christian poetics,” pp. 34-6, Brick 29 (Winter) 1987, p.35 cited p.197). Such a conception seems similar to Zwicky’s term “thisness” as a specific constituent particular in a larger whole. Such things stand out from their surroundings.  Zwicky formulates this as an “address” to us from these things. “The particulars of the world possess the capacity and the agency to reach out and impress themselves upon us…thisness of something is highlighted by everything it is not…we can intimate the presence of the larger whole to which that individual belongs.” (Jan Zwicky Wisdom and Metaphor Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press 2003, LH 52 cited p.169).

Lilburn has sought to extend knowledge beyond the obviously knowable via the medium of poetry and lyrical writing.  From Cree elder Joe Cardinal and poet Louise Bernice Halfe, he came to see Indigenous fasting and sweats as a preparation for death and a reality beyond the mundane.  (p.217).  He uses his poetry in collections such as the Governor General’s Literary Award winning Kill-site (2003), to reflect on experiences of interiority and ceremonial consciousness.  He calls for remediation of the settler-colonial mindset through engagement with ceremony and ritual, a reassessment of the erotic as a repressed area of the Western psyche, the practice of poetry because “it implicates the reader in a kinship of presence” by which human beings are lifted and altered, made that is, more richly human” (The Larger Conversation Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2017, p.15 cited p.227-8), restoring convivial relationships with specific places, “making friends with places” (p.228), and seeking the native understandings and names of the presences within the landscape, by learning local Indigenous language.  

Mark Dickinson, the actual writer of these pages, is a voice throughout Canadian Primal and he ends with a Personal Coda that traces his maturing engagement with these writers, Canadian landscapes and its situated wisdom and traditions.  Inspired by Lee’s Thinking and Singing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2002) he offers a generous portal into a set of suppressed understandings and teachings drawn from and inscribed in the unique places of the Canadian landscape. Landscapes think and sing.

Canadian Primal Beyond Anglo Canada

While all the figures profiled in Canadian Primal have engaged with academia, most of them found Canadian universities limited and left for more independent intellectual practices as poets, writers and part-time instructors.  Where universities should have been places that nurtured independent local and national thinkers, faculties failed both as institutions and communities by being dominated by competition between rival factions for international fads. The shame of humanities and social science faculty in Canada is that they are driven only to reproduce, echo and apply innovations made elsewhere. Professing and parroting has suppressed Indigenous and local voices – a colonization that is unlikely to stop until academic values and promotions practices change.

George Grant’s Canadian Primal comes from an era when the Anglo-Saxon voice understood itself as the only one speaking in the country. In the 21st century, it continues to speak of open land, a chance at self-determination and so on as a sort of “promissory note” to immigrants who have often doubled down on the vision of conquest that British settler-colonialism offered. The result is a set of inconsistencies that add up to a sort of schizophrenia between urban society and the grounded claims for the exceptionalism of the land and its historical inhabitants. It also leads to inconsistencies between claims for rights and the callous refusal of equity to Others.

The five thinkers all work in multiple modes – spanning theory, poetry, writing, music and art. Their work has sometimes been recognized, notably by the Governor General’s poetry awards, but is less known than it should be.  Like the Group of Seven, Canadian Primal should be a household term.