The Canadian poet and critic Judith Fitzgerald died peacefully on Nov. 25, just weeks after turning 63. Her achievements were many, including more than 20 collections of poetry, four edited anthologies – including the influential SP/ELLES: Poetry by Canadian Women (Black Moss Press, 1986) – along with three books of non-fiction, including Building a Mystery: The Story of Sarah McLachlan and Lilith Fair (Quarry Press, 1997) and Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy (Dundurn Press, 2001).
Fitzgerald’s 1985 work Given Names: New and Selected Poems, edited by Frank Davey, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award. Rapturous Chronicles (Mercury Press, 1991) was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. River (ECW Press, 1995), an epyllion set in the Windsor/Detroit area, was shortlisted for the Trillium Award and won the James McMaster Poetry Prize. Her four-part epic, Adagios Quartet (Oberon Press), a contemporary treatment of the Agamemnon myth, won her a prestigious Chalmers Arts Fellowship. Her most recent book, Impeccable Regret (Talonbooks, 2015), launched at this year’s BookFest Windsor, is praised by George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, and Leonard Cohen, who calls Fitzgerald’s poetry “stunningly original; distinguished by wit, beauty, and a powerful sense of language.”
Marty Gervais, publisher of Black Moss, admired Fitzgerald’s editorial expertise and felt her writing was the most inventive and original in Canada. The late Alistair MacLeod declared, “She is not only the most intelligent poet in Canada, she’s also able to take language to new heights and is sensitive to language and all the nuances associated with it. She’s one of the greats; and, by that, I mean, THE GREATS.”
Fitzgerald’s love of language shaped her writing. In his introduction to Impeccable Regret, University of Windsor professor Tom Dilworth comments on Fitzgerald’s linguistic beauty, calling it “delicately exquisite, clunky, multivalent, polyphonic … gently lyrical, neologistic, allusive, and (pervasively) playful.” Dilworth observes Fitzgerald’s extension of a poetic tradition flowing through Shakespeare, Keats, Hopkins, and Joyce, offering prismatic truths on love and death, balanced against the restorative powers of beauty through nature and art, and set against a loss of humanistic culture at the hands of rationalist materialism.
More than just a brilliant writer, however, Fitzgerald was also a champion of the arts and culture in general. From her home in Northern Ontario, she wrote reviews, blogs, columns, criticism, and feature articles on sports, music, and the literary arts. Her journalism appeared in Books in Canada, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Toronto Star, among other publications, and she won the Fiona Mee Award for “outstanding contribution to English-language literary journalism.”
Fitzgerald did not have an easy life. In her online biography, she reveals that as a child she suffered “unspeakable cruelties” at the hands of caregivers, and she recounts a recent physical attack that nearly killed her. Often impoverished and in poor health, she lived on an uncomfortable edge. Her belief kept her energized: “Life is a gift. I am not particularly religious in terms of its external manifestations; but, I do believe in a force outside myself, as ineffable and necessary as oxygen.”
A love of language sustained Fitzgerald throughout. On her website, she exclaims: “Jouissance? Absolutemance! Gawd, I love language damned near to death, love everything it communicates and conceals, each phoneme that contributes to building / making / shaping a beautiful thing worthy of entry in The Book of Eternity.”
I had the pleasure of publishing Fitzgerald’s writing in my literary journal, Rampike, along with poetry she’d co-written with Leonard Cohen, and we maintained a friendly email correspondence for years. She signed her emails, “Undeniably yours.” Peace and love, Judith. You are undeniably ours.
You stirred wordstorms, raised mindfires, effulgent
phrases turning thought on head, reading
life’s eddies, un-sited, echo-located, incited
on printed page, sub-lines of rage, wages of suffer him,
Cassandra afire, searching for-words, future
worlds, in-flexted pasts tensed, mingle-words
ink-thoughts, crystalline insights inside flaming
heartwords, you left us, your self, poly-faceted,
multi-voiced, and undeniably, ours … Judith
Karl Jirgens is the former Head of the English Department at the University of Windsor, where he now serves as an associate professor. He has edited the journal Rampike since 1979.