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Book Reviews

The Essential Tom Marshall

by Tom Marshall; David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje, eds.

Everyone likes to believe that the best poetry will endure,” write David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje in the introduction to this lovingly edited collection, the ninth in The Porcupine’s Quill Essential Poets series, “but it doesn’t do so without help.” The editors, both friends of Tom Marshall, provide such help in the hope that their subject, who died in 1993, will not be forgotten in Canadian literary history.

Marshall was a prominent member of the literary scene in Kingston, Ontario, and this book provides evidence why. There are many genuine delights in this work, such as the defiant assertion in “Speedboat” that “The machine, many poets / to the contrary, is not / the enemy … All the best / hopes are for motion.” Or the gruff, neighbourly tone adopted in the opening lines of “Astrology”: “It’s an approach. Say what you like / about it. It’s an approach.”

Marshall’s work is inextricably linked with place. He is well-known for writing about his city and neighbourhood, so I was surprised to prefer pieces on other subjects. Some of the Kingston poems I found too effusive or sentimental. By contrast, poems like “The Mother” are lucid and complex in their rendering: “A dwindled heap / of raw nerves, arthritic hip. / Her weakness takes the edge / off his bitter love. / Compassion becomes possible.”

The Essential Tom Marshall embodies two aspirations: to sketch an overview of the poet’s career, including less developed youthful work, and to mount a portrait of Marshall in the Canadian canon, based on his better-known material. This slim volume succeeds more as a primer than a definitive guide, but it is nevertheless an important first step in the restoration of a poet well worth getting acquainted with.