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Book Reviews

Where the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets

by David Eso (ed.); Jeanette Lynes (ed.)

The title of this often surprising book plays on that of another such anthology: Love Where the Nights Are Long, edited by Irving Layton in 1962. The two volumes, however, are as different as chalk and cheese. Layton’s was the chalk. The present one, edited by Calgary poets David Eso and Jeanette Lynes, is a dairy product rich in protein.

384-4_COV_where the nights are twice as long_.inddWith obvious diligence, the editors have solicited, collected, or dug up love letters by 129 English Canadian poets (including a few part-timers such as Louis Riel), covering a century and a half. In his preface, Eso tells how this was more difficult than it sounds, as he and Lynes (who contributes a full-length introduction) were turned down by half the poets whose letters they wished to include. In the end, this fact gave the book an intriguing bifocal quality. “Female poets,” Eso writes, “seem more reluctant to publicize private correspondence than their male counterparts.” So to create gender balance, the editors decided to include what are, strictly speaking, love poems rather than letters.

Most of the great, passionate love letters arise from affairs we know about already, such as the one between P.K. Page and F.R. Scott. But, on the evidence here, those who seem restrained in their diction are not necessarily any less sincere in their motives.

In the case of Susan Musgrave and her husband, Stephen Reid, the former bank robber whom she married in prison, the eroticism is not tamped down. Reid writes Musgrave telling of a yet another day in custody: hard work, exercise, the death of a young fellow inmate. Musgrave replies: “I’m feeling vulnerable, too. I wonder where vulnerable comes from, what’s the original meaning of the word. I should have studied linguistics. The art of tonguing things? Once in France, I was in a post office and I was licking stamps and the postmaster told my friend, who lived in the village, he’d like to hire me because I had such a beautiful tongue. When you get out I will only lick stamps in the privacy of our own bedroom.”

By contrast, rage lurks between the lines of Milton Acorn’s letters to his former wife, Gwendolyn MacEwen; she tries calmly to reassert that their relationship can never be  rekindled and he refuses to let it die quietly. (Acorn frequently wrote hate letters.)

The anthology is organized in such a way that we get to see letters written in youth along with ones composed by the same hand in maturity or old age. The editors suggest that a recurring theme “is the desire on the part of poet-lovers to forge their own mythology, their own creation myth, to write their own story.” That’s certainly the case with Layton. There are letters here to three of his four wives. In one case, he addresses the wife whom absolutely everybody liked as “Dear Pussypants.” Which seems a bit odd, as the paragraphs that follow are actually a love letter to himself.