Ode to the womb of war
Gary Geddes has released a compilation of some of his favourite poems. Here he describes why these writings are important to him.
January 12th, 2022
The four poetic narratives in “The Ventriloquist” all share Gary Geddes’ preoccupations with the physical and psychological ravages of conquest and war.
By Gary Geddes
The Ventriloquist: Poetic Narratives from the Womb of War (Rock’s Mills Press, 2021) has deep Canadian and B.C. connections, as it contains the only poetic account of the Canadian involvement in the fall of Hong Kong, now back in print after thirty years. ‘C’ Force left Vancouver by two ships, but their military transport vehicles were late arriving and ended up in Australia instead of Hong Kong. When the vets returned from POW camps in Hong Kong and Japan, they were demobilized and examined physically and mentally in Victoria. I’ve been working closely with the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association and the media to bring attention to this book and to the fact that December 8 was the 80th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, a battle that ended in defeat for ‘C’ Force, comprised of 1,975 Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles of Canada.
The four poetic narratives in The Ventriloquist share one of my preoccupations with the physical and psychological ravages of conquest and war. The four narratives were all published separately and, between them, garnered five national and international literary awards: the National Poetry Prize, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), the Writers Choice Award, the E.J. Pratt medal and prize from the University of Toronto, and the National Magazine Gold Award. But what’s more important to me than awards, is the technique that distinguishes these poetic narratives from the usual poetry book. When I feel a poem coming on, I struggle with two competing impulses: the pull of story and the pull of song, or lyric and narrative. I’ve made it my task to marry these competing impulses in order to produce work that has the breadth and drive of fiction and the verbal density and richness of lyric poetry. To do that, I’ve had to keep in mind the words of the ancient Chinese scribe who advised: “Narrate as if singing; sing as if narrating.” Stories are what keep us alive, right? The epic poets knew that.
Here’s what Michael Estok had to say about “Hong Kong Poems,” one of the narratives in The Ventriloquist, when he reviewed it in 1987 in The Fiddlehead: “It is a weighty and worthy and admirable undertaking . . . [Geddes’s] book of elegies puts him on the same level of poetic intensity (perhaps he even surpasses it) of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ or Tennyson’s In Memoriam.” Michael is far too generous here, but his observations reflect the general reception these fragments and the other narratives have received. The ships taking these Canadian soldiers to Hong Kong departed from Vancouver, but their transport vehicles arrived late and ended up being sent to Australia. After defeat and years in POW camps in HK and Japan, the survivors returned via Victoria, where they were de-mobbed and assessed mentally and physically. It’s quite the story. To write this poetic narrative, I spent hours crawling on my belly through the battlegrounds of Hong Kong, read copies of the Japanese version of The South China Morning Post, interviewed veterans and listened to many hours of their stories recorded by the Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg.
My best-known work, “The Terracotta Army”, also included in The Ventriloquist, is about the struggle between art and politics. In addition to winning the Commonwealh Poetry Prize, it went into three separate editions in Canada and the U.K., was dramatized and broadcast separately by both CBC and BBC radio, and resulted in invitations to read and talk about the poem’s sequence at the British Museum in London, R.O.M. in Toronto, Musée ds Beaux Arts in Montreal and, most recently, the World Museum in Liverpool, all connected with separate exhibitions of the Chinese warrior figures. To my amazement, the bookstore at the World Museum sold 800 copies during the six-month exhibit.
The Ventriloquist also contains “War & Other Measures”, based on the story of Paul Joseph Chartier, the so-called mad bomber of the House of Commons, who died when the bomb he was carrying exploded.
About the title of the book, I think the kind of literary and historical rescue work I do is best described by the phrase “the ventriloquism of history,” which involves those disembodied spectres from the near or distant past who, silenced by turmoil or time, wander the ether looking for a sucker like me to tell their story. Its hard to know, sometimes, if I’m the ventriloquist or the dummy. 9781772442403
Gary Geddes at a glance
Gary Geddes named recipient of fifth annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, April 18, 2008
The West Coast Book Prize Society is proud to recognize Gary Geddes as the recipient of the fifth annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Steven Point, presented the award at the Lieutenant Governor’s BC Book Prizes Gala, held at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver on April 26, 2008. The event was hosted by broadcaster Fanny Kiefer.
“From 15 Canadian Poets to Skookum Wawa to 20th Century Poetry and Poetics, Gary Geddes has raised the literary profile of both our province and nation, and has long been considered one of Canada’s most important men of letters. He has given decades of his life to teaching Canadian literature and the craft of writing as well as working as a university professor, writer–in–residence, critic, anthologist, translator, editor, and most importantly, writer. Gary Geddes’ writings have crossed countries and continents in
performance and translation. He has received numerous awards, including the E. J. Pratt Medal, a Canadian Authors Association prize, two Archibald Lampman awards, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize for service to literature and the people of Chile. His work as a poet has been generous in its outward–looking gaze. His poems bring song and light into darkened corners of the human experience, document silent and hidden lives, and enter politics through the individual and the personal. His newest book of poems, Falsework, explores the 1958 collapse of Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge. His meditative memoir Sailing Home: A Journey Through Time, Place, and Memory (2001) chronicles his return to the West Coast with a deep sense of awe and gratitude for the beauty, wildness, and history of this place. In whatever genre he pursues, Gary Geddes writes with eloquence and intense awareness of mystery within the commonplace, and the single human voice singing inside the crowd. He tells the truth, in all its rawness and splendour. For the integrity of his creative work, for his active and generous promotion of other writers, and for the words he has given to help map the literary geography of British Columbia, we proudly celebrate Gary Geddes.” – Jury member Carla Funk
Books by Gary Geddes
Rivers Inlet (1972)
Letter of the Master of Horse (1973)
War & other measures (1976)
The Acid Test (1980)
The Terracotta Army (1984; 2007; 2010)
Changes of State (1986)
Hong Kong (1987)
No Easy Exit (1989)
Light of Burning Towers (1990)
Girl by the Water (1994)
The Perfect Cold Warrior (1995)
Active Trading: Selected Poems 1970–1995 (1996)
Flying Blind (1998)
Swimming Ginger (2010)
What Does A House Want? (2014)
The Resumption of Play (2016)
The Unsettling of the West (1986)
Letters from Managua: Meditations on Politics & Art (1990)
Sailing Home: A Journey through Time, Place & Memory (2001)
Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas (2005)
Drink the Bitter Root: A search for justice and healing in Africa (2010; USA, 2011)
Les Maudits Anglais (1984)
I Didn’t Notice the Mountain Growing Dark (1986), poems of Li Bai and Du Fu, translated with the assistance of George Liang
Conrad’s Later Novels (1980)
Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry & Narrative (2009)
Bearing Witness (2016)
20th–Century Poetry & Poetics (Oxford University Press, 1969, 1973, 1985, 1996, 2006)
15 Canadian Poets Times 3 (Oxford, 1971, 1977, 1988, 2001)
Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest (Oxford, 1975)
Divided We Stand (1977)
The Inner Ear (1983)
Chinada: Memoirs of the Gang of Seven (1983)
Vancouver: Soul of A City (1986)
Compañeros: Writings about Latin America (1990)
The Art of Short Fiction: An International Anthology (1992; brief edition, 2000)
70 Canadian Poets (2014)
Literary Awards and nominations:
1. E. J. Pratt Medal and Prize for Poetry, University of Toronto, 1970.
2. National Poetry Prize, Canadian Authors’ Association, 1981.
3. Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), 1985.
4. National Magazine Gold Award, 1987.
5. Writers’ Choice Award, 1988.
6. Literary and publishing archives purchased by the National Library of
Canada 1984, 1988 and 1998.
7. Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize, 1990.
8. Runner–up Silver Medal in the Milton Acorn Poetry Competition, 1991
9. Shorlist and prizes: Arvon Competition (’93), Bridport Competition
Leacock Poetry Competition (’94), Guy Owen Poetry Prize (’94),
Pablo Neruda Prize (’95).
10. Gabriela Mistral Prize (1996) for contributions to literature and to the
people of Chile. Awarded simultaneously to Nobel laureates Vaclav
Havel and Octavio Paz, as well as Ernesto Cardenal, Rafael Alberti and
11. Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize, 1996.
12. Poetry Book Society Recommendation, 1996, U. K.
13. Second Prize, Living Work Poetry Competition, 2007.
14. Shortlist George Ryga Prize and Vancouver Book Prize (2008).
15. Honorary doctor of laws degree, Royal Roads University, 2007.
16. Lt.–Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence (BC, 2008).
17. Shortlist Hubert Evans Prize for Non–fiction, 2011.
18. First Prize in The Malahat Review Long Poem Competition (2015).
19. Freedom to Read Award (The Writers Union of Canada), 2018.
Positions, honorary and otherwise:
Writer–in–residence, University of Alberta, 1976.
Professor of English, Concordia University, 1978–1998.
Founding editor of Studies in Canadian Literature, Quadrant Editions and
Distinguished Professor of Canadian Culture, Center for Canadian–American Studies, Western Washington University, 1998–2001.
Gustafson Residency in Canadian Poetry, Malaspina University College, 2001.
Writer–in–Residence, University of Ottawa, 2004.
Writer–in–residence, Green College, University of BC, 2005.
Writer–in–residence, Vancouver Public Library, 2006.
Writer–in–residence, Vancouver Community College, 2007.
Visiting Writer, University of Missouri–St. Louis, 2011.
Writer–in–residence, McMaster University, 2012.
What the Critics Said
Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate:
It comes as a relief to read work by a poet who appears to be at least as interested in the world as he is in himself. Here, we are happy to be conducted by Gary Geddes out of the glass dome of the ego and into a wider, more capacious world of culture, history, and even erudition.
Mary Troy, author of Beauties, University of Missouri–St. Louis:
The poems in Gary Geddes’ What Does a House Want? have weight not often found in contemporary poetry, partly because they range far and wide, are not about one person, family, continent, or even era. They are about the world, about us in that world. They are fanciful, playful, sad, intense, frightening, and authentic, often all those at once. Mostly, though, Geddes’ poems are true, each and every one.”
Douglas Dunn, poet (Scotland):
Gary Geddes is undoubtedly the best of the contemporary Canadian poets I’ve read. His recent book, Flying Blind, is one of the best collections of poems published in English in recent years—not just in Canada, but anywhere. His work is achieved technically; it is moving, and, above all, it is interesting and accessible.
Giles Blunt, Linkedin
If you’re not a fan of Canadian poetry, you haven’t read Gary’s work. Highly passionate, and yet cool, clear, and clean as a mountain stream. I put him up there with the very best poets writing today.
Philip Levine, former U.S. Poet Laureate
I feel a real affinity with your work. And for something I inferred from the introduction: the Hope to be Read as a poet & not a spokesperson for a political view. The politics are there—they’re part of who we are—, but the dream is to write poetry. And you do it.
Timothy Findley, novelist:
I have been reading Mr. Geddes’s poetry for over twenty–five years—reading it and re–reading it. From the very beginning of my acquaintance with his work, it has struck me as having the political edge of the best writing of the 20th century. It is not for nothing that others have compared his voice to the voices of Auden, Stendhal and Orwell. Just as these latter voices spoke with an underlying passion for freedom and with outrage at perceived injustices, so Geddes speaks in the best of his work. But the passion and outrage are controlled with a sure hand. Geddes knows better than to spill his words
across the page, and his craftsmanship is brilliant.
Margaret Laurence, novelist:
[In The Terracotta Army Gary Geddes’s] talent is to connect with some of those ancestral figures and give them to us. . . . the poem cycle for the China figures is a NOBLE one. . . wonderful stuff. . . . I was stunned and awed and this is so good..
W.H. New, critic and editor of Canadian Literature:
I was on the Commonwealth Poetry Prize Jury the year The Terracotta Army won the Americas Division Prize; it was the jury’s unanimous choice, breathtaking in its imaginative reach, its verbal dexterity.
Michael Redhill, poet and professor, reviewing The Perfect Cold Warrior in Books in Canada:
What Geddes has become justly celebrated for are his seamless impersonations. . . . His is a poetry of demystification and truth–telling, and his purpose has always appeared to be the very one Levertov described when she used the word ‘awaken’. . . . Geddes brings Trotsky down to earth as a man, not an icon. The voice, speaking to us with such calm while in the precincts of madness (this is, after all, a Russian political genius forced to live in Mexico), tells us everything we have to know about the soul behind it. . . . ‘Norwegian Rabbit” [the Trotsky narrative] is probably Geddes’s masterpiece. It’s more compressed and intense than anything else in his work, and it has the hallmarks of a mature poet knowing how to use his strengths. . . . There is always something in the political voice that should trigger doubt in the reader: the best political poem meets the strong–arm with its own authority. But how is this authority earned? Neruda has an answer: ‘Political poetry is more deeply emotional than any other except love poetry. You must have traversed the whole of poetry before you become a political poet.’ In other words, metaphysician know thyself. Geddes is true to Neruda’s creed, and he has forded the rivers that have led to the place he writes from now. What is a political poetry? The words that sit alongside ‘political’ embrace all of what it can and must be: it is a poetry that is civic, public, domestic, and internal. Whether writing about Palestine, his father, or the last days of a revolutionary leader, Geddes navigates the complexities of the issues he raises by rooting himself in the internal. The argument might be over what real content of the poet’s life is contained in any of his impersonations, but the reply to the argument is always the pronoun ‘I’.”
Al Purdy, poet:
“Sandra Lee Scheuer” is the kind of poem most poets wait a lifetime for.
Eli Mandel, poet and professor, in The Globe & Mail:
. . . a deadly accuracy in language and form.
Emile Martel, poet and Minister of Cultural Affairs, Paris:
I have known Mr. Geddes for many years through his written work, especially his Terracotta Army, which I have found one of the most stunning works of poetry published in English–Canada in the last few years.