July Man: Margaret Avison

A while ago my IB students wrote practice unseens on this poem. They found it very difficult to approach – as did I. Slightly chastened, I wrote my own commentary. I am sending this to them to mark for themselves, not because I think it is brilliant – I don’t, but because I hope it will model some good practice whilst trying not to make the whole poem fit into some pre-conceived ideas such as the poem being “about” global warming.
As is right for IB HL students I allowed myself 2 hours for this task and have included a copy of my original notes with the essay.

july man peel

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “July Man: Margaret Avison

  1. Joe Koon

    That is helpful. Thanks! I think the suggested alcohol is not ambiguous but applies to the old man, who is “turned out,” not unlike garbage, but there are no actual potato peels or grapes on the grass-patch. The emphasis is then on ownership: it’s “the city gardener’s place,” and he maintains it for Sunday strollers, not for the mo[u]rning man. The old man has no place here, but he takes a place on the bench anyway. It seems important that the morning, when dew wets the park, has a beauty “fan-tailed” like the pigeons and doves, but the beauty folds in on itself, shadows like birds’ wings as the July sun climbs.

    The poem consists of an extended apostrophe in its free verse first section, and then of words spoken directly to the July man in the second and ensuing parts. Summarized, it can be, “Old morning man, you rest, and the cars go around you…” Thus, the pair of lines at 20-21 establish the man’s liminal status, “at the cinder rim,” which calls up heat with the connotations of “cinder” with regards to coal fires, and he is “in the sound of the fountain” without being in it or having access to it in these lines.

    In the third section, the cars, metaphorically linked to the fountain as a “rushing river” (but neither the fountain nor the river of cars flow with living water) make the old man a stillness: it is the city’s rush that makes him a pivot, the point on which the city turns because he is a reminder simultaneously of lost solitude in this time, in this world, and of the negligence with which we attend the dispossessed. He, in his condition, perhaps in his shame, has no solitude but this public spectacle of his own sorrow in the middle of a rushing world that seems to pay him no mind and which leaves him, alcohol-parched, along the edge of cinders. His solitude consists of the disregard of thousands. “And yet,” in the parenthesis of this island of public solitude [lawdy this part’s twisted], where the five caesuras in lines 26-27 force all reason carried forward by syntactical relations into a shattered halt, we are virtually forced to wonder, to try to connect this “trembling,” left out here alone at the bottom of an irrational “blurt,” to something reasonable. I can’t do it.

    The last indented section following the colon after “trembling” seems to be an explanation of the preceding pivot-point: the lives we try to imagine on those islands in the stream, the lives of the old morning men, are in fact unknown and maybe unknowable. The recognition of our failed cognition is both a weight and a light on the old morning man, and the inclusion of “us” as the unknowing implies that contradictory duality affects us too. Our ignorance of one another’s plights is a lightening freedom, a warming sun, and a heavy weight. We are spared nothing for good or ill: “all, all, in time.”

    Well, I guess I got going there. I’d appreciate helpful comments. The starter essay at the link was really helpful.

  2. Joe Koon

    Haven’t elms suffered a blight? I think of the man’s weeping as a representation of an old man’s rheumy eyes, but they weep “for the dust of elm-flowers/ and the hurting motes of time,” The dust of all the lost years and maybe of all the lost elms combines with age to well up tears in his eyes. I still think “rotted” unambiguously modifies “man.”

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