“Despite accolades, Elizabeth Brewster has remained at a distance,” Ingrid Ruthig writes in the introduction, explaining why she was compelled to put together this collection of Brewster’s poetry. This slim volume is short compared to the extensive bibliography of Brewster’s work included at the end, but it’s extremely effective: if I’ve ever known Elizabeth Brewster, the memory has been lost, but I do know her now – and I’m definitely interested.
Brewster, born in New Brunswick, “felt keenly the obstacles of her gender and poor, provincial background; she was excluded from male-only reading rooms, as well as from scholarships and support systems,” at the beginning of her career as a writer and scholar. Her career path, as described by Ruthig, was characterized by a long period of precarious employment before finally obtaining a position in Saskatoon – a career path that would not be out of place today. It was after she settled in Saskatoon that Brewster spent more time on her writing. However, over a span of fifty years, Brewster created an immense body of work, and Ruthig compiled a selection of poems spanning all of Brewster’s career, with a select few poems from each of Brewster’s eras in this collection.
One of the things that struck me the most while reading The Essential Elizabeth Brewster was the varied subjects and syntax, and even very different tones, but with a strong, consistent, narrative voice. The poems both felt at home within the “traditional” canon Brewster was left out of – certainly, her work is strong enough to fit in – and also fresh and modern. Brewster covers all topics, from the landscapes and nature which tend to dominate Canadian poetry, to complaining about the ephemerality of most writing, except those deemed classics, in the poem “Tired of Books”:
I don’t want to write literature the stuff students are examined on
Brewster does this frequently throughout her work: poking fun at the things one is supposed to want, and embracing those that are more suited to who she feels she is. In “When I’m Old,” Brewster cheekily states: “I shall let my hair go grey, / and I’ll eat as many meringues as I want,” before moving to the more contemplative, “And at long last I shall write / the great poem I have not yet written.”
I’m glad to have learned more about Elizabeth Brewster and her work through this collection chosen by Ruthig. Her poetry is lovely, and by shining this light on her with this volume, hopefully, Brewster will at least posthumously be given the attention and study she deserves.
Elizabeth Brewster (1922–2012) was part of a second wave of modernist poets who helped influence the national conversation about Canadian poetry. Born in Chipman, New Brunswick, Brewster was the frail fifth child in a family unsettled by poverty. While her early school attendance was irregular, nothing stopped her from reading, writing, and later, seeking higher education, first at the University of New Brunswick, where she helped to establish the vaunted literary journal The Fiddlehead, and then at a number of institutions including Harvard’s Radcliffe College; King’s College, London; and Indiana University. She settled in Saskatoon, and taught literature and creative writing at the University of Saskatchewan from 1972 until she retired in 1990. Brewster died in December of 2012 in Saskatoon, at the age of 90. (Image courtesy of University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Photograph Collection, A-11138.)
Ingrid Ruthig, writer, poet, visual artist, and former architect, is the author of This Being (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2016), winner of the League of Canadian Poets 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her work has appeared most recently in Resisting Canada (Véhicule Press, 2019) and Am, Be: The Poetry of Wayne Clifford (Frog Hollow Press, 2018). A 2018 Hawthornden Fellow, she is the editor of several books, including David Helwig: Essays on His Works (Guernica Editions, 2018) and The Essential Anne Wilkinson (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2014). She lives near Toronto with her family.
- Publisher : Porcupine’s Quill; 1st edition (May 15 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 64 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0889848785
- ISBN-13 : 978-0889848788