PULPIT & POLITICS
By Dennis Gruending
Remembering Andrew Suknaski, Wood Mountain Poems
I sat in the upper room of a rundown Ottawa pub on a rainy evening last week reminiscing with a dozen others about recently-deceased Saskatchewan poet Andrew Suknaski and reading short excerpts from his work. Earlier there had been a similar gathering in Montreal, far from the small prairie city of Moose Jaw where Andy died at age 69 on May 3.
He was born in Wood Mountain, a small village on the Wood Mountain Plateau,
which rises hundreds of metres above the surrounding prairie southwest
of Assiniboia deep in southern Saskatchewan. The village was always tiny
and has shrunk even more to a population of a mere few dozen but it is
incredibly rich in a history that Andy thoroughly absorbed.
The Métis from far away Red River established camps there for the buffalo hunt and some came to settle permanently after the violence involving Louis Riel in 1870. The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Mounted Police set up Wood Mountain posts. In 1876, Sitting Bull led 5,000 of his Sioux people to refuge near Wood Mountain after they had annihilated General Custer’s army at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Sitting Bull and
most of the Sioux were forced to go back to the U.S., but a small Dakota
reserve was later established near Wood Mountain village.
Andy was imbued with this history and he wrote about it with great knowledge
and sensitivity. He was of Polish and Ukrainian heritage. As he describes
it in Wood Mountain Poems, his most famous book, his father filed homestead
papers in Moose Jaw in 1914 and then walked the 170 kilometres to Wood
Mountain to take up his land. His mother had emigrated from Poland, her
way paid by a brother who had arrived earlier to Southern Saskatchewan.
Andy was conflicted, at once loyal to his family roots but fond of and deeply concerned about Métis and First Nations people as well. He pulled it all together in his strongly realist poetry, which is especially lucid and sympathetic in its descriptions of the people, past and present, of Wood Mountain. Al Purdy, who acted as the editor for Wood Mountain Poems when it was first published in 1976, wrote: “There is a sense of place here that I find unequalled anywhere else. It is a multi-dimensional place, with an over-riding feeling of sadness because so much is lost.”
spent much of his life both leaving Wood Mountain and returning, only to
be disappointed and leave again.
One weekend in summer 1978, a friend and I set out from Regina
with our copy of Wood Mountain Poems in hand, reading aloud from it as
we drove. When we finally got to the village, we stopped in at the Trail’s
End Hotel, the pub where a number of Andy’s poems are set. We were
surprised by how small it was inside, a narrow room only a few metres wide
and not that long either. I recall that it had some bronzed cowboy boots
mounted on the wall. We wandered around the small village seeing its tiny
houses, the grain elevator (gone now), and the cemetery at the edge of
town. Andy had written about all of this but what was missing for us of
course were the people — Lee Soparlo, Gus Lecaine, Jimmy Hoy, Dunc
and Babe McPherson, Jerry Potts and Sitting Bull — all, in Andy’s
mind, citizens of Wood Mountain in time and space.
At the end of Wood Mountain Poems, Andy was on his nomadic way once again. Here is the final poem in his book:
Andrew Suknaski’s ashes were interred in Wood Mountain.
Saskatchewan writers and friends celebrated his life and work in Moose Jaw on Sunday, June 3.
Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former member of Parliament. His blog can be found at http://www.dennisgruending.ca/pulpitandpolitics