The poet and the photographer were given to grand gesture, revolution—and love.
This photograph of the poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn was taken during the brief period the two were married, in 1962. The pose is stark, instant-photo-booth-like with no background and no props save Milton’s cigar glowing in the centre of a fog of smoke. Through the blur, you can just see the blissful expression as he sucks it in, but the eye is rivetted by Gwen's elfin face, the sculpted lips and nose, the steady gaze. Pressed up against each other, the camera in tight, they exude intimacy, and I sense a playfulness in their half-hidden exchange.
I first saw the photo in the early seventies when I was shown it by Michel Lambeth, the photographer who took it. I was dumbstruck by the evidence that Milton and Gwen’s marriage was not at all the improbable union I’d taken it for. There had been lust, connection, tenderness. The Milton I knew, ten years after Gwen and the photo, scarcely belonged in the house, never mind a marriage. He was living at the Waverley Hotel next to the Silver Dollar Tavern at College and Spadina in Toronto, and in declining health. A scraggy man with a face like a collapsed shed who wore those regulation grey-green workingman’s trousers and a decaying red-checked shirt, who shaved erratically, wheezed alarmingly and stank like a beer parlour.
True, none of this registered when he got up to speak. Milton was a wordsmith of flair and stamina. A great poet, but also a great prose stylist, a sharp political analyst and a speaker of Homeric proportions. It took just one experience—of the poet reading his own work, or the revolutionary reading the Riot Act—to appreciate the erudition behind the argument, and the spell of the imagery. And you could not miss the conviction: “I’ve tasted my blood too much to love what I was born to.” His life was lived in the thick of politics and polemics, and it wasn’t for sissies.
In one of his biweekly letters to Stephen Harper, in which he enclosed a Canadian book (see Geist 75), the novelist Yann Martel describes how he first knew Milton by reputation as the down-to-earth People’s Poet, and only later discovered the poet’s “political edge.” The book he sent is the full Nanaimo on that score. The Island Means Minago, Milton’s compendium of essays and poems about his beloved Prince Edward Island, is passionate and partisan, and it's hard to imagine Harper or anyone else reading it with any kind of equanimity. It was published in 1975 by NC Press, the publishing arm of the Canadian Liberation Movement, and “the largest Canadian distributor of books and periodicals from the People’s Republic of China.” Milton was a member of the CLM, whose offices were just across the street from the Waverley. He worked on the movement newspaper, New Canada, went to meetings and demonstrations, did duty on committees and put the party first.
Michel Lambeth was another revolutionary nationalist, and like Milton he was committed to organizing the revolution—in his case CAR/FAC, the visual artists’ union—and walking the talk. Lambeth turned down assignments from American magazines, which devastated his income, and Milton self-published his poems from I’ve Tasted My Blood when its original publisher, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, “sold out” to an American firm. This act of publishing was meant as a pre-emptive move against McGraw-Hill’s claim that it owned the contracts and could sell them without the author’s approval. Poems Committed is a mimeographed typescript bound with string, and an author's note on the top page that reads in part: “Of course it’s illegal to ‘sell contracts’—including hockey contracts—still it’s done. Slavery was officially abolished some generations ago, but to avoid legal fiddle-faddle which I couldn’t afford, and especially to strike a blow at Yankee Imperialism I did with the poems what I eventually intend to do with all my poems— declare them in the Public Domain . . .”
Michel was also given to grand gesture. His legendary letter to Henry Moore, written in 1973, at the time the Art Gallery of Ontario decided to build a gallery to house Moore’s work, asked him to refuse the Gallery’s offer in solidarity with Canadian artists who were never given such prominence, and had to struggle against the Gallery’s colonial-minded infatuation with American and European work. The letter went over like an evil smell, though Moore did write him back. A year or so earlier, Michel had been part of the public protests against the appointment of an American to the post of chief curator at the Gallery (the second to hold that position and the second non-Canadian). A march was staged on July 4, with Lambeth in the lead dressed as Uncle Sam. In the ensuing encounter, he and the poet Jim Brown managed to chain themselves to office furniture, and with several others, including Milton, staged a three-hour sit-in. The police were called and the media came, too, and for the first time the issue hit the papers.
Along with the street theatre and the political organizing, there were some admittedly crazed moments. At a meeting of the Toronto local of CAR (Canadian Artists’ Representation), which Michel was chairing, he suddenly veered off the agenda into an operatic rant that went on seemingly for hours. In his royal blue Mao jacket, eyes sparking, left hand pulling at his short, black beard, Michel harangued the hell out of us until people got up and left.
Michel died in despair in April 1977, and almost exactly a year later, on Easter weekend, I got a call from Milton at full throttle. He’d run into Michel in a bar in Hamilton the night before. It was Michel, he said. They’d talked; they’d argued. He was sure. Dead sure.
What I loved most about Milton and Michel was the combination of grit and joie de vivre. Their revolution included dancing and love poetry. And there is one poem in The Island Means Minago that brings me back every time to Michel’s photograph:
When my lover looks at me she stares from a distance within herself to a distance in me. Thus all lovers should look.