Kingston, Ontario, has got to be one of my favourite cities in Canada. For one, it's beautiful – think old limestone buildings covered with ivy overlooking the lake – and for another, it's where I did my undergrad, so I had four years to properly explore and get to know it. I even spent a summer there, something many undergrads never do in their university town, and I have to say, it just got better when the population dipped and the temperature soared. Above all, maybe, Kingston had a lively and varied arts scene, with both bands and authors constantly visiting (and, also making it there home). In all this richness, then, it is perhaps understandable that some of its artists would be forgotten; or, if not forgotten, at least not actively remembered. Such is the case with the poet Tom Marshall, who also first went to Kingston to attend Queen's, and ended up making his life there. Although I studied English at Queen's and was active in the creative writing community there, I don't recall ever hearing of him, which is quite surprising since, if the new collection The Essential Tom Marshall is to be taken as representative, he wrote a great deal about the city.
The poems in the collection were chosen by authors David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje, friends of the late Tom Marshall, and while it isn't clear whether the poems are presented chronologically, there is a cadence to their progression as Marshall's tone rises and falls. It is a slim collection, though, and as a result cannot feature many of of Marshall's longer poems – although a few are included. Reading through it, then, you almost feel you are reading many verses of a larger work, which allows the poems to both sit by themselves and slot into one another as images and emotions are repeated.
Although many of the poems are about Kingston, offering anyone familiar with the city a twinge of recognition at certain landmarks – and especially the parks, which haven't changed much since Marshall's time there – some of his travel poems are also included, my favourite of which is the short excerpt "from Summer of '77." It's just two stanzas, subtitled July 1, 1977, about a visit to Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. I haven't been there since I was a kid, but his description of the rocks and the waves struck me as both wholly familiar and unique: "The huge / textured rocks! Bold stones! Great speckled eggs or / bones of of female earth!" The staccato description seems to fall into the rhythm of the waves crashing against the shore, and the way the wind buffets around so your sentences come out only as sharp snatches. It's vivid and immediate, and there are elements of that in many of Marshall's poems.
The collection is published by The Porcupine's Quill, a small publisher in rural Ontario that operates its own press to print the books and then sews up the bindings on a 1905 book sewing machine. The result is a physical book whose care and aesthetics mirror the quality of the work it holds. The Essential Tom Marshall is thus a lovely book both in terms of its content and its appearance, making it quite a pleasure to read, and the kind of book you'll pull off your shelf again and again.
The Essential Tom Marshall
selected by David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje
first published in 2012 (cover image shown from Porcupine's Quill edition)