February, the season of cold and of love, is upon us. Not that easy, natural, bursting love that blooms in June and washes into August, but love deepened by hardship, metaphorical and actual chill winds, love recovered and deepened through humour, and self-mockery, and the need to go on.
For me, the poem to read at a time like this is Al Purdy’s “Over the Hills in the Rain, My Dear.” Published in 1968’s Wild Grape Wine, it was written after a soggy visit to L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, by Purdy and his wife Eurithe –
We are walking back from the Viking site,
dating ten centuries ago
(it must be about four miles),
and rain beats on us,
soaks our clothes,
runs into our shoes,
makes white pleats in our skin,
turns hair into decayed seaweed:
and I think sourly that drowning
on land is a helluva slow way to die. (1-10)
Eurithe is the muse who appears in so many of his poems, the powerful presence who is silent only because Purdy’s poems, characteristically, are presented from his perspective, through a speaker who struggles self-deprecatingly and admiringly with her strength.
“It isn’t much farther,”
I say encouragingly
and note that our married life
is about to end in violence,
judging from her expressionless expression. (13-17)
This representation of Eurithe is a reminder, I think, that we cannot know another person: their mystery remains, a source of frustration and discovery. Yet her personality is palpable on the page, and Purdy’s renderings of her (and himself) are both caricature and tribute.
“Over the Hills in the Rain, My Dear” is a poem that encapsulates the long endurance and ridiculous wonder of longtime love, with all its mistakes and bad good intentions, its less than loving moments (moments of repulsion, even, and searing rage) and its sudden appreciative turns. From the moment my partner and I first read it, it has been important to us: a gleeful amusement, a point of reflection, a wise, silly reminder of how to be a loving person:
all about the rain,
trying to manufacture
a verbal comfort station,
a waterproof two seater. (25-29)
As someone who once only half-jokingly threatened my partner with a knife for being far too cheerful on a blistering stage of a long backcountry hike, this poem has always resonated. And as the poem’s speaker ruefully and gratefully concludes, the opportunity “to be a fool” (44) and have my partner forgive me is “my own good luck” (46).
You can hear Al Purdy read “Over the Hills in the Rain, My Dear” via the University of Saskatchewan’s digital archives. It is available in print form in the original collection and in The Collected Poems of Al Purdy.