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.
Andy was a gifted writer (and visual artist) and in the 1960s and 70s he had a seminal influence upon a generation of prairie and other authors. Tragically, he was also plagued by mental illness and in the 1980s felt he had to choose between his writing and his health. He produced little or no writing for the last several decades of his life but I am impressed by how widely within Canada his work is read and treated in academia.
Born in Wood Mountain
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 Metis 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.
Imbued and conflicted
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 Metis 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.” Andy spent much of his life both leaving Wood Mountain and returning, only to be disappointed and leave again.
Trail’s End Hotel
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:
to put aside what you came to
leaving all else
time to unsaddle
this lame horse ridden
into ancestral dust
and cease living like an indian
time to do things with the hands
working all seasons
and three weeks vacation
time to tie this dream horse to a star
and walk ordinary earth
(used with permission of Hagios Press)
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.