When Robert Kroetsch died in 2011, I wrote a eulogy of sorts here, offering my condolences to Kroetsch's family, to his many friends and colleagues, his many ex-wives and ex-girlfriends and ex-lovers, but, mostly, to his readers.
But I’ve been thinking of him again. I miss him.
And I need to evict the image of a broken old man dying by the side of the road, so I’ve decided to approach him via his writing, via the books that were most important to me as a young writer.
* * *
We were raised on my mother’s voice, going big/small as she read Dennis Lee and Shel Silverstein’s poems, and on my uncle’s Playboys in their warped cupboard at the cabin in northwestern Ontario.
At the time, I loved my mother’s delight in reading the poems, page after page at bedtime, laughing with us, leading the laughter.
Now, I also love that she didn’t mind us rifling through the pile of girly mags, as long as we put them back when we were done. That she told us it was okay, how warm and full we felt, the tingly sprawl.
(We were great humpers of pillows, my mum says.)
So: long summer afternoons looking at naked ladies, feathered hair and red lips. My sister and I liked the cartoons best, we agreed. We liked the wryness, even as we knew the jokes weren’t for us, exactly.
All of which is to say is that for me, the roundness of Frank Newfeld’s illustrations and the local musicality of Dennis Lee’s poems in Garbage Delight and Alligator Pie somehow met the endless parade of cartoon-y nipples in the Playboy cartoons and made Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man (1970).
From the first page, I recognized Hazard Lepage. He was familiar, big and small at once, like my dad and my uncle and my various ‘uncles.’
At the cabin, on vacation, my dad and uncle would incite the kids to play lopsided game of hide and seek. They’d go hide somewhere in the bush with a beer in each pocket and we’d have to find them, which wasn’t hard, given that they’d eventually forget they were supposed to be hiding and would laugh and shout, telling stories, telling the kids to get them more beer. And then they’d ‘hide’ again.
My uncle peeing discreetly off the side of the fishboat. And, later, buttoned-up, showing me how to fillet a pickerel. He thought I was silly when I held the milky crystal I dug out of their eyes up to the light, but he let me do it. What I remember now is the ruined shimmer of scales on the cutting board and his knife, how maniacally sharp it was.
But that recognition wasn’t just about my male relatives, it was about me, too.
I was in second-year university when I first encountered Hazard (and, by extension, Kroetsch) and just starting to move in and out of relationships fluidly, gauging looks and gestures, learning about desire and inevitability but also about consequences, especially those consequences that were particularly female.
I didn’t-want what Hazard didn’t-want: kids or a real job. He wanted to breed the ideal horse, despite the fact that were very few horses left working on farms. I wanted to somehow figure out how to write for a living, despite that I was firmly and irrevocably female.
And so Hazard Lepage’s tomcatting, his determination to do what (and who) he wanted looked familiar, even if it wasn’t exactly for me.
What you understood, as a reader, was that Hazard was a hazard, to himself and to those around him. You wanted him to marry Martha and have kids to shout at through the bush AND you also wanted him to keep wandering, his pecker hanging out while he looked for a woman/mare.
I wasn’t anywhere near having my own child the first time I read The Studhorse Man, but I recognized my foolish parents in it and the choices they made for me and away from me. I recognized its myth-making, its snorting blue horse and blizzard and pile of bones from my time at the cabin, its painted turtles and shotgun shells and rock, but also from other books.