Dreamy Liquidity: Frances Boyle Reads Gwendolyn MacEwen

Gwendolyn MacEwen
Dark Pines Under Water


This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

               (from The Shadow-Maker. Toronto: Macmillan, 1969

       and Gwendolyn MacEwen Volume One: The Early Years, Exile Editions, 1993)

Frances Boyle writes: Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water” has long been one of my favourites but I at first hesitated to claim it. The poem has been so extensively anthologized and analyzed that I assumed everyone must be familiar with it. But, when a thread on Twitter earlier this year highlighted three of MacEwen’s poems as “Forgotten Good Poems”, I realized that collective memory can be short, and that it’s worth re-focusing attention on formative poems. 

I love this poem for many reasons. The landscape that is both interior and lushly physical. The way the tempo and syntax changes from verse to verse, from line to line, with dreamy liquidity alongside ponderous weight. The enjambment of “sleeper / In an elementary world” among largely end-stopped lines. The knells of the true rhyme in the first two lines of the last stanza, and the slant and near rhymes throughout. The repetition of phrases and words: “the dark pines of your mind”, “sinking”, “dream” and “green”, all evoking the mirror of the first line’s simile. The reader feels the pull of these psychological depths; from the outset “inward” is paired with “downward”. But what “kind of largeness”, what “heavy grace”, what “anguished dream” did the “you” of the poem make a journey to find before being drawn down to tell, or witness a telling?

Among all the compelling elements of “Dark Pines Under Water”, for me the passionate insistence of the last line and its probing of mystery remains the most resonant. MacEwen’s luxurious imagery coalesces in the urgency of the truth-seeking.

Read Frances's poem "The Sky is Unnatural" here