The first thing I do is go out and find Margaret's poetry. I go to the Winnipeg Public Library and take out whatever they have of her work. In her lifetime, Margaret wrote 9 books of poetry, and there are 3 books of 'selected and collected's.' My library search yields Winter Sun (1960), Not Yet But Still (1997), one of the 'collecteds' Always Now and the Pascal Lectures monograph A Kind of Perseverance: On Christianity and the University (1994). In Winter Sun, I find a torn out page of The Canadian Mennonite from April 2002 with Margaret's poem "April" re-printed in it.
Dark like a handful of cool gray silk.
Clocks strike the hour. Out in the clear-gleaming sky
a robin's song, silence unravelling.
The trees with tremulous-aching fingers
shaping the quiet airflow.
limp in the arms of the infinite.
"Limp in the arms of the infinite" strikes me as the kind of line that would find its way into the hearts of the readers of The Canadian Mennonite, a line that indicates that unabashed and persistently religious sensibility that infuses Margaret's poetic voice and what fundamentally has attracted me to her work. I therefore, begin with a confession. Sometime after my own conversion in 1988, I was in the basement of Duthie's Bookstore in Vancouver (poetry being relegated to the 'dungeon' as it were) when I stumbled upon a book of Margaret's poems in one of those rotating metal wire racks that usually contain trade paperbacks. Vaguely aware of the fact that Margaret was a Christian, I took the book off the rack and began to read. I opened to the poem "The Swimmer's Moment" and was struck dumb. Here was the poem that gave voice to the 'plunge of faith' I had just taken myself. I remember the impact of that poem so vividly I was having my own 'swimmer's moment' reading it. Of course, my immediate and facile response was adulation for the poet. Who was this Margaret Avison? Where could I read more of her work? And so began my own peripatetic wanderings into the world of Margaret's poetry.
"The Swimmer's Moment" is in Winter Sun which was published in 1960, ironically before Margaret's conversion to Christianity in 1963. And yet did I find in that poem, a coalescence of all that inchoate yearning in myself that yielded itself finally to faith.
The Swimmer's Moment
The swimmer's moment at the whirlpool comes,
But many at that moment will not say
"This is the whirlpool, then."
By their refusal they are saved
From the black pit, and also from contesting
The deadly rapids, and emerging in
The mysterious, and more ample, further waters.
And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim of suction
They will not recognize.
Of those who dare the knowledge
Many are whirled into the ominous centre
That, gaping vertical, seals up
For them an eternal boon of privacy,
So that we turn away from their defeat
With a despair, not for their deaths, but for
Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their secret
Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth
Where one or two have won:
(The silver reaches of the estuary).
(From Winter Sun and Other Poems, 1960)