A Sovereign Presence

The poet and the politician in Gérald Godin are not separate entities.

Sonja Skarstedt, Gérald Godin, & Jack Ruttan at Godin's residence in 1993
Photo by Geof Isherwood

by Jack M. Ruttan

(Published in Books in Canada, April, 1993)

Gérald Godin is usually described as "the poet-politician." During his busy past, one could have also called him poet-journalist, poet-researcher, and poet-publisher. But poet-politican: the words sound strange together, at least in Canada outside Quebec. Imagine, if you can, Prime Minister Margaret Atwood or Minister for Defense Patrick Lane. In fact, one of the few literary persons to hold office in this country was Pierre- Joseph-Olivier Chaveau, an essayist and Quebec's premier in 1867. [I should have mentioned Louis Riel, too - J.] Godin suspects that there may soon be another, if Edmonton's Mel Hurtig wins in the next election. "Then there will be two," he smiles.

There was only one politician of note (and just a few poets) in the district around Trois-Rivières where Godin (born in 1938) grew up. The fierce Maurice Duplessis was the city's most famous son. Nationalist and anti-labour, he became premier in what many consider the "dark ages" of Quebec. These were the 1940s and '50s, a time when Godin was attending the Trois-Rivières seminary and learning journalism at the newspaper Le Nouvelliste.

Godin displayed his characteristic energy even then. A longtime resident recalls him in his student years, selling handmade Christmas cards door to door. She evokes a pleasing picture of the young, curly- headed poet running to an assignment like Tintin of the comic pages, textbooks flapping in a sack behind him as he makes a little money on the side.

Godin's most significant byline from Trois- Rivières came at the time of Duplessis' death in 1959. The funeral makes a memorable chapter in his 1990 novel L'Ange exterminé, now translated as The Exterminated Angel (Guernica, 1992). It was an exceptionally hot day, or so the story goes, and wiseacres joked that the gates of hell had opened. Not long afterwards, Godin fled the placid currents of Trois-Rivières for the more turbulent political waters of Montreal.

Malcolm Reid's book The Shouting Signpainters (1972) describes with brio the cultural and indépendantiste movement born in Quebec in the '60s. Godin, in conjunction with other Montreal writers, founded the magazine parti pris, named for a phrase meaning "bullheaded" or "mind already made up."

Central for the partipristes was the concept of joual as the native Quebec language, one beholden neither to Ottawa nor to Paris for validity. Writers such as Jacques Renaud and André Major tried to create a joual literature, using as their means of expression what was usually looked down upon as the argot of the working class. Godin, though never losing sympathy for the people he had known in his youth, diverged somewhat from this position. Rather than going to the streets for his language, he cast an eye abroad, and towards the library. He had been reading James Joyce and the Cantos of Ezra Pound, and he admired their freedom of style, breadth of reference and, especially, their magpie love for words. "Joyce and Pound were brothers," he says, "who gave the taste of words."

Thus he called his second collection of poetry Poèmes et cantos. (Editions du Bien Public, 1962), and his fourth Les cantouques (Les Éditions parti pris, 1967). The latter has nothing to do with wool hats, at least not directly; cantouque is a made-up word derived from "canthook," a logger's tool used to turn floating timber. A cantouque, Godin wrote, was meant to turn human feelings. It was also close to "cantique," French for hymn, and "canto" as well (a good illustration of the layers of pun and meaning with which Godin charges words). The cantouques were poems that sang, in a sad way, about daily life, beer, pinball, and men sitting alone after work. They were very much based on the life he had seen in Trois-Rivières. Godin eschewed joual in these poems, referring to it once in an essay as "French polluted with English." Instead, he borrowed from French and Quebec working-class slang -- langue verte it was called -- and inserted bits of old French, Poundian incantations, and words from languages all across the globe.

In a quintessentially French way, Godin the poet treats his language as a hobby, collecting words just as a numismatist does stamps, or making them run in circles like a verbal model train. These tricks make his work difficult to translate, a task Judith Cowan took on in Evenings at Loose Ends (Véhicule, 1991), a rendering of his next-to-last book. She has dealt with the fact that good poetry in French does not necessarily translate into the same in English. There are losses, for instance, palombe plombée, which becomes a dull "lead-riddled dove," but there are also gains. The poem "Monsterious" benefits from differences between the English words "love" and "like," which in French are both subsumed as "aimer":

And I love them
because I do not like them
and I like them because it is you that I love
and sometimes I do not like you
because I love you

Godin's other main concern is with Quebec independence, a point on which he has stood firm throughout his life. He offers a prediction: "Before the year 2000, we will know what Quebec will want to do. My feeling is that it will go for sovereignty." This conviction has not always been easy to maintain. He and his companion, Pauline Julien, were among the 500 arrested and held without charges during the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970. It is an event that marked his poetry throughout the '70s, leading to work such as this excerpt from Porte dérobée, "The Secret Passage," translated by D.G. Jones:

I broke my teeth on it
with cold shakes in my back
the cold shakes of mass arrests
the cold shakes of the hunted

Similar anger permeated his poetic work through the next few years, as was seen in his 1975 book from Les Éditions parti pris, Libertés surveillées (a legal term for "release under observation"). Perhaps the sight of police vans and soldiers' guns on the streets, and 10 days in the "Parthenais Hilton," left Godin a little less certain of poetry's ability to effect change by itself. Certainly the FLQ bombs and violence saddened him as they did most of Quebec, though like the majority of francophones he sympathized with their motives. The kidnappings and murder, however, have never been mentioned in his creative work.

At any rate, after having lived with words all his life -- journalism for various outlets (chiefly Le Nouveau Journal) researching (for Radio Canada TV and projects with the NFB), and publishing (director of Les Editions parti pris, an outgrowth of the periodical) - Godin entered politics. In 1976, as part of René Lévesque's Parti Québécois sweep, he was elected member of the National Assembly for the district of Mercier, beating Premier Robert Bourassa himself. His campaign strategies were less than orthodox. Instead of pamphlets, he stuck poems in people's mailboxes, poems such as Mals au Pays ("Cancer in the Land"), which hurled bolts at the "cockroaches in Parliament." Bourassa retaliated with copies of Godin's own poems, which were handed out to worshippers after Sunday church as proof of his opponent's "blasphemy." The tactic backfired, and made Godin even more popular.

Poet Becomes Minister, announced Le Soleil in 1980 when Godin assumed the culture portfolio for the PQ government. He has also been minister of justice - and of immigration - during his political career, and though now on the opposition bench as cultural affairs critic, he still keeps his office open in his district in the heart of ethnic Montreal.

He walked with me along rue Mont-Royal, a working-class commercial street full of junk shops and budget shoestores, and talked as we strolled. "This part of Montreal is a walking museum, where everyone is part of the mix. It gives life to the city. Look at all the different people here." He saw himself in public life as a conduit, a connection between the various identities. Not many politicians liked to, in his words, "jump the fence." Godin explained how his work as an MNA helped him in his writing: "For someone who loves words, being a politician is the best job you can have. Not so much for the words from other politicians," he cautioned, "but the ones you get from the people."

Echoing this thought, one of his new poems consists entirely of words collected over the years from the constituents who come to see him. It will be published in his next book, due out in a few months. And just like the enthusiast who favours a visitor with a shell or penny stamp, Godin offered me a new word from his collection: "Ado," the Quebec term for a member of that is now called "Generation X." He spoke of his worries for youth in society, and saw it as urgent that Quebec establish an "adult government" to solve the problem. But it was his fear that contemporary writers had been of little help in creating a new Quebec. "In my time the goal of writers was to make Quebec move, to open minds to freedom." Not much that was new in the bookstores pleased him. "My favourite books are those with a political idea. This is no longer done in Quebec. Most writers are gazing at their navels. Everybody tries to imitate Yves Beauchemin or Arlette Cousture [two of the province's biggest-selling authors.] They are selling their souls to the devil."

However, in the last 10 years, his own priorities have been violently wrenched around. On his head was a tweed cap with ear flaps, hiding what little was left of his once-famous corona of curly hair. The loss is a side effect of treatment for the brain cancer that was diagnosed in 1984. As a short poem in Evening at Loose Ends puts it

"What, you've forgotten my telephone number?"
"Listen, old friend, I think you know
they removed a tumour from my brain
as big as a mandarin orange
and I'm afraid,
your telephone number was in it..."

("Your phone number")

Many of the poems in the second section of the collection deal with the epilepsy, memory loss, and physical rehabilitation that followed surgery. "It was worse than what's in there," says Godin, indicating the book. As we ate and talked in one of his favourite lunchtime restaurants, Middle Eastern music frequently overpowered his quiet, hesitant voice. However, his opinions were still emphatic, his parti still pris. While I listened closely, he told me a little about The Exterminated Angel, "a newspaper in the form of a novel."

"What moved me to write was my memories of the time when I was a journalist, a court reporter, a parliamentary reporter. I wanted to put it down in a book before I forgot it." Indeed, through the persona of the journalist "Gerry Gretz," the novel travels through many areas of Godin's life. It is a funny, rambling book that frequently strays from its murder investigation plot into regions of satire and W.O. Mitchell-style recollection. It is not a very tidy work, but fascinating in the view it gives of the author and his background: a character, ostensibly in hospital for a bullet wound received during a robbery, is given perceptual tests, and reference is made to his "tumour;" brand names of long-vanished cigarettes are conjured up, as is Dow, "the beer that kills," still sold in Quebec but never advertised. Here Godin said he preferred the translated version of the novel to the original, because English brought it closer to the crime stories he wanted to evoke. However, his overarching influence in this novel was Nathaniel West, whose surrealism also seemed to become more fantastic the closer it was to life.

There is immense attention paid to grammar in the book. Most of the characters end up picking apart something another has said. It was thus a challenge for Judith Cowan to come up with terms in English to represent all of the grammatical quibbles in French. At times the novel represents an old Monty Python skit, in which the action is periodically halted to discuss some irrelevant point. But the emphasis on specific names for things and details of memory hardly seems irrelevant for Godin. He tests his memory every day, screening clips from it in what he calls his "mental cinema." In this way, he can track down some name or fact that has been eluding him. This is not usually how he goes about writing, he assured me, but this novel seems to be very much the product of a journalist's obsession with "getting it right."

The recent NFB film A Song for Quebec gives a convincing picture of Godin the public man as he has presented himself over the years. It also shows the importance to his career of his companion, Pauline Julien, whose story deserves a profile of its own. The impact of Godin and Julien on Quebec is very much a combination of the two of them together. It is strange, then, to find in most of the poems, and in The Exterminated Angel such a sense of uprootedness in a man who has remained more or less in one place - and with one person - for 30 years. Present in Evenings at Loose Ends are the cryptic references to friends and family, and the results of an influential trip to Brazil, but hardly visible are the interviews, dinners, and eventually, alas, funerals that mark a politician's daily life. Even the love poems often end with a protagonist walking home alone in the cold, feeling at one with the alley cats. His latest book, Poémes de Route (a pun on "pommes" and hence both "Road Poems" and "Road Apples") is presented as having been written on the bus from Quebec City to Montreal. The English Quebec poet John Glassco has written that French poetry in Canada is a poetry of exile and feelings of abandonment. Perhaps in emphasizing this abandonment, Godin does what he similarly practises in his memory ritual: by exercising a thing, he is trying to heal it.

Meeting Godin, researching his past, and talking to others about him, I became very aware of the good will his name arouses in Quebec. This is especially true concerning the drama of his operation and continuing recovery. "Trés triste," sighed the clerk at the NFB desk when I signed out A Song for Quebec. Even while sitting across from Godin, I could sense his charisma. Judith Cowan met him before his tumour was diagnosed, and remembers an elegant personality, direct, but distant. The Toronto writer Joyce Marshall met him too, and recorded the encounter in the April '92 issue of Books in Canada. She remarked on his charm and good nature, but when she later saw him leaning on a railing over the St. Lawrence River, she sensed that he felt it was more his river than hers. The Godin I met sounded inclusive in his vision: "There is a lot of cultural energy inside Quebec, which has to be tapped and got going in the right direction."

As they tap this energy, perhaps the poet and politician in Godin are not separate entities. He has made it his life not to let Quebec float towards its future like a log on the river, with no hook to guide it. Both his writing and his actions have worked towards this end. At the same time, he is busy tying up loose ends, using poetry and prose to re-establish links with his past, his language, and others around him in the world. He has not stopped working at these goals, he probably never will.

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