[(essay date Spring 1974) In the following essay, Doerksen focuses on religious and spiritual themes in Avison's work, which he describes as a poetry of "spiritual quest and discovery."]
In "Love (III)", the poem which concludes his "picture of many spiritual Conflicts", George Herbert portrays the culmination of the religious quest in unexpected discovery. Unaware that she herself will one day describe such experience, the Margaret Avison of Winter Sun feels intrigued into envious comment. Having probed about in a world of Heraclitean flux and materialistic preoccupation, she marvels that
George Herbert--and he makes it plain-- Guest at this same transfiguring board Did sit and eat.
And indeed Miss Avison's own poetical achievement in Winter Sun (1960) and The Dumbfounding (1966) merits consideration as spiritual quest and discovery. The first of her books is marked by a continual seeking, while the second speaks of fulfillment in lyrics which have been hailed as "among the finest religious poems of our time" [A. J. M. Smith, "Margaret Avison's New Book," Canadian Forum (1966)]. Aside from sheer literary excellence, what makes the two collections remarkable is that, far from being tacked on as a "Christian" afterthought to her previous verse, Miss Avison's later poems seem to grow out of her earlier searching ones in a sequence which if not that of simple cause and effect, is yet that of authentic experience. Search and discovery are thus like two sides of one coin, or like two main parts of that one thing Claudel declares every poet is born to say in the totality of his works. In this essay I propose to examine Margaret Avison's poetry of search and of discovery, noting the way in which search leads into discovery.
If to be secular means to be fully engaged in the world of the "here and now", then all of Miss Avison's poetry is secular. If to be religious means to care about meaning, to have (in Tillich's language) an "ultimate concern", little of her poetry is not religious. The search for the ultimately significant in life stands out as a main feature of Winter Sun, but it is not always obtrusive. "The Apex Animal" manifests a leisurely, playful curiosity as to the nature of "the One . . . Who sees, the ultimate Recipient / of what happens." Fancy suggests to the poet, as it surely could not to a Christian, that this ultimate being is none other than a cloud formation shaped like a horse's head, since after all the latter has a commanding view of things in its "patch of altitude / troubled only by clarity of weather" and seems free of matters in "mortal memory". Under the fanciful surface of the poem, and hidden away before the parenthetical conclusion, there lurks a note of concern about the human individual, in this case the clerk whose "lustreless life" has been touched by the "ointment of mortality".
"Dispersed Titles", both more serious and more profound, also displays an ambivalence as to the spiritual nature...