Alas

 Speech by Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick at
Memorial for Arthur Charles Erickson (June 24, 1924 - May 20, 2009)
Convocation Mall, Simon Fraser University
June 14, 2009

 

Alas! Arthur is gone. The word “alas,” so prevalent in the English of Shakespeare’s time, sadly has no equivalent in our language today. I can’t imagine what Shakespeare’s poetry would have been like without that word which so succinctly expresses the deep groan of grief, of loss, of regret and of sorrow.

When I think of Arthur Erickson, as when I think of Shakespeare, I think of poetry. Arthur was eloquent with words, but he became most renowned as an artist/architect whose life and whose work can be seen as a long, lyrical, but silent poem, a song without words.

The first person to greet me upon my arrival in Vancouver fifty-four years ago was Arthur Erickson. Immediately I knew I was in the presence of someone rare, and over the years I marvelled at the absence of self-importance he demonstrated even as his creative vision brought triumph after triumph. To him, it was the poetry, not the poet, that mattered. I also came to recognize the nobility, courage and stoicism with which he faced the trials, sorrows and ironies of his public and private life.

How appropriate it is that we meet in this space, an example of one of Arthur’s many masterworks, although it would have been an amusing irony for this celebration to have taken place, as was first intended, in Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, a building which Arthur had once been commissioned to demolish. His design for the site was a delicate, modest tower in the bowels of which a new, bright, modern church was to be ensconced. Since I was already known as a devoted fan of Arthur’s work, I was asked to appear on CBC television to support the scheme against the explosive opposition to it that had erupted in the city. When the program was over, the cameraman informed me that if he hadn’t been stuck behind the camera he would have punched me on the nose. When I returned to the dressing room, I was accosted by a furious young actor who screamed a similar intention at me.

But the irony doesn’t end there. Many years later, I became an actor and was thrilled to have had the opportunity to perform in several Shakespeare plays in that fine, still intact, theatrical space.

Journeys to as many parts of the world as possible were Arthur’s most joyful means of education. And I soon began to see the romance of a poetic journey as an underlying theme in his creative vision. Fifty years ago, when I was asked to write an account of the Filberg house near Comox, as I was walking the path to the house through dense trees dappling the forest floor with muted light, catching intermittent glimpses of the sparkling waters of Howe Sound, I knew that, even before reaching the crescendo of the house itself, I was moving through a poem by Arthur Erickson. When preparing to write an article on this great space, achieved together with his partner Geoff Massey, I experienced a similar journey in the sinuous climb up the tree-lined road, again with brief flashes of glistening water and, finally, suddenly, coming into the presence of hte building stretching serenely over the summit of the mountain. In David Stouck’s remembrance of Arthur published in the Globe and Mail, he quoted Arthur’s own description of his Anthropology Museum in UBC “as a walk through the forest to the beach.” And Nancy Southam, in another article in the Globe, quoted Arthur as saying that, “Whatever you build should enhance the surroundings.” I’m sure he might have added, “because the surroundings enhance the building.”

The game of Seven Stones, which Arthur taught his students to play, was another evocation of a passage through time and space. Each player was given a small stone to be located in harmony with the shape of an existing field. Each placement influenced the judgement of where to site the subsequent one. The resulting pattern could not be planned in advance, but was the outcome of an organic series of decisions determined along the way.

Arthur, the conjuror of a poetic world, was epitomized in the design of his own garden. Here, in miniature, he created an enticing fragment of nature with a path around its periphery which passes under trees through a shadowed series of woodland experiences at the same time that it affords a myriad of surprising views of the garden itself. But the enchanted world with which Arthur imbued the garden truly came to life with the brilliant parties he planned there, full of spellbound guests moving dreamily about as the gentle music of a string quartet or the soft bell-like tones of a Jamaican steel band wafted from across the pond dotted with flickering candles floating on its surface.

For nearly thirty years, I lived near the garden and, while I wallowed in the celestial sounds that emanated from it, some of our neighbours were incensed by what they considered noise, which often continued until two or four in the morning, as they also resented the cars parked in front of their houses during those stupendous soirées, not to mention the deployment of an army of secret service men blocking the intersection when Pierre Trudeau was one of the guests.

I loved living close to Arthur’s paradise. I loved to see the heron perched on one of his tall trees, pausing on her trip to the water to find food to feed her fledglings nesting in the nearby woods. I loved the colourful Japanese carp that drifted languorously in the shallow pool, and the two black swans that for a time glided silently, elegantly across its surface. I even loved the raccoons which invaded the garden, to Arthur’s dismay, since the brazen creatures dined on his luxurious carp. I found the peeping of the frogs that colonized the pond bucolically romantic. Again I was in the minority among our neighbours who complained bitterly of their croaking which they claimed interfered with their sleep.

To discourage the raccoons, Arthur set a large cage trap hidden strategically under the foliage beside the pool. He never caught any, but once one of my cats disappeared for several days. So one evening, I asked Arthur to take me to the trap to check it out, and sure enough, from the dark there emerged and exhausted, pathetic meow. This touching story was published by Edith Iglauer Daly in her book on Arthur, which she entitled Seven Stones, and which was featured in the New Yorker Magazine. But what was never published was the sequel, which reflected a more melancholy aspect of the saga of Arthur’s life and that of his Arcadian garden. One day, a couple of good Samaritans brought to the garden a carton containing a clutch of tiny ducklings which had hatched on their property, far from any body of water. They thought of Arthur’s pond and, with my help, they slipped the ducklings under a hole at the bottom of the fence. The desperately quacking mother flew over it and instantly took up tranquil residence in the garden together with her brood, guests which Arthur, indeed, welcomed. But as time passed, the ducklings began to disappear, several of which were brought to me in the jaws of my previously trapped cat. Perhaps it was her revenge, but, to me, it was a memento mori of the brutal indifference of nature and the hovering presence of death, who in Poussain’s painting of a tomb in Arcadia, reminded the inhabitants of that idyllic sphere: “Et Ego in Arcadia”: Even in Arcadia, I am here.

I marvelled at Arthur’s calm nobility, which I saw over the years as he lost one close friend after another to various untimely deaths. I’m sure that privately he grieved, but outwardly he seemed to accept each difficult loss as an unavoidable acquiescence to the will of nature and the inescapable darker passages in the poem of all our lives.

Arthur possessed an inner dignity, together with an innate kindness and compassion. The first person he invited to grace a modest structure which he added a few feet from the garage in which he made his home was Gordon Webber, his teacher and inspirer at McGill. He told the city it was to be a garden shed, but to his friends he called it a guest house, which he later attached to the humble garage to become his tiny bedroom and studio overlooking his magical garden. Gordon, a victim of polio, was disfigured, lame, an almost Quasimodo-like figure in his mis-shapen body. The reverence, affection and tenderness with which Arthur cared for him before he too died were utterly moving. I thought of Arthur and Don’s father, Oscar, a double amputee World War One veteran, who the two brothers carried in his wheelchair up a painfully long and steep staircase to visit Alvin Balkind and me when we were running a gallery over some shops in West Vancouver back in 1955.

Many years later, Arthur and I were judges on a jury to select a design for the Terry Fox monument at the end of Robson Street. We knew that the public was expecting us to choose a statue of Terry struggling to hike across Canada on his prosthetic leg. Arthur objected to such a statue. He insisted that the handicapped didn’t want to be remembered for their disability, but for their triumph in overcoming it. He opted for an arch leading to the stadium behind it, an arch of triumph, and influenced me and others to vote with him.

The public response was overwhelmingly negative, noses were out of joint and — O cursed spite! — I was chosen to set them right and to defend the choice to the press. Once again I suffered stings and arrows in the newspapers and on the radio. I was portrayed as an addled professor who foisted the design on the public who saw it as a monstrosity and an insult to Terry Fox. Yes I sometimes suffered in my defense of Arthur’s sensitive wisdom, but I don’t regret a minute of it.

Arthur Charles Erickson, whose initials appropriately spell “ACE,” and an ace he was, a prince and a poet among us. We still walk the many poetic paths that he created. Alas! The poet is gone, but the poem of his long life’s journey lives on.

 

 

Photo Credit: Lyle Stafford