Michael Brian Oliver
Michael Brian Oliver (critic, poet, and teacher) was born in Back Bay, southern New Brunswick, in 1946. He has published three chapbooks of poetry: Portrait of the Arrival (1970), Becoming: Poems Addressed to my Child in the Womb (1974), and To a Sister Loneliness (1979). He has also published several critical reviews of fellow Canadian poets for various journals, and he has published Poet's Progress (1978), the first critical study of Alden Nowlan’s poetry. It is the latter that he is best known for.
Oliver started writing seriously as a student at the University of New Brunswick in 1964. He would gather with other student writers at the famous Ice House, joined there in later years by Joseph Sherman, Al Pittman, Louis Cormier, Eddie Clinton, Mary Willis, Elizabeth Rodriguez, David Adams Richards, Brian Bartlett, and Michael Pacey. According to Robert Gibbs, these young poets would also congregate at Alden Nowlan’s house on Windsor Street, and were heavily influenced by him (“English Poetry in New Brunswick 1940–1982” 139).
In 1967, Oliver became an assistant to the poetry editor of The Fiddlehead. In 1969, he completed his MA at Memorial University. Between 1970 and 1982 he taught at various schools across Canada, such as College Maillet in St. Basile, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, John Abbot College in Montreal, University of Alberta in Edmonton, a junior college in Lennoxville, and UNBSJ. Throughout these years he would often return to Back Bay to write.
Oliver said about his writing: “I think of myself as a writer who teaches, rather than a teacher who writes” (Poet's Progress). His professor Robert Gibbs observed that “Under the avowed influence of writers like William Blake, Leonard Cohen, and Elizabeth Smart, he writes mainly sensual poems, celebrating love and the female muse” (“English Poetry in New Brunswick 1940–1982” 141).
Portrait of the Arrival is a small collection of poems that are experimental, each dealing with elements that would define Oliver's poetic voice. In “The Loyalist Graveyard, Fredericton,” he uses musical language to capture the season's change in the places around him:
Autumn to the almost always nearly never noticed graveyard
Is a sizzled season: rash red, dead, crisp colour leaves
Orange, orange-red, red-orange, tree tops, tips tipping,
Slipping, dripping to the stillborn stiff cave-hard
Earth. Birth shows, grows, from late years gallant
Life. These trees grow, green, yet strong-strapped
wind's whipping (6)
Becoming: Poems Addressed to my Child in the Womb, similarly, is a short collection of nine poems. Each poem encircles him, his wife, and their son as they are awaiting his birth. These poems are deeply personal, some of them are wishes for the future, some grasping a moment such as waking the child while making love. He captures emotion and vivid moments beautifully, as when he describes his fingers touching those of his son through the mother as akin to God touching Adam. These poems are a promise to his child, the biblical promise of a father's love.
To a Sister Loneliness is the longest of his books of poetry and is divided into three sections: “Omega,” “Alpha Imaginingm,” and “Merrybegots.” Many poems are about his relationship with a woman, perhaps the mother of his son, perhaps not. Many, such as the poem “Pisces,” are spoken in the first person:
A cry, your eyes are blue,
We laugh I love you,
I burn you as the sun burns a sail,
You eat me as the sea eats a whale. (46)
In this book, his care and conciseness with detail is strongest. The poems are short, and most have him describing experience from the first person.
Poet's Progress (1978) is an analysis of Alden Nowlan's work. It is made up of four chapters, including “The Presence of Ice” and “Dread of the Self,” which were published earlier and separately. In this small book, Oliver raises Nowlan's status to the universal, rescuing him from what was his designation as a regionalist writer. He examines Nowlan's early poems in particular, and how they seek to capture the reality of growing up in rural Nova Scotia and the larger world. Oliver writes about Nowlan’s light vs. dark poems, and how these relate to his puritanical upbringing. He follows the development of style and voice in Nowlan, suggesting that his work moves from journalistic, to confessional, to philosophic poetry (30). In the final chapter he concludes that Nowlan's psychological journey has come full circle to where he had begun, a lonely boy in rural Nova Scotia.
Poet's Progress was recognized by critics as valuable, even if they disagreed with many of its conclusions. Its importance, they agreed, was in it being the first critical work on Nowlan of its kind (Macmillan 13). Nowlan's biographer Patrick Toner said that Poet's Progress “stands alone in its attempt to chart the evolution” of Nowlan's poetry (249). In raising Nowlan's status, Oliver compelled critics to recognize him as an important Canadian figure. As Michael O. Nowlan wrote, “this kind of scholarship should be a stimulus to others” (84).
Oliver's creative work has not garnered as much attention as his study of Alden Nowlan. Because only two hundred and fifty copies of each collection were published, they are not readily available to the reading public. Oliver’s reputation thus is that of critic more than poet, though the quality of his poetry warrants more sustained consideration.
Ryan William Hebert, Winter 2009
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Oliver, Michael Brian. “Alden Nowlan (1933–1983).” Canadian Writers and Their Works. Vol. 7. Eds. Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley. Toronto, ON: ECW, 1990: 76-132.
---. Alden Nowlan and His Works. Toronto, ON: ECW, 1991.
---. Becoming: Poems Addressed to My Child in the Womb. Sherbrooke, PQ: M.B. Oliver, 1974.
---. “Dread of the Self: Escape and Reconciliation in the Poetry of Alden Nowlan.” Essays on Canadian Writing 5 (1976): 50-66.
---. “Elizabeth Smart: Recognition.” Essays on Canadian Writing 12 (1978): 106.
---. “Miscellanies, Metamorphosis & Myth.” Canadian Literature 74 (1977): 95-101.
---. Poet's Progress: The Development of Alden Nowlan's Poetry. Fiddlehead Poetry Books 248. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead, 1978.
---. Portrait of the Arrival: A Peace of Love in the Wild Maritimes. Ed. Nancy Bauer. Fredericton, NB: The New Brunswick Chapbooks, 1970. New Brunswick Chapbooks 10.
---. “The Presence of Ice: The Early Poetry of Alden Nowlan.” Studies in Canadian Literature 1 (1976): 210-22.
---. “Tantramar — and Saint John and Fredericton — Revisited.” Rev. of When a Girl Looks Down, by Kay Smith, Against Perspective, by Fred Cogswell, All This Night Long, by Robert Gibbs, The Terrible Word, by William Bauer, and Stilt Jack, by John Thompson. The Fiddlehead 122 (1979): 115-124.
---. To a Sister Loneliness. Fiddlehead Poetry Books 276. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead, 1979.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Cogswell, Fred. “Alden Nowlan as Regional Atavist.” Studies in Canadian Literature 11.2 (1986): 206.
Fröjdendahl, Birgitta. "Passion in Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept: The Sacred and the Profane.” Mosaic 37.2 (2004): 145-60.
Gibbs, Robert. “English Poetry in New Brunswick 1940–1982”. A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Ed. Reavley Gair. Fredericton: Fiddlehead & Goose Lane, 1985. 138-141.
---. Rev. of Smoked Glass, by Alden Nowlan, Double Exposure, by Alden Nowlan, and Poet's Progress: The Development of Alden Nowlan's Poetry, by Michael Brian Oliver. The Fiddlehead 122 (1979): 111-13.
Macmillan, Carrie. Rev. of Poet's Progress: The Development of Alden Nowlan's Poetry, by Michael Brian Oliver. Quill & Quire 45.3 (1979): 13.
Nowlan, Michael O. “Atlantic Bookcase.” The Atlantic Advocate 69 (Feb. 1979): 84.
Toner, Patrick. If I Could Turn and Meet Myself. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2000.