Towards the Mystery


116 pages
ISBN 0-909095-69-0




Reviewed by Gildas Roberts

Gildas Roberts is a university professor of English at the Memorial
University of Newfoundland.


This is a book of extraordinarily accomplished poetry, in which the keen ear of the wordsmith has been augmented by the sharp eye of the artist. Everywhere are those deft brushstrokes of description which remind us that Alastair Macdonald is also a gifted painter and cartoonist. (His series of caricatures, “Oxford Dons,” some of which have appeared in The Canadian Forum, deserves to be better known.) The controlling hand of the artist can also be seen in the book’s cover, which is handsome and pleasing to the eye, something that can very seldom be said for a Cuff publication.

Two or three of the poems are as mordantly witty as the “Oxford Dons” (see, in particular, “Time Exposure,” in which an oafish TV-interviewer and cliché-mouthed politician incessantly interrupt one another). But, overwhelmingly, the book is made up of poems of regret: regret for the passing of time, for the frailty of faith and values, and (above all) for solitariness. The poet is the solitary one forever looking at life and never participating in it, as he journeys “towards the mystery” of death. There are two attempts at engagement (“Rhubarb” and “A Story”), but both end disastrously. Many of the poems are as achingly elegiac as the Old English poem of solitariness “The Wanderer”; more so, for the anonymous scop was sustained by a consoling certainty in Christian belief which Alastair Macdonald can only faintly hope for.

Although the poet lives and writes in Newfoundland, the setting of his poems is, mercifully, not “quaint Newfoundland”: his readers need not brace themselves for yet another encounter with salty and enduring fisherfolk, wicked merchants, and sad, extinct Beothucks. Geographically, the locus of these poems is mainly the South of France and Scotland.

This is Alastair Macdonald’s fourth book of poetry. It will surely gather in as many plaudits as the three volumes that have gone before it.


Macdonald, Alastair, “Towards the Mystery,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 24, 2024,