Colville's People


132 pages
ISBN 1-55128-098-1
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Poems about paintings have become a prominent feature of the literature
of the past century. One thinks of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux
Arts,” poems in R.S. Thomas’s Between Here and Now and Ingrowing
Thoughts, and many others. They enable poets to ponder the nature of
their discipline with reference to another art besides their own.

In an ideal world, such poems would be published alongside color
reproductions of their subjects; but this is hardly ever possible and
Colville’s People (by no means confined to Alex Colville’s
paintings) contains only a single reproduction on its cover. Yet,
curiously, this is less of a disadvantage than one might expect. Whereas
the paintings themselves are fixed, Malyon’s poems move; the figures
portrayed escape out of their frames, and take their places in a
mysterious third realm of the imagination. I must confess ignorance of
the work of several of the painters celebrated, but one does not need to
be aware of the individual pictures to appreciate the resulting poems.

I find these poems almost invariably accomplished—intelligent,
imaginative, the language chaste, and the movement of the lines nicely
controlled. I do feel bound to register one slight reservation, however.
The works of the painters represented (ranging from Henri Rousseau and
Gustave Courbet to Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, and various contemporary
artists) are astonishingly varied in style, yet the poems, for the most
part, sound very much alike. Malyon’s approach is always cool,
detached, as if emotion were being deliberately withheld. It is an
effective style, notable for its clarity and delicate precision, but I
have to report that, after a dozen poems or so, it became predictable,
even monotonous.

Still, each poem makes its point clearly and persuasively; a remarkably
high standard of quality and consistency is maintained. It is a
collection that is best read a few poems at a time, and also read slowly
so that each situation can be savored. I liked the combination of
sensitivity and intelligence evident throughout the book. Carol Malyon
is a poet to be watched.


Malyon, Carol., “Colville's People,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 29, 2024,