Hot Coffee on the People’s Poet

A novel that has held me for many a year is Boris Pasternak’s lyrical and poetic Dr. Zhivago. The tale is told by Yevgraf Zhivago– he is in search of his distinguished half-brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago. Yevgraf was keen to discover the daughter of Yuri and Larissa’s (Lara) short but white heat intense relationship in the midst of tragic times. The love affair in the midst of the Russian revolution that occurred between Yuri-Larissa produced the famous “Larissa Poems” written by Dr. Yuri Zhivago. Yevgraf (who was in the Russian military and had protected his brother a few times from imprisonment) was in search of the mystical Larissa to whom the delicate and sensitive love poems were dedicated and written about—–Yevgraf, in short, had more than a passing interest in understanding the “Larissa Poems”, Yuri-Larissa’s short but ill- fated relationship and the daughter who might be their love child. What, though, does this have to do with Milton Acorn and hot coffee being thrown at him?

There are 3 poems in More Poems For People (1972) that mention Rose: “Already it seems You Haunt this Cottage”, “To Rose” and “Roseprick of which Rilke Died”. There are 2 poems in The Island Means Minago (1975) that refer to Rose: “Already it Seems You Haunt This Cottage” and “Rose in Absence”. Who was the mystical Rose in these poems that so held Milton Acorn? I felt very much like Yevgraf Zhivago in search of the illusive Larissa. Such a question sat with me for a few years.

David Orchard played a significant and necessary role in challenging the Blue Tory drift of the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1980s-1990s and into the initial years of the 21st century. I had a much affinity and empathy for Orchard’s work given my High/Red Tory leanings. I was active at the riding level in the PC party in Abbotsford in challenging the old guard and supporting Orchard’s bid for leadership. Much to the shock and surprise of many in the PC party in Abbotsford the Orchard supporters won the day and backed David’s leadership bid at the national convention. Needless to say, there had to be much organization in BC and the West Coast (at riding levels) to get David elected. The point person, in many ways, in BC for David’s leadership in the PC party was Rose-Marie Larsson. This means that I was often in contact with Rose-Marie. In fact, I hosted a large and well attended conference on Canadian nationalism in the autumn of 1999 in Abbotsford at what was then called University of the Fraser Valley–  David was key note speaker. Rose-Marie was a faithful organizer behind the scenes and she encouraged many to attend the event. I spent some lovely moments with Rose-Marie before, during and after the nationalist conference at University College of the Fraser Valley. I mentioned, in one of our conversations, that I was reading many of Milton Acorn’s books of poetry. Rose-Marie looked at me and said “I once knew him”. I was somewhat startled and surprised. I encouraged her to say more. I soon discovered, as Rose-Marie followed the thread of her comment to me about Acorn back into her personal history, that

she, in fact, did know Acorn in more than just a casual way. Milton Acorn and Rose-Marie spent a considerable amount of time together both in Toronto and PEI from the spring of 1971 to the spring of 1972. I felt like Yevgraf Zhivago—-I had, in a sense, found Larissa—the Rose of Acorn’s poems in More Poems for People and The Island Means Minago.

I had mentioned to Rose-Marie a few times over the last decade that we should get together and chat about both the poems and her relationship with Acorn from 1971-1972. Finally, on July 23 2013, we met in Vancouver at Uprising Breads Bakery in the Commercial area from 10:00-12:30 to discuss their short but intense relationship—we also chatted about the literary-political-historic context of Toronto in the late 1960s-early 1970s. We covered much turf and territory in our 2.5 hours together that is the tale and text for another time. The relationship between Rose-Marie and Milton came to an abrupt end with a rather graphic and not to be forgotten incident in the spring of 1972.

Milton and Rose-Marie had been to see the newly released and controversial film set in Quebec, Mon ondo Antoine. The film, once finished, a heated discussion soon ensured between Milton and Rose-Marie. Milton tended to hold high the role of the men in staring down the injustices that the film depicted, whereas Rose-Marie was much more sympathetic to the plight of the women, their courage and activism. Milton became more irritated and angry with Rose’s read and interpretation of the film, demeaning Rose with hurtful jibes. Rose had reached the end of her tether with Acorn (the previous months revealing more about him than her initial romantic attraction revealed).

Finally, she had enough of his verbal battering—-a hot cup of coffee was in her hand and she threw it at the much acclaimed People’s Poet, soaking him. Rose simply walked away, leaving Milton shocked and speechless. She then headed down the street in much haste, Milton chasing and hounding her, like some confused beast— the beauty had dared to confront the enraged beast in public, tossing coffee at him, then simply and defiantly, walking away. The relationship at that point was over, finis.

The poems Acorn wrote about Rose are double edged—there is the romanticism, the lost and missing love, the idealized relationship of what once was, yet, as Rose told me, never was—there are also hints and pointers, lines and leads, in some of the poems, of the hurt and pain, the Larissa now gone, the Rose that had never fully unpetalled and never would.

Rose Marie had little to do with Milton Acorn after the coffee incident in the spring of 1972, but the four poems about Rose-Marie do point to a season in the life of Milton Acorn and Rose-Marie that was significant in both of their lives for a variety of hoped for yet disappointed reasons. I felt, like Yevgraf–I had found Larissa, but the tale told and conclusions lived by Milton and Rose-Marie were much different than that of Yuri and Larissa.

Ron Dart

(with Ron’s permission to post the above essay)