Al, Fresco: the Purdy Picnic

In 1957, Canadian poet Al Purdy and his wife, Eurithe Purdy, began to build their A-frame house, from plans Al had ordered.

It’s still not finished.

This weekend I headed to Ameliasburg, Ontario, to the First Annual Al Purdy Picnic. I asked my friend Carolynne what she thought I should pack for the picnic. “Piss and vinegar,” she said. Carolynne has read a lot of Purdy’s poetry.

But I didn’t have to bring a lunch because the organizers provided one – a built-to-specification sandwich, cookie and drink for $5. There were tables set up inside the community hall but I was there for a picnic, so I shook out my orange blanket on the grass outside and enjoyed my lunch, alfresco, before the humidity turned the mayonnaise. According to the woman who provided me with the homemade cloth lunch bag, I was guest #31.

I didn’t notice any population signs but Ameliasburg, in Prince Edward County, is designated a hamlet so there are only a (very) few hundred locals. After lunch I walked to the Al Purdy Library where his medals are on display in a wood and glass case that reminded me of my elementary school days.

Purdy’s Order of Canada and Order of Ontario, amongst others. In the Al Purdy Library, Ameliasburg, Ontario.

I noticed Eurithe Purdy there, chatting with the librarian. A local man in his 40s, checking out a book, recognized Eurithe and announced he’s a carpenter and would like to volunteer his labour to help fix up (finish?) the A-frame. I really hope he left his phone number.

At one o’clock, we gathered at the former home of Al and Eurithe Purdy – the infamous A-frame. There were about 60 of us. For the next three hours, thanks to the planning of Lindi Pierce, there were poetry readings — Purdy’s poems, but also poems about him — and live music. At least once we were interrupted by a speed boat motor; Roblin lake is just a few metres from the deck of the A-frame.

Duncan Patterson (orange shirt), volunteer architect and Board Member of the A-frame Association, addresses Al Purdy picnic. Eurithe Purdy on far right, in sun hat.

I could hear the water lapping behind me while I listened to the readings. During breaks, we checked out the inside of the house.

Who doesn’t like to see the inside of someone else’s house? Especially the home of an iconic figure. I could hardly wait to elbow my way in. Until I saw these front steps:

The front steps to the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-frame. Yet one more reason to make a donation to the A-frame Association.

I would be more inclined to call it a cabin. But don’t get me wrong; it’s a cabin that I would love to rent. Let’s just say it’s not for the granite countertop set. Speaking of which, here’s the kitchen, the one in which Eurithe cooked many spaghetti-and-sauce dinners (they were cheap and easy to make, she said) for guests, many of whom went on to literary successes of their own:

The kitchen where Eurithe Purdy prepared many a meal for visitors. Yes, this is the entire kitchen.

Here’s the bookshelf side of the living room:

The living room: books and a few places to sit.

I’m not the kind of person who “feels the presence” of past events or people;  instead, I use my imagination. I stared at the couch, an armchair, the table, and I tried to picture Al Purdy sitting there, eating, talking, drinking. I know he did do those things, in those particular places, but trying to conjure up unwilling ghosts is a sketchy business, so I focused on what was actually there.

The house, in a word, is ramshackle. I was not the only person who stumbled over the four inch difference between the front hall and the living room. Pieces of the parquet floor are missing and there are unexpected dips and swells here and there. I couldn’t help but wonder how one would navigate these floors after a few glasses of Al’s homemade wild grape wine.

Posing for a picture, a guest realizes that the batten is no longer securely fastened.

The walls and ceiling are rough planks and only an old bedspread hung over a rod separates a bedroom from the living room.

Charles Bukowski gives Al Purdy the nod, in the era of (mostly white) macho-man poetry. I admire them both, but I can name at least a dozen contemporary poets that could give them a run for their nose-picking money. What a great beer-and-reading-night that would be!

If you read my post last week, you know that I was curious to see if there were any famous names scratched into the outhouse walls. The story goes that Purdy, who continued to use the outhouse long after indoor plumbing was installed, encouraged his guests to sign their names on the outhouse walls. I can tell you that, if this was true, there is no remaining evidence. Believe me, I took one for the team and spent quite a bit of time in that outhouse, using the flashlight app on my cellphone, scouring every inch (okay, so not every inch) for signs of famous initials. And yes, it still smells like an in-use outhouse although it’s clearly just used for storage now.

Yes, that’s me and yes, I’m holding my breath.

And here is where most of Purdy’s writing got started. A small desk in a dark office. It’s in a kind of shed a few feet outside the main A-frame. There is a window in front of the desk, off to the side, and the view is of the front of the A-frame.

Al Purdy’s desk, in the office shed a few feet outside the A-frame. (Yes, of course I sat there and had my picture taken.)

At one point I found myself alone in the living room, in front of the fireplace, with Eurithe Purdy. I asked her how she felt about all these relative strangers noseying around her old home.

“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t mind. So many people came through here over the years.”

I asked her what she thought her husband would make of the day, of the people talking about him, poking about his place. She paused.

“You know, I can’t say. You just never knew what Al was going to say about something.” Then a few people wandered in and wanted to take her picture and she posed patiently for them and with them. And as they walked away with their pictures, I watched her eyes travel up the walls, along the rafters then down, through doorways, and I wondered, despite her bravado, what ghosts she could see.

5 Responses to Al, Fresco: the Purdy Picnic

  1. Nice photos Ms. K! Clearly the talented Mr. Purdy did not have an Italian wife … who would have badgered him to … fix … those … stairs! 🙂

  2. What a great blog Lesley! For those of us who couldn’t be there, your photos and text conjure up the whole experience – smells and all!
    So good that you had your moment alone with Eurithe.
    It sounds like the perfect day in “The Country North of Belleville”.

  3. Wonderful post! I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the A-frame and the photo of the gentleman leaning against the house.

  4. I saw you in Al’s outhouse! (Can’t say that of many people).What a resourceful woman I thought…unfortunately, the famous names you were seeking were painted over during a fix-up – not the most recent one done by a local high-school, whose students attempted to winkle the signatures out from under that paint. And the cement block doorstep – wasn’t always that way. The north deck was removed in recent years to allow access for, well, work. I love this article, a most original telling of a by now common experience. Sorry not to have connected on the day – just found your email to Jean in a little used account. Love Descant – a new favourite destination for me! Lindi

  5. Pingback: Katherine Leyton: first writer-in-residence at the Purdy A-Frame | Descant BLOG

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