Nowhere is it recorded what David McFadden’s first words were. But I’m willing to bet his earliest utterances would have been a wisecrack, a haiku or a rhyming couplet. McFadden’s inventiveness, his verbal agility and his wit were constants, no matter what challenges life threw at him.
I first met him in the mid-70s. As a cub reporter for the book trade journal Quill & Quire, I had taken it upon myself to write profiles of some big-name poets. McFadden lived in Hamilton, where he was born October 11, 1940. He and his wife Joan and their daughters Alison and Jenny lived in a tidy bungalow on the mountain. “I’ll meet you at the bus station,” Dave had said on the phone. Sure enough, he pulled up in a VW van – one that features in The Great Canadian Sonnet, a collaboration between McFadden and his artist friend Greg Curnoe – and drove me to his home.
Joan was at work and the girls were in school. McFadden, a pretty adept interviewer himself, gave an impressive show-and-tell. He took me to the basement to show me where he worked: at a desk beside the big old furnace. He lived a quiet life. He was a good family man. The neighbours had no complaints, although at least one of them had asked whether Mr. McFadden was ever going to get a job.
As I recall (it seems I never actually wrote him up for Q&Q), his most recent collection of poetry at the time of our meeting was A Knight in Dried Plums, published by McClelland & Stewart. He was maybe 35 years old and this was his umpteenth publication. McFadden’s output was phenomenal. Poetry seemed to pour out of him and the small press books were notable for titles only Dave could have come up with: The Poem Poem (1967), Letters from the Earth to the Earth (1968), Poems Worth Knowing (1971), Intense Pleasure (1972), The Ova Yogas (1972), The Poet’s Progress (1977), The Saladmaker (1977), I Don’t Know (1978) and my favourite title, My Body Was Eaten by Dogs (1981).
Apart from the occasional arts council grant, teaching position (one at Notre Dame University in Nelson, BC) or writer-in-residence term, McFadden lived by writing alone. And like any creative writer in Canada, he was a poor scrivener. Quill & Quire was very lucky to get him as a columnist in the 1980s. In those distant days before email and the Internet, one communicated by telephone or written letter. As his editor, I delighted in our correspondence as much as the columns themselves. One continuing narrative I recall was about road trips taken by David, David, David and David – him and his friends with the same first name.
McFadden’s ventures into fiction began with the Great Canadian Sonnet, published by Coach House in 1974, but the books that brought him a wider readership than he’d had before — A Trip Around Lake Huron (1980), A Trip Around Lake Erie (1980) and A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988) established McFadden in a prose genre all his own. The trip books were travelogues with a difference: notebook in his pocket, hands on the wheel, Dave/Dad let his tours take him wherever his imagination led him. The encounters he wrote about were real, but the narrative form was akin to fiction or memoir. Here’s entry 14 from A Trip Around Lake Huron:
“A year earlier I took my little family on a motoring trip from Point Pelee to Tobermory . . . We got lost in Sarnia. At one point we were parked on the side of the road in Point Edward, a Sarnia suburb . . .. parked in front of a church . . . . There was a sign out front saying that the Rev. Orlo Miller was the pastor. That was a coincidence of the first order because only a week earlier I’d been reading a book by the same Orlo Miller, The Day-Spring, all about pre-Columbian European influences on the Americas. I’d forgotten that Miller was a Point Edward clergyman.”
He then goes on to discuss the relative merits of a book by Miller on the Black Donnellys. This chatty, digressive style – where the digressions take centre stage – served McFadden well in a series of travel books he wrote, beginning with An Innocent in Ireland and continuing with the Innocent’s visits to Scotland, Newfoundland and Cuba.
Davey, as some of his friends called him, was one of the most learned persons I ever met. He had no post-secondary education, but he was a big reader and was skilled editorially; having worked as a proofreader at the Hamilton Spectator, he often helped out at press time at Coach House. He had a system for reading: he entered a list of books into his computer (he was an early adopter) and programmed the list to spit out titles at random to determine what he’d read next. His friends sometimes joined him in reading projects, but no one could keep up with McFadden. Just for fun, for instance, he’d re-read all of William Shakespeare’s plays. As a poet he practised his craft assiduously; he could easily define a trochee or a spondee. His mastery of meter is demonstrated in the 1987 book that earned him a Governor General’s Literary Award nomination, Gypsy Guitar; One Hundred Poems of Romance and Betrayal.
Living alone in Toronto in the 1990s, McFadden made do in some not very suitable accommodations. For a time, he lived in an office in a downtown building. The office served as bedroom and workspace. For his ablutions, there was the men’s washroom down the hall. The winters were harsh and by the early 2000s, the poet’s health began to fail.
In 2009 McFadden was invited to a party that changed his life for the better. There he met Merlin Homer, an artist and a widow who found her match in David. They married in 2011 and the smile on McFadden’s face in the wedding photos makes him look like the happiest man in the world. By now David had been diagnosed with two terminal diseases, lymphoma and a rare form of Alzheimer’s that causes aphasia. Even very common words might sometimes elude him. McFadden kept on writing. Merlin supported him all the way.
As Stuart Ross, his editor at Mansfield Press, points out, David simply adapted to his neurological reality. “The lines became shorter,” Ross told CBC Radio. Some quite remarkable books of poetry came out of this period in his life, including What’s the Score? (2012), which earned McFadden the 2013 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.
Here’s a poem from Shouting Your Name Down the Well; Tankas and Haiku, published by Mansfield in 2013:
On Government Street
Some con men try to sell me
Hare Krishna books.
“I’m already enlightened,”
I say. So they ask for cash.
David William McFadden will be missed by many, but with his words he is ever with us. He leaves his wife Merlin Homer, his brother Jack McFadden, his daughter Jenny, grandchildren Benny, Chloe and Amy, and great-granddaughter Lila.
Photo by Paul Orenstein