Berry-picking from James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark

Summer 1937: James Reaney (age 10) picking gooseberries with his cousins in Erin Township in Wellington County, Ontario.

The “Berry-picking” scene from Act I of James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark uses a pattern poem in the shape of a family tree pyramid to help the berry-pickers bring back the lost child.

8. BERRY-PICKING

MOTHER: The Story of the Berry-Picking Child and the Bear.

SCREEN: A child’s drawing of a berry-picking woods.

PA: This happened early near the Little Lakes.

KIDS: Darting about with berry pails

Look at the raspberries
Wild Gooseberries
Huckleberries
Over here!
Look at the raspberries
Wild currants.
Don’t eat them. They’re poison.
Bunch berries (ugh!)

One child is left busily picking. Her name is SADIE.

GRAMP:  as a bear. Enters and lifts up a child.
Child my cubs need nurse. I need your blood.
SADIE: Wouldn’t blood-red berries do instead?
GRAMP: No. Flesh must be my bread.

SADIE: Put me down Mr. Bear. I do thee dread.

Bear runs off with child, kids enter shrieking.

KIDS: A bear ran off with Sadie! A bear ran off with Sadie! And it takes a lot of people to produce one child.

They form a family tree pyramid with a reappearing Sadie.

KIDS:

It takes
Two parents
Four Grandparents
Eight Great grandparents
Sixteen Great great grandparents
Thirty-two Great great great grandparents
Sixty-four Great great great great grandparents
One hundred and twenty-eight Great great great great great grandparents
Two hundred and fifty-six Great great great great great great grandparents
Five hundred and twelve Great great great great great great great grandparents
One thousand and twenty-four Great great great great great great great great grandparents

It would take over a thousand people to do this scene: at Listeners’ Workshop we did it with thirty-two people: the children here are suggested by a triangle arrangement, the thousand ancestors behind each human being. Have one group of players in charge of chanting “Great great” & “grandparents”.

SADIE: Are you there 1,024 ancestors?

A feeble rustle

Are you there 512
Are you there 256

Are you there 128

Sound gets louder, less ghost-like and more human.

Are you there 64

Are you there 32

Are you there 16

More recent ancestors step forward and say firmly and clearly what we have only dimly heard: “We’re here.”

Are you there 8

Are you there 4

Are you there Mother and Father?

GRAMP, MA and PA step forward and establish the next scene as the kids fade away

Colours in the Dark is available from Talonbooks: https://talonbooks.com/books/colours-in-the-dark

For more about James Reaney’s use of shape poems or pattern poems as theatrical devices, see Thomas Gerry’s book The Emblems of James Reaney (2013) and Gerry’s article “Marvellous Playhouses The Emblems of James Reaney” in the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly.

“The Poet’s Typewriter” by James Reaney, 1997
James Reaney 1972

“Gifts” by James Reaney

Gifts

Existence gives to me
What does he give to thee?

He gives to me:  a pebble
He gives to me:  a dewdrop
He gives to me:  a piece of string
He gives to me:  a straw

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

The pebble is a huge dark hill I must climb
The dewdrop’s a great storm lake you must cross
The string was a road he could not find
The straw will be a sign whose meaning they forget

Hill  lake  road   sign

What was it that changed the scene
So desert fades into meadows green?

The answer is that they met a Tiger
The answer is that he met a Balloon,
A Prostitute of Snow, A Gorgeous Salesman
As well as a company of others such as
Sly Tod, Reverend Jones, Kitty Cradle and so on

Who was the Tiger?  Christ
Who was the Balloon?  Buddha
Emily Bronte and the Emperor Solomon
Who sang of his foot in the doorway.
All these met him. They were hopeful and faithful.

Now the mountain becomes  a pebble in my hand
The lake calms down   to a dewdrop in a flower
The weary road  is a string around your wrist
The mysterious sign  is a straw that whistles “Home”

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

James Reaney, 1965

From Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. “Gifts” also appears in James Reaney’s  play Colours in the Dark, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1967.

James Reaney (far right) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.

James Reaney feeding the chickens (age 5) with his cousins Mary and Elsie (1931)

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

Dr. P A Abraham (1949-2021)

Our deepest sympathy to the family of the late Prof. (Dr.) P A Abraham, who passed away on May 14, 2021.

An Indian Canadianist, Prof. Abraham worked with James Reaney via  Western University and was instrumental in setting up the James Reaney Canadian Centre at Gujurat University in Ahmedabad, India.

Prof. Abraham also helped Reaney donate his collection of Canadian literature to the university, a valuable resource for students and scholars at the Centre.

Prof. Abraham’s book James Reaney: A Short Biography was published in 2005 (ISBN 81-85233-24-9)

James Reaney’s “The Crow”

The Crow

A fool once caught a crow
That flew too near even for his stone’s throw.
Alone beneath a tree
He examined the black flier
And found upon its sides
Two little black doors.
He opened both of them.
He expected to see into
Perhaps a little kitchen
With a stove, a chair,
A table and a dish
Upon that table.
But he only learned that crows
Know a better use for doors than to close
And open, and close and open
Into dreary, dull rooms.

 James Reaney, 1949

 

Crow near Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first book of poems.

o ) ) ) Listen to James Reaney read the poem here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2nJNfBkskU

“Six Toronto Poets”, Folkways Records, 1958

“Elderberry Cottage” by James Reaney

Elderberry Cottage

’s windows, last night, rain wrote upon,
And Bobdog, while we slept, was miles away,
Beating the bounds, our frontier nose-spy
Reporting back at dawn.
We reward him for knowing about
Quarrels in lover’s lane,
Thieves on the prowl and other such
Nightwalkers.
Canny protector, I pray you:
Bark always when strangers come nigh.
Yes, we cannot smell trespass
Nor hear it, as you can.
Piss a ring of fire round our house,
Our curtilage, my land, my concessional lot.
Lead me safely at last
Under this township to my last cot,
And when Elderberry is a ruin,
Guard my grave from the academic wolf,
The curious professor
With his fine wire-brush
Who would dig me up again
From my happiness, your kingdom.

James Reaney, 2005

“Elderberry Cottage” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.

Listen to Jeff Culbert perform “Elderberry Cottage” here.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005
Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005

Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.
Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

Canadian Opera Anthology includes Daisy’s Aria from The Shivaree

Daisy’s Aria from John Beckwith and James Reaney’s 1982 opera The Shivaree is now part of a two-volume anthology of soprano arias from Canadian operas produced by Counterpoint Music Library Services.

Based on the work of soprano Dr. Stephanie Nakagawa, the two-volume anthology is a resource for singers and performance companies and features selections from 21 Canadian operas

In collaboration with the Canadian Music Centre, Dr. Nakagawa plans to create anthologies for each voice type. 

UBC Public Scholar Dr. Stephanie Nakagawa performs “I Need You Guillaume” from Victor Davies and Maureen Hunter’s 2007 opera Transit of Venus, one of the arias from her collection of music from Canadian operas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRulssBwJXw

Daisy’s Aria from The Shivaree

Caralyn Tomlin (Daisy) and Avo Kittask (Quartz) in The Shivaree, Comus Music Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto, 1982.

In The Shivaree, Daisy is abandoned by her lover Jonathan and accepts the marriage proposal of a much older man, William Quartz. The story gives a Canadian rural setting to the Greek myth of Persephone borne off by Hades. In the aria, Daisy regrets marrying Mr. Quartz and longs for Jonathan to rescue her.

Daisy: Oh Jonathan, why have you forsaken me? Is there still time – to take me away?

ARIA
Jonathan, you were a strange young man.
You never could decide if I was yours,
So Jonathan, I tried to make you decide
By letting Mr. Quartz keep company with me.
But if flowers and leaves keep company with winter,
They soon find they’re stabbed with an icy splinter.
My heart’s like the lane and the fields in fall,
Rusting and stiffening with cold until all
Lies buried in colourless snow,
Jonathan!
Walk above the snow
Where the garden was —
Walk above the snow
That covers me up,
Jonathan!
That covers me o’er.

Cover for James Reaney’s ibretto for The Shivaree, which premiered at the St. Lawrence Centre on April 3, 1982.

The John Beckwith Songbook on March 7

Join us on Sunday March 7 for The John Beckwith Songbook — a concert celebrating the music of Canadian composer John Beckwith in honour of his 94th birthday.

Presented on the Confluence Concerts You Tube Channel, this celebration of John Beckwith’s song repertoire features three programs encompassing nearly all of his music for solo voice, including folksongs and songs set to poems by ee cummings, Miriam Waddington, and Colleen Thibaudeau.

The programs premiere at 2:00, 5:00, and 8:00 pm EST on March 7 and will be available on YouTube until March 21: https://www.youtube.com/c/ConfluenceConcerts

John Beckwith also collaborated with James Reaney on four operas: Night Blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, Crazy to Kill, and Taptoo!.

For more about the concert and John Beckwith’s music, see William Littler’s article in The Peterborough Examiner. John Beckwith shared this story about collaborating with James Reaney:

“Jamie lived in London and I lived in Toronto so our collaboration was almost exclusively through correspondence,” he recalls. The composer Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal carried on their famous collaboration much the same way. And like Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Beckwith and Reaney had their disagreements: “I wanted the leading character in our first opera to have a cat,” recalls Beckwith. Reaney replied tersely: “Cut the cat.”

Advice for potential opera composers? “You have to get a good book or you won’t have an opera. I’ve had students come up to me asking ‘What should I do for words?’ I tell them to get to know some writers.”

( o )  See also John Beckwith’s lecture on “James Reaney and Music” from November 5, 2016: https://jamesreaney.com/gallery/john-beckwith-on-james-reaney-and-music-november-5-2016-at-museum-london/

Page from Reaney’s draft of the libretto for Night Blooming Cereus (see John Beckwith’s 1997 book, Music Papers: Articles and Talks by a Canadian Composer, page 219)

“Fifth Letter” from Twelve Letters To A Small Town

FIFTH LETTER
The Cloakroom at the High School

The high school is the palace of Merlin and Cheiron
Where governors and governesses teach
The young Achilles and young Arthurs of the town.

The radiators teach the rule of monotony
Cheep cheep cheeping in the winter classroom
Timid fingers learn to turn a fire on.

A stuffed hummingbird and a stuffed Sandhill Crane.
In the dusty looking glass of grammar,
Number, the young see the shape of their brain.

But what and where did I learn most from?
High, dark, narrow as its single window
In the old high school there was a cloakroom—

A cloakroom! In winter stuffed with cloaks
Soft with outside things inside
Burs, mud, dead leaves on some of the coats.

At four o’clock there are forty-nine bare hooks
As a hundred hands reach up
And I, lingering rearranging my books

See sweeping face peer in of janitor
Alone in the winter twilight
The old janitor! An image to ponder over.

Of course I learnt snow dripping windows
Corridors of words, cobwebs of character,
The ninety-two elements in a long row,
But most I learnt

The insoluble mystery of the cloakroom
And the curious question of the janitor
In some ways so centre and core
January man and cloakroom
From which the moon each month unlocks upon the wave
A white bird.

James Reaney, 1962

James Reaney at home, age 1 1/2 years, January 1928.

“Fifth Letter” is from Twelve Letters To A Small Town, a suite of poems commissioned by CBC Radio about the poet’s hometown, Stratford, Ontario, with music by John Beckwith. See also “The Music Lesson from Colours in the Dark”, “Sixth Letter: A House on King WIlliam Street” and “Eleventh Letter: Shakespearean Gardens”.

( ( 0 ) ) For more about James Reaney’s work with composer John Beckwith, see “James Reaney and Music” from November 5, 2016: https://jamesreaney.com/gallery/john-beckwith-on-james-reaney-and-music-november-5-2016-at-museum-london/

( ( 0 ) ) To listen to an archived sound recording of Twelve Letters To A Small Town from 1961, visit the Composers Showcase at the Canadian Music Centre.


James Reaney: Words and Music with Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead

Sunday November 15, 2020 – Thank you all for joining us at Wordsfest via Zoom for James Reaney: Words & Music. You can view an archived version of the event here: https://fb.watch/1NryVbGfTv/

Stephen Holowitz, Sonja Gustafson, Oliver Whitehead, and Ingrid Crozman at Aeolian Hall, October 18, 2020

A big thank you to Sonja Gustafson (soprano), Ingrid Crozman (flute), Stephen Holowitz (piano), and Oliver Whitehead (guitar) for your wonderful performances of selections from James Reaney’s poem “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan” and Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems “Watermelon Summer” and “Lullaby of the Child for the Mother.”

Sonja Gustafson performs “Ernie’s Barber Salon Near the College” from “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan”

And thank you, Carolyn Doyle, for being an excellent moderator and drawing forth the stories and recollections behind the music. Composers Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead first got the idea to set music to James Reaney’s “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan” when they were asked to perform at his 81st birthday party on September 1, 2007. Their success with James Reaney’s work led to an appreciation for Colleen Thibaudeau’s poetry and composing the music for Adam Corrigan Holowitz‘s 2013 play Colleening.

Our grateful thanks to Joshua Lambier and Gregory De Souza at Wordsfest for helping us put James Reaney: Words & Music together. 

About the composers: Composers Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead are members of the London jazz group The Antler River Projecthttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hteyhpy3gcM

James Reaney’s Souwesto Home (2005) and Colleen Thibaudeau’s The Artemesia Book (1991) are available from Brick Books.

James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau at the farmhouse near Stratford in 1982.
Colleen Thibaudeau and James Reaney at the University of Toronto, 1950

Earlier Wordsfest lectures on James Reaney:

2016: John Beckwith on James Reaney and Music 
2017: Tom Smart on James Reaney: The Iconography of His Imagination 
2018: James Stewart Reaney on James Reaney’s Plays for Children
2019: Stan Dragland on James Reaney on the grid

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).

Words and Music: James Reaney Memorial Lecture November 15 at Wordsfest

Sunday November 15 at 3:00 pm EST — Join us at Wordsfest via Zoom to hear James Reaney’s and Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems set to music by London composers Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead. Soprano Sonja Gustafson and flautist Ingrid Crozman are among the performers recorded earlier at Aeolian Hall for this online presentation.

Stephen Holowitz, Sonja Gustafson, Oliver Whitehead, and Ingrid Crozman at Aeolian Hall, October 18, 2020

Following the music, host Carolyn Doyle of the London Public Library will lead a discussion about the relationship between Words and Music, and the stories behind the poems. The theme of Words and Music plays off “Words & Music”, an old downtown London cultural outpost beloved by Colleen and Jamie when they moved to London in 1960.

((o)) Register here for the Zoom Webinar: 

https://westernuniversity.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_EqVD_KYHRq6bq2yHHg9myg

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.