James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles: April

To celebrate National Poetry Month, here is the “April” eclogue from James Reaney’s long poem A Suit of Nettles.


ARGUMENT: With Duncan as judge the geese hold a bardic contest in honour of Spring.


Here is a kernel of the hardest winter wheat
Found in the yard delicious for to eat.
It I will give to that most poetic gander
Who this season sings as well as swam Leander.
The white geese with their orange feet on the green
Grass that grew around the pond’s glassy sheen
Chose then Valancy and Raymond to sing
And to hear them gathered about in a ring.


I speak I speak of the arable earth,
Black sow goddess huge with birth;
Cry cry killdeers in her fields.

Black ogress ate her glacier lover
When the sun killed him for her;
The white owl to the dark crow yields.

Caw caw whir whir bark bark
We’re fresh out of Noah’s Ark;
Wild geese come in arrowheads

Shot from birds dead long ago
Buried in your negro snow;
Long water down the river sleds.

Black begum of a thousand dugs,
A nation at each fountain tugs;
The forests plug their gaps with leaves.

Whet whet scrape and sharpen
Hoes and rakes and plows of iron;
The farmer sows his sheaves.

Mr Sword or Mr Plow
Can settle in your haymow,
All is the same to Mother Ground.

Great goddess I from you have come,
Killdeer crow geese ditch leaf plowman
From you have come, to you return
In endless laughing weeping round.


Your limbs are the rivers of Eden.
From the dead we see you return and arise,
Fair girl; lost daughter:
The swallows stream through the skies,
Down dipping water,
Skimming ground, and from chimney’s foul dusk
Their cousins the swifts tumble up as the tusk
Of roar day
In bright May
Scatters them gliding from darkness to sun-cusp.

Your face unlocks the bear from his den.
The world has come in to the arms of the sun.
What now sulky earth?
All winter you lay with your face like a nun,
But now bring forth
From river up boxdrain underground
Fish crawling up that dark street without sound
To spawn
In our pond
Young suckers and sunfish within its deep round.

Your body is a bethlehem.
Come near the sun that ripened you from earth
Pushing south winds
Through lands without belief till its pretty birth
The faithful finds:
Fanatic doves, believing wrens and orioles
Devoted redwinged blackbirds with their calls,
Archilochus alexandri,
Melospiza georgiana,
All surround you with arched cries of Love’s triumphals.

Your mind is a nest of all young things, all children
Come to this meadow forest edge;
Put her together
From this squirrel corn dogtooth young sedge
And all this weather
Of the white bloodroots to be her skin
The wake robin to be her shin
Her thighs pockets
Of white violets
Her breasts the gleaming soft pearly everlasting.

For her limbs are the rivers of Eden;
Her face unlocks
The brown merry bear from his den,
From his box
The butterfly and her body is a bethlehem
With cherubim
And her mind is a cloud of all young things, all children.

The prize to this one goes cried eagerly some
And others cried that to Raymond it must come,
So that Duncan Goose turned to the plantain leaf
And chopped the prize in half with beak-thrust brief.

James Reaney, 1958

The third edition of A Suit of Nettles features charming illustrations by engraver Jim Westergard, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

A Suit of Nettles (3rd ed. 2010)

For more about A Suit of Nettles, see Germaine Warkentin‘s essay “Out of Spenser and the Common Tongue”: James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles, and Richard Stingle‘s lecture “A learned poet writes A Suit of Nettles”.

"Geese" Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother), 1950 near Stratford, Ontario.
“Geese” Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother), 1950 near Stratford, Ontario.
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)