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
“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.