Brian Bartlett gathered various Halifax poets and readers of poetry together to read and celebrate James Reaney’s poems, and to launch the newest book in The Porcupine’s Quill‘s “Essential” series – an entertaining choice of Reaney’s poetry written from the early 1940s to the 21st century. Zachariah Wells has posted an audio recording of the reading.
James Reaney’s poem “Antichrist as a Child” is the poem of the day on Poetry Daily, an online anthology of contemporary poetry. “Antichrist as a Child” can also be found in The Essential James Reaney, published by The Porcupine’s Quill.
Antichrist as a Child
When Antichrist was a child
He caught himself tracing
The capital letter A
On a window sill
And wondered why
Because his name contained no A.
And as he crookedly stood
In his mother’s flower-garden
He wondered why she looked so sadly
Out of an upstairs window at him.
He wondered why his father stared so
Whenever he saw his little son
Walking in his soot-coloured suit.
He wondered why the flowers
And even the ugliest weeds
Avoided his fingers and his touch.
And when his shoes began to hurt
Because his feet were becoming hooves
He did not let on to anyone
For fear they would shoot him for a monster.
He wondered why he more and more
Dreamed of eclipses of the sun,
Of sunsets, ruined towns and zeppelins,
And especially inverted, upside down churches.
As planets love an ancient star
And move in far dances round its fire
So the farmer and his children sit
About their stove whose flamey wit
Giggles in red and yellow laughter
Like a small sun caught in iron armour.
When outside the winter winds are loud
Close by their summery stove they crowd.
Through the windows they may see
The cold wind herd a river of snow
Beneath the moon, across the land
All locked in Winter’s frog-cold hand.
And sometimes the wind does shove
Between the window sill and window
Beneath the door and across the floor
White whisks and brooms of snow.
Through every little crack
At the front door and the back
Came the soft white hands of snow
That, with its heat, the stove does smash
Into a harmless flat thin splash.
Then down the chimney the wind came
Till the fire seemed somewhat lame
Until someone poked at it
Or put on another stick
And it blazed up again.
The wind, the cold snow and the rain
Could not put that stove out
But in a furious dance
They kept a safe distance
Always beyond the window pane
So that the farmer and his children
By the stove sitting tight
Only heard the wind and never felt
Its sharp cold bite.
Then the farmer told them stories
That his father had told him
Of the massacre at Lucan
Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead
Except one little boy who crawled under a bed;
Of the little boy carried off by a bear
And, “a ball of fire leaped out of the earth
At him and vanished into thin air.
Your grandmother saw
Tecumseh’s head on a pole;
Had also dined with him once
And when she looked into her soup
At the bottom of the bowl
She saw a groundhog’s paw.
And Indian Sal who picked flax
And drank vinegar and had attacks
And Granny Crack
Who wandered the countryside
With seven petticoats to her back.
And Towser Smith who
When it rained for five days in a row
Went out and shook his fist at the sky,
His fist at God in the sky.
And how when I was a child
You stood at the table
And ate off a pie-tin
Not sit on chairs and eat off a plate
As you do now.
And how bricks and mortar
Couldn’t keep her from marrying him.”
Then the farmer and his children grow drowsy
With the heat of the fire so blowsy
And the stories their father tells them
Of the good and bad old days
Grow shorter and shorter
Till the fire alone seems to talk.
Its ripening red now seeming
A massive convulsive giant’s heart
A Robin’s red breast.
A sunset in summer,
The rising and large Harvest Moon
When she walks out of the east, –
All these things seems the fire
Which, with their father’s stories
Will long be remembered
And protect them from growing old.
Winter’s tales that like gold
In the purses of their hearts
Will ring and shine forever
Warming them in the long winter’s cold.
James Reaney, 1949
This poem first appeared in Contemporary Verse, 30, Winter 1949.
James Reaney’s One Man Masque was first performed by the author as part of “An Evening with James Reaney and John Beckwith” at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto on April 5, 1960. Originally planned as the premiere of Beckwith and Reaney’s opera Night Blooming Cereus, One Man Masque and Beckwith’s Five Pieces for Brass Trio were added to form the first half of the program.
Since the opera was to last only an hour John suggested that I read some poems to raise the curtain. I decided that something more than just a reading was called for, [… and] I ended up writing another libretto for a masque — masque in the sense of a series of tableaux and spectacles, or stage images. I had been working on a series of poems that presented a subject in various keys: you start out with a Dwarf, modulate to a poem about a Baby, proceed to one about a Dauphin (baby Prince) and eventually fly from it all with that baby among the birds — the humming-bird. This suggested a stage picture that started out with a cradle, proceeded through chair, table, bed, rocking-chair to coffin… [pages 41-42]
Night Blooming Cereus, a chamber opera in one act, is one of several musical collaborations between poet and playwright James Reaney, who wrote the libretto, and composer John Beckwith. In his autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, John Beckwith had this to say about his first opera:
“Furthering my ambition to compose an opera, I had the great good luck to find a librettist — a writer who understood music. James Reaney shared my love of opera, and early in our friendship in student days we spoke of perhaps collaborating on an original work. In early 1953 I received from him a draft of Night Blooming Cereus. The one-act opera he imagined taking shape as a sort of southern Ontario miracle play. It turned out to be the first of four operatic works we produced together over succeeding decades…” [Unheard Of, page 246]
Night Blooming Cereus calls for eight singers and an instrumental ensemble of fourteen players, and lasts about sixty minutes.[…] The image of a flower that blooms once a year — or by poetic licence once a century — stands for human hope and renewal…” [Unheard Of, page 247]
John Beckwith completed the music and orchestration in the summer of 1958, and CBC Radio commissioned a broadcast for the “Wednesday Night” program in April 1959 and again in 1960. The first stage production of Night Blooming Cereus was at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto on April 5, 1960 with the following cast:
ALICE: Anne Stephenson
FIRST GIRL: Shelia Piercey
SECOND GIRL: Ruth Ann Morse
MRS. BROWN: Patricia Rideout
MRS. WOOL: Irene Byatt
BEN: Alexander Gray
BARBARA: Patricia Snell
MR. ORCHARD: Bernard Johnson
Settings and costumes were by Louis de Niverville, musical direction by Ettore Mazzoleni and stage direction by Pamela Terry.