“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 You can view an archived version of the event here: https://fb.watch/1NryVbGfTv/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. 

James Reaney’s “Clouds”

Clouds

These clouds are soft fat horses
That draw Weather in his wagon
Who bears in his old hands
Streaked whips and strokes of lightning.
The hooves of his cattle are made
Of limp water, that stamp
Upon the roof during a storm
And fall from dripping eaves;
Yet these hooves have worn away mountains
In their trotting over Earth.
And for manes these clouds
Have the soft and various winds
That still can push
A ship into the sea
And for neighs, the sable thunder.

James Reaney, 1949

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

“Sixth Letter” from Twelve Letters To A Small Town

Illustration by James Reaney, 1962

SIXTH LETTER
A House on King William Street

Like the life here
The wallpaper repeats itself
Up and down go the roses
Similar blows struck out
By air-banging green fists:
A bright rose and a blue one
A pink blow and a blue one

The years have not changed their likeness
Except that those behind the sofa
Have kept their original blaze
And those opposite the window
Have turned yellow.

Aunt Henny says to Aunt Penny,
“Have you read She? Oh, a terrible book,
An awful book! Yes, it’s by
Haggard Rider Haggard.”

Aunt Lurkey says to Aunt Turkey:
“I nearly slipped today, I nearly
Slipped today.
We should put a piece of carpet
On that particular step
We should,”
Says Aunt Lurkey taking another should
Off the would pile.

No one remembers when
The wallpaper was new, except
The wallpaper itself
In the green smothered darkness behind 
The sofa and the cupboard.

And I, I their awkward fool
Board there while I go to school.

James Reaney, 1962

“Sixth 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” 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 July 1961, visit the Composers Showcase at the Canadian Music Centre.

Illustration by E.K. Johnson from Rider Haggard’s She (1887) courtesy wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She:_A_History_of_Adventure

Songs of London Poetry and Painting with Serenata Music on January 18

Join us on Saturday January 18 at 8:00 pm at Western’s von Kuster Auditorium for a musical evening of “Songs of London Poetry and Painting” by local composers Oliver Whitehead (guitar) and Steve Holowitz (piano). 

Inspired by poems and art with a Southwestern Ontario connection, Whitehead and Holowitz have set to music poems from James Reaney’s Souwesto Home and Colleen Thibaudeau’s The Artemesia Book.

The performers are London musicians Sonja Gustafson, soprano, and Adam Iannetta, baritone, along with  Ingrid Crozman on flute and Patrick Theriault on cello (replacing Christine Newland). 

When & Where: Saturday January 18, 8:00 pm, von Kuster Auditorium, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University

Tickets are available at the door or online from the Grand Theatre Box Office and OnStageDirect. Students $20 and Adults $40

For more about upcoming concerts and events, visit Serenata Music: http://serenatamusic.com

Souwesto Home, Brick Books 2005
James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau near Stratford, Ontario, 1982.

Marvellous Playhouses — Thomas Gerry on James Reaney’s emblem poems

In the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, Thomas Gerry’s article “Marvellous Playhouses” celebrates James Reaney’s emblem poems. For Gerry, the poems “put into play” Reaney’s artistic process, a “magnetic method” he developed for generating meaning through the use of wit.

The emblem poems are theatre-like devices that draw readers into the activity of making meaning. As with audiences for dramatic performances, emblem-readers’ participation is vital. [Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 196]

James Reaney’s emblem poem “The Castle” first appeared in Poetry (Chicago) (1969). See Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 197.
Summer 1979: James Reaney working in the garden near Stratford, Ontario
(Photo by Les Kohalmi)

For a full discussion of all ten emblem poems and James Reaney’s artistic process, see The Emblems of James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

See also Thomas Gerry‘s 2015 lecture on “Theatrical Features of James Reaney’s Emblem Poems”.

Village Opera presents The Great Lakes Suite May 4-5

May 4-5 in London, Ontario — In celebration of Canadian composers, the Village Opera directed by Adam Corrigan-Holowitz will present The Great Lakes Suite, which features six poems by James Reaney set to music by John Beckwith.

Reaney and Beckwith became friends when they were students at the University of Toronto in the late 1940s. The Great Lakes Suite is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney’s first poetry collection. Inspired by the poems, John Beckwith created a chamber cycle for two voices accompanied by a trio.

Along with John Beckwith, this presentation by the Village Opera also includes works by John Greer, London’s Matthew Emery, and two songs by Ontario composer Jeff Enns. The performers are Katy Clark, soprano, and Paul Grambo, baritone.

When: Saturday May 4 at 7:30 and Sunday May 5 at 3:00
Where: Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church, London, Ontario
Tickets: $25/$15 for students: https://villageopera.com/buy-tickets

James Reaney’s poem“Lake Superior” begins the suite:

Lake Superior

I am Lake Superior
Cold and gray.
I have no superior;
All other lakes
Haven’t got what it takes;
All are inferior.
I am Lake Superior
Cold and gray.
I am so cold
That because I chill them
The girls of Fort William
Can’t swim in me.
I am so deep
That when people drown in me
Their relatives weep
For they’ll never find them.
In me swims the fearsome
Great big sturgeon.
My shores are made of iron
Lined with tough, wizened trees.
No knife of a surgeon
Is sharper than these
Waves of mine
That glitter and shine
In the light of the Moon, my mother
In the light of the Sun, my grandmother.

James Reaney, 1949

For more about John Beckwith and James Reaney’s musical collaborations, see John Beckwith’s lecture on James Reaney and Music from November 2016: https://jamesreaney.com/gallery/john-beckwith-on-james-reaney-and-music-november-5-2016-at-museum-london/

For more about composer John Beckwith, see his 2012 autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, and also the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase: http://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37279/showcase

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney

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 collection of poems.

James Reaney’s “Entire Horse”

Entire Horse

Poems Written About The Donnellys To Assist
The Renewal of The Town Hall at Exeter, Highway #4 *

I
Around Borrisokane, in Eire, the roads twist
After cowherds with willow gads, after wise woman’s spells,
After chariots and the widest go-around found in a mare’s skin.
But in Biddulph, Canada, in Mount Carmel’s brooder stove, St Peter’s fields,
The roads cross at right angles, a careful Euclidean net, roods, rods
Spun by surveyors out of Spider stars – Mirzak, Spicula, Thuban, Antares.
Like serpents, twitchgrass roots, dragons – the Irish roads twist,
The old crooked roads twist in the cage of the straight new.

II
We were horsemen, dressed well and from my brother’s entire horse,
From his entire horse came the colt fast fleet hoofhand with which
We seized and held onto the path through Exeter down to London.
We lifted the hills, creeks, rivers, slaughterhouses, taverns,
We lifted their travellers and those who were asleep when we passed
And those who saw us rattle by as they plowed mud or whittled.
We lifted them like a graveldust pennant, we swung them up and out
Till they yelled about wheels falling off, unfair competition, yah!
And we lie here now – headless, still, dead, waggonless, horseless,
Sleighless, hitched, stalled.

III
As the dressmaker hems my muslin handkerchiefs,
The night the Vigilantes burnt down one of their own barns,
As I sit waiting for a cake to bake and my gentle niece with me
I realize I am not doing what you want me to do.
You – bored with your Calvinist shoes chewed to pieces
By streets of insurance, streets of cakemix, packages, soap, sermonettes.
You want me to – you project a more exciting me on me.
She should be burning! Clip! Ax! Giantess! Coarse, I should curse!
Why should I accept these handcuffs from you?

 James Reaney, 2005

* Respectively, the three speakers of these poems are William Porte, the Lucan postmaster, Tom Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly.

“Entire Horse” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books. Listen to Jeff Culbert read “Entire Horse” here.

Stagecoach scene from James Reaney’s play The St. Nicholas Hotel; the performers are Miriam Greene, Suzanne Turnbull, and Rick Gorrie (back row); Jerry Franken, Jay Bowen, and David Ferry (front row) at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ontario, 1974.

Scene from the play: In Act I before the Donnelly stagecoach leaves the City Hotel in London, Mike Donnelly (driver) says:

“Are there any more ladies and gentlemen for Calamity Corners as ’tis sometimes called, St. John’s, Birr — my old friend Ned here calls it Bobtown, the more elegant name is Birr. Elginfield known to some as Ryan’s Corner’s, Lucan that classic spot if it’s not all burnt down, Clandeboye, Mooretown, Exeter and Crediton. If Ned here hasn’t sawn it to pieces, the coach is waiting for you at the front door and it pleases you.”