“Near Tobermoray, Ontario” by James Reaney

Near Tobermoray, Ontario

I look upon a blue cove
In August
With egg pebble beach,
Blue sky & cedar birch sides.

And I look upon the sisters four
Blue sky & blue water
Rock, pebble & earth
And the light I see it with.

Watty Blue has a drowned man
For her heart
And rain for food & wind
To crisp her thoughts with.

Pale Blue Airy has clouds
To mind & winds to sing,
Thunder to say, lightning to do
And birds to hold.

Urtha lumpily clogs
Her clotty feet,
Waves Aaron’s Rod & wears
Emeralds in rags.

But Light, you’re quite another thing.
Indeterminate,
You hold them all yet let them slip
Into themselves again.

James Reaney, 1963

“Near Tobermoray, Ontario” is from Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. 

“Georgian Bay near Tobermoray” watercolour by James Reaney, 1961

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

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.

“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