The local poet is riding his bike uptown On a fairly hot summer day Bent on Jumbo’s Ice Cream booth Before mailing a poem to Chimaera at the Post Office At Jumbo’s Ice Cream booth there are Thirty flavours available including— Licorice, fudge, lemon, orange, apple, grape, Banana, chocolate, cherry, Maple Walnut (my favourite) Vanilla, of course, peppermint, strawberry, raspberry— Weren’t there some vegetable ones? Do I remember— Onion ice cream? And this pair of double dip skim milk flavours Cost only a nickel each! And the ceiling was of pressed tin! So, I plunk down a nickel for a Maple Walnut! And so out the door bent on making the cone Last till I reach the Post Office door— The Post Office is French Provincial with 4 clocks. The poet holds his bicycle up with his left hand. Walks slowly licking as he proceeds. Two little girls say scornfully: “He’s acting Just like a little kid!” But he thinks— “Isn’t this what life is all about?”
James Reaney, 2005
“Ice Cream” is from Souwesto Home (2005) and available from Brick Books.
James Reaney’s translation of Pierre Falcon’s “The Battle of Seven Oaks” (“La Chanson de la Grenouillère”) can be found in Margaret Arnett MacLeod’s 1960 book Songs of Old Manitoba.
Pierre Falcon (1793-1876) was a celebrated Métis balladeer and North West Company clerk. “He had a feeling for words, a sense of rhythm, and a love of a rollicking tune. He was strongly dramatic, and his idea of the importance of the Métis Nation may have been more right than his English contemporaries were ready to concede [.…]” (MacLeod, p. 2)
James Reaney offers these notes on his approach to translating the song:“This translation can be sung to Pierre Falcon’s original tune with some stretching, but no more than to sing his own words requires. In making this translation I have followed Ezra Pound’s practice. Since there can be no translation so inaccurate as that which sticks closely and literally to the surface of a song, I have attempted to make only an English equivalent of Falcon’s ballad and so translate the really important thing – its high spirits.” (MacLeod, p. 9)
1. Would you like to hear me sing Of a true and recent thing? It was June 19, the band of Bois-Brûlés Arrived that day, Oh the brave warriors they!
2. We took three foreigners prisoners when We came to the place called Frog, Frog Plain. There were men who’d come from Orkney, Who’d come, you see, To rob our country.
3. Well we were just about to unhorse When we heard two of us give, give voice. Two of our men cried, “Hey! Look back, look back! The Anglo-Sack Coming for to attack.”
4. Right away smartly we veered about Galloping at them with a shout! You know we did trap all, all those Grenadiers! They could not move Those horseless cavaliers.
5. Now we like honourable men did act, Sent an ambassador – yes, in fact! “Monsieur Governor! Would you like to stay? A moment spare — There’s something we’d like to say.”
6. Governor, Governor, full of ire. “Soldiers!” he cries, “Fire! Fire.” So they fire first and their muskets roar! They almost kill Our ambassador!
7. Governor thought himself a king. He wished an iron rod to swing. Like a lofty lord he tries to act. Bad luck, old chap! A bit too hard you whacked!
8. When we went galloping, galloping by Governor thought that he would try For to chase and frighten us Bois-Brûlés. Catastrophe! Dead on the ground he lay.
9. Dead on the ground lots of grenadiers too. Plenty of grenadiers, a whole slew. We’ve almost stamped out his whole army. Of so many Five or four left there be.
10. You should have seen those Englishmen — Bois-Brûlés chasing them, chasing them, From bluff to bluff they stumbled that day While the Bois-Brûlés Shouted “Hurray!”
11. Tell, oh tell me who made up this song? Why it’s our own poet, Pierre Falcon. Yes, she was written this song of praise For the victory We won this day. Yes, she was written, this song of praise — Come sing the glory Of the Bois-Brûlés.
Note: James Reaney’s long poem “A Message to Winnipeg” (1960) includes this translation of Pierre Falcon’s 1816 song. For more about the June 19, 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks, see the entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
I love gateways into farms & yards: even more Do I love door- ways (latches, their hooks, hinges, keyholes). From my collegiate days I remember the janitor, Mr January, Who lingered, with his blizzard broom At the highschool’s entrance, tending His garden of galoshes, rubbers, boots, Mudmats, sleet mops, rainwhisks. Awesomely quiet, brooding, puttering man, He had, in his pockets, keys for all locks Of classroom, gymnasium, Even the mysterious cubby holes under stairs, And the exits & entrances of the assembly Auditorium. You shuffler & sweeper, who opened, who shut, Kept the rain, wind, mud, snow, out, And us, inside, warm & dry. Doorkeeper, in some strange way, You caretaker, though you were Neither principal nor teacher, You secretly governed the school. We often dreamt of you, Our most remembered educator.
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.
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
For more about James Reaney’s use of shape poems or pattern poems as theatrical devices, see Thomas Gerry’s bookThe 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.
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”
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
“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first book of poems.
’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
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.
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.