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.
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.
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’sSouwesto Home and Colleen Thibaudeau’sThe 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
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]
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.
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.
James Reaney’s poem“Lake Superior” begins the suite:
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.
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 collection of poems.
Poems Written About The Donnellys To Assist
The Renewal of The Town Hall at Exeter, Highway #4 *
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Here is the Eleventh Letter from Twelve Letters to a Small Town, a suite of poems James Reaney wrote for composer John Beckwith in 1962.
ELEVENTH LETTER — Shakespearean Gardens
The Tempest The violet lightning of a March thunderstorm glaring the patches of ice still stuck to the streets.
Two Gentlemen of Verona On Wellington St. an elegant colonel-looking gentleman with waxed white moustachioes that came to tight little points.
Merry Wives of Windsor The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Orange Lodge marched down the street in white dresses with orange bows on them.
Richard III At last all the children ran away from home and were brought up by an old spinster who lived down the street.
Henry VIII Mr. White’s second wife was the first Mrs. Brown and the first Mrs. White was the second Mrs. Brown.
Troilus & Cressida “Well, I haven’t been to that old Festival yet but since it began I’ve had ten different boyfriends.”
Titus Andronicus Young Mr. Wood to-day lost his right hand in an accident at the lumber yards.
Romeo & Juliet Romeo & Juliet Streets.
Timon of Athens Old Miss Shipman lived alone in a weatherbeaten old cottage and could occasionally be seen out on the front lawn cutting the grass with a small sickle.
Julius Caesar Antony wore a wrist watch in the Normal School production although he never looked at it during the oration.
Macbeth Principal Burdoch’s often expressed opinion was that a great many people would kill a great many other people if they knew for certain they could get away with it.
Hamlet A girl at the bakery took out a boat on the river, tied candlesticks to her wrists and drowned herself.
King Lear Mr. Upas was a silver haired cranky old individual who complained that the meat was too tough at the boarding house.
Othello At the edge of town there stood a lonely white frame building—a deserted Negro church.
The Merchant of Venice When my cousin worked for the Silversteins she had her own private roll of baloney kept aside in the refrigerator for her.
Henry V The local armouries are made of the usual red brick with the usual limestone machicolation.
Twelve Letters to a Small Town was first published in 1962 by the Ryerson Press. In the Afterword to the 2002 facsimile edition, James Reaney wrote that after it was published, “Many Stratford residents said they saw on paper for the first time their memories of the town and wrote to me to say so.”
Among the shows currently on at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario are The Tempest, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and The Comedy of Errors.
I saw the sundogs barking
On either side of the Sun
As he was making his usual will
And last testament
In a glorious vestment.
And the sundogs cried,
We’ll make a ring
Around the moon
And children, seeing it, will say:
Up there they play Farmer in the Dell
And the moon like the cheese stands still.
We shall drown the crickets,
Set the killdeer birds crying,
Send shingles flying,
And pick all the apples
Ripe or not.
Our barking shall overturn
Hencoops and rabbit-hutches,
Shall topple over privies
With people inside them,
And burn with invisible,
Oh, very invisible!
In each frightened tree.
Whole branches we’ll bite off
And for the housewife’s sloth
In not taking them in
We’ll drag her sheets and pillow cases
Off the fence
And dress up in them
And wear them thin.
And people will say
Both in the country
And in the town
It falls in pails
Of iron nails.
We’ll blow the curses
Right back into the farmer’s mouths
As they curse our industry
And shake their fists,
For we will press the oats
Close to the ground,
Lodge the barley,
And rip open the wheat stooks.
We shall make great faces
Of dampness appear on ceilings
And blow down chimneys
Till the fire’s lame.
With the noise of a thousand typewriters
We shall gallop over the roofs of town.
We are the Sun’s animals.
We stand by him in the West
And ready to obey
His most auburn wish
For Rain, Wind and Storm