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.”
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 inJames Reaney’s play Colours in the Dark, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1967.
Small babe, tell me
As you sat in your mother’s cave
What did you build there,
Little baby mine?
Sir, I made the tooth
I invented the eye
I played out hair on a comb-harp
I thought up the sigh.
I pounded the darkness to
Guts, Heart and Head:
America, Eurasia and Africa
I out of chaos led.
I fought the goblins
For the heart;
‘Twas a jewel they desired,
But I held it.
I fought off the rats
From the guts.
They nibbled but I
Smashed the mutts.
I choked the bat so intent
For the diamond of my mind;
I caught him in the ogre’s cellar
The tub of blood behind.
And the darkness gave me
Two boneless wands or swords:
I knew not their meaning then
Whether traps or rewards.
One was the vorpal phallus
Filled with jostling army,
Henhouse and palace
Street crowds and history.
Two was the magic tongue
Stuffed with names and numbers,
The string of song,
The waker from fallen slumbers.
My mother opened her grave,
I sprang out a giant
Into another cave
Where I was a seed again.
Hapless and wriggly small
As in my father’s groin:
My Shakespeare’s tongue a wawl
And impotent my loin.
The sun-egg I must reach
Was steeples far away,
The world that I must name
Was shapeless, sneaky gray.
Is it wonder then I rage
An old man one hour old,
A bridegroom come to a bride
Careless, unready and cold.
My wedding cake’s still in the field;
My bride is ninety and maggoty;
My groomsmen glaring hangmen;
My bridal bed bouldery.
Small babe, tell me
As you sit in your mother’s cave
What did you build there,
Little baby mine?
James Reaney, 1959
“The Baby” is part of a sequence of poems from James Reaney’s play One-man Masque, first performed by the author on April 5-6, 1960 at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto. You can also find the poem in The Essential James Reaney (2009), available from The Porcupine’s Quill.
The chough, said a dictionary,
Is a relation of the raven
And a relative of the crow.
It’s nearly extinct,
But lingers yet
In the forests about Oporto.
So read I as a little child
And saw a young Chough in its nest,
Its very yellow beak already tasting
The delicious eyes
Of missionaries and dead soldiers;
Its wicked mind already thinking
Of how it would line its frowsy nest
With the gold fillings of dead men’s teeth.
When I grew older I learned
That the chough, the raven and the crow
That rise like a key signature of black sharps
In the staves and music of a scarlet sunset
Are not to be feared so much
As that carrion bird, within the brain,
Whose name is Devouring Years,
Who gobbles up and rends
All odds and ends
Of memory, good thoughts and recollections
That one has stored up between one’s ears
And whose feet come out round either eye.
To go where I first saw maps
Is almost too simple perhaps.
Find Pork Street or Hessestrasse
And come up McKone’s sideroad past Cardwell’s
Till you hit Elmhurst School
Where time is reckoned by a Pequenaut clock
Manufactured in Kitchener, alias Berlin.
And space is taught by gray green windows
Unrolled from their special “map” cupboard
And hung upon the wall with us looking up
At continents Mercatorized,
Anything British vermilionized,
With funny stripes for Palestine
And Egypt, Iraq, Persia and Danzig,
Places only half imperialized,
Or spheres of influence;
However, just over the map cupboard,
Was a wall of continuous windows
That contained my uncle’s fields,
When school was over
Basically my way home landscape.
It was a map too!
Its scale was an inch to an inch,
A mile to a mile.
There was no map to guide me home
Save this one and a path.
Teaching itself, white with snow, gray sky,
Blurred tree sticks, ditch, swamp,
Forest, meadow, yard, home.
Inside my school — the whole world
In a round globe, or flat maps;
Outside our school — a part of the world
Too big to be taught.
The Elmhurst School mentioned in “Maps” was a one-room schoolhouse where James Reaney attended elementary school from 1932-1939. Elmhurst School was northeast of Stratford, Ontario, and about one mile from the farm where James Reaney grew up. In his autobiography (1992), James Reaney describes his walk to school:
“To go to school, I left the house by its formal front door, not much used, going by a hall dresser whose combination chest with seat-lid was filled with powerfully sweet-smelling grass seed. The way to public school lay first through the relic of a Victorian dooryard, uncut locust hedge reaching up farther every year, four apple trees shaded by big maples where once, very early (1870) had been a garden. Then, the gables of the house still visible behind me, a field, the edge of a bush [woods] and swamp, Cardwell’s flats — difficult to cross with high water after floods — and a ditch across which my father had sort of established a floating, single log bridge.”
(This excerpt is from James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, page 297, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1992.)
May I help you? You want a Jesus?
We have a different style for each of our four
Example, in the basement we stock the demonic Jesus
with the hardware & the mousetraps and the col
-chicum bulbs & the rat poison.
Demonic Jesus, yes—
As portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s film where Christ giggles,
An efficient young carpenter apprenticed to his dad,
Helps his father make crosses for the Romans to use.
As portrayed in a Handmade film bankrolled by one of the Beatles
He says: “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”
And his much more attractive rival is a well-endowed male,
Amiable, but not too interested in changing the world,
Now, let’s take the escalator
To the First Floor where you may prefer
Christ as He really was,
Classified with Kodak film, notions, perfumes,
Stationery & Men’s Wear.
This historical Jesus is made up of verifiable only facts,
Of which there are practically none;
Do you know there is a serious doubt that he even existed,
But finding his grave would help.
They’ve just found that of Caiaphas, the Chief Priest of his time.
The archeologists are busy.
Water-walker, speed baker & fisher? Virgin birth?
We’ve scrubbed him clean of all that midrash rubbish.
After all, can you cure leprosy, blindness & death
Meanwhile, a monastery in Turkey has coughed up
A rather interesting Gnostic scrap with regard to
A hitherto obscure passage—Mark IX: 51, 52.
At last our suspicions about his sexuality may be—
Let us take the Elevator to the Second Floor
Where the Christ of the creeds & the New Testament
Is still available
(Buyers, not many lately)
Among the patterned china, the records for gramophones,
The furniture & dining room suites.
Now this model was born to a Virgin, raised the dead,
Often corpses not so recently deceased,
Bent reality with his magic, died,
Then, like Snow White, came alive again:
Dared to be a crucified wretch on a cross;
Somehow destroyed & renewed a large empire,
Is, no doubt, our only hope for translating us out of here.
But, you know, we get a lot of returns
And customers asking for something really true this time,
Not so exciting & poetic, more real.
A man who walks on rain
Is too great a stretch for their brain.
Others say they are more than happy, but you can tell
They’re not by the funny look in their eyes,
And, of course, we provide a booklet, one of many,
Just in case your difficulty is, say, the Ascension,
Speaking of which, let us climb these stairs
Up to the roof of this Department Store.
On the roof of this Department Store
Having a cigarette on his break,
I saw a young floorwalker
Leaning against the elevator shaft.
By the sudden flash, I recognized Him,
Yes, by the moment glimpse
Of the nailmarks
On His hands.
It is the rutting season
At Grand Bend
And the young men and the women
Explode in each other’s arms
While no chaperons attend.
By this furious activity
Of the loin
No children are conceived
For they have avoided this.
While the sun
Sprays everyone with iodine
And old men sit
Upon the dirty beach
With great bellies big
Not with child
But with creamed asparagus
And to somewhat more disgust
Someone has spilt a bottle of scent.
Crazily the cheap sweetness
Leaps through the air
Making some think of something decaying
And others of stenographers in the rain
And another to say giddily,
“How violent, at Grand Bend this year,
How violent the violets are!”
James Reaney, 1949
“Grand Bend” is from The Great Lakes Suite, a series of poems James Reaney wrote in 1949 in The Red Heart, his first collection of poems. For more about the poem, see JBNBlog.