The 2015 James Reaney Memorial Lecture with Thomas Gerry

Thank you all for coming to the Stratford Public Library on Sunday October 18 to hear Thomas Gerry speak on “Theatrical Features of James Reaney’s Emblem Poems”. Professor Gerry focused in particular on the metaphor of perspective in James Reaney’s “Egypt” emblem poem.

“When we were taught [as children] to draw railway tracks as meeting at a point, our world views shrank and were subjected to artificial limits. This analysis of perspective explains for readers of  Reaney’s emblems a good deal about the emblems’ style. They require their readers to ‘make a visionary correction’, and to see the world, in Blake‘s word, as ‘infinite’. — Thomas Gerry in The Emblems of James Reaney, page 73.

“Egypt” by James Reaney. First published in Poetry (Chicago) 115.3, December 1969.
“Egypt” by James Reaney. First published in Poetry (Chicago) 115.3, December 1969.

Professor Gerry explained the tradition of the emblem poem in literature and its use of allegorical meaning to rouse the faculties. He also compared the pyramid structure from “Egypt” to the “family tree pyramid” poem that appears in James Reaney’s play Colours in the Dark:

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

  He then led us in performing the poem and explained how “the pyramid shape recurs as an emblematic feature of the play” (The Emblems of James Reaney, page 84).

October 18, 2015, Stratford Public Library Auditorium (1)
October 18, 2015, Stratford Public Library Auditorium (1)
October 18, 2015, Stratford Public Library Auditorium (2)

Thank you, Thomas Gerry, for your spirited lecture, and thank you also to the staff of the Stratford Public Library — Sally Hengeveld, Julia Merritt, Krista Robinson, and Robyn Godfrey for your support of this event.

October 18, 2015 -- Susan Reaney, Susan Wallace, Thomas Gerry, and James Stewart Reaney (photo by Elizabeth Reaney)
October 18, 2015 — Susan Reaney, Susan Wallace, Thomas Gerry, and James Stewart Reaney (Photo by Elizabeth Reaney)


Next year’s speaker will be John Beckwith, composer, who collaborated with James Reaney on many musical works. The annual lecture is a project developed by The Stratford Public Library and Poetry Stratford, and features a talk by a person who is knowledgeable about the life and work of Stratford poet and playwright James Reaney and of writing in the Southwestern Ontario region, which is such a strong element in Reaney’s writing.

Here are photographs from our happy afternoon near Stratford, courtesy Elizabeth Reaney:




James Reaney’s “The Fan”

Colleen Reaney, Katelynd Chamberlin Franken, and James Reaney at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, July 1985. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

The Fan

A girl spent all day pleating a fan.
Either we have Verdun & Kursk
Or we have herbivorous people
As the she above
Who spend all day in their garden
Watching butterflies or playing with a kite
Or cutting out coloured paper
For a fan
Or a kite
Or balancing the reds of zinnias with those of amaranths,
For example that plant called Love Lies Bleeding.

 I saw a field of men playing football
With a criminal’s head.
I saw a field of sunflowers wiped out
By ten thousand tanks.
I saw Aunt Marjorie’s paint brush
Destroy a knight in armour
And even a villainous peasant!
I saw our hockey player break a Russian player’s ankle!

 And I saw the Fan! giant in the sky
Huge, winnowing!
I saw an armoured car drive up
To arrest an artist
Who was accounted hopelessly a- and un-political
Because he painted nothing but flowers & mice,
But of course was suddenly seen
As the most dangerous rebel in the republic.
And I saw the Fan — big, winnowing,
Make a rhapsody of a windy day,
Separate wheat from straw just like that,
And blow giants & battlefields like dead leaves away!

 James Reaney, 2005

James Reaney, age 1, with his father, James Nexbitt Reaney. Photo by Elizabeth Crerar Reaney, 1927..
James Reaney (age 8 months) with his father, James Nesbitt Reaney, Spring 1927.


“The Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home,

available from Brick Books.


James Reaney’s “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”

In celebration of Brick Books 40th anniversary, here is one of the 26 stanzas from James Reaney’s poem “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”.

A Useful List:
Useful for what?

Well, I don’t quite know yet,
But I swear that as an infant,
Born near the Little Lakes,
I met them.
Every morning in our house,
Vesta used to light the stove

 James Reaney, 2005

James Reaney at home, age 1 1/2 years, January 1928.

“Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home (2005), available from Brick Books. For more about the poem, see Celebration of Poetry: Week 1 James Reaney.

Ten of the stanzas from “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” (including “(u) A Useful List”) were set to music by Oliver Whitehead and Stephen Holowitz and performed by the Antler River Project in 2008.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

“Gifts” by James Reaney


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

“Going for the Mail” by James Reaney

From the suite of poems The Young Traveller (1964)

 i)  Going for the Mail

After four, when home from school.
A boy down the farm walks,
To get the mail the mailman’s left
In the backroad mailbox.

Oh things to watch and things to think
As I walk down the lane
Between the elmtree and the fence
Things that are not plain.

For instance is the elmtree there
Still there when I am past it?
I jump about and there it is
Certain to all my wit.

But could it still not be
That when my back is turned
It disappears and nothing is?
Why not, I’ve still not learned.

There’s sedge in the marsh to look at
And dark brown curled dock.
Why do I love the weeds so
And examine every stalk?

Back at the house they tell him
   That although he was at the mailbox
He forgot to get the mail out
   So back again he walks.

The fields are dark, the sky dark gray
The farmhouse lights come on
And dimmer lights in barns,
One reflected in the pond.

This time there’s less to think upon
Since all the detail’s gone
But what news and what mail I get
To reflect upon —

The world in huge butterflies of paper —
(And here’s the comfort)
Will still not be as interesting
As walking twice for it.

 James Reaney, 1964

From Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972.

James Reaney (age 9) at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, Spring 1937.
Elm trees along the east fence, 1937

James Reaney’s “The Baby”

The Baby

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.

Listen to Jeff Culbert read “The Baby” here:

One-man Masque

Jeff Culbert in One-Man Masque, Grand Theatre McManus Studio, London, Ontario, 2002

One-man Masque (1960) is available in Two Plays by James Reaney, along with Gentle Rain Food Co-op (1997), published by Ergo Books in 2003.

James Reaney’s The Chough

The Chough

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.

James Reaney, 1949

The Yellow-billed or Alpine Chough and the Red-billed Chough of the Corvidae family. Illustration by Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857) courtesy Wikipedia.

“The Chough” is from James Reaney’s first book of poems The Red Heart (1949), and it also appears in The Essential James Reaney (2009), available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

James Reaney’s “Maps” from Souwesto Home


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.

James Reaney, 2005

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

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.)

James Reaney off to Elmhurst School in 1936
The pupils of Elmhurst School with their teacher, Miss Helen Coveney, in 1936. James Reaney (age 10) is in the top row, third from the left.

James Reaney’s Department Store Jesus

Department Store Jesus

May I help you? You want a Jesus?
We have a different style for each of our four
Floors, for
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,
Named Brian.

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
That easily?
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.

James Reaney, 2005

“Department Store Jesus” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books. Listen to Jeff Culbert perform “Department Store Jesus” here.

James Reaney, 1995
Photo by Marion Johnson