James Reaney’s “The Sundogs”

The Sundogs

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,
“Bow wow!
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.
Bow wow!
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!
Flames
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

James Reaney, 1949

“The Sundogs” is from James Reaney’s first book of poems The Red Heart (1949), and it is also featured in Act I of his play Colours in the Dark from 1967. You can also find the poem in The Essential James Reaney (2009), available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

Barbara Bryne, Douglas Rain and Sandy Webster in Colours in the Dark, 1967 Photography by Peter Smith & Company (Courtesy Stratford Festival Archives. Reproduced with permission.)
“Sundogs” photo courtesy http://prairiesmokenotes.wordpress.com

James Reaney’s poem “Klaxon”

Klaxon

All day cars mooed and shrieked,
Hollered and bellowed and wept
Upon the road.
They slid by with bits of fur attached,
Fox-tails and rabbit-legs,
The skulls and horns of deer,
Cars with yellow spectacles
Or motorcycle monocle,
Cars whose gold eyes burnt
With a too-rich battery,
Murderous cars and manslaughter cars,
Chariots from whose foreheads leapt
Silver women of ardent bosom.
Ownerless, passengerless, driverless,
They came to anyone
And with headlights full of tears
Begged for a master,
For someone to drive them
For the familiar chauffeur.
Limousines covered with pink slime
Of children’s blood
Turned into the open fields
And fell over into ditches,
The wheels kicking helplessly.
Taxis begged trees to step inside
Automobiles begged of posts
The whereabouts of their mother.
But no one wished to own them anymore,
Everyone wished to walk.

James Reaney, 1949

 

“Klaxon” is included in The Red Heart (1949), the first collection of James Reaney’s poems, and you can also find the poem in The Essential James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

((( • ))) Listen to James Reaney read “Klaxon” in Poets on Film No. 1 from the NFB’s animated film collection.

From “Klaxon”: “No one wished to own them anymore, // Everyone wished to walk.” (July 2017, Vancouver, BC)
La Cosecha Community Garden, Vancouver, BC

John Beckwith on “James Reaney and Music” at Words Festival

Words Festival fo the litereary Arts, London, Ontario November 4-, 2016.
Words Festival, London, Ontario November 4-6, 2016.

Thank you all for coming to Museum London for the Seventh Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture to hear composer John Beckwith speak on “James Reaney and Music” and their collaborations together.

NOvember 5, 2016 -- November 5, 2016: James Stewart Reaney introduces composer John Beckwith (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Reaney).
November 5, 2016 — James Stewart Reaney introduces composer John Beckwith. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Reaney)

John Beckwith was the first composer to set James Reaney’s poetry to music. Thank you, John, for sharing your memories and your music with us.

November 5, 2016: journalist James Stewart Reaney and composer John Beckwith at Museum London. Photo courtesy Cameron Paton.
November 5, 2016 — James Stewart Reaney and composer John Beckwith at Museum London. (Photo courtesy Cameron Paton)

Our thanks also to our hosts Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support in organizing this event. A video of John Beckwith’s lecture is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7I7cIjO4hA

November 5, 2016 -- Western Archives display of James Reaney's writing prepared by archivist Amanda Jamieson. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Reaney)
November 5, 2016 — Western Archives display of James Reaney’s writing prepared by archivist Amanda Jamieson. (Photo courtesy Elizabeth Reaney)

We hope to see you all again next year when author and curator Tom Smart will give a talk on James Reaney’s visual art.

James Reaney’s watercolour painting “David Willson Meets an Angel in the Forest”, 1962 (Photo courtesy Linda Morita, McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

For more about composer John Beckwith, see his 2012 autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

The annual lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario.

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles: April

To celebrate National Poetry Month, here is the “April” eclogue from James Reaney’s long poem A Suit of Nettles.

April

ARGUMENT: With Duncan as judge the geese hold a bardic contest in honour of Spring.

[DUNCAN  RAYMOND  VALANCY]

Here is a kernel of the hardest winter wheat
Found in the yard delicious for to eat.
It I will give to that most poetic gander
Who this season sings as well as swam Leander.
The white geese with their orange feet on the green
Grass that grew around the pond’s glassy sheen
Chose then Valancy and Raymond to sing
And to hear them gathered about in a ring.

RAYMOND

I speak I speak of the arable earth,
Black sow goddess huge with birth;
Cry cry killdeers in her fields.

Black ogress ate her glacier lover
When the sun killed him for her;
The white owl to the dark crow yields.

Caw caw whir whir bark bark
We’re fresh out of Noah’s Ark;
Wild geese come in arrowheads

Shot from birds dead long ago
Buried in your negro snow;
Long water down the river sleds.

Black begum of a thousand dugs,
A nation at each fountain tugs;
The forests plug their gaps with leaves.

Whet whet scrape and sharpen
Hoes and rakes and plows of iron;
The farmer sows his sheaves.

Mr Sword or Mr Plow
Can settle in your haymow,
All is the same to Mother Ground.

Great goddess I from you have come,
Killdeer crow geese ditch leaf plowman
From you have come, to you return
In endless laughing weeping round.

VALANCY

Your limbs are the rivers of Eden.
From the dead we see you return and arise,
Fair girl; lost daughter:
The swallows stream through the skies,
Down dipping water,
Skimming ground, and from chimney’s foul dusk
Their cousins the swifts tumble up as the tusk
Of roar day
In bright May
Scatters them gliding from darkness to sun-cusp.

Your face unlocks the bear from his den.
The world has come in to the arms of the sun.
What now sulky earth?
All winter you lay with your face like a nun,
But now bring forth
From river up boxdrain underground
Fish crawling up that dark street without sound
To spawn
In our pond
Young suckers and sunfish within its deep round.

Your body is a bethlehem.
Come near the sun that ripened you from earth
Pushing south winds
Through lands without belief till its pretty birth
The faithful finds:
Fanatic doves, believing wrens and orioles
Devoted redwinged blackbirds with their calls,
Archilochus alexandri,
Melospiza georgiana,
All surround you with arched cries of Love’s triumphals.

Your mind is a nest of all young things, all children
Come to this meadow forest edge;
Put her together
From this squirrel corn dogtooth young sedge
And all this weather
Of the white bloodroots to be her skin
The wake robin to be her shin
Her thighs pockets
Of white violets
Her breasts the gleaming soft pearly everlasting.

For her limbs are the rivers of Eden;
Her face unlocks
The brown merry bear from his den,
From his box
The butterfly and her body is a bethlehem
Humming
With cherubim
And her mind is a cloud of all young things, all children.

The prize to this one goes cried eagerly some
And others cried that to Raymond it must come,
So that Duncan Goose turned to the plantain leaf
And chopped the prize in half with beak-thrust brief.

James Reaney, 1958

The third edition of A Suit of Nettles features charming illustrations by engraver Jim Westergard, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

A Suit of Nettles (3rd ed. 2010)

For more about A Suit of Nettles, see Germaine Warkentin‘s essay “Out of Spenser and the Common Tongue”: James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles, and Richard Stingle‘s lecture “A learned poet writes A Suit of Nettles”.

"Geese" Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother), 1950 near Stratford, Ontario.
“Geese” Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother), 1950 near Stratford, Ontario.
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)
Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

“The Windyard” by James Reaney

Front entrance to James Reaney's birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario, February 1954. Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (née Crearar).
Front entrance to James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario, February 1954. Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (née Crerar).

The Windyard

I built a windyard for the wind;
The wind like a wild vast dog came up
To play with the weathervanes and corners
My keyholes and my chinks.

And for the sea I built a well;
The brookish tomcat gurgled in,
Waterfell and sprung about
Hunting throats and boots.

I stood a house up for the earth;
The mappy girl came in
With rut and footstep path
That wind the traveler up.

A stove I hammered for the sun;
In flew the golden oriole
To crackle the sticks of time
And sing the loaves of space.

Come girl well yard and stove,
Come Flesh Heart Mind and Lyre,
Come Earth Water Wind and Fire.
Well, when they came
Barking, meowing, talking and caroling,
I stepped above both house and yard
Into myself.

James Reaney, 1956

 

“The Windyard” is from The Essential James Reaney and available from The Porcupine’s Quill. The poem also appears in Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972.

James Reaney’s emblem poems:

In his recent book The Emblems of James Reaney, Thomas Gerry notes the connection between “The Windyard” and a later emblem poem “Windlady” from 1970:

"Windlady" by James Reaney. First published in Armadillo 2 1970.
“Windlady” by James Reaney. First published in Armadillo 2 1970.

“‘Windlady’ magnetically attracts two in particular of Reaney’s other works: the 1956 poem ‘Windyard’ and the play Listen to the Wind, first performed in 1966.” − Thomas Gerry in The Emblems of James Reaney, page 130, The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013.

“Hark! Who knocks at our door so late?” Watercolour sketch by James Reaney, undated. (Possibly from 2001 and perhaps based on a childhood drawing or an illustration for a story. The old house, the tree, and the windmill are like the farmhouse near Stratford where James Reaney grew up.)
“Hark! Who knocks at our door so late?” Watercolour sketch by James Reaney, undated. (Possibly from 2001 and perhaps based on a childhood drawing or an illustration for a story. The old house, the tree, and the windmill are like the farmhouse near Stratford where James Reaney grew up.)

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)
TGOct1802
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:

JROct1802JROct1801

JROct1803

 

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.

SouwestoHome

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”.

(u)
A Useful List:
Hermes
Hera
Apollo
Zeus
Venus
Vulcan
Mars
Athena
Vesta
Hades
Poseidon
Ceres.
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.

“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.