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 1933-1939. 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 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— Explained.
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” and other poems from Souwesto Home here.
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.
Actor and director Jeff Culbert performedOne-man Masqueand directed James Reaney’s 1997 playGentle Rain Food Co-opon November 21-30, 2002 at the Grand Theatre (McManus Studio) in London, Ontario. In the preface to his book,Two Plays, James Reaney shared his enthusiasm for Jeff Culbert: “His superb work as both director and performer moved the audiences at seven performances… to stand-ups, tears, laughter, and exclamations. There were even screams for the last image of One-man Masque when Jeff took a tray of five candles, lit them, and balanced the tray on his head! It was electrifying.”
Inwhich I Put On My Mother’s Old Thé Dansant Dress
“Yes,” said Janos, “you can put on a costume!”
So I go for a favourite, my mother’s old thé dansant dress
(black georgette and hand-made lace). When I was a child
I looked through snowy windows, seeing her leave
for “Tea For Two.” Leaves whirled, the hem dragged
in the mud when granddaughters sortied out for Hallowe’en;
and then I rescued, laundered, aired, and pressed
(black georgette and hand-made lace). Now it’s a humid Sunday
in the scorching summer of ’88. Jamie retreats to the doorway.
Janos, taking the photos, says, “Nearly done now.”
I think, my whole life-span is in this dress.
And, as I strew these words,
rose petals are falling from the matching hat she made.
From Alphabet Issue 11 (1966), here is John Hirsch’s poem “My Grandfather”:
Old men love the sun. My Grandfather, eighty four, in black bowler, black overcoat, in the same chair through Spring, Summer and Fall always against the same white-washed wall sat soaking up the sun. Hands spread on his knees— Skin like dried guts cracked with veins like the indigo ink he dipped his pen in to write in velvet covered, silver-locked ledgers.
Dozing in the sun his skin drew the heat till he seemed to glow like a black swathed mummy of a gold-leafed Pharaoh.
John Hirsch, 1966
John Hirsch (1930-1989) lost his family in the Holocaust and came to Winnipeg, Canada as a war orphan in 1947. With the help of his foster family, he pursued his love of the theatre and became one of Canada’s most renowned directors. John Hirsch directed James Reaney’s play Names and Nicknames at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in October, 1963.
Here is James Reaney’s poem “The Bicycle” — the Twelfth Letter from Twelve Letters to a Small Town, a suite of poems James Reaney wrote for composer John Beckwith in 1962.
Halfway between childhood & manhood,
More than a hoop but never a car,
The bicycle talks gravel and rain pavement
On the highway where the dead frogs are.
Like sharkfish the cars blur by,
Filled with the two-backed beast
One dreams of, yet knows not the word for,
The accumulating sexual yeast.
Past the house where the bees winter,
I climb on the stairs of my pedals
To school murmuring irregular verbs
Past the lion with legs like a table’s.
Autumn blows the windfalls down
With a twilight horn of dead leaves.
I pick them up in the fence of November
And burs on my sweater sleeves.
Where a secret robin is wintering
By the lake in the fir grove dark
Through the fresh new snow we stumble
That Winter has whistled sharp.
The March wind blows me ruts over,
Puddles past, under red maple buds,
Over culvert of streamling, under
White clouds and beside bluebirds.
Fireflies tell their blinking player
Piano hesitant tales
Down at the edge of the bridge through the swamp
Where the ogre clips his rusty nails.
Between the highschool & the farmhouse
In the country and the town
It was a world of love and of feeling
Continually floating down
On a soul whose only knowledge
Was that everything was something,
This was like that, that was like this–
In short, everything was
The bicycle of which I sing.
Twelve Letters to a Small Town was first published in 1962 by the Ryerson Press. The poems were specially written for composer John Beckwith, who then set them to music for broadcast on CBC Radio’s “Wednesday Night” program.
These photos are from September 1966, when painter and broadcaster William Ronald brought a CBC TV crew to London, Ontario to interview Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, and James Reaney for the arts magazine show “The Umbrella.” In ¨The Umbrella¨ segment on London, Ontario’s art scene, William Ronald praises James Reaney as “the best known bike rider in London.″
Many thanks to the editors of Brick (Issue 89, page 182) for printing this poem by Colleen Thibaudeau.
This Elastic Moment
Yes we are that too: we are everything who feel it.
Everything that has meaning has the same meaning as angels: these
hoverers and whirrers: occupied with us.
Men may be in the parkgrass sleeping: or be he who sits in his
shirtsleeves every blessed Sunday: rasping away at his child who
is catching some sunshine: from the sticky cloud hanging over the
Laura Secord factory: and teetering on the pales of the green
iron fence: higher up than the briary bushes.
I pass and make no sound: but the silver and whirr of my bicycle
going round: but must see them who don’t see: get their fit, man
and child: let this elastic moment stretch out in me: till that
point where they are inside and invisible.
It is not to afterward eat a candy: picket that factory: nor to
go by again and see that rickety child on the fence.
When the band of the moment breaks there will come angelic
Colleen Thibaudeau, 1977
Also in Issue 89 of Brick, Stan Dragland remembers Applegarth Follies, another London, Ontario publisher:
“… Colleen Thibaudeau’s Ten Letters, the first chapbook I published [under the forerunner of Brick Books], was printed offset by Mike Niederman at Applegarth Follies. I had set the text in the Baskerville type donated by James Reaney to The Belial Press at the university after he completed his ten-year run of Alphabet. One of Applegarth’s presses was the old foot-pumped jobber on which Reaney had printed his magazine. There was plenty of literary interconnection in London back then.”
By special request — and in honour of mothers and grandmothers everywhere — here is a poem by Colleen Thibaudeau.
My Granddaughters Are Combing Out Their Long Hair
my granddaughters are combing out their long hair sitting at night
on the rocks in Venezuela they have watched their babes
falling like white birds from the last of the treetop cradles
they have buried them in their hearts where they will never forget
to keep on singing them the old songs
brought down to earth they use twigs, flint scrapers acadian
their laughter underground makes the thyme flower in darkness
my granddaughters are thin as fishbones & hornfooted but they are
always beautiful under the stars: like little asian paperthings
they seem to open outward into their own waterbowl
mornings they waken to Light’s chink ricocheting
off an old Black’s Harbour sardinecan.
Reduce them the last evangelines make them part of the stars.
my granddaughters are coming out by night combing their burr
coloured hair by the rocks and streamtrickle in Venezuela
they are burnt out as falling stars but they laugh
and keep on singing them the old songs.