’s windows, last night, rain wrote upon,
And Bobdog, while we slept, was miles away,
Beating the bounds, our frontier nose-spy
Reporting back at dawn.
We reward him for knowing about
Quarrels in lover’s lane,
Thieves on the prowl and other such
Canny protector, I pray you:
Bark always when strangers come nigh.
Yes, we cannot smell trespass
Nor hear it, as you can.
Piss a ring of fire round our house,
Our curtilage, my land,, my concessional lot.
Lead me safely at last
Under this township to my last cot,
And when Elderberry is a ruin,
Guard my grave from the academic wolf,
The curious professor
With his fine wire-brush
Who would dig me up again
From my happiness, your kingdom.
James Reaney, 2005
“Elderberry Cottage” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.
To celebrateNational Poetry Month, here is the “April” eclogue from James Reaney’s long poem A Suit of Nettles.
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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 fromThe Porcupine’s Quill.
This month, Alice resumes her journey across Canada as James Reaney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass opens at the Edmonton Citadel’s Shoctor Theatre on February 27 to March 20.
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
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’ 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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
Next year’s speaker will beJohn 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:
Former doctoral student of James Reaney’s and now professor of literature at Laurentian University, Thomas Gerry explores the history of the literary emblem, and explains the meanings behind ten of James Reaney’s emblem poems.
“The Tree” and “The Riddle” are two of Reaney’s emblem poems featured in The Emblems of James Reaney:
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.
James Reaney was fortunate to have composer John Beckwith set many of his poems to music: The Great Lakes Suite, A Message to Winnipeg, and Twelve Letters to a Small Town. Beckwith and Reaney also collaborated on longer operas Night-blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, and Crazy to Kill.
To listen to original recordings of Beckwith-Reaney works, visit the Canadian Music Centre‘s Composer Showcase and set up an account – it’s free!
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
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
“The Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home,