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“Gifts” by James Reaney

Gifts

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 (age 4) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.

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 feeding the chickens (age 5) with his cousins Mary and Elsie (1931)

 

James Reaney's childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

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.

James Reaney (age 9) at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, Spring 1937.

Elm trees along the north fence, 1937

Elm trees along the north 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

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 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

"Sundogs" photo courtesy http://prairiesmokenotes.wordpress.com

“Sundogs” photo courtesy http://prairiesmokenotes.wordpress.com

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

 

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 of birds. Illustration by Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857) courtesy Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chough

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

Maps

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

James Reaney off to Elmhurst School in 1936

 

Pupils of Elmhurst School in 1936, near Stratford, Ontario. Miss Helen Coveney is the teacher; James Reaney (age 10) is in the top row, third from the left.

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—
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” here.

James Reaney, 1995 in London, Ontario. Photo by Marian Johnson.

James Reaney, 1995
Photo by Marion Johnson

 

 

James Reaney’s “Grand Bend” from The Great Lakes Suite

Grand Bend

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

Lake Huron near Grand Bend, Ontario, July 11, 2013

Lake Huron near Grand Bend, Ontario, July 10, 2013

“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.

Jeff Culbert reads poems from Souwesto Home and One-man Masque

Thanks to Brick Books, you can now hear Jeff Culbert reading poems by  James Reaney from Souwesto Home (2005) and One-man Masque (1960).

souwestohome-twoplays

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

Listen to Jeff Culbert read a selection of poems here:

One-man Masque on YouTube

Souwesto Home on YouTube

Choose individual poems here:

One-man Masque

Souwesto Home

Actor and director Jeff Culbert performed One-man Masque and directed James Reaney’s 1997 play Gentle Rain Food Co-op on 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Stratford celebrates Four Women for National Poetry Month

Four Women, Red Kite Press, 2000

Four Women, Red Kite Press, 1999

On Sunday, April 21, at 2:30 pm, come and celebrate National Poetry Month at The Stratford Public Library Auditorium in Stratford, Ontario.

Sunday April 21, 2013 in Stratford, Ontario Four Women: Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy, Patricia Black, Penn Kemp, and Marianne Micros

April 21, 2013: Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy, Patricia Black,   Penn Kemp, and Marianne Micros read from Four Women

Organized by Poetry Stratford, this reading honours the four poets from the Red Kite Press anthology Four Women: Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy, Penn Kemp,  Marianne Micros, and Colleen Thibaudeau. Gloria, Penn, and Marianne will read their own work, and poet Patricia Black will read the late Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems. Here is one of Colleen’s “Inwhich” poems from Four Women:

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.

Colleen Thibaudeau, 1988

 

Colleen Thibaudeau, Toronto, Ontario, 1948

Colleen Thibaudeau, Toronto, Ontario, 1948

The Stratford Public Library is located at

 19 St. Andrew Street,

 Stratford, Ontario

 N5A 1A2.

 

 

 

 

 

© 2017 James Reaney