jamesreaneyJames Reaney, Canadian poet and playwright, was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario, on September 1, 1926. He grew up to become one of Canada's best-known poets and dramatists, enjoying literary success over a period of seven decades.

His contributions to the imaginative life of the nation spanned literary genres, ranging from short stories, poetry, libretti, and historical drama, to plays and novels for children, along with insightful critical essays on literary practice.

Read more about James Reaney.

News / Upcoming events

James Reaney’s “The Baby”

Posted April 22nd, 2014

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

Posted April 11th, 2014

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

Posted April 2nd, 2014

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.

Alice Through the Looking-Glass at Stratford Festival May 31 to October 12

Posted January 19th, 2014

This spring the Stratford Festival will present James Reaney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ontario.

Alice will be directed by Jillian Keiley, an award-winning director from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Cast members include Trish Lindström as Alice, Cynthia Dale as the Red Queen, Dion Johnstone as the White King, Tom McCamus as the March Hare, and Brian Tree as Humpty Dumpty.

To purchase tickets, call 1-800-567-1600 or order online here.

Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom, and Cynthia Dale in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, May 31- October 12, 2014 in Stratford, Ontario.

Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom, and Cynthia Dale in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, May 31- October 12, 2014 in Stratford, Ontario.

 

Notes on James Reaney’s adaptation

In 1991, David William, then Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, commissioned James Reaney to adapt Alice Through the Looking-Glass for the stage.  James Reaney recalls the many months writing and rewriting the play and attending workshops:

“So, as the preparatory workshop with the Young Company started in the fall of 1992, my adaptation had pretty well shaken down into its present shape except that a great deal of my commentary and suggestions were kept as part of the rehearsed reading shown to Richard Monette and David William and invited guests so that I myself actually read my mental landscapes of Looking-glass in fear and trembling since the many rewrites and keeping this and dropping that produced landmines for cues […]

Mr Monette took to the story as played that night in late October and also to its trajectory away from the Third Stage to the Avon with a cast [that included] Douglas Rain as Humpty and Barbara Bryne as the White Queen, both actors who had in 1967 appeared in my first Stratford play, Colours in the Dark.”

—From the Foreword to Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass: adapted for the stage by James Reaney, pages 12-14, The Porcupine’s Quill, 1994.

James Reaney’s adaptation of Alice Through the Looking-Glass premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1994 and was revived in 1996. The play is available in Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney, David Ferry, ed., Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.

Illustration by James Reaney, 1994. "I am very proud to have helped with such a delightful show with designers, magician, composer, actors, director, and backstage staff who have seen to it that Carroll's magic text and verbal wit is made all the more powerful." James Reaney, Foreword, 1994, page 15.

Illustration by James Reaney, 1994. “I am very proud to have helped with such a delightful show with designers, magician, composer, actors, director, and backstage staff who have seen to it that Carroll’s magic text and verbal wit is made all the more powerful.” James Reaney, Foreword, 1994, page 15.

James Reaney’s “Maps” from Souwesto Home

Posted January 8th, 2014

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.

 

 

Merry Christmas!

Posted December 18th, 2013
"Winter Sky" design by James Reaney, 1989

“Winter Sunset” design by James Reaney, 1989

Winter Sunset
Fading slow.
Dark trees, red sun
White snow.

Short the days
And long the nights
Until our earth
Sets things to rights

All the best for the holidays and for 2014

December 25, 1985 in London, Ontario: James Reaney at the piano accompanied by his granddaughter, Elizabeth Reaney, and his son, James Stewart Reaney. Photo by Susan Wallace.

December 25, 1985 in London, Ontario: James Reaney at the piano accompanied by his granddaughter, Elizabeth Reaney, and his son, James Stewart Reaney. Photo by Susan Wallace.

Video link to David Ferry’s lecture on Directing Reaney

Posted December 3rd, 2013

Thank you all for joining us on October 20 for the Fourth Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture to hear David Ferry’s talk on “Directing Reaney: From Black Feet to Main Street.” (If you missed David’s presentation, a video link is available on genienet.ca.)

Forty years ago on October 20, 1973, David Ferry began rehearsals for the Tarragon Theatre’s production of James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones: The Donnellys Part I. Earlier that summer, director Keith Turnbull and James Reaney workshopped the play in Halifax with actors David Ferry, Patricia Ludwick, and Jerry Franken, along with other actors from the Neptune Theatre.

David spoke about his experiences both acting in and directing the Donnelly trilogy, including The St. Nicholas Hotel and Handcuffs. Questions from the audience included what attracts actors to the plays, what are the prospects for future professional productions, and whether each play truly stands alone outside of the trilogy.

 

David Ferry's lecture on James Reaney, October 20, 2013 at the Stratford Public Library

David Ferry’s lecture on James Reaney, October 20, 2013 at the Stratford Public Library

Charles Maidment has posted a video recording of David Ferry’s lecture on genienet.ca. Thank you, Charles! (Be advised that this video is 58 minutes long and takes about four minutes to load. To boost the volume, click on the audio button at the bottom of the viewing screen.)

Many thanks to the organizers of the lecture at the Stratford Public LibraryCharles Mountford, Anne Marie Heckman, and Sam Coghlan — for your continued support of this event.

Next year’s speaker will be Tim Inkster, publisher at Porcupine’s Quill. See you then!

Here are photos David Ferry shared from his production of Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University in March 2013.

 

March 2013: Set for Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

March 2013: Set for Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

 

 

The Emblems of James Reaney: October 17 at the London Public Library

Posted October 10th, 2013

On October 17 at the London Public Library (7:00 pm), Thomas Gerry will speak on his new book The Emblems of James 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 Tree" by James Reaney.  First published in Poetry (Chicago) 115.3, December 1969.

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

"The Riddle" by James Reaney.  First published in Armadillo 2 1970.

“The Riddle” by James Reaney. First published in Armadillo 2 1970.

On the same evening, Tom Smart, author and former executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, will read from his new book Jack Chambers’ Red and Green. Red and Green is a collection Jack Chambers (1931-1978) made of hundreds of quotations that set out his ideas on art and the nature of reality.

Both The Emblems of James Reaney and Jack Chambers’ Red and Green are available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

TS and TG

 For more about the book launch, see JBNBlog‘s review.

James Reaney Memorial Lecture October 20 in Stratford

Posted October 2nd, 2013

Join us on Sunday, October 2o at 2:30 pm at The Stratford Public Library Auditorium in Stratford, Ontario, for a talk by actor and director David Ferry on “Directing Reaney.”

David Ferry was one of the original cast members of James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part I, Sticks and Stones, which was first performed in 1973 at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, Ontario.  He has won Dora Mavor Moore Awards for both his acting and directing, and recently directed James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University in March 2013.

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.

The Stratford Public Library is located at

 19 St. Andrew Street,

 Stratford, Ontario

 N5A 1A2.

James Reaney’s Department Store Jesus

Posted September 9th, 2013

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