A Suit of Nettles

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The Porcupine's Quill, 2010 - Poetry - 80 pages
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The title of A Suit of Nettles was inspired by a German fairy tale. Seven suits of nettles are woven by the sister of seven brothers who have been changed into swans. When the time comes for the seven swans to put on their suits of nettles and regain human form, the arm of one suit is not finished. Consequently one brother always has one swan’s wing instead of an arm.

The poem, like Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, is a sequence of pastoral eclogues, one for each month of the year, but here the dialogues are not between bucolic swans, they are between Ontario geese! Although the goose-eye view is bound to be somewhat restricting there is much carefully observed detail about farm houses, spring in a small pond, summer in a pasture and the small town Ontario Fall Fair. There are some ambitious satirical wallops at the English critical school headed by F. R. Leavis, at philosophy, progressive education and Canadian history. Here is a poet who believes in merry invective.

Lively, fanciful, humorous, this poem is also remarkable for its metrical ingenuity and skilful contrasts of harsh, brassy passages with mellifluous lyric. Parts of it were read on the CBC radio programme Anthology in the mid-1950s and the April Eclogue first appeared in The Tamarack Review.


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About the author (2010)

At James Reaney's funeral on June 14, 2008, his son's tribute recalled his father as many things: poet, playwright, puppeteer, director, painter, historian, regionalist, scholar, student, wit, visionary, patriot, organic farmer, long-distance cyclist, shivaree-maker, dragon-slayer, and conversationalist (and that list is incomplete, giving less than half the terms used by Reaney's son). In an energetic life that lasted almost eighty-two years, James Reaney had a major impact on the people and culture of southwestern Ontario, and that impact has been felt across Canada by those attuned to his poetry, his plays and his other achievements.

Born in 1926 on a farm near Stratford, Ontario, James (Jamie) Crerar Reaney was the only child of James Nesbitt Reaney and Elizabeth (née Crerar) Reaney. His mother's ancestors were Highland Scots; his father's were from Ulster. Once in Ontario, the families were variously Presbyterians, Plymouth Brethren, and Independent Gospel Hallers. Reaney's father suffered from bouts of poor physical and mental health; years later, Reaney recalled how he `let me moon about the house, read books and practise music'. Reaney went to a one-room school in Elmhurst, Stratford Collegiate and Vocational Institute, and University College at the University of Toronto, achieving some freedom from his evangelical upbringing and receiving a B.A. in 1948, then an M.A. the following year. While in Toronto, he gained notoriety for his short story `The Box-Social', in particular for its image of an aborted fetus. (Though as a student he published several stories in a rural or small-town Gothic vein, these wouldn't be gathered into a book until 1996). Also in 1949, at the young age of 23, he won the first of his three Governor General's Awards for his first poetry collection, The Red Heart, and began to teach English at the University of Manitoba. Two years later he married Colleen Thibaudeau, a former classmate and another poet, who would go on to publish memorable, innovative poetry collections such as The Martha Landscapes and The Artemesia Book. Their two sons, James Stewart and John, were born in 1952 and '54. During his eleven years based in Manitoba, Reaney took a leave of absence to do a Ph.D. back at the University of Toronto, completing a dissertation, `The Influence of Spenser on Yeats'. While in Toronto, he finished his satirical and lyrical tour-de-force A Suit of Nettles. His and Colleen's daughter, Susan, was born in 1959, the year before the family moved back permanently to Ontario.

In the fall he started teaching at the University of Western Ontario -- where he remained until his retirement in 1989 -- and published the first issue of his magazine Alphabet: A Semi-Annual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination. As an editor he published poets such as Jay Macpherson, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, Margaret Atwood, and bpNichol. For its eleven-year duration, in its focus on the mythological aspects of literature, the magazine showed the powerful influence of Reaney's teacher and mentor Northrop Frye. Through his teaching career Reaney was also dedicated to the culture and geography of his native region, devising courses such as `An ABC to Ontario Literature and Culture'. By the early 1960s Reaney was becoming recognized as a librettist (for Night-Blooming Cereus, a John Beckwith opera performed on the CBC in 1959) and a playwright, author of The Killdeer, One-Man Masque, and The Sun and the Moon. Tragedy struck the family in 1966 when Reaney's son John died of meningitis at age 12.

Later in the decade and for the rest of his life, Reaney's passion for theatre overshadowed his writing of poetry, resulting in many plays such as Colours in the Dark, Listen to the Wind and, most famously, The Donnellys, a non-linear, poetically charged trilogy inspired by a 19th-century Ontario Irish family killed by a hostile community. Reaney's later theatrical creations and musical collaborations included two more projects with Beckwith: The Shivaree and -- including live action and eighteen five-foot-high puppets -- Crazy to Kill: A Detective Opera; the chamber opera Serinette, with music by Harry Somers; and a stage adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass. He was a vital, beloved force in theatre workshops and drama productions. His later poetry collections were published in 1990 and 2005. A few months before Reaney's death, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, mounted a show called The Iconography of the Imagination, comprised of fifty landscapes, drawings and sketches that Reaney had completed during his creatively rich life.

-- Brian Bartlett

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