A new edition of James Reaney's classic long poem which has been described, variously, as 'the toughest and funniest, most literary and most serious long poem in English-Canadian literature' (Germaine Warkentin) and conversely as 'whimsical self-indulgence' (W. J. Keith). A Suit of Nettles won the Governor General's award for poetry in 1958.
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.
The title of James Reaney's (1926--2008) book-length poem cycle, A Suit of Nettles, may ring a bell. Some may recall its acclaimed first publication in 1958; others will have read excerpts in the recent Essential James Reaney, also from Porcupine's Quill (and shortlisted for the 2010 ForeWord Book of the Year prize). Still others will think of a tale from the Brothers Grimm -- about a princess who weaves suits of nettles to return six enchanted swans to human form. Yet if this allusion informs Reaney's work, it is partly by way of contrast. For one thing, his protagonists are geese, not swans. For another, they never were human and never want to be. As the goose Mopsus sardonically puts it: 'Here look at man. I'll draw him in this dung.'
The joke ends up being on Mopsus, of course, when he and several other geese are butchered for Christmas dinner. But if this ending's implications reflect the work's scatological bent, they also play into its emphasis on cycles (vicious and otherwise). Echoing Edmund Spenser's sixteenth-century Shepherd's Calendar, Reaney divides his work into twelve chapters, one for each month. In keeping with pastoral protocol, these chapters display formally diverse poetic dialogues on a range of themes. Love features prominently, but so do Canadian history,1950s small-town life, and the conflict between traditional and progressive styles in education. For, whatever the geese think, this is the human world, albeit transformed by Reaney's pen. Jim Westergard's witty and elegant engravings in the new edition underscore this point.
Inevitably, given the nature of topical satire, not all of Reaney's jokes still resonate. And yet, to use one of the book's own metaphors, the merry-go-round of intellectual fashion sometimes comes full circle. Reaney's comments on the Great Depression, for instance, now seem freshly relevant. Although it sometimes settles for clever patter, the book's wit can also embody itself in memorable writing. High points include not only the boisterous invocation to the Muse of Satire, but also lyrics that strike a delicate balance between irony and genuine plaintiveness: 'I am like a hollow tree / Where the owl & weasel hide / I am like a hollow tree / Dead in the forest of his brothers.' The resulting book should appeal to a range of readers, including those interested in pastoral, in the work of Reaney's mentor Northrop Frye, and in Canadian history and literature in general.
'A Suit of Nettles by James Reaney is a strange chimera of a book, equal parts Edmund Spenser (the craft), Hillaire Belloc (the wit), and olde tyme county fair (the mood). At once a formally rigorous and imaginatively capricious, A Suit of Nettles is a weird and wonderful achievement.'