That Far River:
Selected Poems of
Theodore Goodridge Roberts

Edited by Martin Ware





VI: The Blue Heron: Retrospection and Rediscovery



 

Secret River


Dreaming, I go back again,
    Down a logging-road I know,
Where the nesting partridge runs
    And the tall brakes grow.

Wishing, I am there again
5
    Where, the leafy walls between,
All the air is like a tide,
    Quivering cool and green.

Dreaming, I go down again,
    Through the shadow and the gleam,
10
To the quick trout lurking there
    In the amber stream.

Waking—no, ’tis best to dream!
    Dream and hold the peace for ever
Of my hidden logging-road
15
    And my secret river.

L.B.                                
*1915                             1915-18, List. Post
 

 

Old White Water Boy


This is of Archie Douglas, a hero of my childhood, and his enchanted surroundings.  He worked for Mr. Sam Smith, of Crock’s Point.  The Smith house stood on a green knoll, flanked by an old willow on the right and ancient Lombardy poplars on the left—Acadian willow and poplars.  The dark, deep and mysterious Perdu lay on its left front, in a high, haunted wood of pine, rock maple, white and golden birch and ash.  It looked across a mile of lush intervale to the sparkling “thoroughfare” and Shore’s Island and the blue river.
     Archie Douglas had been a “white water boy” of the old school in his limber and dashing youth; a wizard on running logs in roaring, snow-fed waters in the spring of the year.  He was a giant even when I knew him, though the broad shoulders and angular knees were bowed by stiffened muscles and the weight of years.  In the [Page 89] pride of his strength, straight as a pike-pole and limber as whalebone, he must have stood six-foot-six.  But his joints had begun to stiffen and his hot blood to cool at the time of his first hiring with Sammy Smith for the year round, year in, year out; and that had been twenty-five years before I knew him.
     We called him Archie.  It sounded to us like an ancient Highland title.  He suggested titles.  He looked to our young eyes as we imagined the best of King Charles’s cavaliers must have looked.  He told us many adventures and marvels and answered our childish questions kindly and wisely.


I’ve heard great men talk and forgotten what they said:
I’ve read wise men’s books and forgotten what I read;
But when the dark comes down and curtained windows glow,
The words of Archie Douglas come back from long ago.

He used to sit in the kitchen; and there we went to him.
5
Bowed he was of shoulder and long and stiff of limb.
Long and still was his face; his eyes were grey and mild;
His hair was glossy and curled like the ringlets of a child.

That was a wonder-kitchen, wide and long and low,
With seed-corn hung to the rafters in dusty row on row,
10
And an old loom, a settle-bed and conch shell dinner horn,
And a rock of buckwheat batter against to-morrow’s morn;

A sooty fireplace, boarded up, with a great stove set before;
A dresser bright with dishes and a gun behind the door;
A reek of black tobacco from Archie’s glowing clay,
15
And fainter scents of cookies and spice and caraway.

’Twas there that first we guessed grim truths which now we know:
The mills of the gods grind small, no matter if fast or slow:
Bitter winds of the world search the grain from the chaff:
’Tis the man who keeps his own soul who smiles at the gaff.
20

’Twas there we sensed the magic of Gluskap’s painted wood,
And the devilish, hostile cunning of tortured rivers in flood;
Glory of youth and strength; horror of greed and hate;
A brave man’s creed of courage and brave acceptance of fate.
[Page 90]


I’ve read wise men’s books and forgotten word and thought:
25
I’ve heard bishops preach and forgotten what they taught:
I have elbowed the great and forgotten their very looks:
I have laboured at writing and forgotten the names of my books;

But when the last red leaves drop slow in the windless wood, And the white frost lays his fingers on the sumacs purpling blood,
30
And the Hunter’s Moon mounts red and round, and curtained                   windows glow,
The tales of Archie Douglas come back from long ago.

*L.B.                                                                           
           1934, L.B.
 

 

River Morning


Mist along the river, creeping down
With spinning clots of drift and blinks of foam;
Terns screaming out along the sandbars;
A heron flapping from his reedy home.

Breath of pennyroyal on the gravel;
5
Breath of wet willows down the shore;
Start of life around the bushy islands,
And, at the East’s gold gate, one blue day more.

L.B.                         
                    *(1923)                             1926, L.S.
 

 

The Sandbar


Here the black crows gather;
    Here the herons wade
Along the amber shadows,
    Far from their willow shade. Here the patient clams  
5
    Trail out their senseless scrawls,
And here the glassy tide
    Breaks white in sudden squalls. [Page 91]

Driftwood lodges here,
       Polished and smooth and grey,
10
Washed down from above the Falls
    Hundreds of miles away;
Shingles thin as paper,
    Rafters and tide-worn planks
Ripped from bridges and ferries
15
    When the river topped her banks.

Here the loud crows gather:
    Here the slim terns fly
With curved wings flashed like silver
    Against the cobalt sky:
20
Here the whitecaps ride
    When the wind blows up at dawn;
And here the plovers cry
    When wind and sun are gone.

L.B.                                             
*(1923)                             1934, L.B.
 

 

The Blue Heron


In a green place lanced through
With amber and gold and blue;
A place of water and weeds
And roses pinker than dawn,
And ranks of lush young reeds,
5
And grasses straightly withdrawn
From graven ripples of sands,
The still blue heron stands.

Smoke-blue he is, and grey
As embers of yesterday.
10
Still he is, as death;
Like stone, or shadow of stone,
Without a pulse or breath, [Page 92]
Motionless and alone
There in the lily stems:
15
But his eyes are alive like gems.

Still as a shadow; still
Grey feather and yellow bill:
Still as an image made
Of mist and smoke half hid
20
By windless sunshine and shade,
Save when a yellow lid
Slides and is gone like a breath:
Death-still—and sudden as death!

L.B.                                           
*1923                                  1926, L.S.
 

 

Crows on the River


Black crows out on the grey and white,
    Flapping and cawing,
Loud geese up in the starry night;
    Old snow thawed and old ice thawing:
The waking river, under his shell
5
    Feels his muscles tingle and swell,
Squares his shoulders, heavy and sore…
    Alders quiver along the shore!

Black wings over the white and grey
    Flap up and down.
10
The ponds are flooded; the brooks are away;
    The sappy alders are wet and brown.
The eager river, under the ice,
    Humps his shoulders once, and twice—
Humps his shoulders just once more…
15
    Open water along the shore!

Glad crows out in the windy sun,
    Cawing and flapping, [Page 93]
And riding the logs as they plunge and run
    And crash where the grinding jam is snapping;
20
Riding the wind and sailing the drift
    Where spent ice crumbles and torn trees lift;
Cheering the river with impish glee…
    Winter is tumbling out to sea!

Ac.                                                        
                                  1930, Ac.
 

 

Magic


Fragrance of burning driftwood gathered where
    Elms and stooped willows darken on the sky
When breath of star-dust chills the windless air
    And herons on bent wings come oaring by.

Fragrance of driftwood burning on what sands?
5
    Gathered along what surf? what sliding stream?
By what fond hearts and fearless, comrade hands,
    In what glad day or what adventurous dream?

Burnt savour of wrecked timbers and tost spars
    Plucked from the landwash of a tide-worn bay,
10
Rising like prayer to dim and clustered stars,
    Sweeter than incense burned in old Cathay.

Magic of thin smoke from a driftwood blaze—
    Of darkling skies and plover haunted sands;
Of strong winds beating through a seaward haze;
15
    Of dreams come true and dear recovered hands.

L.B.                                               
*1931                              1934, L.B.
[Page 94]
 

 

I Sailed a Voyage


When I was very young, I sailed a voyage
    South and away,
And lost my heart in Numo and Recefe
    And Castle Bay.

O Heart of Youth, it was the world we loved!—
5
    Life and its glinting;
Beauty and laughter; jalousies ajar
    And shadows hinting;

New harbour-lights, and surf along old reefs,
    And queer streets shining;
10
And candle-lit decanters with red hearts
    For people dining

Behind hushed gardens; and the sweet allure,
    Out of the green,
Of fluttered hand—or was it fluttering moth?
15
    Quick and half-seen;

And whispered promises and singing strings
    And kisses, too;
And back of all the white surf riding in
    From the wide blue.
20

When I was very young, I sailed a voyage
    South and away
And lost my heart in Nevis and Castries
    And Turtle Bay:

And yet I was not left without a heart,
25
    (Nor have I been)
For mermaids to ensnare and nymphs to lure
    Through the dusk green.

L.B.                                             
                               1930, Can. Mag.
[Page 95]
 

 

The Dying Pirate’s Prayer


“Fetch aft the rum, Darby!”  Captain Flint. (R.L.S.)

Out from the rottin’ barnacles and the harbour stench;
Out from the rusty ringbolts adown the weedy stairs;
Out from the roadstead green and the milky inshore blue,
Let me go!—it’s all I ask of You!—
Out and away, out and through
5
To the whisper of bursting bubbles across the deepsea blue.

Let me clear for sea.  Let me go aboard
Any old craft that pumps will float clear of soundin’s, Lord—
Clear of the festered harbor and through the hole in the reef—
Out on an offshore breeze, clear o’ the milky blue.
10
To the slosh of cloven waters and the lift of the outer blue.
Hear this sinner’s prayer, Lord!  He’d do the same for you!

I’ll take all that’s due me in the way of Hell—
But, Lord, to leave me strangle of this here inshore smell!
Me that was bred a seaman, whatever else beside.
15
Sink me like a seaman, through and down and through
Fathoms o’blue water, down in the deepsea blue,
Out of sight and sound and scent of inshore gear and crew—
Out of sight of every port a seaman ever knew.
There lays the careenage, white as curds in the sun;
20
White as Devon curds…God, the deeds I’ve done
Since the day I went a-fishin’ and boarded the Sea Rover!

Fetch aft the rum, Darby!  Lay aft an’ ease me over!

Aye, the damn careenage!  Sink it, God of wrath!
Hark’ee, God of mercy, to a sick man’s prayer!
25
Let me clear for sea.  Any old craft will do.
Drive me out on an offshore breeze to the jumpin’ deep blue;
Then sink me clear o’soundin’s, Lord!  I’d do the same for You.
[Page 96]
Fetch aft the rum, Darby!...Lay aft and raise my head—
And pity a poor seaman bilged ashore in bed    
30
With faces crowdin’ ’round—mostly a long time dead.

*L.S.
(in pref. to L.B.)                                                           1926, L.S.
 

 

A Ballad of the Floe


The noddy lay sick-a-bed;
    The bread was low in the bin;
The dogs howled all night long
    And the ice-pans drifted in.

The white fog heaved with the sound—
5
    The crash and thunder and grind;
The landwash flinched at the shock,
    And the mad seas roared behind.

The noddy turned in his pain,
    And tumbled his narrow bed.
10
“The b’ys be away tomorry
    For bert’s at the swilin,” he said.

He saw the wife at his side,
    And the fear by the wan smile hid.
“The swilers will sail without me.
15
    I grieves for yerself an’ the kid.”

“The swilers bes off to-morry,
    To steam an’ drift an’ kill:
They’ll catch the white-coats nappin’—
    But I’ll make nary a bill.”
20

“Hush,” said the woman, “hush.
    There bes bread an’ fixins to spare.”
She straightened his shabby blanket
    And smoothed his bedraggled hair. [Page 97]

“They’ll find the swile i’ the Straits…
25
    Log-loaded off Signal Hill…
The b’ys will be drinkin’ at Tobin’s…
    An’ I’ll have nary a bill.”

“Hush,” said the woman. “Hush.”
    She stroked the hand on the sheet.
30
Her heart was here in the room,
    But his was out with the fleet.

The woman came from the storm,
    Her blown shawl over her head.
“The mail bes come to the harbor
35
    Wid news from the swilin,” she said.

“The WALRUS made S’int John’s
    On Sunday mornin’, at ten—
“Log-loaded—she stooped above him—
       “Log-loaded wid frozen men!”
40

The noddy turned in his pain,
    Rocking the narrow bed.
“An meself was for sailin’ wid Bartlett
    To make ye a bill,” he said.
45

Lit. Dig.
(1930)                                                                       1930, Ac.
 

 

The Lower-Bridge Bath


Pale green, paler than any green that grows,
    The clear brine fills the white bath, cool and deep:
And pale light, awning-filtered, still as dawn,
    Floods the iron bulkheads, grey as dreamless sleep.

Here are release and sanctuary and ease.
5
    High on the lower bridge, I taste the balm [Page 98]
Of crested waves and deep, unfretted tides
    And white surf blossoming from vasts of calm.

All weedy grottoes loved of Neptune’s daughters;
    All jade-green roadsteads loved of weary ships;
10
All trade-winds and all spicy island breezes
    Comfort me here with magic arms and lips.

L.B.                                              
*1932                                1934, L.B.
 

 

Returning


Pale mushrooms in wet pastures grey with rain;
Grey mists adrift in pointed conifers;
And scent of ferns keen as remembered pain:
To you I turn once more, returning ever
To my dear land of high wood and deep river.
5

Warp of my heart the slanted field’s plowed breast;
Web of my heart the goldenwing’s quick flight,
The crows’ harsh clamour in the black pine’s crest,
The whip-poor-will’s sad challenge from the night.
To you I turn, returning home again
10
To mushrooms in high pastures grey with rain.

L.B.                                                
*1933                     1933, Can. Bk.
 

 

Haunted


The moss-rose in the garden is old as the moss on the slates.
The ragged briers in the hedge sag like the moss-bound gates.
From the tops of smokeless chimneys bricks have broken and             slid.
Of a dozen shuttered windows, one lifts a drooping lid.

The arbor under the lichened crab is all out of shape and line,
5
Twisted and dragged in the clutch of the hungry, grapeless vine.             [Page 99]
The greenhouse lights are shattered.  In the gloom of the potting-            shed
Spiders lurk in stagnant webs, heavy and grey as lead.

There are ghosts in the ancient mansion, at the turns of dusty                 stairs;
And at every turn of the garden paths they take me unawares;
10
Voiceless, hesitant ghosts advancing and slipping aside—
Ghosts of the dreams of the boy I was, by the man I have been,             denied.

U.N.B. M/S                                                                                     1936
 

 

At Stanley Fair


When I was last at Stanley Fair,
What looked like star dust bright and rare
Was naught but hayseed in folks’ hair.

When I was last at Stanley Fair,
(A long time ago),
5
The wonders of the world were there.
There were hogs of monstrous size
And girls with strangely glancing eyes.
The bully boys were all on hand
From well acrost the height-of-land—
10
Lads to smirk and scowl and stare,
With plenty bears’ grease in their hair.

Since then such pumpkins I’ve not seen,
Nor such fat dames in bombasine;
Nor have I since seen such strong men
15
As those that came from Giants’ Glen
And Covered Bridge and Piper’s Hill
And Beaver Dam and Sansom’s Mill;
And, making hardly any noise,
Those genuine white-water boys
20
Who felt their knee-joints stiff with rust
Without they had log-jams to bust,
And logs to cuff and ride and burl
Down April freshets all aswirl. [Page 100]

The straightest furrow of the day
25
Was turned by Billy MacElray.
Ten dollars went to Don McBride
Who tossed the caber high and wide.
Young Andy Breen from Maple Ridge
Bested Tom Dix of Covered Bridge
30
In a wrestling match that raised the dust
And didn’t stop till something bust.
First prize for twitching stone-piled drags
Was won by little Simon Baggs
With a team of blacks not near the size
35
Of the Clydesdales teamed by Deacon Wise.

When I was last at Stanley Fair
No jazzing orchestra was there,
But fiddlers four and pipers three
And a man with a flute from Miramichi.
40

Those were the days of elegant dancing,
Heel-and-toe and intricate prancing,
Snapping of heels and flinging of knees
Till the lanterns swayed in a petticoat breeze.

One by one the fiddlers fell,
45
With popping of strings and a rummy smell;
And pipers three lay numb and dumb,
Victims alike of Demon Rum.
The flute was silent; and in the hay,
Dreaming of home, the flutist lay.
50
When I was last at Stanley Fair,
The wonder of the world was there—
A girl whose shyly questing eyes
Filled my head with wild surprise
And stirred my heart with sweet surmise—
55
Even if her pa was Deacon Wise! [Page 101]

I’ve searched the rolling world in vain
To see the like of it again,
The like of Stanley Fair
And Nashwaak Cattle Show
60
When brown as acorns was my hair—
A long time ago.

C.P.M.                                              
                             1  937, C.P.M.
 

 

Arctic Rifles


Whisper of skis;
A low call, one to another.
And out from the trees
Glide brother and brother.

Out of the wood
5
And away where the drifts back,
Speed moth-white shapes
On the white moon’s track.

Whisper of skis,
Like whisper of drifting snow,
10
And out from the trees
The ghost-shapes flow.

Out from the wood
And away where the drifts curled,
They glimmer and pass
15
Over the edge of the world.

Out of the wood
And North, where the drifts back,
Quick flickers of-fire
Shiver the white moon’s track: [Page 102]
20

North of the wood
And west where the drifts are
Black shapes crumple
Along the edge of the world.

Sat. Ni.                                       
                                    1941, Sat. Ni.
 

 

In the Coral Sea


White and rose, the coral grows
In noiseless turn and dredge
Of moon-drawn tide and deep-sea drift,
By shadowy reef and ledge,
Where gem-bright fishes dart   
5
Like birds in an amber sky;
And under the coral trees,
Neptune’s lovely daughters
Are weaving tremulous garlands
Of sea anemones;
10
And one, the fairest of all,
Sings, to her harp of shell,
“Brave Hearts from far away,
“Sleep well!
“Here is no watch to keep,
15
“By night or day.
“Here are no fires that burn.
“Here is no sound
“Louder than sea-maids’ singing
“And the slow turn
20
“Of purple ferns on their stems
“When the tide wears ’round.”

Under the coral trees:
The Sea King’s gleaming daughters
Are weaving tremulous garlands
25
Of sea anemones;
And one, the fairest of all, [Page 103]
Sings, to her harp of shell,
“Brave Hearts from far away,
“Sleep well!
30
“No more to roam
“Under strange stars,
“Far from your hills of home.
“Dream well! And in your dreams,
“(Hearken to me!),
35
“Soft sing your Northland streams,
“Deep in the Coral Sea.”

Sat. Ni.                                             
                              1942, Sat. Ni.
 

 

My House


Is this the house of my building
of all these years—
its windows streaked with rain
like faces streaked with tears,
mourning the guests who danced
5
where now the shy mice play?

O dear and fair and gay,
where are you now?
O brave and strong and kind,
why did you go?
10
Did I not bed you soft
and smooth and warm?
Were not my casements tight
against the night and storm?
Was not my table spread
15
with flesh and fish and fowl,
and white wines and red,
and liquors smooth as oil?

Stilly you stole away—
but not with empty hands. [Page 104]
20
From every room you filched
treasures dearer than rubies:
gilt of the cups we drank from,
threads of gold from the arras,
cellared sunshine of flagons
25
and raftered echoes of laughter.

God, what a house is this!—
empty, room after room—
save for this chill place
where embers dim with ashes   
30
like bright eyes dimmed in death;
and shy mice play:
and, kneeling, I hear
gables creak in the wind
and crazy chimneys sway.
35

U.N.B. T/S                                                                           1946, 1951
[Page 105]