Katherine Hale

by Wanda Campbell


 

Katherine Hale
1878-1956


Katherine Hale is the pen name (after her mother’s maiden name) of Amelia Beers Warnock who was born in Galt, Ontario, in 1878. Educated in Toronto and trained as a soprano in New York and Europe, she toured as a singer and began to publish fiction and poetry. She wrote on contemporary literature for the Mail and Empire (Toronto) and lectured on Canadian Literature.

    In 1912, she married John Garvin, the editor of Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Collected Poems. In 1924, Hale herself published a book on Crawford which included selections from her verse, a bibliography, and an “Appreciation” in which she calls Crawford a “forerunner” (101). Crawford, Hale writes, “was never a ‘poetess,’ and perhaps her work refutes the theory that to have great artists there must be great audiences” (107). This is surely a response to the quotation from Walt Whitman, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too,” that appeared on the back of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: a Magazine of Verse throughout 1920. In her poem entitled “Poetesses,” Hale refers to foremothers who “sang” of war in “tender notes. / But now another one has come, / Who is herself at war.” This last phrase can be read both as a description of the female poet as warrior, but also as a figure in conflict with herself. According to Hale, Crawford, like so many of Hale’s contemporaries and Hale herself, wrote in more than one genre, “the transmutation of more than one gift adding its subtle power” (97).

    Active as a journalist, musician, lecturer, and critic, Hale became known as a poet when her collections of war poetry, Grey Knitting (1914), The White Comrade (1916), and The New Joan (1917), achieved popular success. These three collections now seem patriotically sentimental but a more mature collection, Morning in the West (1923), received positive feedback from Charles G.D. Roberts and others. Roberts wrote to her saying, “Verily, Lady Dear, I had not realized before how great your gift. [Page 297] These lyrics grip & delight me. They are fresh & spontaneous & haunting” (324). In that same year, J.D. Logan wrote in Highways of Canadian Literature that Hale’s “new and distinct achievement” was her portrayal of “Canadian nature and civilization envisaged with a spiritual realism which has national perspective and native colour and atmosphere” (294).

    Her next and largest collection, The Island and Other Poems (1934), was positively reviewed by Saturday Night and praised by Lotta Dempsey in a 1948 essay on Hale published in Leading Canadian Poets. However, according to Dempsey, “critics found a curious inability to dissect or explain” the poems in The Island (84), perhaps because the title suite is an experiment in form as well as content. The idea of a series of poems linked together by theme or subject was one that Hale explored in at least four of her six collections. Often poems reappear in later collections retitled and reworked. Susan Atkinson’s “Challenging Exoticism: Race, Gender and Nation in the Poetry of Katherine Hale,” which examines Hale as an intriguing transitional figure, is the only criticism to appear since Hale’s death in 1956. One wonders why a poet with a preference for hinterland over baseland, marginalized over centralized, contemporary over traditional should have thus disappeared from view. Atkinson argues that Hale was seeking to develop a distinctly feminist poetic that would challenge prevailing notions of the exotic Other. In her most anthologized poem, the ekphrastic “Cun-ne-wa-bum,” Hale grants the Cree woman an existence beyond the “politics of portraiture” and she repeatedly envisions the female poet as a warrior, independent and aspiring.

    In poem after poem, Hale explores how extreme historical conditions served to strengthen women by allowing them a courageous and active role. In “Buffalo Meat,” a woman once accustomed to lilac chintz and London theatre writes from the frontier: “I am as much a hunter as a wife,” and in “She Who Paddles,” the central figure “softly walks in the forest / In no great need of men.”

    Hale’s fascination with Canadian history and her efforts to reinscribe women into that history make her poetry worth studying despite her apparent acceptance of the dominant discourse and power structures of her time. Hale strikes a new chord in Canadian poetry, speaking for a variety of marginalized figures, especially female artists. In addition, the wild Canadian north, so attractive and inspiring to her male contemporaries, became a kind of spiritual home for her. “My own country,” Hale once said in an interview, “has never become to me just a place I’m used to, but one full of [Page 298] hidden surprises that I’m always wanting to explore” (qtd. by Dempsey 80).

    Hale went on to publish one more collection of poetry in 1950, The Flute, and Other Poems, which included only three new poems, as well as several works of prose on aspects of Ontario and Canadian history. She died on September 7, 1956, and was buried in the city that was the subject of her last and posthumously published book Toronto: Romance of a Great City. To the end she was committed to seeking magic in the modern world.

Selected Bibliography

Grey Knitting, and Other Poems (Toronto: Briggs, 1914)
The White Comrade, and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland,     1916)
The New Joan, and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland, 1917)
Morning in the West (Toronto: Ryerson, 1923)
The Island, and Other Poems (Toronto: Mundy-Goodfellow,     1934)
The Flute, and Other Poems (Toronto: Ryerson, 1950)

Henry James Morgan, ed., The Canadian Men and Women of the Time, (Toronto: Briggs, 1912): 1146; John W. Garvin, Canadian Poets (New York: Stokes, 1916): 323-30; J.D. Logan and Donald French, Highways of Canadian Literature (Toronto: McClelland, 1924): 290-94; Edward S. Caswell, Canadian Singers and Their Songs (Toronto: McClelland, 1925); B.K. Sandwell, “Triumph Over Fact,” Saturday Night 50 (24 Nov. 1934): 50; Lotta Dempsey, “Katherine Hale,” Leading Canadian Poets, ed. W.P. Percival (Toronto: Ryerson, 1948): 79-87; Charles G.D. Roberts, Collected Letters of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, ed. Laurel Boone (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1989); Susan Atkinson, “Challenging Exoticism: Race, Gender and Nation in the Poetry of Katherine Hale,” Proceedings of the 6th International Literature of Region and Nation Conference, ed. Win Bogaards (SSHRC: Saint John, 1998) 2:157-67. [Page 299]

 

To a Poet

 

 
He brings the careful flower who has had time
To pick and choose and loiter by the way,
Who, drugged with ease, can claim the Sweet and say
“This flowery mead I love: so here I stay.”

But you, my poet, who have ridden hard,

5
And lost a dozen ways and courted strife,
What have you brought for me, in living leaves,
Out of the strange gold forest we call Life?

You have journeyed fast! Scarce time to break
This rosy branch, through which old life runs new,

10
What care I if ’tis bourgeoning or bare?
It shows you have passed through.

It means that you, too, know those awful aisles,
Those tangled verdures, joy and passion-rife
Through which we have to ride so fast, so fast,

15
There is no time to pluck a branch of life.

Yet, you have brought to me this dewy branch—
The greatest conquest of the greatest art—
A fast-torn, living, breathing piece of life
Out of the wondrous forest of the Heart.

20

 

Canadian Magazine
August 1905 (25:319)

 

The New Joan

 

The Vision

A soldier’s soul returns the centuries down—
Radiance again! Love’s gleaming mystic mate,
She who was burned for witchcraft and for state
In the old market-place of Rouen town. [Page 300]

To-day I met her spirit on the Earth,
5
And felt a joyous light dark spaces fill;
I knew this troubled planet called her still
Upon the wheel of reincarnate birth.

“Behold a legion of all-souls,” she said,
“Who ride again for country and for King,

10
And with them, as the ardent sun with spring,
See the enchanted ones that life calls dead.”

“Woman and man, renewing faith’s old tryst,
Breast, shuddering, the deeps of this last war,
And high above them gleams the stranger-star,

15
Silver in blood-red skies—the grail of Christ.”

“O you who see a vision in the night,
And you who ride high-hearted, woman-man,
I call you by the name of The New Joan,”
So passed she, clad in armour, clad in light.

20

I


The Child

Give me a new soul, God of all things free,
Help me to dream the golden dream of youth,
Till gazing deep into the eyes of Truth
The dream returns in life that is to be.

With Thee I breathe a fire most strange and bright,

25
Rosy as dawning, jubilant as day,
A light eternal on the time-worn way,
A morning note to stir the agèd night.

To sing the song of flower-time again
It is to deck with joy an ancient door,—

30
A fresh rose, cosmic of each rose before,
To link with wonder in the endless chain. [Page 301]

And as they play mid stars or ’neath the sun
I ask a song for children everywhere,
A gleam that dances with them unaware

35
Since God, and they, and joy, are wholly One.

II


The Law

If Law be given my hand to make
I pray Thee, Lord, that I may break
The old Law, resolute and hard
And fickle as a chance-thrown card.

40


And ere I lay me down to sleep
I pray Thee, Lord, new Law to keep,
Great statutes made of Love and Pain,
Beauty of Sorrow born again.

For I would find out Truth, my Lord,

45

The soul behind the naked word,
And at the bourne where life began
I would inquire the law for man.

Perhaps a Voice may answer me
That until man in woman be,

50

Woman in man, the two in one,
The latter days have not begun.

The woman-will of man a part,
The more-of-man in woman’s heart,
From that great marriage pure of flaw

55

May spring the Everlasting Law. [Page 302]


III


The Kitchen

“Whoever makes a thing more bright
He is an angel of all light”

So I, with every skill I can,
Return to use of pot and pan.

60


Retrieve must I the ages’ waste,
And learn that what the years call ‘Taste,’
Is Hunger’s sated brother, Sin.
Lo, I shall dwell where Truths begin.

A kingdom enter, ancient, dear,

65

Where red Fire lives, and Plenties are,
Where Order summoned back to me
Makes Labor sing, makes Beauty free.

So shall I take the golden wheat
And make me loaves for men to eat;

70

For I am Joan, whose pure desire
Still keeps aflame the household fire.


IV


The Land

I am back on the land of my fathers,
And I tread it with double-soled boots,
I hoe it with hands that are toil-worn
75
Wearing joyful and picturesque suits.

I am clad, head to foot, in dull khaki
That echoes my good mother—Earth,
And I’m glad that my profile is “boyish,”
That my “song” is a whistle of mirth. [Page 303]

80

I can cut and convey to my cabin
These logs that I need for the fire,
And I hail the concern of each slacker
Who is ribald anent my attire.

I am doing his bit, though he lingers.

85
I am Joan—and not Peter Pan.
Yet the vision that glows through my working
Is the love that I bear to one man.

V


The Battlefield*

Something sings gently through the din of battle,
Something spreads very softly rim on rim
90
And every soldier hears, at times, a murmur
Tender, incessant,—dim.

A tiny click of little wooden needles,
Elfin amid the gianthood of war;
Whispers of women, tireless and patient,

95
Who weave the web afar.

Whispers of women, tireless and patient,
“This is our heart’s love,” it would seem to say,
“Wrought with the ancient tools of our vocation,
Weave we the web of love from day to day.”

100

And so each soldier, laughing, fighting,—dying
Under the alien skies, in his great hour,
May listen, in death’s prescience all-enfolding,
And hear a fairy sound bloom like a flower—

I like to think that soldiers, gaily dying

105
For the white Christ on fields with shame sown deep, [Page 304]
May hear the tender song of women’s needles,
As they fall fast asleep.

VI


The World

It is a new world that my feet must tread,
New, though the hurrying ages call it old,
110
While fields that yesterday were cloth-of-gold
Are all dissolving, like a film half-fled.

The wondrous ‘stage’ of life, its mimic joys;
The deft accomplishment, the bubble fame;
Statecraft bedecked as a career, a name;

115
Art as a servitor that wealth employs—

These were the worlds our mothers counted new,
These were the ways we still had kept our own,
Until Eternal Law from His high throne
Melted our world in sudden fire, and dew.

120

And now through mists of dew, through leaping flame
We ride again upon an ancient quest,
That we may bring Love home, no longer guest
But Love Triumphant, ever to remain.

See the bright banner a new day outflings;

125
It shall be ours to hold it high and white.
Again a Voice! And out of dawning light
The deathless soul of Joan through us sings.

        Spirit of Life, radiant and glad and free,
        Come, as of old, be born again of me.
130
        Through me recover that which man has lost,
        Mine was the making, mine the precious cost.
        Out of my body come the sons of men,
        Into my keeping give their souls again, [Page 305]
        And let me make this world God’s little room
135
        Wherein Love’s splendours live again and bloom.  

 

* This poem first appeared as “Grey-Knitting.” [back]

 

 

The New Joan and
Other Poems
1917

 

 

I Who Cut Patterns

 

 
I who cut patterns,
    As every soul must do,
Fret myself with longing
    For themes that are new.

All these fashions
5
    Were moulded years gone by,
And, like the mask of politics,
    Are coloured with a lie.

Even the treasured love motif,
    This thing of you and me,
10
It must so carefully be cut
    To keep us bound, yet free.

And death, the sombre casket
    Of centuries of song,
And war, and rivalries and creeds,
15
    These we have used too long.

To-day I found a charming thing
    Of silk and golden lace,
And yet, beneath the filigree,
    What an old, wrinkled face!
20

Still, I believe in legends
    Of laughter and delight,
And words all coloured with the sun
    And perfumed by the night. [Page 306]

And I’ve a mind to leave the shops
25
    And fashions old and new,
And cut my pattern from a wind,
    And baste it up with dew.

I who cut patterns,
    As every soul must do,
30
Fret myself with longing
    For themes that are new.

Canadian Magazine                                                  Morning in the
August 1921 (57:337)                                                       West 1923

 

Crimson Pool

 

Even you, dark pool—
Even you feel death.
On your soft brown surface
There are deep reflections
Of a fiery breath. [Page 307]
5
To the waiting forest
Death does not come creeping
As it comes to men;
It comes shouting, waving banners,
Burning out its way with torches,
10
Hanging garlands now and then.
All the green walls of your silence
Hung with crimson,
Even you, dark pool—
Even you feel death.
15
On your soft brown surface
There are deep reflections
Of a fiery breath.

 

Canadian Magazine                                                   Morning in the
September 1923 (61:378)                                             West 1923

 

Cun-ne-wa-bum
Portrait in the Royal Ontario Museum

 

Cun-ne-wa-bum—“one who looks on stars”—
(Feel the singing wind from out the western hills)
“The tip-end of a swan’s wing is her fan,
With a handle of porcupine quills.”
Here is the artist’s name, Paul Kane;
5
Painting in forty-seven, at Edmonton, I see.
That was when the prairies were untamed,
And untamed this young Cree.

What an incantation in her name!
Magic as her dark face underneath the stars;

10
There is sword-like wind about it wrapped,
And echoes of old wars.

Cun-ne-wa-bum!
When turtle shells were rattling,
And the drums beat for the dance

15
In the great hall of the Factor’s house till dawn,
You sat without the door,
Where the firelight on the floor
Caught the red of beads upon your moccasins.

At evening through the grassy plains the wind

20
Came shouting down the world to meet the dawn,
And with the wind the firelight rose and fell,
Answered with flame his shrill barbaric yell,
And died like whining fiddles at his feet.
And through it all the constant sound of drums—
25
Did your feet move to drums?

The men from near and far,
Crees and Sarcees,
And a Blackfoot brave or two,
Made rhythm of a dance that moves like rhyme [Page 308]

30
To the rush of wind, and rattles swung in time
To the constant, constant, constant beat of drums.

No Indian woman dances in the light;
Silent they sit together out of sight.
But to-night I think this artist from the East,

35
Who had come to paint the natives hereabout,
Found a splendid flare of crimson on the feast
And moved near the open door,
Where the firelight on the floor
Caught the red of beads upon your moccasins.
40

So it is, O Cun-ne-wa-bum,
Who were wont to look on stars,
That you sit for ever here,
Like a wild lost note from far,
From the days of ancient war
45
And of towered stockade and guns
In the Edmonton of seventy years ago.

In your buckskin and your beads
(Feel the sudden wind from out the western hill)
The tip-end of a swan’s wing for your fan

50
With a handle of porcupine quills.  

 

Morning in the
West
1923

 

 

Buffalo Meat
A Daughter-in-law Writes

 

It takes a letter sixty days to go—
An Indian boy runs down the trail to-night.
What shall I write to you?
My mind is full of gossip of a town
That you have never dreamed of.
5
So—shall I tell you of our shacks,
Huddled behind the tall stockade? [Page 309]
Our guns, with muzzles set against the prairie?
What if I write the truth!
Your son is now a savage;

10
By that much more I love him!

If I should say
I can stand all this tropic, summer heat
And menial tasks and crowded alleyways,
And fat squaws lounging in the sun,

15
And even water out of tainted wells,
And long, rough prairie rides—
All for the sake of autumn,
And its short, magic days of pure content!

If you could know my mind!

20
A little British mind two years ago;
To-day a sort of crowded, pagan scroll,
Recording strange old customs
And legends, various as the Indian tribes,
And prayers and songs and dances.
25
Songs that are as old as earth itself,
Dances as elemental:
Skin drums and tom-toms,
Rattles of turtle shell, and whirl of winds
Against the amphitheatre of hills.
30
You will remember they were playing Sheridan
When we left London!
I can count every lilac spray on the old drawing room chintz.
I hope—I hope you have not changed it since!

Let me begin again.

35
If I should say
I love this small, rough shack,
For it has made me brave—
Braver, at least, than when I saw it first,
And saw a sea of prairie
40
And the dim forms of buffalo herds
Darkening the far horizon! [Page 310]
I am braver now than when the halfbreeds came
Racing towards us on that first wild day,
Mad messengers to frighten us to death—
45
Servants of trappers and the Nor’-west men—
Those halfbreeds! feathers dangling, tomahawks!
That was in summer.
Still the buffalo lingered,
Cropping the blue-grey grasses,
50
Plunging in the muddy wallows,
Always near us.
I could almost touch a shaggy flank.

Two years ago to-day, in Piccadilly—
That tea-shop place the day before we sailed—

55
He said, “It may be wild enough out there,
But I shall keep you safe—
Oh, I shall keep you safe!”

We loitered through that first bright autumn
And on the edge of winter had no meat.

60
Who wants meat, here, must follow it—and kill.
So, like a band of pilgrims, we set out—
Unguarded women are not left behind—
Walking beside our husbands all the way.
Far out of sight, the Indians
65
Search for the roaming herds.
They are on splendid ponies.
We settlers are the country’s parasites.
When Mary Scott, the factor’s wife, and I,
With two young squaws, were left a day in camp
70
We learned an incantation.
Another day when we were on the trail
My wedding ring was taken from my hand
Just as a warning,
A little necessary bright horse-play,
75
To show us who was master.
Five days of march and then the broad plateau—
White plains, brown beasts, [Page 311]
Red, flying figures of the Indian guides,
Bonfires at night and sleep in soft skin bags,
80
Warm blood of slaughter—

But—
It takes a letter sixty days to go,
Even at this season, when there is no snow.
Autumn has fallen on London.

85
I can see you in the sweet old room.
Please do not change a thing until I come!
Fires will be lit, your velvet curtains drawn,
And when you read my letter, dearest one,
Pray that some great day I may have a son
90
To mingle past with present.
For now each treacherous hour seems all of life;
I am as much a hunter as a wife,
To whom the summer is a breathing space,
Who waits for autumn
95
And trots beside her husband, through the grass
That shudders in the late November wind,
Or lies like frozen foam beneath our feet,
Looking for buffalo meat!

 

Morning in the
West
1923

 

An Old Lady

 

Madame de Courament excels at Bridge.
Hers is a clever hand,
Coloured with age and wrinkled,
But beautiful and tapering too,
Quite in accord with this old, stately room,
5
With crystal chandeliers,
And flowers and the warm tapestry of books.
Silent the cards fall.
Down the long avenue a dog howls at the moon,
A far, frost-sharpened sound. [Page 312]
10
The wind swirls up a little storm of snow
That blows against the casement.
A skilled opponent, Madame makes few mistakes
Like that a moment since,
When suddenly the dog howled—and we lost a trick.
15
She has a flashing wit,
Without her dinners at Rideau Hall are incomplete.
As someone said the other day,
‘These elderly, elaborate folk
Are like a passing pageantry,
20
Gorgeous and of another day,’
Silent the cards fall.
Again the far-off dog howls at the moon.

An hour later, ‘Chateau Laurier’ she told the chauffeur.
And, alert and gay,

25
Wrapped in her sables,
She was motoring me the long white way to town
And gossiping of little this and that.
But just as we were nearing city lights
She said, ‘I saw you noticed that dog’s bark.
30
It sounded almost like a wolf’s;
It took me back to the Red River days.
Oh, it was fifty years ago, my dear;
I was as young as you…It seems like yesterday.
Hardships! I loved it all!
35
Even the wolves, baying far out of sight,
Failed to disturb our rest
When we were safe at home.
The Indians were quite friendly—
And the eternal glamour of the snow!
40
And yet to-night, just when I heard that sound,
Sharpened by frost,
I felt an old pain strike me,
The knife-like thrust, before a child is born.
I was alone that night,
45
My husband had been called to Edmonton,
My Indian maid had let her family in [Page 313]
Looking for whiskey.
I dared not call to her.
For hours the Indians danced and sang and yelled.
50
I watched them from my icy-cold bedroom
Through great cracks in the floor.
Before they slept they sat crouched by the fire,
As I crouched up above in fright and pain.
And all night long I heard the wolves;
55
They kept a sort of savage company
With my own stifled cries.
To-night, my mind went back a moment strangely—
I always thought he had the sweetest face
Of any of my seven…But then he was the first!’
60

She raised her glittering hand
And found the speaking tube, to modify her chauffeur’s pace.
‘And that, my dear, was fifty years ago,’ she said.
‘The prairie was a very different place—
I never thought, then, I should come to Bridge!’
65

 

Morning in the
West
1923

 

She Who Paddles

 

She who paddles swiftly,
    Lithe and brown in the sun,
And dances, lithe as an Indian princess
In the barbaric days of splendour
    Might have done—
5
She can laugh and jest too,
Play and wine and dine;
But none of these things have wooed me,
Bound me close by a mystery,
    Made her eternally mine.
10
For we have found still places
    Deep in the wood;
Climbed a ledge of grey rock [Page 314]
    Where a pink-legged heron stood;
Heard the distant loon’s cry;
15
Watched a lonely bird fly—
    And she does not stir then,
    Does not turn to me then,
But softly walks in the forest
    In no great need of men.
20

 

Morning in the
West
1923

 

Poetesses

 

You who loved all lovely things
And wrought in jewelled lines;
You have gone your gracious ways
That are patterned in dim stones
Of perfumed, faint-hued words;
5
You were a thing so feminine
That even of war you sang in tender notes.
But now another one has come,
Who is herself at war.
Her songs are keen and glittering,
10
For she has felt the magic fire
That you did long ago;
But now the fire has burned clean through
And forged a sword of steel.
Swinging swords are women’s songs
15
That gleam as hard as diamonds do,
And mean to cut tradition.

And yet those jewelled lines!
Strangely the ancient magic works,
Strangely the same fire lurks

20
And burns imprisoned there
In your dim, opaled words,
That run like paths in heaven
Paved in mosaic of sweet stones, [Page 315]
And make a scented highway for our feet,
25
Who wield these swinging swords.

 

Morning in the
West
1923

 

Going North

 

I

White Porches

Just as we left the avenue
I saw a golden butterfly
Flutter against the windshield.
I felt the motor take the breeze,
As gaily as a yacht might do
5
Upon some tidal river of the seas.
We sailed a broad grey asphalt
Out past the red brick houses,
And fringy, ragged outskirts
To where the fields begin.
10
And Pickering, Whitby, Oshawa,
Flashed by like friendly postscripts
Of the Town’s lengthy scroll,
With dusty little detours,
And cobblestone communities
15
To break the highway’s hundred miles
Of river-like content.
We smiled at sleepy Main Streets,
And joyous village gardens,
And sprawling crimson orchards,
20
Heavy with ripened fruit.

Each mile or two a butterfly
Danced near the blazing windshield,
“The same gold butterfly!” we said,
“And the same village street!”

25
We passed a hundred porches, [Page 316]
Ancient and modern porches,
And some of them were white ones,
And those we loved the best.
Many a bed of phlox we passed,
30
Lilac and pink and white,
And they were gardens of delight
Along our asphalt river-front—
Sheer gardens of delight.
We loved all purple calicoes
35
On cheerful, ambling ladies,
Their morning work already done,
Sauntering through a mile of sun
Up to the general store.
Sometimes they sat on porches,
40
Narrow but shining porches,
Serenely shelling peas.
“Just what is life,” we wondered,
“For those who sit contented
Throughout the magic summer
45
On these pale country porches,
Patching—knitting—talking—
Serenely shelling peas?”

II

Grey Willows

Then we turned north.
A railway train rushed by us;
50
The blue-bloused engineer
Hung from his stifling cab,
Waving a careless hand.
And in a moment we had lost
All thought of shining porches
55
And sleepy village streets.
This was a thinner world
Of smaller, leaner orchards;
Taller, barer houses; [Page 317]
Drier, keener air.
60
Here and there grey willows,
With an eerie whisper,
Bent above a narrow stream
That languidly slipped by.
And over us the noon-day sky
65
Turned brazen. Stark tree trunks
Showed where bush fires had run,
Charred columns of lost forests
Dried by the sun into fantastic shapes.

This narrow stream,

70
Unnursed by tree-held snow,
Dwarfed by the fires, fifty years ago
Would have raced by us foaming,
Even in summer, through a world of green—
A lost green world of butterflies and fern,
75
And soft anemones in spring;
But now at every jagged, ugly turn
Only a brush heap where the woods had been.
The very soil is scorched—
Scorched the brown ferns
80
Descended from the ones that long ago
Were licked into a burning wind of flame.
Poor, narrow little stream,
Bereft of that green dream
That holds the snow!…
85
There was a bit of rock a mile ago,
The preface of the North!

III

Bush Road

A soft swamp road,
For forty miles through bracken and through fern,
Smooth as a snake,
90
With turn on twisted turn— [Page 318]
Turns that meant few surprises;
Yet, as it wrinkled on its way,
The softly yielding earth that overlay its granite
Seemed to say
95
That once the lumber trails ran here,
And once the voyageur
Sang as he paddled down the foaming stream,
And once the woodmen came,
Great gangs of woodmen
100
With the axe and spike,
Who set up rude encampments.
Then, to hoarse shouts and orders,
To laughter and to oaths,
To roaring fires at night and whiskey-haunted songs,
105
The soft green forest fell.
It died robustly as it lived,
And had its will of singing and of strife,
An ardent, powerful, various sort of life;
A more heroic fate
110
Than this of late—
A trail up to the playground of the North,
A bracken-haunted, snaky road,
A soft surprise to strangers, a delight.

IV

Painted Rock

Then the North took us,
115
Forced us through rocky walls,
Tore at our tires,
Gave us no inch of earth
Upon our steady climb.
Yet even here, beside the cruel road,
120
Were scraggy plots of farm,
And wood-piles neatly stacked,
And shacks, and gloomy faces.
Then an acre of more fertile land, [Page 319]
Pine trees and woods,
125
And suddenly, like a blue cup held high,
The lake Mazinawa…
All silence, silence, silence—
Dark colours filling the blue cup.
And, like a purple stain against the sunset,
130
The great rock of Mazinawa,
Sacred to Indian tribes how long ago!
A thousand years ago?
Why should one care to know!

It looms up larger than I dreamed;

135
Roadways of rock
And canyons full of light;
Niched balconies for pines bent all one way;
Small birds in flight,
Dashing against the dark
140
Of that vast rocky flank,
Whose sides of iron seams,
Laid under golden lichen,
Have been a place of dreams
And of brute sacrifice.
145
What if it has a power to draw us near
As in the days of fear?
When from the rocklands of the Georgian Bay
Or through the bush roads whence we came to-day,
But then on foot, soft-padding all the way,
150
Or in the war canoes
They crowded to this small blue lake of theirs
And an old shrine…
What are we floating towards
In this small, low canoe?
155
A naked, ceremonial singing past
Seems to reach out and whisper. [Page 320]

 

Morning in the
West
1923

 

The Island
(Experiment in Magic)

 

Discovery

This is where it shimmered
In the morning air,
Looking like a legend
Wrought in color there:
Fortressed by a rock wall
5
And its airy street,
Poised as light as pine trees
Wind-bent towards retreat.

We had turned a corner,
Caught in sudden sheen,

10
Found a glowing island
We had never seen:
Heard a sound like music
Perfume all the lake—
Singing as a woman sings
15
Lovely, half awake.

And we paddled nearer,
Struck the rocky shore,
Called in strange excitement:
‘We are at your door!’

20
‘Are you fact or fancy?’
‘Have you been here long?’
And the island answered:
‘I am an old song,
An old, old song
25
Old song.’ [Page 321]

Air

The air was warm with an exotic charm,
Not Canada at all
And a small northern lake;
A land of soft desire,
A depth of turquoise fire,
30
A height of foreign stars.
Only the water glittered
In a cool northern way
Sparkling against the rocks,
Then the full moon arose.
35
‘We shall awake, my dear,
We shall awake,
And find all this some fabulous mistake!
I hear a song from far away
A song that never rests,
40
I feel the island trembling,
Or is it your small breasts?’
‘Let us be still and go to sleep,
For the song will vanish in the morning.’

Water

But the song surged up in the morning,
45
Turned into crystal cadence as we swam
Beating against the blue fire;
The far sea in our blood
Raced through the cold, fresh bath
Singing eternal life.
50

Electrons in the sun,
Or stars in space,
Or little shining fish were we—
Anything fully alive
Anything coldly free. [Page 322]
55

Then the hot rock
Was hard and firm;
The island gathered shape again
Beneath our pulsing limbs.
We lay upon the centuries,
60
Regaining warmth.

Noon

An Indian guide
From up at Lake Traverse
(Strawberry shirt and grey canoe and all)
Came circling in and out,
Expecting us to beckon him or call.
65
Then—near enough to shout—
‘Where was you all last week?
Thought maybe you was lost!
Don’t you two want no trout?
That is damn island!
70
Very much too low—too near the water:
Today I take you down to Hurdman’s Creek
Good fish there, if you like!’

We shouted back:
‘Ah, no!…We’ve leased this island now—

75
Forever—do you hear?
And absolutely there’s no poaching here,
But we may go with you to Hurdman’s Creek
One day next year—next year!’ [Page 323]

He paddled slowly off,

80
Then very clear the island echoed gayly:
‘You may go with him, perhaps,
This day next year—next year.’

Evening

An August evening,
Pale-blue and silver and the moon ahead,
85
And the canoe, if you should turn it westward,
Glazed to a lacquer red.

We had set up our house:
A fireplace of the island stone,
And a mat of moss,

90
A tent, and a balsam bed,
And a table made of a pine.

And through the twilight’s fading line
We paddled far down the bay
To look at the place so far away

95
Where the inns and the tourists belong,
The place we had left so hurriedly
When we heard the sound of the song.

Being established in magic,
Householders you might say,

100
It was safe enough to glance at the past
From our supernatural bay.

But then we went fishing instead!
And something reached out of the twilight,
Something so old and magnetic

105
Something so sure and prevailing
It seemed we might better obey—
For a song has a certain conviction
Heard at the end of the day.

Night

We finally built a fire
110
To warm our shivering tent.
It looked like a ghost, as the flame rose higher [Page 324]
And showed the open rent of the flap
Knocking about in the wind.

‘Where was you all last week?’ Pierre had asked,
115
‘Thought maybe you was lost!’

We wondered a moment later,
If that was the sound of frost,
Or a bent twig, snapped in the forest.
We wondered when winter, with bitter cost,

120
Would stop the song of the island.

Lighting my cigarette from yours,
Close in the lovely blaze,
We talked of miraculous nights
And endless drowsy days.

125

‘But is it a night, or a hundred nights
Since we stopped at the rocky door?’
‘It is too long for you, my dear?
‘Is your bed warm no more?’…
‘Yes, witchingly, yes—
130
But time runs on:
Sometimes I know, as in a dream,
That we have often been here before.
The song that is part of everything
Beats like a bell in my brain.
135
Is the tent, in fact, but a ghost?
And we—are we lost in this magical pain,
In the cold blue depths,
In the heat of the rocks,
In passionate sorcery,
140
In death that is endless sweet?
And shall I save you, while there is time,
From unreal cold and heat!’

But we died again that night,
Sank deep and far away, [Page 325]

145
Seeing the star through the canvas roof,
Hearing the pine trees sway,
And the island’s murmurous song,
And the deep sea in our blood
Beating for long and long.
150

(But that pistol frost in the woods!)

‘We’ve a lease of this island forever,
Forever, do you hear?
And absolutely no poaching:
But we may go with you to Hurdman’s Creek

155
This day next year—next year.’

Detention

Well, we thought it over and over
For another night or two,
Then creeping about like trespassers,
When the sun had almost risen
In the moment before day,
160
We took our fate in both our hands
And packed the tent,
And were well on our way
When suddenly the paddles slipped,
The boat went all astray
165
Caught in the sedge,
And a wind arose, drifting us back to land.

Then we made ourselves a sail,
And took a last adieu.
But we said to our smiling island

170
‘We shall return to you
After all the cold is over
We shall return’…
Her smile was as new as waking earth
On a morning after rain.
175
And the waves, as in October, [Page 326]
Were choppy and swift and clear,
We had almost turned the corner
When the whole thing happened again—
For the lake was suddenly still
180
As a lonely and forgotten pool
At the foot of a broken mill,
And our sail was a rag of canvas
That sorcery could not fill.
We were merged again in a mystery
185
That defied our fluttering will,
So we came like abject children
Back to our old doorsill—
Suddenly cold and gray,
Ashy and cold and gray,
190
And we heard the song of the island
From far and far away,
In a chant that was slow and still:
If you would ask me I should say:
Not if you fell on your knees to pray,
195
Not for a year and not for a day,
And my days are long and long…
For you have found what you came to see
And I am you and you are me
And you are part of a song—
200
An old, old song
Old song.

 

The Island and
Other Poems
1934

 

Negro Church Bazaar in Toronto

 

A wavering paper jungle
Hung from the chandelier
In violent greens and reds,
Outrageous colors that a hot sun sheds
Through jungle roofs in Africa. [Page 327]
5

And Africa was here,
Sitting behind bright-colored booths
Beneath the chandelier,
Crowned with a paper cap,
Selling piano lamps and bric-a-brac.
10

Porters and porters’ wives,
And elevator boys,
And young quadroons
With swaying hips and undulating grace,
Civilized children of a lawless race,
15
A race that only lately beat their drums
Against the jungle walls,
Done up in coats and shawls.

But this one, older than the rest,
Wore her gay cap with such a solemn zest

20
I felt the feathers quiver.
As the scratch orchestra played on
I watched the paper jungle
Move in the heated air
And undulate and part,
25
I heard the Congo voice of an old river
Calling up native drums that beat together,
And husky voices, throaty with emotion,
In ecstacy of song.

I watched her grave, black face,

30
An ebbing passion, but a panther grace.
I saw her young again, and whole and free,
Meeting her lover by some lonely tree,
Drums dying down, and fires burning low,
And dances that initiates only know
35
And endless forest sleep.

Still the orchestra played on,
From Swanee River to the latest tune— [Page 328]
Then from her booth we bought a bag of sweets
And straight emerged into the wintery streets.

40

 

The Island and
Other Poems
1934

 

Imprisonment
To one in the Tropics, who said to me of its beauty: “Once I tried to escape!”

 

We talked of North and South,
Of officers and balls,
Of quasi-revolutionists, packed off to Spain,
And how, in all this winter nearly gone,
There had not been a single day of rain.
5
Her fading beauty mingled
With the palm trees rustling fronds,
And with the hazy magic of the sea.
Then, as the gorgeous afternoon wore on,
She tinkled a small bell, made from a gourd,
10
And a fantastic negro brought the tea.

Her garden on the beach
Is bordered by blue waves
That change and curl and turn in sun and foam.
‘Always a summer sea!’

15
She smiled, and languidly went on:
‘How you recall the ancient days at home
And things I long to know!’…
‘They write me of persistent cold this year—
Heavens, that long, long cold!’
20
And thinking of the cold, she turned as though in fear,
To the warm, laughing sea.

Then in a night too luminous for sleeping,
Awake to far-off sound,
I heard soft waves, before the sudden dawning,

25
Go swishing, swishing, swishing,
Like whispering silk curtains [Page 329]
On doors far underground.
There was a curious note within the ebb tide
That did not rise or fall,
30
Steady and unimpassioned as cool metal
It moved with a persistent gentle grating,
A kindly metal voice, as of a door-key
Turned in some mellow wall.

I saw a bronze-gold moon

35
Drop like a broken lantern to its death.
And in the amber light
I felt the sea returning,
Hurriedly returning, almost out of breath,
But quietly, possessively, as it neared the land,
40
From its green skirts dangling
The key that had aroused me,
And other keys, many keys, jangling from its hand.
They sang as they jangled from its rosy hand:
Keys of old magic, hardly ever dreamed of,
45
Keys of kingdoms buried long ago,
Keys of deep-sea treasures,
Rusty keys of pleasures,
Gold keys of languors, exquisite and slow.

It was a pleasant jailor, salty and brisk and bland,

50
Who strolled up the terrace,
The nightly-washed, bright terrace,
That is made of shining sand:
A well-conditioned jailor,
Returning through the dawning,
55
With the keys that lock his inmates
Into a magic land.

At the early coffee
Out on the verandah,
A scarlet bougainvillea blazing overhead,

60
The sea-line had retreated to a far horizon,
We saw a stretch of empty beach instead. [Page 330]
‘Something in the trade wind,
This perpetual trade wind
Stirring in the night.
65
Made me dream of snowstorms in the North!’ she said.
‘I hate to dream of snowstorms
And those skies as black as lead!’

Every key was quiet now—as quiet as the dead.

 

 

The Island and
Other Poems
1934

 

 

Mexican Road Menders

 

 
These Mexicans are like the land,
Like images of sand;
Dry as the sage brush, infinitely old,
Brown as the landscape fading into gold,
Colored with foothills,
5
Smudged with dusty red.
As the car passed them
One held up his weathered head,
Stared at us gently,
Looked across the land
10
Where his wild mountains darkly cut the sky,
Swore softly at these strangers passing by
And went on shovelling sand.
 

 

The Island and
Other Poems
1934

 

 

Dancer and the Dust

 

 
The Programme  

                                    Siva—Lord of Dancers:
                                    Creates a universe:

                                    Preserves, sustains it:
[Page 331]
                                    Destroys all worlds:
                                    Reincarnates them through Illusion

5
                                    Draws all to him—
                                    The Perpetual Dancer.

One of the Audience
(ecstatically)

                                    I seem to see a mimic universe
                                    Form as he dances,
                                    Smoke ascending,
10
                                    Purple clouds about his bare, brown feet,
                                    Incense…heavy, deep.
                                    He throws a crystal ball
                                    And it is lost among the tinted smoke—
                                    A world destroyed!
15
                                    When he builds up again…
                                    That is a striking curtain,
                                    Blue as the deepest sky.
                                    See the great Wheel,
                                    The cosmic wheel of life
20
                                    Rising from out the smoke!

The Dancer
(to himself)

                                    Dusty little stages
                                    In these provincial towns!
                                    Smoke through this trap-door
                                    Full of choking motes.
25
                                    One-and-two, one-and-two,
                                    Ah, my left leg’s cramping!
                                    One-and-two, one-and-two,
                                    What a dust I’m raising!
                                    I can scarcely see the crystal,
30
                                    Almost missed the trick then,
                                    Felt the curtain tremble.
                                    Softly—softly— [Page 332]
                                    Circle—narrow—narrow—
                                    Will my leg last!

35
                                    There’s the wheel behind me,
                                    One-and-two, one-and-two,
                                    I am almost stifled,
                                    What a welcome curtain!

One of the Audience

                                    There! at last the smoke dies!
40
                                    I shall always see him
                                    Through that misty curtain
                                    (Such a heavenly color)
                                    Tossing worlds about,
                                    Making, re-creating,
45
                                    And at last returning
                                    To the Wheel of Being…
                                    Let us see the Programme:

•    •    •

                                    Siva, Lord of Dancers,
                                    Creates a Universe,
                                    Preserves, sustains it,
50
                                    Destroys all worlds,
                                    Reincarnates them through Illusion
                                    Draws all to him—
                                    The Perpetual Dancer
.

•    •    •

                                    t’s a jolly good turn!
55
                                    Better than most jugglers,
                                    Siva, Lord of Dancers…
                                    Do let us encore him! [Page 333]

 

The Island and
Other Poems
1934

 

Nearing Quebec

 

Grey line of ocean that our sharp bow severs,
Do you remember those tiny dipping sails
Venturing the unknown!
Then the free wind was an uncertain guide,
Criss-crossing the grey line,
5
Breaking the problematic course,
Enlarging, moving, changing
Opening the vast abyss.
Remember the huddled women
In question of this mystery,
10
The climbing, peering men,
The strain of tense expectancy,
And the doubt of arrival.

But the trembling line is controlled,
And the wayward guide dismissed.

15
What is the wind to us,
A beaten and frustrate force!
Did it once intimidate men,
Who used to measure and peer
At navies of storm in the sky?
20
First-rate machinery casts out fear,
And now we know what we know!
London, New York, it is all the same,
The ocean track is clear and tame,
We shall without doubt arrive.
25

Yet I return to you,
As though to a new land,
A woman on a sailing ship
Still huddled in a mystery.
Shall I touch your shores,
30
Past all these shimmering capes,
Prefacing cliffs and legends,
Witch-music, song of sirens,
Hymns of safety and the rest? [Page 334]
I mean your actual shores;
35
Earth of your very being,
The innermost of you:
The straight cliffs of your mind,
The mountains of your will,
The secret passes,
40
The deep and lovely fountains of your joy.
Are you to be my country,
My fathomless resource,
And my enduring song?
I, too, sail trembling
45
Into the unknown.

 

The Island and
Other Poems
1934

 

This Oblivion

 

One dear to him is moving towards the river;
Her broad-brimmed hat and dress of faded blue,
Her sketch book under a protecting arm.
Slowly she disappears, hid by the grasses,
Fading in light of the dim, blue-grey day.
5
Ah, so he faded as his tie with earth
Was loosed, and he slipped down
Hidden, as she is now. But the dim green
That floats and weaves above his secret place
Will not return him, not for any grace
10
Of wildest supplication. Yet she comes,
Risen from the grasses, back along the road,
Her little disappearance traced in form,
Her morning told in colour and in line.
Self-tranced she walks into the world again
15
Renewed by this oblivion.
But, oh, for him, bound in a blinding sleep,
What recompense?
I see no recompense that such negation brings [Page 335]
Or—is there song that endless silence sings
20
Faintly, below these grasses strong and deep? [Page 336]

 

The Flute and
Other Poems
1950