THE OLD FARM

The garage in July 2011. I remember it from 1950 as being three times as large, with a metal roof. John, Grace, and Uncle Roy.

I remember how the wind

scraped the land clean

across the stubble and the hills

stretched tight to the land

and brushed the evergreens and poplars

stiff

that lingered on the horizons

and left the land pure and hard

and in the winter how we crossed

the slough to school

and the wind driving the snow

across the slough and cutting

our faces to the bone

and the grove shelter on the other side

and the brief lope to school . . .

Okay, I’m showing you another side of me.

Over sixty years ago I lived on a farm . . . for a winter and a summer.  It made an impression on me, because a decade and a half later, I wrote my first mini-epic poem about the experience.  Up to that time in my life – I was ten years old – I had been a city boy.

It was a farm that belonged to my maternal grandfather and grandmother, in Saskatchewan, just south of the North Saskatchewan River, and north of the city of Lloydminster, where I had been born.  For nine of my first ten years I lived in the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec, close to my father’s side of the family.

In the fall of 1950 my father loaded the family – mother, sister Grace, brother John, and me, the first-born – onto a train, and we rode west for days and days.  One night my father, out of the blue, smiled at me and waved goodbye, and dropped off the train.  We journeyed on, and on, until we reached Lloydminster, and then Uncle Roy picked us up in a rattletrap and drove over rough roads to the farm.

We kids, in those days, were told things, family things, on a need-to-know basis.  So at some point we were told that our father had disembarked at a place called Longlac, somewhere in Northern Ontario, to hunt up a job in the bush camps, and so, for the rest of our lives, so far as we knew, we were parked with our mother’s family.

There’s a lot more to this experience, and some of it came back to me this summer when we survivors of the Lavoie family – I, Grace, and John – visited the old farm.  There have been other owners.  I had been back a couple of times in the last twenty years – Grace and John had not been back for fifty years. 

It always strikes me as incredible what experiences of a writer will become fodder for his collected works.  Mine fed into a poem, it is now nurturing this post, and it will be part of the food group for my current work, an historical novel about the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.  The protagonist was born and raised on a farm – I wasn’t, but my personal experience and my enduring fascination with farm life that I constantly enlarge with research, will aid in creating a character who becomes a city boy and joins a Toronto militia regiment that will be dispatched westward to capture that terrifying half-breed rebel, Louis Riel.  My working title is, The Batoche Crossing.

In 1967, a literary magazine called Alphabet accepted my poem about my farm experience.  It was, in its day, a prestigious journal, edited by James Reaney . . . yes, that James Reaney.  I had a few other poems published, but I was never motivated to put all my energies into that literary genre.  For years, for decades, I drifted.

Now I know my destination . . . my destiny.

If you don’t care for poetry, you may stop reading now.  For you others, here is the poem in full:

Saskatchewan Sojourn

I remember how the wind

scraped the land clean

across the stubble and the hills

stretched tight to the land

and brushed the evergreens and poplars

stiff

that lingered on the horizons

and left the land pure and hard

and in the winter how we crossed

the slough to school

and the wind driving the snow

across the slough and cutting

our faces to the bone

and the grove shelter on the other side

and the brief lope to school

We never knew where the wind went

and we wondered

about it

I remember how the schoolhouse

creaked in winter

let in the drafts

smothered us in summer

where we chased the ghosts of history

down the pages

of the schoolbooks

and the effort

to bend the ang-

ular fractions to our will

The gargoyle faces of my

schoolmates

their kindnesses and unkindnesses

and the playing field where I lost

in baseball games

and the outhouse beyond

so dank and smelly and

hard on the ass-end in winter

nauseous in summer

and the old barn

with the horses and the clean smell

of hay and manure

I remember the pretty young teacher

who stayed in the teacherage

and whispers of my companions

about her orgies with

old mr S . . .

and the rats in the well

and the stinking water

and the time the man teacher

took us on a picnic up the road

on top of a hill

and we raced around the woods

and cooked wieners on sticks

and ate and the teacher called

his handkerchief a snot rag

and we returned happy

And I remember riding in a car

at night down a country road

and the headlights thrusting the warm darkness

like a phallus

between palpitating thighs

and beside the road the wet cold sloughs

murmuring with old wise voices

and the hamlets dotting the landscape

lonely and scared

on the vast landscape

with only lights for companionship

and my fear

and thrill

riding in a closed car at night

I remember the house on the hill

near where we lived

and the sisters that lived there

and how I admired them and

how they excited me

and we used to play in the hay

and how I played the fool

for them

and was ashamed

and how I slobbered like a dog

for them

because I liked them

I remember getting up mornings

from the cavern of covers

and the ice on the windows

the light not awake yet

and the hot stove in the kitchen

the others snug in the darkness

And I remember going hunting

with my uncle

for prairie chickens

in winter

and finding an old deserted building

that somebody had lived in

and the mice in the mattress stuffings

and the way he killed the hens

with a blast from a shotgun

and I felt sorry for them

they must be cold

and it’s hard to die

I remember the springtime

the woodlots always clustered

in the hollows of the fields

and in the springtime they sang

with frogs

and the land was alive with the ripple

of water

filling dark hollows

and the air was fresh

I remember the visits to the city

and the sin-dens of the coke bars

and the movie-houses

and how to look at a bare leg

was to burn in hell

and how we never stayed long

and I always slept before we

reached home

In the summer

I amused myself by drowning out

the bumblebee holes

in the yard

with used engine oil

and I remember when my father

killed my rat

a white one I brought from

down east

it had to die its legs were broken

and he broke its back by swinging its tail

and I was sorry

I remember the friendly neighbours

where I asked to eat sometime

shameless

their kids had so much fun

the food delicious

and their alkali farm

and the alkali slough nearby

forbidden

where we burnt our skins swimming

and tunneling in the haystacks

so much fun

and the pigweed in the yard

the boy said could be eaten

and my never identifying it

when alone

though I tried

And I remember the willow swamp

near our place

in the hollow

where I got my bows and arrows

the smell of decay there

getting my feet wet

and the dark water

and deathly afraid of the dark willows

toiling at my bow and arrow

and setting off for the upland woods and meadows

never shooting anything

and the one time

I approached within five feet

of a prairie chicken

and couldn’t shoot it

for I wouldn’t know what to do with it

and setting rabbit snares

never catching anything

and wanting to build a raft

on the hidden slough

the project so big

but never did

and the railroad across country

that my uncle said was there

he’d gone

I never went

I wasn’t allowed to

and no one taught me anything

And I remember going one day

far afield

and coming on an old road

that was dusty

my feet heavy in the love-sick dust

It was hot

the bushes closed in on the road

so many leaves green and sexy

and the road went on and on

and I wanted to go on

and on

but returned

before dark

I remember the spring planting

the seeds slipping

into the vulvas of the rich soil

and how long it took the blades

how hard it was to grow

how the grain mellowed

ripe with age

and we cut it

and then the sunlight brittle

on the stubble of the fields

and the wind sweeping down the hills

moaning with an old sickness

and the land waiting

motionless

for the blank snow

I do not think I am

now

what I used to be

I never thought then

and I’ve grown up and

moved away

– Published in Alphabet, No. 13, June, 1967.  Single issue $1.00.

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About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website www.WhiskyJackPublishing.ca
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