May 212010

Here’s a poem by John B. Lee, a poet who lives in Brantford, ON, just along the highway from the farm where I grew up and which my family still owns. For a while, John even taught at the high school I once attended. One nice coincidence: The first time I co-judged (with the novelist Lisa Moore) the Winston Collins/Descant Best Canadian Poem contest, we picked John Lee. The judging was blind, so the convergence of fates was particularly appealing. “Burning Land” is written, yes, in Canadian. “Stoneboat” is a word I grew up with: a flat plank sled on low iron-shod wooden runners, drawn by horses, used to haul stones out of the fields. (See also “tobacco boat”–a tall narrow sled on steel runners, drawn by a single horse between tobacco rows during harvest.)  James Reaney was a massively influential and inspirational southwestern Ontario (Sowesto, as we call it) poet and mythographer. Raymond Knister was an early modern short story writer and novelist who died young in a drowning accident. His was the first Canadian novel I ever read that was about my home territory–he even talks about tobacco growing (we raised tobacco from the 1920s on). Raymond Knister’s daughter still lives in Waterford, my home town. I ran into her in the drugstore last fall.



Burning Land

“talk farmer …”
my mother chastens me
in conversation, for
though I have been to school
I’m still her wayward son
and what shall I say
shall I say
clevis and gambrel
sheaf and stook
shall I limit my earth
to the matter of mud
the matter of water and loam
or lambing in April
or driving a spile in the bloat of a cow
or the bark of maple in spring
what shall I tell her
concerning the Georgics of Virgil
the shearing of ewes, the keeping of bees
of Piers and his plough
of Jefferson’s science
of the three sisters of the Iroquois
or of Clare who wept at the closures
of the Idylls and eclogues of Spenser
of old or the pastoral beauty
of Eden and Eve
of her murdering son
and the land where he roamed

how David the King was a poet
with his lyre and his psalms, how he sang among sheep
how Wendell Berry walks on Sunday
with his pencil to the page
how Frost came appling out of orchards
blunt and rubbling at his dry stone wall
how Reaney
lost his Milton in a furrow
how his father
pierced a gasy rumen with a fountain pen
how Knister came to wintering after horses
writing “the horses will steam when the sun comes”
and how I listen for such lines
how I learned my Greek on shoulders
my mind much like a stoneboat with a single earth-heaved stone
how I came to Latin
in a cowflap, Latin fallen from the paper cows of Rome
how I told myself such stories
with a clay clod in my hand
I might have been Prometheus
with my breath of ancient words
while the ashes of my forehead
burned like burning land.

—John B. Lee

  5 Responses to “Burning Land: Poem — John B. Lee”

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful poem…I truly enjoyed reading it.

  2. Lovely poem! I could hear it, smell it! I’ve followed a stoneboat in my childhood — way out here on Vancouver Island — and know the stirred-up dirt, the dusty rocks, new ones surfacing every year. The farm words, the images, the books, the writers’ names, all re-surface in my life as well, as they do here. I didn’t know any of these writers’ names then (I’m a Wendell Berry fan now) but I already sensed that my father’s stoneboat was stirring up something more than dust and carrying more than rocks.

  3. I was never anything but a surly and reluctant farmhand and a poor classicist, but I too admire this poem.

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