Starting from Promise
Edited by Harold Rhenisch
Winner of the Poet’s Corner Award 2001
full size book cover
“A wonderful evocation of the Cariboo and its working life—logging, ranching, Stampede parades. Deeply moving poems about the connection between human and animal life. The poetic craft is unassuming but sound.”
—Alice Major, author of Tales for an Urban Sky
“This is poetry that shakes the senses awake. It has the solid feel of something written by a real person in an identifiable place. It made me smell the steam rising from the backs of horses and hear the rifle-shot snap of frozen fir trees.
“These poems leave the mind brimming with images which spill over into the memory long after the reading is done. They are obviously rooted in a well-loved landscape: a man in love with his family, his horses, his place on the planet; a man who has found a comfortable, sustainable niche in the universe.
“This is a poet whose voice rings true, one whose name we will be getting to know.”
—Hugh MacDonald, Poet’s Corner Award judge
“the poet writes about the things he knows and understands so well...successful. For an English reader this is a collection with an interesting difference.”
— New Hope International Review (UK)
the book’s introduction
THE POETRY OF HORSES
In 1976, Lorne Dufour went into the bush, because he wanted to work with horses. The bush, and those horses, were going to make Lorne into a fine poet, but it would take time. Things in the bush usually do. As a career move for a bright young student of William Carlos Williams, it was unusual. Most poets with a connection to the bush leave it when the stresses of literary life and back-breaking work clash too strongly. By 1976, for instance, Charles Lillard had already been out of the bush for eight years, Pat Lane had thrown in the towel, David Day was soon to be writing picture books in London, and the project of revisioning the bush as an urban garden was well underway. Fortunately for us, Lorne never heard about any of that. What Lorne actually did hear, and the whole world he lived in, you hold in your hands.
Here on the Cariboo Plateau, in the Interior of British Columbia, the winter of 1997-1998 was flush with a joyous, liberating cold. On New Year’s Day that winter I drove eighteen miles into the bush east of McLeese Lake. It was 35 below. The skies were threatening snow. For a week it had been down to 45 below every night. For a week, the plateau had been sheltered by a pale, green wall of cold, shimmering in the distant air, while the cities to the south were paralyzed by snow which fell when wet ocean air had struck that wall. I was driving to see Lorne.
I had first met Lorne the previous summer, at an evening poetry reading at the farmer’s market in Williams Lake. I had come the hour north from 100 Mile House, through the wheatgrass pastures and stone outcrops along the San Juan River, and he had come the hour south from McLeese Lake. I had passed the lumber yards to the south of town, where the timber of the Chilcotin was stacked a hundred feet deep along the rail-line, and Lorne had passed the beetle-killed timber of the Chilcotin, stacked a hundred feet deep north of town, along the wood-fired electric plant and its view properties of singlewide mobile homes, wrecking yards, and weeds. Our hosts were a group of college and high school students and street kids, who wanted to make something happen in the summer. I read about Coyote, because this is his country after all, and it was such a clear summer evening that I felt weightless. Lorne read a poem he had written twenty years before when he was living at Alkali Lake, at the edge of the grasslands falling down to the abandoned Shuswap villages on the benches of the Fraser River. It was a poem about standing at a lakeshore and watching cranes fly north overhead, their cries flooding across the entire sky, filling it, and how he remembered that moment as he was making love to his wife. It had become a symbol to him of their marriage—not a symbol laid down, but one which had risen up through decades of life together and was, one day, suddenly down when he received a Canada Council Grant to study the Williams archives, to prove his thesis. After three days, he realized that his thesis was bogus, and that all he would be able to do was say how Williams’ work did not follow his thesis—and even that would have been a stretch. “It’s counting laundry tickets,” he says. “It’s just the system.” Lorne packed it all in and went drifting. He wound up driving a team of horses for Caravan Theatre in Armstrong. In those first years the performances went from town to town on a large gypsy wagons pulled by horses. “It was wonderful to be around all those actors,” he said. “It was very creative. I loved it there.”
After that, he taught philosophy at Royal Rhodes Military College in Victoria, and worked as a teacher at the Alkali Lake reserve. Before long, he remembered how much he had loved the horses at Caravan Theatre and bought himself a team. He has been horse-logging ever since.
He is also a stubborn and very principled man.
Poem by poem, he relives his life for me, once again nailing himself down to the earth. In the pile from his drawer are angry, working class poems, addressed to the Soviet poet Yevtushenko, contrasting his sellout to political respectability with the beauty of Lorne’s own landscape and the sellout of horse-loggers, working men who just want to live on the earth, to big logging companies, of how the companies and the government work hand-in-hand to keep men like him from work. “Zirnhelt used to be a horse logger, and was one of my friends. Now he’s the Minister of Forests and has forgotten where he came from. He should know better. He does know better. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.” There are the love poems for Diana, ranging from the awkward and purely private to the luminescent. The luminescent ones are all about living with his family in a big caravan tent for five years, at 50 and 55 below zero, with a woodstove to give them some heat, “just to see what it was like to live on the land as the Indians did.” (Twinkle.) In Lorne’s drawer there are poems about his children, an awful lot of poems about snow, and the poems about his horses, about working with his horses, how if you are going to work with horses you are going to have to leave time for dreaming, that if the horses want to stand still for a moment, listening to some hidden music, or lost in dreams of running free on the steppes, deep and mysterious as the sea, you can not get them moving again, you’re better off to pull out a plug of tobacco, sit down beside the trail, your back to a tree trunk, and roll yourself a cigarette.
The rest of the party recedes as Lorne pulls out poem after poem and slides them to me through the conversation, which he still, somehow, manages to weave himself through. There are poems about Lorne’s childhood in a French-speaking town in Northern Ontario, where his father was a horse logger, where winos would sleep under the lilac hedges and a young boy would skip school to talk to them, and they would welcome him among them—laments for a lost culture and a lost language. It can never be returned to, yet it is obvious that Lorne has recreated it here, in the bush eighteen miles east of McLeese Lake, in a cabin he and his wife and their horses built by hand—out of pure idealism and stubbornness. Lorne has been living a poem, for over a quarter century.
All afternoon it has been snowing. At 7 pm, there are eight inches of snow on the hood of my car. The protective cold that has sheltered us from the crippling snowstorms that paralyzed the Coast has finally broken. The snow reforms as quickly as I can sweep it away. I back out among the horses and make my way down the now snowed-in roads towards McLeese Lake. A handful of Lorne’s poems lie on the seat beside me. Lorne will send the rest in three weeks. The visibility is no more than fifty yards. The road is scarcely discernible. I am driving through a white world outside of time and space. The highway south to Williams Lake and 100 Mile is even worse. There, the snow is a foot deep and cut up into a myriad of tracks, crisscrossing each other. The visibility is down to ten yards and slowly I creep south, only occasionally glimpsing the taillights of the car in front of me. On that four hour drive, I think of Lorne’s son, moving confidently out on the land, so capable and sure, and wonder if the land will be able to support him, as Lorne’s love for the land, and especially the people who work on the land, have supported Lorne. It’s hard to imagine being any closer to the earth, with the stars overhead in the night sky like flecks of foam on the flanks of a blue whale flicking its tail and diving deep, but Lorne, I think, would say it is possible to get closer, with poetry—not the poetry he has been living all these years, but the kind he can write out of the steadiness of that lived poetry and give to people. These are not poems about the bush. They are poems about people coming to terms with the limits of their knowledge and reaffirming their reliance on each other, in the face of dehumanizing institutions and a powerful and mysterious world.
By the end of the spring of 1998, Lorne was himself again. We would meet in coffee shops throughout Williams Lake, shifting his poems around between the coffee and the Soup of the Day, until, finally, it was dinner time above the BC Rail Line, the night was pouring in through the old glass of the window, and Lorne wanted more poems about love. I wanted more of his poems about horses, because they linked all his themes together. We played poetry poker, then. “Don’t ever play poker with Lorne,” Diana laughed. “He always wins.” I bluffed my way through, offering Lorne two love poems, if he’d accept one of my favourites in return. It came to a draw. Looking back on it now, I realize there really is no better way of putting the finishing touches to a book of poems by a people’s poet. I can see Al Purdy getting a chuckle out of that one. I can see William Carlos Williams dealing himself in.
—Harold Rhenisch, 108 Mile Ranch, BC
Lorne Dufour supports his family near McLesse Lake, BC, by horse logging a woodlot. Dufour’s previous poetry collection, Spit on Wishes, orginally community-published in Salmon Arm, B.C. in 1983, will be republished by Broken Jaw Press in a new edition in 2011.
2001 / 6 x 9 / 80 pp / ISBN 1-896647-52-9 (tp) (Out of Print)
BJP eBook 27, ISBN 1-896647-53-7 (PDF)
2004 / 5.5 x 8.5 / 88 pp
poetry (BISAC: POE011000)
ISBN 1-55391-026-5 (tp) / $18.95