It’s tough to say what makes a classic. Is time the determining factor? Must thirty, forty, fifty years pass before an author’s work can be hailed as a classic? Or is it influence? Is it good reviews, accolades from peers, solid sales numbers?
In fact, I believe that a true classic takes into account many of these and none of these. Most of all, I believe that a classic must capture a time, a place, a style in such a way as to make the work essential to understanding a certain type of literature.
In my opinion, The Essential John Reibetanz is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that type of book. One of the major themes in Canadian literature has always been place—the landscape, the weather, the isolation—but the flipside of that is what people do to overcome those harsh realities.
The poetry of John Reibetanz explores just that. His words demonstrate that family and community can be more than just accidents of birth and circumstance, and that identity is not always determined by one’s surroundings. Instead, family and community represent relationships that one decides to forge and to nurture as well as an opportunity for the creation of one’s own identity.
To me, The Essential John Reibetanz is a work that is at once fiercely intellectual and deeply personal. It transcends autobiographical poetry, elevating lived experience through imagery, syntax and diction to question, to find true meaning in personal experience. His poetry, then, is a vehicle of transformation—one that blazes through the pathways of memory and allows you access to the imaginary.
I highly recommend reading an excerpt (helpfully included below!) so that you can see the transformation for yourself!
Pulled from the Pages
Lewis Bolt, Farmer
A rat caught in a trap by the foot
Will gnaw it off for freedom, but
There are men who’ll no more part with
Their chains than with the air they breathe.
Watching them sickens me: they throw
Body and soul into making each furrow
Straight as a knifeblade, as if it mattered—
Would the harvest be less if the furrows wavered?
Look: Toby Green’s been fussing with that stretch
Of fence all day—he’s got to touch
And wind the wires just so, you’d think
He was tuning fiddle strings. No spunk—
His hands go fiddling his life away.
We were boys together, and Toby
Played all the games; my hours were ruled
And filled like ledger pages—my childhood
Knew discipline, and that has made
Me the man I am. Pride
You may call it, but I have built
This farm out of a muckheap: Bolt’s
Bog they called it, and thought me mad,
Throwing money hard come-by into the mud.
First I tackled the hedgerows—towering
Walls like a fortress, and you couldn’t bring
A plough near them with the bloody roots
Running thirty-five feet across. A few fights
Between them and a bulldozer upped the acreage.
Next came the barn, netted with age-
Old binder string wound around nails rusted
Brittle; incredible the space wasted
By that and the other rubbish I cleared.
Finally the hands: I paid more, and hired
The best in the district, but after a struggle—
The Eleventh Commandment was not to haggle
For wages, as if working on one farm bound
A man to it for life; they don’t understand
That work is just something to be done and paid for
And loyalty needn’t enter the picture.
My first harvest neared, and the road
Swarmed with neighbours’ cars; you could read
The thoughts behind their looks: was I steel,
Or would I give like soft metal?
A bit of a crash makes them feel less
Desperate about their own failures
And proves that a man who breaks with the old
Ways will never thrive. I did.
I have done well enough to buy my parents
Their own house, and give him an allowance
To do little chores. People ask if he
Minds—a daft question, really:
He is proud of me, and when you have spent
Your life sweating in the fields you want
To escape. It’s only in the fog of pub-talk
That people want the old days back.
You mustn’t get caught in a rut: now I’ve
Proved my worth here, I might move
On. Yes, I dream of the north:
Think of drawing a plough through earth
Hard as granite, to make it take
The shape you choose! I’ll crop that rock.
About the Author
John Reibetanz is a professor of English at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College as well as the author of ten collections of poetry, including Near Relations (McClelland & Stewart 2005), Transformations (Goose Lane, 2006) and Afloat (Brick Books, 2013). His poems have been featured in prominent publications such as Poetry, The Paris Review, Canadian Literature and The Malahat Review, among others. He lives in Toronto.
Hope you all enjoyed this peek at our latest poetry release. You can get your copy in print or ebook format here on our website. Don’t forget to check out the other fantastic volumes in the Essential Poets series!