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Cover of issue #219

Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013) is now available. The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Miriam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, and others, as well as new poetry & book reviews.

The RK Hornbook Retractions

by Robert Kroetsch

It fell to me as archivist to arrange Rita Kleinhart’s dis-
membered sequence of hornbooks in a manner that would
make at least a modicum of sense. Simply put, this last
assemblage constitutes those few hornbooks that do not
seem to accord with Rita’s own poetic intentions. I am led
to suspect that her conversations with me, over the years,
on those occasions when we had the good fortune to share
small intimacies, led her to doubt her own rather stoutly
held convictions. Rather than place my own name in the
summary title, I have chosen to call these sometimes hesi-
tant poems The RK Hornbook Retractions. By this strategy I
give full acknowledgement to Rita and at the same time
note her uniquely perspicacious if somewhat sulky dis-
agreements with herself. I might add that there appears in
issue #158 (Fall ’98) of Canadian Literature a further horn-
book (#15) which seems to fly in the face of her every idea
of poet. I do not for a moment believe Rita composed such
a statement, and for that obvious reason I exclude it from
the canon (see below).
(Raymond)

 

Hornbook A

I feared she had entered infinity.
Her eyes refused all diagrams of horizon.

And yet, to rescue language from the infinite
was her first intention. Accordingly,
she set out. I had hoped she would
take me along. You know. A friend.
A companion. Maybe even a lover.

She could smell the farthest galaxy.
Was it heat or cold that gave her direction?

 

Hornbook B

February is composed entirely of white iron.
In the white cold heat of a February moon,
poets warm themselves with four-line stanzas.
They freeze their tongues to doorknobs.

Politicians distribute promises
to the homeless, white rabbits too
paint themselves no color, betrayed,
if at all, by merest track. Or turd.

One is tempted, vaguely, to hope
that hell might be a realizable fiction.
Except that colder than the hobs of same,
in prairie talk, ain’t under interdiction.

Fame is a raw and dripping nose
of no allowable consequence.
Farmers unbale their hay.
Famine and the rent come due

warily, like deer, to feedlots,
as if the tight gun itself might be frozen.
Snowblowers howl in the darkness,
they cannot persuade, and quit.

Daybreak, such as it is,
is a pale surrender to stillness.
Even bankers cannot imagine gold.
Magpies hardly manage to shit.

Dogteams and rich Italian tenors
try to crack open the timid sky.
The one clean sheet is a sheet of ice.
And no one utters that cold word, nice.

 

Hornbook С

This is a shaky proposition, but, let’s give it a try: Poetry
is a changing of the light.

Just this morning, for instance, while listening to the rhythms
of your breathing,
I noticed the outline of a window behind the thin red curtain,
then a sort of oak desk or table under the window,
then your plain white panties on the floor by the bed.

We write down words, thinking they will instruct us.

[In this poem we hear a direct reference to the function of the
hornbook as a teaching device. That I, Raymond, was not the
surrogate author of this poem, fills me with a sadness that bor-
ders on lamentation. The curtains in my too small bedroom
are a subtle green.]

 

Hornbook D

Getting here is our only story.
Talk about pissing up a rope.

Why do live poets gather
empty aluminum cans?

Ours is a world bloodied
by a kiss—and ketchup.
P.S., Wear shades after sundown.
Do not peer in at open windows.

 

Hornbook Ε

Against reason:

You slid down the hill and laughed.
Later that same afternoon a cat’s silver bell
turned into a round green boulder
and went on ringing.

I was kept busy
arranging pitch black watermelon seeds
on the sloped heights of your buttocks.

It’s a brave poet
who counts her own toes.

 

Hornbook F

We are all lonely. We like to announce it.
I raise my loneliness like a dry
laurel wreath. Like a yellow plastic
mushroom. Like a green tomato.

What is the myth of the undone?
Where did I leave my other
glove? And yet, because of it
(the missing glove, the myth),
I am not quite, ever, alone.

Just the other morning, for example,
I had a chat with a woodpecker.
I was under the pile of leaves
in your garden by the walk.

 

Hornbook G

We are fooled by the map.
Because of the map
we are tricked into setting out.

Because of the map
we pack extra socks and bandages
into the extra shoes we will never wear.

We are always setting out, as if
to discover where the maps end
will allow us to begin.

 

Hornbook H

What is the poem but an echo of itself, a sound
we do not hear until it is gone?

The poet is merely a hillside barn,
a stone façade in an empty street,
possibly a canyon wall

returning the sound

returning the sound

returning the sound

returning the sound

 

Hornbook I

Both misers and musicians all, we count,
trusting by accident to find a poem.

Last night I tried with fingers five (or one)
to count the storied stars; and almost done

I thanked the droopy cloud that took away
the blinking lights. But then to my dismay

the poem too was gone, the night was old,
and this is all that I had left to say.

 

An Afterword on the canon, re: The Poetics of Rita
Kleinhart. The concluding section as represented above
was preceded thus:

          The Rita Herself Hornbooks:
                    The Battle River Mound*
                    The Kyoto Mound**
                    The Oviedo Mound***

*This sequence, which I choose to call The Battle River
Mound, appears in a book entitled A Likely Story: The
Writing Life (Red Deer College Press, 1995), assembled by
an author who claimed to be a dear friend of Rita, though
I never once in my life heard her speak directly of the man.
And again: three hornbooks that were inadvertently omit-
ted from the same volume have since appeared in the Fall
98 issue of Alberta Views. (Raymond)

**The Kyoto Mound, as I assembled it from notes and ver-
sion and revisions, appeared in the Summer/Fall issue of
Prairie Fire (1996). Since I was not able to establish the
sequence of manuscript drafts in Rita Kleinhart’s study
and bedroom, I cannot vouch for the authority of the pub-
lished transcriptions. (Raymond)

***The Oviedo Mound might possibly have been named
The St. Jerome’s Mound (see the spring ’98 issue of The
New Quarterly), but in fact the saint whose evocation
seems most appropriate here I would guess to be St. James.
In my own ingenious (forgive my modesty its one small
lapse) sorting of the scattered hornbooks into what I call
mounds, I find this partial or scavenged mound to be reve-
latory of the poet’s affection for the Spanish city, Oviedo,
located near the Atlantic coast, on the old pilgrims’ way to
St. James’s bones and relics. It is my belief that Rita
Kleinhart, as a conclusion to her mysterious travels, tried
at last to profane that sacred pathway by traveling its
length with an illicit lover who was not I. Which raises the
stark and bald question: Who then might he or she have
been? But is not this the question that haunts every poem’s
apparent dictation to or from an absent presence?
(Raymond)

More poems by Robert Kroetsch:


"The RK Hornbook Retractions" originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162: On Thomas King (Summer/Autumn 1999)

MLA: Kroetsch, Robert. CanLit Poets: "The RK Hornbook Retractions" by Robert Kroetsch. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 12 Mar. 2009. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.

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