I walk back from the club to the office
Though Queens Ave knows the weight of my Rolls Royce
Life Insurance ensures my assurance
At this moment five girls type my voice.
Hey! Where do you think you're going?
I need you to type out my deeds.
I've a nice tidy room where you'll work
Though the ribbon is tangled with weeds.
James Reaney and Jack Chambers were young men in 1963 when they decided to collaborate on a danse macabre, inspired by the medieval form, in particular, The Dance of Death at Basle. The results were printed by Reaney's own Alphabet Press (where Margaret Atwood, among others, would receive her start). Since then, both men have become comparatively big names, at least in central Canada. The Reaney1 has won the Governor General's Award three times (he already had two, for poetry, when this book appeared); the late Chambers has a southwestern Ontario elementary school named for him.
Back then, they were two artistic types with an amusing idea; set a medieval dance of death in their own, contemporary town of London, Ontario.
The poems and illustrations are as follows:
Invitation to a Dance
The Rich Young Lady
The Open Line
The Bride and the Bridegroom
The Grocery Boy
As the traditional danse macabre works its way from king to beggar, so Reaney and Chambers start with an executive and descend the social ladder to Scavenger-- a character based on an actual resident of London, well-known in the 1950s and 1960s. They then present themselves, Poet and Painter, below even the Scavenger's status in the culture. They end with the doctor, because that poem's true subject is a newborn babe. The doctor pompously presents himself as the true deliverer into life of the child, which he describes as a "little cup."
Death, dressed in Chambers' illustration as the attendant nurse, replies:
Yes give me that cup and I
Will spill it sometime, someplace
Shall I carry it safe for years of miles
Or fling it now into your face?
In most cases, Death's replies parody the self-assured statements of identity delivered by the people. Some of the humbler citizens are allowed a less mocking response, but in every case, the reply remains the same; Death has no respect for social standing and none shall escape its embrace.
Chambers' pointillism-influenced illustrations present Death's omnipresence with morbid cheerfulness. The "Invitation" features the Grim Reaper driving the kiddie choo-choo train which still runs at the city's Springbank Park. Death walks behind the grocery boy, carrying his coffin like a grocery bag, and hitches a ride on the Scavenger's cart, wearing roller skates on skeletal feet. To the Policeman, Death appears as the traditional image of Justice, with the blindfold and scales taking on decidedly chilly implications. Other roles include the Executive's flirtatious secretary and the Rich Young Lady's date.
The "Conclusio" features a barrage of spooky imagery, and ends with the traditional Christian view of a "Holy One who some day/ Will shut up thy [Death's] book with the hands of Life."
Although The Dance of Death at London, Ontario appeared only once as a chapbook, it was reprinted in Reaney's Poems (1972). The piece also has been adapted for stage and was set to music in the early 1970s. (I have been unable to find the name of the composer; Reaney remembers the production, but cannot recall the production details).
1. Update: Reaney died in 2008, following a lengthy illness.