Jerry Prager’s Echoes in the Timbers is a prose poem that relates the death and inquest of Margaret Buckingham, a former slave who settled in Puslinch County in the mid-nineteenth century. The narrative is broken into several parts, each with a different speaker – including Margaret herself; her suitor, Jerry Collins; and a member of her inquest jury, Nicholas Beaver, whose house has since been moved to the grounds of the Elora Poetry Centre. Margaret actually visited Beaver House in her day, so it’s fitting that it was where Jerry first read Echoes in the Timbers in 2014 and where the published version was recently launched.

The subject of Echoes in the Timbers comes out of Jerry’s historical work on the underground railroad in southwestern Ontario, which has resulted in three non-fiction volumes, Laying the Bed, Exodus and Arrival, and the forthcoming Blood in the Mortar. Despite this historical source, however, the personalized narratives and the distinct characterizations of the narrators allow Echoes in the Timbers to personalize the unique struggles facing former slaves in Upper Canada.

Margaret’s husband Buckingham, for example, ends up losing his life in an attempt to rescue his family left behind in slavery. Jerry Collins suffers nightmares from the work that he was made to do as a child, dangling from a rope to dig wells. Margaret herself suffers from fits that first came on when she thought she would be sent away from her family, fits that might eventually have killed her.

In each of these cases, the past cannot simply be put aside by crossing the border into a new country. Past traumas constantly reappear, calling Buckingham back across the border, filling Jerry Collins’ dreams, throwing Margaret into literal fits. Though each of the characters celebrate their freedom, their stories never forget that the legacy of slavery does not suddenly end with physical freedom. It is carried with them into their new lives and their new country.

The writing is for the most part clear and direct, leaning more toward prose than poetry. Often it is only the line lengths that remind the reader that the account is intended formally as poetry. This directness adds to the sense of inquest and investigation, of historicity, but there are times, especially in Margaret’s own sections, where a more poetic sensibility appears. In her second section, for example, she says,

It was too many sheets, too many shrouds, too many ghosts, too
much snow and the earth and the woods white
with the billowings of winter; it was me
lost in the tobacco smoke
around the wood stove
in the general store…
the slow burn of whiskey heating up inside me…
swirling the memories of all the generations
of the same two families inside me

Here, and in other places, the writing moves from history to poetry, affirming the humanity as well as the historicity of the characters.

Published by the Elora Poetry Centre under its Interludes imprint, Echoes in the Timbers is a physically beautiful book, handbound on heavy laid papers in two volumes, one for the poem itself, the other for historical notes that Jerry includes for those interested in that element of the story. It is quite a limited run at only fifty copies, all numbered and signed by the author.

“Mrs Timms,” Reverend James asked, “could you pick up some coffee filters for the coffee machine while you’re out?”

“Do we need any? I’m sure there are some left in the cupboard. Quite a few.”

“I know, but they’re the small ones, and the grounds keep spilling over the edge into the coffee. We need the big industrial size.” He held out his hands wide to show her.

“Shouldn’t we use up the ones we have first? I can pick up the bigger size when we run out.”

“Mrs Timms, I know you’re trying not to be wasteful, but I can’t serve people coffee full of grounds. I’ll pay the hospitality budget back out of my own pocket if it makes you feel better, but we need some larger filters.”

“Fine. I’ll buy them separate and bring you the receipt.”

“Great.”

***

“Mrs Timms, where did you put the new filters? I can’t find them anywhere.”

“They’re right here.” She opened the cupboard and pointed to a bag identical to the one already open.

“But those are the same size as the ones we had.”

“They were the biggest size they carried.”

“But they’re still too small. Why would you get a size that you knew was too small?”

“You told me to pick up some large filters. Those are the largest filters they had. I can’t help it if they don’t make the size you want.”

James slumped back against the counter, hung his head. “Okay. Don’t worry about it. I’ll just get them myself.”

“But we have lots.”

“Yes. Lots that don’t do the job. I’ll just pick some up the next time I’m out.”

“Okay, but you still need to reimburse hospitality for the ones I bought.”

***

“Mrs Timms, do you know what happened to the new filters I bought? The ones that actually fit the machine.”

“I put them up with the cleaning supplies until we get through the old ones.”

“The old ones, Mrs Timms, as I’m sure you remember, are too small. They get grounds in the coffee. They need to be tossed.”

“I’m not just going to throw out perfectly good filters!”

“Then take them home for your own coffee maker. Consider them a gift.”

“I couldn’t possibly. They were bought with church funds. They’re not mine to take.”

James lunged for the cupboard, pulled out both bags of the too-small filters and threw them into the sink. He jerked open the utensil drawer, grabbed the barbecue lighter, and held it to the plastic of the nearest bag. It failed to light very well, just melted into smoke and the smell of chemicals.

“What are you doing?” Mrs Timms screeched.

“James tossed the lighter on the counter and began tearing the bag apart, pulling the filters out and crumpling them into a jumbled pile of plastic and paper. “I’m solving our filter problem,” he said, jamming the lighter into the midst of the pile and lighting it repeatedly.

The filters began to burn strongly. James tore open the second bag and began feeding handfuls of paper into the inferno he had made of the sink. The room was filling with smoke despite the industrial fan running through the window. The flames licked at the wood of the window sill.

“I’d go pull the alarm if I were you,” James told her, tossing another handful. “This fire isn’t getting any smaller.”

The vehicle makes us homogeneous.

We become distinguishable, not in ourselves, but only by brand, by model, by government issued license plate numbers. We pass one another and reveal nothing remarkable about ourselves beyond a personalized license plate, or a decal, or a bumper sticker, or a penchant for rolling through stop signs.

We should do without personal vehicles, not only to protect the environment, not only to encourage health, not only to save money, not only to increase community between us, but also for the simple pleasure of individuality.

One of the myriad roles I occupy on any given day is Managing Director of Friends of Vocamus Press, a con-profit community organization that supports Guelph book culture. The title sounds fancy, but it basically means that I’m the guy on the board who has to do the actual work, though there is a new Director of Communications, Sheri Doyle, who is taking on some of my duties, bringing new ideas, generating different kinds of interaction with our community, and generally doing a great job.

It wasn’t easy for me to admit that I needed this kind of help. I prefer to do things myself just to be sure that they get done, and I’ve had some bad experiences where people committed to help with something but never followed through on it. Even when I know a task doesn’t fall within my strengths — finances (hey, I got a 51% in grade 13 math), social media (I’m not really a fun person, and I’m not sure I want to be), or technology (I’m a selective luddite, becoming more selective all the time) — it’s often easier for me just to learn how to do it and get it done myself than to trust someone else to do the job, even if they’d probably do it better and easier. It’s one of my many issues.

I’m learning to accept this kind of help, however, and I’m learning that it’s often better to go about it just by tying in the people I know I can trust wherever they fit rather than posting an official job description to people who I might not know as well. Now, Sheri took on her role by responding to just such a job description, so there are clearly strong exceptions to the rule, but I’m finding it works best for me just to connect interested people, good people, people I can trust, wherever they happen to fit, even if they may not fit the preconceived roles that the board had in mind.

For example, a local author named Ryan Toxopeus has been very involved and helpful over the past couple of years. Among other things, he has split tables with other genre fiction authors at conventions that wouldn’t make sense for me to attend even if I had the time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the experience with arts grants to fit the Director of Fundraising role the board is looking to fill, and it would be easy to focus too much on filling that role and pass him over, which would be a waste of a good, dependable, interesting guy who actually wants to be involved in what we do.

When I run into those people, I’m finding that I need to stop asking whether they fit the roles that we think we need to fill, and start asking whether we have other needs that could be met by their unique skills and interests. In Ryan’s case, he’s already started doing good work, organizing tables at conventions, filling a need that I’m unable to meet. So I decided to see if he wanted to take on that role more formally.

I sent him an email suggesting that we make him Special Advisor to the Galactic Senate on Issues Pertaining to Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Speculative Fiction in and around the Environs of Wellington County. He thought that Genre Fiction Coordinator might be a more suitable title, but he was interested in helping out in that area. He also thought it might be a good idea to have a meet up for genre fiction writers a few times a year, which is just the sort of thing that I’d love to see.

The point here, one I’m learning only slowly, is that you can’t pass over good people just because they don’t meet some predetermined plan. When you find them, you need to make room for them to use their strengths, even if you have to make up the job description as you go.

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