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.