Monthly Archives: July 2016

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.”



“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.”