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I’m going to tell you a story about a book.

A few months ago I went to a reading at The Bookshelf, our local independent bookseller. I didn’t recognize the name of one reader (Daniel Coleman? Author of Yardwork?), but the other was my friend Shane Neilson, and I love to hear him read, so I went.

It was a solid event, though too sparsely attended. Daniel’s reading was quite interesting, and Shane’s was good as always. Afterwards, I was chatting with Daniel about some of the ideas he had raised in his reading, and Shane mentioned that those ideas had been raised much more deeply in Daniel’s earlier book, In Bed with the Word, which was about reading, spirituality, and cultural politics. I was intrigued, but The Bookshelf didn’t have a copy, so Shane promised to loan me his.

Then I forgot all about it.

Shane, however, did not. The next time we met for lunch, he dropped me off his copy, and this morning I sat down on my front porch with my coffee (escaping the unseasonable heat of my house), and read it front to back, out loud. I don’t read everything out loud (Poetry, yes. Philosophy, sometimes. Fiction, rarely), but this book seemed to ask for vocalization, so I obliged.

It didn’t take that long to read, even aloud – maybe two and a half hours – and it was worth every minute. It’s a little gem of a book that gets into all kinds of my favourite things – the posture of reading and reflection, the function of slowness in thinking, the difference between criticism and what Daniel calls discernment, the spiritual (not to say religious) significance of reading, the necessity of good reading to turn to moral action – and so forth. He also cites a whole range of authors who have been influential on me, from Simone Weil to Jacques Derrida. It was a provoking and affirming read.

What it is not (despite what the previous paragraph might seem to imply) is a work of philosophy, not in a rigorous sense. It’s far more the sort of book that I have come to call a meditation, something like Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, or (closer in time and space) Tim Lilburn’s Going Home. What I like about these kinds of books is how they take up their subject in much they way that Daniel’s book recommends – slowly, thoughtfully, leisurely. They take their time. They adopt a posture of humility or (as I’ve often argued from Heidegger) of thankfulness.

Before I was even quite finished In Bed with the Word, I knew it was the sort of book that needed to be on my shelf. I started walking down to The Bookshelf to get my own copy, reading as I went. They still didn’t have it in stock, but I ordered it. There aren’t enough books like it out there.

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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.