The Old Red Shirt: Pioneer Poets of British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By W.H. New
THE TITLE OF The Old Red Shirt comes from one of the poems that Yvonne Mearns Klan collects in this wonderful book. The poem in question is by Rebecca Gibbs, a black woman who had established a laundry in Barkerville by 1868 and who published poems in the Cariboo Sentinel, It tells of a poor miner who brings a threadbare shirt to a laundress to wash and repair – a task that leads her to reflect on the plight of miners, mothers, and the economics of power: “O! traders who wish to do good, / Have pity on men who earn your wealth, / Grudge not the poor miner his food” (47). As with the other sixty-five “pioneer poems” in the collection, Klan less annotates the verse than contextualizes it, introducing each work with a short, lively outline of the historical events that gave rise to it: gold, railway construction, road travel, rural mail delivery, orchard-growing, logging, sealing, the missions, political change. The result is a fascinating glimpse of (primarily) nineteenth-century life in British Columbia – as it was being lived by people doing ordinary work and as it was being written into rhyme and published in local papers throughout the colony/province. The Old Red Shirt collects verses that have almost never been reprinted – nor are they claimed here as great. But together for the first time, they tell of a public passion for justice, a love of literary pathos, and a widespread commitment to recording in verse form people’s outrage, joy, ironic wit, and conventional sentiment.
A personal note: because I once attended Moberly School in Vancouver (named for the civil servant surveyor -which seemed so much less adventurous to the ten-year-old mind than did the names of neighbouring schools: Tecumseh, Mackenzie, Fleming, Van Home), I fastened first not on the caribou medicine and paddling songs that begin this collection but, rather, on the poems by and about Walter Moberly. The doggerel explanation of how a pig stole his boot is the stuff of jocular exchange among friends; the vitriol towards Van Home suggests a livelier politics than the term “civil servant” ever suggested in elementary school history; and Walter’s sister Emma’s plaintive request for him to return home to England is reminiscent of many a Victorian aesthetic gesture. Walter’s holograph addendum to the manuscript of Emma’s poem, however, hints at a more complex personality: “A restless spirit, a ceaseless wish / Debars one from a home of bliss” (28) – suggesting that a full biography is in order.
Klan’s collection records moments of Yankee presumption on the gold fields (“Soon our banner will be streaming, / Soon the eagle will be screaming, / And the lion – see it cowers, / Hurrah, boys, the river’s ours” ), tells of explosion and death on the Fraser, and offers poems that criticize some missionaries’ practice of whipping Native children. Other poems detail life aboard the emigrant ships, accidents on the wagon roads, the actions of local celebrities, Doukhobor resentment of the Cossacks, and the tribulations of the telegraph trail and local publishing in Rossland. One poem was written on a blazed tree on the overland route to the Klondike (“Damn the journey, Damn the track / Damn the distance there and back, / Damn the sunshine, Damn the weather, / Damn the gold-fields altogether” ); another, on surveying for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was bizarrely pencilled onto a sanded Crée skull (55).
While some tales here tell about starvation and people’s unkindness, there is also humour (a quatrain on the closure of a pub, irony about inflated opinions and expectations, a Scots dialect chorus on the “daftest hour”  spent dancing with the hurdy-gurdy girls in Barkerville). The writers, some anonymous, most of them male, include Simon Fraser’s son John and C.G.D. Roberts’s son Lloyd; most (with the exception of Bertrand Sinclair and A.M. Stephen) are largely unknown. Overall, they use the rhetorical conventions of the time to deal with the land (fragrant cedar, giant pine, fretted shore, lone distant northern land), and they almost invariably rely on rhyme. The poems range in strategy from epitaphs (for a dog, a horse) and a square dance call to vernacular couplets and quatrains that echo Methodist hymns and vaudeville songs. Standing out among them are an unrhymed love poem, written as a “Kite Song” and translated from an anonymous Chinese cannery worker (106), and a passage (reset as a found poem called “This Green and Gracious Land”) from the prose record of the “girlhood days” of a part-Okanagan woman, Eliza Jane Swalwell: “I have sometimes seen things / sensed something / so serene and beautiful / it left me weak / and weeping / as I sat in the saddle” (70).