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Thursday, 19 October 2017

Haunted Pumpkin Walk

Haunted Pumpkin Walk

Marmora Lion's Park 2007

Councilor Cathie replies to my Halloween email with a request for me to fill in for a sick volunteer. She needs help carving nine pumpkins and placing other spooky decorations around the village's beautiful main park beside the Crowe River. Her idea is to have trick or treaters follow the park's circular paths along a haunted pumpkin walk to several candy stations -

Tomorrow birds will feed
on the drying seeds
we drop in haste

At dusk we return to the park. I'm no longer a particularly social being, having many years service as a village librarian. I find I now prefer the rare, but always honest, awareness in wild animals, a few fellow crazed poets, and solitary monks. But handing out candy to children on All Hallows Eve appeals to me. I set down the plastic cauldron of candy, break a large weed bedraggled branch from the muddy river bank, and -

Pumpkin, Face, Halloween, Field

At the first bend
black & white dog & warlock
greet stirring river mist

Tiny witch
names me leprechaun:
young eyes still clear

4-year-old boy
in a skeleton suit
will be me in 55 years

My small dog
leaves just once
to visit another dog

Slowly shadows
circle the park
swirling dead leaves

The monster mash
makes my stupid feet move
into the mystic

Fairy princess
after fairy princess
many kingdoms on display

Chris Faiers
November 2007

from ZenRiver: poems & haibun, Hidden Brook Press, 2008

Chris Faiers (home)   |   biography & bibliography   |   Eel Pie Dharma

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Red and Green Pony: A Canadian Masterpiece (review of Milton Acorn by Ron Dart)

                          THE RED AND GREEN PONY :

                               A Canadian Masterpiece

                                        by Ron Dart

I’ve Tasted My Blood was published in 1969, and many thought the poetic missive would take home the GG Award in 1970. George Bowering and Gwendolyn MacEwen won the Awards, and there was an immediate reaction to this disappointment. Robin Mathews played a significant role in blowing the whistle on the decision, and many others joined the opposition, and Acorn was offered the first Peoples Poet Award in 1970 as a stinging rebuke to being bypassed for the GG Award.

Al Purdy was instrumental in the bringing together I’ve Tasted My Blood,

and he wrote a lengthy and informative ‘Introduction’ to Acorn’s collection of poems. Most of I’ve Tasted My Blood is poetry, and poetry at the highest and most challenging and suggestive level, but there are two short stories at the centre of the book: ’The Legend of the Winged Dingus’ and ‘The Red and Green Pony’ are Acorn at his parabolic and storytelling best. Purdy had this to say about both tales:

       the stories are not ones that could be written by any other poet in

       Canada. They are a complete surprise, especially coming from a

       word-buster like Acorn.
(p. XIV)

Or again:


       I’d call both stories simple magic, for each is a long-term spell cast

       on the reader. I’m a pretty factual person myself, and yet no matter

       how many times I read these stories or type them-they get to me. And

       I start to wonder: could there be a world like that? Well, if there can’t

       be, the next best thing is Acorn’s stories. My belief amounts to a naïve

       certainty that both are masterpieces.
   (p. XIV)          


There you have it. Purdy thought that both ‘The Legend of the Winged Dingus’ and ‘The Red and Green Pony’ were literary masterpieces and only Acorn could have composed such evocative stories. This short essay will reflect on the content of ‘The Red and Green Pony’ and ponder the political meaning of it.

Image result for milton acorn

 T he Red and Green Pony is one of the most important Canadian political parables, and it was written in the 1950s by Milton Acorn. The tale is a well told political fable that records and anticipates much that was about to unfold in the latter half of the 20th century. The leading protagonist is Tommy, and there is good reason to suspect that Tommy could be identified with Tommy Douglas (voted the most important Canadian’ in the 20th century in a CBC survey in 2004 and still on secret and classified files of the RCMP and CSIS). Acorn was holding Douglas high in a time when most reviled, opposed and sought to topple Douglas through a variety of questionable means. Douglas, for those who do not know, was the father-in-law of Donald Sutherland and the grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland.

The Red and Green Pony has a dynamic momentum to it, and it is divided into five sections that intricately interlock with one another. Section 1 walks the reader into a dream sequence in which Tommy enters a forest. The trees and leaves have a way of speaking to Tommy in this magical realm about things that went to his deeper longings and soul. It was in this dream world that Tommy met the red and green pony that was both red and green at the same time. It was hard to believe, even in a dream, that a pony could be both red and green. A conversation ensued between Tommy and the pony about the actual reality of the pony. There is no doubt that Tommy is drawn to the feisty pony, but he is young on the journey, and he is not quite sure what to make of the vision and conversation with the pony. The hair of the pony was ‘tangled’ and Tommy noted that it needed ‘combing’. It was just a matter of time before ‘the dream was gone’, ‘he was lying in bed’, ‘it was day and not as bright as the dream’ and Tommy had to remember to bring a ‘comb and a hairbrush’ when he next returned. Section I has a surrealistic and naïve visionary quality about it, but there is much in it about the tangled idealism of the political left that needed combing to formally engage the political process in a meaningful manner. Most knew what ‘Red’ meant on the political spectrum, and ecological ‘Green’ was just emerging. The political pony that Acorn envisioned in this parable would be a fusion of left of centre ‘Red’ and ‘Green’. But, there would be opposition from the old guard. It is in Section 2 that the dialectic of thesis becomes antithesis and a waking from the dream occurs.     

Section 2 shifts from the dream world to a sort of waking state. Tommy is now in his parents’ home, and he is about to join them for breakfast. His father is reading a paper, and his initial comments are, ‘CCF’s running a candidate here again. Are they ever going to learn that we here in Ontario don’t want them?’ Tommy’s mother is a faint echo of his father’s political views. His father then mentions the USA: ‘Yanks kicking up a fuss about Negroes going to white schools again’. Tommy’s mother tries to move the discussion from newspaper politics to Tommy’s need to be clean and eat a proper breakfast. There is no doubt that Tommy comes from a family that is rather bourgeois and right of centre on the political spectrum. It is just a matter of time before Tommy blurted out that he had had a dream, and in the dream he had seen a red and green pony. His father has no problem with the dream provided it remains a dream. ‘Now did you ever see a pony on the street with red and green patches?’ Tommy wants to make it clear that the dream was real, and it has significant meaning. The mother makes clear ‘it was only a dream’. Both father and mother become quite worried that Tommy might confuse a dream with reality and begin to act rather foolish ‘on the street’. The conversation ended, and Tommy went upstairs and looked out the window. He saw a sign that said. ‘Warning, No swimming or fishing. Water polluted. Order of Ontario Department of Health’. Tommy was late for breakfast that day, and he soon forgot about the red and green pony. The day soon passed, ‘but when Tommy went to sleep that night he put a comb under his pillow’.

It does not take too much reflection to see that Tommy is Tommy Douglas of the CCF, Tommy’s vision often collided with an established view of reality, the red and green embody leftist thought and ecological issues, and the wild and tangled hair on the solid body (that needed combing) reflected all the diverse and often prickly elements in the political left that Douglas had to comb. The fact that this short story was written in the 1950s makes it abundantly clear that Acorn anticipated many of the substantive issues that were about to emerge on the public stage in the 1960s-1970s and that we still face today. The dialectical antithesis was about to become a more demanding synthesis, though.

Section 3 walks the reader back into the magic realism drama of Tommy. The leaves greet Tommy with great joy as he enters the world where the ‘flowered branches’ and the ‘tufts of the grass’ swung over him like ‘pony-tails’. The red and green pony is there to meet Tommy, and he inquires about the comb—it had been brought and Tommy brushes all the tangles and knots on the pony’s hair. It is just a matter of time before another conversation begins between Tommy and the pony about Tommy’s father and his right of centre political ideas. The question is raised about whose facts and view of reality should be listened to and why. Who defines what is dream and what reality?  Tommy bonds closer and closer to the red and green pony, and he is soon on the pony’s back and riding the friendly yet energetic animal with much delight and fondness. Section 3 ends with the dream over, and Tommy waking to the sound and sight of a starling on his window-sill. Tommy looks down at the ‘polluted river’ and a world in which ‘ugliness was coiled with beauty’. The vision has definitely deepened and solidified for Tommy in Section III, and the experience of the dream world is set in stark and graphic contrast to the lived reality his mother, father and the economic and ecological setting of the time.

Section 4 takes Tommy and the interested reader back into the world of Tommy’s parents. The red and green pony is now much more real to Tommy, and his interpretation of what he sees and does is informed by such a reality. Tommy’s mother tends to come across in the story as warmer and more affectionate, whereas his father is stern, dogmatic and ideological. Tommy’s mother finds him down by the polluted river and urges him to return home for dinner. A family feud soon emerges between mother and father about what to do with Tommy’s increasing interest and belief in the reality of a red and green pony. The intensity of the clash becomes so pronounced that Tommy runs away after declaring that he has seen and believes in the Red and Green Pony with capital letters. The commitment to the vision is now dividing the family and parents.

Section 5 brings the tensions between idealism and realism together in a thoughtful manner. It is Nature again that has become Tommy’s real family, and it is in the arms of Nature that Tommy is comforted and befriended. It is

Tommy’s mother that comes searching for him, and there is a poignant episode in which Tommy watches a ‘long legged wolf spider’ attack and kill a harmless bug on a tender grass-stem. The Red and Green Pony appears again and wonders if Tommy has brought the hairbrush. Tommy had brought the hairbrush, and he began combing out the deeper knots on the pony, and at the same time he can vaguely hear his parents. There is a distinctive sense in which Tommy is living in two worlds and he needs to know which he will heed and why. There is a surrealistic scene in which the Red and Green Pony runs straight through Tommy’s parents (they seem to have no substance), and he then leaves Tommy with a few comments to ponder as the tale draws to a close. ‘To listen properly you’ve got to do it and not talk about it’. Much of this story is about who will be listened to and why. Tommy is pulled in diverse directions through the mini-drama, and there are consequences for not hearing and heeding the best voices. The final lines conclude and sum up the deeper message of the fable.

“Where are we going, Red and Green Pony?” he asked.

“All the way,” said the pony. “Often and often you’ve got to go all the way so you can properly get back”. There is something in the final few words that have echoes of Plato’s famous cave parable, and I’m sure Acorn was quite aware of his updated version of Plato’s synthesis of philosophy and politics in a mythic form.

The Red and Green Pony hovers on the edge of an allegory—it is part myth, part fable, part parable. The message cannot be missed. The tale is about the process that must be gone through to see through different and more informed eyes. The transition means letting go of much only to receive much. The pilgrimage often means going all the way before the journey back can be taken. We might wonder what going all the way means, but this is the mystery and uncertainty that Acorn leaves us with as the short story ends.

It is significant to note that Milton Acorn’s religious roots were Anglican, and Tommy Douglas’ were Baptist. Both had leanings, even in the 1950s, in the direction of both red and green, and, in this sense, the common good of both the land and people were united in one integrated whole. The Red and Green Pony is must read and classic of Canadian political tale telling. It is rather sad that so few know such an evocative political parable. There is a significant sense in which Acorn’s The Red and Green Pony and Douglas’

classic parable, Cats and Mice, have much in common, and the obvious convergence of these not to be forgotten tales make two points abundantly clear: art, religion and politics should not be isolated from one another, and equally important, faith and politics need not unite and merge into a republican brand of conservatism. The more we are immersed in the life, activism and writings of Tommy Douglas and Milton Acorn, the more we will be walked into a unique Canadian synthesis of faith, literature and politics that has still much to commend it. 


It is significant to note that when Acorn was in the Vancouver area between 1963-1968, he had an ongoing confrontation in 1965 with the Stanley Park Aquarium. A killer whale was being kept in confined space and Acorn relentlessly (mostly alone) challenged the administration to change the conditions of the whale’s imprisonment. The whale did try to break loose through a port hole, and in the process, was seriously damaged. There is a fine poem by Joe Rosenblatt called “Milton & the Swan” that touches on the incident and a trip to the zoo taken by Acorn and Rosenblatt. We can see, in the killer whale—Stanley Park Aquarium incident in 1965, Acorn was ahead of his time in Animal Rights also.          

Ron Dart                              

                                                                    ~   ~   ~   ~

On 2017-10-15, at 2:36 PM, Robert Acorn wrote:

    Chris, For fun you may be interested to know that Milton told me that I was the Red and Green Pony. Robert Acorn

                                                                       .   .   .

Hi Robert,
Thanks for the 'insider' information!

Hope you are doing well and still winning the occasional bet at the Charlottetown horse track  ;  )-

I really enjoyed your poetry collections. Sadly, the anthology on Milt Terry Barker and I were co-editing never came to fruition. We collected lots of great poems and ephemera, but Terry had a hard time getting the academics to write and contribute their essays. Terry still has hopes of bringing out "Acornucopia", but I'm afraid I've lost my energy & enthusiasm for the project. Most of my focus now is on curating whatever literary legacy I may be leaving. One flukey item of interest is that two Brit screenwriters are working on a movie screenplay for my "Eel Pie Dharma" memoir.  Here's the blog post:

best wishes,
peace & poetry power!

p.s. I've cc'ed the author of the essay, Ron Dart, as he may be interested in knowing the 'true, real' identity of the pony, and Shane Neilsen, who is a super fan of Milt's. I know Shane would love to have copies of your books.