Tough, ambitious, obsessed with building his business empire, Ottawa lumber baron J.R. Booth would seem singularly ill-suited as a subject of poetry.
Building on River says otherwise. The upcoming collection of five dozen poems by Ottawa’s Jean Van Loon tracks, compellingly, the life and times of John Rudolphus Booth from his birth in 1827 to his death, at 98 years old, in 1925.
Van Loon reads from the collection at VERSeFest on March 24.
Where Booth was practical — “No poetry in your bones,” says Van Loon to him in one piece – Building on River is full of lyrical moments and metaphor.
Where he was an impatient workaholic who slept but a few hours a night, the poetry takes time to explore the man, his family and the evolution of “ragged and randy” Bytown into a capital city where three of Booth’s adult children would own Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts that glide with “wraith-like silence” while Booth himself sticks with a clip-clopping horse and carriage.
Van Loon, who remembers from her childhood the log booms on the Ottawa River, says she’d long felt that there was something special about this man. While portraits portrayed Booth in standard stiff, captain of industry fashion, she noticed “There was a sensuous mouth there. This was a passionate man, passionate about his work.”
Inspired to begin writing, Van Loon says, “I just couldn’t stop. I kind of fell in love with the times and the place. Things were so new then and changing, and it was really the story of my home as well as a man.”
While her book includes a substantial bibliography, Van Loon says knowledge of Booth’s personal life is minimal because he ordered his personal documents destroyed at his death. She made that work to her advantage.
“The fragmentation of poetry allowed me to get close, and nobody expects it to be literally true because it’s poetry.”
The man she presents is complex. He loved his family dearly, but, in the poem Frances Gertrude, no sooner has he buried his first child then his wife Rosalinda spots him
… at the top of the stairs
in working clothes,
one knee a-twitch. I need
to be at the mill, he says.
Yet when his wife died he closed his mills for five days. And in Tale of the Shantyman’s Wife, we witness Booth, a fan of medical books and tinctures, sitting up all night with a sick employee after wrapping him in flannel soaked in wine.
“He was great on spontaneous acts of generosity,” says Van Loon.
He was less successful at not being in total control. “Another man’s command /Tastes like defeat,” he says early in the collection, when still an employee rather than an employer.
He turned that hierarchy around, winding up the owner of forests, pulp and paper mills, railroads, steamships and more. In the 1890s, his Chaudière Falls sawmill was the largest in the world.
The genesis of his drive to succeed and dominate is uncertain. Van Loon suspects it was rooted in a lifelong competition with his father.
Born on a farm in Lower Canada’s Shefford Township, Booth went against his father’s wishes by striking out on his own. Booth Sr. crops up periodically in Van Loon’s collection – much as the Ottawa River courses through the poetry – but there’s an unbridgeable distance between father and son that weighs on J.R.
Booth’s ambition brought him enormous wealth and influence, but Van Loon delights in also showing how he relished “the sweetness of pine and horses” and how, even as an aging man, he’d roll up his sleeves to mix mortar.
She also savours the changing world that Booth inhabited.
Varying language and form to meet the occasion, she gives us the young Booth family’s first, hard days in Bytown; a forest denuded by harvesting; a train arriving in a blaze of onomatopoeia at Booth’s Canada Atlantic Railway station, now long gone, at Elgin and Catherine Streets: “Steel wheels screech/and steam exhales.”
There’s much more in Building on River, and the voices we hear are multiple: family members, employees, tavern habitués.
But J.R. Booth remains at the volume’s heart.
“I was quite smitten with him by the end, despite his faults,” says Van Loon, with a laugh. “He must have been awful to live with and work for. But as a character to imagine, I found him quite appealing.”
Van Loon is one of 70 poets at this year’s six-day VERSeFest which begins on Tuesday.
The lineup is markedly different from the predominantly white, male readers at the first festival in 2011, according to festival director Monty Reid.
“We were told very quickly we needed more women, and we agreed … more than half our participants are now female.”
Festival organizers “have made a conscious effort to be a big tent,” says Reid. “We have spoken word, traditional poetry, experimental poetry and emerging voices from people of colour. We have Indigenous poets.”
The lineup includes a blend of veteran poets such as Alice Notley and Henry Beissel along with a crop of emerging artists including Toronto’s Allison LaSorda and Ottawa’s Victoria Gravesande.
Once again this year, the program comprises international poets including Spain/Catalan’s Berta García Faet and Iceland’s Sjón.
New this year: Pajamas and Poetry, a Saturday morning read/writing/performance event for kids six to 10.
VERSeFest runs March 20-25 at the wheelchair-accessible Knox Presbyterian Church. Information & tickets.