Sean Arthur Joyce ≈ Poems For The ‘Home Children’

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Exhausted Spirit

—for ‘home child’ George Evans, 1908–1951

An ice-white sky cracks
over Old Cemetery Road—
exhausted spirit breaks
from hemlock sway
in a stillborn wind.

Half-rotted clump
of clothes barely hidden
all these months
jawless gape of skull
.22 calibre at his side
one shot fired.

Heavy the steps
one by one
that brought him here
a quarter mile from home.
Daddy’s gone hunting
words he will never hear.

Here, the mountain
is all there is to listen to.
This forest will never
heal his wound,
can’t give him back
his dead parents

or foster parents—kind
old couple from Ipswich
brutally ripped away—
letter that never arrives
the worst of fates.
Dr. Barnardo said, Every boy
will learn a trade. Or perish,
he might have added.

These bleak foothills can’t erase
a boy’s daily coldwater hell
the lash tonguing
its zippered sting—
unholy water poured out
from head to foot.

Five stark years
serving out the war
in a logging camp
west of Aberdeen.
Can you tell me anything
about myself? you wrote,
sure the good folks
at Stepney Causeway

would send the golden key
to unlock the void
your shell contains.
Love? What do I know
of love? you said.
If it cracked me upside the head

I wouldn’t know it. Well,
fuck ’em, I say.
Had enough already.
Let the gales
of Crowsnest Pass
scrape down the peaks

and scour my bones.
This trigger my final amen.
This ragged forest
breathing me in
breathing me out

 

©2012 Sean Arthur Joyce

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES: GEORGE EVANS

George Evans had a rough start to life. His mother, a poor labourer living near Evesham, England, was forced to put him into the care of Barnardo’s Homes when he was still an infant. As was Barnardo’s practice, George was ‘boarded out’ with a foster family in Ipswich, the Clapps. Then at age 13, he was taken from the Clapp family and sent to the William Baker Technical School, a large institution run by Barnardo’s. There the boys learned various trades, including carpentry, tinsmithing, printing and gardening. It seems no provision was made for the more artistically inclined at William Baker and the school was run on the military model.

In 1928 George was sponsored at age 20 by Barnardo’s for immigration to Canada and made his way to Alberta. In 1936 with the Great Depression raging he married 17-year-old Grace McCullough and eventually had three sons. He enlisted with the Canadian military in September 1940 and was sent to Scotland, where he served alongside the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit, logging in the Caledonian forest west of Aberdeen. He met another woman during the war years and his marriage to Grace ended in divorce shortly after the war. His second wife had two children from a previous marriage and they came to live with him in Hillcrest, Alberta. George had worked in the coalmines just six miles away at Coleman, near the Crowsnest Pass connecting Alberta and BC.

On the evening of January 16, 1951, George told his wife he was heading to Coleman to see if he could get work at the International Mine. He never returned. His body was not discovered until May that year by three young boys looking for stray horses. The coroner found a .22 rifle at his side that had been fired. By then the body was badly decomposed, so a verdict of suicide was never officially recorded. The family story is that George died in a hunting accident. This seems unlikely given the circumstantial evidence. George’s life is one of the more tragic stories to come out of the Barnardo’s Homes legacy.

NOTE: Stepney Causeway was the main office and receiving home for indigent children in London, one of Barnardo’s first and largest facilities.

Most Canadians remain unaware of this aspect of their own history: that 100,000 of these mostly poor children were exported from Britain to Canada to work as indentured labourers on Canadian farms. Today there are up to 4 million descendants of these ‘home children’, or about 1 in 7 Canadians..

 

Legacy

—for Cyril William Joyce and the British child immigrants

known in Canada as the ‘home children’

And did the Earth constantly
clutch at your heels?

Was the soil hungry
for your anonymity?

Did the green tendrils
bend in your direction,

recognizing a tender boy
sent away from home?

I wonder. Does the wind
want to erase me

from this world? Who
or what decides

who remains
in the community of ghosts

we call memory? It’s easy
to think of callous gods

deciding your worth
on a whim. This assumes

we’re something more
than dust in a vast

cosmic soup. No sin
could possibly curse a family

for eternity. Maybe God
was so shocked

by his own conundrums,
he simply imploded.

Grandfather, if my name
must join yours in the moist

darkness where no names
are spoken, then let our blood

nourish even the stones,
feed the secret underground rivers

suddenly cry out
in a startled flicker’s voice.

©2011 / 2012 Sean Arthur Joyce

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The Man Without Stories

—for Cyril William Joyce and the British child immigrantsknown in Canada as the ‘home children’, 1867-1939

 

I am the man without stories. 

I was born in a prosperous country
in a halcyon era, grandson
of an anonymous cog.
Grown fat on the marrow
of the nations who came before us,
sewn into our medicine blankets
with smallpox and whiskey.
 
What is there to tell?
I was born in the platinum glare
of an antiseptic hospital room,
stabbed by blue-bladed light,
my new body screaming
like its skin had been torn off,
every cell white-hot in my brain.
 
I went to school the first day
gripping my mother’s hand.
Earned a row of gold stars
in fifth grade, met the girl
next door under spruce boughs
to paper her with kisses.
Nothing exceptional in that.
 
Sinuous wings rippled me out
my bedroom window—away,
away, anywhere but here, where
the biggest stick rules the herd.
 
My people were working class, farmers and
millers coaxing life from rented soil.
Our lives weighed little.
 
Surplus babies of market forces,
we were last week’s grits cast
into the gutters of Empire.
Squint-eyed hawks quoting scripture
plucked us from the filth of our sins,
saving us from ourselves.
Cultured us in neat rows,
 
spit-and-polish carrots, our eyes
gouged from the wound of the world.
Exported us in ships to land
in the teeth of a country
gone snowblind. We wondered
if the land would erase us utterly.
Though we became millions,
 
we are alone in the indigo dark
of a northern lake, the loon’s call
an echo of generations
whose stories are forgotten,
eerie anthem on waves
spreading in linked circles
from the mute heart of the world.

 

©2009 Sean Arthur Joyce

A NOTE ON THE POEMS
These poems reflect my current work on the history of the ‘home children’ in the West, titled ‘Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest’. My grandfather Cyril William Joyce was one of these child immigrants, sent against his will to work on farms in northern Alberta in 1926. He was one of 100,000 such children sent to Canada to work as indentured labourers on farms, some made to work as young as 7. Often made to sleep in barns with the livestock or in unheated attics in the depths of a cold Canadian winter, they were subjected not only to backbreaking manual labour but in many cases also to physical and sexual abuse. A few committed suicide, some were killed by farmers. Of course, there were many farm families who were kind and did their best to help the kids while still using them for cheap labour.
The problem was, most Canadian farmers had no more money than the families in Britain from which these children came. So the notion of it being a step up in life, or as child emigration pioneer Annie Macpherson called it, “a golden bridge across the Atlantic” to unlimited opportunities, was illusory for most of them. Although the contract with the farmer stipulated they were supposed to be sent to school, few of the children were spared from their busy work schedule. Consequently most grew up to work in labouring occupations. A few were lucky and were adopted by middle class families who could afford to send them to college or university, such as Nelson’s own L.V. Rogers, namesake of the high school.
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