Poetry in Motion: the Prairie Honesty of Jim McLean

November 23, 2016

Jim McLean's latest collection,  Nineteen Fifty-Seven (Coteau Books), is thirty years in the making. Three decades after his debut collection, he comes back with this book, a meditation on prairie life from a lifetime of experience working and travelling on the CPR. Learn more about this collection, read a snippet, and listen to Jim read "Doctor My Eyes."

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It may have been thirty years since the release of his first (and, until August, last) poetry collection, The Secret Life of Railroaders, was published, but in that time Jim has not been idle. On the contrary, he worked his way up the ladder at Canadian Pacific Railway and Transport Canada, working across the country, writing what he could in his spare time. And after thirty years of accrued experience, Nineteen Fifty-Seven was born. This new poetry collection moves from boyhood to adulthood, and creates an intimate world that is as beautiful as it is haunting.

Nineteen Fifty-Seven, as it’s name might suggest, welcomes the reader into the post-World War II era in a small town on the prairies. There is, quite frankly (and feel free to call us biased) no better setting for a book than the prairies. It is uniquely picturesque. And while the landscape itself is well deserving of it’s own poetry collection, Jim’s work has us firmly entrenched in the lives of teenage boys in Moose Jaw in the middle of the 20th century. But Nineteen Fifty-Seven is much more than a look at Prairie life after World War II – with sections on Women, Family, Memories, Work, Writing and Music – these poems are an exploration on the depth of emotion and our role as caregivers, teachers, and the changing landscape of the times (and we’re not just talking about a few extra trees getting planted in Saskatchewan). Yes, Jim weaves fascinating, sentimental images of Moose Jaw and the Prairie landscape, as well as stories of workers and the railroads, but he also creates a separate persona to move in an out of darker poems on death, suicide, alcoholism and voyeurism. Through poems such as "my brother, who I looked out for when we were kids", "After" and "about MacKay", Jim delves into the heart of humanity: what keeps us alive, and what shapes our past, present, and future. This presence is something Jim explores wonderfully in live readings, as he consistently leaves his audiences spellbound.

An original member of the Moose Jaw Movement poetry group, Jim McLean’s work has appeared in magazines and anthologies and on CBC Radio. As well as being the author of The Secret Life of Railroaders, he is also the co-author of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. His illustrations have appeared on book covers and in several literary and scientific publications. Jim will be appearing at the Moose Jaw Festival of Words in July 2017. 


aurora borealis, southern Saskatchewan, 1972 

summer, and us riding the deck
of a flat-car on point 

the big hook rattling along behind
running down to the wreck

with a monstrous black thunderstorm gathering
thick bolts of lightning seconds in front

of the booming thunder
a phenomenon filling the skies

from horizon to the heavens
green snakes of undulating light

in afternoon darkness
and that lightning!

the steel rails grounded
in the ballast beneath us 

it was a time
to be nervous, to be

reasonably afraid
but I felt            wild

I felt wild  
riding there

on that flat-car
the siding switch coming up

and the cold rain
beginning to fall.   

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Jim McLean reads (animatedly!) from "Doctor My Eyes" at the Coteau Books Launch.

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Thanks a million to MacKenzie at Coteau for sharing Jim's stunning work with us. For more poetry videos and excerpts, click here.


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