- Why Should We Read and Study Fraser?
- Literature & Analysis
- “They Come Here to Die”
- Analysis of “They Come Here to Die”
- “Seventeen Years Old”
- “Tragic Youth”
- “Flagging Spirit”
- “Holy Day”
- “To Go Back Home to Chatham”
- “Human Beings”
- “The Depressive”
- Analysis of Fraser’s Poems
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
More than thirteen works of fiction, six collections of poetry, two very fine biographies, and a memoir place Raymond Fraser among the most prolific writers in New Brunswick. Born in Chatham, NB on 8 May 1941, Fraser graduated from St. Thomas University with a BA before moving to Montreal in 1964. Once in Montreal he began writing full time and immersed himself in the city’s vibrant literary scene, publishing his first book of poetry, Poems for the Miramichi, in 1965 and his first book of fiction, The Black Horse Tavern, in 1972. A founding member of both the Montreal Story Tellers group and the Flat Earth Society, he travelled extensively in his youth while remaining rooted in New Brunswick. Indeed, his poetry and fiction are often set in and around the Miramichi. While his dry wit and subtle humour provide levity to his work, his stories and poems often focus on the grittier aspects of Maritime life. Irreverent and often disturbing, his fiction has been hailed for its masterful nuances, Maritime voice, and dark humour. Displaying some of the earliest tendencies toward social realism in Canada, Fraser frequently takes poverty, alcoholism, crime, and social inequality as the subjects of his work, capturing his characters’ desperation and resilience with clarity, directness, and compassion. If readers cannot be brought to love his characters, he surely did. Fraser died in Fredericton in 2018.
For a much more detailed biography of Fraser, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- Fraser shares with Alden Nowlan and many of the Acadian writers of the previous module the distinction of being a pioneering New Brunswick voice. With no literary or artistic pedigree, but a great desire to showcase the local colours of his beloved Miramichi, he emerged at a time that celebrated individualism, no matter how unconventional. Trading on that allowance, he created a fictional Miramichi that is in stark contrast to earlier depictions of idyllic rurality. His Miramichi, instead, is a place of spirited outcasts and a hard-bitten history, a land where men drink freely and in the company of other men, where jobs break bodies and spirits, and where social manners create unhealthy margins where people are expected to live. His Miramichi, in other words, is the actual Miramichi that a whole class of New Brunswickers experience. It is not the place that sophisticates talk about, but it does indeed exist, and Fraser lent his considerable talents and sensitivities to depicting it honestly. His, then, is the perspective of our province that does not appear in tourist ads. But what he wrote about is as worthy of literary treatment as the other aspects of our province that dominate our literature.
“They Come Here to Die”
Since the Black Horse was the only tavern in town it was not a good thing to get barred from it if you were a man who liked to drink and socialize. For about the hundredth time Ralph Ramsey was barred. “This is it, Ralph, out you go! And this time it’s final, don’t come back again.” MacPherson the waiter escorted him out the door and slammed it behind him and Ralph staggered away in the night. For some reason his pal Sully wasn’t with him. It wasn’t often they weren’t together.
“What’d he do this time, Mac?” I asked the waiter a few days later.
“Oh, he got up on the table ranting at everybody – ‘You’re all full of shit!’ he says. ‘You’re nobodies! You’re nothings! What has any of you ever done, eh? Tell me that? What kind of mark are you guys gonna leave behind when you’re dead? You’re all full of shit!” You know what he gets like, the man crazy, he should be put away.”
Other times Ralph had been barred for bumming money around the tables, or playing his trumpet, or breaking glasses, or starting fights, or any combination of these things. His friend Sully had been barred with him a few times, but Sully was not so unpredictable, he was less given to explosive outbursts. By himself it’s unlikely he’d have been barred more than a few times.
A couple of weeks later, in the normal course of events, the two of them would drift in the door and sit quietly in the corner. “Okay if we have a drink, MacPherson? We just dropped in for a quick one.”
MacPherson was by nature a kind and easygoing man, and by this time would have forgiven or forgotten about the last incident, and he’d serve them like any other customers in good standing.
Although it may sound like Ralph was a wildman, he wasn’t. He was only that way sometimes, when he had too much to drink, and even then only when the mood struck him. Otherwise, drunk or sober, he was a sensitive and thoughtful person. It would be hard to say his age, he was one of those individuals who seemed to have always been around Bannonbridge, a fixture like the Black Horse itself, or the town hall, or the Catholic church. He may have been forty, perhaps not much more than thirty-five. Then again he might have been forty-five. He had a moustache and a closely cropped beard and thick hair that poured down over his collar. This was in the early sixties and Ralph’s appearance was then considered rather eccentric, as was his general behaviour.
One day, in fact it was the afternoon of Christmas day, he dropped in to my place while I was doing the dishes. It was a freezing wintry day but he had no coat on. He looked haggard. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” he said, taking a seat at the kitchen table. “I can’t sleep anymore. I never could. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I walk around all night and then when daylight comes I go home and go to bed. When everyone else is getting up I’m turning in. Every night it’s the same. The cops are starting to look at me. One of these days they’re going to arrest me.”
“Arrest you? What for?”
“I don’t know, for something. For impersonating a human being.” He had a laugh at that.
It being Christmas there was a bottle of rye sitting on the table. Ralph eyed it a few minutes, then said, “You don’t mind if I have a taste of that.”
“Here.” I poured him a drink.
“That’s nice stuff. Very smooth. Did you get that for Christmas?”
“Yeah. From myself.”
“I got some liquor too. I mean my mother did. No, I guess it was me. I was at home last night and there were gifts under the tree, and I thought, this must be mine, Evening in Paris, so I drank it. Yeah, I got lots of booze. It’s all gone now, I drank it last night. The old lady doesn’t know yet. Chanel No. 5, that’s another one. One of these days I’ll go into some posh bar, I’ll be standing there looking sophisticated, and the bartender’ll say, ‘What’s yours, sir? What are you going to have?’ ‘Oh, I guess I’ll have an Evening in Paris. On the rocks.’ It’s so long since I had the real stuff I forget what it’s called. Shaving lotion, vanilla extract, rubbing alcohol—perfume! As long as it comes in a bottle that’s the important thing. You can’t drink the labels.”
He’d brought his trumpet with him, which was about the only thing he owned, apart from his clothes. “I want to play you a number,” he said, “something in season.” He put the trumpet to his lips and played O Holy Night. In a small room like my kitchen it almost blew the roof off. He was a good musician at times, when it suited him. He’d been playing the trumpet for years and years, ever since he was a boy. Several times he attempted to play with local dance bands but it never worked out. He couldn’t read music and he had his own ideas about arrangements, and he had difficulty keeping sober. He claimed the other musicians were unimaginative and mediocre, which they probably were. He was, you might say, an artist who relied on inspiration, and his temperament made it difficult to adjust to other musicians and regular dates. So now he played for himself and his friends and once a year entered the Sanatorium Fund amateur night where he was always a big hit but never won a prize.
“Thank you, Ralph, that was very nice,” I said.
“I lost my teeth last night,” he said. “I had all my teeth pulled a few months ago and got a plate, but I left my coat somewhere and my teeth were in the pocket. Dr. Reid pulled all my teeth out. Look.” He opened his mouth, revealing the bare gums. “He said he was going to give me a plate. I told him, why not throw in a cup and saucer while you’re at it, a plate’s no good by itself. This is great stuff. You don’t mind if I have another one?” I poured him another rye. I remember Ralph saying once he’d gone to a doctor because he thought he had ulcers, and the doctor wanted to know about his drinking habits. “He gave me this test, it was a list of twenty questions to find out if someone’s an alcoholic, and if you answered yes to four of them that meant you were. There were things like, Do you drink because you feel shy with people, Do you crave a drink in the morning, Do you drink to escape worries or troubles – there were twenty of them, and I answered yes to them all – except one. And that was, Does your drinking interfere with your work? I put down no for that one.” Ralph hadn’t had a job since he was a teenager and worked part-time at the ginger ale works sorting bottles.
He took a pull on his glass of rye, then sat there a moment silently. When he spoke his voice sounded suddenly sad. “No work, no money, no women, nothing,” he said. “I’ve got the feeling I’m just watching life go by and I can’t do a thing about it.” He shook his head. “I came here to play a song and have a few drinks and be happy, but it’s no good. You know, everybody around this town thinks I’m a bum. Everybody does. I can’t get a girl, not a chance. You want to know something that happened? I asked a girl out a couple of weeks ago. I said, how’d you like to go out with me some night, we could go to a show or something. Do you know what she answered? I wouldn’t go to the shithouse with you. How would you like it if a girl said that to you? That’s pretty bad, eh? A girl has no right to say that to a man, no matter who she is or what she thinks of you. But that’s my status around here. Just because I don’t have a job and live like everyone else... I’m an individual – I don’t have to do what everyone wants me to do. I may not have much in this life but I’ve got my own mind. What I should do is get out of this town. I should, but I don’t. Why don’t I just get out? Tell me that?”
“I don’t know. It’s up to you.”
“I guess so.” He was quiet again. Then he said, “Well, I’ll have to go home and see my mother and father. Then it’s back to my own estate on Water Street. My parents, they watch me like two cats to see I don’t step out of line. But I’m always drunk just the same. I’ve got nothing else to do. I’m an alcoholic. I can prove it, just ask me twenty questions. I drink and I don’t do anything else.”
“How much do you drink anyway, Ralph?”
“How much? As much as I can get. I’d be drinking twenty-four hours a day if I could afford it. But I’ve got no money. I’m living on welfare. Did you know that? Me, on welfare. What do you think of that? I get sixty dollars a month. I give my mother and father forty and keep the rest. So I have to go bumming on the streets to get enough for a drink. That’s how low I’ve come. I bum money down on the front street. A bum.” He got to his feet, still holding his glass with an inch of rye in it. “I have to try and find my coat. My scarf is in the pocket, and my teeth. But I don’t care about the teeth. I hardly ever wear them anyway.”
“They must make eating easier.”
“No, I don’t eat with them. They aren’t comfortable. They’re just decorations. I only wear them at special times, like when someone asks me out.” He laughed. “Yeah, when I’m asked out, that’s the only time I wear them. Anyway, I’ve got to get going. What time is it now? I’m going blind, I can’t even see that clock there.”
“There, I’m late already.” He emptied his glass and at the door shouted over his shoulder, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
There was one detail about Ralph’s visit that I didn’t pay attention to. Shortly before leaving he went to the bathroom. When he came out he didn’t stay around much longer. I learned why the following afternoon.
Ralph was at the door and came sheepishly in. “The thief returns to the scene of the crime,” he said.
“Yeah?” I didn’t know what he meant.
“Ah me. I’m cold sober. I woke up this morning ready to put down a big drink of rum, I had it hid away under the bed, and I was thinking by God it’s good to have a drink in the morning, I need one real bad, and I’ve got a pint of rum sitting there under the bed. A pint of rum!” And he started laughing to himself. “Yes, that’s the way to start the day. I had it all figured out. I didn’t touch the pint last night, saving it for the morning so I could start the day off right. Well, that’s what you get. Crime doesn’t pay! The thief returns to the scene of the crime.”
“What are you talking about, Ralph?”
“Have you got a beer? You wouldn’t have a beer in the house?”
It being the season the fridge was stocked, so I got out a couple of pints of Schooner.
“Ah, that feels good, nice and cold. Yes sir, I unscrewed the cap and was set to bolt down a big drink the first thing in the morning. By God it’s a good thing I didn’t. Turpentine! That’s the way to start the day – with a good shot of turpentine. Here I thought I had a nice pint of rum and it was turpentine.”
Now I understood. My bathroom was quite a mess, and among other things lying around was a bottle of turpentine which I used for cleaning paint brushes. If you didn’t know what it was you’d think it was booze, because I had the stuff in a rum bottle. Ralph had spotted it when he went to take a leak and thought it was the real thing.
“You mean – you stole that bottle of –”
“That’s right. Ah, what a person I am, I’ve got no scruples, I come here and drink your liquor and then try to steal more of it. I must have no shame, no conscience at all. I hated to do it. But I saw that pint there and I thought this is just what I need for the morning. Perfume in the evening and the real stuff in the morning. I got up and reached for the bottle this morning with my hands trembling and I took the cap off and started to take a drink. That’s what I get. Turpentine! It’s punishment for my sins.”
Well, we had a bit of a laugh at that and drank a lot of beer. At some stage in the afternoon Ralph once again bemoaned the fact that he was reduced to nothing but a bum and an alcoholic. “I went to the AA’s for a while,” he said, “I tried to kick the habit. But that’s no good. They can’t help me. I remember one meeting, you know the way these things go, this guy got up on the platform telling us his life story, what hell his life was when he was drinking and why he had to stop. I don’t even know his name, he was some guy from upriver, I never saw him before. This was the first night that Jackie Craig – he’d never been to a meeting before and somebody had talked him into going and he was standing at the back of the room (you could tell he wasn’t happy about being there by the look on his face) – and this guy up front was saying when he drank he used to beat up his wife and children, really kick them around, little kids and all. He was giving a big description of the terrible things he used to do, and he was going on and on about it, when there was this disgusted voice from the back of the room: ‘You rotten bastard. You’re not an alcoholic – you’re nuts!’ It was Jackie. Soon as he said that he turned and walked out.”
It was fall, late October, this particular time Ralph got barred from the Black Horse. Being barred wasn’t all that much of an inconvenience, there were plenty of places to drink provided you could come up with the price of a bottle. Ralph’s old room, for example, in the old Kelly rooming house by the Ferry Wharf – a place he despised – or on one of the wharves, or in a boxcar at the CN station, or behind the stores on Water Street where the ground was covered with broken wine and rum bottles. But in the cold weather it was better to be indoors, and in the King George there was always someone there and Ralph enjoyed company.
Much of the time his company was Sully Sullivan. Sully was around my age and so a lot younger than Ralph. He’d left school at the age of sixteen and since then had done as little in the way of work as possible. A day in his life can be described simply enough.
He lived with his parents, and around noon he would get out of bed and have a couple of strips of raw bacon and a bottle of coke for breakfast, then head off for the pool room. He’d spend the afternoon shooting pool or playing the pinball machines or if he was broke he’d watch others do these two things. If someone came up with a bottle of something he probably wouldn’t go home for supper. If not he would go home and eat, saying not a word to his mother and father. They had stopped saying words to him as well, after years of talking at deaf ears. The only exception was once every two or three months when there would be a row over his not getting a job. This accomplished nothing and another several months of silence followed. His father had got him work once as a house painter but Sully lasted only to his first pay cheque, which he blew in two nights of drunken generosity towards his friends. This brought him to the realization that working didn’t pay – not two weeks of backbreaking labour for a two night drunk – so he failed to return to the job on Monday, or ever after.
After supper it was down town again where he quite often bumped into Ralph on the street. If there was any money they pooled it and caught the liquor store before it closed. If there was none or not enough they spent the next few hours bumming, or they hunted around to find someone who would buy a bottle for the pleasure of their company, usually some teenager just starting to drink. Then they made for one of the many bootleggers in town.
When the night ended Sully went home to bed. Every day it was more or less the same story.
Sully was Ralph’s close associate for several reasons. One, he had the same amount of time on his hands; two, he had an attraction to the bottle; three, he was a misfit and knew it, just like Ralph; four, he wasn’t, despite his limited education, all that stupid and Ralph could talk to him; five, they shared a fervent dislike for the town and almost everyone in it.
The night after Ralph was barred from the Black Horse for his tirade from the tavern table he was down in his room by the ferry wharf. It was a miserable rainy October night, the kind of cold rain that hits your skin like frozen needles. Ralph’s room was on the second floor at the back corner of the building. It had two windows, one facing the river and the other looking down on the lane leading from Water street to the ferry slip. There was a streetlight at the lane corner and at intervals sheets of water gusted past the light. Except for the weather outside this could be any night of the year. Ralph was standing looking out the window, hands behind his back. Behind him lying on the sunken bed with both shoes planted firmly on the blankets was Sully. “Well, what are we gonna do?” said Sully, for about the half-dozenth time.
“I don’t know, we can’t go out in this. Why don’t you go up to the tavern.”
“Fuck that. If they won’t let you in, the hell with them. They’re not gonna get my business. Besides all I got is a quarter. We could go up to the Castle.” The Castle is a restaurant in Bannonbridge, a teenage hangout where they do much of their panhandling.
“Won’t be anyone there tonight. You’d have to be crazy to be out on a night like this. It wouldn’t be worth the walk.”
When they were silent you could hear the rain, and from a room above a record was playing I Walked in the Garden with Jesus. When it reached the end whoever was playing it started it over again. The same hymn has been repeating itself now for over half an hour.
“You know, that could drive you batty,” said Sully, staring up at the ceiling. “Who lives up there anyway?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know anybody in this place. They’re all old people,” said Ralph. “I’m the only one here under seventy. I don’t know where they all come from. I see them creeping up and down the stairs and along the halls. They just look at you but they never say anything.”
Sully fished a package of tobacco from his back pocket. He rolled a cigarette and the shredded end flamed briefly when he lit it. “Be great to have a drink now,” he said.
“I’m glad you came over,” said Ralph, still staring out the window. He shook his head. “What a goddamn dismal depressing sight. I can’t stand being alone in this room anymore, I’d rather be in jail. At least you’d know why you’re there. I’m serving a sentence and I haven’t been arrested yet. Solitary confinement. It’s nice to get a visitor.”
“I don’t blame you. I couldn’t take this place very long myself,” said Sully. Ralph’s room, it was true, didn’t have much to recommend it. It was like a large box papered with brownish wallpaper with yellow stains seeping down from the ceiling. The ceiling itself was a network of cracks and places where the plaster had fallen revealing wooden slats. The furniture was a bed, a wooden chair, a small chest of drawers and a table which was now covered with dirty dishes and utensils. The light bulb was weak giving the place a dusky atmosphere. There was no heat and both of them kept their coats on.
“Well, what’ll we do?” said Ralph.
“Play something why don’t you. Anything to drown out that noise upstairs.”
Ralph took his trumpet out of its dog-eared leather case. Different times he’d been on the verge of selling it, feeling there was no important reason for keeping it, he wasn’t going anywhere, but each time he hadn’t been able to go through with it. He knew that once gone it was unlikely he’d ever get the money together to buy it back or get another one.
“What do you want?”
Ralph blew on the trumpet but his heart wasn’t in it. He stopped after a short while. “I don’t feel like it. I’ll play it later.”
“That was good, that sounded real good. I wish to hell I could play a trumpet like that, or anything, even a mouth organ.”
“Well, you’re not too bad a singer. That’s enough.”
“Yeah, I can sing, I’m not a bad singer. Maybe we should form a group, just the two of us. We might go places.”
Ralph paced the short distance across the room and back. “It’s going to be another cold winter. You know they don’t have any heat in this building? If you want heat you have to buy your own heater. Last winter – it was like a refrigerator in here last winter. I can’t afford a heater. There should be a law against this, it’s no way for a man to live. It might be all right for an Eskimo. But I’m not an Eskimo.”
“You can already see your breath.”
“And look at these, storm windows they call them, they’re supposed to keep out the cold. French safes, they nail big French safes across the windows and leave them on all year and you’re protected from the cold.” There were plastic coverings over the windows, they had stretched and sagged and they flapped in the wind and distorted the view outside. “You can’t take your clothes off in the winter, I went months and l couldn’t take my clothes off for fear of dying of exposure. I wasn’t warm one minute for more than six months. That’s a hell of a way to live. I don’t want another winter in this hole. I’d rather live in an igloo. What I should do is make myself an igloo this winter and live in that. Even an Eskimo wouldn’t live under these conditions.”
“At least it’s a place to have a drink, it’s a good thing they don’t bother you that way.”
“They don’t care what you do. All they care about is your rent.”
They heard the sound of slow feet shuffling in the hall, passing the door and ascending the stairs. They listened until the footsteps are gone.
“Another old man,” muttered Ralph. “This house is full of old men, they all come here to die. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not an old man. I don’t belong here.”
He picked up his trumpet and blew a deafening defiant blast. A sharp knock sounded on the wall.
“Who’s that?” said Sully.
“Another old man. Or maybe it’s an old woman. They don’t like to hear me playing at night – or anytime for that matter. They want to die quietly.”
“What we need – we ought to get out of here, that’s what,” said Sully. “I mean out of town. We’re wasting our talents here, especially you, not so much me since I don’t have too many, but I’m getting sick of this place. I’ll never get anywhere in a dump like this. We should just get up and get the hell out, just like that. No wasting time.”
“Where would we go?”
“Anywhere. Montreal. No, Toronto’s better, Montreal’s full of crazy Frenchman, we’d never get anywhere there. Toronto.”
“You can’t go anywhere without money, Sully. How would we get there? What would we live on?”
“It wouldn’t take much. I could probably steal enough off the old man to get us started. We take a train up and then we find a job. We could live good up there. The wine’s cheaper and there’s lots of loose women hanging around. It’d be no problem.”
“I don’t know anything about Toronto, Sully. They’d never give me a job, a guy my age.”
“You play the trumpet, eh? There are hundreds of bands in Toronto, they’re always looking for talent. Look, Ralph, for Christsake, you can’t wait forever. I mean, around here they don’t know a trumpet from a shoe horn – you’re crazy hanging around Bannonbridge.”
“I know, I know.” Ralph pondered a moment. “You’re right, I have to get out of here, that’s the only solution. I can’t just sit around this town and die.” A moment later he said, “Ah, it’s no use. We’d never make it. You need money, you need connections, we’d be lost in Toronto.”
“C’mon, don’t talk like that. I thought you wanted to leave.”
“Sure. Sure I want to leave.”
Sully got up off the bed and with a long snorting snuffle inhaled his nose clean and spit into the grocery bag Ralph was using for garbage. “Well, make up your mind. I’m ready to go.”
“I don’t think you are, Sully. If I said, okay, let’s pack, you’d make up some excuse for putting it off.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” He settled himself back on the bed.
“You know, the worst thing is that they don’t give you a chance,” said Ralph. The wind and rain were shaking the plastic storm windows, snapping them against the inside windows. “They’re only interested in themselves. Well, I don’t give a shit about them. Who are they anyway? They’re a bunch of nobodies.”
“The hell with everybody,” says Sully.
“All they want to do is push you into the dirt, they aren’t satisfied unless you’re crawling in front of them.”
“It’s no good talking about it. My Christ, I wish we had something to drink, I’m croaking. I should’ve asked the old man for a few bucks.” He adjusts the pillow under his head. “But I wouldn’t give the bastard the satisfaction.”
“It’s not that I’m not good enough. It’s not that.”
“You’re too good for them. They can’t stand that.”
“I just don’t get a chance. I’m getting old, I’m an old man now.”
“C’mon, Ralph, you’re not old. You’re a young man. You got a lot of time left and you got the talent. What’ve I got?”
“Pass me your tobacco.”
Ralph rolled a cigarette and lit a match with his thumbnail. He dragged on the cigarette and fingered his beard. “I think I’ll shave this off,” he said.
“The beard. I’m going to shave it tomorrow.”
“How come? It looks good. Don’t be crazy.”
“I don’t care. I need a change. Maybe I’ll try and get a job. That’d be a change, I mean if I can get a job.”
“Maybe I should get one too.”
“But who’ll hire us? They think we’re bums.”
“The hell with them.”
“No, it’s no good. Maybe if I shave nobody will know me. They might hire me that way. I could say I’m a stranger in town. What do you think?”
“The hell with them. The best thing to do is to get up to Toronto. There’s no future hanging around here. I could be your manager.”
“Yeah, my manager. That’s what I need, a manager. Okay, you’re hired.”
“How much of a cut do I get?”
“I’ll give you fifty per cent. How’s that sound? Fifty per cent of nothing.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Okay, I’ll pay you in advance. How about...” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a ball of paper which he opened. It was a two-dollar bill. “How about fifty per cent of a bottle of wine?”
“Hey! Where’d you get that? Here we’ve been sitting around here─”
“I got it from my father to buy a pair of gloves for the winter. I was up to see him this afternoon. But I don’t need gloves, it’s not my hands that need to get warm. I can always keep my hands in my pockets. I’d only lose a pair of gloves anyway.”
“How come you didn’t tell me? I mean we been sitting here dying of thirst –”
“I don’t know. I guess I promised him I wouldn’t drink the money...”
“Give it to me. I’ll go up to Old Sal’s and get a bottle.”
“No, I’ll go with you, I don’t want to stay here, I’m sick of this room. I’d rather be out in the rain.”
Ralph pulled the string on the light and opened the door. The hall was musty smelling and the only light was from the ground floor below. They went by a shadow standing at the head of the stairs, they could hear the laboured breathing, one of the old men who lived in the house.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Sully muttered going down the stairs.
Water was streaming over the street and the rain hit them like icicles. All the way up Water Street there wasn’t a soul in sight, it was like a ghost town. The wind whipped the rain at them.
“Where we going to go once we get it?” said Sully. “We can’t stay out in this.” They walked along quickly with hands in pockets and shoulders hunched into the rain.
“We can sit in a boxcar.”
“It’s kind of cold.”
“A few drinks and we’ll be all right.”
Analysis of “They Come Here to Die”
Taken from Fraser’s first collection of short stories, The Black Horse Tavern (1972), “They Come Here to Die” provides a forthright account of alcoholism and poverty in the fictional town of “Bannonbridge,” an imagined version (likely) of Newcastle, NB. Written in the clear and direct style for which Fraser is known, the story is an excellent example of “social realism.” Social realism is a mode of art and literature that depicts the everyday lives of the working class and the poor realistically, without fancy or idealism. In “They Come Here to Die,” Fraser’s depiction of two Miramichi characters conveys the sense of resignation and defeat that can result from addiction, adversity, and exclusion. Bleak and depressing in setting, subject, and tone, the story is punctuated by Fraser’s frequent use of a black humour that animates and elevates equally.
Writing in the first person, the narrator relates the lives of Ralph Ramsey and his young friend Sully Sullivan. Though Ralph is middle-aged and Sully young, poverty and alcoholism bind them together. Misfits in a small rural town, their lives revolve around the Black Horse Tavern, the only tavern in town. Along with the skating rink, the Legion, the town hall, and the Catholic church, the Black Horse Tavern is a defining feature of the town, and so is Ralph himself, “one of those individuals who seemed to have always been around Bannonbridge.”
While Ralph is a simple character on the surface, a close reading reveals a more complex personality. As the story begins Ralph is banned from the Black Horse for the umpteenth time; he is, it would seem, nothing more than a marginal character prone to angry outbursts. He is also poor, frequently begging for money and dressed like an “eccentric.” Soon, however, it is revealed that he is also a funny, “sensitive and thoughtful person” who plays the trumpet, his only possession of worth, and who only acts out when he has “had too much to drink.” Moreover, while Ralph has developed a strong sense of self-disgust, he retains a moral compass; after stealing what he thinks is rum from the unnamed narrator, only to discover that the bottle is filled with turpentine, he sheepishly returns to apologize even as he admonishes himself for his lack of “conscience” and “shame.” Ralph’s transgressions are not, in fact, the result of inherent character flaws, but of a desperation that is, in turn, a consequence of his poverty and of having been reduced to a stereotype.
“Bum” and “alcoholic” are the principle descriptors applied to Ralph by others, and by Ralph himself: “I’m an alcoholic,” he says, “I can prove it, just ask me twenty questions.” Referring to a visit to the doctor’s office at which he was diagnosed with alcoholism, Ralph defines himself by that diagnosis while also revealing the absurdity that often underlies clinical approaches to addictions treatment. Having answered all but one of the twenty questions affirmatively – four “yes” answers qualifying the patient as an “alcoholic” – Ralph supposes that he is not only a person suffering from alcoholism, but that alcoholism constitutes who he is. The doctor’s questionnaire, believed by Ralph to be infallible evidence, reinforces this damaging belief. Ralph’s inability to separate his addiction to alcohol from his identity leads him to resign himself to poverty and self-loathing, both of which he shares with his only friend, Sully Sullivan.
Like Ralph, Sully’s life is characterized by the consistent monotony of his days, which he spends at the pool hall, and nights, which he spends drinking with Ralph. Sully is much younger than Ralph, but the two characters have a number of important things in common: they both suffer from alcoholism, they are both impoverished, and they both hate Bannonbridge. Furthermore, despite having dropped out of school at sixteen, Sully is, like Ralph, intelligent. Together, the two men provide one another with company while enabling one another’s addiction.
Accompanying Sully and Ralph’s alcoholism and poverty is a strong sense of confinement, both material and spiritual. “I’m serving a sentence and I haven’t been arrested yet,” says Ralph, “Solitary confinement.” Though Ralph is commenting specifically on the stark, dirty room he rents down by the ferry wharf, his comments also describe the lives of he and Sully more broadly. As alcoholics in a small New Brunswick town, both men feel multiply confined: by the monotony of their days, by their poverty, by their addiction, and by the limitations placed on them by the low expectations of others. Paralleling this in material form, the circumference of their lives is limited to the boarding house on rainy days, to the Black Horse Tavern when they haven’t been banned, and to the increasingly unwelcoming town of Bannonbridge.
In the end, it is an escape from confinement that forms the climax of the story, but the escape is only ever imagined. Unable to scrounge up enough money to buy alcohol, Sully and Ralph spend the evening distracting themselves from their misery by concocting a plan to leave Bannonbridge in search of better lives in Montreal or Toronto, thus contemplating the well-worn metaphor of Maritime escape popularized in films such as Goin’ Down the Road (1970). Convincing one another that they can make a new start in the big city, they are seemingly on the verge of leaving when Ralph pulls two dollars from his pocket. The story ends with Ralph and Sully spending the money (which Ralph had been given to buy a pair of gloves) on a quart of wine.
With an ending that appears to fade out rather than conclude, “They Come Here to Die” is both uneventful and profound. Through the everyday occurrences of two unremarkable characters, Fraser is able to evoke the misery and despondency of poverty and alcoholism. At the same time, the reader is given a picture of the rural community in which Ralph and Sully live. The Catholic church and the hymns overheard coming from Ralph’s neighbour suggest the deep religiosity of the town, that religiosity touching but not changing or unburdening their lives. Moreover, the afflictions from which Sully and Ralph suffer also feature as the afflictions of Bannonbridge. An abandoned racetrack, streets littered with broken bottles, and the shadows of the aged who have come to die at Ralph’s rooming house all serve as signs of a once-bustling town in decline. As such, the story is not only a tale of two men, but also a narrative of New Brunswick, a space characterized by economic decline, depopulation, and a corresponding sense of resignation.
“Seventeen Years Old”
He waited above the convent
behind a woodpile
the snow was blowing
and drifting across the path
that ran up past the graveyard
The second floor windows
of the school were lit
dim in the blowing snow
He hunched his shoulders
into his collar
and stomped his feet
for the girl to come out
She came then
in her blue coat
with her long brown hair
and thin legs
She came up the path
through the deep snow
and he met her there
He put his arms around her
with their thick winter coats
When I was nineteen and twenty
I thought I was a tragic youth
my room was small and dark
littered with rags and books and coated with dust
in one corner a crate of empty wine bottles.
I played romantic music on my record player
sensitive piano pieces and emotional symphonies
I read poetry and wrote poetry
and buried myself in my dark life.
But when I recollect it now
I find nothing of the tragic there:
my tragedies were played out before then:
at nineteen and twenty I had instead
the pleasant aura of a brooding poet
that I still recall in the piano pieces
I hear from time to time
I had found a hood to wear
I was happy in my fantasies and dark moods.
How can I be tired
like an old man
who’s lain down his tools
and taken his chair
at the back door
to watch the sun set,
and gazes at people passing
thinking little about them?
How can I be like that at
the doorway of manhood
and already like an old man?
I didn’t go to mass
I didn’t eat the candy
that I didn’t give up for Lent
It was sunny and warm outside
a perfect Easter Sunday day
I went for a long walk
and met an old fellow from Chatham
who used to sell French safes
and I bought him a few quarts of beer
in the Diana restaurant
He hadn’t been to mass either
because he was sick
from a long drunk of three months
that was still going on
his white shirt was stained with wine
his face was roughly shaved
of its white hairs
We talked about people we knew back home
and both of us looked
like we’d risen from the dead
and neither one the better for it
A young nun emerges strolling through the trees
of the convent across the road, her hands behind
alone on the green grass of the vast convent grounds
she looks deep in thought, approaching slowly among
the full green leaves of the summer trees, putting
one foot absently before the other – her thoughts?
Looking at her you think of the unfinished romance
or the sweetheart that never got beyond her bedroom
and on this Sunday she drifted off remotely by herself
unable to stop her mind from wandering, remembering
She reaches the high iron fence that confines the
and turns in the same abstracted way, moving back
towards the chapel where a bell has begun to ring
Then in her hands, locked behind her back, I see a
that rotates slowly
each Hail Mary
ticking away my romantic idle thoughts
“To Go Back Home To Chatham”
Why should I go home?
My bedroom’s dark and filthy
the kitchen’s cluttered with grocery bags
tin cans and cartons
the fridge has bottles of jam and pickles
that were there this time a year ago
the bathroom’s deep in its own squalor
the outdoors no doubt is dark and dirty too
the young kids growing up are strangers
their elders I’ve seen enough of
and they of me
old ones I’m sick and tired of
the tavern’s empty in the afternoon
or filled with guys from the air force base
the ice is in the river
floating up and down with garbage off the dredges
the new bridge they’re building
has started its pounding and clanging for the summer
except for a couple my friends are all away
and those that aren’t are married
I’d have no money when I got there
the little I could dig up I’d throw away on wine
every day I’d make dinner
wash the dishes
read the Moncton Times
lie restless on my bed
walk around town a while
and then give in and buy a bottle
embezzling from the old man’s grocery money
the minute I stepped off the train
I’d say, “God, my friend,
get me out of here.”
Salvation is hard to come by.
For some years I’ve studied the things that will save me.
Adventure will save me.
A new city will save me.
Pills will save me.
Romance will save me.
A steady job will save me.
Free time will save me.
Money will save me.
Poverty will save me.
Europe will save me.
Acclaim will save me.
A beard will save me.
A shave will save me.
A car will save me.
A boat will save me.
A cabin alone in the woods will save me.
A new apartment will save me.
Exercise will save me.
A serious career will save me.
A new philosophy will save me.
A new desk will save me.
A different view out my window will save me.
A change in typewriter will save me.
A balcony will save me.
A swimming pool will save me.
An operation in the hospital will save me.
A war will save me.
Peace and Love will save me.
Hate will save me.
A revolution will save me.
Prison will save me.
A psychiatrist will save me.
The Church will save me.
Children of my own will save me.
Persecution will save me.
Sex will save me.
Control of the world will save me.
A drink will save me.
Prohibition will save me.
It is hard seeking salvation.
There are so many ways to save me.
But none of these have saved me.
And none of these will save me.
At the old folks home Mrs. Snyder
is one of those old women who constantly moan
and mumble and holler unintelligibly
from the beginning of day until the time she falls asleep
Her roommate Mrs. Jarret is quiet and sweet tempered
a little mild white-haired lady
that the nurses love to attend to
because she doesn’t complain and still has her senses
but even for her Mrs. Snyder
can become too much
and today when Mrs. Snyder
who hasn’t said a word of sense in years
and whom nobody understands
was groaning and shouting her gibberish
ranting like she had a language all her own
today when she was more a pain than ever
Mrs. Jarret got fed up and said
“Oh shut up!”
and Mrs. Snyder who hasn’t formed
an English word in years
“Shut up yourself!”
At the party
the girl a
what he did
he didn’t know
that was two
he clears his throat
he says it now
to no one
the girl being
long since gone
light ‘er up
and puff away
the truth being
not in the way
like a coca-cola
or a beer commercial
any other way
what he really thought
but didn’t think
was staying alive
Analysis of Fraser’s Poems
Fraser’s poetry is unlike most of the poetry we’ve encountered in this New Brunswick literature curriculum. It is raw, honest, confessional, human-centered, and direct. No reader could mistake the poet’s moods and sentiments, or miss the spiritual anguish at the centre of his work. The poet who most resembles him is Alden Nowlan. Both poets share an unusual honesty, and each views poetry as an existential exercise – an exercise that centres on the human condition, whether its moments of joy or wretchedness. Neither man writes poetry that is adorned with clever turns of phrase or metaphors, preferring instead to communicate with readers directly through disarming frankness. That frankness, however, is not without profundity, and in that understanding is an important lesson: namely, that human connection, whether through knowing or through art, is the most intense and palpable of our experiences.
In the first few poems above, Fraser touches a nerve by simply describing a scene or event. In “Seventeen Years Old” the scene is absolutely familiar. A boy waits in the cold for his girlfriend outside of school. We are not told much about either subject, but we know them from our own experience. She is still in school, but he has likely dropped out. It is December or January, the days of late-afternoon darkness. She is inside, he is outside and seeming to hide, a positioning, perhaps, that tells us about their relative social stations. That said, she is as eager as he is for their embrace, him waiting for it in the cold, darkening afternoon, she trudging through the deep snow for it. When they do embrace they are instantly warmed if still separate, their “thick winter coats” both insulating and isolating them. With few details we can construct their story, for it is a story we know. Fraser’s lack of any but the essential details provide us with the openings we need to “author” the rest of the story. We work from the fragments, each of those familiar to us. Who has not had or seen this drama play out in a wintry New Brunswick schoolyard? Who does not know how the sun is setting on that scene? In its unvarnished simplicity, the poem is profound and universal.
The poems that follow seem to build on that opening scene, providing more details about social class, disposition, and circumstance. “Tragic Youth” and “Flagging Spirit” describe teenaged angst and ennui, both of which incapacitate an individual. But those conditions aren’t the maladies of the merely dispossessed; they are, rather, the conditions of intelligent minds for which limited opportunity exists. The result is a sense of constructed tragedy that revels in a world of its own making. And, as the older consciousness understands it, misconstrues “tragedies [that] were played out before then,” meaning that the speaker’s social standing was pre-determined – and not in his favour. Unconquerable horizons thus loom, hence the flagging spirit of the third poem. The reality is simply that some youth have a harder time of progressing than others, whether because of parenting, social circumstance, or predetermined outcomes. A careful reading of the poems suggests this larger social statement.
And so, with futures limited, Fraser’s speakers spiral downward. Their mise-en-scène, or visual geography, starts to reflect the misery they feel deep inside. So it is with the company they keep. In “Holy Day,” neither character depicted rises from the dead triumphantly as Christ did on Easter Sunday, but each is just dead, zombie-like in his misery and detachment. Each, as “Salvation” illustrates, and as those in the grips of alcoholism and despair do, asks the big questions: why am I here, how did I get to this station, how can I get the hell out? Easy answers are a cheap currency offered by media, pop psychology, ideology, and the well intentioned. Some counsel “a new city,” others “a cabin alone in the woods.” The “fixes” are endless: a car, a boat, a balcony, a revolution, the Church. Everyone seems able to save everyone else – except, of course, those in need of saving. That impossible job, Fraser concludes, is the personal work of the damned. The poem pulls no punches in the starkness of its message.
The final two poems are especially interesting for what they reveal about the human spirit, each reflecting Fraser’s understanding of that spirit. “Human Beings” presents the character of Mrs. Snyder, an old woman in a nursing home who has become lost to old age, dementia, and hopelessness. She mumbles unintelligibly all day, disrupting her roommate, the sweet-tempered and easy-to-love Mrs. Jarret. On first reading, it is clear who is more worthy of the staff’s attentions: clearly Mrs. Jarret, who has perfected mildness, civility, and mannered restraint. Yet even Mrs. Jarret has her limitations, and when she lashes out uncharacteristically at her disruptive roommate, Mrs. Snyder suddenly comes to her senses, forming an intelligent response, the first in years. Is the poem, then, about the indignity of dementia, the unpredictability of dementia (that moments of clarity do occur), or about the stubbornness of the human spirit?
The evidence of the poem suggests the latter: that what Fraser wants to illustrate is the presence of a will that endures as long as humans want it to endure. When challenged, that will asserts itself, no matter how deeply it resides in the barrens of disease. Fraser, then, shows admiration for the bothersome Mrs. Snyder, her outbursts notwithstanding, and nudges us to reconsider the niceties of Mrs. Jarret, whose own will is invested in behaviours designed to manipulate those around her. While Mrs. Snyder manipulates to disrupt, however, Mrs. Jarret manipulates to conform, each a similar expression of will. Fraser doesn’t take sides in telling us who is right and wrong, but he does push us to rethink our impatience with Mrs. Snyder. That is the achievement of this quite-profound poem.
The last poem above is similarly insightful. In “The Depressive,” the easy-to-love Mrs. Jarret is replaced by a pretty blond girl, while the outlier, Mrs. Snyder, is replaced by an unnamed male persona. They meet at a party, where she asks him a seemingly simple question that he is unable to answer. What does he do for fun, she asks? He contemplates the question for two years. Is he daft, we wonder? Perhaps painfully shy around girls?
His answer tells us: he smokes a cigarette for fun, “light[s] ‘er up / and puff[s] away.” In other words, he doesn’t do anything for fun as she would understand it, for “fun” as she meant it is a middle-class word with connotations that don’t touch him. Her use of the word involves what is celebrated in beer commercials on the beach – co-ed volleyball, red convertibles, and the easy frolicking of tanned young bodies – all of which are foreign to him. His world is different, and doesn’t involve play in the way she defines it. In his world, “staying alive” is a “full-time job.”
The poem, then, is about the irreconcilability of class perspectives. For her, “fun” is coca-cola and the beach; for him, it is a momentary smoke break from the hard work of staying alive. Coming from completely different worlds, neither can understand the other’s language or perspective. That’s why he is initially unable to answer her.
This poem may be difficult to understand in a classroom of fairly homogenous middle-class students. But some sensitivity to lives that are not governed by the aspirations and values of an “educated” class will enable middle-class students to understand more fully what Fraser is doing in the poem. If we read literature partly to crawl into the perspective of others, then this poem accomplishes that objective marvellously.
► In Fraser’s “They Come Here to Die,” Ralph’s trip to the doctor shows how he has come to define himself as an “alcoholic.” However, it also provides an excellent example of Fraser’s black humour: only when asked if drinking interferes with his job does Ralph answer “no,” not having held a job in many years. As with much of Fraser’s humour, however, the joke not only provides levity for the reader, but also reveals the way in which humour functions in the lives of his characters. In this case, humour provides Ralph with a way to trivialize but also to normalize his addiction. Ralph’s consumption of perfume, humorously detailed in his discussion with the narrator, similarly draws the reader’s attention to the extent of Ralph’s addiction, revealing his willingness to drink anything containing alcohol: “[s]having lotion, vanilla extract, rubbing alcohol—perfume! As long as it comes in a bottle that’s the important thing.” Consider these and other instances of humour in Fraser’s poetry and fiction. How does Fraser’s use of humour add to the poem or story? What sorts of things does Fraser most often joke about, and what is the effect of that humour on the characters who deploy it?
► Fraser’s characters often speak in a vernacular characteristic of the Miramichi or New Brunswick more broadly. How does Fraser’s use of language add to the rootedness of the story? And, as importantly, what is our response to the language used? Fraser does, in fact, put various vulgarities in the mouths of his characters, but is this language really vulgar? Who defines what is vulgar, and for what purpose? Does class play any role in language use and reception? And what is more vital and creative: street language or the language of social sanction or learned society?
► Readers will find it useful to compare Alden Nowlan’s early work with Ray Fraser’s work, and also to note the similarities between David Adams Richards and Fraser. Is that similarity temporal (Richards and Fraser both grew up in New Brunswick at roughly the same time) or is it spatial (they both grew up on the Miramichi, Fraser on the Chatham side of the river and Richards on the Newcastle side)? This comparison provides the opportunity to think about a writer’s style, how it develops, and what influences it on the wider periphery.
► The first analysis above (of “They Come Here to Die”) mentions Fraser’s indebtedness to social realism to add colour and nuance to his work. Readers may want to reflect more on social realism, considering where it arose, how it has been deployed in different forms (literature, art, music), and why writers have generally been dismissive of its influence on their work.
► The broader social milieu of Fraser’s work is Catholic. The community and values of Fraser’s Chatham of the 1950s and 60s was Catholic, and, not surprisingly, Catholicism informs the world of his characters. The Catholic markers in Fraser’s work are subtle but important. What are those markers in the story and poems above, and how do they function to add meaning to his texts?
► The end of Fraser’s “They Come Here to Die” echoes the work of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, specifically Waiting for Godot (1953). More advanced students will want to consider the existential message of both texts.
Strategy 1: Half of the Story (“They Come Here to Die”)
This story is divided into two sections, with two different narrative perspectives. The first half is narrated by an acquaintance of Ralph’s, and establishes how Ralph is seen by others in his community. In the second section, this acquaintance is not present, and narration describes only what is currently observable in the room with Ralph and his close friend Sully.
Divide the class into two groups. Distribute the first section of the story to group A, and the second section to group B. After students have read their sections, ask the class to collaboratively develop a description of Ralph. Depending on the class, you might want to provide more structure to get this started. For example, you might prompt groups to describe Ralph’s way of talking, his habits, talents, age, appearance, locus of control (does he attribute his successes and failures to himself, or to factors outside of himself?), etc. Have each group present its description of Ralph to the other group, and then hash out the points of agreement and divergence. At this point, the groups can switch sections, reading and then reflecting. How does the balance of these two sections present a more compelling picture of Ralph? Which aspects of Ralph are better understood or perceived by the unnamed narrator, and which by Sully? Are the elements of Ralph’s character that emerge clearly in both sections, such as his dependence on alcohol, more “true” than elements that are only glimpsed in one section? Or, are they simply easier to label?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 2: Continue the Story (“They Come Here to Die,” “Holy Day,” “The Depressive”)
Ask students to write (or draw, or act out) a short third section or another stanza to continue the short story and the poems. Perhaps offer students the choice of adding in an additional character or narrative perspective in the present, or projecting existing characters into the future. In what ways might Ralph’s conversations change when he is with others, or with the same characters in the future? And what patterns continue across space and time? Similarly, what next steps face the speakers in “Holy Day” and “The Depressive”?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on their experiences with and insights into challenging texts and issues
Strategy 3: Deserving and Undeserving (“They Come Here to Die,” “Holy Day,” “Human Beings”)
After reading Fraser’s work, ask students to find a news article that deals with social assistance. This might include government or private individuals providing help or money to people who are unemployed, underemployed, dealing with addiction, sick, disabled, recent immigrants, etc. Ask students to read not only the article, but the online comments section. Does the author of the article, and/or the commenters, make a point of distinguishing between people who are deserving and undeserving of help, or use language to suggest that the recipients are worthy or unworthy? Do any of the commenters or interviewees express anger or resentment about the assistance? Have students make a list of words in the articles and comments that suggest value judgments, such as “lazy” or “hardworking.” Once they’ve completed this task, discuss which types of people are usually spoken of as being more deserving than others in our society, and which are afforded little sympathy. Does participating in such a cultural discourse translate into action to help those who are deemed deserving? If not, why do people enjoy this sort of categorizing?
Return to the story and poems. Have students list every character. If their circumstances were described briefly in a newspaper article, which characters would likely be categorized as most and least deserving? And, can the students find elements in the story and poems that complicate this snap assessment? Fraser does not create characters that are one-dimensional heroes. Rather, he writes recognizable, flawed, and complex human beings. Ask students to reflect on how our choices of literature and media affect not only our immediate enjoyment when consuming them, but our subsequent engagement with the world and other human beings. Can students think of an example of something they have read or seen that has made them realize that a previous judgment was overly simplistic? Are there some types of media that have the opposite effect, narrowing our perspective and reducing empathy?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Examine how media texts construct notions of roles, behaviour, culture, and reality
Strategy 4: Depression (“Flagging Spirit” and “The Depressive”)
These poems succinctly and powerfully describe how depression can be experienced from the inside. Those who have not been clinically depressed often believe that depression is dramatic and tragic, something akin to the romantically dark brooding described in “Seventeen Years Old.” For many sufferers, however, depression is felt as tiredness and dull emptiness. Before reading these poems, ask students to brainstorm words and phrases related to depression: how do people who are depressed feel, and how do they act? Then, read the poems. How does the experience of these speakers compare and contrast with their list? Do these poems give students any insight into why depression can be particularly challenging to overcome?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
Strategy 5: Restlessness (“To Go Back Home to Chatham,” “Salvation,” “Nun”)
Restlessness is a theme that runs through Fraser’s work consistently. Indeed, it is such an integral part of his character and experience that he projects it onto others, as humorously explored in the poem “Nun.” To engage with this notion of restlessness, ask students to consider the following lines by Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa: “My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me” (frag. 10). Also, share with students the aphorism “wherever you go, there you are.” Both quotations provide a larger context for these questions about Fraser’s work:
- How does restlessness affect the speaker’s life in each poem, for good or ill?
- Is Fraser’s depiction of dissatisfaction a fundamentally human characteristic, or are individuals content with their circumstances, knowing no other?
- Is the speaker/observer in the poem “Nun” pleased or displeased to have his “idle thoughts” disrupted by sight of the rosary? In other words, would he prefer to believe that others like the nun are restless in their lives, or would he prefer that the nun be content and sure with her choice of a religious life of confinement (her walks extend only to “the high iron fence” that seems to imprison her)?
- What will or could save the speaker of “Salvation”?
- Ask students to read Fred Cogswell’s “Zen: The Epicure” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment). If Fraser or his subjects were placed in the situation Cogswell describes, would they find the raisins delicious? If yes, why; if no, why not?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts
Fraser, Raymond. Before You’re a Stranger: New and Selected Poems. Roslin, ON: Lion’s Head Press, 2000.
---. The Black Horse Tavern. Montreal: Ingluvin Publications, 1972. Rpt. Roslin, ON: Lion’s Head Press, 2013.
Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. [Livro do Desassossego por Bernardo Soares, 1982.] Trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin Classics, 2002.
Steeves, W. Andrew, ed. “Alden Nowlan’s Letters to Ray Fraser: 1961-1977.” MA thesis. Acadia University, 1996.
Struthers, J.R., ed. The Montreal Story Tellers. Montreal, QC: Véhicule, 1985.
Williamson, Margie. “Four Maritime Poets: A Survey of the Works of Alden Nowlan, Fred Cogswell, Raymond Fraser and Al Pittman, as They Reflect the Spirit and Culture of the Maritime People.” MA thesis. Dalhousie University, 1973.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Fraser, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Raymond Fraser for allowing us to use the story and poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of this story and poetry, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
“They Come Here to Die” originally appeared in Fraser’s The Black Horse Tavern. Montreal: Ingluvin Publications, 1972. 5-20. (The version of the story used above, however, is the 2013 reissue from Lion’s Head Press). All the poems above appear in Fraser’s Before You’re a Stranger: New and Selected Poems. Roslin, ON: Lion’s Head Press, 2000.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.