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Dividing the Fire, Robert B. Richards

Robert "Buck" Richards

Robert Bruce “Buck” Richards (poet, radio script-writer, and regional librarian) was born 11 September 1929 in Campbellton, New Brunswick to Nora and Cecil Richards. An early contributor to the province’s foremost literary magazine, The Fiddlehead, Richards has published two collections of poems, Unfolding Fern (1990) and Dividing Fire (1999).

Richards attended the Andrew Street and King Street schools in Campbellton for grades 1-8 before attending Campbellton High School in 1944. He spent his early life at his father’s house. Cecil Richards was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces and was often away, and at age five, Richards went to live with his maternal grandfather, Robert Bruce Rossborough. The manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia in Campbellton, Robert Rossborough was a literary man who owned a considerable collection of poetry and fiction. It was during the time at his grandfather’s house that Richards was first exposed to poetry, most notably the works of the Victorian and Romantic poets. The imagery in such poems as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” though largely incomprehensible to the six year old Richards, particularly fascinated him and inspired his first attempts at writing poetry. Richards began dedicating more and more time to writing throughout high school, imitating the style and prosody of those poets he read and admired.

In 1947 Richards graduated from high school and, having received a four year Beaverbrook Scholarship, enrolled at the University of New Brunswick. His years at university were formative in his development as a poet; at UNB he encountered a wealth of literature in addition to a strong community of young authors and poets like himself. Richards became an active member in the Bliss Carman Society and, encouraged by upperclassman Don Gammon, then editor of The Fiddlehead, Richards published his poetry in some of the magazine’s earliest issues. His first published poem, “Poem,” appeared in the tenth issue of The Fiddlehead. The poem’s rich imagery and style reveal the early influence of the romantic poets whom Richard admired. From 1947 to 1953 Richards frequently contributed poems to The Fiddlehead. During his first year at UNB he met and befriended New Brunswick poet and critic Bob Gibbs who would remain a close friend throughout his life. Given Richards’s appetite for literature and his desire to write, the pursuit of English Literature was a natural choice and he went on to do postgraduate work in English after receiving a BA in English (Hons.) in 1951.

In 1954, Richards returned to Campbellton to work as a script writer and announcer for radio station CKNB. Richards married his wife, Maxine, in 1963. They are the parents of two sons and a daughter. In 1965 he attended the University of Toronto where he completed a one year programme in Library Science before returning to Campbellton to work as the regional librarian. Richards remained in Campbellton until 1987 when he moved to Fredericton to work in Library Services with the New Brunswick Department of Tourism, Recreation, and Heritage. Upon moving back to Fredericton, he began dedicating more time to writing poetry, and, in 1990, his first collection of poems, Unfolding Fern, was published by Wild East Publishing Co-operative.

While Richards’s early poetry is marked by a rich use of imagery and metaphor, his later work displays a movement towards the personal and confessional. His personal poems are often informed by his time spent in northern New Brunswick, and Campbellton provides both the setting and the theme in much of this later work. Such poems as “Crumbs” and “Senses of Loss” are deeply felt and careful reflections on the poet’s childhood in northern New Brunswick. Other poems from this period, such as “Communion Sidewalk” and “Something About a Sunday” demonstrate a remarkable ability to move from the particular to the universal, drawing from the poet’s experiences in New Brunswick to put forward a broader communitarian ethos. The poem “Crumbs” is exemplary of the depth and profundity with which Richards captures his childhood memories:

My father loved to grub in the gardens

For carrots, radishes, and parsnips –

Feel all his knuckles under earth,

Could laugh as loud as any dog can bark

And always voted the straight Tory ticket

While he railed of socialism’s endless good.

He drank black rum, a neat shot at a time

To make his heart condition bearable

Too large, is what the doctor said –

Though sometimes late at night he sat

Bolt upright in his bed and fought for air

In great deep gulps, right out of character.

He’d been a cook once for a lumber camp,

Fried trout better than my mother she agreed

Lost all they left him in the crash of twenty-nine

And only joined the army for the job

In World War Two, although he volunteered

For active service two more times.

He ended leading truck lines up to Scotland.

We never really understood each other;

I feared his black-browed bouts of melancholy.

He called me “Prince of Liars” in delight

And, unless I am mistaken, in sad pride

Since I measured up on not one other count,

Having chosen an American new dime

Over an old Canadian quarter at age ten,

The first year I found out I would die;

Exasperated pity seemed my due.

He’d been fixing something in the basement;

I saw him bending over, peering at the vice

The day before he died, and after that

The glove compartment of our car

Disgorged his worn black pipe one day.

My footsteps take me to his grave by times

Where he fights for air no longer

Knuckled under now completely

And the roots have their revenge –

And aimless talks to harmless silently

In final truce; it could be worse

We might have laughed, and fought and loved each other, far too

            much

And whatever, ever, could be worse than that? (1-42)

As the poem suggests, the poetry included in Unfolding Fern marks a departure from the rhymed meter of Richards’ early poetry.

In Richards’s second collection of poems, Dividing the Fire, he returns to the structured prosody of his early poetry, writing in the sonnet and villanelle forms to further explore the relationship between science and religion, a recurring theme in his poetry. “The Father’s House,” included in Unfolding Fern, is one of his many poems which contemplate the relationship between religion, science, and the origin of the universe. Fellow poet Robert Hawkes also observes the importance of “the relationship between God as creator and human being as creative artist” in “The Father’s House” (86). Richards’s exploration of the relationship between religion and science, however, finds its fullest expression in Dividing the Fire, in which the relationship between the two is examined in a dialogue that attempts to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible institutions. Robert Gibbs has observed that Richards’s “zest is equal for the holy and the profane, the delicate and the coarse, the intellectual, sensual and spiritual” (17). While in the poems “Ballade for Stone Hearts” and “Accouchement” Richards considers and critiques the progression and folly of scientific endeavour, he appears equally doubtful about the stability and permanency of spirituality and religion in poems like “Dividing the Fire” and “Thomists.” Nevertheless, he holds a deep-rooted conviction that science and religion, the “numerical” and the “spiritual,” are not incompatible, but mutually indispensible. His most recent works, such as the unpublished “Rope Enough,” exhibit his ongoing concern with incorporating Biblical parables into poetic narrative through a process of reinterpretation.

Richards’s work has received a paucity of critical attention relative to his contributions to poetry and literature in New Brunswick. However, reviews of his poetry are generally positive. In his review of Unfolding Fern, Robert Hawkes praises Richards’s prosody and style. Hawkes concludes that Richards’s “poetic ear is very finely attuned to the world of his intellect” (87).  Ruth Scott’s review of Dividing the Fire is similarly favourable, commending Richards’s ability to capture the “vagaries of life.”

Richards has received a number of awards for his poetry. In 1949 he was awarded the Bliss Carman prize for poetry. In 1988, a group of his poems published in the summer issue of The Fiddlehead won the award for the best poetry published in the magazine that year. The same year Richards was awarded the Alfred G. Bailey Prize for poetry by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. In 1991 Richards was the feature poet at UNB’s annual literary forum Conversazione. In addition to his two collections of poems, Unfolding Fern (1990) and Dividing the Fire (1999), and numerous contributions to The Fiddlehead, Richards has published his work in The Cormorant and Wild East magazines, the centennial publication Arts in New Brunswick (1967), Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of The Fiddlehead Magazine (1995), and the Goose Lane Anthology Home for Christmas: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland (1999).

Billy Johnson, Winter 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Campbell, Sabine, Roger Ploude, and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos, eds. Fiddlehead Gold: 50 Years of the Fiddlehead Magazine. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead, 1995.

Campbell, Sabine, ed. Home for Christmas: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1999.

Richards, Robert B. Unfolding Fern. Fredericton, NB: Wild East, 1990.

---. Dividing the Fire. Fredericton, NB: Dead Sea Physh Products, 1999.

---. “Crumbs.” The Fiddlehead 156 (1988): 13-14.

---. “Communion Sidewalk.” The Fiddlehead 156 (1988): 15.

---. “Poem.” The Fiddlehead 10 (1947): 3.

---. “Something About a Sunday.” The Fiddlehead 156 (1988): 20.

Tweedie, R.A., Fred Cogswell, and W. Stewart MacNutt, eds. Arts in New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1967.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Gibbs, Robert. "Robert B. Richards." Afterword. Unfolding Fern. By Robert B. Richards. Fredericton, NB: Wild East, 1990. 17.

Hawkes, Robert. "Whirligig with Words." Rev. of Unfolding Fern. Cormorant 8.2 (1991): 85-87.

Richards, Robert B. Personal interview. 24 Oct. 2012.

Scott, Ruth. "A Charming New Collection of Sonnets." The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton] 11 Dec. 1999, News sec.: n. pag.