The Seed Catalogue Secret

Robert Kroetsch’s long poem is to Albertans what Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is to Americans. Revealing how we create a culture out of emptiness, the poem’s mystery lies in what it leaves unsaid.

By Dennis Cooley

In 1983 , several years after Seed Catalogue had appeared, Robert Kroetsch talked about the resources available to an aspiring writer on the Prairies in his time: “newspaper files, place names, shoe boxes full of old photographs, tall tales, diaries, journals,  tipi  rings,  weather reports, business ledgers, voting records.” In a world of the flagrantly local and unliterary, Kroetsch found an item of particular interest: “For me, one of those deposits turned out to be an old seed catalogue. I found a 1917 catalogue in the Glenbow archives in 1975. I translated that seed catalogue into a poem called Seed Catalogue. The seed catalogue is a shared book in our society. We have few literary texts approaching that condition.”

The road to Seed Catalogue—at least 28 months in the conceiving—would seem to have been both troubled and heady. Behind it lies the inhibiting presence of the storytelling father, one of the bullshitters who figures so flamboyantly in the published version of the poem.

It is this figure, a lover of horses, who witnesses what must be one of the most puzzling events in Seed Catalogue. In a memorable passage, the young protagonist falls off a horse, much to the scorn of the hired man and the bewilderment of the father:

This is what happened:
we were harrowing the garden.
You’ve got to understand this:
I was sitting on the horse.
The horse was standing still.
I fell off.

The hired man laughed: how
in hell did you manage to
fall off a horse that was
standing still?

Another figure appears at this moment, acting in apparent protection:

Bring me the radish seeds,
my mother whispered.

My mother was marking the first row with a piece of binder twine, stretched
between two pegs.

The hired man laughed: just
about planted the little bugger.
Cover him up and see what grows.

My father didn’t laugh. He was puzzled
by any garden that was smaller than a
¼-section of wheat and summerfallow.

The sheer “unmanliness” of the kid’s falling Kroetsch has made no effort to hide—within the poem or outside of it. The kid is one version of a Kroetschean character who is a crashing failure as a rural male, a point that David Arnason has made in his essay on Seed Catalogue. Whatever reticence the hired men might have felt out of discretion for their employer, they show little inclination to withhold judgment on the son’s inadequacies: “The hired men… made no bones about telling me I was a disaster, 16 years old and still reading books, often to be seen in the garden doing women’s work when I should be out pitching bundles or working the summerfallow. I couldn’t be trusted with a team of horses… Useless as the tits on a boar, the hired men said.”

The scene of the boy’s fall, followed by his reaction to the mother’s death, is oddly handled. The experience would undoubtedly have been painful for the boy, who obviously is very close to the speaker himself. Exposed in failure before his father, before his mother too, he must have felt terrible anguish. And yet the moments of his deficiency appear in the poem as almost comical, and the mother’s intervention as so brief and so discreet as to be nearly negligible. Sheer and laughable ineptitude might be our own assessment of the boy’s bungling: how in hell could anyone fall off a horse that was standing still? The failure is so grievous that the hired man in the poem is allowed openly, and (apparently) in the parents’ presence, to repeat and to amplify his contempt. Without concern for the boy’s feelings, he ventures to call him “the little bugger,” diminishing the protagonist into anonymity and ridicule, dismissing him almost as though he weren’t there. Had the hired man called him “the little guy,” say, he would have softened his derision with something approaching affection and allowed the kid to emerge in a slightly indulgent way. Kroetsch’s decisions to remove the scene from its potential pathos, and to enlist it in a comic pattern of planting and growing, limit whatever sympathy we otherwise might have developed for the kid.

A reader could put more weight on the mother’s role here, hearing her call as tender and even intimate. We would note the distraught son, the nearby mother quietly beckoning him to her. What does the kid think? How does he face the adults who surround him in ridicule, perplexity, concern? Would not this—even the gesture of rescue—perturb him? What does he think of his own colossal failure as a horseman, which is exposed so irrevocably, so demonstrably, in the hired man’s laughter? What is his relationship with his befuddled and perhaps helpless father? His soft-spoken mother who hovers on the edge of the scene? Why is the narrative so truncated and the event so seemingly diverted? What is not said here?

It is perplexing that the fall would be so rendered: the hired man’s mocking dismissiveness, the father’s baffled reaction, the mother’s brief intercession. Readers may find that that invitation, which echoes in the kid’s mind—“Bring me the radish seeds, my mother whispered”—strengthens her role as intercessor and enforces the boy’s distress. And yet, is not her death deflected to near inconsequence, its acknowledgment almost obliterated in a smother of narrative and trivial detail?

Why does the narrative of the mother’s death and burial so immediately follow the story of the fall and why does it itself occur so obliquely? The boy’s attention, in telling about the funeral, is directed to a distant and distracting narrative, the World Series. The reality of the heavy rain and the mired road, emblems of a mourning son, also register emphatically with him, as does the painful memory of the horse. All this the narrator reports before he includes the mother’s words of invitation:

This is what happened—at my mother’s wake. This is a fact—the World Series was in progress. The Cincinnati Reds were playing the Detroit Tigers.
It was raining. The road to the graveyard was barely passable. The horse was standing still. Bring me
the radish seeds, my mother whispered.

The voice opens in reportorial style—“This is what happened”—as if recounting without emotion some event to which it is not attached. We might hear then an almost willful obliviousness: “—at my mother’s wake.” The section turns then to an insistent voice sounding almost distrustful of its own credibility: “This is a fact—the World Series was in progress.” The sentences begin with “This is,” “This is”—oral in rhythm, certainly, but almost limp, evasive.

And then, across the reach of that distancing, the mother’s voice surfaces, not in command saying, “Get m,e the radish seeds,” as once in the manuscript it did, nor calling loudly from the corner of the garden, as in the archival material it once did; but in a whisper. It is now less peremptory, closer, more encouraging, offering permission, we might say: “Bring me the radish seeds.” The mother’s words, almost confiding even as they invite, evidently would offer some shelter to her distressed son and rescue him from the men’s disallowings. They hover too in the stark memory of a world, in its irrevocable events, commingled in death and graves and rain and mud and seeds, the raw details haunting us with an unadorned and unrefusable scene of the most primal experience of death, and in the whispered call for the most ordinary of seeds, that smallest hint of promise.

And yet the mother remains such a small part of Seed Catalogue—small at least in quantity and in emphasis, emerging only once more, toward the end of the poem:

Your sweet peas
. . . .
taught me the smell
of morning, the grace
of your tired
hands, the strength of a noon sun, the
color of prairie grass

This entry appears after chunks of rambunctious anecdotes. In them the narrator lurches across trajectories of bravado in search of words and in hopes of muses. Then, at the end, the speaker allows himself this quiet moment of recall and tribute.

Years later, “Sounding the Name,” an excruciatingly tender series of mother poems shows up. The poems are remarkably accomplished, and confident, right from their first drafts, and they undergo very little revision. Kroetsch spoke of them in a remarkable conversation published in Labyrinths, 22 not long after Seed Catalogue appeared: “After my mother died I had aunts who looked after me, I had sisters; I wasn’t doing a lot of the male work. I was living in this world of the garden quite often. And it’s funny how I kept that silent. I told you about finding a picture of my mother when she was 16 years old and about how my erotic relationship to this woman has shocked me—my sense of desiring the woman in that photograph. It denounced all my silence to me.”

The sequence of eight closely related poems, in breathtaking redirection, lifts away the reticence, the misdirection we might say, that has lain like a wet sack over Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue. In these poems is an almost unbearable love and pain we’d never before seen in his writing. Here is one, “I’m Getting Old Now,” to give you some sense of the series:

I’m getting old now, I can tell. I dream
a lot of my mother. In my dream last night she was in the garden, over the hill,
behind our house. She was standing. I was

playing in the pea vines. We were both happy.
Neither of us would move, in the dream. Perhaps
I wasn’t playing, I was kneeling to pick peas.
My mother held in her apron the peas

we had picked together. She was standing still.
I knew she was watching me. She was
watching me grow. Like a bad weed, she liked
to say. That pleased her.

I’m getting old now. I wouldn’t say I’m happy.
Serene is an adequate word. Death is not quite
the enemy it was. It is a kind of watching.

Death begins to seem a friend that one has almost
forgotten, then remembers again. In my dream—
last night, I was playing in the garden.

In this “Sounding” poem, a young mother watches over a small boy. Kroetsch’s simple, quiet words—last night, the poet writes, “I was playing in the garden” —come with the full force of the garden poem in our culture. The time of permission,  the incomparable sense of rightness, the site of restoration in dream—these emerge with a special stirring. “Sounding the Name” addresses mother as muse, (shockingly) as lover, most of all (most poignantly) as mother. In them the poet speaks, lyrically, emotionally, of wanting her return, the return to a lost life with his mother.

In Seed Catalogue we hear the mother’s whisper. To whom do we whisper? And under what circumstances? We whisper out of courtesy, so as not to bother others with our conversations. We whisper in hiding, so as not to be found. We whisper in intimacy, our words that close to another. We whisper to befuddle and to intimidate: what are they saying? about me? about her? We whisper in connivance and tenderness. But what of the mother’s words: “‘Bring me the radish seeds,’ my mother whispered”? Clearly they are meant to be protective and absolving. It’s all right, it’s all right, the words say; let’s see what we can do about this, the mother in love of son says. They do that, true enough. But is that all—all, that is, if we read Seed Catalogue within our knowledge of the poet’s biography?

A boy fallen in the garden is a symbol of transition into adulthood. Our protagonist falls from innocence. He is 13 when he falls—a boy entering manhood. The boy must face the recoil of the two male adults, their disappointed sense that he has failed somehow to do what he must, perhaps not succeeded in entering maleness as they would understand it. In his inability to ride he remains unreceived into their world. At that moment of jeopardized manhood the boy is bidden into a complicitous act with his mother. Would it be going too far to say she takes over the initiatory scene? The boy and his mother will presumably turn to gardening and find solace in their shared work. In that gesture the concerned mother offers reassurance. And yet what of the fact that the mother, almost secretively, calls the boy into an act of seeding? Only she, in Seed Catalogue, is described as a figure with a bodily presence and a bodily apprehension of the world: the grace of her tired hands; her teachings of morning smells, the colour of grass, the force of the prairie sun, the smell of the speaker’s own sweating body. Could we hear in the scene of fall and comfort—this moment when the young male, teetering on the verge of self-definition, is offered a whispered closeness, an almost inaudible call, repeated (in the boy’s mind) at the edge of the mother’s grave—a version of what emerges so forcefully in “Sounding the Name”—that final line when the poet writes of the ghostly mother: “I become her approaching lover”? Eros and Thanatos.

What of the fact that the mother, almost secretively, calls the boy into an act of seeding? Only she, in Seed Catalogue, is described as a figure with a bodily presence and a bodily apprehension of the world.

Before writing “Sounding the Name,” Kroetsch confessed to the force of her memory and the weight of her loss: “I kept the mother figures especially, very silent at the centre of the writing, partly because my own relationship with my mother was so painful that I’ve only recently even put it into print at all. And I think part of my move to autobiography was daring to say that my mother died when I was so young and I was very close to her.”

In that same interview Kroetsch says he was marked as something close to a failed male: “I grew up on a big farm, and there was a high definition of male and female activity, and lots of hired help working. I had allergies so that I couldn’t do a lot of the male work in buildings. I would do out-of-doors work but I couldn’t work in the barn or anything like that. But I couldn’t work in the house either, because that was the sphere of female activity—and I was the only son and the oldest, and all those privileged things. And the one place where I found a kind of open field was the garden because a garden is ambiguous on a farm. It involves women’s work, but often the men help. And so I ended up with a huge garden.”

The death of his mother, whose role as keeper of the garden the archives show and whose work Kroetsch took over the spring after she died, shook him deeply. As he was working on Seed Catalogue, he recalled the neighbours’ attempts to comfort his father and him. “Sunday, March 9, 1974” the heading says. “Binghamton, New York: And in bed, alone, after, I remembered the death of my mother. I remembered the wake, the crowds of people arriving over muddy roads, the body in the coffin in my parents’ bedroom. And I remembered the men who came to my father and tried to tell him of the sorrow they felt: and even at the age of 13 I saw the failure of language, the faltering connection between those spoken words and what it was I knew my father felt, what I felt.”

A son nearly overwhelmed by his father’s power as narrator, virtually silenced by his mother’s death – how is he to come into words, how is he to speak, about this, the unspeakable sorrow he would have felt?

A son nearly overwhelmed by his father’s power as narrator, virtually silenced by his mother’s death—how is he to come into words, how is he to speak, about this, the unspeakable sorrow he would have felt? “The play between the possibilities of revelation and concealment, with a revealed inclination toward concealment, becomes the trope by which Canadian literature speaks itself and questions itself.” So writes Kroetsch. Evasions, feints, guises, false clues, dodges, coverings-up. Canadian literature is a literature of secrets, then.

The drafts in the archives show the boy’s fall is the result of distraction. A sensitive kid, given to daydreaming and role- playing, he lets his mind wander so far that he loses track of where he is and what he is doing. Here is one account: “One day, riding back from the potato patch to the yard, not watching what I was doing, not watching the rhythm, I fell off. The horse was walking, pulling the cultivator. I was sitting on the horse, my legs crossed, I fell off.” In other versions the boy is thinking of winter, he is dreaming of the circus, he is practising to ride cross-legged, he is “not watching what I / was doing.” He is deeply bemused and his fall occurs not on grounds of incompetence but for reasons of preoccupation. These accounts, abandoned in the end, would have presented the boy more gently. His falling off the horse hardly would have been the cause for laughter, at least not of the kind or degree accorded the kid in the final version. Kroetsch goes so far in his eventual conception as to halt the horse’s motion—the horse was actually moving in all the earlier versions—and, further, to assign a near wilfulness to the kid’s falling. In an earlier stage of the writing the hired man asks how the kid “could” fall off a stationary horse, but Kroetsch rewrites the speech in such a way that the kid apparently “manages” to fall off, as if making it happen himself. The boy would seem to be perversely or unfathomably willing his own mortification.

Another difference. The kid’s misery over the fall and the wake was rendered forthrightly in the evolving manuscript. There, he is brought to tears by the hired man’s ridicule, and in related passages he weeps inconsolably over his mother’s death. Both responses are fully expunged, and the boy’s emotional vulnerability is excised from the version we get.

In one account the mother’s death prompts the bereaved son into gardening, into emulation of her as presiding spirit of the place, to some degree supplanting her, I suppose:

do you grow a garden?
How did I become the gardener?

My mother died. That’s how.
My mother died. I grew
the garden the next year. 1941.
1941. I was fourteen.
I was desolate. In January
I read the seed catalogues.
In May I planted

In the drafts the other parent, the father, is a less perplexed character. In early versions the father appears sympathetic to the magpie, which in the published book the father sees as a disposable and comic scourge. The father is gentle with his son. In one part of the manuscript the father “tried to lift me / back onto the horse.” In another spot the father is named as a mystery, but as one who shelters wisdom in his unreachable silence: “What / was it he knew that he never / told me? // What planting did he know? / that tall, silent man?” This is the figure who in the book spins outrageous stories full of mischief and who at times shows himself to be thrown into consternation by the kid’s literary inclinations. The father in the drafts is a private, unknowable figure beyond the reach of comedy.

Seed Catalogue circles its own greatest traumas, deflects and almost effaces its deepest concerns—the loss of the quiet mother and the father’s dismay at the son’s literary temptations, such that the son himself can find little room to speak. The son’s deepest feelings for his parents remain in Seed Catalogue largely unspoken. The poem evades itself by suppressing emotional, confessional or “poetic” material and by pushing its narrative toward the comedic and the ribald—toward parody, we might say. In its “play between the possibilities of revelation and concealment,” it is a secret text and inside of it is a hidden grief waiting to get out.


Dennis Cooley is a poet, critic and English professor at the University of Manitoba. Prairie Fire ran a special issue on his work in 1998.


Crowfoot Comes Home

Herman Yellow Old Woman was asleep in his home on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary on April 7, 2020, when the phone started ringing at 5:30 a.m. It was Alison Brown, a professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She told Yellow Old Woman that Exeter City Council ...

Hugh Dempsey

Hugh Dempsey has added greatly to our understanding of Alberta’s heritage. As a researcher, editor, writer and archivist, he has rescued many aspects of our history by collecting historical manuscripts and photos, and by recording the oral memories of First Nations people and non-Aboriginal Albertans. For 60 years he has ...

100 Years of Oil: The legacy of oil at Turner Valley

In the presence of royalty yesterday,” the Calgary Daily Herald reported July 29, 1914, “Dingman Discovery well spouted like an inexhaustible gasoline fountain 40 feet high until driller Hovis, at the direction of managing director A. W. Dingman, ordered the remarkable well turned off.” Princess Patricia had urged people to keep ...