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By James Clarke


The Montréal Review, February 2013


 "The Kid from Simcoe Street: A Memoir and Poems" by James Clarke (Exile Editions, 2012)

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When my wife Mary and I got married in 1961, the future looked golden. She gave up a promising career as a fashion illustrator to raise a family. I pursued a law career that culminated in my appointment to the bench in 1983. Our children were happy, healthy and bright. We enjoyed many of the "good things" in life. In 1985 family and friends gathered at the local church to help us celebrate the renewal of our marriage vows. We considered ourselves lucky.

On April 8, 1990, a sunny Palm Sunday afternoon, everything changed. That was the day the police came to our door and dropped their bomb. My wife of 28 years had jumped to her death at Niagara Falls.

Several witnesses observed her climb the parapet of the observation platform , camera in her right hand, drop her shoulder purse to the ground and holding her nose (she always pinched her nose before plunging into water) leap into the Niagara river, floating on her back, eyes open, blank expression on her face, no struggle or cries till the strong current swept her over the rim of the Falls eleven stories down into the icy gorge below. Her body has never been found.

The foundation of my existence collapsed. Even to this day almost two decades later, my children and I still feel the aftershock. Why, I asked. What could I have done differently?

For a long time after her suicide I wrestled with the question: what does God mean when a good person takes their life. I grew acutely aware of God's absence & the unfairness that runs through all of life like a fault line. Inside I was tender and raw. Not long after Mary's death a young woman appeared in my court. She testified that her husband hanged himself from a beam in the basement of their home. Instantly her words unleashed a flash flood of emotion that drove me from the courtroom, tears in my eyes.

Remorse and confusion led me to seek answers. I immersed myself in Carl Jung, began to track my dreams. Every morning I journalled on the computer-a form of free-association therapy. I strove to come to grips with what had happened.

Then, in the summer of 1995, visiting an aunt in the Laurentians, I wrote my first poem. And then another and another. It was as if a dam burst, releasing years of pent-up feelings, painful childhood memories , unhealed adolescent wounds, all intermingled with the sharp debris of bereavement, onto page after page of my notebooks. I wrote about my frustrations on the bench,- the human face of law. Before long I'd accumulated a sizable collection of poems.

My manuscript would have gathered dust in a drawer but for my daughter Mira, who one morning mentioned a poetry workshop by Susan Musgrave, the well-known Canadian poet, to be held at the Lake of Bays in the summer of 1996. Spurred by my children, I decided to go.

Susan generously agree to read the manuscript. Imagine my surprise the next morning when I heard her say: "We've got to find you a publisher," and even offered to write an introduction. After that, events moved swiftly. Barry Callaghan, the distinguished publisher and poet, to whom Susan had referred me, was equally enthusiastic. My first book of poetry, Silver Mercies, came out in 1997. Mary's suicide was an axe breaking the frozen seas within me, and seven more collections, the latest in 2007, rapidly followed.

One pleasant surprise was the positive reaction of my colleagues on the bench. While judges and poets both work with words, for lawyers and judges they are primarily utilitarian, tools to build arguments and render judgments. For poets, words are windows for "intense seeing" as the poet Lorna Crozier put it.

I had worked almost exclusively with the left side of the brain, the seat of logic and common sense. Bounded by technical legal reasoning , knowledge of the law , and the restraints of precedent, I had little room for literary imagination, intuition and emotion. While judges struggle to preserve the "human touch", the reality is they are in the unenviable business of judging others.

In my metamorphosis from judge to "poet-judge", I came to see more clearly that we are all on a common journey toward death, and that all human judgments are at best one-sided and incomplete.

"There is a field/ beyond ideas / of right doing and

wrong doing/ where the soul/ can lie down among/

wildflowers / and lack nothing...."

My wife's suicide gave me a chance to see life from the other side of the bench. In a sense I became the judged, the person bearing the weight of guilt and shame. I learned that mercy begins at home, and to forgive one's self is the precondition of compassion for others. Poetry rekindled my commitment as a judge.

By permitting me to "see behind the shutters normally drawn over the human face," as Al Purdy wrote, poetry helped me to connect with others even in the bleak and impersonal Siberia of the courtroom. I began to appreciate more fully what Oliver Wendell Holmes, the eminent American jurist, said: "The life of the law is not logic but experience."

With the passage of time I stopped blaming God, Whom I'd come to believe was only a convenient label we stick onto the random evils that befall us. Gradually I abandoned the death question "why?" and started to ask the life question "what now?" My children were the first to notice a change: I became mellower and more empathetic, they claimed. As a judge, I redoubled my efforts to balance mercy and justice,- always a delicate task.

Chinks in our legal system stood out more starkly. I became increasingly disturbed by the exorbitant cost of litigation, and the folly of families squandering the equity in their homes & precious life savings on self-defeating lawsuits. The reality of "pocket-book justice" reinforced my conviction that that the law favours the rich.

Status, power, money

like straw, feathers, dust

are insubstantial things,

but if they all blow one way

that's the way the law bends.

To avoid cynicism, the occupational hazard of judging, I constantly had to remind myself that people are greater and better than they sometimes appear in the distorted mirror of the courtroom.

The plight of others began to reach me deeply. I recall the case of a major bank that sought judgment on a debt against a woman with three small children whose husband had abandoned them after squandering the funds on drugs and gambling. The woman who co-signed the promissory note, lived in a dingy apartment and was struggling to eke out an existence for herself and the children on $25,000 a year as a clerk in a department store, with no support and no savings.

Judges are sworn to follow the law (not their private consciences I knew), but I also knew the law could sometimes be an ass. Though counsel for the bank presented a strong case I dismissed the lawsuit, citing "duress and coercion" in the co-signing of the note. Almost immediately counsel sprang to his feet.

"But your Honour." he began., but I cut him off.

"You can't squeeze blood from a stone," I barked, "if you don't like my decision, appeal." Alone in chambers afterwards I began to wonder if I wasn't playing God, compensating for His/Her failure to save my wife from the Black Dog.

More and more I sought ways to encourage litigants to settle. One morning a married couple appeared in court, each brandishing a long list of complaints against the other. Though seated only a short distance apart, their stiff posture and averted eyes gave no hint that they even acknowledged the other's presence. Detecting a residue of tenderness in their voices when they spoke of each other, I seized the opportunity to suggest they talk privately in a witness room to see if they could iron out their differences.

At 11am my court constable said: "I think they're talking."

A half-hour later she returned. "Guess what, I heard them laughing."

At the noon break she entered my chambers, a broad smile on her face: "You won't believe this, your Honour, but they're going out to lunch together." And when court reconvened at 2pm, the lawyers rose to announce that the parties had amicably settled all their issues.

Now a judge's job is not a popularity contest. As one wise old jurist said: "With every decision you make a temporary friend and a permanent enemy", but that day I left the courthouse levitating on air, knowing I'd made a small contribution to the Administration of Justice.

One of the most gratifying moments of my years on the bench was a letter I got from a young man I'd sentenced to reformatory. He wrote me how his life had completely turned around, that he planned to get married soon and it was something I'd said to him in court that had made the difference. For days my feet barely touched the ground.

What had I done? Nothing extraordinary except step out of my role as judge for a moment and talk to him as a fellow human being;


how we are all linked together,

how love can only be broken

one link at a time.

Because poetry is timeless and universal, it also gave me the courage to speak my deepest yearnings and to venture forth toward those invisible angels who feed our hunger for justice.

Bring the clear mirror,

let her see

the jaded eye,

the unforgiving mouth,

let her face break down in tears.


Give back her brown nakedness,

her four , strong limbs,

let her breathe freely,

break softly into new fields.

Ancient Chinese wisdom says it best: poetry is like being alive twice. Poetry gave me a second chance. In a sense, poetry saved my life.


James Clarke is the author of Dreamworks (Exile Editions), Forced Passage (Exile Editions), How to Bribe a Judge (Exile Editions), L'Arche Journal (Griffin House), A Mourner's Kaddish (Novalis), The Raggedy Parade (Exile Editions), Silver Mercies (Exile Editions), Flying Home through the Dark (Exile Editions), The Ancient Pedigrees of Plums (Exile Editions), The Juried Heart (University of Western Virginia Law School), and The Way Everyone is Inside (Exile Editions). He is a former Superior Court Judge and his judgments have been published extensively in legal journals. He lives in Guelph, Ontario. Roy McMurtry (Introduction) is a former Chief Justice & AG of Ontario, Attorney General, and Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.


Illustration: Jaswant Guzder. Dr. Jaswant Guzder is an Associate Professor in the McGill Department of Psychiatry, head of Child Psychiatry and director of Child Day Treatment at the Jewish General Hospital, and an Adjunct Professor in the McGill School of Social Work.


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