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Poet found magic and mystery in the everyday

Colleen Thibaudeau circa 1977

Diane Thompson/Diane Thompson

Poet Colleen Thibaudeau, the widow of playwright James Reaney, died on Feb. 6 at University Hospital in London, Ont., after a series of strokes. She was 86.

"She had a great life and I think she will be remembered as a poet who had a national presence," her son, James Reaney, told the London Free Press. "I always called her London's greatest poet and while she never agreed to that, she never did tell me to stop. And I think dad was comfortable with me saying he was the second greatest London poet."

The poet Molly Peacock went even further, calling Thibaudeau Canada's "secret national treasure" in an e-mail message. "You could say she was our Carol Shields of poetry, though of course she started before Shields, taking the ideas for her poems from dropped threads of domesticity and exalting them with her casual but timeless lines," said Peacock, the series editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English.

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"Thibaudeau sewed and re-sewed the sweet sensory nature of fleeting experience, 'rescued, laundered, aired, and pressed' by her art, as she put it in her poem In Which I Put On My Mother's Old Thé Dansant Dress."

Born in Toronto on Dec. 29, 1925, and raised in St. Thomas, Ont., she was the daughter of John Stewart Thibaudeau and his wife, Alice Pryce. Her father, a high school principal of Acadian descent, was "scholarly, reserved and distinguished," while her Belfast-born mother was "dynamic, distinguished and extroverted," according to her son James.

She went to the University of Toronto in the mid-1940s, completing a bachelor's degree in 1948 and a masters in contemporary Canadian poetry the following year. At university she met the poet and short story writer James Reaney, who would later write a trilogy of plays about the Donnellys that transformed Canadian theatre in the 1970s.

They were married on her birthday in 1951 and later had three children: James, John (who died of meningitis in 1966) and Susan. The Reaneys lived in various parts of Canada, including Winnipeg and Victoria, but spent most of their lives together in London, where he taught at the University of Western Ontario.

Thibaudeau published her first book, Lozenges: Poems in the Shapes of Things in 1965, followed by Ten Letters a decade later, and My Granddaughters Are Combing Out Their Long Hair in 1977. She often depicted domestic scenes and used common household objects as catalysts for her poetry and to draw connections between people and things.

The Canadian Encyclopedia praised her poetry for celebrating "the extraordinary nature of ordinary life by combining the everyday with the otherworldly." Her work was featured and critically appraised in the winter 1979 issue of the literary magazine Brick.

In The Martha Landscapes (1984) she explored themes of change, time and creativity inspired by memories of making preserves and the sound of her grandmother's voice. The Artemesia Book (1991), a collection of new and selected poems, was published in 1991. She continued working on memory in The "Patricia" Album (1992), a suite of lyrical poems about a boat named The Patricia, and its owners – all of whom were inspired by a photograph album she had found in a secondhand store.

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Here is an excerpt from Continuing in The "Patricia" Album (Moonstone Press): " Salt-starved, we go slowly, continuing, looking for the Other Army, like a white grain on the tongue something is drawing me north.

I am writing this in my head, Little Sister, sleeping as I march, but continuing through the darkness, following the moon's path. Marching by night to avoid the strafing, feeling on my cheek the west wind smelling its fern and by-the-sea smell. I am hiding by a Big Rock's shadow repairing my sandal. I have misplaced our cousin, but, surely, he is ahead, like a white grain on the tongue memories of our village fill up my heart. In his head our cousin will be writing to his wife and regretting, saying, sometime yesterday or six days back, I have misplaced our cousin but, surely, he is ahead; thoughts of him draw me to the north like a white grain on the tongue. They say there is fire in the north and the smoke drifts, blurs out the west wind's sea smell: fine ashes are coating my nostrils; continuing, we march, sleeping on our feet."

After her husband died in June, 2008, Thibaudeau continued to live in London. Her funeral is planned for Saturday, Feb. 11, at the James A. Harris funeral parlour in London. Thibaudeau leaves two children, two grandchildren and her extended family.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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