Friday, February 13, 2009

Reader's Diary #451- Yvonne Trainer: Tom Three Persons

Last year I read Randall's Maggs' brilliant poetic biography of hockey great Terry Sawchuk (Night Work). This time I look at the life of another Canadian sports legend, again told in verse: Yvonne Trainer's Tom Three Persons.

Is it too early to decide that biographies should always be told in verse?

While Tom Three Persons doesn't match Maggs' achievement, I quite enjoyed it. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Three Persons, his claim to fame was becoming the world's bucking horse champion at the very first Calgary Stampede in 1912. As a Blood Indian, he also became an inspiration to his people.

Although based on historical facts, Trainer is careful not to destroy his status as a legend. Compare the story behind his name as told by the Alberta Online Encyclopedia and by Trainer:

Tom Three Persons is perhaps best described as Alberta’s most famous cowboy. Born in March 1888 to Ayakohtseniki, Double Talker, a Blood woman, his natural father was a white trader and bootlegger by the name of Fred Pace. When Pace left Ayakohtseniki prior to the birth of their son, she soon married Three Persons, a young widower from her tribe. Tom Three Persons was originally given the name Mutsi-i-kitstuki, or Handsome Offering, and baptized as Moses Three Persons but known to all as Tom.
- Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Tom Three Persons
My name is Tom Three Persons
I’m no relation to the American
Tom Three Persons
named because he killed three men
I never killed anyone
nor robbed a bank
nor anything like that
I was named because of three women
mother saw walking past the door
the moment of my birth
Father claimed there were no women
The door was closed
I am not even sure there was a door
I may have been born in a teepee

I was named because we’re all named
Because Bloods believe
names float in air

(by Yvonne Trainer, read the rest here.)

Trainer depicts Tom Three Persons as somewhat quiet but aware. Told as if from Tom's perspective, he knows exactly where he fits in, despite the recognition he's been given. In "Praise" he states, "I know the horses I've ridden/ I know the ones I haven't."

Powerful stuff.

My biggest complaint is that it wasn't long enough. Trainer seems to rush through his life from the stampede onward and more than details are lost in the gaps. It would appear that she was trying to emphasize the number three, perhaps as an attempt at symbolism. This is not a surprising angle seeing as Tom was named Three Persons and also ended up married three times. But Trainer pushes it even further when she presents Tom on his deathbed, surrounded by three nuns. As they fade into the shadows, Tom mistakes them for his past wives. Obviously a literary invention, the wives didn't really stick out enough in the preceding poems to give them the significance Trainer seems to have wanted in this final scene.

Otherwise, fine biographical poetry. Or is it a poetic biography? I'm not sure.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

It's incredible how much more engaging his story becomes when told in verse.

Wanda said...

I've not heard of Tom Three Persons. Learning something about the man by reading Yvonne Trainer's poetry would be a cool intro though...