September 8, 2016 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 89 – George Elliott Clarke presented by Jack Kirchhoff

Whylah Falls was my introduction to George Elliott Clarke, about whom I knew nothing when it was published, in 1990. I read a lot of poetry in those days – not so much any more – but I had never read anything like this novel-length collection of poems set in Nova Scotia in the small, working-class town of the title.  It was energetic, earthy and smart, and more than a little sexy. It was also a slice of Canadiana that I knew little about, life as lived by the black population of rural Nova Scotia – the “Africadians,” in Clarke’s apt coinage.

I was so impressed by the work that I arranged an interview with Clarke. He turned out to be as interesting as his poetry, a dapper, articulate young man in a good suit. At the time, he was parliamentary assistant to NDP MP Howard. He would go on to a brilliant career as a poet, playwright, novelist and academic, and a clutch of literary and cultural prizes and awards. He currently teaches at the University of Toronto, and was named this year as Parliamentary Poet Laureate – or, as he refers to the post, “the people’s poet laureate.”

But in 1990 – 26 years ago! – all I knew about Clarke was what was contained in Whylah Falls. In the “admission” that prefaced the first edition (there is also a preface), Clarke describes the collection as “fact presented as fiction,” a description that would apply to most of his work since then, including his most recent novel, this year’s The Motorcyclist, which is based on the life of his father. Whylah Falls won the Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry, and was recently one of the finalists picked for CBC’s Canada Reads. It has never been out of print, and was re-issued in a tenth-anniversary edition by the original publisher, Polestar, in 2000, and again in 2010, in a handsomely bound third edition from Gaspereau Press.

One of the values of Whylah Falls is simply its unique subject matter. When the book was published, no major work had ever dealt specifically with Nova Scotia’s black community, or even with blacks in Canada. Lawrence Hill’s masterpiece The Book of Negroes was a decade and a half away, and while Austin Clarke was publishing in the 1960s and ’70s, his work was almost always set in his native Barbados, with occasional stories about the Caribbean immigrant experience in Toronto. Whylah Falls takes you right into the kitchens, bedrooms, clubs and churches of a community “founded in 1783 by African-American Loyalists seeking Liberty, Justice, and Beauty. … Wrecked by country blues and warped by constant tears, it is a snowy, northern Mississippi, with blood spattered, not on magnolias, but on pines, lilacs, and wild roses.” (From the preface.)

The protagonist inWhylah Falls, insofar as there is one, is poet Xavier Zachary, known as X – Marks the spot? Unknown quantity? Nameless? – who is returning to the community after five years (“four springs”) away. One of the main reasons he is coming home is Shelley Clemence, an 18-year-old student for whom he has been carrying a torch during the whole of his “exile” (his word). Shelley is a major figure in the book, both as an object of X’s romantic interest and as a narrator in her own right. Indeed, the Clemence family provides about half the characters in the book: Shelley’s father, mother, sisters, brothers and stepsister; as well, there are musicians, laborers, a minister, a peddler, a politician, a bad guy – seducer and generally the minister’s bête noir – and another poet. Each is given a distinctive, individual voice and a unique viewpoint, and many poems are in those voices.

The poems are a treat to read, and to speak. They are often written in colloquial speech, but can also be erudite; one of the early poems, “The River Pilgrim: A Letter,” is subtitled “pace Pound, après Li Po.” But they wear their learning lightly, and are full of wordplay of all kinds, including internal rhymes, alliteration, rhythmic patterns and the occasional low pun. The poems’ language ranges from down-home conversational, slangy, almost dialect, to formal, with proper spelling and sentence structure.

Consider two love poems. “To Selah” contains the verse:

The black highway uncoils
Like your body do sometimes.
The long highway unwinds, mama,
Like your lovin’ do sometimes.
I’m gonna swerve your curves
And ride your centre line.

On the facing page, “Love Letter to an African Woman” – an apology and a paean to black women everywhere, and one of my favourites in the collection – contains these lyrical paragraphs:

Are you not Sheba, “black but comely,” who enlightened Solomon; Nefertiti, who brought glory to Egypt; Harriet Tubman, who brandished a pistol and pledged to shoot any slave who tried to abandon her freedom train; Lydia Jackson, who fled Nova Scotian chains to found Sierra Leone; Portia White, who enthralled the world with song; Carrie Best, who gave us a Clarion voice; Pearleen Oliver, who brought our history home; Marie Hamilton, whose steadfast compassion uplifted many? Are you not these heroines and a hundred more?

African daughter, forgive me my several trespasses. I have been so weak, so scared!

It’s a stark contrast in styles, but both poems are heartfelt expressions of love, admiration and longing, and full of passion.

The temptation here is to quote from the work extensively. But that would be a self-defeating effort. Whylah Falls can and should be read as a single experience. If you haven’t read it, you really should.

To learn more about George Elliott Clarke, please visit the Parliament of Canada website, CBC News and the University of Toronto English Department website. Here is the link to Whylah Falls at Gaspereau Press.

Jack Kirchhoff is a retired arts journalist living in Toronto.

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