For Black History Month, I thought I’d share a Canadian poet whose lush, cadenced verse is like Nova Scotian blues. I’m talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.
I read it studying Can lit with Professor Robert Lecker in my last semester at McGill and we had fascinating discussions in class.
Some background: Whylah Falls describes a story set in Africadia, which is Clarke’s name for black Nova Scotia. Africadians are descendents of freed Loyalist slaves who fled the American colonies during the Revolution in 1783 and wound up in Nova Scotia, where they set down roots. Although I recognized “Africadia,” which sounds like “Africville,” from the headlines, I was unaware of how deep the roots of this Nova Scotian African-Canadian community really went. Clarke makes it his duty to represent Africadians, who were an illiterate people, in his expertly crafted verse.
The conflicts–internal and external to the poet–which Clarke tackles are one of the many things that are interesting about Whylah Falls (at least from an academic standpoint). But if you took it off the shelf and read it, you might be confused about what genre it is.
Sure, it is partly poetry–but it also has several prose pieces. The table of contents is divided into Cantos like the epic poems of old, under headings like “The Adoration of Shelley” and “The Trial of Saul.” The front matter also contains a dramatis personae list of main characters, in the style of the Renaissance drama folio. This makes no mention of the blurred, grainy photographs he includes throughout the volume.
Basically, Clarke has written a classical epic about Africadia, combining the “white” tradition of the “great poets” with the more intuitive cadences of blues jazz.
Is he crazy for attempting such a mixture of genres? Before you answer, you must consider that Clarke is such a master poet that he is well capable of answering this ambitious challenge.
His rhythm and style–which for him are inseparable–form a syncopated song that follows the cadence of jazz progressions. Although I am no music know-it-all, someone in class mentioned that the scansion of his lines match certain jazz rhythms. This achieves an unforgettable effect in his love poetry, which flows with allusions to the most romantic book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. (Which even I borrowed from, last Valentine’s day)
Whylah Falls follows a man returning to his home after being educated abroad. The opening stanza of his first poem sets the mood for the book:
“At eighteen, I thought the Sixhiboux wept.
Five years younger, you were lush, beautiful
Mystery; your limbs–scrolls of deep water.
Before your home, lost in roses, I swooned,
Drunken in the village of Whylah Falls,
And brought you apple blossoms you refused,
Wanting Hank Snow woodsmoke blues and dried smelts,
Wanting some milljerk’s dumb, unlettered love.”
The way Clarke breaks each line and the diverse, evocative vocabulary are testament to his mastery of language. As you might have guessed, his book is not only filled with love poetry dedicated to people, but to the place of Whylah Falls itself and the river that runs through it.
Whylah Fall‘s characters are also brilliantly inspiring, the salt of the earth, so to speak. Who could forget the following description of Cora in the kitchen?
Cooking is faith. Cora opens her antique cookbook, a private bible, enumerating Imperial measures, English orders,–pinches, pecks, cups, teaspoons, of this or that–and intones, “I create not food but love. The table is community. Plates are round rooves; glasses, iced trees; cutlery, silver streams.”
This alchemy of cooking is only possible in Whylah Falls. Even if you do not think you are likely to pick up a book about an African-Canadian minority group in Nova Scotia, you can still see that the imagery in its vital power can awaken the soul.
The story of Whylah Falls eventually centers around the shooting death of Othello Clemence, whose murderer is acquitted on self-defense. The fake newspaper clippings Clarke includes are brilliant and funny, showing a more humorous face to our poet. But his poems about the murder’s effect on the community blend beauty with violence to produce an elegiac effect:
“His breath went emergency in his lungs,
His felled heart grasped impossibly at light;
A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth.
Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”
Ranging from the mournful to the humorous, the sassy to the extravagant, and the sensual to the religious, Whylah Falls has something for every reader this Black History Month. If you read it on Valentine’s Day, you have the added benefit of reading some of this luscious verse to your beloved. Just remember that “the language we swill with loneliness is liquor, is love, a turmoil in the bones.”
Excerpts are from: “The River Pilgrim: a letter,” “How to Live in a Garden,” “Eulogy,” and “I Love You/More than Words.”
P.S. Check out this stimulating interview about Africadian identity.