Black and Bruised Blues
- Louise Delisle (Author)
Back Talk: Plays of Black Experience. Roseway (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Pamela Mordecai (Editor)
Calling Cards: New Poetry from Caribbean/Canadian Women. Sandberry (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Pamela Mordecai (Author)
The True Blue of Islands. Sandberry (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Katherine Verhagen
Blues singers will rarely sing of their hardship just for their own emotional release. The blues reach down deep and when Billie Holiday sings “Good Morning, Heartache,” many souls are waking up, drying their eyes. But the blues are not just about people singing about and identifying with suffering. The blues are about “keepin’ on, keepin’ on”: preserving determination, strength, and wisdom.
No one can write sorrow like Pamela Mordecai. As a poet, she evokes the slow and difficult process of accepting personal trauma in many shades of pain: smelt blue for a firing gun, indigo blue for a night that witnesses murder, and flame blue for the shots that are fired. In The True Blue of Islands, the ninth book in the Sandberry Press “Caribbean Poetry Series,” Mordecai sings her loss as a chorus in a ballad of grief and determination. The song is not only hers and it is not without hope. She opens with the tale of Great-Granny Mac, an ex-slave, who survives physical brutality, familial separation, and rape by using cunning, creativity, and medicinal skills to buy her freedom. Mordecai propels her characters forward, allowing them to gather sure-footed strength and understanding along a treacherous path that they often must walk alone. The most cutting wounds, Mordecai suggests, are those inflicted by one’s “own,” whether as a result of being the property of a slave owner of African descent, being molested as a girl by a priest while seeking sanctuary, or being a shunned member of a community because of mixed-race identity. She challenges any downpressor who seeks to overcome her spirit, whatever race or gender they may be. She speaks for those who have been silenced too soon in their own struggles. With a versatile voice, Mordecai sings in harmony with a ballad, a child’s nursery rhyme, a dub rhythm, but she attunes the ear to the blues within the melody.
Calling Cards is the first anthology in the Sandberry Press “Anthology Series.” As editor of the anthology, Mordecai creates a collection of chapbooks or “calling cards” of Caribbean-Canadian women poets who mostly have not yet published their own collected works. Just as there were too few opportunities for Anglo-Caribbean women writers to publish when Mordecai was the editor of Jamaica Woman (1980), so too are the opportunities few for “new writers [especially poets] to get published, even in Canada where small presses abound.” Times are hard for poets writing “in the vernacular Englishes of the Caribbean,” more likely to find specialized small press publishers to take on their work, like the late Sister Vision Press. The poets use a combination of Standard English and vernacular English from Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines. Celia Ferrier, Nan Peacocke, Keisha Silvera, Janet Somerville, Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes, and Jennifer Walcott use Standard English like an instrument. They use it as Mordecai does in The True Blue of the Islands:
We control this
language employ it.
Yet, I find it too simplistic to say that there is a sharp distinction between the poets’ use of S.E. (Standard/supposed English) and its vernacular. For instance, when Celia Ferrier invokes the (S.E.) epic voice in her recollection of her father, that section is one verse among many in a ballad to her childhood. Though the register is changed, the rhythm is unbroken. Throughout the anthology, the poets demonstrate seamless code-switching between two languages, S.E. and vernacular. By doing so, they suggest that an imposed and imperial hierarchy of Standard English as a language over vernacular as a derivative dialect is as “supposed” and inaccurate as it would be to say that because blues is derivative of gospel, it is not music.
In the long time of slavery, gospel lyrics often held clues for African-American slaves to follow the Underground Railroad to Canada and to freedom. However, not enough has been written about the history of African Canadian enslavement, a discordant note in our multicultural song of racial harmony. Louise Delisle performs in and writes plays about that too-often-unheard subject and is the founder of the Black Pioneers Acting Troupe. George Elliot Clarke trumpets her praises in his foreword to her work, being one of the few public intellectuals to sing out that, yes, there were slaves in Canada. Therefore, Delisle is an important playwright to read as she records and performs that hidden history which is an important part of our Canadian heritage. As well, she is a virtuoso of keeping time, pacing her plays in either abbreviated glimpses into pain and suffering or long, dark gazes into family tragedies. For instance, in “A Slave’s Day in Court,” Delisle encapsulates hope and despair within a few simple stage directions, as in the heavy incline of a defendant’s head. Though sympathetic characters like the Magistrate attempt to promote justice, their small efforts are often overcome by the mercilessly quick pace of courtroom proceedings. In “The Days of Evan,” Delisle writes a slow movement for bittersweet family memories and the private time of Susan and the ghost of her husband, Evan. Subsequently, the tale of his indictment, legal processing, incarceration, and hanging is brutally quick as the four jurors decide his fate even before the proceedings begin. Time moves forward and Sandra, in “Winnie’s Elephant,” asks “[w]hat is the use of talking about it now?” A slave-spirit who haunts the present, literally, replies “[y]ou are free.” That freedom has been earned by those forgotten from the past. Therefore, Delisle writes these plays so that all Canadians will hear their lost hope and freedom.
- Verse in the Bush by Warren Stevenson
Books reviewed: Jean Baptiste: A Poetic Olio, in II Cantos by Levi Adams and Tracy Ware and Poetry by John Strachan by Wanda Campbell and John Strachan
- Tasting this Place by Emily Wall
Books reviewed: In a Boston Night by Sasenarine Persaud, Poems for a Small Park by E. D. Blodgett, is a door by Fred Wah, and Red Nest by Gillian Jerome
- Good, But Not So Pretty by Sonnet L'Abbé
Books reviewed: Opening the Island by Anne Compton, The Good Life by Brad Cran, and Short Haul Engine by Karen Solie
- Theatrical Landscape by Neta Gordon
Books reviewed: The Baron Bold and the Beauteous Maid: A Compact History of Canadian Theatre by Brian Kennedy and Nextfest Anthology II: Plays from the Syncrude Next Generation Arts Festival by Steve Pirot
- Folle jeunesse by Cyril Schreiber
Books reviewed: ne pas humecter by Charles Drouin, Offrandes de la jouissance by Marylène Bertrand, and Orpailleur de bisous by Laurent Poliquin
MLA: Verhagen, Katherine. Black and Bruised Blues. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 136 - 137)
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