For Austin Clarke

Those chalk-poisoned black men who saw gypsum
Choke off roses could not, would not, have known
Teacher-chalked glories of Wordsworth or Yeats,
Or how a boy could kneel before Hopkins,
Chanting him and Herrick (heretic cleric),
In a sorry, Baptist-beleaguered field,
All crows and regret, miles and decades late,
Quothing cavalier love where hogs were hacked.

How could wracked miners’ve moaned the heavy,
Gorgeous hurt of those epics that refused, spurned,
Their shouts, their salvos of pain and rough joy,
Their howls damning bloody Nova Scotia?

So I craved to hear Milton hollared out,
Yelled with handclaps and tin spoons played on thighs,
And the brawl of white, murderous gypsum—
Bawled at last in Luddite language bursting
Ruling lines of spellers, wrecking letters,
Bashing grammar into gravel. Why not?

Our British literature was just dust—
A mob of beetles chewing torn-up books,
Royally churning Chaucer into dung.
Tragedy was our slavery. Look-it:
Shakespeare came down to us as Black Horse beer—
The only good thing Empire ever made.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Antiphony”?

“Antiphony” is my response to my dual inheritance as a poet—the supposed (or imposed) masterpiece of white, aristocratic British poetry and the earthy vernacular of Africadian (African-Nova Scotian) labourers. In the poem, I question the value of my allegiance to British poetry when my community has been illiterate—and exploited and oppressed by British imperialists and their Canadian descendants.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Antiphony”?

The major techniques in “Antiphony” are the use of blank verse (although imperfectly iambic)—partly to refer black (ironically) to ‘classical’ British poetry, plus alliteration and inner rhyme (all devices that serve to mesh the poem together and accent its musicality.)

This poem “Antiphony” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 157 (Summer 1998): 12-12.

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