“i hold a hyphen between my fingers”: Kaie Kellough’s Crossings

Reviewed by Cornel Bogle

In his two latest publications, the Guyanese-descended, Vancouver-born, Prairie-raised, Montreal-based writer Kaie Kellough ushers readers into the frenetic and fraught subjectivities of Caribbean Canadians. Magnetic Equator, a collection of poetry that earned Kellough the 2020 Griffin Prize, and Dominoes at the Crossroads, a collection of short fiction, offer extended engagements with the motif of bifurcation in both the material and the cultural spheres. Both texts explore a range of divisions: experiences in the Global South and the Global North; multinational identities; rivers, seas, oceans, and waterfalls separating nations, regions, territories, and cities; and gaps in temporalities which separate the past, present, and future. Indeed, as with his previous publications Maple Leaf Rag (2010) and Accordéon (2016), Kellough demonstrates an interest in documenting ongoing processes of creolization, appropriation, and transculturation throughout the Americas in order to elucidate the paradoxes of modernity.

Magnetic Equator comprises ten long poems: “kaieteur falls,” “mantra of no return,” “high school fever,” “exploding radio,” “bow,” “zero degrees,” “ghost notes,” “alterity,” “essequibo,” and “the unity of worlds.” As is to be expected of Kellough—whose poetics are deeply influenced by the sonic and experimental forms—Magnetic Equator is formally diverse, employing free verse, concrete poetry, list poems, visual poetry, found poetry, and prose poetry. Through formal multiplicity, Kellough’s collection pays homage to canonical Caribbean and Canadian poets.

The poems in Magnetic Equator document experiences in (and/or make allusions to) varied geographies, namely Guyana (particularly Georgetown and the Potaro-Siparuni region) and Canadian cities. The invocation of multiple geographies serves many functions, one of which, specifically, is to signal the dispersal of peoples around the world as a result of colonization. In “mantra of no return”—which quotes Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return—Kellough produces an anaphoric and alliterative litany:

people arrived from portugal. people arrived from africa. people arrived from india. people arrived from england. people arrived from china. people predated arrival. people fled predation. people were arrayed. people populated. whips patterned rays into people. people arose. people rayed outward to toronto, london, boo york. people raided people. people penned the past. . . . people fanned their spreading. people cleaved unto people. people writhed over / under people. people arrived over / under people[.] (Magnetic Equator 8)

In this section of the poem, Kellough moves from the word “arrived” to signal the place of arrival without ever naming it. The place, of course, is the Caribbean, where people “fled,” “were arrayed,” “populated,” “arose,” “rayed,” “raided,” “penned,” “fanned,” “cleaved,” “writhed,” and then once again “arrived” (8). Kellough offers a catalogue that signifies how the history of the Caribbean is very much concerned with movement, both forced and voluntary. He is keen to remind us, however, that this history of movement is also always inflected with bifurcated power relations, particularly those of domination and subjugation, as evidenced by the emphasis through repetition of “over / under” (8).

The geographical references additionally serve to invoke literary traditions with which Kellough has affinities. In “zero degrees,” Kellough alludes to Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue and appropriates its catalogic form through the incorporation of lists and by using the left-hand margin as a generative source for an elaborative poetics which occupy the right-hand margin. The appropriation of Kroetsch’s form situates Kellough not only within a Canadian poetics, but also, and more specifically, within a Prairie literary tradition. This affinity is further particularized in “high school fever,” which employs a confessional voice to disclose experiences of adolescence in Calgary during the 1980s, including episodes of alienation and suicidal depression:

blackout into this suburb
blundering out of time, this shithole built by bitumen
. . .
in between periods, in between
vaseline and sperm-slick fingers under the covers, i was the only
boy who did not dream of sex with the stanley cup, but of suicide[.] (19-20)

Kellough situates the speaker’s adolescence within the now tainted, environmentally degraded, petrocultural, toxically masculine (and thus homophobic and racist) settler-colonial landscape of Alberta.

Kellough’s writing, which is included in Karina Vernon’s groundbreaking anthology The Black Prairie Archives (2020), can be said to offer a “strategy for claiming a space for blackness on the prairies” (Vernon 8). Kellough situates the persona of “high school fever” within a genealogy of Black Alberta:

. . . speakers don’t give a shit about john ware,
the black cowboy, or teenage auto-erotic
asphyxiation that ended in unintentional
suicide, circa 1990
or me. (Magnetic Equator 22)

Placing the persona alongside John Ware, a Black cowboy and community leader who migrated to Alberta in the late nineteenth century, Kellough points to the ongoing erasure of Black presence from the Prairie imaginary. However, the literary traditions of Canada, the Prairies, and more specifically the Black Prairies are not the only ones Kellough locates himself within. One could argue that he is most interested in that of the Caribbean and its diaspora. The notes to Magnetic Equator lay bare these affinities as Kellough informs readers of his source texts and inspirations, including Derek Walcott, Walter Rodney, Dionne Brand, V. S. Naipaul, Maryse Condé, and Kamau Brathwaite. These references orient readers towards an understanding of this collection as belonging to a tradition of Caribbean diasporic writing—a tradition that has long sought to articulate, interrogate, and indict the discombobulations of being, and the mystifications of belonging, that were inaugurated in 1492 and compounded by the transatlantic slave trade and indentureship throughout the Americas.

If Magnetic Equator is concerned with the dispersal of people across the Americas and the divisions that result, Dominoes at the Crossroads is primarily interested in generative points of contact. Kellough’s collection of short fiction explores the motif of confluence and cross-cultural encounters that Austin Clarke inaugurated, within the Caribbean Canadian literary tradition, with his 1967 novel The Meeting Point, which focuses on the experiences of Caribbean migrants in the urban space of Toronto. Many of the stories in Dominoes at the Crossroads are set in Montreal and consider the lives of Caribbean migrants and their descendants. The opening story, “La question ordinaire et extraordinaire,” takes the form of an academic paper delivered by Kellough’s imagined great-great-grandson in the twenty-second century. In the “Post-Climate Crisis Period,” the city of Montreal has been renamed “Milieu”—French for “middle.” The story simultaneously performs an analysis of the historical transformations the city has undergone and offers a reading of Kellough’s own work:

Kellough’s notion of the future is informed by the city’s Black history. The future is encoded in the past, and in certain events that decide our lives for us. One such event was the 1734 burning of the city, attributed to the enslaved woman Marie-Joseph Angélique . . . She destroyed the city, but her act forced the citizens to reimagine and rebuild. That history-altering act was carried out by a member of a population that was consistently marginalized. It is telling that today, with much of Old Montréal submerged, her story is prominent, and she is venerated as an ancestor of Milieu. (Dominoes 22)

Kellough’s framing of a radical futurity forces readers to consider the already radical present that has been shaped by Black people in Canada. The charges made by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour against ongoing colonialisms have made the urgent political task of the moment one concerned with “reimagin[ing] and rebuild[ing]” (22). This is a pertinent lesson that the story imparts to readers by foregrounding Black Canadian radicalisms and fugitivity, as does the story “Petit Marronage,” wherein a jazz musician journeys across Canada in a narrative that moves across time to intersperse the experiences of the musician with surrealist narration by Marie-Joseph Angélique and a fugitive slave in Fredericton in 1816. Contemporary readers may engage with Dominoes at the Crossroads with a prescience of Black activist politics following a year of highly visible protests throughout the Americas that renewed calls for abolition and the end of the world—that is, the end of institutionalized and quotidian structures of racial capitalism and white supremacy.

Many of the stories foreground the roles of Black Canada and the Caribbean within a transnational Black radical tradition. Despite its crucial relationship to resistances to transatlantic slavery and the plantation economy, the Black radical tradition is often cast in the popular and intellectual imaginary as an American project tied to the civil rights era and the Black Power movement. Consequently, the understanding of the Black radical tradition circulates today as masculine and proprietorially African American, erasing histories of Black queer, trans, and cisgender women, as well as those of other national, regional, and transnational figures and movements. Against this backdrop, Kellough’s collection animates a number of questions—namely, what does it mean to pursue radical Black politics in Canada, as opposed to the US?; how can we understand Black resistance as always inflected by gender and sexuality, especially as practices of historiography often erase these vectors of radicalism from the Black radical tradition?; and lastly, what is the relationship of the narrativization and aestheticization of Blackness to the Black radical tradition?

In “We Free Kings,” a story with autobiographical traces, Kellough’s narrator asks his Haitian friend Camilo how he “acquired a Spanish name”—to which Camilo responds “that his parents . . . named him after the Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos” (Dominoes 129). The narrator continues:

He told me about Cienfuegos, how beautiful the man was, how he looked like a Cuban military bohemian, and we laughed at that. Cienfuegos always wore fatigues and a cowboy hat over his wild hair. He had an African’s curly beard, Camilo thought, and wondered where the Africans were in his lineage. He also noted that after the Haitian Revolution, in the lean years following the retreat of the French, many Haitians fled to Cuba, seeking more favorable conditions. Camilo’s theory was that it was those Haitian migrants who delivered the Cubans their revolutionary consciousness. (129)

Not only are linkages between Cuba and the Haitian Revolution invoked in this passage, but Kellough also performs a queer reading of Caribbean radicalisms in his focus on “how beautiful the man was, how he looked like a Cuban military bohemian” with “wild hair” (129). Through aesthetic commentary, these characters make themselves recognizable within the archive of Black militancy.

Moreover, in the title story, Tamika, the daughter of Grenadian migrants to Scarborough, visits the island along with the narrator to conduct research on the Grenadian revolution. However, their distance from the revolution is cause for self-indictment: “Our academic interest in a revolution in the Caribbean now seemed like an entitled desire” (Dominoes 62). Tamika’s narrative is taken up later in the collection in “Ashes and Juju,” in which the narrator encounters an interview with Tamika in the Caribbean community newspaper. After reading the interview and learning about Tamika’s research on Grenada and her past research on the 1969 West Indian student occupation at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia), the narrator is enthralled by the encounter with Black radicalism in Montreal.

This recuperation of Tamika’s research is telling of how Kellough considers the importance of the circulation of Black Canadian history. Tamika’s research is not the same as being a militant activist; however, it creates a context for the circulation of knowledge that can frame pursuits for Black liberation in the present and the future. Kellough prods us to be attentive to what narratives and poetics ask of us as readers, and to move ourselves towards a greater awareness of the histories and politics of the spaces we inhabit, even as those histories and politics necessitate crossing dividing lines and meeting each other in unexpected places

Works Cited

Vernon, Karina. Introduction. The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology, edited by Vernon, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2020, pp. 1-35.

This review ““i hold a hyphen between my fingers”: Kaie Kellough’s Crossings” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 11 Aug. 2021. Web.

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