The Debt

  • Valerie Mason-John (Editor) and Kevan Anthony Cameron (Editor)
    The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry. Frontenac House (purchase at
  • Joseph Pivato
    Africadian Atlantic: Essays on George Elliott Clarke. Guernica Editions (purchase at
Reviewed by Clint Burnham

These are two important books, important for how they map out the poetry being written today by African Canadians, as well as for showing readers—and writers—how that poetry could be treated better.

The title of The Great Black North makes me think it’s too bad we don’t have a dub version of Bob & Doug McKenzie’s ’80s hit “Take off!” But this is a great anthology, not least because of how it includes, in addition to “page poetry,” a section (the larger section) of “stage poetry,” including dub, spoken word, and slam. d’bi young. anitafrika’s dub offering, “dis is a warning,” is a standout, a gnarly jangled jungle of patois and politics:

a time fi wi decolonize
oomaan and man seh we really really must realize
is a broken legacy we a legitimize
when we keep our eyes closed and act surprised
di likkle fella pon di street
him a pack a likkle neat oozie
a ghetto yout wid few options

Now—isn’t “oozie” the best variant term ever for the Uzi submachine gun? A word that, well, oozes the wound, the blood, caused all too often by such guns. Certainly we can see this poem as an answer to dub pioneer Lillian Allen’s call:

to you young poets who stand up
and voice
crafted vision, sight-up into
set alight the energy in words, image, vibes
Say wey yu haffi say fi nuh buss’ up, fi self-define, don’t walk blind

There is some great poetry in the “Slam” section, as well—Marlon Wilson’s “hip hop is” frames misrecognition of the essence of hip hop in a romantic encounter:

Without the gesture of a kiss
I ventured to ask her
What hip-hop songs would make your ultimate play list
Of course I’m guessing Nas “Rewind”
Or KRS-1’s “Sound of the Police”
I mean a woman this refined
I could only be intrigued.

Of course the “refined” woman doesn’t like the cussing and we’re off to a battle over what makes up hip-hop: profanity and Black violence or wordsmithing and a “modern day negro spiritual?” Too, elsewhere in this section El Jones calls on Black folk to “be more like Selassie instead of selling asses,” and Greg “Ritallin” Frankson asks the

why you melted away
like my Dickie Dee popsicle under the heat
of another Scarborough summer.

Or, in a “spoken word” contribution, Komi Olafimihan A.K.A. Poetic Speed offers this tart rejoinder to the war on drugs:

They say smoking is a drug
I say ’not smoking’ is a drug
I ’not smoked’ until I began to hallucinate.
Then it came to my attention,
There is something grotesquely beautiful in the art of washing dishes,

The careless soaking of the sponge,
The intricate structure of the foam as it rises to the top of the sink

Against the tongue-torquing fireworks of the oral selections (an accompanying CD or MP3 downloads would have been awesome), the “page” poets come off as a little staid, either paraphrasing moments from Black Canadian history or revisiting such jazz and blues masters as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. But there are some gems here too, as in Michael Fraser’s “underground,” which offers what could be a coda to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in its fine evocation of runaways following the Northern Star:

even near the border,
they were always one cough
away from the familiar
clinking chain bracelet,
the scalding half-tone whip
boiling bumps onto their backs
like a firebrand fresh from
blue hot fire

George Elliott Clarke offers an introduction to The Great Black North, and certainly he is the colossus of Canadian poetry—Black or otherwise—with a dozen books of poetry, as well as fiction, librettos, essays, and anthologies to his credit. And so it comes as no surprise that there should be a collection of essays on his work. But it is a surprise that the papers in Africadian Atlantic should be so amateurish as thosei n this book edited by Joseph Pivato and published by Guernica. This weakness may be a case of “uneven development” in our critical apparatus: Clarke deserves, surely, a proper academic anthology from one of the country’s university presses, where funding and standards would have not only led to a more rigorous collection—one perhaps in dialogue with contemporary scholarship—but also one with such essential features as an index.

The problem (I have) with Africadian Atlantic can be summed up in two ways: first of all, many of the contributors mistake uncritical adulation for critical engagement. Then, the all-too-necessary historicization that some of the critics bring to their essays (providing contextual background for Black history in Nova Soctia, from the history of slavery in Canada, or the arrival Black Loyalists, down to crime narratives from the 1940s) is not, unfortunately, matched by critical or theoretical frameworks for reading the poetry itself.

No doubt it is cruel to call out any one of the authors in this collection—my argument is structural, not personal—but I will mention H. Nigel Thomas’ essay on “Some Aspects of Blues Use in George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls.” When not clumsily throwing around “diachronic” and “synchronic” like a freshman, or offering up semi-digested histories of jazz and blues that quote all too liberally from Sterling Brown, finally Thomas has nothing to say about the poetry itself. Thus he quotes “Jordantown Blues,” a harrowing take on dysfunctional love that accomplishes its work with bracingly compressed lines like

While life sags to extremes, bloodstreams, pinched, squeezed,
By his diet of white Tory rum, pig tails,
And her diet of fear, tea, and aspirin.

At this point, Thomas is able to say little more than how “uncompromising” the poem is, as if he were writing a high school book report and was not, in fact, a retired English professor.

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