Sunday, March 25, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 5th post

This review is going to be a bit different.  It is a joint review of two books by Wayde Compton, a Vancouver-based poet/artist/activist.  Wayde Compton has various articles and book chapters out, many dealing with race in Canada and specifically race in B.C.  In addition, he has collected his poems and spoken-word pieces in two books.  His first book of poetry is 49th Parallel Psalm from 1999 and his current collection of non-fiction (and occasionally autobiographical) work is in After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region (2010).  He also appears to be wrapping up a stint as poet-in-residence at the Vancouver Public Library.  I considered dropping in on his office hours, but didn't really have anything profound to ask him.

Given that politics infuse his poetry, there is quite a bit to be gained from reading 49th Parallel Psalm after reading some of the essays in After Canaan.  I'm not sure it works the other way around, however, i.e. that one gains a deeper appreciation for After Canaan after reading the poems, though one might have a better idea of where he is coming from.

In any event, there are 7 essays in After Canaan, most looking at the intersection of race and language and then a related topic hybridity.  Wayde has an article on hip-hop language and one on how certain people seem to pass from one race to another (including a very unusual Irishman who seems to pass for Black).  This is hardly the first time I've heard of passing, but the contemporary examples might be of interest to younger readers.  It becomes evident that this weighs greatly on Wayde, as he is in fact of "mixed" parentage, as his mother is white.  Despite Canada not having the one drop rule, enforced most consistently in the U.S. South, Wayde seems to predominantly identify as a Black Canadian.  Wayde also writes about a friend who introduces him to the finest aspects of jazz culture.  The book ends with a piece on Obama and language, where Wayde reflects on why he was chosen to "speak" for Black Vancouverites and to say what Obama's election meant for them.  Aside from the absurdity of the request, his answer is sincere but really not that surprising.

At least for me, I found the essays that move away from the personal to be more rewarding.  Wayde writes about his friend and sometime mentor Fred Booker, a Black writer who came to Vancouver as a draft dodger during the Vietnam Era and who made a living as a "repo man."  In this chapter, I learned that Wayde had actually started a press to publish Booker's Adventures in Debt Collection,
which I tracked down (and will review next time).

In all of these essays Wayde is writing to some degree about being Black in Canada, and in particular Vancouver, BC where the Black population is miniscule (though in recent decades the Asian population has swelled completely overtaking Blacks and Latinos as the major ethnic minority in the city).  Two events really stand out to him, which are covered in detail in the two strongest essays.  First, the betrayal of early Black settlers by the Governor Douglas of BC in the late 1850s is examined in "Blackvoice and Stately Ways: Isaac Dickson, Mifflin Gibbs and Black British Columbia's First Trials of Authenticity."  Governor Douglas had basically made overtures to Blacks living in San Francisco who were tiring of the overt racism in California.  Apparently, Douglas was thinking of using Blacks as a surplus labour force to occasionally break strikes and so forth.  This group was allowed to land, but then the welcome mat was withdrawn them for many decades (Bill 339 would have actually outlawed Black settled but the legislature adjourned before the bill passed – though it wasn’t law, the status of Blacks in BC suddenly seemed more precarious).  Indeed, after the North won the Civil War, quite a number of these transplants returned to the US.  (Wayde returns to this history directly in the poem "Habeas Corpus," which is an angry or at least frustrated look at the early treatment of Blacks in B.C.  As a poem, however, it is lacking.)

Nonetheless, the Black population of Vancouver grew (slowly) and they predominantly lived in a neighbourhood next to Chinatown called Hogan’s Alley.  The centerpiece of After Canaan is the fantastic essay "Seven Routes to Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's Black Community."   It should come as little surprise that when urban renewal reached Canada in the 1960s, Hogan’s Alley was the first neighbourhood to be targeted.  While the mega-expressway was never built, the neighbourhood was torn up and the population dispersed in preparation for its construction (the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are the only lasting legacy of this project).  For a variety of reasons Compton examines in this essay, the Black population dispersed throughout Vancouver rather than resettling in a specific neighbourhood enclave.  There are of course positives and negatives to not having a mini-Harlem in Vancouver.  While there is no there there (a place that is uniquely Black) there is also no location that is haunted by a kind of racially-coded poverty (the Downtown East Side is certainly not predominantly Black, for instance).

These two moments inform a fair number of the poems in 49th Parallel Psalm, to which I turn next.

Many of these poems are in the style of performance poetry, i.e. they probably sound best when read live as at a poetry slam.  This style needs to hit home fast, relies heavily on rhythm and perhaps rhyme.  More often than not, they are “edgy” and borrow freely from hip-hop culture.

"DJ" is a good example

It opens:
Stimulator of the inner simulacra
Turner of the worlds
Lobe and hip at one with the word
Conduit of the herd
Shepherd of the unheard
Hands on the vinyl
Needle in the curve
Turntable arm prosthetic
Phantom limb pinning down the intersections—

So not only do we have partial rhymes – worlds and herd and unheard and curve – that will work better in performance than on the page, but if the word intersections is read as intersect-ions, most people will catch a partial rhyme or echo with “prosthetic.”  The poet can chose the beats when reading aloud to determine just how he wants the rhyme scheme to work.  The poem sort of simplifies after this somewhat complex opening to shorter lines where there is less ambiguity about where the beat will fall

The waitress wades back through the bass  the mix.
The sound’s humidity
The tinder contagion of humanity and electricity
Touching touching
And she’s gone.

Most of the lines are quite short, though the humanity and electricity line does draw some attention to itself (and clearly is intended to rhyme with humidity).

The lines get shorter still (and the poem moves faster)

From hinges
Snare drum
From this splintered jamb
Bass from pane
We kick the damn
Door down  chant
From chastisement
From names that wound

It is a little surprising that the line doesn’t simply end “door down” but by appending the next thought in the same line, the poem’s momentum actually kicks up another notch.  After continuing to praise the DJ’s skills (and hinting at how the DJ is the North American equivalent of the griot), Wayde and his buddies spill out onto the street:

Rockin in
Our fly new gear
Out hype blue camouflage

The title poem is also basically a hip-hop anthem:

don't lock
or pop
or break
but black
star line us back, rewind us
to Zion's song

then later in the poem the examination of Blackness grows a bit deeper, but still intertwined with the hip-hop beat:

                   ain't but ten black people in all of bee cee

but we can't count 
on the crackers,
and they can't seem to sense us
claiming the numbers is against us.

black like wax tracks,
free-at-last markets, black like
the invisible hand pans.
East Van represent.
blackness in all my cypher,
living on the wages of steal---
This clever, anti-capitalist rant recalls some of the work of the rap group Public Enemy.  I particularly liked "sense us" as a call out to the Canadian Census (which never reports many Blacks in B.C.) and then MLK's free at last sermon joined at the hip to Adam Smith economics, pushed so hard by the movers and shakers of Vancouver.  These kind of poems work best when read quickly, they hit you (mug you?) with their impact, and then they are gone before you can reflect on some of the pieces that don't quite hold together.

Compton does have poems written in a somewhat more reflective style, particularly when he is being more explicitly historic.

"Company" is one of the poems reaches back into BC’s history (to detail the exploitation faced by prospectors, particularly coloured men).


This land
Is the company’s own
Ed, paid for, I wander it,
Prospecting, guessing, divining ground, counting
Days till
This transforms to home …

The HBC cash ‘script’ you can ex
Change it for bottle destiny, ships in
Side or sin
Sold by the shot, bottle of hot
Gin …

This vision of the prospector, weary, longing for home (since it is unclear if BC will ever be home) can be read as depressing or as an emblem of unbowed persistence in the face of adversity.  The language segues into a more overtly religious tone, drawing on the sermons that such a prospector would have likely heard but still mingled with visions of hitting it big (appropriate for a prospector gone gold dust crazy):

… and I,
My church,
Founded on the dashing stones, whichever
Pieces make it through the sluice gates shining
To gather and wash and sell and melt and mould
To trade for tokens or trinkets or tickets to take us
Good great
God Lord
All the way back where we came from.

In the next section of the book, Compton moves forward into the 1950s (prior to the destruction of the Hogan's Alley).  A very amusing anecdote is related in "The Bass" about a man carrying around a bass fiddle case:
Couldn’t play a lick, word was,
Duke ain’t no musician so what heavy burden
He be hiding in that case? Folks in Strathcona
Got to gossiping and meditating all kinds of theory as to what he was packing.
                      Dead PMs
Could know? But we all
had our angle, brother
He never conceded an answer, just smiled
And lugged that case another bloc, hitch-hiking
Off its sphinx-like vibe, its minor-key mystery,
Leaving a trail of gossip, case on him like a tail on a snake,
… but I been around the block
Enough times to know, course,

Ain’t nothing in that case and never was,
Fool started something he couldn’t finish, trying to wear intrigue
Like tweed, can still see him hobbling up the street,
Case too big to walk straight, too empty to open up.

"The Bass" is my favourite poem of the collection, partly because the story is amusing and perhaps even instructive and partly the language reaches deeper than those poems that are more purely hip-hop.  A minor-key mystery.  Wearing intrigue like tweed.  These are more reflective, more deliberate choices.  Consequently, the poem can bear repeated readings without wearing out its welcome.

49th Parallel Psalm is definitely worth a read if one is interested in contemporary poetry and one has a high tolerance for performance poetry.  For me, the two stand out poems are "Company" and "The Bass."

This is my 5th review out of 13, and I have some serious catching up to do on the reviewing side.  I'd also like the review of 49th Parallel Psalm to count towards the poetry contest for March.

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