by Sue Sinclair
London, ON: Brick Books, 2008
96 pp. $ 18.00
by Ronna Bloom
Toronto, ON: Pedlar Press, 2009
116 pp. $20
Sinclair’s Breaker advertises itself nicely as a partially East-Coast-anchored work, given the arresting, oceanic cover art by the Newfoundland-born-and-raised poet’s father. But the salt-seascape that interests Sinclair most is that of the soul’s tears and the heart’s blood – the residue of a universe committed to pain. A graduate student in philosophy, Sinclair has an artist’s eye for beauty, but a soldier’s stoic backbone. Her imagery’s lovely, but, as usual in Canadian poetry, suffering lurks everywhere. For Sinclair, though, pain is the price of enlightenment. So, in “Awe,” “light flickers across bare fields / and small animals keep their eyes down, / afraid of the lovely shadow / that swoops from the sky.”
“Ground Zero” might be a meditation on the toppling of New York City’s “Twin Towers” due to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: “A place collapsed…. // We walk carefully, for now we see where damage is / possible, the life we’ve been given already half in shadow. // We stand on one side of our hearts and look to the other.” But the poem resists a literal reading; it’s more abstract than definite. “Ground Zero” is where we start each day, with the wreckage of yesterday behind us. “Sunburst” recounts the ecstatic hurt of discovery: “And you too are adrift, walking dreamily…. / But when the clouds part / and the sun forces its way through, / waking life erupts…. // You recover enough to shade your eyes / but your mind circles the edge of this brightness / like a dog circling a slab of meat.” The poet asks, “what, then, / is this joy?” The answer: “You are free to be a citizen of more than yourself.” Consciousness is painful, but it also permits you a knowing membership in the Creation, with all other beings and things.
Sinclair’s vision skirts the surrealism of Don Domanski, but her nature imagery also recalls the pictorial imagism of Amy Lowell as well as the spiritual aspirations of Margaret Avison. Still, when the lyrics are read plainly, they seem palimpsests – shades – of Ecclesiastes: “Stars creep over the horizon; / a fertile darkness sinks into the ground.”
Bloom’s Permiso also recalls Ecclesiastes – the notion of opposites balancing: “Birth is so close / to death it makes me cry to see the pink twin sets / spring up in Gap store windows, the soon to be / visible skin of young girls. / Their toes are bashful and long / and I’m sad. The season of buds is also / the season of taxes.” But Bloom depends more on epigrammatic rhetoric and less on imagery than does Sinclair, a point exemplified in her poem about a quarrel between lovers, “Last Night”: “In the fireplace, … the fire stayed on. / I waited for something to happen. / There was no symbolism in the room. / Only us.”
The title poem, “Permiso,” is just as laconic, and reads like a mysterious proverb: “There’s a tree in my heart / and I don’t know its name. // It stands straight behind my breasts / like a closed tulip. // ‘Permiso,’ it says. / Allow me.” Is it the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, i.e., The Tree of Free Will and Mortality? “Exodus” also presents indirect preaching: “These are the plagues / of our own making: / the plague of indecisiveness / that keeps us hopping; / plague of doubt that pecking bird. / The plague of unspoken fear: gurgling presence.” The voice is a modernization of Hebrew scripture: “Let us remove the pillows from the boxes. Let us / take two breaths in the midst of the exodus: / one for this house, one for the next.”
In Bloom, there is humility facing history (“Anna / Akhmatova, Anne Frank. My mother’s name, Ann”) and mortality: “The dogs yawp; the horses snort. / I brought earplugs because I knew. / But I never put them on. You see, I don’t know / if I’ll be back on this particular earth again, / so I slept with the windows open.” Sinclair acknowledges suffering; Bloom sings of freedom. Neither vision is completely fulfilling.
Love on the Marsh
by Douglas Lochhead
Sackville, NB: Syberoot, 2009
112 pp. $19.00.
The Discipline of Ice
by Lesley Choyce
Victoria, BC: Ekstasis Editions, 2008
100 pp. $19.95
Born in 1951, U.S. native Lesley Choyce has been a prolific contributor to Canadian and East Coast literature as publisher, professor (at Dalhousie University), and as an author of 67 (and counting) books for adults, youths, and children. Choyce’s new book of poetry is The Discipline of Ice (Ekstasis, $19.95), and it confirms his affinity for the Beats (Ginsberg), romanticism (Wordsworth and Whitman), and – I think – the whimsy of Richard Brautigan.
Lochhead belongs to the great generation that fought – as he did – World War II, while Choyce’s touchstone is the search for greater social equality and personal freedom that the 1960s propelled. Yet, these two different poets share a vision of place as the locus for nostalgia, self-definition, and psychological liberation. But Choyce adds a swath of socio-political commentary, delivered with irony and wit.
In his 100 poems – mainly epigrams – Lochhead addresses his poet persona and, occasionally a lover. The Tantramar is the setting for union and for sorrows. Epigram 84 says, “the marsh undoes itself / and take us in. it is / the place for all lovers.” Number 79 defines love as “a delicate sharing. a / putting on of hands.” Yet, that’s not all: “there is more to say. We each have a story.” That “story,” as it were, is of “love in a place” where “the hay is greener / when we look into its eyes” ( number 42), or “our knees (are) in the marsh mud” ( number 40), and “sky, marsh, the setting” resolves into “such a wide, green bed” ( number 7), so the beloved becomes “the forest. the apple hills. / landscape of silk” ( number 27). Lochhead echoes deliberately The Canticles, but also fellow New Brunswick poet Bliss Carman’s Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (1904), and also – I think – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859).
But it’s hard to discuss love without spouting sentimental clichés. The Song of Solomon avoids the problem by being as mysterious as it is beautiful, but Carman seldom achieves Sappho’s incisive lyricism, while Edward Fitzgerald’s Khayyam is as much Victorian mystic drivel as it is only partly good poetry. Lochhead’s poem is also only sometimes successful. That “love is everywhere,” that it is “the heartbeat of God” (number 100), is a fine notion, but not mighty enough to inspire lasting verse. High Marsh Road is, though, a classic.
Choyce offers us nineteen seemingly spontaneous confessions (I’ll call them) of his experiences and philosophy, mixing prose and free verse snippets: the result is heady and heart-felt, reminding one of the exponential connections, often surprisingly circular, that make up one’s life as well as our relationships to others and to world events. His is a book that works so well, you can jump into it anywhere. “Seven: The Shiny Conclusion” advises, “It takes some of us nearly forty years to come to the shiny conclusion that we too will someday die. Up until then this relevant information is not clear.” Once this fact is accepted, “things change: / You empty your wallet of old receipts…. / You wish you hadn’t said the four really stupid things you said to the one who disappeared from your life forever.”
This poetic moment allows this revelation: “I was one half of an interracial couple when I was twelve. I was the white half and she a young Dionne Warwick…. All the adults conspired to keep us apart. We were from different worlds…, but we touched anyway and we might have lasted except her best friend, who was white and shapely, pried me back to my own race by sitting with me at the campfire and letting me put my hand between her legs.” Just when it seems Choyce might end on a serious note, he throws in this clincher: “That’s all it took in those days.”
My Aschi, My Pericles!
by Astrid Brunner
Halifax: AB Collector Publishing, 2008
A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems
by Kate Braid
Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2009
120 pp. $16.95
Printed in an edition of 99 copies, each priced at $49, the work is an elegy for Aschi Habluetzel (1935-2007), a Swiss-born chef, musician, and, ultimately, an alter ego to Brunner. Written in English and in German (with some lines in French and Italian), the work is both a study of Shakespeare’s Pericles – and a grieving, verse meditation on Aschi’s passing. Brunner combines essay (first published in 1986) and poetry to stress the connection made in the book’s title: Aschi is Brunner’s Pericles – a paternal wanderer; a stoic survivor of Thai malfeasance, Swiss incompetence, and his own family’s “neglect”; who is rescued by her in 2003, and brought to Canada affectionately, only to perish, brief years later, at the author’s lakeside home.
In the play, Pericles laments, “O you gods! / Why do you make us (mortals) love your goodly gifts / And snatch them straight away?” Brunner’s poet persona echoes this complaint: “you Gods, why do you / give us gifts that we love….” With Aschi gone, the poet mourns, “but now for love must I be sea-tossed / till I die, and then travel some more to / find you in that unknown country the other / side of air, nor Shakespeare nor Rilke nor longer / Diana, but ombre de la rue woman into / whose soul you lived love and dance….”
Strike the wrong tone and sorrow becomes sentiment. But Brunner never explains too much; she keeps us guessing. Who was Aschi, really? What was their relationship, exactly? By suppressing biographical details and by using scholarship to preface the verse, the emphasis falls on Brunner’s experience of loss, that is to say, on her emotion. This slim book is powerful as a result.
Kate Braid’s newest work is also an elegy of sorts. A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems sees Braid both addressing letter-poems to her iconic subject – Glenn Gould, the ingenious, Canadian pianist (1932-1982) – and exploring his consciousness by writing first-person verse, sometimes incorporating his actual writing.
Braid’s approach is informed by her previous (and prize-winning) ‘incarnations,’ so to speak, of Canadian painter Emily Carr (To this Cedar Fountain, 2000) and of Carr and American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (Inward to the Bones, 2000). With Gould, she shifts gender, but is still interested in studying the subjectivity and eccentricity of the successful artist, the how and why of her (or his) difference from the non-artist or the failed artist. Her going deaf in one ear, explains Braid’s poet persona, forced upon her greater consciousness of music, and, specifically, Gould’s piano technique and his interpretation of J.S. Bach. Perhaps the most affecting pieces of this book are Braid’s beyond-the-grave letters to Gould. The tone is vulnerable, the manner poetic: “How do you stand it, music that wears such a heavy overcoat and paces, that likes a good downpour and strides forward with a solid step, unafraid of the dark?”
“Last night for the first time I saw you on TV. Saw your body gone, only holding you – frail sac – while you took us all away. Did you see – after – how we ran along behind, begging?” Braid can also speak as Gould: “The slow shedding of darkness, opening of a round black eye, utterly ancient. / The numbers are always here, the trickery-joinery of them, smooth as a bellow…. / The beauty of the numbers, frozen gold.” Yet, I find this impersonation inconsistent: Braid’s cadences for Gould seem less assured than those she gives herself. But the collection is good, and the photographs wondrous. “Even then.”
Going Mad for the Love of Sanity
By Norman Chad
New Denver: BC, 2009
108 pp. $15.00
Enter the Chrysanthemum
by Fiona Tinwei Lam
Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press, 2009
88 pp. $16.95
Norman is a heart-on-his-sleeve, in-your-face, politically conscious, and passionate environmentalist and pacifist. His verse is bardic, employing rhyme, song, aphorism, and vers libre to attack the destroyers of trees and the bombers of children. “And a Leaf Let Go,” a lyric elegizing “my cousin, Aaron Webster, found beaten to death in Stanley Park, BC, November 18, 2001,” attests to Norman’s concerns: “And a leaf let go / while the world fought with itself…. // And a leaf let go, / as the wind confessed to the sun— / I knew his black hair after the attack, / I knew his family in the eyes found open, / a tender gathering, a long and fond moment.”
Recalling “The Wrath of Juan,” i.e. the hurricane that blasted Nova Scotia in September 2003, Norman’s poet persona notes, “Trees pulling up the sidewalk lean into homes,” sees “teachings in the splintered hardwoods,” and opines: “No phone. No power. No problem. / Perhaps I finally live as I am meant to.”
Norman is adept at naming the connections – or conspiracies – among Big Business, Mass Entertainment, and Imperious Governments. He remarks “Serbian soldiers smoking under the grin of (Bill) Clinton”; he dubs the otherwise unspeakable Adolf Hitler “the History Channel star.” Norman’s thesis is clear: consumerist ideology makes genocide and ecocide equally profitable. “No man gets through a day unable to say ‘money.’”
Lines like “the President of States Hardly United / will choose war at the speed of a lie” or “Down is the direction of the developer” recall The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or the chanting of the Beats. Even so, a reader can tire of this preachy poetry. It is didactic; it is hectoring. Its targets can also be too easy and the humour feeble: “Perfection can be attained / through the ritual of mown grasses.” But Norman’s poetry is often lyrical and expresses necessary alarm: “Watch out / you may wake up // behind the wheel / or under it.”
Enter the Chrysanthemum is another order of experience. Rather than focus like Norman on the macro world of capital evil (or evil capital), Lam looks inward – to the self, the genealogy, the home, the local.
Her emphasis is on the pictorial – as symbolic of the intimate: “My favourite of (my mother’s) paintings / was of chrysanthemums…. // Flesh flowed from the fuller (outline of a petal), tipped / with yellow or lavender, until every crown / bloomed amid the throng of leaves. // If only I had been paper, / a delicate, upturned face stroked / with such precise tenderness.” These deft lines allow us to imagine the only implied, but deeply hurtful, estrangement between daughter and mother.
Similarly, Lam’s poet persona remembers parental battles this way: “How I loved him then, my fellow hostage. / He sat the way I would sit, beneath her / brandished voice. The door creaked. / She found me curled and cramped on the floor.” Once a lawyer, Lam scrutinizes the telling, domestic detail. “Milk,” a poem about nursing, pictures the infant as a “Small, sweaty cannibal,” whose mouth, a “tiny machine… / nibbled and sucked the hours.”
“Water Park” is a rare poem twice-over: It is one of the few in which Lam considers the larger world and one of the few Canadian poems about our Afghanistan ‘mission’ and our losses. “Yesterday, six Canadian soldiers / rode upon a gravel road near Kandahar / to their deaths. Sixty maimed. / Gouged lives bleeding into a pocked earth. / Parents, children, grandparents / far away from our splashes and delighted shrieks (at the water park)…. / Suffering, pleasure meted out / indifferently. / This cold clear rain / under the bluest sky.” Juxtaposing foreign trauma and homely joy, Lam insists that it is their interchangeable reality, in an oblivious universe, that makes us one. A decent notion in an accomplished collection.
by Fred D’Aguiar
London, UK: Carcanet Press, 2009
120 pp. £9.95
I met D’Aguiar in September 2006 at Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he is chair of the Department of English, the same department wherein Halifax native, Simone Poirier-Bures, teaches. Unfortunately, Virginia Tech was also the site of one of the worst massacres in the very bloody U.S. history of such mass shootings: A gunman took 33 lives, including his own, on April 16, 2007. U.S. poet Frederick Seidel opines that poets love catastrophes because they offer terrific (if also terrifying) inspiration. One might look at D’Aguiar’s newest book, Continental Shelf , with its long, 70-page elegy, titled “Elegies,” just as cynically, save that the 20-part poem – a series of mainly rhymeless sonnets – is excellent.
But the book opens with fresh portraits of D’Aguiar’s Guyanese childhood. Though born in Her Majesty’s London, D’Aguiar grew up in the parental homeland before returning Thames-side as a teen. His studies and teaching took him from Canterbury to Cambridge, then on into U. of Miami, Florida, and then to tenure at Virginia Tech. But Guyana is his imaginative anchor. For me, his Georgetown is a lot like the North End Halifax I knew as a boy and youth, and his countryside recalls for me Three Mile Plains, Hants County.
D’Aguiar’s description of Dara Singh, a wrestler, could apply just as well to our own Maritime legends (back in the day): “Singh stepped in the ring and emptied / It of all comers with a slap, kick, hard / Throw, elbow glare, and head butt. / Conquering lion, unvanquished / Tiger, Grizzly Bear among teddies.” His portrait of the spontaneously incinerated Sabbatic, an alcoholic, reminds me of the drunkard carpenter my father once hired (in a failed effort at rehab): “According to the talk the adults / Found nothing in the house, no / Trace of Sabbatic, only a pile / Of ashes and no other mark of / A fire anywhere in the rooms…. / Now nothing more than poor / People’s holes no one looks at / Directly…, / Holes for wind to howl through. / For rain to sail unabashedly.”
The first group of lyrics and the last group both emphasize negations – the words ‘never’ and ‘no’ and ‘not’ are repeated vehemently. I think D’Aguiar insists on these negatives to stress how singular an event the Virginia Tech massacre is – or has been – in his life, and thus the reason for its domination of this book. “Elegies” is one of those poems that makes or breaks a poet, that makes him or her a must-read – or that says he or she is dispensable. It is so terribly good, that it is almost treasonous to isolate quotations. D’Aguiar’s poet persona recalls meeting the ‘shooter,’ a poetry-class failure, but, then, he “showed nothing but extreme, / Stubborn, shy, idiosyncratic retreat.” One of the killer’s victims, a star athlete, was also D’Aguiar’s student: “she moves off the basketball / Court with so much economy for her strong body, as if space // In which she did not compete, hardly merited movement, ‘ Like a coiled spring, off duty, or a loved government.”
Powerfully, D’Aguiar sums up the killings and their personal repercussions: “I sleep on a mattress stuffed with bones, / Human bones; / My head on a pillow filled with hair, / Human hair; / A bed with black and white sheets of skin, / Human skin...” The sorrow and the pain feel like “All the nerves in my body pulled from me / And wrung into a tight plait so all the blood falls from them.” Who does not recall Shakespeare – Macbeth – in such lines? “How stunned April 16th left me.” If not due to death, then love.
God of Missed Connections
By Elizabeth Bachinsky
Gibson, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2009
88 pp. $17.95
Looking for Lucy
By Wanda Campbell
Lantzville, BC: Leaf Press, 2008
90 pp. 16.95
Bachinsky’s third poetry collection is God of Missed Connections, which begins nicely with a meditative moment, an elegy that ends “I offer / the way thought thins before / it finds its form, how / across this page the light has changed / and so changes everything.” Also effective here is the poet’s use, throughout the book, of black-ink (perhaps woodcut) illustrations, created by Michelle Winegar, that reflect Ukrainian history and culture. The poems have that same rough beauty, sinuous toughness, of make-do carpentry that works.
“To Ukraine” is a bitter anthem: “Where radiation plumbs the earth and saturates the foliage surrounding Chernobyl. Where one may purchase a doll in the shape of the Fuhrer. Where a woman is prime minister, her president poisoned… Where one can get an AK-47 and hire a pretty girl to shoot it. Where irradiated wolves populate abandoned cities...” “The Bread Basket of Europe” is the ironically titled report of how, due to the Soviet Union’s genocidal agricultural policies, in 1933, mothers “slew their weakest (children) and fed the flesh to other, / stronger children. Better to serve your own / than have them hunted in the streets and sold / in place of bread.”
Turning to her own lived experience as an ambivalently hyphenated Canadian, Bachinsky uses post-modern terms to tell her angst: “I have friends who claim to love / the spawn smell (of fish): like semen, like sulphur, like corpse- / from-the-grave-knotted-fist-punched-up-through-soil…. // Here, in my yard: basic phenomenology…. / I am impressed by how quickly the bodies decompose, whole / corpses turn to undulant translucent jelly….” The problem is, the Canadian history of Ukrainians – her own ancestors – is painful too. Indeed, Halifax heads a list of “Internment camps, 1914-1920,” across Canada, where Ukrainians were held. Bachinsky reminds us that our identity, our DNA, is full of spilled blood and seed and eggs and tears.
Wanda Campbell’s Looking for Lucy is also an adroit meditation on history, that of various Lucys and a singular Lucy especially: Lucy Adaline Van Horne, the wife of the man who oversaw the building of the railroad west through the Rockies, connecting the Pacific rim to the rest of Canada. The first Lucy that Campbell discusses is our common ancestor: the 3.5 million-year-old female skeleton found in Ethiopia. Campbell’s youthful self views the discovery “in the exotic / pages of National Geographic, broken / bones strung like beads on threads / of darkness...” “It is 1974… / Little League baseball votes to allow girls / to play on its teams. I am eleven...”
Anne of Green Gables’ author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, is another touchstone – a rebel individualist, or pioneering feminist: Campbell’s favourite photo of her shows her in “makeshift /maillot, her bare legs gleaming against sandstone / like a rune, her face turned toward the waves.” Hollywood legend Lucille Ball shows up too: “she will become queen / of the B movies, and have her head turned / by a Cuban mayor’s son come to drum / up a conga craze in a cold country. // He has affairs, she has tantrums, and so it goes. / Then suddenly everybody loves Lucy.” But these Lucys – and others – are prefaces to Van Horne, the ultimate heroine of this book, whose bio is reconstructed through the use of different poetic forms and styles.
Campbell is a consummate craftswoman, and one of the most ‘effecting’ poems, for me, is “Spike”: “no one is sure who has the final last spike (that connected the national, east-west railway) / but the bent (iron) one is in a museum in Ottawa / chunks missing for jewellery // more than a century later / Smith’s Strathcona regiment is / inspected by the Governor General / how startled Smith would be to see / a Chinese born woman wearing / a brooch fashioned from his bent nail.”
by Fred Kaplan
Toronto: Wiley, 2009
376 pp. $33. 95
Thanks to these “happenings” and others, Kaplan suggests, the world – or, really, the America – of 2009 began to take shape. That world is one in which most of us – in the Occident – enjoy more personal and social liberty. Kaplan feels that, in 1959, the world – i.e. America – faced a “twin precipice – the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation...”
The threat of a globe-destroying nuclear war, ever present in popular consciousness, helped to encourage radicals and dreamers to break away from the ‘old’ ways that had led to the Cold War stalemate and try out new approaches. The thinking was, if we are all to die in a nuclear holocaust, what sense does it make to insist on stultifying moral regimens, or authoritarian, paternalistic control? Might as well ‘cut loose a little’ first.
From this impulse – “live free, for tomorrow we die” – came the Beats, the civil libertarians, Civil Rights activism, revolutionaries, ‘free-thinking’ artists, and later the hippies, plus many other social liberation movements. This thesis ain’t new. Jeff Nuttal’s Bomb Culture (1968) states the same point, from a British perspective, but focusing on the entire post-World War II era up to the mid-1960s as constituting the genesis of The Age of Aquarius. Nuttal also identifies, on the first page of his first chapter, the major connection between societal liberalization and artistic innovation: jazz. Nuttal puts it this way: “jazz produced … a pattern of behavior that the world’s young were to grasp like drowning creatures, rushing toward (hipness) as their parents were rushing toward the merciful oblivion of death.”
Kaplan sees this connection too, though he develops it slowly, over many chapters. So, Norman Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself (1959)—“the first serious postmodern book” – found a new style for himself and other writers that mimics “the essential appeal” of modern jazz: “its fierce energy, its motion, and … its freedom, its explicit apartness from – and heroic indifference to – the norms of square society.”
Jack Kerouac’s approach to On the Road (1957) and other works reflects his idea that “the act of writing” resembles “playing jazz.” Too, “Jazz inspired Allen Ginsberg to extend his lines much longer than any poet – even Whitman – had ever attempted.” Shockingly free-speaking and influential American comedians of the day also show a jazz influence: “If Lenny Bruce had a jazz inflection, Mort Sahl was jazz incarnate.” Not surprisingly, actual jazz players like Miles Davis provide a liberating soundtrack to the politics and culture of 1959. Davis’ album Kind of Blue “broke down the barriers and opened the gates for the chaos and revelations that followed,” enthuses Kaplan.
To relax Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, a Voice of America broadcaster prodded Washington to send jazz musicians on goodwill tours to Communist-controlled nations because “people love jazz ‘because they love freedom.’”
And on it goes. But if the jazz aesthetic spurs the search for more liberty, then this quest must commence long before 1959. Didn’t the Jazz Age – the 1920s-30s – also witness a breaking away from the stodgy rules of the Victorian Era? Maybe 2009 owes as much to 1919 (when jazz crossed the Atlantic to Europe) as it does to 1959...
Other problems crop up too – such as Kaplan’s annoying misspelling of radical publisher Maurice Girodias’ surname. Yet, 1959 was a pertinent year, even for Canada: Premier Maurice Duplessis died, an event that set the stage for Quebec’s Quiet Revolution – and the rise of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader
Edited by Diane C. Fujino
USA: U Minnesota P, 2009
384 pp. $24.95
Prompted by Ho’s diagnosis and treatment for what could be terminal cancer, the book collects 23 articles and interviews (some printed for the first time) that describe Ho’s journey from “banana” (“yellow” – Chinese – on the outside, but “white” – culturally European – on the inside) to “Third World Marxist”; from a middle-class childhood to an avant-garde jazz composer and performer; and from a passive politics to a passionate scholar of Asian-Pacific American music and an avowed practitioner of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought.
Born Fred Wei-han Houn, apparently in the 1950s (the book is sketchy on Ho’s age, just as it lacks both a full bibliography of his writings and discography of his recordings), Ho later Sino-Anglicized his surname to accent his ethnic identity. Ho began to escape the process of “Americanization” – or “whitification,” thanks to black teacher who introduced him to The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Studying the African-American struggle against “a system of white supremacy and racism” awakened Ho’s “political consciousness.” Soon, he learned to distrust “nationalists who mouthed Yellow/Black/Brown pride and/or anti-white diatribes but took paychecks from white institutions.” He also took up the music of “little-known composer Cal Massey,” especially “extended suites such as The Black Liberation Movement Suite (which he wrote for fundraising concerts for the Black Panther Party)...” (As Ho writes, in Massey’s partisan work “one could hear the Black Panthers marching inside the music itself.”)
Liking Massey’s “thematically epic historical scope, (Frantz) Fanonic titles (e.g. ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’), soulful melodies, complex and rich harmonies, Afrocentric rhythms…,” Ho was moved to compose and perform jazz as “the music of liberation and revolution,” opposing what he considers the stodgy, “sell-out” jazz of a figure like Wynton Marsalis. Ho’s other major musical influences are African-American saxophonists John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, both of whom showcase rebel innovation, thus contesting what Ho views as the “reactionary” marshalling of “tradition” that sees “For the first time in the music’s history, twenty-something musicians … stuck playing a style that predates their birth.” (Ho’s Leftist thought is absolutely right here: Why must young jazz artists recycle the ‘old’ modes of its expression? It’s as if Miles Davis had been forced to play Dixieland….)
The search for a “progressive” jazz style has inspired Ho to compose such works as 1985’s anti-sexist Bound Feet (demonstrating an “embryonic integration of Eastern non-tempered and western tempered instruments”), his first opera A Chinaman’s Chance (1989), a second opera Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors (“politically matriarchal socialist, musically new Afro-Asian, and theatrically an action-adventure epic”), and another 1990s opera, Night Vision: A New Third to First World Vampyre Opera, which features “a two-thousand-year-old female vampire pop superstar singer...” Ho has also fronted the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble, produced original and important scholarship on Asian-Pacific-American music, and written and acted upon political analysis to attempt to “liberate” women and “oppressed minorities” (so-called people of colour). Although Ho’s themes are voiced repetitively in this volume, it is a provocative read. Ho plays Malcolm X, both in terms of music and in terms of would-be liberatory politics. It is a revolutionary legacy.
Mathieu Da Costa: First to Arrive
by Itah Sadu
Toronto: A Different Publisher, 2009
by Zetta Elliot
USA: Lee and Low, 2008
48 pp. 19.95
Itah Sadu’s Mathieu Da Costa: First to Arrive is a celebration of the story of the first recorded African-heritage person to land in colonial Canada, specifically, in what became Nova Scotia: Mathieu Da Costa. Zetta Elliott’s Bird is a gritty, urban tale, set in a city that looks like New York, but could also be Halifax, and is intended for older children. It tells of a boy who faces harsh realities, but is encouraged to never surrender his ability to dream.
Sadu is a distinguished storyteller and children’s book author, with five previous titles to her credit. She is also the co-owner of the essential, black-oriented Toronto bookstore, A Different Booklist, set in the heart of what was once a black-immigrant district. In Mathieu Da Costa, Sadu wants to inform parents and children of a still too-little-known personage in Canadian history, a Portuguese-named African and able linguist, who became a translator for Canada’s ‘founders’ Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua de Monts. Da Costa learned Mi’kmaq so well that Dutch explorers kidnapped him to try to exploit his talents. Da Costa’s bio is given full treatment on the last page of Sadu’s book, whose heart consists of pleasant, bucolic, Disney-like art, with sometimes rhyming lines, that tell Da Costa’s story with fluid simplicity.
The book begins, “He landed at Canada’s door / Free African he was for sure.” The accompanying illustration is of a handsome, youthful man, in swashbuckling, Four Musketeer-style dress (complete with cape and a gold ring in one ear), looking from the prow of a ship as it nears the coast of Megumaage (now Nova Scotia). “In the sixteen-hundreds / Sailing on ships,” Da Costa became (the) “first to arrive.” That last line is repeated throughout the book, as is the wondering question about the “mystery” of Da Costa’s ability to so expertly translate Mi’kmaq, “How you do that?”
Roy Condy’s colourful illustrations accent the playful adventurism of the always friendly and princely-looking Da Costa. But the story is repeated on a CD included with the book. Here, backed by a band and choir, Sadu renders Da Costa’s story as a catchy, high-energy Calypso. One should play it while reading – or looking at – the book. Sadu and Condy have done a fine job in making an important figure in African and Canadian history accessible to all who read English. Contact A Different Publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zetta Elliott left Toronto for New York (by way of New Orleans) only five years ago, but she has released a slew of books in the last two years, including a memoir and several plays. Bird is her only children’s book, but it has already received the New Voices Award from its publisher, and its illustrator, Shadra Strickland, won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent.
Elliott’s text tells of a boy, Mehkai, nicknamed Bird, who likes to draw. His neighbourhood is, likely, Harlem, but the illustrations could fit any North American city. Yet, when Bird speaks a sentence like, “he’d take me to the store / and buy a big bag of chips and two bottles of soda,” I’m reminded of Halifax (though we’d change “soda,” to “pop”). Guided by his grandfather and later his grandfather’s friend, Uncle Son, Bird learns to embrace his art and learning, despite the destructive vices he sees all around him. While one young black male succumbs to these temptations, Bird escapes this fate, thanks to the two older black men in his life.
Elliott’s text is poetic: “Today I saw a bird outside… / shivering in the winter wind. / I wanted to open my window / and bring the bird inside / where it was warm, / but a sudden gust of wind / blew the bird away. // I drew a picture so I wouldn’t forget.” Strickland’s art is great. To order this fine book, contact www.leeandlow.com
George Elliott Clarke is arguably one of Canada’s most accomplished poets. He has several groundbreaking verse and dramatic poetry collections. He was recently inducted into the Order of Canada.