Page 2"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
Psalms 137:4For Wi lliam and Geraldine Clarke, Portia White and Conrad Kent Rivers.
Canadian Cataloguing Publication DataClark, George Elliott, 1960 - Saltwater spirituals and deeper blues
ISBN 0-919001-12-2 (bound) )-919001-13-0 ( pkb.)
PS8555.L37S34 C811'.54 C83-098593
Acknowledgments: The Pottersfield Portfolio, Caribe, Ebo ny (Black) Express News, Scrivener, Skylight, The Antigonish Review, Germination, Poetry Toronto, Origins, Poet's Haus, dandelion and Quarry.
Photography Sources: Black United Front, The Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University Arc hives, David Middleton.
Cover design: Rudnicki Art Production
RR 2, Porters Lake
N.S. B0J 2S0
George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor Plains in 1960 which makes him twenty-three at the time of this publication. Though he left Windsor Plains when just a few months old, his mother, Geraldine, says his heart is still there. When home, he always manages a trip to Windsor Plains to visit aunts, uncles and cousins.
Geraldine says George has an old Bibl e, one that is ragged and torn, with paper markers throughout. It's more worn, she says than a minister's Bible; it is coverless and very much out of shape. Spirituality is an important part of George's poetry but he is never dogmatic. Geraldine likes his poems about Africville Seaview and Guysborough Baptist Churches. As I talked to her, it struck me that George would have been barely six years old when the bulldozers began razing Africville.1
Before George went to the University of Waterloo, he was deeply involved in organizing the Black Youth Organization (BYO) in Nova Scotia. Along with his friends and colleagues he organized a con ference which brought together youth from across the province. He would often stop by to talk about the BYO. I'd make a pot of tea and we would end up talking for hours not only about his current preoccupation with issues facing Black Youth, but about lit erature, politics, people, music, writing, and the Bible.
One can't help but admire and be drawn to George. A friend calls him "effervescent". He is also sincere and disarmingly honest. These qualities shine through his writing which is b oth passionate and reasoned. Yet George is also good humoured and inventive. In February, 1981, he became captivated with computers while working in an underground office of the Metropolitan Toronto Roads and Traffic Commission's Control Centre. Within a very short time, George had mastered the machine and began composing poetry on the computer. Part of George's job at the Centre was to draft a computer handbook for use by people with little or no computer experience.
; George wears his heritage like an emblem with warm pride and gentle enthusiasm. He has read and intently studied the history and literature of Blacks in Nova Scotia, Canada and elsewhere. The history, especially, is important to him and is mirrored in h is creative work.
When Black Refugees arrived in Nova Scotia following the War of 1812, it is unlikely that they were aware history was being made. Given the harsh conditions they had just escaped, they were no doubt relieved to simply feel safe, away from the guns, hard labour and enslavement. Who in such circumstances could think of history?
With the publication of this volume of poetry, another chapter of history unfolds. Unl ike our ancestral Refugee relatives, we are acutely aware of its importance as an historical event. I can't help but believe the Refugee forebears of George Elliott Clarke sit with me now as I write these words. They are proud as I am proud. They raise th eir arms in silent salute to this talented grandson.
The beginnings of the African Baptist Church in Nova Scotia date back to 1782 when forty year old David George came to Nova Scotia. A former Virginia slave, George had been converted to Christianity by a Black man named Cyrus. He taught himself to read using the Bible, and eventually he became the first minister of the Baptist Church in Silver Bluff, South Carolina. Rev. George, his wife Phyllis and their three chi ldren, escaped to Nova Scotia with the first group of Loyalists who arrived in the winter of 1782. They spent twenty-two gruelling days on board
Page 7a vessel which eventually landed them in Halifax. Later, in the spring of 1783, thousands of Black and White Loyalists made their way to Nova Scotia at the close of the American Revolution.
David George and his family settled in Shelburne where he preached to and converted Black and White settlers alike to the Baptist faith. His evangelical work ex tended to other areas as well; travelling by foot and by boat, George spread the gospel to eager souls in Halifax, St. John, Liverpool and Lockeport. Even as he preached, however, there were many who didn't like his mixing of the races. On one occasion, t he family of a White woman tried to prevent Rev. George from baptizing her. Other confrontations were more harrowing. A group of disbanded White soldiers tore apart George's meeting house in Shelburne and beat him severely until he fled into the woods to escape. Rev. George, however, continued to preach, not only in Nova Scotia, but also in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he is credited with establishing the Baptist faith in Africa.
Not all Black Loyalist settlers w ere Baptist. Boston King, a boat builder, and Moses Wilkinson, who was both blind and lame, ministered to the African Methodist Episcopal congregations. John Marrant, a musician, was sent as an ordained missionary to Nova Scotia by a British religious gro up called the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion. He preached in Birchtown and Liverpool and gained Black and Indian converts. Women, too, were spiritual and evangelical leaders. Boston King's wife, Violet, was converted by Moses Wilkinson and became an act ive and valuable leader in his church. Mary Perth and Catherine Abernathy, the latter a teacher, are also recorded as contributing to the spiritual lives of Blacks in Birchtown.
The migration of Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792 greatly depleted the province's Black population. Yet the memory and hard work of these men and women of faith remained as the foundation for others who followed. Richard Preston, the father and founder of the African United Baptist Association came to
Page 8Nova Scotia with a second group of Black immigrants, known as the Refugees, after the War of 1812. Preston picked up the threads of the cloth which David George had so carefully and diligently begun to weave. In 1832, Rev. Preston established the first African Baptist Church which was called Cornwallis Street Baptist; it was known as the "mother church" and had branches at Dartmouth,Preston, Beech Hill and Hammond's Plains. At Granville Mountain in 1854, the cloth took its final shape and was complete: Richard Preston, along with elders and representatives from twelve African Baptist Churches established the African United Baptist Association. Septimus Clarke, the clerk of the Association, preached the introductory sermon and recorded the his toric events in the minute books of the newly-formed organization. The African United Baptist Association is now in its 129th year and it continues to serve as one of the major focal points for Black communities in Nova Scotia.
& nbsp; From this rich history and background, George Elliott Clarke draws inspiration and motivation for his writing which itself is an affirmation of the tenacity of Blacks in Nova Scotia. George calls his poetry "a fusion of rural folk songs and ur ban blues." He feels that he has also drawn from such strongly spiritual poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Hayden, Dylan Thomas and Henry Dumas. In fact, George describes himself as being a "preacher/prophet/pilgrim/poet''.
George is not an occasional writer. At the University of Waterloo, he helped establish the Creative Writing Collective. He was the group's first chairman and in that role he conceived and organized the production of The Disclaimer , a quire of student verse. George's poetry has appeared in a number of literary magazines across Canada and he has written articles and essays of literary criticism for newspapers.
Fiercely proud of being a Nova Scotian , George is spiritually rooted in his people . . . past and present. This almost mystical connection is evident in his selection of subjects and images. His writing is literate but often daring. He is not afraid to experiment. He takes us to the edge of A fricville, a community doomed physically, but
Page 9one whose true spiritual sense is every strong in the heart of those who had called it home. With gentle ease, he moves to the streets of Paris where he recreates the atmosphere of the 1920's, a time when many Black American artist s found themselves caught up in the cultural whirl of Parisian life. And then he moves home again to the East Coast and the sound of "bagpipe jazz hymns" and "roaring rocks".
George Elliott Clarke is a pathbreaker. H is writing displays freshness and skill. His forward vision is welcome at a time when it has become increasingly difficult to maintain optimism about our future on this planet. The publication of this book of poetry is a harbinger of a cultural awakening within the Black community in Nova Scotia. All forms of creative expression are a vital part of any culture and are essential for its survival and development. Young Black writers and artists can therefore celebrate and find encouragement in this book. p>
It is important for the reader to be open to these poems, to allow them to speak for themselves; to be ready to feel some of the energy and effort which went into their creation. These are poems to mull over, to read a loud, and to share with friends. This book is a very special gift to Black people in Nova Scotia.Sylvia D. Hamilton2
fishers float above
blue earth and death,
and lower lines insect-angels
ascend and descend, bringing
peace to priest amphibians,
slithering in a hungry world,
fishers let down these lines
to rescue th ose unwilling to be saved,
but who will greedily
seize the angled offer, and be yanked,
bleeding crimson froth at mad
shocked-open mouths, now protesting
feverishly, upwards into heaven's
cold, blindi ng air.
we are the black loyalists:
we think of the bleak fundamentalism
of a ragged scarf of light
twined and twisted and torn
in a briar patch of pines.
and then, of steel-wool water,
scouring the dul l rocks of bonny
bonny nova scotia —
the chaste, hard granite
coastline inviolate; the dark,
dreary mountains where sad Glooscap3 broods
over water s void . . .
we are the world-poor.
we are the fatherless.
we are the coloured Christians
of the african united baptist association.
at negro point, some forget sleep
to catch the fire-and-brimstone sun
r ise all gold-glory
over a turquoise harbour
of half-sunken, rusted ships
when it was easy to worship
benin bronze dawns,
to call "hosanna" to archangel gulls . . .
but none do now.
rather, an ancient, CN4 porter lusts for africville,
shabby shacktown of
shattered glass and promises,
rats rustling like a girl's loose dress.
he rages to recall
the gutting death of his genealogy,< br> to protest his home's slaughter
by butcher bulldozers
and city planners molesting statistics.
at negro point, some forgot sleep,
sang "oh freedom over me"5 font>,
heard mournful trains cry like blizzards
along blue bedford basin . . .
none do now.
these corpsed years promise
not an olive branch, but a fasces;
not the messiah, but sure doom.
yet, we maintain our faith,
strengthened by memories of black-clothed
Father Preston 6 erecting a church of pines
and wan sunlight sifting through web -branches
without assurance that walls and belief would
one from the other.
for we have survived this hard gravelend,
once of shackle and sagging shack,
now of ragged folk and rat poison poverty.
for firmfaith flourishes not in the gilded
temples of moneychangers,
but in the wresting of a potato crop
from the boulder-barren, stone-strewn soil
of Beechville, Nova Scotia.
the classical wind blows at cross-purposes,
tactile in the backwoods forest,
intangible on sun-fired tors,
becomes invisible bagpipe
to a ragged tartan of blue sky and green tree
how we ll we know the roots
of that portia white 7 song
sprouted from the desire to know
the rough feel of a truth
hewn from a black, baptist bible
under the w ooden rafters of a plain white church
confronting the atlantic.
we will float away on waves of song
to a Province of Freedom
(grieved to leave our native land,
grieved to leave our comrades all)8
or graves of silence.
a steamer-tractor parts
a shifting sea, churning the thick,
dry earth near weary horses
that flounder in dust,
gasp for grass,
soo n, some saint will find them,
floating in the sargasso drought,
jettisoned from care like sick or
and he will cast out a net,
like one who founds a church,
to rescue those flailing,
to bury deeper those sunken.
brown-blown fall fields yield
to spring-sprung green garb
with blackthread train tracks
all along the tantramar marshes.
we are at home inside this jacket of earth
that time and the first sin have woven about us.
we are at home under the tombstones
of the Amherst African Methodist Episcopal Church
where worms work out a final solution
to the problems of race.
al sea products limited9
locks the ocean to our beds each night,
chains bitter-keen winds to our hearts,
batters us with wrecking storms and debt
until our wives complain
we are cold to touch.
to forget the ocean and wind,
we read our futures in rum.
to abandon the debits and our wives
we land like fish, their carragheen nipples
we go to a charmless chapel
of birch benches and hard sermons
and take our burdens to the Lord.
yet, no bread and wine set our tables,
only rations of flour and hog.
ah, national sea products limited
shackles the deeps to our eyes,
clamps the storm-winds to our ears,
fetters us to death by water
or by exposure to banks and trusts.
micmac10 windpoems sing
foretold b y the sharp, fused fragrance
of jubilee roses,
and the appearance of shiny, new
blue cars of waves,
cruising the beaches.
knowing this sensual verse,
we ensure fertility.
we prepare a path through the wilderness.
we prepare the Easter Sunrise Service:
blue-grass banjo jamborees,
sepia saints in ivory robes, and the flash
of fish, flapping and flopping,
at the hooked close of a gossamer line
of predatory poetry.
we prepare the way of the Lord
we who work steel, who
are cold and hard as steel,
who stumble in storms of smoke and blown ash,
like penitent sinners,
to and from gloomy, holy taverns,
have eaten of Circe's
have broken the young buds of breasts.
we have seen warm, virginal water run bloody
from flesh firm as solid stone:
we know the honey in that rock.< br> we have eaten of the lily,
and felt the world kick in our loins,
Lethe surge in our veins.
we know greenhouses of women
bearing sugared yams of children
for the slavemarkets of this world.
why berate the sable night?
why run about, fiery with love,
howling at the frigid moon?
it is futile.
why walk dark dartmouth
forest paths dreaming of a little
red riding girl to possess?
it is vanity.
why watch the heave ns for a sign
of a coming messiah-paramour
who will love you fang for claw,
measure for measure?
no sign will be given.
do not lose faith; wait; endure
unto the end and you will be saved.
< a href="http://is.dal.ca/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/~etc/clarke/img_display.pl?http://is.dal.ca/~etc/clarke/images/p24.jpg" target=image>Page 24
drunk with light,
i think of maritime country.
i sing of birchtown blues, the stark
sad beauty of that Kimmerian land.
i dream of a dauntless dory
battling the blue, cruel combers
of a feral, runaway ocean —
a trotskyite ocean in permanent revolution
turning fluid ideas over and over
in its leviathan mind,
turning driftwood, drums, and conundrums
over and over . . .
then, crazy with righteous anger,
i think of Lydia Jackson12,
slave madonna, pregnant with child,
whose Nova Scotian owner, distinguished Dr. Bulma
kicked her hard in the stomach,
struck her viciously with fire tongs,
and th en went out upon the ocean
in his dory
to commune with God.
[Photo: church in background, road and young male in forground.] The Baptist Church and churchgoers on the by-road to Lake Major.
[Photo: exterior of church with inserted formal portrait of man] The Sydney Church and an early minister.
[Photo: informal portrait of man and woman] A Black married couple - 1880 s.
[Photo: formal picture of man] Dr. William A. White (1871-1936) organized the Second Baptist Church in New Glasgow and served as pastor of the T ruro Lion Church. He was the first Canadian Black to gain a doctorate (Doctorate of Divinity - Acadia University, 1936).
[Photo: exterior of church] African Baptist Church - Hammonds Plains.
[Photo: group of men posed at forefront of building] A Tupper Warren Pulp and Sawmill Crew, Weymouth, N.S. early 1900 s.
[Photo: highway forground, bridge and power lines background] Africville, Halifax - after it was levelled.
[Photo: formal portrait of woman]
the white, bathing moon
watches itself in the sea:
all black and handsome.
the soft exactness
of brown limbs in a white dress
is bliss, i confess.
at the six-hiboux, where the Acadian14
and the Micmac15 saw the six scholar-birds
whose insomnia is natural, probably
a million moons ago;
at the Sissiboo River, where it kisses
we tly St. Mary's Bay and fans on out
into brown Fundy tides shimmering
like a new world Nile;
this is where the world as we know it begins,
all blue and beguiling,
all because of her who homes with the pines,
so elegant, evergreen, e galitarian —
richly female . . .
at the homeless highway where it waits
and wails asphalt anthems of hit-and-run
before plunging wildly into the woods whispering
kejimkujik16 songs of she I love in blossom notes
of the most crimson and pleasant apples
and the fattest calves of the land, there is built
Weymouth Falls and its African
Baptist Church and the lumberyards quaint
and th e dwelling of her I take time
to make time
delirious delight is mine! the careless
debauchery of stars bearing only good-luck/
glad-tidings; the sweet desolation of distance,
ebbing and flowing; drunken joy
of violent you th, violently in love,
as she moves to apex of my cosmos;
and the old, troubled world wheels around
her; song pours itself through my flesh;
drives me to her gravity-field of beauty,
even to the edge of the Sissiboo
hand-in-hand wi th her.
the sorrow-stricken sun sinks
in the lattice-work of pines and spruce,
and as it crumbles into dusk,
its light falls crooked and bent on earth
as it is in water.
i watch its collapse, and kno w tragedy:
how a dream of freedom can be twisted into dust
by a narrow and naked land.
yet, there is the firey, ebon
beauty of aberdeen angus pastoral in pastures
of new grass and ewes along the stewiacke river,
the images of blueb irds meshing with green tree-tops
to form the geography of the cobequid basin,
the renaissance of a root and a name granted by
the New Light chapels of a cow and two sheep
in this world, and suddenly
i have a fervent lust for the meat of apples
and the drink of rain, a saviour not nailed-down
to a cruciform of certainty, and
to fly my love on wings of corn
over a sky of meadow —
to have the fat years follow these thin.
i not leave you
like a refugee?
reluctantly, i abandon
your sea-bound beauty,
shale arms and red clay lips
sipping fundy streams.
why can i not depart from you
like any proud, prodigal son,
ignoring your eyes'
black bap tist churches?
what keeps me from easy going?
Mother, is it your death
or my life?
what are calendars to you?
and indeed, what are atlases?
time is cool jazz in bretagne,
you, hidden in beret or eccentric scarf,
somewhere over the rainbow —
where you are tin-men requiring hearts, lion-men
demanding courage, scarecrow-men needing
minds all your own
after DuBois17 made blackness respectable.
geography is brown girls in paris
in the spring by the restless seine,
flowing like blood in chic African colonies;
Josephine Baker18 on your bebop phonograph
in the lonely, brave, old rented room;
gallis wines shocking you out of yourself,
leaving you as abandoned
as an obsolete locomotive whimpering Leadbelly 19 blues
in lonesome shantytown, u.s.a.
what are borders/frontiers to you?
in actual seven-league sandals20
you ride monet's shimmering water lillies
in your street-artist imaginations
across the sky darkened,
here and there, by nazi shadows,
and in other places, by americans
who remind you
that you are niggers
even if you have read Victor Hugo.
night is winged Ethiopia in the distance,
rising on zeta beams of radio free
europe, bringing you in for touchdown
Page 40at orleans; or it is strange, strychnine
scatalogical ragtime reggae haunts the caverns
of le me tro. you pick up english language
newspapers and TIME magazines,
learn that this one was arrested,
this one assassinated, fear waking like gregor samsa23
in the hands of a mob, lust for a black
not even knowing that
all Black people not residing in Africa
are kidnap victims.
after all, how can you be an expatriate
of a country that was
pastel paintings on paris pavement,
wall posters beardsley-styled:
you pause and admire them all.
and france soaks you in
with its kaleidoscope cafes,
chain-smoking intelligentsia, accordion poets,
continental women pursuing you. ..
have you ever seen post cards
of alabama or auschwitz?
mussolini or mississippi?
it is unsafe to wallow in ulyssean dreams,
genetic theories, vignettes of gertrude
stein, hemingway24, other maudlin moderns,
Page 4 1while the godless globe
perhaps i suffer aphasia.
i know not how to talk to you.
i send you greetings of l'Afrique
and spirituals of catholic Negritude.
meanwhile, roses burst like red stars,
a flower explodes for a special sister.
you do not accept gravity in france
where everything floats on t he premise
that the earth will rise to meet it
the next day.
where the eiffel tower bends over backwards
to insult the statue of liberty;
and a young girl in the flesh of the moment,
sprouts rainbow butterfly wings
and kisses a schizoid sculptor
lightly on his full, crimson lips;
and a green cat turns its head upside-down
to see such fun and collapses the same way
an argument is dropped over cocoa
by manic mulatto magicians
who feverishly hear whispers o f eliot
in common prayers.
you have heard Ma Rainey25. Bessie Smith26.
you need no passports.
your ticket is an all-night room
facing the ivory, voodoo moon,
full of henri rousseau lions and natives;
and your senses, inexplicably
homing in on gorgeous Ethiopia,
as roman rumours of war
fly you hom e.
the saxophone-shiny sea sultrily,
elegant ellington waves
dance dashingly on the silver sand
oo ooooh dignified, dusky pines —
waiters in black suits that suit the night —
sway in time to the swinging
lindy of the careless wind (oh yes, the
moving, murmuring wind);
black, holy rolling rocks
and white, fervent foam form a keyboard
tonight - a cotton club of strip-teasing
stars and a moaning moon . . .
i want so badly to see you know
rum-rich mists, pine-pungent
perfumes for which lovers pine,
the sharp scents of brine, white bread,
and red wine.
oh, why won't you be mine?
where are you dear,
with your crimson mouth panting,
your dark eyes lusting,
your bared breasts breathing in my arms?
motion is religion: a fast, non-stop,
i, its disciple, do not want roots, not yet
(they will mount with the shrink of time:
they will ooze through me
when i am still atoms of earth).
oh, the proud s
of a break-neck rushing locomotive attracts!
i long to marry atlases
and sire cosmopolitan, postcard children,
and never be chained
to clocks and calendars, but go on forever
come to a conclusion.
under the pink blossom branches,
she hears rose buds tick
as the green time slowly shortens.
her lips are gulls' wings
her lighthouse eyes watch birds come and go
along the dominion atlantic railway.
oh, unknowing, laughing life
under the blush of apple blossoms!
the annapolis river is a clear church
ringing with ripples,
cradl ing clouds and sunlight through pines darkly.
she hums happily its hymns of growth
in brand new blue-ribbon cornfields
along the dominion atlantic railway.
oh, springing, sprouting babes
planted under harvest moons!
all the pretty, little horses wail like engines,
and she dreams of stallion steam locomotives,
blacks and bays, and listens for their lonesome cries.
soon, boys of iron and steel will come to pick her
along the dominion atlan tic railway.
oh, youthful, full-sexed life
beside the railroading tracks of time!
white, bleached tombstones, mute,
overlook brackish, brawling, breaking
water that loudly lashes the lamenting land —
w ater, ivory with ice and violence,
striking implacable igneous rocks,
and insatiable sedimentary rocks,
and rolling up into thunderous,
mad, crashing, incomprehensible fury
that beats and beats against granite:
tombstones on a clif f that mark fishers surrendered,
and rock and stone of life at stand-still —
barren beach and abandoned lighthouses
or forlorn as gulls drowning in wind waves.
She is washing in from the revolving sea
Just like any pie ce of flotsam or slave.
I shall comb the shore and salvage her,
Scavenging in the silken sand
As if she were a treasure to plunder.
Her heart: a note in a bottle
That never reaches shore.
She touches me with shadows shapeless,
Conforms to my flesh,
Colours my every drifting dream.
There is hasting some never-ending waltz,
And it will be of dream boats with tidal waves.
red apples and brown coffee
in the indigo dawn early.
paired , dark forms of ducks
moving in water,
seem like strange rocks
or the breasts of my daughter
as the motorway develops
images of autos and truck stops.
a motel sign glares blood-red,
opposite a home of the freshly dead.
the black body of a Bible,
lynched on the tree of a table,
is motionless as possible.
i would read it if i were able
(if its words were not birds of prey
in a bomber-sky, olive and grey).
exch ange lucre in cold covers.
piercing lights of moloch lamps
hurl arrows of electricity
to drive out darkness where it camps
in the stock markets of the city.
i would alter if there was change
to alter what is not pre-arranged.
i have lost so much of what was nothing
(even the stars above the lakes are frothing).
have i said that my daughter's breasts
are like two, young, black swans?
that each generation of emptiness rests
upon my toiling for such fu tile funds?
going forth mornings to keep alive
the human doom, the too-human drive . . .
walk within dusk's goldcopper
autumn, oh you, who are black
but comely, transfiguring nefertiti!29
watch the jetjade of nightpines
become delicate, rippling hair
moon-dark as your own,
falling ebon-blue velvet;
wonder what seeking lover
will discover your secret beauty,
ope ning its sacred book
to find illumination, what solomon30
found in egypt.
bagpipe jazz hymns sermonize
sunday air; oh amazing
grace of so unds, maritime31
music; ocean voices
washing away sand-bound
cities' blues; silver-tongued
gravity seducing virgin
apples to fall . . .
we know this land's language,
its beach-broken speech,
of spitting water, roaring rocks;
aye, we know its taut tune:
saxophone sea spirituals,
moaning blacks in clapboard churches,
bagpipe jazz hymns
testifying their atlantic genealogy.
sudden gulls comprise
a grey atom
which, split violently
by vision or bullet-wind,
blasting this world
to time's rubble,
the senses' hir oshima,
shadows of once-present beings
the eyes' walls.
he could not escape
the wilderness. bark
encrusted his wine bottles.
his pencils grew fur
and howled. sentences
became wil d eagles that
flew predatory patterns,
swooping out of a white sky-
page to rip apart field
for meaning. a carcass-
manuscript rotted on a shelf
or a hillside. he could
not tell the difference.
a bear-trap of ideas
snared him: he could
and not become it;
his poems filling with
snarling sounds, guttural.
jeffers's coastline, jagged
from weathering history,
founded rock towers taut upon tense
stone and sand shuddering
to sudden cliffs, falls,
farms, forced itself into his v erse.
now, eyes navigate the craggy
outcropping of his lines,
ears explore his metre's sea-sounds,
and one voyages to exquisite
understanding, circling his dark,
stark, breath-swept poems
islanded in white water.
out of one womb and into another,
into the world and out of my mother,
to blue-white coast and grey rock,
i came, thirsting.
in that driftpine desert,
i divined rain from placental sky,
drank dream-rum from the brown-breasts< br> of fish-women (all smoked honey,
wet, under stars),
but thirsted still.
then, i scrabbled among book-stones,
wandered, parched, the amniotic,
annapolis-appled33 font> world,
then saw the rock-cupped Atlantic
crimson with gospel blood
at a sacrifice-sunset, and drinking,
was satisfied, was born
to a new heaven and a new earth.
[Photo: group of nine children and one adult, outdoor scene.] One-roo m schoolhouse, Nova Scotia - circa 1905.
[Photo: full figure, formal pose of male in sailor uniform.] Black Sailor - Arnold White.
[Photo: formal pose of male in Oddfellows decoration.] Oddfellows member - A.H. Pinder.
[Photo: formal portrait of male.] W.R. Crichton
[Photo: forma l portrait of male seated at desk.] First Black Nova Scotia Lawyer - James R. Johnson34.
[Photo: wintertime street scene with horse-drawn wagon and lamppost; streetcar and Navy Lea gue Club sign in background.] Halifax Christmas tree vendor - 1940 s.
[Photo: three males, one standing, two seated, inside a cabin.] Tim McPherson, Tracey and Garth Cromwell - a cabin in Meagher's Grant, N.S.
[Photo: male with hockey stick in foreground; hockey game i n background.] Garth Cromwell - Dartmouth, N.S.
[Photo: male standing with hockey stick in front of fence, facing away.] Terry Cromwell - Dartmouth, N.S.
starting from visions, cells, then tidewater land,
after natal hungers, whip-terror, american egypt,
bastard night and lynch laws,
I came, Richard Preston35 , called Prophet by some,
apostle of liberty,
to this ea rth dreaming shimmer-water,
shadow-pines, to this birchbark canaan
of wood, wind, and water gods, to this
and i came, drawn by a fire-faith,
that not all be frozen in idolatry,
but some saved with ba ptist-blaze,
their combustion birthing a flaming church,
a true new light chapel,
illuminating dark world and Heaven.
these pages record my acts,
committed now to fire,
even to burn future hearts.
divining by light,
a cradle of flowers
rocked in a moment of vision,
this morning, this evening, so soon,
i see the primeval, infant dream.
in memory, other cradles, past
plants, ancient ages:
palm lea f cushions for Ashanti kings,36
Sheba queens,37 on warm close nights
of coitus-comf ort;
then the gunnysack beds of darkies,
slaves, never wed,
their love-making a cursed joy,
their parents strangers, their children sold,
their light dashed, flowers crushed.
ah, some of these memories
drive me to the ocean;
some of these memories
take me home to Africa.
at my birth,
scarecrow priests grimaced,
sickle-lightning reaped black trees,
blood drops splattered corn,
haystacks burst into hills of fire,
one old man saw white angels
and black angels battle in skull-sky.
another understood and explained.
my mother wailed to know such pain,
greater than love, yet love,
but when i was withdrawn,
oh, into the thick night, the
creak-cabin near collapse,
the moan and murmur wind,
the wild-minded ministers seeing things,
i cried not.
field niggers moaned tidewater blues,
endless, endless sorrow songs,
all my livelong, lovelorn youth.
and i was sp iritualized
by cornhusker poets
hollering melody from rivers and rocks,
pulling rhythm from ploughs and earth,
finding words in hoes, horses, whores,
the chink, clink, of chains,
the apple-brandy slur-speech of horseback preachers< br> bell-gabble and rain-whisper . . .
all was music melancholy,
all sang, "many thousands gone;
none comin' back".
but when august baked berries black,
then tambourine and timbrel tintinabulation
sounded jubilee; all sang
joy- joined: "all i want in dis creation
is a pretty girl and a big plantation ."
twinkle-fire glittered, glared, more God
than earth-gold gashed against holy Heaven,
highest hallelu jah home, and i knew
and saw bright angels wizarding
wisdom night, singing train-proverbs,
above blare-black horn-harbour
and winter-whited fortress-hill.
ah, incandescent angels
whirling in crayon-blaze,
fire- wings fluttering
in dark, bare, drear-branches,
whirling in divers colours;
i whirled, too, and winded;
then, whirlwind, roar and rush of mighty wings,
beating above my blessed head.
tyrant state, ghost-towned
gutted by gallows, guns, and axes,
where bondsmen38 sip cold corn mush,
bacon fat, and in grips groan;
where plantation prophets water-dou
find mere, dark dust or a dead mouse,
and the winter world of wilderness
howls with hound-hatred, wind-woe;
where i grew, and groaned when i knew
lash-slash, chain-pain, and hunger, too;
where i vowed not to die but leave;
where i vowed never to return.
i saw the seagull, saint of harbours,
grey pier-prophet, miles inland,
burning but not burning;
i saw a book of stone through water-light,
its words mov ed when read,
scattering like tadpoles,
yet i was not deceived.
i prophesied storms from leaf-equations,
practiced prayers to resurrect rain.
some scoffed, but i had heard
a royal voice boom from screaming air,
intone: "This is your duty,
you are called to do;
rough or hewn, you must
surely bear it."
then Christ's great arms,
extended as on the cross,
stretched across the blood-black horizon.
at a time pre-time set,
noting c onspiracies of angels and ash,
saints and smoke,
seeing, too, the rapture of roses
and robins caught up in the air,
the Sun descended, a New Jerusalem39
of freedom augured by North Star
and slave song ciphers, i
stole away to Jesus, following
His arms compassing the horizon,
praying, praying: "Oh, Lord, lead lost me
where you will. Life or death, peace be still.
Oh, Lord, lead lost me where you will."
and, after minutes and miles,
moments and mountains,
i emerged new, free,
north of Virginia.
crows crack a white, porcelain sky
with one fine, black line;
th rough the fracture, some light
falls, filters, but little.
beneath that pale plate,
i was pressed, flattened,
made weary, the same as everyone,
my gospel-fire fainting.
then, i found a few believers, forest
boards, and raised a bonfire-church
in the name of God and the old songs
no other church would sing.
We dark ones joined,
one vast conflagration unto God.
pursuing asylum, peace, beyond pursuers,
wantin g to torch the inhuman
results of human lust,
directed, too, by God,
by villages and cities come down to water,
drawn by trees and light,
and serenaded by sailors' tales
of arcadia/acadia where many maroons40
await the Word, the match,
that inflames dry hearts,
to these mournful, misty,
sorrow-shores i came,
to North Mountain
to a fresh, feral world, blue-watered,
to deliver many unto God.
ters and pioneers, farmers
and fishers, i preach.
"A root and a name,
a model of Africa", i urge.
i baptise many in rivers;
their water is oil to these living flames.
*A term borrowed from Mrs. Pearl Oliver41
rivers cascading from shadow to light,
sky bleeding from purple to black,
tortu red, twisted apple trees,
sights and sounds common; the elements
of sermons, prayers, hymns.
every Bible word literal,
every letter law:
in the beginning, spruce
and willows, pleached,
were natural chapels ,
when earth was not grave
but bright, green grove.
now, we must build
our means of mating
Heaven and world.
homing gulls spin
yarns of light and shadow
above our heads and hearts
so attached to gr avity.
we would be nearer Heaven
if winds Were ours, we believe;
but, no: land, earth, humble us —
we rise from it, then return,
sinking through broken twigs and fog,
finally to lend our substance
to mushrooms and in sects,
completing the ordained circle, distance.
seek not God on the wing;
knowing our farness from Him,
He hath descended to us this moment.
laden with briny hay,
weary wains plod from marsh-me adows,
creep across a crazy, sagging bridge,
become mere, moving lights.
no rest is theirs,
neither any sustenance of apples and molasses.
there is the immaculate conception
of an image:
an inshore church, lighthouse, a fiery h ome,
leaping into flame-vision
out of the tinder of thine tenderness,
the kindling of thy love, Lord.
see here: a holocaust of roses,
a delirium-dazzle of white wood.
across orchard country,
marsh-wander , well-willows,
green slope-forest amlamkook,42
the spark-words have gone.
now ochre angels, sepia saints, gather,
holding final lilies and mayflowers,
n ame the earth where they kneel
Paradise, gather into one bunch
of saplings, set afire invisibly by God,
become lights upon the earth,
illuminating the path
of Christ's coronation procession.
a peck of corn,
a pint of salt:
a withered, hungry horse
stands in the need of prayer.
the spindrift heavens
what ash-faith, doubt,
a dream dried to dust produces!
oh Lord, remember me, your servant!
stretch forth thine arms across
the firmament, fertilize the clouds.
oh, for i am more desolate
than an abandoned homestead
or faded church.
in this province of wonder,
bluenose ghosts of lovers
conjure an undu lating ocean
that snuggles up to rocks,
hugs the shoreline passionately.
ah, they conjure romances of drowning
in love, layers of flesh, waves of love,
as on the latinate coast, near
Lerici,43 with Shelley, there. oh,
but Shelley, here, at woodland
waters, her pine-purple hair
dark in the wind leaf-falling,
is cunning beauty: her breasts
are like two young deer that are twins;
her lips are two crimson fire-brands;
she is all peat-moss and fire,
welkin and ingle,
raising my desire.
i sing: "Avon creek and roaring river,
There, my dear, we'll live forever.
; Let our love burn the gloom,
Come on, honey, jump the broom."
ah, gird up they loins, young man;
light up they lamp, little sister;
for you know not when the Lord will come
to Weymouth Falls.
Page 82< /a>
The land self-contained,
ingrained with snow,
flax-fielded, blue, brown,
and white, requires naught else,
water-insulated from want.
we follow troubled tides
with measured motion,
this is time, and give thanks
to the Father of Waters
for sea-beach and common country.
we sing: "d'world reel, but
we get in glory;
oh, when we get in glory,
glory be to the new-born Baby."
Let the fir-firm land
cradle our salvation.
Though blood batter, break, bones,
black bodies hung out to dry
on dumb trees death-terrified,
oh Lord, let this year
be the year of jubilee.
shall we not be free?
shall we not make a joyful noise unto thee?
after the glare and fire
of sunrise water in a creek
where speckle-spotted, ring-streaked,
fat-fleshed kine shimmered in sacrifice;
after this ritual and others,
water-lily, flame-flowers, illuminating
the Annapolis River:
after ruminating of rocks and clefts,
and speaking the prayer of exile
and the lover's cry,
i toiled up Granville Moun tain
guided by a secret, silent voice,
and, burning in the sun,
standing at a stone-summit,
proclaimed the African United Baptist Association.44
the holy mountains reverberate
with fish and lumber cries,
campaign promises, glint
in sunlight and fog.
withdr awn now, awaiting
transport to my scourged nation again,
Shelley mine and joy, the
Africans of Megumaage46 established in
Christ church, true church, baptist church,
ablaze with spirit, each member
a pentecostal flame, i see
rural chapels sparkling white, prayers requited.
no matter now, death or destiny,
i have other fires to bank.
i go. this record?
Go tell it on the mountain.
Go sound the Jubilee.
[Photo: Landscape of lake and surrounding trees, crowded with people.] A Black baptism ceremony in a Dartmouth lake near the turn of the century.
[Photo: portrait of four children, one girl in the foreground and three boys seated behind he r.] Halifax children - late 1800 s.
[Photo: Large group seated on grass.] Outdoor gathering near Weymouth, N.S.
[Photo: Portrait of young girls standing side by side.] Two girls in Sunday best - early 1900 s.
[Photo: Portrait of two young boys standing side by side.] B rothers - Halifax, 1890 s.
[Photo: Rural landscape with people seated along a dirt road.] The home of Mrs. David Smith, New Road, north of Long Lake, Preston, N.S., 1934.
[Photo: Group portrait of five men holding tools.] Dockworkers.
< a href="http://is.dal.ca/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/~etc/clarke/img_display.pl?http://is.dal.ca/~etc/clarke/images/p93.jpg" target=image>Page 93
[Photo: Infant dressed in white] Ba by portrait - 1890 s.
[Photo: Road leading to town in the distance] North Preston (named after Richard Preston), the largest all-Black community in Canada.
George Elliott Clarke was born in the Black Loyalist community of Windsor Plains, Nova Scotia on February 12, 1 960. A descendant of the late Dr. Rev. William A. White, he is the son of William and Geraldine Clarke. He was raised and educated in Halifax where he studied marine tropology and biblical blues poetry. He is currently completing an Honours English Degree at the University of Waterloo. His poems have appeared in several journals, and in 1981, he won the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia First Prize Award for Adult Poetry. Clarke believes that his poetry "attempts to explicate the essences of things." He has travelled Nova Scotia and Canada extensively.
The publisher is grateful for the permission granted by the following:P. 25. Public Archives of Nova Scotia
The Minister of State for Multiculturalism and the Multiculturalism Directorate disclaim any responsibility in w hole or in part for the views and opinions expressed and for the completeness or accuracy of information included in this publication.
1 Africville was a small settlement in the North end of what is now Halifax, Nova Scotia. Africville was sett led by former Black American slaves after the War of 1812, but the community's history can be traced back to the 1700s. It was officially founded in the 1840s. Neglect and disregard of the community by the City of Halifax led to its increasingly impover ished state; it was bulldozed by the City of Halifax in the 1960s in an effort to "clean up" the city.
2 Black Nova Scotian writer, born in Beechville in 1950
3 An important spiritual character from Mi'kmaq First Nation legend. Borne out of sand by Gisoolg the creator, he was the first great leader, and helped to unify the seven families of the Mi'kmaq that would come after him.
4 The acronym for Canadian National, a recently privatized company which runs the largest railroad network in Canada.
5 A black American spiritual that has been called the quintessential tune of the black rebel.
6 Rev. Richard Preston (c.1791-1861). See Introduction.
7 Portia White (1911-1968) of Truro, Nova Scotia, was a contralto and music teacher. Famed for her "bel canto" technique, she sang in four languages, and was known for both spirituals and classical songs.
8 Two lines borrowed from the popular Nova Scotian folksong "Nova Scotia Farewell".
9 National Sea Products is a large Canadian fish-processing company, and a major employer in the region.
10 An aboriginal people of the region
11 In Greek mythology, Circe was a beautiful sorcerer whose spells could turn men into swine.
12 Lydia Jackson. A late 18th century indentured servant of a Dr. Bulman (whose name appears misspelled in the poem.) She became pregnant with Bulman's child. Upon discovering this, Bulman beat her severely. As a result of the attack, she suffered a miscarriage. In 1792, she, along with 1,200 other Black Loyalists, left Nova Scotia to resettle in West Africa
13 Portia White (1911-1968) was a talented contralto born in Truro Nova Scotia. She won North American acclaim with performances in Toronto and New York in the 1940's. In addition, she became an established music teacher. Her breakthrough and acceptance into mainstream music, particularly her 1941 concert at New York's Town Hall, was significant to the careers of Black artists who followed her.
14 Descendents of French-Speaking settlers in Acadia: Acadia was a French colony in the 17th and 18th centurie s that included most of what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and some surrounding areas.
15 An aboriginal people who reside primarily within Nova Scotia. "Mi'Kmaq" is the more recent spelling as defi ned by the Mi'Kmaq people themselves, but "Micmac" is still in common use.
16 The name of a lake in the centre of southwestern Nova Scotia, and the name of a National Park and Historic Site that encompasses the lake; "Kejimkujik" is a Mi'Kmaq word that means "swollen parts."
17 William Edward Burghardt DuBois — An influential African/American scholar and political activist. DuB ois has been called a harbinger of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism. DuBois died while in self-imposed exile in Africa.
18 Originally Freda Josephine Carson, Josephine Baker was an African/American dancer and actress who found gre at fame when she moved from the U.S.A to France in the 1920's. After she became famous, Josephine Baker tried to return to the U.S.A. but her performances were rejected by the American public.
19 Huddie William Ledbetter — A noted African/American blues musician.
20 Magical footwear enabling the wearer to take strides of seven leagues (twenty-one miles).
21 Krupp Kruppkroop, family of German armament manufacturers. The Krupp family were largely responsible for th e manufacture of munitions used by the German army in World Wars One and Two.
22 Richard Wright — An internationally famous African/American writer. Richard Wright lived a large port ion of his life as an expatriate in France due to the racism he felt in the U.S.A.
23 Character in Kafka's "Metamorphosis" who turns into an insect.
24 Stein and Hemingway were also American expatriate writers who sought a home in Paris.
25 Gertrude Pridgett — A pioneer of African/American blues music. She has been called the "Mother of the Blues."
26 Bessie Smith — One of the premier African/American recording artists of the 1920's. Bessie Smith perf ormed with "Ma Rainey" and many other famous blues singers of her time.
27 Legendary jazz club in Harlem, New York City, most popular in the 1920's and 1930's. It was owned by noted mobsters and decorated in the style of the plantations of the old south. Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra gained fame with their weekly national radio broadcasts from the club
28 Railway serving the Canadian Maritime Provinces from 1900-1990.
29 Queen Nefertiti the Great Royal Wife of King Amenhotep; as Queen of Egypt, she was an African.
30 In the Bible King Solomon (970-928 BCE) is the son of King David. The Song of Solomon contains the phrase " Black but comely".
31 A term commonly used by Canadians to refer to their three eastern-most provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scoti a, and Prince Edward Island.
32 Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), a California poet, achieved fame from the 1920s through to the late 1940s. J effers is best known for his dark narrative poetry, which often alludes to the landscape of the California coastline.
33 Spanning the fertile, southwestern region of Nova Scotia, Annapolis Valley is famed for its apple orchards.
34 James Robinson Johnston (1876-1915) was born in Halifax,Nova Scotia, and received his Bachelor of Laws degr ee from Dalhousie Univeristy in 1898. Dalhousie subsequently established an Endowed Chair in his name, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies.
35 Rev. Richard Preston (1790-1861), an escaped slave, became President of the Abolitionists in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and founded the African United Baptist Association in 1854. See Introduction for additional information.
36 A West African kingdom ruled by a powerful monarchy from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.
37 A rich and powerful biblical figure, the Queen of Sheba is a African monarch who visited Solomon to test hi s wisdom.
38 Alternate wording for slavery. People forced to work for no wages.
39 Revelation 21:2. Reward for the faithful after Armageddon.
40 Free Blacks from Jamaica, expelled by the British to Nova Scotia in 1796.
41 A co-founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People with her husband, the R ev. William P. Oliver.
42 A Mi'Kmaq place name for Memramcook, New Brunswick meaning"variegated".
43 A small Italian town on the North end of the Tuscan coast that stretches along the eastern side of the Gulf of La Spezia, home to the poet Shelley when he drowned in 1822.
44 At a convocation of the twelve African Baptist Churches of Nova Scotia, Richard Preston (see Introduction) founded the African United Baptist Association at Granville Mountain in 1854.
45 Septimus Clarke assisted Richard Preston in founding the African United Baptist Association; see introducti on p. 8
46 A Mi'kmaq term for the entire Maritime region east of the St. John river and west to the St. Lawrence river .