This week, a look at Whylah Falls, a wonderful creation by Canada’s George Elliot Clarke, published some twenty years ago. I call it a creation because I’m not sure what it is — a novel in verse, an epic poem, a drama (cast of characters included) inflected with blues and jazz, alive with echoes of Biblical verse, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas and the web of poetry that sustains all writing.
In search of “liberty, justice and beauty” (says the preface), the fictional community of Whylah Falls was founded in Nova Scotia 1783 by African-American loyalists. The three-word credo above encapsulates this rich feast of language. Once I finished the book, I went back to the beginning and read it again, caught up in its struggle to find authentic speech, to trust in words and in the sensuous love that threads itself through life.
Set in the 1930s, the book tells a story without the conventions of plotting; it allows the poetry itself to form characters and to shape their stories through a range of voices — colloquial, literary, blues-inflected: Shelly, the young woman not quite ready for love from the well-schooled X (“like a late blizzard/you bust in our door/talkin’ April and snow and rain”); her brother, the guitarist Othello (“his voice is simple, sung air: without notes,/there’s nothing.”), their sister Selah, loved with ecstasy by X, whose beautiful monologue, a cascade of rich language, speaks to the inadequacy of words (“I’d burn dictionaries to love you even once”), ending with a shout of joy that stomps on conventional language and bursts with poetic truth: (“Selah, I am bust right upside the head with love!”). There’s more: Cora, the mother of the clan, suffered at dead Saul’s hands, but her poetry draws us past cliché, yanking tight the knot of violence and love (“I swept his house,/slept in his bed./Why he always beat me?/I was too jolly scared to run around./I was true to him like stars in the sky.”).
Life is hard; the social ills of racism break into life with exploitation, abuse and murder, a sequence of events difficult to convey in prose. They belong to the inner life of the poems as they unfold in grief, anger and bewilderment (“My blood waters grass and gravel,/my tears baptize stones with the sea./We are but dust.”).
Throughout this work, words of love and tenderness collide with the savagery of experience. The first does not smooth over or make light of the second, but the two fuse into hard-won insight.We turn to love before turning to dust so that the grave will not compress our lives entirely to insects, humus, ash.
Love is our single resistance against the dictatorship of death.
This distinguished and beautiful book is a modern classic and among Canada’s finest works. And yes, even with all its gravitas, I took it to the beach. I hope you’ll be moved and delighted by it, as I was.
The Third Edition of Whylah Falls by George Elliot Clarke was published by Gaspereau Press, Ltd., Kentville, Nova Scotia in 2010.