“I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of blood in human veins,” writes Langston Hughes in his 1921 poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Hughes was one of the predominant figures of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s flowering of Black American writing centred in the eponymous borough. As Bertrand Bickersteth points out at the beginning of his new collection, The Response of Weeds, though Hughes is indelibly associated with New York, he was in fact “a prairie boy, born and raised.”
That Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, is only one aspect of his centrality to Bickersteth’s collection, which excavates the forgotten or often effaced history of Black experience on the Canadian prairies, most especially Alberta. (Bickersteth is based in Calgary.) The influence could hardly be more apparent: the first poem in The Response of Weeds is titled “The Negro Speaks of Alberta” and opens with an explicit reference to a river: “Once, he stood on the banks of the Bow / near the confluence of the Oldman.”
Hughes is name-checked in the poem “So What?”: “Langson’s groove / and Billie’s blues // and John Ware’s dues / have all been here before.” Sonically, the poem recalls Hughes’s bebop rhythms, an appropriate aural signifier in a verse that also references arguably the greatest of the early 20th-century blues singers. Bickersteth’s poetry is steeped in history, but it is particularly indebted to the cadences of jazz, a genre with specific origins in Black culture and experience. “Wailing, moaning, trumpeting / the cool front man blasted back / what / ever / cold front faced him,” Bickersteth writes in “Louis Armstrong on the Prairies” and, in “So What?,” puns on the name of Miles Davis, locating Alberta as “Miles and Miles from the middle of anywhere.”
That poem ends with a question – “So, where are you from?” – that is echoed in the book’s dedication to “anyone who has had to answer (various versions of) ‘where are you from?’” Bickersteth’s poetic thesis (if one may speak of such a thing) involves illuminating the submerged history of Black prairie life to demonstrate its persistence and longevity, beginning with the Bungos, a Black fur-trading family in the early 19th century, and figures like Henry Bibb, an escaped slave and abolitionist. (Bickersteth notes ironically that Alberta features the confluence of two rivers: the Peace and the Slave.) In its form and content, The Response of Weeds represents a vigorous and erudite excavation of history and a carefully constructed reclamation of place, both geographically located and culturally significant.
Another inescapable figure Bickersteth names is his “muse,” James Baldwin. The iconic 20th-century American author serves as the touchstone for I Am Still Your Negro, Vancouver poet Valerie Mason-John’s new collection. Mason-John riffs off Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary about Baldwin; the repeated refrain in the volume’s title poem recalls and recasts the movie’s title in an ironic light: “I was your Negro / Captured and sold / I am still your negro / arrested and killed.” The allusion to slavery on the one hand and more recent phenomena, such as carding and the murders of unarmed Black men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, on the other indicates the wide range of Mason-John’s vision, which traverses history, geography, and culture.
Mason-John invokes Yaata, the supreme being of the Kona, an Indigenous people in Sierra Leone, whose voice becomes a kind of chorus introducing the individual sections in the collection. Each section is devoted to a particular subject: African history and diaspora; rave culture; sexual assault in the #MeToo era; crime and drugs. Mason-John’s poetry is intersectional and explicitly based in a social-justice approach; to this extent, and in its mixture of poetry and prose, I Am Still Your Negro recalls Claudia Rankine’s 2014 volume, Citizen: An American Lyric.
If Bickersteth’s verse is reflective of jazz rhythms, Mason-John leans more toward hip-hop, a natural tendency given the poet’s background in stage and spoken-word poetry. This is particularly apparent in poems like “#MeToo”: “Hashtag #MeTeen / And now she’s called a Has-Been / Humiliated and labelled unclean / Her fault for being obscene.” Elsewhere, Mason-John adapts more formal styles, as in the villanelle “Anorectic,” about eating disorders, or the modified sonnet “Playing Dead.”
Mason-John’s poetry is vigorous and confrontational, which makes it all the more odd that the collection includes a foreword (by George Elliott Clarke) and two introductory essays. The poetry is clear enough and frank enough to stand on its own; the inclusion of so much explanatory material feels excessive and unnecessary.
This is a minor complaint. More importantly, Mason-John’s poetry, like that of Bickersteth, is significant for its reappraisal of our collective past, which so often overlooks or writes over marginalized voices and experiences. Mason-John and Bickersteth are explicit in calling out a hypocritical Canadian multiculturalism that pays lip service to inclusion while simultaneously entrenching systemic biases and processes that maintain a racist and exclusionary status quo.