George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls (1990)
Raincoast Books – Polestar, 2000

George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls tells the story of a group of Afro-Canadians on the south shore of Nova Scotia.

Readers can gather that from a quick glance at the book’s front and back covers.

But what readers won’t realize until they open the book is that Clarke tells their stories in verse.

In epic verse, at that, with language that is both known and unfamiliar. (It even has Arguments, like Milton, and a Discography, unlike Milton.)

This is how he creates the truth he can trust and live within.

“Sunshine illumines the mirage of literature, how everyone uses words to create a truth he or she can trust and live within.”

Slipping into the story-telling was awkward for me; I wriggled into it like a too-tight dress with a zipper I can’t reach. And I tried putting it on several times, but tore it off and left it draped across the bed each time.

Why so persistent? An interview that I’d heard with him kept me going back to try again. Even in question-and-answer speech there is a cadence in his voice, a passion in his expression. I wanted to hear what he had to say on the page too.

Finally I searched out the songs/albums recommended. (Yes, there really is a Discography.) See, this isn’t your everyday book. And I went back and re-read the introduction for the third time.

There I was reminded that “Whylah Falls was born in the blues, the philosophy of the cry.”

And that pushed me forward into the verse, with the music playing in the background, reading aloud on a hot summer afternoon.

“Every poem, attempting to trace the genealogy of love, kept referring, no, deferring to the canon of James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith.Their sung literature,that is, orature.

And. Oh. My.

It’s wonderful.

“Whylah Falls
is a place where the death of poetry has not yet occurred.

You might want to visit there and give it a listen.

What’s the last book you read that’s left you feeling undressed?