One of the poems in Maxine Tynes’ collection was inspired by Portia White, “The Call to Tea”; Tynes writes about “this daughter of old Halifax / this feted lady of the world stage”. Readers can discover more of the story in George Elliott Clarke’s Portia White: A Portrait in Words (2019).
With artwork by Lara Martina, Clarke tells the story of a Truro schoolgirl, who sang in the choir of her father’s church, became an international opera sensation. She also happens to be the author’s great-aunt (whose name might be familiar because I absolutely loved his 1991 novel in verse, Whylah Falls) and he refers curious readers to Lian Goodall’s 2004 biography, Singing Towards the Future. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that anyone other than family has such an exquisite selection of photographs to admire.
Clarke was also, coincidentally, the winner of Nova Scota’s inaugural Portia White Prize for Artistic Excellence in 1998, which seems both fitting and strange. (I mean, she didn’t get to vote obviously, but it does seem he’d be a shoe-in for any jury, no?)
Clarke’s homage is written in verse, which is likely more satisfying heard in his voice (he’s such an exuberant reader); even though I thought I’d prefer the verses that rhyme, I preferred the blank verse. The work seems to be as much about creating a mood as it is about creating awareness—there’s a grandeur and old-fashioned elegance to the vocabulary and structure.