A few weeks ago, I mentioned how much Naomi’s Atlantic Canada reading has impacted the books in my stacks. (Check out her project here, along with pages dedicated to the Halifax Explosion and regional literary awards on Consumed by Ink.) I’m also enjoying my Here and Elsewhere project, which takes me around the globe, to a new city each month. Anyone who is looking to diversify their reading, can add to their TBR in countless ways.

Sylvia Hamilton’s And I Alone Escaped to Tell You (2014) is the kind of work that seems to have burst forth as a single act of creation, rather than seeming to be a collection of poems. Divided into three parts, with epigraphs from the Bible and from Pablo Neruda, there is a whisper of classical allusion, but her poems emphasize accessibility. Indeed, there is an overarching narrative, rooted in 18th-century documents, including excerpts from reward postings for enslaved men and women who have fled their captivity (Freedom Runners) and wealthy men’s papers designating the distribution of their “property”, including people, who are passed to the next generations, like silverware and china. Some of the poems tell self-contained stories, like “Thursday of Gull Island”: “Some say she fly with the gulls. Some say that whale wait for her just off shore.” Others, like “By Some Other Name” present fragments of sensation: “bloody fingers    claw moss   breath”.

The second part opens with “Excavation”, as though commenting on the act which has driven the earlier work, simultaneously reminding readers that there is still much to be unearthed:
I am not the navigator on this journey.
I am more than a passenger, but not the captain.
Longing for that which is not,
for what could have been,
for that imagined place.

Readers of this cycle move from 1964 to 1981 and then, in the next poem, move with a class of children who are visiting a museum and viewing Hitler’s skull.

The third section slides into the present-day, spiralling around matters of predation and exploitation which proliferate in our daily lives. From lawn ornaments to public transit, the legacy of oppression still blooms: “In a hundred years what will the archeologist decide went on here?” (Also, on a more superficial note, Gaspereau Press’s publications are produced on thick, creamy paper, making their pages a particular wonder to hold and turn. The cover of this one is embossed with names from an archival source, the names of Africans who were brought to Nova Scotia against their will, torn from their homelands. You can run your fingertips across these words and wonder at the fact that many of them would never have been allowed to touch a book.)

Maxine Tynes is a descendant of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia and has lived her life in Dartmouth. She’s been writing poetry since she was a student at Dalhousie University there, and Woman Talking Woman (1990) is her second collection. (I wrote about her first collection here.)

“I stand hopeful and afraid, and
move over
and over and over your threshold /
as the book begins
as you read me now”: she writes. 

Once more, Tynes peers into women’s working lives, with “Cashiers at the Supermarket”:

“Pass me my coins and cabbages and a smile in your eyes; or, the flicker of pain up from
eight hour legs
as the register clicks and beeps
and rings up our connection
at the check-out.”

She writes about Africville, the northern Halifax community razed between 1964 and 1969:

“That disenfranchisement and racism is the same everywhere. That Soweto is Chicago is Toronto 

is Detroit is Montreal is New York is Halifax and Dartmouth is Africville.”

She also writes about Margaret Atwood poems, Joni Mitchell lyrics and melodies, and the possibility that she has Micmac ancestors.

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.

If you are curious where my first two posts about Atlantic Canadian storytellers took me, you can check here and here.

“Soon.” “One of these days.” “Eventually.” I’ve been saying that about wanting to take a closer and more deliberate look at writers and poets from the East Coast for a long time. To find new works to shelve alongside my Michael Crummey and Wayne Johnston, Donna Morrissey and Carol Bruneau. It turns out that there are options. “Now.” “Today.” “Why not?”

What region (or author, or style, or genre) have you been meaning to explore more thoroughly?

Or, what reading project is claiming most of your time these days?