49th Parallel Psalm
by Wayde Compton
Published by Advance Editions
175 pages, 1999
Halfrican Look at Xanada
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
The young Vancouver writer Wayde Compton has created quite a literary stir with his first collection of poems, 49th Parallel Psalm. Described on the cover as "a poetic, historical revision of the migration of blacks to Canada," this book is a history lesson unlike any other, a story not so much told as conjured by a verbal magician with a deep appreciation for the slippery magnificence of words.
1858 is a pivotal date in Compton's imagination -- the year in which the first black settlers left the racist and oppressive atmosphere of San Francisco to travel north into British Columbia. Why haven't we heard anything about this migration before? Perhaps that is why Compton felt compelled to write his account. "I met History once, but he ain't recognize me," one of Compton's voices claims. He also speaks of white historians as "editing us from Eden".
Only a few pages in, I knew I was in the presence of a writer of rare and edgy brilliance. His words don't just sound right; they have a certain feel in the mouth, begging to be read aloud: "this mess of embers I am left with," "the tindery contagion of humanity and electricity," "sloe on the rocks with a tonic Charybdis/and a quicklime twist." The poems, not set in any particular chronological order, have a sort of cumulative effect, creating an impression of a history written entirely with the right side of the brain.
Thus we have fairly straightforward, almost journalistic entries like this: "The first settlers of Salt Spring Island were Negroes and came as early as 1857 (9?) seeking liberty, and freedom from discrimination." But watch out, for these statements are interspersed with the wildest kind of verbal jazz. Compton loves breaking form, playing with punctuation -- and his readers' minds -- in poems like Crooked Blues:
hustle on; break in; fifty bones on the table; eyes cuttin side; ways; spheres clackin; I; spook in; spoken; takin; this cracker for ten blue tokens; frocked proper; English; on it; side; Boston block cocked; corner pocket; exact; pocketing; cash locked; sucker licked; one; two; eye; in; tight; and so; let it be broke.
After struggling to make it make sense, I came to the conclusion that the only way to approach this material was to suspend my rational mind and let the words take me over. But there is more than a word-spell happening here. There are teeth in these impressionist spinnings, and every few pages I felt the sting of Compton's anger at centuries of injustice: "Your skin is your ID," he states with devastating economy. Elsewhere he writes of "some/one's/shoes/shined/with/my/blood."
Compton's own heritage is mixed, described in his unique and quirky way as "Halfrican." Belonging wholly to neither culture, he can keenly perceive both. "White people in this country are so backward," one of his characters writes. "Can't even get their racism straight." Speaking of the emancipation of the slaves, he writes: "how anybody supposed to know/what crazy shit white folks are capable of?/who'da thought they'd do/something as out of character as setting us free?/headlines ought to read: /HELL FREEZES OVER; WHITE PEOPLE DISCOVER EMPATHY."
Compton can be enigmatic and even obscure, as in "The Blue Road: A Fairy Tale," a long allegorical prose passage about exile and arrival. This is the sort of impenetrable piece that will be dissected for layers of meaning in university English classes for years to come. A whole race of people, migrating north, is condemned to stare into a mirror forever to avoid agonizing pain. The "mirror people" appear to represent the newly arrived black population, but what is the meaning of the mirror? Self-absorption, being turned around backwards? An inability to turn one's energy outward? But it is not Compton's job to resolve things, just to present us with the enigma and let us make what sense of it we can.
Even when I wasn't sure what he was getting at -- which did happen -- I came to the conclusion that I would rather be baffled by Compton than bored by a lesser mind. His mercurial and sometimes slashing wit is a reminder of the spell Bob Dylan used to cast on his listeners back in the 1960s. Who else could coin the term "Xanada" for our land of hope and promise? (And why didn't anyone think of it before?) Or, for that matter, who else would have thought of "African't"? He takes the familiar, the worn cliché, and turns it on its ear: "Pox Vopuli," "slashes to slashes." Red becomes "the color they tell you no in." It's dizzying, exhilarating and seductive, as the best poetry always should be.
So if you can get used to the fact that one of the poems, "The Unbroken Yellow," is written backwards, and another ("Wax") consists of rows of sevens placed in a graceful curve across the page, you might find yourself willing to step through Compton's shadowy looking-glass. Be warned: you will not be quite the same person when you emerge on the other side. 49th Parallel Psalm is a passionate, funny, dangerous, maddeningly obscure, unbearably lucid book that crackles with anger and subversive energy. | December 1999
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.