Rereading Rita Joe: A Hearing

In his forthcoming collection of essays Whiteout: How Canada Cancels Blackness (Véhicule Press), poet, writer, and scholar George Elliott Clarke discusses the myriad ways Blackness and other marginalized identities are left out, othered, or actively demonized by the Canadian imagination at large. This excerpted piece has Clarke revisiting the poetics of the “precedent-busting, cigar-store-Indian-splintering, quiet, icon-smashing poet who is Rita Joe.”


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Plain talk, with “local colour” or “ethnic flavour,” is the bastard child of the British poetic tradition. Geoff Chaucer, Bobby Burns, Billy Blake, John Clare, all versified within the registers of vernacular, or kindergarten clarity, or backwoods idiom. However, though Chaucer and Blake broke into the canon, as did Burns (with an asterisk of excuse—or acclaim—for his “brogue”), Clare is still an eccentric, relegated to margins (despite Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s championing of the peasant-born Romantic-Victorian poet).People poets, vox populi poets, poets unabashedly anti-oppression, all get short shrift in English Canadian poetry too, which, historically, has been aimed more at educated elites than at economically struggling classes or the racism-suffering Indigenous and “African” readership. Indeed, from Confederation up to the Conservatives (pseudo–Republican Party types) of the recent federal (Confederate) governments, English-Canadian poetry has been biased in favour of Ivy League, white-washed, Ivory Tower verse, stressing obscurity, experiment, elitism, and education (PhD poets). We English-Canadian poets are mainly downtown types (or suburbanites) who write about camping trips or the occasional portage with an e-reader in one hip pocket and a flask in the other.So English Canada celebrates no Walt Whitman, no Al Ginsberg, no Jack Kerouac, no Chuck Bukowski, no Billy Collins: I mean, nobody who could recite poetry in a tavern or a diner and have it be received by scholars as meaningful or important.We’ve tried—or, rather, a brave few have tried to alter this perennial status quo. Bobby Service’s poems about Yukon shoot-outs and Billy Drummond’s poems that make French pea soup out of English alphabet soup promote a popular poetry. Lookit: Service succeeded so well that most folks believe he’s American. But Drummond has disappeared from consciousness because everyone’s righteously embarrassed by his minstrel ventriloquism of French-Canadian types and gars. Some mid-twentieth-century intellectual poets—F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith and Duncan Campbell Scott—strove to be personable in their poesy, but F. R. stopped at satire; A. J. M. at imagism; and D. C. at (apologetic) racism.Fast forward to the 1960s and one finds the working-class Milty Acorn (dubbed “The People’s Poet”) espousing his plaid-shirt-plus-stogie socialism; Al Purdy musing on geologic eras and the chronicles of Ontario pulpits; and Irv Layton campaigning for free love at home and tough-love abroad. Of this trio, Acorn was the retro-Marxist (thus spurning soap as a “luxury”), Purdy the voice of the Maclean’s-magazine-reading RRSP’d WASP, and Layton the Georgie Byron of the boudoir and the Bobby Graves of the Greeks. I should not omit Ray Souster, who was a true-blue banker, but closer in sensibility to Doc W. C. Williams and Carl Sandburg, both Yank men-o-de-folk, than he was to once-banker T. S. Eliot, that pinstripe Prufrock.
In the Maritimes, apart from PEI-born Acorn, in the 1960s, there was only one poet who might be named as a preface to the plain-speech, simple (but not simplistic) address of Rita Joe, and that’s—of course—Alden Nowlan, whose verses are heartfelt but never sentimental. (Nowlan was also a precursor to the anthemic and/or Beat-derived poetry of Africadian poet Maxine Tynes.) Perhaps the reason is that Nowlan was, like Acorn, self-taught, and found his profession as a journalist only after he escaped from the Nova Scotia asylum, where he had been jailed not so much because he was “insane” but because his family was too poor to resist the decisions of child welfare officials. (Come to think of it, Nowlan’s incarceration—as a dreamy, moody teen—is not unlike the experience of too many First Nations persons, imprisoned—basically—due to running afoul of bourgeois Judeo-Christian norms.) Nowlan’s upbringing taught him sympathy for the downtrodden, though he also delighted in heraldry and titles.Still contemplating English-Canadian poets who aimed at simplicity, a special case is E. Pauline Johnson, whose Mohawk moniker is Tekahionwake and whose poems straddle the colour-line (ahem) between English gentility and Indigenous lore. Hers is a Métis poetry, really, which can be understood as seeking to introduce WASP readers to Native “reservations” (double entendre intended). But the height of her fame coincided with Vaudeville and the pre-Beat vogue of “Vagabondia” (to refer to Bliss Carman’s 1894 co-authored volume of Omar Khayyam–styled verse of wine & women & song & the open road).In other words, while Tekahionwake was down-to-earth and accessible, she was also a safe symbol of conformist Indigeneity and leisurely wilderness “ambling.” She was the reverse of the Indian-pretending Englishman Grey Owl, for she was a Native woman who could “pass” as English. No, she was the Grey Owl of the parlour-library-and-sherry set.I say all of the above to set a context for the precedent-busting, cigar-store-Indian-splintering, quiet, icon-smashing poet who is Rita Joe. Born Rita Bernard in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton Isle, Nova Scotia, in 1932, Joe must have grown up as a disenfranchised minority (Mi’kmaw) within a disadvantaged majority (the Scots) who were themselves a minority ethnicity within Nova Scotia entire. Thus, Joe “came to voice” in a manner not unlike another major poet of minority ethnicity, A. M. Klein—who was Jewish, Anglo, a Montrealer, and a Canadian, with a love for French-Canadian language and culture, who combined his multiple heritages in inimitably layered poems. (See 1948’s The Rocking Chair.)Something of the same is central to Rita Joe’s poetics—and thought. In her foreword to We Are the Dreamers (1999), she identifies herself as “Indian” and as bearing a “burden” that has an “invisible line” and that she cannot “drop” because she remains dissatisfied with the quality of her hefting. This symbolic image has many resonances, both ethnic and artistic. Her “burden” recalls Rudy Kipling’s infamous 1899 poem, “White Man’s Burden,” with its the idea that white males have a taxing duty to support—uplift—the world’s dark-skinned, unenlightened, “inferior” peoples (by simultaneously policin’ ’em, preachin’ at ’em, and exploitin’ ’em).In contrast, for Joe, the “burden” is one of representation, self-representation, as a poet and “Indian,” to express her culture vividly by writing indelible poetry. (In a 1978 poem, she writes, “burdens follow / Out of old chronicles.”) Yet “invisible line” echoes African-American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois’s concern in 1903 that contemporary world history is defined by the “color-line,” that is to say, the fundamental segregation between “elect” whites and subject peoples-of-colour. So Joe’s burden is both race and art, or the articulation of race versus erasure. When Joe tells us her “minor self-war has turned into a mountain, I cannot reach the top. The top being my own satisfied conclusion,” we hear an echo of the Greek myth of Sisyphus—condemned to never succeed in his effort to roll a boulder up a hillside. But one also detects an echo of Marty King’s last speech, in April 3, 1968, about getting to the top of the mountain but only seeing—not entering—the Promised Land.In other words, Joe subscribes to an existentialist ethos, the idea of Double Consciousness (cf. Du Bois), of being a poet and of bearing responsibility for expressing “Nativism”—not parochial nationalism but a belief system that appreciates earth and roots, ecology and psychology, geography and genealogy. Her “burden” is the necessity of reconciling her various heritages—Mi’qmaw, Anglo, Catholic, Nova Scotian—with Indigenous faith and the aloof aesthetics of modernism.For Joe, the process of writing poetry is the process of carrying—and trying to surrender—the “burden.” The complication of this dual task of representation and self-representation shows up in an early 1978 poem: “I am not / What they portray me. / I am civilized. / I am trying / To fit in this century.”Clearly, Joe resists here the Hollywood and Ottawa representations of the “Indian.” She is not that portrayal. (Intriguingly, she writes What, not the grammatically correct How, to accent, very subtly, that stereotypes render Indigenous people things, not persons.) The statement “I am civilized” is stripped and stark—almost mischievously so, for, in a single sentence, Joe eliminates centuries of European propaganda against “savages.” She is also asking us to define what it means to be “civilized”: she is conventionally “civilized” in writing the poem, as we are in reading it; moreover, this cultural transaction occurs in English, the tongue of the King James Version and of Shakespeare. Yet the raison d’être for the poem is—implicitly—the prior refusal of non-Indigenous persons to receive “Indians” as “civilized,” preferring, rather, to reject their civilizations with utmost genocidal fervour.Think for a moment that Joe is not the author but that an Inca or an Aztec is—someone, that is, facing the wholesale obliteration of their civilization by the “civilized” conquistadors of yore. The last lines of the quotation are woefully awful—I mean, horrific: the idea that one is trying to find space inside this “century”—to live—suggests that one’s being is opposed by those who find one’s people an anachronism, a living fossil, better off extinguished. (In a 1978 poem, Joe insists, “I must accept what this century / Has destroyed and left behind— / The innocence of my ancestry.”) One can imagine mid-twentieth-century European Jewry making the same agonized statement for the same ghastly reason. Simultaneously, one witnesses Joe penning a modernist poem, thus flouting those who would view her Indigenous heritage as inherently retrograde, anti-modern, atavistic.True: Joe does not spell out her Du Boisian anti-racism. The absolute simplicity of her utterance seems to deny the existence of philosophy, political science, and even of spiritually informed history. But they are there, needing only due sensitivity to ferret them out. A case in point is “Someday They Will Listen.” In this 1999 poem, Joe’s persona states, “I am a Mi’kmaw mingling with writers.” At once, there is a separation between the “Mi’kmaw”—poet—and other, presumably non-Indigenous writers. Because the poet is “mingling,” there is also a process of de facto representation of Mi’kmaw—to others—occurring. But this cultural trade is overshadowed by the felt sense that the others are indifferent while Joe’s persona feels “discomfort…unsettled.” Indeed, the “traders” are “still there,” suggesting hucksters out to short-change or cheat Indigenous artists of their proper due.Thus, the “discomfort” is distrust; a situation not settled because so many other discomforts—land claims, residential school compensation, the quest for self-government, respect for treaty rights, etc., remain “unsettled.” The poet asks, “How do we bombard when only half listen? / The roar on the other side modern in its din.” Once again, Joe gives us much to ponder: How can First Nations’ demands for justice and equality be respected when only “half” of the oppressive settler descendants will “listen”? Not only that, but opponents to Indigenous equality maintain that the “Native Question” is really about the refusal of backward people(s) to accept white civilization, Christianity, and capitalism as the catalysts of “modern” development.The poet is oppressed by the “many voices / The suppression adding to the loneliness”; she feels, “My nativeness fighting a lost war.” Again Joe speaks to an existentialist stoicism in writing the poem to confront her “small” persona’s silencing “in the great ballroom of the elegant hotel.” Yet the poem ends with a sense of apocalyptic triumph: “The elders on my reservation said be patient / When all else is gone / They will listen.” These lines ask us to imagine the collapse of Occidental civilization, due to ecological or economic calamity (or both), and the then necessary-for-survival recuperation of traditional Mi’kmaw—or Indigenous—belief systems demanding sustainable ecology and a small-s socialist economy. Certainly, as Joe says in a 1978 poem, “While skyscrapers hide the heavens / They can fall.” She is a combo of Earth Matriarch and Hebrew prophet decrying Babylon.In rereading Joe, we must note a complex of ideas haunting lines that are prima facie plain, but this accessibility is that of Blake, a clarity that is dazzling because it is infused with the light of mysticism or spirituality. In “There Is a Hill,” from 1999, Joe’s persona appeals to Saint Simeon of Cyrene (usually marked as black or African) to help ease her climb of a “steep and hard” hill, topped by a “cross.” The prayer gets spoken, and her way is eased to the peak, “Where we the Micmac have put a cross” and “an image of the Blessed Mother.” Next, the poet suggests that non-Natives should make the climb too, “especially on Good Friday,” in communion with the Mi’kmaw, so that “then maybe we may look on each other as friends / Like we wanted you to [do] since the day you came.”This hope is chased by two lines in Roman-alphabet Mi’kmaw that translate as “Our prayers will join / We will find happiness.” Joe’s persona proposes that shared worship on Mi’kmaw territory, before Mi’kmaw-fashioned Christian (and Catholic) symbols, will result in a transcendence of cultural (superficial) difference so that Mi’kmaq and non-Mi’kmaq may finally see each other as friends. Crucially, this prayer is rendered, ultimately, in the Mi’kmaw language. This fact suggests that, for Rita Joe, if not most Mi’kmaq, there is a fusion of their language, lore, and heritage (faith) with Catholicism (in particular). No wonder several of Joe’s poems are prayers or recount visions or address a spirit (sacred or ghostly). Again, there is a connection to Blake (and/or Ginsberg) in this regard.But it could be fruitful to read Joe in tandem with other mystical poets, such as Tommy Merton or Sor Juana or even Jack Kerouac—another Catholic who first sought his visions through sex, drugs, jazz, and the open road, and then tried Zen, and then resuscitated conservative Québécois roots. (One might read Kerouac’s career as both a premonition of La Révolution tranquille and then its repudiation.) In this sense, Joe is constantly constructing in her poetry a wigwam cathedral—or chapel—wherein thought passes “between two minds” or is “swinging to and fro / From English to Native.”
Another characteristic of poet-mystics or mystical poets is the tendency to fetishize “I,” for this “I” is the eye of the visionary, the eccentric, the uniquely gifted, the genius, the seer, who is specifically empowered via vatic attributes to relate glimpses of the divine and/or the esoteric. Joe titles a book We Are the Dreamers (1999), but there is always only one oracle in her poems: herself—or her persona. This pattern repeats throughout her oeuvre: “I like to think of our native life, / Curious, free; / And look at the stars / Sending icy messages.” (It is appropriate that We Are the Dreamers is divided into Book One and Book Two: the parallel with New and Old Testament cannot be accidental.)Joe’s tone is subtle, quiet, almost withdrawn. She whispers, muses, meditates. But she jests too: “I want my country to know / Natives are No. 1, then mounties, then finally the snow.” The miniscule “m” for “mounties” is a sly cutting down to size of a police force with a history of legalized terrorism against the First Nations. Even in joking, Joe may imply an impolitic critique.Finally, in keeping with her modernist heritage, Joe is an Imagist. See her 1978 poem about the making of moose butter: “After the meat is removed / The bones of the moose are collected, / Pounded with rocks / Reduced to powder, / Then placed in a kettle / And boiled well, / Bringing the grease atop.” The poem moves as nimbly in its close-up narration as might a documentary filmmaker’s camera in providing a subject its most scrupulous scrutiny.To conclude: Rita Joe’s superficial simplicity has been read too simplistically by too many scholars. A dedicated rereading, by scholars cognizant of imperial/colonial history, Indigenous spirituality, and the poetics of spoken word clarity will do much to reveal the suppressed—and just—animosities, prophecies for justice, and reclamations of civilization and beauty (ecological and aesthetic) that are Rita Joe’s principled and principal interventionist sayings in Anglo-Canadian poetry. Reading—or rereading—Joe in this way, we should find our spirits moved, our hearts enlarged, our minds expanded. We should also revivify our respect for poets so masterly that they can compress volumes of intellectual argument into lines so elementary that they would seem hardly to resist the comprehension of a child. Such a poetics is humbling—nay, civilizing—indeed.“Rereading Rita Joe: A Hearing” is excerpted from Whiteout: How Canada Cancels Blackness by George Elliott Clarke, copyright © 2023 by George Elliott Clarke. Reprinted with permission of Véhicule Press.

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Poet, novelist, playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and critic George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, and grew up in Halifax. His acclaimed verse-novel Whylah Falls (1990), adapted for radio and stage, has been published in Chinese, while Execution Poems (2001) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. The foremost scholar of African-Canadian literature, Clarke authored the foundational volumes, Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature (2002) and Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature (2012). His recent books include Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir (2021). He is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, and has taught at Duke, McGill, and Harvard.

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Whiteout: How Canada Cancels Blackness releases March 17, 2023. You can preorder at your favourite indie bookstore or request a release reminder from All Lit Up here.