This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
When Wayde Compton’s poetry collection, 49th Parallel Psalm, appeared in 1999, his debut further revealed the existence of a library of African-Canadian texts, cosmopolitan in authorship, polyphonic in accent, and simultaneously funky in roots and highfalutin in erudition. This epyllion, treating the birth of “Black Pacific” (Afro-British Columbian)—communities out of the mid-19th century self-exile of African Americans to Vancouver, Victoria, and Salt Spring Island—parades the hallmarks of Africana Canadiana: allusions to African America (Du Bois and MC-ing), diasporic experience (Fanon and reggae), Black Canadian history (Douglas and Gibbs), European and African creativity, identity issues (about being “Halfrican” or “unmixed”), and the tension between tongue and eye. Plus, Compton—like most Black Can scribes—canvasses anti-slavery, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, thus exhuming heroes and excavating histories. (See the Canuck KKK, the politesse of B.N.A., economic apartheid, etc.) Such politicized poetics/aesthetics render African-Canadian books the most complex in Canadian literature, and 49th Parallel Psalm is a premiere example.
Indeed, it ain’t simple: Compton’s cosmology fuses vaudou and The Wizard of Oz; his technique is pun, neologism, and cross-over turntabling, drafting signifying monkeys and shady tricksters. His pages mirror Pound’s Cantos but sample Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Compton knows that traffic lights (a Negro invention, y’all) employ the red, green, and gold of Rastafarianism.
Compton’s masterpiece provides a West Coast vantage on an African-Canadian parley that’s often Torontocentric. I confess that I enjoy the fact that 49th Parallel Psalm is also a shout-out to “Africadian,” East Coast, literary output. Right on!
George Elliott Clarke is a poet, playwright, and in 2016 was appointed as the 7th Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.