A Reckoning with the Prairies

Kaie Kellough, Magnetic Equator (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2019); 103 pages; ISBN 978-0771043116 (softcover)

• October 2020

Kaie Kellough is a name that deserves to be far better known. Having lived at various points in Calgary, Vancouver, and Montreal—cities where black diasporas have localized in particular ways—Kellough pushes hard against forms of inheritance to find original ways to voice the complex particulars of black experience, something that he has been doing thoughtfully since the publication of his first poetry collection, Lettricity, in 2004.1 His new collection of poetry, Magnetic Equator, is no less ambitious in terms of the sustained pressure Kellough puts on poetic form, but it offers a more personal engagement with particular geographies, including Georgetown, Guyana; Calgary, Alberta; and Montreal. It is a deeply moving and necessary collection that teaches us so much about the nature of black affective attachments to places, even places that are fundamentally constituted by their “refusal” (57) of blackness.

A set of queries define the central concerns of this collection:

                                                               questions: how can a place that’s
absent be more prescient than one that is                                   how
         wait              can a thought be unbounded territory can a person live in a
particular place for 20 years yet only be “in” and not “of” that
         vernacular      how can a person return to the place they are “from” yet
suddenly realize                             the stereo is on (29)

The collection is centrally concerned with place and with the nature of black affective attachment to difficult geographies.

The ten sections of the collection, organized loosely around particular diasporic locations—Georgetown, Guyana, in the opening section; the Canadian prairies in the middle; and a range of diasporic locations toward the end—explore the peculiar doubleness that frequently characterizes diasporic experience of place, of living in the “stereo” of overlapping geographies. Kellough finds formal ways of expressing this doubling. Two striking visual poems in the collection, “bow” and “essequibo,” impose passages from the book on top of mapped images of the Bow and Essequibo Rivers (which flow in Alberta and Guyana, respectively), thus materializing the stereoscopic experience of place.

In the opening section of the collection, Kellough begins his exploration of place by reworking the image of Dionne Brand’s “Door of No Return”: he figures it hovering not in the Atlantic but in the mist above Kaieteur Falls in Guyana.2 The implication here is that while the “Door to Africa” is closed to those whose ancestors suffered the voyage of the Middle Passage, there is another door that remains open to those who arrived in Canada from Guyana. Indeed, the first series of poems in this collection relate the poet-speaker’s return to the country of his mother’s birth during a trip to bury his uncle. As he tells us,

                                                                                        i have heard my
relatives say they don’t want to be buried in the cold ground       a refutation of
this place where they have wintered, years, a refutation of their own refusal
here, a double negative, a final rebuke to issue, a final no, I refuse you who
refused me, forever. (57)

Like the uncle, the first generation of Guyanese in Canada can refuse “this discriminating earth,” choosing instead to be buried “in a green eternity” (57). But what of the children of this generation? To where do the second generation, those born in Canada, return when there is no lived experience of elsewhere? Rather than pass through the door of return to Guyana, then, the poet-speaker recognizes that what has become necessary is an imaginative return—a reckoning—with the prairie of his youth. The poems that comprise this reckoning, which come in the section “high school fever: nowhere prairie,” constitute the emotional center of the collection, and it is here that Kellough contributes to the black prairie archive—a newly uncovered regional archive of black Canadian writing that brings together work from 1872 to the present—some of the bravest and most powerful poems yet written.3

Of growing up on the prairies in the 1980s, the decade that saw apartheid, Oka, and Desert Storm, Kellough writes, “these were the worst years of my life” (23). Kellough so skillfully elaborates the normative social violence of these times that anyone who has spent any part of their youth on the prairies will startle at the clarity of his remembrance. He captures the cis-het white male dominance that saturates prairie life and that culminates in violence perpetrated on black and indigenous bodies and on the land:

                                         this shithole built by bitumen, this fort
            where raw tobacco, chili peppers, alcohol were stirred
in the bottom of a barrel, where gunpowder and fire-water
       were served, this inflamed adolescence of the human experience
at the saddledome, at the hockey game, in don
            cherry’s swollen pituitary grandstand, in between periods (20)

“there were the teachers who forced us to our knees and demanded to / know if we had brains under our afros,” Kellough writes (69). It is no wonder, given this context, that the poet-speaker claims, “i wanted to be certain, i wanted to be heterosexual and / popular, not a black cretin” (23). He is startlingly honest about the toll it takes to grow up in such a white supremacist social order. Christina Sharpe, in In the Wake, asks about “what it takes in the midst of the singularity, the virulent antiblackness everywhere and always remotivated, to keep breath in the Black body.”4 Kellough’s verse shows that that such “aspiration” is not always possible. The poet-speaker’s reckoning with the prairies involves revisiting the scene in which his teenaged self organizes his “exodus” from the prairies by suicide:

                                                                               i was the only
       boy who did not dream of sex with the stanley cup, but of suicide
in the back seat, breathing carbon monoxide as exodus
          sang my body into the emptiness above the dust
and yellow grass, the gopher holes and the hot asphalt, up
          over the foothills and rockies, out of the suburbs of

 

The poem thus ends mid-line, a third of the way down the page, and the blankness that then confronts the reader is powerfully haunting (20).

Yet even as Kellough significantly details the antiblack violence of the prairies of his youth—“why we depart for toronto and montreal, what we swear to never turn back to” (71)—he never disavows his complex affective attachment to the region. This attachment is expressed both formally and thematically in this collection. Formally, Kellough’s poetry can be situated in the tradition of experimental black prairie writing; there are echoes here between his work and that of Trinidadian-Albertan writer Claire Harris, for instance. As Harris writes in her 1992 long poem, Drawing Down a Daughter,

Child   all i have to give
is English which hates/fears your
black skin
                          make it
                                          d
                                              a             c
                                                    n            e
                                      s
                                                i           g
to sunlight on the Caribbean5

Like Harris’s, Kellough’s lines explore the possibility of imaginatively connecting Caribbean and Canadian geographies and of Creolizing English to create a new hybrid prairie-Caribbean form of expression.

Thematically, Kellough’s collection professes an enduring attachment to the Canadian prairie. In the strongest poem in Magnetic Equator, the one that knocked me flat, the poet-speaker looks back to the prairies from the vantage point of his adopted city of Montreal, to admit,

                                                    i am in my home
            dumb among all I own, in a strange city at midnight
maple trees out the window, cool rippled
            laughter, cigarette smoke, and french
whose speakers don’t give a shit about john ware,
            the black cowboy, or teenage auto-erotic
asphyxiation that ended in unintentional
            suicide, circa 1990,
or me. (22)

While merging with the larger black diasporas of Montreal and Toronto may make for a less isolating existence in Canada, the poet-speaker maintains an awareness of being a part of/apart from a unique black culture forged on the prairies, one that is all the more precious for what we know it has had to do to survive.

 

Karina Vernon is an associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she researches and teaches Canadian literature, with a special focus on black Canadian literature, archives, critical race theory, multiculturalism, and black-indigenous solidarities. She is the editor of The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2020), which brings to light a previously hidden archive of black writing, from eighteenth-century black fur traders to contemporary writers.


1. Kaie Kellough, Lettricity: Poems (Montreal: Cumulus, 2004).

2. See Dionne Brand, A Map of the Door of No Return (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2001).

3. See Karina Vernon, ed., The Black Prairies: An Anthology (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2020).

4. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016),109.

5. Claire Harris, Drawing Down a Daughter (Fredericton, New Brunswick: Goose Lane, 1992), 25.