Be sure to check out the YouTube link at the end of this review for a spell-binding performance by Kaie Kellough!
Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010
Signifying the Tradition:
Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag
by Camille Martin
Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag is an exemplary Influency text—a model of intertextuality that weaves together history, genres, disciplines, and processes. Its historical themes include the history of the African Diaspora, the Middle Passage, slavery, the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, and the lingering racism experienced by people of colour. It’s also in dialogue with musical and oral traditions: jazz, blues, reggae, bebop, and dub poetry. In its blending of the oral and written, it pays tribute to the strength of both. And it engages issues of social justice, infusing its rhymes, rhythms and wordplay with the caveat to remain vigilant about racial prejudice.
Maple Leaf Rag pays homage to black culture and also engages in a lively dialogue with traditions. And this doubleness is important to the heritage in which the text swims. On the one hand, its identity is linked with the history and experiences in black culture. On the other hand, it also uses processes within that tradition to “play the dozens” with its own heritage, to riff, pun, encode, and ironize its text, so that the book is a continually shape-shifting, meaning-splitting exploration of moments leading to its own creation.
This tradition of intertextuality in black literary history is explored in a landmark book of criticism, Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. In African, Caribbean, and African-American mythology, the trickster figures of Esu and of the Signifying Monkey represent messenger types (like the Greek god Hermes) who convey and interpret messages between the gods and humans (5, 6, 8). Some of the qualities of Esu include “satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty.”(6). Above all, this mythical figure represents “figurative language and its interpretation” (6).
Gates summarizes the ways in which these tricksters inform the entire lineage of black culture, from pre-slavery Africa to the present. First, he describes a double-voiced discourse, a tension between oral traditions and the written page that manifests as “finding a voice in writing” (21).
A second type of doubleness in the black vernacular tradition arising from the trickster figures of Esu and the Monkey “undercuts . . . the literal” and “privilege[s] the figurative and the ambiguous.” Think of this doubleness as the very figure of a metaphor, a dance between the literal and the figurative.
A third rhetorical strategy that arises from the trickster myths is the “indeterminacy of interpretation” (22). For Gates, this means that “[t]he text . . . is not fixed in any determinate sense; in one sense, it consists of the dynamic and indeterminate relationship between truth on the one hand and understanding on the other”(25). In “the highly structured rhetoric of the Signifying Monkey” in “Afro-American vernacular discourse,” “a chain of signifiers [is] open to (mis)understanding. The open-endedness of figurative language, rather than its single-minded closure, is inscribed in the myths of the Signifying Monkey” (42). Signifying “is a rhetorical practice that is not engaged in the game of information-giving”; instead, it “wreaks havoc upon the signifier” and thus “meaning is deferred” (52, 53). There is a “repeated stress on the sheer materiality, and the willful play, of the signifier itself” (59). Signifying doesn’t so much preach but instead sends its message indirectly, through verbal play and wit.
In short, the Signifying Monkey is “he who dwells at the margin of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” (52).
Gates also emphasizes an important rhetorical strategy in black literary tradition, related to the trickster trope of interpretation and revision: intertextuality or pastiche. He quotes Kimberly W. Benston’s definition of “genealogical revisionism”:
All Afro-American literature may be seen as one vast
genealogical poem that attempts to restore continuity
to the ruptures or discontinuities imposed
by the history of the black presence in America. (123)
As Gates puts it, “pastiche” is literary history naming itself. . . . Writers Signify upon each other’s texts by rewriting the received textual tradition”(124). Referring to the texts of others can serve the purpose of homage, with no criticism implied, or critical, implying some kind of revision or critique of the text: repetition and revision (79).
I’d like to explore Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag through the lens of the signifying tradition in oral and written black culture. Kellough’s introduction, entitled “readeradar,” alerts us to the disrupting and deferring of meaning through puns and double-talk as well as through the sound or oral element of the poetry:
sound guides each poem, often to a place where words
are splintered, meanderings belaboured, & meanings
are blurred. sometimes sense is suspended, sent up,
upended while sound is riffed on, the way a jazz
singer swerves from word to scat. some of these poems
are kin to the blues while others are jazz offspring.
I have tried to make the words scat, sing, swing. to this
end i’ve spaced them out on the page in dense prose
blocks, loose spiralling helices, narrow
descending lyrics, hand-drawn diagrams, &
so forth. (13)
The vernacular tradition on which Kellough draws also embraces music, which like a scat singer splays and reorders syllables that come in and out of meaning, always repeating, giving the sense of continuity, and revising, giving a sense of transformation, of never staying in one place. To the element of sound he adds the musical scoring of words on the page, in an imitation of the syncopations of jazz.
In “readeradar,” Kellough also points to the project of intertextuality in his poems:
these poems contain numerous references to
black canadian, caribbean, and african american
culture: from hair styles to slave cemeteries,
athletics to immigration, musicians to
rainbow coalitions. (13)
Thus in Kellough’s introduction are strong clues that he is drawing on the traditions that Gates analyzes in The Signifying Monkey. In the first of the three main characteristics of the signifying tradition, Gates demonstrates in much written black literature the meeting of—and tension between—oral and written traditions. Likewise, Kellough’s poems in this collection explore the conjunction of sound and writing; of, on the one hand, dub poetry and musical practice, and on the other, their arrangement on the page as if in a musical score. Two obvious examples of this conjunction occur in the real score notated on pp. 73-74, as well as in “word sound system #2” (32), which explores various permutations of “word” and “sound,” and invites the reader to imagine how it might sound if performed. The mind’s ear is a powerful compulsion in many of these poems.
And in the strongly rhythmic “block rock” (53-55), the percussive repetitions and revisions of “BOOM BOOM BAP” alternate with lines that bring together the rhythmic bouncing of basketballs on asphalt, “life’s hard knock,” babies being rocked to sleep, “junkies,” the rhythms of life on the street, jazz, “funk talk,” and most ominously, the “morse code” of “gunshots.” In the onomatopoeic and ever-shifting “BOOM BOOM BAP” lines is a sense of the materiality of the words: they are nonsense words imitating the basketball’s bouncing. But these word-sounds also create a nether-space of pure rhythm overlain with meaning, as the words shift to “BOON,” “DOOM,” BOOM,” and “CLAP,” which parallel the shifting significations of the joyous as well as dangerous rhythms of life.
In a similar way, “échos / montréal nord, 11 août, 2008” (33) with its strong visual and aural components, reflects on violence begetting violence, which echoes and reveberates like the sound of a revolver shooting. The idea of echoing gunshots is achieved by the anaphoric repetition of “BLAMM” in large, bold font that diminishes like a receding echo with each line. The main subject of the poem is the Montreal police shooting, without provocation, of unarmed citizens. The date in the subtitle refers to a night of rioting in North Montreal to protest the allegedly unprovoked police shooting of Fredy Villanueva (the “unarmed brown boy,” an eighteen-year-old Latino man), which echoes in turn the police shooting of Anthony Griffin, a nineteen-year-old man who allegedly was also unjustly shot and killed by Montreal police. Marcellus Wallace, the fictional drug kingpin in the film Pulp Fiction is apparently mentioned as a symbol of violence begetting violence, this time in the world of organized crime and drug trafficking.
The violence that reverberates through the poem seems to be the result of the riot: “the eye socket ruptured by a rock,” the “molotov,” the storefront (“vitrine”) smashed by a bat, the “bricks . . . batter[ing]” an “ambulance.” It also echoes the “slug” of rum the police captain downs and the “shutter” of the “reporter’s camera” as well as his “deadline” for getting in the story. In the last line, “BLAMM” has become “BALMM.” The morning is personified as begging for an end to the violence, replacing it with the soothing balm of its soft light.
“quittin’ rhyme / blues-bop for Kim” (22) sets to paper the fast pace and short, crisp, rhyming lines of bebop music. The tight and intricately interwoven rhymes of the short and long “i” sounds and word repetitions create a bebop effect. The poem is also rich in assonance, rhymes, half-rhymes, and alliteration, accentuating its musicality.
The poem is in three sections, each introduced by the same tercet:
if you quit me
on the quick
split me in a lick
This tercet introduces patterns that are repeated and varied throughout: the “if” subordinate clause, which introduces a cause-and-future-effect pattern: “if you quit me . . . my heels’ll kick me.”
The fast-paced repetition of “you” and “me” give the poem a sense of urgency as well as humour. “Quick” means both suddenly and “alive”; the latter meaning contrasts with the various plays on death, such as the speaker’s heart stopping, digging a pit or ending up in a ditch, his kissing a chill glass lip, diving into die, wilting, and being blasted by ice.
The rhythm of the poem slows down in two places: the “tlick / tlock. tlick / tlock / ’ll seize / stop” of the speaker’s heart. The tripping meter of the opening tercet is slowed down to the spondaic rhythms of his beating heart.
It also slows down in the last line, whose rhythm is so different from the trippingly light rhythms of most of the poem, it arrests the reading and draws attention to the startling image of a “flower blasted by ice.”
The poem’s insistent short i’s suddenly become long i’s in the third section: “dive . . . die . . . jive . . . spite . . . like . . . vice,” then briefly return to a couple of short i’s (will . . . wilt) and then the final long i of “ice” delivers the sucker punch.
The poem’s theme is as old as poetry itself: the spurned lover. But in the poem, the lover’s misery becomes an festival of rhythms and rhymes that belies the bitter occasion of the poem’s creation. We should also be so fortunate with such sublimation of pain.
As a dub poet himself, Kellough dips into the dub tradition in “boyhood dub / self portrait” (25). The poem creates strong rhythms emphasized by the short lines. The poem’s musicality is brought out by rhymes, half-rhymes, and assonance playing and echoing off one another, as well as interwoven word plays, puns that expand the meaning and enlarge the semantic possibilities of the text.
“boyhood dub” (25, 26) is a paean to reggae music—especially the experience of becoming lost in its “riddims.” The speaker of the poem is in Montreal during the winter, listening to a record of Bob Marley accompanied by the I-Threes. He’s grooving to the music and creates a kind of fantasy of being in Jamaica listening to a live performance. His imaginary world is strong and detailed: he imagines the parts of the drum set (tom, steel, hi-hat) and the organ and the skank of the guitar (strumming on the off-beats). But Anansie, the Spider (a West African and Caribbean trickster figure) spins a thread and climbs down the wooden “trunk” of the electronic speaker, bringing the fantasy back to reality: the “sham isle” has feather dusters for flocks of tropical birds, a wooden woofer instead of a tree trunk, a light bulb and electric fan instead of a tropical sun and breeze.
However much the “cynic winter” murders his fantasy, memory once again draws him into the music, gives him a sense of connectedness to the history of the African diaspora and slavery (“toiling,” “coffled”).
The last words of the poem (“real me”) can be read in several ways: 1) as an imperative to make the world of reggae real, to bring it to life instead of “failing to wail” in a “vapid living room,” 2) “reel” as in to reel with dizzyiness or joy, 3) to “reel” in a fish, as the music is reeling him in (with Anansi’s silk line?), and 4) “reel” as in spin (the record, the fan). If the music isn’t the real thing (he’s listening to a record in cold Montreal, in a rather sterile environment, it nonetheless makes him feel more real, give him a sense of self, of identity, and connects him with the stream of Black heritage.
My last example of Kellough’s use of music forms and oral tradition on the printed page is the poem written in a traditional twelve-bar blues form, “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” (37). Here’s the first stanza, each line constituting two of the twelve bars:
When I get to heaven
Ima ditty on in
When I get to heaven
Ima bop on in.
st. peter best
park my wings.
The blues form creates a strong auditory effect as the reader imagines hearing the words sung to the traditional blues harmony.
Of course, in all of these poems exemplifying Kellough’s written expression of oral and musical traditions, we can also see ways in which the strong element of sound, playing with word sounds and shifting their meanings, as in “blam” to “balm,” and “boom” to “boon” to “doom,” splays the meaning, splitting the words and re-splicing them in new contexts to create a slippery progression of meanings that reverberate, recalling Gates’ description of the repetition and revision of signifying texts.
I’d like to return briefly to “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” as a poem that exemplifies the idea of intertextuality, which is integral to the signifying tradition. The historical Simon the Cyrene was from a Jewish community in present-day Libya; according to some Gospels, he was compelled by Romans to carry the cross for Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. Because he lived in northern Africa, Simon has become known as the first African saintly Christian. In passion plays, his character is often played by black actors (such as Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier). “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” imaginatively blends the identity of Simon the Cyrene and a Harlem blues singer invoking a heaven for himself after a life of suffering under racial discrimination. In this poem Simon fantasizes going to heaven as a passage into a music club, where St. Peter will park his wings and Paul as “maître-d” will give him the best seat next to the stage. “Jesus in an apron” will serve him “rum ’n rocks.” The angels will be “sepia-fine,” “brown as praise.” Famous entertainers from Harlem Renaissance days will perform for him: Josephine Baker, James P. Johnson, and Willie the Lion, and Fats Waller. In other words, in heaven, he will be given the best seat in the house, whereas in life because of his race he was denied entry into some Harlem clubs, such as the Cotton Club, despite the fact that most of the entertainers were black.
There’s another tradition that Kellough riffs on in this poem. Depicting biblical characters as black has a tradition dating back to the first converted slaves in the sixteenth century and reaching a zenith during the 1920s and 1930s, especially during the Harlem Renaissance (Pinder 223). Countee Cullen’s conflation of Christ with the lynched black man in his long poem “The Black Christ” (1929) is one of the most famous examples.
As Kellough dips into the long and rich history of black culture in Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, he recovers voices and details that might otherwise be forgotten. For example, “pardner hand savings plan” describes the experience of African and Caribbean blacks recruited to help rebuild British cities damaged by German blitz attacks during World War II. This immigration began with the arrival of about 500 Jamaicans on the Windrush in 1948, who sought greater economic opportunities and were attracted by the low boat fare. Pioneers in the racial diversification of Great Britain following World War II and dissolution of the British Empire, these immigrants were often given jobs of hard labour, and they faced racism and discrimination (Facing History). To cope with their adversity in their new home country, many of them formed benevolent societies to benefit, in turn, each member of the society, with a lump sum gathered from the tithing of all.
In the poem, the labour is described as de facto indentured servitude, a postcolonial extension of imperialist use and abuse of black labour. Uprooted and degraded in the country where they wished to improve their lot, these immigrants often felt themselves to be in a cultural limbo, wanted for their labour but shunned by racist attitudes. As if to emphasize their conflicted and transcultural identity, Kellogh, in a twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, describes these labourers as the “ghosts / of empires past,” and in an ironic echo of the social strata of India, once part of the British Empire, as the “untouchable caste.”
Similarly, “the executioner” (63) recalls the story of Bernard Hopkins, African-American champion boxer. Written in the first person, the prose poem is a boasting, rollicking autobiographical rant that ends with a mythical ascension to the sun to become “the pure light beamed into your living room” as “you, dark doubter and cynic, flick on your television, receive my violent illumination.” The bright light of the television screen is likened to the “leather-melting ring-lights” and to the sun to which he ascends like an Icarus whose wings are immune to melting.
“jelly roll in canaan land” (19) recounts the story of the early New Orleans jazz musician’s stay in Vancouver, an interesting note in the history of jazz.
And lastly, “the didnt dues / for nobody” (44) also riffs on moments or aspects of African-American culture and history. Using the repetition of “I didnt,” the speaker ironically denies playing a part in or emulating any of them, from bebop to the rainbow coalition to the crip walk to jheri curls.
The last words, “national dearth” sounds like “national debt”; “debt” combined with the “dues” of the title turn the “didn’t’s” of the poem into an ironic statement of apathy, whereas vigilance against racism should foster a sense of indebtedness toward those who have contributed to Black culture or paid their dues in creating awareness about racism. The action of the 1968 athletes with fists raised in a Black Power salute becomes here a metaphor for thrusting the fists through the national dearth or debt, suggesting either a lack of awareness of racism or an indifference to the need for vigilance against its roots.
The poems in Maple Leaf Rag participate in the long and venerable tradition of genealogical revisionism; the words and meanings of its poems, disrupted by rhythmic splitting and splicing, multiplied by its polyphonies, both rupture and heal. These are poems of defiance and anger against racism, past and present. They are poems of vigilance, rattling the cage of complacency. They are poems of joy and playfulness reveling in expressions of black culture. And they are poems recovering pieces and voices of history in danger of being forgotten by a generation who sometimes feel themselves to be untouched by the historical baggage of discrimination and xenophobia, despite the official Canadian mantra of multiculturalism.
Cullen, Countee. The Black Christ and Other Poems. New York: Harper, 1929.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Identity and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain. London: Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, 2009.
Pinder, Kymberly N. “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” African American Review 31.2 (1997): 223-33.