How does a self-described “word-sound systemizer” convey the syncopations of his “bop inflected vox” onto a printed page? Montrealer Kaie Kellough’s second collection, true to its title Maple Leaf Rag after the Scott Joplin composition, does just that and then some. In his preface “readeradar,” Kellough explains that “it fuses jazz music with our national symbology. while the title celebrates the unity of black culture and canadian culture, it also suggests a malaise, a critique.”
One poem which fuses the histories is “X over.” It refers to Count Basie’s visit to Montreal in 1924 via his “as told to” Albert Murray autobiography, Good Morning Blues. All these details are in the poem itself, where line breaks, positioned to privilege the line’s final element, focus vocal stress on indefinite article and word-initial “a”s:
[…], winter hinter
landed: pg X, good morning blues. (autobio told thru a-
frican medium. a-
lbert murray to a-
nonymous reader a
sojourner, dreamer, seeker a-
river at the a-
t the x.
Kellough’s poems celebrate many musicians, among whom Fats Domino, “Jelly Roll” Morton, Oliver Jones & Ranee Lee, and David Hinds (in a context unrelated to reggae).
Kellough also drives his rhythms with rhyme, as in “night gallery/ reggae nights at the night gallery, calgary, circa 1995”—here, the chorus: “no lovers’ rock nor slackness talk/ gunman cock nor backward walk/ alternative nor classic rock/ strictly roots/ rule nonstop[.]”
Yet another technique is alliteration as in “babylon’s b-side,” a poem entirely composed of words beginning with “B” (or rather “b”) which allude to politics and history: “bus back benches/ birminghams// burning building beacons/ boss beelzebubs// boasts big brother[.]” Closer to home with its French title is “p pour profilage/ (a chant)” which begins with the couplet “pro phylogenic profiling police policy/ pro prejudice profiling police praxis” and segues to a naming of neighbourhoods—“piques n.d.g./ peeves côte des neiges/ perturbs burgundy[.]”
The most intriguing poem in this collection is the quiet “glib bilge/ for g.e.c.” which responds directly to George Elliott Clarke’s riff on Kellough’s prosody in “Of Black English, or Pig Iron Latin/ for Kaie Kellough” (in Blues and Bliss: the Poetry of George Elliott Clarke). The near-palindrome of Kellough’s title is from Clarke’s lines, “Zounds! My lyrics was tin-plate/ Not steel-sheet, some gift of gabble/ Une blague, maybe glib bilge.” Kellough’s “glib bilge,” already ironic in its 3-page length, is all the more thought-provoking given the other poems sharing the book. And its very presence attests to a daring publisher as well as a daring poet.
Among the poems sharing the book are several in which Kellough lets his sound schemes flow through longer lines and prose paragraphs. The poet’s diction remains driven by acoustics, but the inclusion of more function words leads to less compressed syntax so the poems become melodic breathers between the faster-paced syncopations. Notable among these is the first poem, “flux/ fleuve st-laurent.” The opening sentences set the tone: “i am the river. my ripples shift shaping glyphs. can you read me? the iroquois could – by the glint the sun shot over my liquid lips.” The poem’s ending echoes this beginning: “i am the river. my lisp fuses english, french, iroquois, kreyol. your grammar is a quick dip, a watery wisp of the babel that cabals in my thrall to the sea.” The poem becomes a credo of Kellough’s poe/li/tics throughout Maple Leaf Rag and is certainly in itself worth the price of admission.
Maxianne Berger is the author of Dismantled Secrets (Wolsak and Wynn, 2008).