George Elliott Clarke - Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues

George Elliott Clarke’s debut collection of poetry illustrates the spiritual past of the Nova Scotia Black Community, going back to the early days of their settlement in the province. A lyrical and harsh consideration of an often romanticized province, these poems depict both the beauty of Nova Scotia’s settlement and its literal, rocky development and problems. While the collection focuses mostly on Nova Scotia, particularly the Annapolis Valley and Halifax, Clarke still spirits readers to Virginia and Paris.

Rich and full of alliteration, these poems are thick and layered with meaning and history. Allusions to people and places are common, some of them historical tidbits that require some background. “Campbell Road Church” (Campbell Road being the former name of Barrington Street in Halifax’s north end) details the bulldozing of Africville in the 1960s to make way for “progress” at the expense of a close-knit Black community. Clarke’s history is not of the textbook variety as settlers wrest “a potato crop / from the boulder-barren, stone-strewn soil / of Beechville, Nova Scotia” and Black settlers in the poem “Beech Hill African Baptist Church”  eke out a living working land peppered with rocks akin to those found in Peggy’s Cove.

Three sections divide this collection, each closing with photographs depicting Black history, the subjects including dockworkers and community members of Preston. The first section is a handful of poetic portraits of Black churches that dot the province, including the two mentioned above, as well as churches in Liverpool and Guysborough. Each poem is not an exact portrait of a church, but a depiction of the people and the land they inhabit, as well as themes of race, where “worms work out a final solution / to the problems of race” in “Amherst African Methodist Episcopal Church.”

The second section features a diverse array of poems. “Watercolour for Negro Expatriates in France” takes readers away from Weymouth Falls and into a cosmopolitan world where one can “ride monet’s shimmering water lillies” and where “scatalogical ragtime reggae haunts the caverns of le metro.” However, Nova Scotia is not forgotten, as “East Coasting,” with its depiction of “bagpipe jazz hymns,” brings together Black culture and the Tartan idealization of Nova Scotia’s Scottish heritage.

Richard Preston is the speaker of the poems in the third and final section of this collection. A former slave and Black refugee of the War of 1812, Preston arrived from Virginia and brought his denomination to Nova Scotia, setting up the African United Baptist Association. This journey is detailed throughout the section, in poems including “Genealogy,” “Virginia,” and “Granville Mountain.” Far more luminous and spiritual than any textbook rendering of the abolitionist Preston’s influence on Black spirituality in Nova Scotia, these poems make him both larger than life and simply human.

Though Clarke’s collection deals with spirituality and religion, he writes sensuous poetry that links passion and religion. In “love poem / song regarding Weymouth Falls” Clark conflates this sensuousness with geography until one is not certain whether he is depicting a passionate scene between lovers or a pastoral depiction of the province’s terrain. Love is also a vehicle for experiencing religion, as the poem “XVII – Shelley” suggests: "ah, gird up they loins, young man; / light up they lamp, little sister; / for you know not when the Lord will come / to Weymouth Falls."

Clearly, the spirituality that sustains the people in these poems is vigorous, for Clarke often draws on images of flames to depict the passions the earlier settlers felt for their religion. The poems about Richard Preston are especially vivid with the fire of the New Lights: “their combustion birthing a flaming church, / a true new light chapel” in “I – Invocation of the Prophet.”

Clarke was twenty-three-years-old when Pottersfield Press published this collection. Though it is out of print, Dalhousie University has a copy of it online at the George Elliott Clarke Collection.