Maple Leaf Rag

Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos

“I chose Maple Leaf Rag as my book’s title because if it fuses jazz music with our national symbology. While the title celebrates the unity of black culture and Canadian culture, it also suggests a malais, a critique,” says Kaie Kellough.

Kaie Kellough, a well traveled dub poet now living in Montreal, writes of the people everyone writes of when talking about Blacks and their fight for equality: Martin Luther King and Malcom X.  Not to knock these men but it does get tiring when everyone mentions their names as if no other Black heroes and heroines exist. So, when Kellough writes of rarely mentioned Black heroes alongside never mentioned Black heroines you begin to see how special his collection is.

Kellough’s poem flux, the first in Maple Leaf Rag, mentions one of Canada’s most important historical figures that people do not learn about in most school settings: Marie Joseph Angelique.  Angelique was a slave accused of burning down her owners house and half of Old Montreal in the 1700s.  (Read Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique to learn more about this brave woman.)  Angelique is not the focus of the poem but her presence is appreciated:

“i flex forth and froth back as angeliques ashes.”

Although Angelique is gone she is not forgotten.  Whether she did cause the fire is disputed.  What is clear is that for some Black writers like Kellough and Cooper who try to bring a certain conciousness to Canadians about their omitted history Angelique’s fire burns on.

Not only does Kellough flex and froth he runs smooth like a current. Flux starts out with “i am the river” and flows through history, identity, peoples and places all through clever word play.  Kellough becomes a body of water that spans hundreds of years from the colonization of Turtle Island to slavery to our present day.  He ends with:

“i am the river.  my lisp fuses english, french, iroquois, kreyol.”

Kellough’s flow goes further than most poets and his writing of Angelique is just one example.

Have you heard of “Jelly Roll” Morton? 

jelly roll in canaan land is again more than a poem, it is a history lesson.  “Jelly Roll” Morton is the inventor of jazz.  A Creole man from New Orleans, “Jelly Roll” saw all the hardships Blacks faced and pressed on to bring the world the beautiful music we now know as jazz.  Morton was described by whites as:

“a real character that one.  watch him.  a flashy coon who plays cat house tunes.”

Kellough writes of Morton being “high-yellow” and many whites accepting him for having lighter skin.  He writes of whites not knowing the difference between peoples from “senegal, cote d’ivoire, martinque, nouvelle-orleans, quebec, acadie.”  Sadly, many whites still don’t know or care that there are differences.   

Nothing stopped Morton the visionary: “you knew that you were making history: you had come like the magi bearing gifts: culture, news from the wider world, the sound of music to come.” 

Kellough fuses history and the present when writing, “the slave becomes the emissary of culture.  Today’s stained skin is tomorrow’s beauty.”

How things change!

In pardner hand savings plan Kellough teaches the reader about indentured (neo slaves) workers who were taken to England from Jamaica in the 1950s: 

“shipped across to land

on the I, the one

the island, the wicked step

mother inglan.  origin of this jutting

tongue that licks us down.”

Jamaicans were “indentured to rebuild a blitzed britain”, wanted were their “hands and backs alone”, and “once the imperial capital is rebuilt, we shall be weround with paid passage back home.”    

The pardner hand was a savings method practiced by these groups of Jamaicans on cheque day.  Everyone pooled together to give one person a tenth of their cheque and the recipient would rotate from week to week.  In tough times like these the pardner hand might be one method to ease economic stress.

Kellough again shows his difference in showcasing a current fighter who has already made history rather than go the conventional route of putting Muhammad Ali on a pedestal; an overdone practice. 

In the executioner, Kellough writes of Black Philadelphia boxer Bernard Hopkins.  Hopkins is the self proclaimed “American Dream”.  Born in a ghetto and doing five years in prison, he literally fought his way out of poverty:

“i have fought everywhere, from streetcorner scrums in south philly, with twenty brothers in a tight circle barking and betting filthy, crumpled money, to jimmied jailhouse rings: blankets spread on a concrete floor.”

From homemade rings to fighting on the biggest stage in Las Vegas, Kellough accurately describes Hopkins when writing “i am the darkhorse that tramples critics’ predictions”.  Kellough’s description of the sweet science is just as accurate:    

“boxing is no democracy.  the poor are cast, spoiled ballots, into its deciding ring.”   

The dedication to Bernard Hopkins is inspiring and true but there lacks of critique of a fallacy Hopkins continually promotes: The American Dream. In such a clever and critical collection Kellough does not highlight one of the major things that keeps many people of colour down, has them drown in rivers at the U.S-Mexico border, and is the foundation of slavery and colonization: greed masked as a dream.   

Kellough not only entertains the reader with his poetry he teaches them about people and places they might not have heard of.  His lessons are at times subtle, “a rebound from this transatlantic transplantation, and overt, “shackled in a shack on ile goree, or labored through the middle passage”.  

Kellough is not ragging on the maple leaf.  Rather, he paints it’s true colours: red, black, white, and all the colours that have come and are coming.  Too bad our flag wasn’t created by Kellough and people who think like him.  His collection brings much needed truth, colour, and history.  

Tune into Black Coffee Poet February 2, 2011 for an inclusive interview with Kaie Kellough.


About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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