Whylah Falls, George Elliott Clarke’s second book, is a narrative poem (or novel in verse) in seven chapters, that has never been out of print since its 1990 publication. It immediately established Clarke as a major poetic spokesman for his community by audaciously introducing a hitherto unacknowledged region into Canadian literature: Africadia. By turns joyous and sorrowful, rollicking and razor-sharp, the poem recounts the lives of poor Black Canadians in rural southwestern Nova Scotia in the 1930s. The story focuses on the Clemence family: the parents, abusive Saul and the bountiful but long-suffering Cora, Cora’s daughter Missy Jarvis from a relationship prior to Saul, their children Othello, Pushkin, Selah, Shelley and Amarantha, and the various lovers who intersect their lives, especially Xavier Zachary and Pablo Gabriel.
A Poem Driven by Myth and Emotion
Described by Clarke as an “extended lyric sequence,” Whylah Falls draws together numerous genres in an improvisatory fashion, as directed by myth and emotion. Rhymed and unrhymed renaissance and romantic song, elegy and pastoral sit alongside fragmented modernist composition. Blues riffs, jazz lines, pop and gospel standards echo through the text, punctuated by sermon phrasings and allusions spanning continents, cultures and centuries. Clarke’s story of the Clemence family is in love with language and rhythm, always outstripping the brass tacks of historical fact.
Whylah Falls is framed by two chapters entitled “The Adoration of Shelley,” in which the extravagantly romantic poet Xavier woos the rational and mistrustful Shelley. The first chapter stresses the linguistic, cultural and educational chasm between them despite their mutual attraction, while the last brings them together, each relinquishing self to appropriate the other. In between we have variations on desire: incest and subsequent suicide, unrequited love as lust, fulfilling and transformative passionate love, desire-blinded murder, and unrequited love as spirituality. The second and third editions also include a section entitled “Apocrypha” of poems not included in the first edition.
The Literary Child of Trudeau's Multicultural Canada
Whylah Falls, in form, cultural reference and theme, is a child of Pierre Trudeau’s multicultural vision of Canada (Clarke has also written a book-length dramatic poem on Trudeau). In Clarke’s pages the angst-driven, solitary CanLit search for Canadian identity runs headlong into a community-rooted kitchen party jam session. The power of Clarke’s verse narrative to give distinct voice to this community is a manifestation of social justice for those traditionally silenced in Canada. Such a manifestation has made Whylah Falls a Canadian classic.
First published in 1990 by Polestar Press, Whylah Falls won the Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry in 1991. It was produced as a CBC radio drama in 1996 and inspired a feature film — One Heart Broken Into Song — in 1999, written by Clarke and directed by Clement Virgo. As Whylah Falls: The Play it was produced in Dartmouth, Ottawa and Venice from 1997 to 2002. The play version was published by Playwrights Canada Press in 1999 and 2000, and included in Testifyin’: Contemporary African Canadian Drama in 2000. In 2000 Polestar published a second (10th anniversary) edition, with a new introduction by Clarke and a select Apocrypha. Whylah Falls was a Canada Reads selection in 2002, championed by renowned Jamaican-born science fiction and fantasy writer Nalo Hopkinson. Also in 2001 it was published by Goose Lane Editions as a CBC Between the Covers audio book. In 2010 Gaspereau Press published the 3rd edition of Whylah Falls.