This guest blog generously provided by George Bancroft – third in a series celebrating Black History Month. George is a student at the University of Toronto, and works at the Office of Shelley Carroll, a Municipal Councillor for the City of Toronto. Stay tuned to the Indigo Blog for future instalments.
Dionysus Song (Understanding Through The Senses)
I can remember in my first year of high school, my teacher placing Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in front of me and asking what I thought it meant. By now I’ve forgotten what I said but I know that I tried to make it sound sophisticated. It’s embarrassing to admit, but at the time I admired the romanticism of story of the man over the art itself. A young poet, dead before 25, unappreciated during his life time, adored only after his passing.
And then there was of course the love affair with Fanny Brawne.
Years later I would see a poster for a biopic on the last years of the poets life. I'd give it a shot - see if it rekindled any old ideas.
The movie would paraphrase a quote found in Keats’ Collected Letters – this one to his brothers George and Thomas from Hampstead dated Dec. 22nd 1817. Sitting in a study in winter alone with Fanny, the adapted Keats would use the concepts within this letter to explain to her how he viewed poetry:
"A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."I realize it’s kind of corny to cite a movie but - nonetheless…
I met one of my closest friends at my first job working receiving in the back of a Chapters Bookstore. Half the time we worked, half the time we'd talk. And of no small affairs either. They say old men see visions and young men dream dreams. Dream we did. With an unnerving consistency, whatever we talked about, whatever we fought tooth and nail over, reduced itself to one side Plato, one side Aristotle, one side Apollo, one side Dionysus. And there it would end, neither side having the power to completely overthrow the other. The two sides would call it a draw and we'd go back to unloading boxes and stacking dollys.
Sometimes I wonder how much of this, all of it, is a Dionysian dream. In the past weeks we've looked at analysis of the Afro-Canadian experience, parsed the different epochs and points of origin to make sense of where we find ourselves. But does this give us a complete picture? In school they formalize it - call in ethnographic analysis. We're forced to abandon our attempt to look for universal moral or social law and told to focus solely on the example; the lines of significance, the nexus of meaning that exist within and for the particular example alone.
Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood is the story of a post war generation, of a nation asserting itself, but, more than this, it is a story of a nine year old girl and her family. Rachel Manley, the author, is the daughter of Michael Manley, Jamaica's fourth Prime Minister and the Granddaughter of Norman Manley, the Jamaican Premier that brought Jamaica its independence. Her story orbits around Drumblair - the family home they all lived in, something almost like the White House. For my mom, who was born in Jamaica, the name Drumblair is familiar - it has its own meaning. For me the title was curious. It sounded mysterious - mystical even. Through the veil of time remembered, Rachel Manley's story unfolds. From the vantage point of a child she draws us into where we can almost feel the kitchen table meet our foreheads, the bannister’s out of reach, the muffled serious tones of adult discussion in the living room.
In Drumblair, the political history of Jamaica slips in unannounced, and the book reads like one long poem to childhood, to Jamaica, to family, in which politics makes up only one part of a larger story about the closeness of family and the parables this experience unfolds as we navigate through life.
Sitting with my mom after I'd finished the book, I had a chance to ask her about the moments Rachel Manley mentions: Norman Manley's first election victory; the forming of the People's National Party; the attempts to form a Federation of the Caribbean Islands. My mom who was nine years old at the time, told a story much like Rachel Manley's - one populated with shared national social and political sign posts but still interpreted in very personal ways.
The whole encounter made me think of No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield, a book my Dad had given me some years ago. No Crystal Stair, a fictional work, describes the experience of Afro-Canadians in Montreal in the 1940s. It’s like our very own 52nd street in some ways – describing a history of Canadian cosmopolitanism I had rarely encountered. Clubs like Rockheads and acts like Oscar Peterson were experiences from my Dad's own life in Montreal that he had wanted me to understand in some way. In its pages, No Crystal Stair traces the intricacies of that world through the characters that populate it: musicians, porters, university students and socialites. Through the eyes of Marion Willow, the story’s protagonist, we’re introduced into a world of bittersweet humour that binds the black community not only to itself, but to a surrounding community unconsciously making inroads into the multicultural society we know it to be today. The web of acquaintance and the nuance of how day to day life was lived for Montrealers and Blacks in Montreal is the tapestry of this work. The reward of dipping into it, is a unique understanding of something of what our parents and grandparents went through.
For Drumblair and No Crystal Stair, unlike previous works studied, getting lost within its dynamic is part of the process. Immersion into the world of Drumblair or No Crystal Stair reveals what at times academia chooses not see. In the end Apollo needs Dionysus – if only for a moment, we resist the shore.
Editor’s Notes: The Indigo Blog thanks George Bancroft for his third contribution. Unfortunately, at this time, Rachel Manley’s Drumblair is currently not in print, due to the publisher closing up shop last year. Mairuth Sarsfield’s No Crystal Stair is available in our stores, and online.
For those interested, many more titles can be found in Indigo.ca’s Black History Month shop, here.