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Writing Sample 5 - Sample Literary Essay - Poetry
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Jacki Sanchez
Dr. William Defoe
English 1000
March 23, 2006

Promises "shabbily fulfilled": George Elliott Clarke's "Guysborough Road Church"

      Although M. Travis Lane accuses "Guysborough Road Church" of lacking coherence, there is much more to this brief poem than a series of evocative, loosely-related images. Paradoxically, the poem holds together because it embodies two major themes in the experience of Black Nova Scotians: the pursuit of liberty on the "free" soil of Canada, and the inescapable reality of persistent oppression.

      The poem opens with what seems to be a plain statement: "we are the black loyalists." This assertion only seems straightforward but is actually historically complicated, referring to the American slaves who fled to Canada to serve the British as free soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The first group of Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783, lured northward by assurances of land and liberty. As Clarke points out in his introduction to Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing, the British promises were, however, "only shabbily fulfilled" (13). The poem's harsh landscape situates the narrative voice in a terrain of grim disappointment.

      The first image in the poem is that of "a ragged scarf of light / twined and twisted and torn / in a briar patch of pines." If that "light" is the expectation of freedom in a new land, here we see how hope becomes trapped in the landscape, tangled among thorny trees. The strong alliteration of "twined," "twisted," and "torn" reinforces the notion of brutal constraint. Clarke, who often uses puns in his poetry, also plays on the double sense of "pines." Despite having arrived in a supposedly free land, the black loyalists still yearn (pine) for true freedom.

      As the poem develops, its imagery reveals that colonial Canada is no Eden.The predominant colour scheme is gray—the gray of "steel-wool water," "dull rocks," "hard granite," and "dreary dreary mountains." Lane notes that Clarke has the vivid "colour sense" of a painter, but here his palette is unrelentingly monotone. To underline the cruel contrast between the hope that brought the ex-slaves to Nova Scotia's shores and the oppressive reality they encountered in their new home, Clarke emphasizes the phrase " bonny / bonny Nova Scotia."

      By repeating "bonny"—and placing it strategically at the end of one line and the beginning of the next—Clarke does two things. First, he introduces a historical reference to Bonny Prince Charlie, who led a revolt against the British monarchy in the mid-eighteenth century. The reminder of this event introduces a political dimension into the poem, hinting at a potential political rebelliousness among members of the black church. Second, drawing on the Scottish dialect of the region, Clarke juxtaposes the ideal of a sweetly attractive Nova Scotia with the reality of a rugged existence in an inhospitable place.

      The mid-section of the poem depicts a landscape that is undeveloped but far from idyllic. The granite coast of the promised land appears "chaste" and "inviolate," but the brooding presence of Glooscap, the mythical MiqMaq hero, suggests that the land is not untouched. One wonders why Glooscap is "sad," given that the folk tales that draw on his "wondrous powers" are often humorous and that he himself "embodies the fundamental attribute of wisdom and hope" (Glooscap Heritage Centre). The implied truth is that European settlers have, in fact, violated the land and grieved the existing aboriginal culture. This is no innocent landscape, then. It appears, essentially, as a gloomy cliff hanging over an abyss of "waters void…." As the language trails off into an ellipsis, the reader is plunged down into the bottomless emptiness of despair.

      Out of that despair, however, emerge the final lines of the poem, which assert the establishment of the African United Baptist Association, an organization that gave Black loyalists a strong sense of spiritual hope and communal identity. It is no accident that Clarke uses the phrase "waters void" to describe the forbidding ocean scene. That very phrase occurs in the Biblical account of creation: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (King James Version Genesis 1:2). The light-shaft of hope we see in the opening section of the poem reappears, by implication, in the conclusion, where we find emerging what Clarke terms an "Africadian" (African/Acadian) (Fire on the Water 11) community and culture, shaped by region as well as race.

Works Cited

The Bible. King James Version. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1945.

Clarke, George Elliott. Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing.
      Vol. 1. Lawrencetown Beach, NS: Pottersfield Press, 1991.

---. "Guysborough Road Church." Representative Poetry Online. Ed. Ian Lancanshire.
      University of Toronto. 15 Mar 2006. <>.

Glooscap Heritage Centre. "Glooscap's Story." 19 Mar 2006.

Lane, M. Travis. "An Unimpoverished Style: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke."
      Canadian Poetry 16 (1985): 47-54. 19 Mar 2006.

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