Frederick Ward’s blistering blues – Excerpt

The most undeservedly unsung poet in all of English-Canadian literature is Frederick Ward. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1937, he is African-American in heritage, and an expert partisan of many arts. Ward studied art at the University of Kansas and music at the University of Missouri. He learned jazz piano under the tutelage of Oscar Peterson. After slinging words as a Hollywood songwriter, Ward removed to New Mexico where he published, in 1964, his first book, a collection of poems, and then, in Detroit, in 1966, his edited anthology of nine Baha’i poets, including himself—and his great influence and inspiration, the masterful African- American, Afro-modernist Robert Hayden (1913-80). In 1970, en route to Sweden by ship, Ward was waylaid in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by a dock worker’s strike. Abandoning the vessel, Ward soon met dispossessed exiles from the recently assassinated-by-bulldozer community of Africville. His close listening to their stories helped to fuel his first novel, Riverlisp (1974), a Joycean and Jean Toomereque jazz-feast of Black English and psychedelic surrealism. Two more novels followed in 1977 and 1981, but then, save for occasional anthologizations of his scattered bits of new work, along with his arresting script for the National Film Board feature, Train of Dreams (1987), silence. Silence. A crisis of silence.

Yet, a deliberate silence can provide the loudest possible critique of the failures of one’s critics or audience. No one can blame Ward for choosing—if he has so chosen—to refuse to set his words before the tinny ears and pallid enthusiasms of the English-Canadian public. This nation is not one that can easily stomach the howls, yowls, and blistering, vocal blasts of, say, a James Brown, an Al Green, or an Otis Redding. If any one of these figures had been Black Canadian, they would have been marginalized as embarrassing, disruptive, primitive exotics, and their audiences would have been local, limited, and deemed illiterate. Our poet-songwriter tradition has not extended far beyond Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, and Neil Young, who are all estimable figures, but hardly representative of any earthy, down-home, down-to-the-bone, scathing, hurtful, blackish-bluesy lyricism.
Enter Frederick Ward; enter his second book of poems, the too-skinny The Curing Berry (1983), now long out of print (like all of his work); enter the incandescent song “Blind Man’s Blues.” Yes, it is elementary, perhaps even primitive, but then, so is much of William Carlos Williams or bp Nichol. Attend, though, to its essentially rhymeless couplet structure, so reminiscent of ghazals, the literary Zen of P.K. Page or John Thompson or Robert Bringhurst. Of course, Ward’s “singing” here is unlike true ghazal, for it is narrative, not merely a train of suggestively associated images and moods. Furthermore, the story that unfurls here is gritty and nasty, a probably Southern, backwoods, True Confessions-like concoction of adultery and, not just adultery, but psychologically incestuous adultery. Thus, this simple, unadorned, superficially pastoral poem, in its slow revelation of meaning, turns ugly, Gothic, and Greek: There’s a hint of a revised Oedipus Rex here in the son’s self-blinding discovery of his father’s tryst with the son’s “woman,” Tjose. (Who’s to say that Tjose is not, secretly, the son’s mother?) Too, one must not overlook the poem’s parallels to the Genesis story about the shame of Noah’s sons at discovering him raving, drunk, and naked.
Despite its seemingly facile appearance and structure, “Blind Man’s Blues” is a powerful mini-tragedy—or soap opera, one written with terrifyingly effective discipline, in diction, syntax, and “voice.” The “blind man”—the son—narrates his own undoing, but this history begins with the deceptive calm of any calamitous deceit:

The best thing in my life

was a woman named Tjose.

The lover’s casual objectification of his lover is a sin most lovers commit, and the truth that he must pay for it is implicit in the repetition of “best thing” in the fifth stanza of the eleven-strophe poem:

The best thing happen to her

were my own papa.

Too, the narrator’s “thingifying” of Tjose is signified upon if his lover’s name is pronounced as chose, which, in French, denotes thing. (Nothing in the poem is as plain as it first appears. How should “Tjose” be spoken: to rhyme with José? Or rose? Chose or chose?) Later, the speaker suspects that “something,” specifically, “something about her” (my italics), means his trust is being jeopardized by her lust. Furthermore, the shift in tense between “was” and “were” (a folk form of “had been”) indicates that Tjose may have been nastying and honeying with “papa” long before “Junior” drooled and whimpered at her drawers.
Nevertheless, the poem opens with an air of happy Antony-and-Cleopatra-ism, with the son celebrating his festive enjoyment of his lover:

We never had to sneak for nothing

strong woman.

Read the full review in Arc Annual 2010.


A Reaction to Frederick Ward’s ‘Blind Man’s Blues’

Powerful. Original. Pared down to the bone. Straight at you. No pretense. Reminded me, with its unusual, arresting voice and imagery, of how lazy and banal day-to-day language is. I loved “Put you in mind of a lone bird at dawn / standing without panic in the dew.” Startlingly perfect—you know EXACTLY what the poet means.

—Moira Farr

More reactions found in Arc Annual 2010.

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