Poetry Review by Karina Vernon

Bertrand Bickersteth, The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies (Edmonton: NeWest, 2020).
Paperbound, 88 pp., $18.95.

The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth2020 was a signal year for the Black prairies. Cheryl Foggo’s classic memoir about growing up in a Black community in Calgary in the 1960s, Pourin’ Down Rain, was re‐issued in a beautiful twentieth‐anniversary edition; Kaie Kellough’s poetry collection Magnetic Equator, a deep engagement with the prairies of the 1990s, was published with McClelland and Stewart, and my own anthology of Black prairie writing from 1872 to 2019, The Black Prairie Archives, came out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Bertrand Bickersteth’s profound and necessary The Response of Weeds: A Misplacement of Black Poetry on the Prairies, fittingly published through NeWest Press’s Crow Said Poetry Series, contributes to this flourishing public conversation about what it means to become both Black and a writer on the Canadian prairies.

I say “become” Black and a prairie writer because, as the subtitle of Bickersteth’s collection suggests, part of the process of becoming a Black writer on the prairie is a negotiation not with tradition but with the erasure of one’s traditions, and even an erasure of Blackness itself, in the prairie imaginary. Bickersteth generates his poetry by directly engaging, both formally and thematically, with that erasure. For instance, in his poem “The Invisible Man on the Prairies,” Bickersteth crafts a poem around an absent presence. The word “no” appears five times in one stanza, and the Black presence on the prairies is skillfully made to go missing in Bickersteth’s grammar as the collective noun “Black” is replaced by the vague adjective “this”: “No one sees this, no / but he is a part of this / landscape too. / Right here. Here, right / in front of your long nose. / Not impressed? / It’s no trick. / Hold out your hand and / move it back / and forth / in history. / He is still going to be there / and here. / What a sight not to behold!”

Bickersteth’s engagement with an absent presence recalls the work of another prairie poet, Robert Kroetsch, whose archeological poetics similarly negotiated with the violent but repressed displacement of Indigenous peoples on the prairies. Readers might make connections between Bickersteth’s work and Kroetsch’s canonical “Stone Hammer Poem,” for instance (“the / hand is gone, the / buffalo’s skull / is gone”), which writes what is/not there in the aftermath of colonization. Bickersteth is self‐aware of the connections between his poetics and that of Kroetsch; toward the end of the collection, the short poem “Seed Catalogue” refers directly to Kroetsch, but also points out the ways that Kroetsch’s long poem—which famously asked “How do you grow a prairie poet?”—ironically made an absence of the Black poets the prairies had already grown:

Canola mustard wheat
hay the seed catalogue
written by Kroetsch


I can plant something with that[.]

Bickersteth irreverently imagines Kroetch’s long poem as fodder for his own work. Indeed, in The Response of Weeds, the productive central question that builds on but also challenges Kroetsch’s question becomes: How do you recover the absented Black prairie tradition?

Bickersteth’s poetics show us that the answer to this question, time and again, is that writers must become researchers. The Response of Weeds shows Bickersteth’s deep engagements with Black archival records, but the great pleasure of this book is that Bickersteth transforms his research findings into poetry. In these pages we meet the prairies’ nineteenth‐ and early twentieth‐century presences, several of whom left written records and literary writings of their own: Daniel Williams; Dave, Harry, and Henry Mills; John Ware; Sylvester Long, and Mildred Ware. While Bickersteth opens his collection with a list of “Dramatis Historicae (Negro)” which provides each figure’s dates and significance, the poems ultimately rely on readers’ previous knowledge—or their willingness to perform some research on their own. Many of the poems thus seem to address an already‐knowing audience. For instance, “Sylvester Long Lance,” about the Afro‐Indigenous journalist, athlete, and actor from Jim Crow‐era North Carolina who arrived in Calgary in 1915 and began claiming a Blackfoot identity, engages with Long Lance’s story in the condensed language of poetry, rather than history: “So in the South / Your story is known before you / Are born. / So it is told while you / Simmer silently. / And, so, it never ends. / […] / The next section is for coloreds only / Also known as the balcony // And even though you were / Politely pointed upwards, / You remanipulated / The gesture, stepped / Outside, made straight / For open grass / And kept right on running, / Fleeing farther and faster even / Than your own Blackfeet could carry you.” It is a self‐assured gesture on the poet’s part that readers are offered no further historical context for Long Lance than the poem itself. It suggests an exciting confidence that the Black prairies have finally arrived. Whereas Black prairie literature and history have previously occupied the status of the footnote, the margins, or have been absented altogether in historical and cultural accounts of the prairies, Bickersteth places Black
prairie histories and literary traditions at the centre of his project.

Even more, Bickersteth imaginatively claims a variety of other important historical figures by placing them on the Canadian prairie: Henry Bibb, the prominent African‐American writer, publisher, and abolitionist who escaped to Canada West (current‐day Ontario); jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong; and Hattie McDaniels, the first African‐American to win an Oscar, to name a few. Readers might initially regard their encounters with such figures as curious anatopisms or geographical misplacements. But Bickersteth uses the device of anatopia to challenge the persistent sense of Blackness as incongruous on the prairies. As his collection shows, Black folks have been in what is now constructed as the “prairie” for two centuries at least. Blackness is intimately entangled with prairie topographies; its fields, rivers, and horizons are inextricably part of our imaginations, too. But as Bickersteth’s
beautiful poems remind us, “the space where I belong” is also the space that the best poetry makes: “Without reflection or remembering / or effort of any sort / the image of this field relaxes / against some familiar notch in my brain. / Maybe it is because this is my / particular hole / in the wall / the space where I belong.”


—Karina Vernon

As in The Malahat Review, 214, spring 2021