Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag: An Inquiry Into African Canadian History, Hybridity, Musicality, And Mutability

Maple Leaf Rag by Kaie Kellough
(Arbeiter Ring Press, 2010)

Review by Raphael Cohen

From the moment one picks up Montreal-based Kaie Kellough’s second full-length poetry collection, Maple Leaf Rag (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010), notions of hybridity, cross-pollination, and genre-bending are front and center.

The collection, sized more like a song-book of sheet music than a typical poetry publication, is encased in what can best be described as a literary record-sleeve, from which the actual paperback need be slid out. It bears the sub-title of “poetry composed” by its author, suggesting the primacy of music and musicality to the project. And following brief opening quotes by Melvin B. Tolson, African American modernist poet largely influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, and James Brown, globally celebrated godfather of soul music, a “readeradar” is introduced, in which Kellough contextualizes the collection’s title as a play on the original, widely popular, late 19th century ragtime composition for piano by Scott Joplin. The author shares his sense that the title phrase “fuses jazz music with [Canadian] national symbology… [celebrating] the unity of black culture and canadian culture… [yet] also [suggesting] a malaise, a critique.”

Indeed, an analytical engagement with multiple facets of African Canadian history, focused especially on themes of “belonging, dislocation, and relocation,” undergirds the entirety of the collection. Explorations into the fluidity of national and linguistic boundaries, and a creative tension between the visual and auditory, as represented on the page through multiple experiments in form, readability, and mixed media artistry, only serve to heighten the book’s emphases on cultural amalgamation and the mutable nature of a people’s and a place’s identities.

Kellough defines himself not only as a multi-lingual writer, performer, and educator, but as a “word-sound systemizer” as well. This term hints at his investigations into the relationship between the written and the spoken, and the extent to which his “abiding appreciation for music” ensures that “sound guides each poem, often to a place where words are splintered, meanderings belabored, and meanings blurred.” To that point, sound is regularly the source or start not simply of reflections on the history of African-derived music in the Americas, but also of interrogations around the very definition of culture and nationality. This is evidenced immediately when, in the book’s opening poem, “flux,” a paean to the Fleuve St. Laurent/ St. Lawrence River, upon whose shores the city of Montreal is built, and whose patterns the indigenous people of that land are referenced as having once “read”:

i am the river.  my ripples shift shaping glyphs.  can you read me?
..the iroquois could—by the glint the sun shot over my liquid lips.  poets
..through ink, listen to my syllabic splash, awash in memory, turbulent as
..industry, i thrust to sea, i will talk you with me.  …

i am the river.  my lisp fuses english, french, iroquois, kreyol.  your
..grammar is a quick dip, a watery wisp of the babel that cabals in my
..thrall to sea.

In these early lines, we witness the poet not only honoring the rich, layered, and arguably linguistic legacy of the river, but also hear its history, through the multiple instances of alliteration, the onomatopoeia of glyph-shaping ripples, and the calling out of languages that immigrants to, and residents of, Montreal have spoken over the city’s last several centuries. The river is conflated with those individuals and communities whose inhabitance in the city have so depended on it, an immediate indication of the extent to which borders of all sorts are to be smudged and subverted as the collection moves forth.

Interviewed for a Montreal weekly upon the release of Maple Leaf Rag, Kellough discussed his attempt to convey the oral and aural through the relatively soundless vehicle of a book:

“The difficultly … lies in the fact that a page in a book is a silent, static medium. Nothing moves, no sound is made aside from a whiff of air when you flip it. How do you make a silent or static medium resonate with a sense of movement and sound? Creating words on the page that have the energy, movement, and sound of a performance is something very difficult to do. My aim is to try to have language itself be the performer.”

This aim is well realized throughout the course of the book. One such instance emerges in the poem “boy hood dub II,” in which the speaker recounts being racially taunted and beaten up by classmates in a Calgary elementary school, and the word “remember” is riffed on, disassembled, and re-purposed towards multiple meanings (“member,” “ember,” “render,” “reendure,” etc). Additionally, the “k.o.” abbreviation for the boxing/fighting term “knockout” not only replaces the speaker’s attacked “coco”-ness, but repeats, in descending spiral form, near the left margin (each line a single “k.o.”), some thirty or so times, to signify the speaker’s dazed, semi-conscious state, before he, and in turn the poem, returns to greater clarity and awareness.

Elsewhere, Kellough enables “language itself [to] be the performer” through the instrument of entirely alliterated poems; that is, full pieces constructed only of words that have the same opening phoneme. “babylon’s b-side” is one such poem:

babylon boasts

………………..bus back benches

………………..burning building beacons
………………..boss beelzebubs

………………..boasts big brother  …

babylon blights

………………..bebop’s beatific
………………..brass blowing buddhas

………………..blights barakas, baldwins
………………..blackface bards

………………..blights buffalo

Still in other poems, the words are actually transcriptions of the sounds made by the object/s under examination, laced with a hint of the poet’s own wit and social commentary, such as the recurring, and bold-faced, “BOOM-BOOM-BAP” that seamlessly morphs towards a “DOOM-DOOM-CLAP” in the poem “black rock,” an exploration of the parallels between basketball and hand-drumming for youth of African heritage under government surveillance and attack, whether contemporarily or in antiquity. Both artforms, and the physicality associated with them, are framed as crucial means of communication and resistance, a Morse code of sorts, a slang to be held close. In a poem called “echos,” written in response to several recent police killings of young, unarmed African Canadian men in Montreal, the police gun’s recurring, line-opening “BLAMM” (also bold-faced, written in larger font than the poem’s other words, yet growing smaller with each successive line, eventually transforming into “BLAME” and, by the final line, a tiny “BALM,” which “the dawn begs”), is the vehicle through which language and sound become indistinguishable, and words, though printed on page, are able to gain mobility and freedom from that limiting, two-dimensional field.

As mentioned, and as already exemplified through the discussion of sound’s prevalence in Kellough’s work, the history of African-derived music in the Americas is of supreme importance to the poet’s aesthetic and humanistic concerns. Historical figures connected to popular music forms with roots in Africa populate Maple Leaf Rag, whether in the form of poems inspired by and dedicated to seminal African American singers and musicians such as Sam Cooke and Fats Domino, a three in the morning l.p. listening session turned invocation of and conversation with bluesman Taj Mahal, or even a scathing critique of white Quebecers’ appropriation and trivialization of African Caribbean music styles, entitled “kaie kellough meets the quebecois reggae vampires uptown,” in a nod to revered African Jamaican dub reggae mastermind Scientist, whose 1970s releases, “Scientist Rids The World Of The Curse Of Evil Vampires” and “Scientist Meets The Rockers Uptown,” provide for Kellough’s source material.  At play here is the phenomenon of sampling, seen as integral to hip-hop, the most recent of globalized African American musical forms, as well as a dissolving of boundaries between African Canadian experience and that of the broader African diasopora.  As Kellough notes in the aforementioned interview:

“The [book] title… hints at interdependence, at a relationship between black cultures of the Americas and Canadian culture, and how they inform one and other—they don’t exist separately. Choosing Maple Leaf Rag as the title builds on a process that has always happened in writing, in film, and in music—sampling… There has always been a lot of cultural traffic between African America and black Canada. [There are the] black loyalists who came up to Canada after the American War of Independence and settled in Nova Scotia.  Also there were African Americans that came up on ship from San Francisco to Victoria, B.C., at the end of the 19th century… There’s also been a lot of cross-border movement when it comes to music and other elements of culture…”

While Maple Leaf Rag is obviously indebted to the arbiters of diasporic African music and style over the last (half) century, and the broader philosophical notion of border transgression through arts and culture, Kellough’s emphasis on hybridity reaches further still, towards a celebration of contemporary experimental poetry trends, an investigation of poly-lingual tendencies in the broader African Canadian community, and ultimately a decimation of all rigid linguistic boundaries.  Street slang and the Queen’s English co-exist and, on occasion, wage battle in Kellough’s poetry.  They are each utilized at differing times to represent a multiplicity of experiences, just as many people living in contemporary, ethnically and linguistically diverse spaces “code-switch” depending on location and social context.

Beyond the variation of lexicons, though, Kellough employs a number of mixed media experiments in the pages of his collection, among them the occasional footnote, font change, blend of poetry and prose, and perhaps most glaringly, depictions of slightly crumpled, typed-on or hand-written pieces of loose-leaf paper, with various instructions, in the form of recurring refrains, for conveying meaning without use of full words (“word sound systems”).  These instructions then get exemplified in the very document, through the erasure/disappearance of certain letters or syntactical (un-)necessities, perhaps to prove that language is not merely about what’s written or spoken, but as much about our own minds, and the troubling ease with which our minds get trained into preconceived expectations of, and templates for, communication from outside sources, before any word or sound has even been uttered.  This removal or re-ordering of letters and sound-units actually threads through much of the book, as Kellough disassembles and reconstructs word components with frequency, awakening readers to the possibilities of language, and the extent to which we generally settle into unchallenged norms and predictable modalities, whether in writing specifically, or communicating more broadly.  Inviting readers to claim their unique role in history’s constant “re”-creation, Kellough states in the poem “-isery”:



……….is a re

……….is a rewrite  .  i

……….own the write

to right

……….to recite  .


……….if i re i


……….if i re

……….cite i re




Through his embrace of far-ranging poetic modalities and styles, a wealth of African Canadian and African American historical references, and dazzlingly original experiments in conjuring sound and music from and upon the static page, Kaie Kellough succeeds in creating a poetry collection that indeed functions as “both written word and musical score,” both diagram of Africa’s recent influence on literary and auditory culture in the Americas and portal to what a further hybridized, border-resistant artistic and political future very likely resembles.

Raphael Cohen is a writer and performer committed to utilizing the word as a vehicle for social change. Fusing the craft of poetry composition with dynamic oratorical expression, his art critically assesses the multifaceted nature of oppression, exposes and explores the hidden costs of privilege, and vibrantly inspires efforts towards personal and collective liberation. In 2007, he released Scrutinizing Lines, his first full-length poetry collection, and with it, launched Play In The Margins Press, an independent publishing and event production initiative dedicated to promoting the work of Bay area writers and performers bridging the worlds of art and activism. Originally from New York, Raphael has lived in Oakland since 2001. He holds a BA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, and is currently pursuing a poetry MFA at Mills College. Find him online at http://www.raphaelcohen.net.

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2 Thoughts on “Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag: An Inquiry Into African Canadian History, Hybridity, Musicality, And Mutability

  1. Shelley Pazer on January 10, 2011 at 9:45 am said:

    The review of this collection has touched me and encouraged me to read it and more. The review was so richly descriptive, so clear in its descriptions of content that may not be easy to understand for the reader; I am thoroughly impressed with the review and excited about the collection. Thank you for your enlightening review.

  2. Janet Carter on January 12, 2011 at 7:56 am said:

    This review really evokes the feeling of the book, rich and multi-dimensional. It also speaks to the ways cultural forces mix and move together, evolving into fresh forms of creative expression. Inspiring!

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