The Power of Lyricism in Wayde Compton’s 49th Parallel Psalm

49th Parallel Dreaming

Wayde Compton’s 1999 poetry collection 49th Parallel Psalm, from Arsenal Pulp Press’s Advanced Editions, reprinted in 2005, is a mystical, comprehensive hundred and seventy-five-page poetic response to a hundred and fifty years of recent black migration from San Francisco to British Columbia. Compton has been described by acclaimed Canadian writer George Bowering as “our own DJ historian arrived at last,” and wrapped in psalm, his musical rhythms play out profoundly as he brings to life the echoes of lost voices in a lyrical anthem of crossing the border to Canada, to different encounters with racism, struggles and triumphs, placing daily experiences of often unseen, untold narratives more prominently in collective memory.

Psalm is a well-chosen encompassing metaphor for the journey of people who “arrived singing,” with its connotations of devotion and trust through human suffering for rights, a sacred song of empowerment in surrender to divinity. The lyrical and spiritual nature of psalms naturally evokes the presence of life force, emphasizing voice, a perfect shape for the diverse elements woven through the book. In this way, Compton unifies a wide variety of literary styles from prose to visual pieces through subject matter and theme, allowing readers to witness Vancouver through the eyes of travellers from a century ago as though it was just yesterday that they crossed “the tines of the Narrows, the Lion’s Gate/ Bridge,” (21) played in streets and escaped racism south of the border, only to be met with more racism as they migrated through the province, with the capital, Victoria, still having a segregated theatre, and prejudice and the strangeness of a new land prevalent everywhere.

While every literary style Compton employs brings the issue of racism and need for true freedom to the table in a memorable manner, from the use of the whole page in poetry layout in places to visual symbols like black hearts and aces dissolving to empty boxes as he writes about the lucky black lady in cards disappearing from view in “Facing the Blues” (114), to a prose fairy tale centre and left-aligned pieces in other sections, it’s his overall lyricism within a remarkable construction and deconstruction of symbolism that I most enjoyed. “Red Light Blues” (146) really struck me in the thematic way that it captures the essence of this tremendous body of work, a synecdoche for the chronicle. The poem interacts with traffic signs from the perspective of black citizens being told no over and over in red, the colour of blood, discusses the dotted white man who decides when citizens may walk, addresses the imposition of national borders on human freedom, the physical construction of segregation making solidarity difficult and there being no place in the formula for those of mixed race, through the layers of symbolism in “tracks that cut you off from other sides,” moves to the weariness of always being denied with these unbreakable looking signs, “you could wait a thousand years,/ a glacier’s day,/ for the dotted lines/ to sign your right/ of way. the right passage/ of entrance in/ to the right terrain,” yet expands to end paradoxically in both hope and entropy with regard to the way the last phrases change from left aligned to more deeply indented tabs spread further across the page as he speaks of mixed race people and those in pursuit of crossing, “allegedly/ shelved/ on the beams/ of the aurora/ borealis.” Aurora borealis is both a stand-alone image and a reference to magic realist earlier prose featuring the character Lacuna (a symbolically fitting name, also a literary term for a missing part) at “The Festivals of the Aurora Borealis” in “The Blue Road” fairy tale section, a story filled with wonder, vision and the ethereal quality of dreams (96-99). “Red Light Blues” is one of many of Compton’s clever, playful, heartfelt, poems filled with sorrow, honesty and yearning in a collection that is in many ways a masterpiece in terms of repeated themes and diction building on and recalling previous poems and motifs with layers of depth, the psalm uniting all, widening readers’ understanding of racism in historical and contemporary Canada, while most importantly delivering a captivating, imaginative, entertaining story.

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Like Compton, 49th Parallel Psalm is intelligent, creative and unafraid of complexity. The literature brings to life snippets of clear moments of people from a century ago, from children playing jump rope to adults dealing cards in an enticing, present way, the blend of fiction and fact creating magic. Through the poems, ancestors are alive and breathing in a way that a textbook alone doesn’t always capture, everyday racism, unique characters and spiritual joy. Compton ends with an interesting play on the word “red” that appears in earlier poems as well, to harmonize with the biblical quotes and references throughout, “I imagine/ borders giving way just the same/ as a read sea…the breath we draw before the next line/ is singing” (173). Compton’s narratives in psalm, a blend of history and empathy, offer a means for readers to listen, understand and respond to the paramount need to deconstruct racism. From a perspective of twenty-first-century humanitarian writing, 49th Parallel Psalm portrays how lyricism and poetry contribute to social justice, that we can combine our passion for an equitable society with our love of creativity, that there’s room for poetic responses to important issues as a form of calling and service with all the fantastical elements that literature embodies. Like Compton’s characters limboing under rainbows in the dissolution of borders, we too can offer our dreaming as concrete forms of peace.

Wayde Compton is the author of two books of poetry, 49th Parallel Psalm (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize finalist) and Performance Bond. He also edited the anthology Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. His non-fiction book After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award, and his first work of fiction, The Outer Harbour, won the City of Vancouver Book Award. His latest book is the YA graphic novel The Blue Road, illustrated by April dela Noche Milne. Wayde is the former director of the Writer’s Studio and the Southbank Writer’s Program at Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies. He currently teaches in the faculty of Creative Writing at Douglas College. He lives in Vancouver.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Arsenal Pulp Press; First Edition (April 1 1999)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1551520656
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1551520650
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