A few nights ago, we sat around on a friend’s porch. None of us from Halifax, not even from Nova Scotia. For one young man, it was his last night in town, and in the morning he’d be starting the long, cross-country drive back to Winnipeg. I didn’t envy him.
Sitting in a tattered rattan chair that age and wear had banished to the outdoors, I picked up my copy of El Jones’ new book ‘Live from the Afrikan Resistance’. I don’t usually carry books around with me, but this one had been following me; from the nightstand, to the washroom, into a rucksack, and onto the porch. Already dog-eared and covered with sticky notes, the book was a travelling companion.
“Got El Jones’ new book,” I mentioned casually, and handed it over to the crowd.
“I’m buying this tomorrow,” replied a friend.
Winnipeg, we could tell, hadn’t had the chance to see El Jones during his stay in Halifax. He watched the book being passed around, but didn’t share in the excitement of riffling through the pages, as though El herself might somehow jump out and begin reciting poetry to us, right here on the porch, if only we read hard enough.
“You haven’t seen El Jones,” said my friend.
“No,” replied Winnipeg.
“Man, you’ve missed out on a Halifax experience then,” I said. “Read some to him.”
My friend, not being a shy man, grabbed the book and flipped to the table of contents.
“I’ll do Rocky was a Heavyweight,” he said. “I saw her do this one live.”
And with that, he stood up, freeing himself from his own banished chair.
He cleared his throat and began to recite. The air became crisper. The suburban street itself stood at attention. All the nocturnal creatures stopped what they were doing, and perked up an ear.
His delivery was humble, and honest, and summoned up the spirit of Halifax’s reigning Poet Laureate. Even third hand, from Jones’ pen, to this book, to being read for the first time on this sleepy Halifax street, we knew we were in the presence of greatness. This is how words count, when there’s not much time, and there’s an urgency to the message, to it being passed on, and remembered, and learned from.
The poem ended, and it was like being punched. Not painfully so, but we all flew back in our scrappy chairs, snapping our fingers in unison, because we didn’t quite know what else to do.
My friend read another, ‘Ain’t I a Woman (For Caster Semenaya)’. And another, ‘Thomas Peters’. And another, ‘Black Sheroes’.
I found myself stunned and in dire need of an education. For all the references in Jones’ poems, there were ten I couldn’t place.
This, perhaps, is the magic of Jones’ work. This bursting out of the gate, fully confident, with the power of an earnest curiosity and an education steeped in largely unwritten history, that, when combined, leaves the listener awestruck at the alternate possibilities that have always existed. I can understand how it might be heavy, or controversial, to listen to El Jones, but only if you’re afraid of Black history, the injustices it contains, and a voice striving to not only remind you of it, but against the odds to remedy it. These are words that ignite emotion, but ultimately are salve.
For us, sitting on the porch, if we couldn’t go find El Jones, sit at her feet and ask if she might teach us something, this book, like some kind of portable caged bird, to be freed each time a page is read aloud, would be the next best thing. Which is to say, we were all better off – even a little wiser – for it.
Buy this book. Sit with friends. Read it aloud.
— Miles Howe, Halifax Media Co-Op, Sept. 2014