My last engagement in Calgary on this winter 2009 visit was at St Stephen’s Church downtown http://www.ststephenscalgary.org/ where, on Friday March 6, Howard Gallimore, Jamaican-Calgarian who had read with me on my previous visit, joined me, reprising his role of Samuel, as we read my Good Friday poem, De Man. I read Naomi. I am a Roman Catholic, as is Howard, but, as the Lord would have it, the readings of this poem in Calgary have, on both occasions, taken place in Anglican churches. We are grateful to our Anglican brethren for hosting us on both occasions.
The story of the reading was a Jamaican pumpkin vine story, running off in different directions as it put out its blossoms and then bore fruit. Dr Cecille DePass, a Professor at U of C, and a good friend and supporter, had, when she heard I was coming back this year to visit the University once more, offered to put me up once I’d fulfilled my obligations to the University. In addition, since the visit would again be in Lent, she had proposed that I do a reading of De Man, as I had done in 2007. Professor DePass is that rara avis, that endangered species, an enabler. So she undertook to find a church that would host the reading. Enter Dr Jean Springer, Rector’s Warden at St Stephen’s and a good friend of Cecille’s – and, unknown to me, an old friend of my husband’s family. In fact, his father was married in her parents’ house, the Barretts and the Mordecais having known one another from Columbus came over. Jean agreed to approach Rev. Brian Pearson, the rector at St Stephen’s, and we were delighted when we heard that he had agreed. Jean and I spoke on the phone, I discovered the family connection – I knew Jean’s sister, concert pianist, Nerine Barrett – and when I came to Calgary, Jean took to me to lunch and we got to know each other a bit better.
Which was how, on the evening of Friday March 6th, Rev. Pearson came to be welcoming Howard and me and introducing us to a small but welcoming audience at St Stephen’s. We could not have been more received more thoughtfully. We had met the associate priest, Rev. Cathy Fulton, and also Brian’s wife, Jean, beforehand. There were microphones and lecterns at the ready, the church was lit, and there was water to hand. We were promised refreshments in the Canterbury Room afterwards.
A little bit about the poem: De Man: a performance poem is my second book of poetry, and is really a verse play. A two-hander written entirely in Jamaican Creole, it is the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as reported by two imagined characters, Naomi, a maid in the court of Pilate’s wife, and Samuel, a disabled carpenter of Nazareth to whom Joseph taught the trade. It has been performed many times in Canada and in Jamaica.
But it is always a challenge, especially in Canada, where we, the performers, are aware that we are reading in a language that is not familiar to many in the audience. We make adjustments for this, but even then, one is never sure. It helps when, as has been the case on both occasions, there are Caribbean people in the audience. Naomi and Samuel have their own story, which unfolds as they watch Jesus on his way to Calvary. Naomi is a bit of a busybody, and a forthright speaker of her opinions, and, never mind that this is a terrible tale, there are light moments, as there must have been when the true history happened.
After the performance, we gathered in the Canterbury Room for refreshments, graciously provided by parishioners and well-wishers. Everyone I spoke to said that that it had been deeply moving, and that those who hadn’t come had missed something. English speakers found that they could understand once they became accustomed to the rhythms of the Creole. People generously purchased books, a portion of the sales having been promised to support the church’s ministry.
The reading was memorable for another reason. We discovered later that, unbeknown to us, Howard’s grandmother in Toronto had died while we were performing the poem.
Someone in the audience asked me, as we spoke afterwards, if I had seen the movie, The Passion of the Christ. I told him that I hadn’t and wondered why he had asked. He recalled Samuel’s description, as he observed the clothes being torn off of Jesus:
Dem tearing off him clothes
And scab and blood and skin
And flesh hold onto dem.
Him is a open wound.
A walking sore.
He had never seen or heard those details before – not until he’d seen the movie. I explained that I’d imagined what would have happened if a man had been whipped till he was bleeding, then had clothes put on him, then had them torn off when the blood had dried. When I returned to Toronto, my husband pointed out that the poem had been published in 1995, while the movie had been released in 2004.
I was very surprised and pleased at the invitation to have us back to repeat the performance on Good Friday! We are both – indeed all – extremely grateful to the clergy, staff and parishioners at St Stephen’s for hosting us, and in particular, to Dr Jean Springer for trusting, sight unseen, in the story of De Man. It was a great experience for both Howard and myself, I know. The plan is that we will come back for Easter next year, since it was not have possible to accept the invitation to return this Easter.
I think we all look forward to that time.