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About this book
Bertrand Bickersteth’s debut poetry collection explores what it means to be Black and Albertan through a variety of prisms: historical, biographical, and essentially, geographical. The Response of Weeds offers a much-needed window on often overlooked contributions to the province’s character and provides personal perspectives on the question of Black identity on the prairies. Through these rousing and evocative poems, Bickersteth uses language to call up the contours of the land itself, land that is at once mesmerizing as it is dismissively effacing. Such is Black identity here on this paradoxical land, too.
EXCERPT FROM THE RESPONSE OF WEEDS:
Grown in Alberta
they will point to a spot
on the palm of their right
when you ask
where are you from?
the hand is the simulacrum
for substitute belonging.
First came the hand
then the map
then the hand again
The map’s handsome substitute.
But first-first came the cold
and then the mitten:
the map’s handsome substitute.
On the Canadian prairies
the cold is your constant contender
the cold is always first-first.
Once I dreamed of an empty grain elevator
sheathed in brittle ice.
I wanted to get inside
but each time I chipped
at its door, I felt an enervating
pang in the hollow of my abdomen.
I wanted to get outside
but each time I chipped at its door, I saw a glinting
mirrored surface magnifying my actions.
Everything went cold
undusted diamonds suspended before me.
A landscape was hinted in its spaces.
I would have placed my hand up against it,
the curl of my fingers
settling along the foothills,
but at times like these you can’t help thinking about
those prototype fools in stories
baring the substitute cold to their tongues,
the very wording of my verisimilitude belonging.
And, Canada, you would not believe
how often a Michigander
never asked me
where are you from?
"The Response of Weeds draws us into a confluence of geography, music, and identity, in which the voices of 20th Century Black artists fluidly merge with the prairies. In Bickersteth’s interpretation we hear a blue modality and we feel Alberta sung as a point of arrival and departure, a junction in the diaspora. This collection questions place and belonging as it amplifies the Black prairie."
“In these poems, Bickersteth invites the reader to revisit the prairies as landscape, but also as part of Black history, geography, and psychic and poetic space. Readers lucky enough to travel with him through these lands will discover new meanings and agricultures (in every sense of the word), as well as uncomfortable and exquisite truths as Bickersteth retells the prairies and makes them new again. This is an essential book by an enormously talented writer.”
"A man can’t step in the Athabasca River twice, because when he steps back in, it’s a different river, and he’s a different man. How much more transformation, then, when the river is the entire Atlantic Ocean and the land-length of North America? As a word-rider originally from Sierra Leone, poet Bertrand Bickersteth knows about wandering emotional and geographical distance, and is perhaps better suited than most to consider reality from multiple historical angles, since Sierra Leone is a nation of people who triumphed above of Western genocide on their own West African soil, and others who returned in the 19th Century from the Americas transformed and traumatized.
In The Response of Weeds, Bertrand Bickersteth is our wayfarer, drawing us—and the West Africans called 'Americans' he’s tracking—across once-innocent prairies and lethal frozen landscapes in an exploration of our colonial, colonized Canadian history, and of ourselves. To whatever degree he’s drawing upon his Sierra Leonean transatlantic perspective, he imparts a vision that is microscopic, telescopic, and kaleidoscopic, bearing witness to the pain and the beauty from the uncomfortably near and the philosophically far, and letting it all reflect back upon itself, and us. His verse, finely hewn, glitters with light that both dazzles and burns. He’s the CanLit I never got to experience in all my time in school and university. If the CanLit gatekeepers will finally accept that literature doesn’t need gated communities, Bertrand Bickersteth should be welcomed at every door."
"In its form and content, The Response of Weeds represents a vigorous and erudite excavation of history and a carefully constructed reclamation of place, both geographically located and culturally significant." full starred review