Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of MEGAN’S GUITAR and OTHER POEMS from ACADIE by Darrell Bourque

University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press
(ISBN:  978-1-935754-24-4)

 I first “met” Darrell Bourque long distance, when he generously agreed to participate in my interviews of Franco-American poets for a talk entitled, “Maintaining and Reclaiming Ethnic Selves,” which I delivered as part of a panel on The Identity Formation of French Canadians in the United States at the 2010 78th Congres de l’Acfas held at the University of Montreal.   With revisions, the talk was published by the International Journal of Canadian Studies in 2011 under the title, “Writing an Ethnic Identity between Worlds: Claiming and Maintaining a Franco-American Self.” Again, Darrell gave his permission to include our interview material.    A year later, I had the pleasure of meeting Darrell, and his artist wife, Karen, when I read my poetry at the Louisiana Conference on Literature, Language and Culture in Lafayette, Louisiana.  The conference was only my second visit to Louisiana’s Acadiana and it was thrilling.   Since then Darrell and I have stayed casually connected through Facebook pages concerned with our shared background and interest in Acadian and Franco-American writing and scholarship in the US.

Caroline A. LeBlanc

As Natasha Trethewey begins her second US Poet Laureate term, we are reminded that modern poetry often celebrates the story of peoples historically oppressed and forgotten.  In MEGAN’S GUITAR and OTHER POEMS from ACADIE, Darrell Bourque, past Louisiana Poet Laureate, highlights the life and little known history of Acadian peoples in Canada and Louisiana.    Released in May, 2013, MEGHAN’S GUITAR has already gotten a great deal of attention in Louisiana.  On Father’s Day, two Louisiana newspapers featured MEGHAN’S GUITAR in their Sunday Book Reviews.  My interest in this book is very personal since Bourque and I share Acadian ancestry.  While his Acadian ancestors resettled in Louisiana, mine resettled in Canada and New England after being deported from New France by English colonial authorities in the 18th century.

Tyranny, greed, violence, displacement, forced migration, exile, genocide, resilience, resettlement and recovery—these realities of human existence endure in our world, just turn on the evening news.   Most Europeans who arrived in the New World displaced the Natives inhabiting these territories.  In contrast, Acadians, by reputation, lived cooperatively with the Micmac Indians in their regions of New France. In his book, A Great and Noble Scheme, Yale historian John Mack Faragher, called “the removal of the Acadians … the first episode of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in North American history.”   Modern conceptions of the Acadian people (often not recognized as such):  Cajun and Zydeco music and dance, mardi gras  in New Orleans or the Louisiana bayous, or Longfellow’s Evangeline.  Acadians are this and more.  Clearly, the Acadian saga has been lost, or forgotten, in the American melting pot.  

MEGAN’S GUITAR is a rich corrective to America’s limited perceptions of Acadie.  The book presents an embodied story of exile, survival, racial and cultural revival.  Rhythms and rhymes are important to master story teller Darrell Bourque, and MEGAN’S GUITAR AND OTHER POEMS FROM ACADIE dances with them.  His redemptive poems sing through themes of the exile,  wandering, water, visual  art, music, spirituality—in short, the little known history and culture—of Acadie’s men and women now, and since their 17th century arrival in the New World. In addition to being a “good read,” the book’s 55 poems reveal Acadians as heroic, if sometimes flawed, exiles.   They and their descendants are enduring, if not always endearing, characters who created rich family and cultural lives in the wake of the Acadian deportation and exile.     Rooted for 100 year in New France, Acadie’s world tree broke into three virtual branches after le Grande Derangement of the 18th century diaspora: Acadian communities in Maritime Canada, widely dispersed Acadian descendent populations in several New England states, and the more distinct Acadiana communities of Louisiana. In the 1960, Acadians of all three branches reached out to each other, just as other oppressed groups struggled to raise their voices both nationally and internationally.

The pulse of the book’s poetic triptych is the poet’s passion about his people and their revitalized interest in Acadian history, language, and culture.  The 26 poems in Part I celebrate the life of contemporary Acadians and their neighbors in Louisiana’s “Acadie tropicale.”   Here, ekphrastic poems are primarily written in the broken sonnets Bourque created for this work.  (See interview).  The more intimate poems are primarily written in couplets.   Part II, “Megan’s Guitar,” contains 3 ekphrastic poems, including the three section free verse title poem.  Part II forms a bridge for the existential, metaphysical and historical subject matter of the book.  Part III, “Acadie du nord” (“Acadie of the North”) fleshes out mythologized as well as less well known Acadians who were deported from the present day Maritime Provinces of Canada by the English in the  18th century.    It consists of 25 broken sonnets. 

Part I roots the poet’s life and writing in the heart of Louisiana’s Acadiana even as his poems wander through the worlds of art, spirituality and colonial history.  “Acadie tropicale,” begins with four poems about daily life in the speaker’s family and community then moves into a series of tribute/ekphrastic poems inspired by the work of international figures such as Degas, Franz Schubert, Vincent Van Gogh and Canadian Arcade Comeaux.   He connects experiences of natural disasters, colonial and Francophone heritages in poems such as “La Vie Contemplative,”  “Venus Rising in Haiti,” and “August 2005” and “Pluck The Strings.”   But mostly, the section’s poems reflect on the work, often international in scope, of known and sometimes obscure Louisiana artists, musicians and writers including Moisie Baudoin, Lynda Frese, Chuck Broussard, Megan Fleming, Ernest Gaines, Barbara Hughes, Ida Kohlmeyer, Megan Bara, Tom Stoppard, Mona Lisa Saloy, and Ernest Morgan, Jr.   Like all good poems, each of these stands alone in terms of language, imagery, story and structure. None-the-less, the lengthy section of notes about at the end of the book is indispensable for a full appreciation of the allusions in the texts.  I also found that viewing on-line images of the art works inspiring Bourque’s ekphrastic works enriched my reading of the poems. 

Let’s begin with a closer look at two of the more personal poems in Part I.   Both have dream like qualities.  Appropriately enough, the book’s first poem, “Before the Sparrow’s Wakened,” is about how the women in the poet’s family went about their serious job of “start[ing] the day…[b]efore daylight,” just as the poet is “starting” this book’s musical telling of stories long asleep in a forgetful American culture.  This poem reminds me of the belief in some Native American cultures that members of the tribe must call the sun up each morning if the light of day is to return to the world.   Bourque’s poem is a dreamlike memory and incantation.  It introduces the theme of women as strong, evocative, vital, independent, loved and respected agents of Acadian life and culture.    Here is the poem in its entirety.


Before daylight we were awakened by the voices
             of my aunts in my mother's kitchen.
As soon as my father and my uncles left for work,
             they appeared like gauzy apparitions
and shadowed our backdoor.  The sky outside
             was but a dimly lighted sheet
and the sparrows were still drowsing lazily
             in the upper branches of the trees.
These birds were rhymes for who we were
             in our beds: still being awakened
slowly by the voices and the perfume creeping
             into the woodwork as water plumped
the dark, rich grounds in the little blue pot
             sitting inside another pot on the stove.
The anxious thoughts these women carried inside,
             they put on the table
along with whatever was left from yesterday:
             sweet dough pie or fig cakes,
gateau strop or des orielles de cochon.
            On this fare they would break fast
and whatever gleamed in their lives or in lives
            close by, they lighted the room with.
This hour was something they had taken as theirs
            and it was their job to start the day.
Here we have the elements of a rural culture:  early risings for work, relationships, adults, children, food with colloquial names, gender linked roles, and nature.    The women are “like gauzy apparitions,” to the waking children, who hear only the music of their voices, as well as to the present day poet and reader.  Their powers in the visible world produced savory smells and foods.  Their powers in the unseen world allowed them to “put on the table… the anxious thoughts… [they] carried inside,….[They then] lighted the room with…whatever gleamed in their lives or in lives close by.”    They might not have been able to control their fates, but they engaged their fates with authority:  they took “this hour…as their” and “their job [was] to start the day” in their universe.
Following the book’s pattern, this personal poem is written in couplets.  The rhymes are near rhymes, as the sparrows were near “rhymes for who we [the children] were/ in our beds; still, but being awakened/slowly by the voices and the perfume [of coffee].”  These lines about common coffee exemplify the rich sensual imagery that swells the poems in MEGAN’S GUITAR:   “ the perfume creeping/into the woodwork as water plumped/the dark, rich grounds in the little blue pot/sitting inside another pot on the stove.”  Here we have a “pot inside another pot,” a literal image within another literal image, just as this poem is a small story within the larger story of the book.  In MEGAN’S GUITAR, the poet is the present day guardian who carries forward the duties of telling the stories of his people.  “This hour (book) was something they (he) had taken as theirs (his),/and it was their (his) job to start the day (story telling).”
“Before the Sparrows Wakened” is a multilayered, yet straightforward, and melodic telling of childhood memories.  The commentary on the memories is embedded in its rich imagery and the interpretations of the adult speaker as he looks back.   “Turtle Dreams” is more self-consciously reflective.
I am trying to understand turtles
and how they work their way into my dreams.
On some nights I am a hermit in a play.
A tortoise standing for slowness in an equation
about relativity and time has a bigger part than I do.
One night I am hand-fishing for turtles in Gueydan,
one night I am in the shallows of Bayou Wikoff
at the back of my property and watching them line up
to sun themselves in the reeds and long grasses.
Another night I hear my creole friend make poems
about her father catching and cooking caouane
for their supper.  Caouane stew, caouanesauce-picante,
caouane soup laced with sherry served over white rice.
Her songs are sweet and rich as turtle songs should be.
I believe my therapist when she says we dream ourselves
always, that we are always everything we dream about.
I can see myself in mud, see myself lazy and inert
on some tilted bank, see myself almost out of the scene.
But last night’s turtle was illuminated and fixed
on an altar, underlit, a spirit rising by sitting still.
The altar part I understand I think, but the glass reptile itself
is a mystery, so blue and so thick, and so transparent
as hardly anything is in this world as we know it. 
This poem touches many levels:  Louisiana’s Acadian culture, the poet’s life, and the poet’s dreams.  It is also an ars poetica and ekphrastic poem.  The back note on this poem reveals that several images come from Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia.  Likewise, the “creole friend” is Mona Lisa Saloy, a poet in New Orleans.  In lines 15 & 16, the poet locates himself as a member of Louisiana’s and Acadia’s art community:  “I believe my therapist when she says we dream ourselves/ always, that we are always everything we dream about.” Earlier line 4 announced that his membership comes from his immersion in something larger than himself:  “an equation/ about relativity and time [that] has a bigger part than I do.”  The poem’s first 14 lines reveal the turtle as an emblematic reality of daily life in a place that produces dreams about “hand-fishing for turtles” and "watching them line up/ to sun themselves.”
The lines about the speaker’s therapist move the reader from earthly details to symbolic musings.   “As above, so below,” is an alchemical axiom exemplified by the last 7 lines of the poem.  The poet can see himself “in mud, see myself lazy and inert/…almost out of the scene.”   These lines have a both/and quality.   Perhaps, to a certain extent, the speaker longs to withdraw into a  lazy inertia, to rest from his demanding work.  Perhaps the speaker simultaneously, or alternately, struggles with the perennial artistic fear that his inertia will compromise his creativity and his place in the creative world.  As luck (or the unconscious) would have it, the both the alchemical and creative process include, even require, fallow time “in the mud.”  The dream maker responds to the poet’s visualization,  and the effort he makes to create this turtle poem, with an unearthly turtle “so transparent / as hardly anything in this world as we know it…/Illuminated and fixed/on an altar, underlit, a spirit rising by sitting still.”  The mud of the philosopher’s stone transforms into the blue glass turtle of spirit—transparent yet unknowable.  It is the inseparable and bewildering dance of body/soul/spirit.   “The altar part I understand I think, but the glass reptile itself/ is the mystery, so blue and so thick, and so transparent….”  The mystery, in itself transparent, remains in many ways unknowable to us on this earth.  We can only live it, in awe. 

Jungians define a true symbol as an image whose meaning we can never adequately define.  Symbols open us to dimensions of ourselves about which we are unconscious.  The turtle, abundant in the waters of Acadiana, is a powerful symbol for the poet; one that grows out of his history, his physical, social and spiritual place in the world.  Still, the poet understands the unconscious gifts him with whatever insights he has into the symbols many layers.  The turtle as image plays a “bigger part” in his poetic inspiration than any ego desire he may have to write a poem.  The turtle as muse is a numinous presence which reassures the poet that his are not simply egocentric ambitions; that his calling and efforts serve some larger purpose. What writer does not wrestle with these questions of
motive, work/rest, significance, inspiration and service?  What writer does not know the awe of having a vision and marveling at the help from beyond when he works to give it form?  

Near rhymes and repetitions are scattered throughout “Turtle Dreams,” but it is the poem’s rhythms and the image of turtle as physical emissary of spiritual truths, embedded in minutia of daily life,  that holds the poem together.  The poem, “Turtle Dreams,” is a creative act which simultaneously operates on a physical and spiritual level, even as it addresses the inner and outer creative process and community.  Lastly, it introduces the reader to other writers in the poet’s creative community, as do the book’s many other ekphrastic poems.

Part I’s moves from a family to local to international focus.  It ends with the couplet poem, “First Winter at Camp Beausoleil.”   This initial poem about the Acadians 18th century deportation from New France links modern Acadian life with the distant past.   When the century long trouble between France and English escalated even in Acadia, some Acadians moved further into the wilderness of Camp Beausoleil before being hunted down and shipped to various locations in the colonial world of the day.   The epigraph for “First Winter,” is a quote from Franz Shubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, a song cycle of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller about a lover, who arrived as a stranger, leaves, again as a stranger, during a bitter winter after his love rejects him for another—a variation on the discovery then loss of his ancestors’ beloved Acadie.


…I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs….
These songs please me more than all the rest….

That hard knot almost sleeping in you
            is not judgment.

The cows inch close to each other.
            The day is darkening.

The horses move toward that bluff,
            so close they sometimes touch.

The nits in hairs in the horses’ tails
            climb on top of each other.

People pull their shutters closed.
            & night sings wind songs.

Light pulls away from the western sky.
            Someone tells a story.

Someone in another muted light
            writes this cold into a poem.

Terror & Beauty are copulatives
            in the language of the heart.

In songs played in platinum registers
            no air is sure & no one is safe.

The poem’s clipped couplets mirror the cold content of the text.  The images in stanzas 2 to 4 create a sense of the bone chilling winter in Camp Beausoleil: cows, horse, even “nits in hairs in horses’ tails/climb on top of each other.”  Stanzas 5 & 6 give a sparse picture of how people coped.  In the end, fittingly enough, “Someone tells a story.”  The next lines tell the reader that “Someone, [the poet], in another muted light/ writes this cold into a poem.” 

Though the forms of the poems differ, “First Winter at Camp Beausoleil” is reminiscent of the poem “Digging,” in which Seamus Heaney pays tribute to the hardships of his ancestors’ lives, their digging of potatoes and sod with spades.  With apology and resolve, Heaney ends:  “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.//Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”  Both poets inherit the tragic sequelae of their ancestors’ mistreatment under colonial authorities.  Both poets resolve to bring that history to personal consciousness and public attention.  Heaney’s trepidations about such a process are more implied, while Bourque’s are more straight forward: “That hard knot almost sleeping in you is not judgment.”  The poet reassures and encourages himself, as well as the reader, to take on the “terrifying” task of telling cold ancestral histories.

And if the knot is not judgment what is it?  Perhaps grief, anger or the “Terror & Beauty [that] are copulatives/in the language of the heart.”  The poem ends with a solemn warning to poet and reader alike: “In songs played in platinum registers/no air is sure & no one is safe.”   This is a dangerous endeavor, this opening and debriding of ancestral wounds.  Yet, like Heaney, Bourque continues to “dig” with his pen into his people’s history of colonial oppression, privation and survival, particularly in Part III of the book.

Part II of MEGAN’S GUITAR consists of 3 ekphrasitic poems, which serve as a bridge between Part I’s focus on modern Acadie and Part III’s focus on Acadie’s 18th century history.  The title poem is a long, 3 part ekphrastic poem which, like the pieces of art it reflects, invites the reader “inside a curved world” of colors, sound, artistry, history and story.   Structurally, the last line of each section becomes the first line of the next, with slight variations in phrasing.  The modern fiber art of Megan Barra is the conduit linking the history of the ancients to the modern pallet of Acadian names and culture, “wavering like time/inside this curved & trembling world of ours.”  The third and last poem in Part II is “Vanitas.”  Its last lines remind us that “[w]e are always slinking, always wedded/ to everything before and after us, even as every rage/ inside us is without consent quelled and put to bed.”   These lines measure the progress from the poet’s fear of the “Terror & Beauty” where “no one is safe” into the poems of Part III where inherited rage and terror are not simply indulged or repressed but transformed.

Bourque’s signature broken sonnet form, inserted sporadically in the previous sections, is the exclusive form for poems in Part III.  The sonnets have longer or shorter lines but they all consist of four stanzas in a 4/3/3/4 line pattern.  And they all have regular rhyme/near rhyme end of line schemes, though the specific pattern varies poem to poem. 

Part III employs persona and narrative poems about historical 18th century Acadian actors and incidents as a way of telling the story of Acadian exile.  Cultural heroes, such as Beausoleil (Broussard), are portrayed in ways that recognize the characters’ flaws as well as their heroism.  The emotional and ethical conflicts of cultural villains such as Rene Leblanc are explored.    Critical and respectful attention is given to the suffering, strength and role of women in the survival of the race and culture.  The poems create a sense of compassion for individual sufferings and failings as well as admiration for the courage and best efforts of individuals in the face of monumental hardships.

These lyrical poems do not suffer from the romanticism found in many nostalgic histories of the Acadian saga, the seminal example being, of course, Longfellow’s “Evangeline.”   Here is Bourque’s response to Longfellow, whose poem inspired landmark Evangeline statues in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia and St Martinsville, Louisiana.  In the poem, Bourque refers to the St Martinsville statue.


That girl you think you see beneath the oaks beside the Teche, she is other
than the girl I was.   I was surely with all those other women forced to leave
a life they had grown into, but I was never what they were, never a mother,
never even married.  When other women gathered reeds and grasses to weave

into baskets, I was there and I may well have helped them.  But let’s be clear,
I grew into something that had to do mostly with what people needed of me.
I am the loyal one, the one faithful to a man I may or may not have held dear.

When rain and heat fall on fertile soil, things grow, & that is how I came to be.
I was not among those that fought back, wielded axes, or negotiated with bears
for a place to live.  I was never with the women who foraged for medicinal teas

to save a spouse in a wild land no one knew, or nursed a child, never smothered
by want or dread.  I never planted crops or took them in, never had to cleave
through thicket and vine to make a way for myself.  I was always covered
by right image & right sound, measured neatly in what others wanted to believe. 

Here we can see the rhyme scheme, very close to perfect,  of a,b,a,b/c,d,c/d,c,d/a,b,a,b, and the 4/3/3/4 stanza line pattern.  By naming the things that Longfellow’s Evangeline was not, Bourque names some of what actual Acadian women in exile had to contend with.  Eavan Boland writes about the problem of the emblemized woman in poetry, particularly how she stands in for the oppressed Irish people in Irish poetry. Over the centuries, Evangeline has become the emblem for the ideal Acadian woman and the suffering Acadian people.  In “Evangeline Speaks” Bourgue rejects this emblematic identity, making clear that such images are “measured neatly in what others wanted to believe.”  As an Acadian woman, I am grateful that poets and Acadian men such as Darrell Bourque exist and write.  He sees as a man, yet sees beyond what men want women to be, just as he sees beyond the one dimensional images of heroes that an oppressed people often cling to.        

For several decades, Acadian history and literature has received much attention in Canada.  Not so in the United States.  MEGAN’S GUITAR is a landmark work in the opus of Acadian and Franco-American  literature.  While MEGAN’S GUITAR is a distinctly American work, it exists within the tradition of the “Great Errance [Wandering]Canadian scholar Hans R. Runte identifies as central to the emergence of a distinct Acadian literature in 20th Century Canada.  In Megan’s Guitar, Darrell Bourque joins the tradition of Errance poets, such as Raymond LeBlanc, the “father of Acadian poetry.”   Runte dubs LeBlanc an “arm-chair traveler” who explores the universe of imagination and world wisdom traditions, much as Bourque does in MEGAN’S GUITAR.  In Errance the Acadian poet is “a wanderer,…an inhabitant of a borderlessness which makes him/her an identifiable citizen of the continent and the world.  ‘Errance’ thus calls Acadians into being.… [These] poets have elevated ‘Errance’ to an existential and identifying principle, and ‘Errance’ rewards them with the foundations of a contemporary Acadian poetics” that links the Acadian diaspora experience to that of people exiled world-wide, whatever the century.   (Runte, Writing Acadia, 133-7). 

MEGAN'S GUITAR and OTHER POEMS from ACADIE and OTHER POEMS FROM ACADIE is definitely a book for Acadian readers.  It is also a book for anyone who want to explore what it means to be born into a fractured post-colonial heritage, to lovingly explore who their ancestors were—warts and all—and to celebrate a distinct cultural heritage in our homogenizing modern world.    Writers wanting to write about their heritage, particularly if it is obscure like the Acadian heritage, will find in this book a priceless example of how to proceed.  Whatever their heritage, poetry lovers will find that the poems of MEGAN'S GUITAR are not only synergisms of forms and subject matter that open the reader treasures of poetry and other arts.  They are also melodic and rhythmic gems.


Caroline LeBlanc
in her honbuk for her
son's wedding in Korea.

Caroline LeBlanc turned her energies toward making art and writing after thirty-seven years as a Nurse Psychotherapist.  She continues the process of relocating from Northern New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she enjoys the regular sunshine and the rich cultural community.  Her chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle was published in 2010.  Recent work can be found in War, Literature & the Arts and The Louisville Review.  She is the Writer In Residence for the Museum of the American Military Family and leads writing circles for women veterans in Albuquerque.  Her writings focus on her own experiences as an Army Nurse, a military spouse and mother; her Acadian and Franco-American ancestry, and her own relocation sagas. 



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