Ottawa’s time-honoured Tree Reading Series featured Cyril Dabydeen, a former Poet Laureate of the city, sharing some of his vintage works in the comfortable Library room at the landmark Arts Court on Tuesday.
Mr. Dabydeen read from his latest book, Uncharted Heart, a new collection of poetry that follows the release of his Imaginary Origins: New and Selected Poems just over three years ago.
With spontaneity, passion, and humanity, Uncharted Heart brings to life a myriad of “formed and unformed spaces” rarely seen in Mr. Dabydeen’s previous works.
Born in 1945 in British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America, where his grandparents migrated as labourers from India in 1917, Mr. Dabydeen moved to Canada to pursue higher education in 1970.
Along with his Indian heritage, he has two identities, Guyanese and Canadian, he said.
His immigrant and diasporic experiences continue to enrich his writing. As he describes his poetry in Uncharted Heart, “rhythms and feelings extend boundaries to a wider, more intricate world as the poems aim for epiphanies combined with mythologies that are evocative of north-south sensibilities.”
“Dancing with Girls from China,” one of the poems in Uncharted Heart, was inspired by Mr. Dabydeen’s fascination with the Christopher Columbus figure.
When the legendary explorer set out across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 seeking a western route to the Orient, to bolster his sailors’ waning spirits in the middle of the long journey “he told them to imagine they’ll be dancing with girls from China,” said Mr. Dabydeen.
An excerpt reads:
or just Cipango where Marco Polo
visited: the Great Khan no less,
as you can imagine
images you yet hold dear
dancing with girls from China
As waves lash all around
such being the fear among sailors
bent on reaching land
being far, far from Europe
The Spanish court with maps,
topography of worlds really
Columbus as I am, inventing
worlds, looking back in an instant,
with astrolabe and quadrant
because of what’s far ahead…
if only a miracle.
Life’s destiny and journeying are vividly and honestly expressed in Uncharted Heart, including poems of love, of praise, and of sorrow. At the same time, “the persona of each poem also responds with humour and panache to each situation,” said Mr. Dabydeen.
In “Lady Icarus,” he tells the story of a woman from Ecuador who wants “desperately” to stay in Canada. He articulates his patriotic feelings about Canada in “Streets.” He also read poems about “Lenin Park: Havana” and his meeting with Russian poet Andrei Vosnesensky in Ottawa.
An award-winning English professor at the University of Ottawa, Mr. Dabydeen was co-winner of the top Guyana Prize for Fiction in 2007 for his novel Drums of My Flesh. The novel was also nominated for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007. In addition, it was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Awards in 2006.
Mr. Dabydeen has written over 15 books, including novels and collections of poetry and short stories. He has juried twice for the Canadian Governor General’s award for books of poetry.
Mr. Dabydeen’s reading style has been described as having “Stravinsky’s rhythms.” The British Journal of Canadian Studies praised his “mature and established voice,” and the U.K. Poetry Quarterly Review notes that “Dabydeen writes poems more like Borges…musically fluid and politically charged.”
The Tree Reading Series offers public readings of poetry and prose by published writers from Ottawa and across Canada. Readings take place the second and fourth Tuesday of each month in the Ottawa Arts Court Library at 2 Daly Avenue. Each Tree evening begins with an “open-mic” segment during which local writers read their works-in-progress. For more information please visit www.treereadingseries.ca .