Being one generation away from an agrarian Punjabi village, I was deeply interested in how Cecily Nicholson’s exploration of her relationship with agriculture both as part of her rural past and her work in the present would manifest; and what inter-laced themes were deployed in the writing.
Cecily Nicholson’s most recent collection of poems – Harrowings – is a meditation of Nicholson’s earlier memories of childhood living in the rural belt of Ontario and the documented story of Black Agrarianism in post Slavery times. This meditation is a linking of the lyrical to concrete poems that span across the page and over three sections to the collection. The fragmentary nature of the poems serves the intent to present a life of fragmentary experiences since childhood and in exploring her relationship to land. Agricultural work is explored through this collection from a lens of land sovereignty, agricultural production as a colonial act, and the colonizing impact of farming as an act of colonial ownership through many generations. Parallel to this is Nicholson’s exploration of black post slavery life involved in farming, thus creating a tension to this work that is palpable.
In the first section and first poem we enter into an ekphrastic poem exploring through language the primacy of how agricultural production is shared and consumed in verses
to not solely succumb to logics of land/crop/harvest
as required by institutions of slavery and capital
One of the phrases that emerge earlier in this work is the line “history as decomposition”; exposing the documented history of colonial progression as a kind of rotting of the soil or it’s fertility to grow.
The poet addresses her own place as an advocate in this capitalist landscape:
I can feel my place in extraction
Hear how to centre / how hard to decentre
Here we find the tensions again of how the poet both lives within the context of extractive farming and the challenge of decentring the prevailing bucolic narrative of agrarian culture as a white settler enterprise.
Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator and leader of the anti-slavery movement in the USA, is cited throughout this collection as a both a beacon for emancipatory thinking, but also again the tension of settler agrarianism that Nicholson considers in her writing, cited throughout this collection and in her own words in the prose poem: “I reflect further on fugitivity of that time, and upon life in the near aftermath of slavery as the dominion of Canada formed. The language of logics of farm stem from structures of settler colonialism even if they embody emancipatory practices. This makes for complicated dreams;” and it is from these complicated dreams that Nicholson explores themes through Harrowings.
In the section Well black on the nether side, it will remain we are provided with short bursts of autobiographical poems where there is some window into her youth both on a farm and as “ward youth intermittently involved in state care that cared less…”.
There are so many pithy phrases incorporated into this collection, that are both memorable and stick to one’s memory, such as “after-carceral/end of days stitch together the sewn and sung drums reconstructed”; or, “seeding sovereignty”. A master of language construction, Nicholson consistently writes memorable poetic language throughout this collection.
In homage to the Punjab Farmer’s Revolt during 2020-21, Nicholson iterates the famous saying “kisan-mazdoor ekta zindabad”, which translates to ”Long Live Farmer-Labour Unity”, followed by another agrarian movement – Food For Spirit. By linking these two movements, Nicholson builds solidarity and community across ethnocultural communities to demonstrate the spirit and power of what a peoples’ movement can do.
Creating community extends the poetic flow of this collection where we finally arrive at the crux of Nicholson’s collection on page 90 – “Let our emigrants so abolutionize and strengthen neighbouring positions/as to promote the prosperity and harmony as a whole.” And as a testament to the hard labour of farming on page 92, Nicholson utilizes these moments of oratory to foreground her hope for how the reader accepts this book, through an act of community and solidarity.
The works cited in this collection are a rich archive of critical and creative thinking of how emancipated black settlers worked the land in Canada amidst very difficult circumstances. By bringing forward this archival record, Nicholson brings both legitimacy to the words and showcases the strong foundation from which her work emanates.
Harrowings is a must-read collection of work for those who are interested in reading a creative account of the long historic path of black agrarianism in Canada and other sites closer to the Ontario border such as Detroit. Nicholson has provided powerful lyric-based poems that also have the sparseness of current literary approaches. Nicholson’s slow, meditative pace of poetry provides the reader a window into learning more about this area of study, while evoking memorable and beautiful descriptions of the subjects she writes about.