Performance Bond, by Wayde Compton

published in American Book Review, Volume 27, Number 2, January/February 2006

One Performance Is Not Enough

In Performance Bond, Canadian poet/spoken-word artist Wayde Compton plays off and plays with (performs) multiple identities, those of a mixed-race, border-crossing son of the African diaspora and those of words themselves.  Here, bond illuminates both that which joins (unites) and that which restrains, renders un-free.  Bond as periphery: body and history.  The body in history.  Connection and disconnection.

A connoisseur of the indeterminate, Compton fuses poetry and prose, history and faux history, word as sound and word as visual text.  He follows the lure of all manner of boundaries, including the U.S./ Canadian border, which has historically attracted many “refugees” from the U.S, including fugitive slaves and Vietnam-era draft-resisters.  Traffic, however, flows both ways, for Canada provides a market and an audience for U.S. cultural products. The reverse has not always been true.  Compton’s point of view is further complicated by his observation that he too is a consequence of border-crossing, both geographical (his father immigrated to Vancouver from the U.S.) and racial/ethnic.  Thus, it is with only slight remove that he takes up the issues/stances of the immigrant, of the sometimes detained, turned-back or hiding out.  By definition, a “performance bond” has to do with establishment of identity; what Compton is tracking here are “identity cases.” From this position, no allegiance can be simple, no sense of self ready-made.

“Halfrican Nation” and “Afro-Saxon” function as possible labels for Compton’s experienced hybridity and complicate other notions that he considers, such as “Afrocentripetalists,” “Afroperipheric” and “Afrofuturist.”  Indeed, the status of the “Afro-Saxon” in Canada is not the same as that of the African-American in the United States, nor that of the African under colonialism and apartheid or the Palestinian living in occupied territory.  However he splits or splices his origins, Compton is not indigenous, nor did his ancestors arrive as slaves.  His parents are immigrants.  They chose Canada.  So, along with white Canadians, he shares the status of one who displaces and dispossesses.  In “Inlet Holler”  he explains, “I am a settler/ I am uneasy// there is nowhere to go.”   More than any personal identity, however, he is grappling with what Canada, and more specifically, British Columbia, might be.

Performance Bond is composed of four sections, the first of which, “Stations,” is a montage of texts that brings to mind diverse locations or neighborhoods (stations along a line of public transport, perhaps) where one can get on and off, or merely transit through following a brief stop.  These are places of arrival and departure.  Stations of the Cross as well, where one takes up a burden and that burden can be shared.  Along the way, performances and bonds multiply and have consequences, create a heritage.  In “To Poitier,” the speaker declares, “Sidney: I am a creation of the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?-generation, of the post-first-on-screen-interracial-kiss baby boom. In age and features, I am the offspring of those flickering images.”  The inheritance that Compton claims, however, is a global one, one that also includes Papa Legba, the Haitian voodoo god of the crossroads, Ayizan, the mother of all initiates in the Yoruba tradition and Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead.  The poet is the offspring of these “flickering images” as well.

“(Bottle) (Poems)” originally appeared as a series of art objects—fifty single-poem scrolls inserted into various glass bottles.  These poems invoke the tradition of bottle messages everywhere: words set down or adrift as cries for help or rescue, as records of having been here at a particular time (capsules buried or rocketed into space), or merely as fancy, for the sheer pleasure of the gesture.  Various precursors, mentors and models appear here as section headings (Marcus Garvey, “Edword” Brathwaite, Mifflin Gibbs, [Hailie] Selassie I, George Vancouver, Roy Kyooka).  Many others, in a cornucopia of cultural antecedents ranging from W. E. Dubois to Hans Christian Andersen, are mentioned, quoted, alluded to and borrowed from. Compton adds another layer of complexity by shifting everyone north—above the border. Some, like the poet himself, were even born there.

            The author informs us in his acknowledgments that “The Reinventing Wheel” began as a performance piece, and indeed, in keeping with that beginning, a CD recording of one “mix” of  this spoken word event is included with the book. His references to and samplings of diverse sources (quotations, word plays and borrowed rhythms, allusions and collusions) both call upon the cultural legacy of the African diaspora and a uniquely Canadian, particularly British Columbian, geography and history.  He writes

            I shake my rattle to the global click track: product/ product/ metronomic

            ethnic nationalist manna crackles

            out of satellites like

            prestidigitation.  All my fellow postsufferers

            at sea in the new lingua franca, the stutter: we are a cargo cult

            of reception. A buffer

            between selves.  Come again?

How complex and sophisticated this poet’s word play can be!  In another instance, he pays homage to and riffs off Gil Scott Heron’s classic 1970s’ poem/song/spoken word history lesson cum call-to-arms “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”  In Compton’s version, “The mulatto will not be metaphorized,/ but will a word be live?”   He borrows “will not be” and “will be . . . live” and relocates them in phrases which mimic Heron’s, but do so “slant.”  Just enough of a hook for the reader/ listener to catch the rhythm and know where s/he stands.  Compton transposes Heron’s eight beat line (“the revolution will not be televised”) by swapping the three beats of “mulatto” for the four of “revolution” and the four syllables of “metaphorized” for the three of “televised.” In his second line, he substitutes “word” for Heron’s “revolution” (“The revolution will be live”).  “The Reinventing Wheel,” then, is an update, so much so that when Wayde Compton claims that “word is bond” and “word is the body,”  we also understand that “word” is “revolution.” 

The final section of the book, “Rune,” is a docu-fiction that chronicles the demise of Hogan’s Alley, a Vancouver neighborhood where most of the city’s black residents lived until 1970.  Compton claims that “Rune” is in part “factitious” or a “re-imagining” of historical records (both written and photographic).  Included among these documents are a newspaper article, “Community or Hotbed of Criminality?: Whither Hogan’s Alley?” ; a conversation between Analogue and Digital, two characters à la Beckett sitting “on a bench at the corner of Main and Union, beside the Georgia Viaduct”; a series of staged photographs of imagined “Lost-Found Landmarks of Black Vancouver”; and oral histories contributed by two African-American settlers, Madoo Abdul Wahid and his cousin Geraldine Diamond.  Although these historical “documents” may have been fabricated by the author, they can be read as authentic, as evidence of a true story.

Wayde Compton’s writing is fresh, energetic and irreverent, and he demonstrates an impressive cognizance of the percolating pass-through and pass-down of culture and history. The “my diapason” of his “(Bottle) (Poems)” aptly describes the entirety of  Performance Bond, which is a marvelously miscellaneous piece of writing that showcases the entire range of this poet-performer’s voice.