Issue 50: Summer 2020

Living, breathing identity: Kaie Kellough’s Magnetic Equator

Magnetic Equator Kaie Kellough McClelland & Stewart 2019, 112 pp., $19.95


Kaie Kellough’s Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection, Magnetic Equator, delves into the experience of working through identity in a diaspora. Though firmly rooted in a Caribbean, specifically Guyanese, diasporic experience, it also reaches out across plural diasporas, charting patterns of movement and migration across history, which in turn have resulted in hyphenated and constantly changing identities. Rather than being a static and fully comprehensive term, identity is a process that is continuously being negotiated with the outside world. Kellough takes the theoretical ideas of movement and diaspora and crafts them into an intense and focused emotive collection.

The collection’s opening poem, “kaieteur falls,” shares its name with a waterfall in Guyana, one of the most powerful in the world. The poem falls on a double-page spread with very little visual space, which results in blurred distinctions between origin and destination. Using variation in font, bolded letters, brackets, slashes, and portmanteaus, the poem captures the rush and might of the falls’ powerful flow. To balance the loudness of this rush, Kellough uses a distinctly smaller font size for part of the poem. The formal elements of “kaieteur falls,” most notably the lack of spaces, facilitates this blend between words, such as in “empire’sseasons”, “languagesdown”, and “bubbleonthecreole.” Words’ meanings literally become one through the way Kellough wields and breaks rules of grammar. Origin points blend together into a space where pluralities can exist and thrive, setting the stage on which identities try to figure themselves out across the book.

Origin points blend together into a space where pluralities can exist and thrive ...

Magnetic Equator examines identity in flux: in the diaspora, in a return to Caribbean home, in the amalgamation of identities that form Guyana itself. In the opening of “mantra of no return,” Kellough writes, “this piece is / is not about the past, and it is / is not about the future, but it is / is not about a stasis all waves syncopate.” Identity is not fixed or absolute, and Kellough returns to this fluidity again and again. Pasts, futures, and presents collapse to exist in a moment that just is.

“people predated arrival. people fled predation. people were arrayed. people populated. whips patterned rays into people. people arose.” With structure and language, Kellough lyrically hones the focus of identity and diaspora on the people who experience it in an active sense. The physical act of moving across a land or ocean border from one place to another. The mental act of negotiating identity between personal and external ideas of what identity should be.

The image of migration today is of people from the “third world” to the “first world,” which are terms that erase the reasons why people migrate. This poem emphasizes the reasons that force people to migrate and move, including the colonial patterns of the movement of people by people. There are people who move because they have no other choice, people who move because they are moved, and people (or, the colonizers) who take over land that is already occupied and claim it as their own. The relationship between the Indigenous people who “predated arrival” and the migrant settler who “fled predation” is one that Kellough draws attention to. Ways of migrating are unequal: “people writhed over / under people. people arrived over / under people.” Movement affects identity in its methods. The external factors that inform Caribbean-Canadian identity specifically—slavery, indentured servitude, Atlantic dispersion, revolution—permeate Magnetic Equator.

Pasts, futures, and presents collapse to exist in a moment that just is.

As much as a person’s own sense of identity should be an internal and personal experience, identity becomes an amalgamation of the individual and historical self. People become identified subjects, situated within the context of where they live, because history is not in the past. Kellough writes, “can a person live in a particular place for 20 years yet only be ‘in’ and not ‘of’ … how can a person return to the place they are ‘from’ yet suddenly realize                         the stereo is on.” Questions of “in,” “of,” and “from” delineate diasporic identity: it becomes a mix of something you decide for yourself and what others decide for you. Identity, a word with such personal connotations, belongs to the people, places, and ideals around you, instead of belonging to you.

“am i noise or am i here?…am i visiting or being visited? do i possess the vocabulary of discovery or does it possess me?” The diasporic subject acts and is acted upon. What identity exists at any given moment in time? How and why does identity continue to be something fluid and changing? Diaspora is filled with many questions, and few grounded and firm answers. Through poetry, a medium that can be both grounded and ungrounded, Kellough evokes the emotion behind the unanswerable and his skill with sound and language leaves you breathless and vulnerable. He writes, “dispersing through the circuit of veins and synapses, nerve impulses / firing through flesh, and reverberating back into / everything living.”

Kellough grounds the urban landscape as “the dissolution of city into plastic bags, cereal boxes, torn wrappers...fine crushed glass into windrush, no terminus, diaspora folds and unfolds.” The physical city itself becomes a diasporic character in which other diasporas find themselves. Diaspora and identity are then living, breathing beings, encapsulating a multitude of definitions, while also evading the strictness forced upon them.

Colonial traces linger in influence on identity. “every morning / the british empire hungered and groaned within me.” Kellough personifies the British empire as an unsettling presence that threatens to surge up at any given moment, whether in Guyana or Calgary or Montreal. There is fear, fear of the violences of history, which forms part of identity, too. These lines point towards a lived reality for children of colonized nations: that colonial thought, education, and behaviour still have their hold. This is the state of being “postcolonial”: empire exists in insidious and invisible forms. The struggle to understand and define identity becomes a way to fight back against the lingering colonizing presence. If you can learn your origins, you can fight back against the violences that have attempted to erase them.

The various points of origin in a Caribbean context disrupt the speaker’s ability to pinpoint a singular history. But these points converge as Kellough writes:

            descended, in part, from a continent shaped like a question mark
            descended, in part, from those who were sold

            descended, in part, from those indentured
            descended, in part, from those who rebelled

            descended, in part, from charles tanner-lam
           of hong kong, migrant to guyana circa 18-o-long

            descended, in part, from those who bought and owned others
            descended, in part, from a question mark –

            perhaps arawak, perhaps indian, perhaps
            portugese, perhaps english, I don’t know

            how not to be multiple.

Kellough rejects the idea that knowing exact histories will provide a concrete answer to the elusive question of identity. He recognizes that the notions of homeland and return do not provide immediate belonging or the magical understanding of identity that they seem to promise. The return is not an antidote to diasporic nostalgia. Kellough finds other ways to span this divide, outside the borders of the nation-state, evading colonial contexts and finding a space of just being. Identity forms outside the constraints of colonial language and grammar. “& we three become a nation: black, mixed, indian / without a flag to wave, without an anthem,” he writes.

Kellough finds other ways to span this divide, outside the borders of the nation-state, evading colonial contexts and finding a space of just being.

Identities, in their multiplicity, float side by side throughout the collection, and particular ones emerge depending on context. Kellough writes, “i think differently in montréal from how i did in calgary, i write and dream in georgetown guyana with a flying fish.” Changing ways of talking and acting based on the other person in any given encounter. The act of switching does not have to be proven or explained; it is simply something that diasporic subjects know to be true. Magnetic Equator holds that familiarity. Someone has put into words the little habits and acts of everyday life of someone living in diaspora.

Two visual poems, “bow” and “essequibo,” are interspersed in the lyric poetry. “bow” takes its name from the Bow River in Calgary, and “essequibo” from Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo. Both visual poems take the shape and flow of their respective namesakes. Letters flow within the lines, but actual words are difficult to make out. But the words do not need to be read in order to experience the flow of the poem. Kellough takes the motif of water as metaphor for migration and shows us what movement looks like. From one section of the book to another, from a journey across continent and country. The geographical movement from Guyana to Calgary to Montreal takes on a physical form in the flow of water bodies. Migration occurs across water. Even within the singular country of Canada, water situates further movement.

Magnetic Equator dives into questions of diaspora and demonstrates why there is no one answer to these questions. Identity is fluid and determined by far too many factors, and Kellough gives space and voice to this fluidity. He continuously questions why we need to pin down strict linguistic terms to define ourselves, when what we feel in any given moment is as legitimate a form of identity as the ways in which we are perceived externally. This is a collection brimming with skill, poignancy, and emotion.


About the author

Manahil Bandukwala is a visual artist and writer. Her most recent work is a collaborative piece with Liam Burke, Orbital Cultivation, now out with Collusion Books. She is Coordinating Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine, and Digital Content Editor for Canthius. She is a member of VII, an Ottawa-based creative writing collective.