Broken and Beaten Things: On Resilience by Bertrand Bickersteth

Can you consider something resilient if it’s broken? This question emerges from my tendency to confuse persistence and resilience. There is a relationship, after all. To me, they are both impressive. Both have to do with a certain staying power. Both invoke a kind of underdog, against-all-odds achievement. But there is at least one key difference between them: choice. As a five-year-old, one of my prized possessions was the LP version of Disney’s Mickey and the Beanstalk. I loved it so much that it was an instantaneous choice for show and tell at my daycare centre. As I stepped out of the car, gem in hand, the disc slipped out of its sleeve and shattered on the concrete sidewalk. I had been holding the record upside down. Annoyed, I asked my Dad to quickly put it back together before we went in. He looked at me silently. “Daddy,” I prompted impatiently. He calmly explained to me that that was an impossibility. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “Broken is broken.” It was a harsh lesson. I burst into tears.

a vinyl record that has been broken into pieces

I have been struggling with an analogous experience in my adult life: a harsh lesson about persistence and resilience that has emerged over a lifetime. I was born to a small family in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I was an only child until I was nearly 10 years old. My mother, on the other hand, comes from a large family. She has three siblings and a multitude of cousins, uncles, and aunts, who all think that four is a ridiculously small size for a family. Her father has seven siblings. Among them are two sets of twins. Funny enough, my grandfather appeared to take pity on his prospective wife when they got married, because, like me, my grandmother comes from a family of two siblings. I myself have only managed to eke out a single son.

In fact, there is a common experience I’ve had when I encounter my extended family abroad. (Though, to be fair, it is not limited to just them.) We will exchange pleasantries, catch up on each other’s lives, and sum up our achievements appraisingly. And then, somewhere after the initial hug but before the invitation to dinner, there is usually a hiccup in the exchange. We will be chuckling amiably about some common story our children share when, teasingly, chidingly, my relative (or friend) will reprimand me for only having one child. “They need someone to play with! Why are you being so stingy?” And then, still chuckling amiably, I will shrug and simply say, “one is all that came.” More chuckling, but a shift will have taken place and there will be a slight pause before the banter resumes. “Well,” my cousin smiles hopefully, “you must keep at it.” I will simply shrug again and wonder to myself: can you consider something resilient if it’s broken? Or, am I confusing resilience and persistence again?

photo of Ben Okri and Cover on the novel The Famished Road

When I was a graduate student in the early 2000s I was enthralled by Ben Okri’s novel, The Famished Road. Okri was Africa’s representative of the relatively recent genre of magical realism, which had asserted itself definitively on the global literary map in the 1990s. The novel’s protagonist is a wispy, fragile boy whose head always appears to be in the clouds. As it turns out, there is some truth to this predicament. Azaro, the novel’s focus, is an abiku. In Nigeria, the Yoruba people attach this label to spirit children who persist in tormenting their parents, particularly their mothers, by resisting the fullness of human life. Instead, they take a gulp and rush back to the spirit world to share their adventures with their mischievous spirit friends and mock the fragility of human existence. It is the Yoruban cosmological explanation for children who die too young, or as infants, stillbirths or miscarriages. 

It is a poignant narrative worldview, rich with myth and magic, which attempts to account for a mysterious but all too-human experience. Okri’s masterstroke was to take this Yoruba narrative tradition and give it a unique twist. Azaro is not the usual abiku who delights in taunting his parents with hope and anguish. He is an abiku who has chosen to stay in the human realm. What’s more, Azaro still has one foot in the spirit world. As a human, he is actually unstable, vulnerable, awkward. More importantly, the spirit world is still accessible to him. He witnesses it juxtaposed over the ordinary lives of his human family. He sees spirits suddenly interject themselves and, unbeknownst to humans, affect the regular course of people’s everyday lives. In this way, Azaro’s vision completes the ordinary mysteries that elude the rest of us. The doings of spirits, on the other side of life, explain enigmas at the heart of our lives.

But some mysteries seem too deep, maybe too human, to be explained. My wife and I met in our teens. We instantly satisfied something absent in the other and have been cleaved to each other ever since. Who can explain the sudden certainties of teenage hearts, still beating, still certain after all these years? These days, I am no longer surprised by the austerity of German weddings and she has learned to understand a smattering of Sierra Leonean Krio. Some mysteries have plagued, though. The vaulted platitude of a friend, still in our teens, who insisted to my wife that it was not (biblically) natural that she and I be “yoked.” The sudden reversal of an apartment’s availability, in Vancouver in our twenties, when we arrived in person to view it. The simultaneous self-certain and probing declarations, in our thirties, from strangers to my wife of her generous choice to adopt our one and only child (who she actually gave birth to). Certainly, these occurrences are mysteries, too, birthed by the baffling priorities of our unaccommodating, unimaginative, and thoroughly unmagical society.

 

It was as a teenager that I first dabbled in poetry. I was actually more drawn to song, but I didn’t play an instrument so I worked with words and anticipated my celebrated arrival into a duly awaiting music industry. It is not surprising that so many of us try our hand at poetry at this age. I think it has something to do with the resilience of the teenage heart: always on the verge of feeling beaten, always ardently beating. This line between the bold and abashed teen is naturally evoked in the ambivalences of poetic language, its particular music, its certain (and uncertain) syllabic dissonances. Most of us take a few stabs at it in these vulnerable years, but most of us don’t persist with it. I, for example, didn’t.

I didn’t have to. My lived experience seemed to provide all of those syllabic dissonances whether I liked it or not. I grew up in a country where I was taught to believe racism didn’t exist. And I did believe as much for the first twenty years of my life. So imagine the poetic contortions I experienced when that landlord turned me and my wife away. Imagine the metaphor suggested by a friend’s use of the word “yoke.” Imagine, even, the certain syllabic dissonance evoked by the word “friend” in these circumstances.

 

“Are we going to keep trying?” is a question I never asked my wife. It was never a question I felt there were words to ask. Only absence. And at the heart of that absence were two things: my wife’s unfathomable struggle with a persistence or a resilience that only she could understand. And the spirit child, laughing with her spirit friends, that only I could see. For the first time in our lives, since we were teenagers, we were being separated, forced into different experiences. And here’s something Ben Okri’s novel didn’t reveal to me, something I learned through this new imbalanced relating I shared with my wife: abikus are imperfect taunters. Or rather, they have a weakness that makes them vulnerable to their own taunting. After all, they are the only spirit creatures who elect to cross the line to experience human life. It is not just for the sake of teasings and tauntings; there is something in us that appeals to them. There is some mystery about humanity they cannot solve from the spirit world. Perhaps it is our weakness for hope. Perhaps it is how consumed we are by death. Our mortality must look like a broken thing to them. And how, they must wonder, does a broken thing keep breaking? Or, are they confusing persistence with resilience? 

And there is my spirit child: the daughter I never had. She fills my dreams and haunts my poems. In fact, poems were my way of coming to terms with this fully female experience that I could know nothing about. As a Canadian, I was never allowed to feel comfortable in my Black skin. As a man, I cannot feel comfortable contemplating my maleness, especially in the wake of my abiku daughter. But that is what my poetic turn compels me to do. And that is what eventually brought me back to poetry. It was a tentative return. Poems I wrote during those times of wordless despair are the guiltiest poems I have ever composed. I feel they are a betrayal to my wife who is not a poet and has no ingress to certain, syllabic dissonances. She has only dissonance. Unworded and all-encompassing. And also, more accurately, I do not know what she has. In this matter we are on divergent sides of the spirit world. Our daughter comes and goes between us, time and time and time again, but my maleness is an obtrusion. Even now I am the miscarriage, mansplaining my way through her experience, slyly sidling with metaphor and glorying in poetic prose as my respite. And no, I do not feel comfortable in my skin, but I will have to simply sit with that because my discomfort has never compared to my wife’s unfathomable (to me) struggle. 

Only now, just out of our forties, do I see a new relationship with this stubborn torment from my past. Just as I see the yearning in my abiku daughter for something she does not want to want, I have been returning to that series of poems I worked at when she used to visit us so often. They are, fittingly, sonnets. The strict limitations of the form mirrored something in me that felt helplessly confined. But like dazzling spirit creatures, poems can beckon a forbidden magic on the other side of despair. Somehow, there is a kind of freedom hinted in those rigid rhymes. Somehow I persisted, like two teenagers who lock on to each other and instantly mature in love without even knowing what maturity is.

 

And I hear her heartbeat. Beating with me. Beating in me. Beating me. And I don’t know what a man’s relationship is to miscarriage. I don’t know who is crossing what line here. I don’t know the right words to stave or save. I don’t know any words at all in this space that is not meant for my Black body. I cannot answer my daughter or explain why broken things keep breaking. I can only wonder. At the mystery of two lifelong teenagers. The singular son that was sown between them. The persistent daughter who will not stay, who will not go away. The resilient poetry of a broken heart, beating.


Born in Sierra Leone, raised in Alberta, and formerly resided in the U.K. and the U.S., Bertrand Bickersteth is an educator who also writes plays and poems. In 2018, he was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. His debut collection of poetry, The Response of Weeds, was published in 2020 and was named one of CBC’s best books of poetry for the year. He was also named one of CBC’s six Black writers to watch for in 2021. His poetry has appeared in several publications, including The Antigonish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and his nonfiction is forthcoming in Prairie Fire (2021). He lives in Calgary, teaches at Olds College, and often (always, actually) writes about Black identity on the Prairies.