Bertha Clark of Gibsons, also known as Adelene da soul poet, has kept a secret for 18 and a half years. Those who read her poetry book, You Have Reached Adelene da soul poet, may have had their curiosity piqued by a poem, Da Brotherman, that describes a scared young kid in jail. Last year she decided to reveal her personal story at a TEDx talk in Vancouver, knowing that other mothers would understand — especially those who thought they were alone with a shameful secret.
When Clark’s son, Louis, was 18 he committed a serious crime: car jacking and armed robbery. Though this was his first offence, as a young black male he was incarcerated in a maximum security prison in California for 20 years.
In 1995, just as he was sentenced, he became a father. At first Clark stayed in California, visiting every week, sometimes bringing her grandson to meet his father, but finally she had to return to her home in Canada with a vow to visit once a year and to send him money and stamps so he could buy food and write to her.
“There’s lots of sadness in that place,” Clark said, and she recalls her first visit when Louis was in solitary confinement. They spoke through glass; the young man was in chains. Her heart was breaking.
“I’ve got to figure something else out, to make it so he’s not down in spirits like that,” she said.
Poetry was the answer. Letters to and from prison are read by authorities and prisoners are often moved from one facility to the other in the big business known as the American prison system. (One time Louis was held in the same prison as murderer Charles Manson.) So when Clark sent off her first poem that talked about a battle of the poets, she didn’t know if it would reach him and whether he would understand the next step. She waited.
She was overjoyed when he sent her an 18-line poem in return. “The words I write, I snatch them out the air / It’s a mystery to me, just how they got there,” he wrote. It was signed Da Phenomenal Poet. So began an 18-year correspondence in poetry between mother and son that held them together.
“Damn, he’s getting better than me,” she laughs, “but I’m not telling him that.”
The poems often turned dark, describing life behind walls.
“He wasn’t keeping anything in,” she said. “I just let him rant.”
Still, she kept the secret from all but her close friends. There is a stigma attached to a jailed son even though many families have a similar story.
Clark’s heritage makes a fascinating story in itself. Though she was born in San Francisco, she is the descendent of two of the black pioneering families invited by Governor James Douglas in 1857 to settle in this country. Her great-grandparents on both sides of the family settled in Victoria and Saltspring Island respectively. Her grandmother quickly became a part of Vancouver’s history when she opened Vie’s Chicken and Steaks in the 1940s, a restaurant that was a home away from home for visiting black performers.
For this Black History month of February, Adelene da soul poet has gigs lined up in Vancouver, speaking her poems and telling her stories. But in early March, she has another important appointment. Louis will be free, though with two years parole. Clark will be there to meet him.
“I envision this great big old dude coming out,” she laughs. “I’m going to hug him and we’re going to get away from there.”