Constance Whittaker-Soulikias (teacher, poet, playwright) was born in 1941 in Moncton, New Brunswick. Shortly after her birth her family moved to Halifax, where they remained for thirteen years. She then moved to Saint John where she attended Saint John High School. Her parents were Helen and Robert Whittaker (manager of the Canadian National Telegraph). In 1960 she was married to James Soulikias and has two children with him.
After the opening of the University of New Brunswick (Saint John campus), Soulikias attended and received a BA in 1977. Before and after attending UNBSJ, she was a teacher who taught in several schools in the Saint John area, including the Saint John Vocational School, the Prince Charles School, the Saint John the Baptist-King Edward School, and Lorne Middle School. She taught for three decades before retiring in 1986.
At UNBSJ Soulikias read poetry aloud at gatherings of the Purple Wednesday Society and she published poems in The Cormorant, The Purple Wednesday Society’s literary magazine. She also served on the finance committee for the magazine. She was, in fact, the first poet to be published by the society.
Her publications include The Deeps of Memory (1971, poetry) and Goodbye to the Snow (1973, poetry), both of which reflect her experiences of living in Greece. Her other works are A Bridge to Paradise (1979, poetry), co-written and illustrated by Herzl Kashetsky, and Streets of Saint John (1980, poetry), co-written by Gail Bonsall Kaye. The latter volume contains verse pertaining to her experience of living in Saint John.
Major themes found in Soulikias’ work relate to life in Saint John and to the coastal presence found there. Several of her poems express what it was like to grow up in Saint John in the post-war period, and, more specifically, what it was like to be a child in the port city. She often comments on being a child in places where no child should be. “King Street Gaol” (1980) is a perfect example of this as she describes:
… Going to the ‘old’ Junior High
On Union Street,
We would walk down through the Burial Ground
Followed by whistles
From between the bars –
Whistles of boredom and neglect,
Yet still our blushing innocence
Did not respect the sentiment. (8-9)
Womanhood and love are also major themes found in her poetry. Many of her poems express the yearning for, attainment, lack, or loss of love. The Sword and The Butterfly (1977, poetry) illustrates, beautifully, the way in which she is able to carry the reader away from the Maritimes with powerful imagery:
Took me far away
Into an eternity of loving
All in the expanse of a mortal day
And there he lay me down
In a garden of butterflies
Floating free on zephyrs of ecstasy.
I watched their dancing flight
And followed them in soaring pursuit
Into the long warm night … (5)
In this poem (and several others) she expresses love as something which is always welcome, whether it is present or not. Her poems seem to betray no instances in which love is labeled as something which evokes sadness, only that it makes life better.
Soulikias describes herself as a poet of the “domestic variety” (The Cormorant 2.1) so it is no surprise that many of her works address home life in the Maritimes. Her personas sometimes seem out of their element when outside their native surroundings. These poems express the wonder (and sometimes fear) they feel when experiencing new things, and demonstrate instances of self-discovery. One such instance can be found in one poem in The Deeps of Memory (1971, poetry), where the persona describes waiting for a bus in Greece during the summer of 1971:
… And then
---the bus --- slowly approaching
People from nowhere --- crouching
For the kill,
To grab the piece of bread
Thrown to starving Jews in concentration camps.
And I could not bring myself
To become a barbarian too …
…But then I felt
Beside me there
The brush of one’s hair
Who waited patiently, knowingly
And I had assurance
That there was hope
And respect would survive
As long as we were alive. (10)
This is one example of many in which the unknown becomes a hostile entity, that entity often leavened by compassion. She writes her poetry in similar affective ways, thus letting readers into her own life so they are able to feel the love, comfort, and belonging she attributes to home and human kindness.
Christopher Pratt states that “Constance’s poems emanate from the heart, mind and soul of a person whose daily experience is a never ceasing well from which she readily draws” (5). And, in respect to The Alabaster Box (1987, poetry), he states “The variety of poetry which has been given expression within these pages is reflective of the diversity of experience in the life of Constance Whittaker-Soulikias. The reader will discover that it is possible to be uplifted, challenged, surprised and moved by that which is offered here” (5).
Constance Whittaker-Soulikias remains in Saint John where she is currently Deacon at the Trinity Church. She has been described by one contemporary as “… receiving, by night and day, an endless stream, a veritable Ganges, of illuminators… Hers is that soul which Nietzsche said was ‘overfull’ and to which, alone, he was prepared to commit his love” (Stewart-Robertson).
Her poetry is important to New Brunswick because it reflects the experiences of the common New Brunswicker, while also shedding light upon the hopes and dreams of a working-class people who have traditionally been forgotten.
Matthew Goodwin, Winter 2012
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of primary sources
Whittaker-Soulikias, Constance. The Alabaster Box. Saint John: C.B.S., Purple, 1987.
---. Better Than Flowers. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1974.
---. Carte Blanche. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1986.
---. “Constance Whittaker-Soulikias.” The Cormorant 7.2 (1990): 47.
---. The Deeps of Memory. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1971.
---. “Desserts.” The Cormorant 9.1 (1992): 50.
---. February XIV: XIV Sonnets. Saint John: Constance Whittaker-Soulikias, 1976.
---. The Gardener et Alii. Knowlton, QC: The Purple Wednesday Society, 2004.
---. Goodbye to the Snow. Illus. Hart Swedersky. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1973.
---. Inside the Light. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1975.
---. Phone Interview. 17 Oct. 2012.
---. Robin Blush. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1992.
---. Spectres of Irises. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1996.
---. The Sword and The Butterfly. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1977.
---. “Two Poems by Constance Whittaker-Soulikias.” The Cormorant 2.2 (1984): 64.
---. “Two Poems by Constance Whittaker-Soulikias.” The Cormorant 4.1 (1986): 72.
---. “Two Poems by Constance Whittaker-Soulikias.” The Cormorant 6.1 (1988): 33.
---. The Uninvited Touch. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1988.
---. “Union Station.” Stubborn Strength. Ed. Michael O. Nowlan. Don Mills, ON: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 129.
---. Velvet Geographies. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1982.
---. The Whisp’ring of Words. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1971.
---. “Yosef.” The Cormorant 13.2 (1997): 106.
Kaye, Gail Bonsall, and Constance Soulikias. Streets of Saint John. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1980.
Whittaker-Soulikias, Constance and Herzl Kashetsky. A Bridge to Paradise. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1979.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SECONDARY SOURCES
Pratt, Christopher B.J. Foreword. The Alabaster Box. By Constance Whittaker-Soulikias. Saint John: C.B.S., Purple, 1987. 5.
Nowlan, Michael O. “Atlantic Bookcase.” Atlantic Advocate 77.8 (1987): 52-53.
“Review of Reading by Constance Soulikias.” The Cormorant 2.1 (1984): 52-53.
Stewart-Robertson, Charles. Preface. The Uninvited Touch. By Constance Whittaker Soulikias. Saint John: The Purple Wednesday Society, 1988. 5.