Invoking Layton (G.E. Clarke), Globe & Mail, May 26 06
Barely in the black
by ADAM SOL
By George Elliott Clarke
Polestar, 152 pages, $18.95
By George Elliott Clarke
Canadian Scholars' Press,
76 pages, $34.95
George Elliott Clarke has made a career of exploring the black experience in Canada with verbal dynamism and by including his own personal narratives in his explorations of a complex and underrepresented history. His most recent collections, Black and Illuminated Verses, seek to build on that legacy, delving into cultural politics, celebrating black beauty and exploring his own unique position as the inheritor of divergent, conflicting literary traditions.
Black is a sequel to Clarke's 2001 collection, Blue, exploring various aspects of his conflicted identity. Illuminated Verses is a smaller collection focusing specifically on black feminine beauty, created in collaboration with photographer Richard Scipio.
Clarke's linguistic prowess is on full display from the opening pages of Black. Clarke tackles his mixed literary heritage, invoking Jean Toomer, Irving Layton and, most compellingly, Ezra Pound, the fascist founder of Modernism, whose complex legacy is a recurring subject. In these passages, Clarke's language is often dazzling in its punning and rhythmic play, as if to disprove his assertions of discomfort:
Balderdash and braggadocio: what English is --
Squabbling cabals in Bibles and newspapers --
A tongue that cannibalizes all other tongues.
Of course, Clarke's claim that his is a "lopsided tongue spoil[ing] Her Majesty's English" seems disingenuous, given his unquestionable erudition and the 100-year history of vernacular poetry starting with Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes and Pound himself. And once you've won a Governor-General's Award and a named professorship at the University of Toronto, any claims to being a literary outsider start to ring a bit hollow. Still, Clarke's poetic struggles with the literary tradition bring forth the most daring passages in this collection, mixing slam-poetry bravado with multilingual slang and cross-cultural allusion.
There are serious problems with this collection, however. Black is in some ways more personal than the previous books that built Clarke's reputation in Canada, namely Wylah Falls and the winner of the Governor-General's Award, Execution Poems. These two works focus on historical and mythic figures, but the peripheral presence of the author -- as witness, ventriloquist, cinematographer, commentator and mourner -- is essential, elevating the lives of his subjects to lyric significance and resonance.
That external triggering subject is missing from Black. There are poems on political subjects (a powerful evocation of Malcolm X's assassination, returns to characters from previous collections), but the central subject of the book is clearly the narrator himself and his ability to "gabble a garrote argot." As the collection progresses, this lack of focus leads too often to half-realized political commentaries (on Jean Chrétien, Pierre Trudeau and JFK) and surprisingly self-indulgent autobiographical reflections.
It is as though Clarke's life has become the project he has worked on most diligently, and the poems in Black are merely reports on this success. A Discourse on My Name even goes so far as to list Clarke's honorary degrees, and a touristy photograph of the author reading smilingly next to Ezra Pound's tomb (photo credit: Anonymous) undercuts the tone of serious engagement that exists elsewhere in the book. Strangely, the most personal poems in the collection use a surprisingly flat language that derives little intimacy or power from its diaristic tone.
One could forgive some pretentious tics -- a penchant for superfluous French and Latin, capitalized abstractions like Lust, Art and Beauty, literary name-dropping, false modesty -- if Clarke were more ambitious with his social insights. But sadly, his explorations of double consciousness contain little that wasn't already revealed by W. E. B. DuBois in 1903. Beneath the electric wordplay is a fairly familiar story, one that has been told with more power and depth by any number of writers, including Clarke himself.
As has been true for much of Clarke's work, Black and Illuminated Verses are accompanied by photographs, most notably a series of nudes by Scipio. For Illuminated Verses, and parts of Black, these photographs seem crucial to the project, an attempt to explore and praise feminine black beauty. And Scipio's photographs are quite striking, particularly the black-and-white shots that adorn Black. The problem with Clarke's poems exploring beauty is one that has troubled men's writing about black women from Langston Hughes to Spike Lee to Usher: When a woman's body is praised in a sexualized manner under the rubric of racial pride, any discomfort can be dismissed as internalized racism, whether that discomfort is with objectification (why so much praise for black women's loins, but almost nothing of their voices or ideas?), sophomoric puns ("that rouge grotto") or even patently misogynistic language ("whorettes with hips like black mares")?
Clarke's literary play may seem like well-meaning, if sometimes loosely constructed, praise songs -- a kind of drunken toast to black beauty -- but in a writer of such considerable gifts, intellectual laziness like this is a real disappointment. It's worth noting that a love poem to Clarke's wife in Black has none of the hyper-sexualized imagery that is rife in the other poems praising women of colour in both collections.
There is no question that George Elliott Clarke is a force to be reckoned with in Canadian letters. If his potential legacy is to reveal essential truths -- about black experience, male experience, Canadian experience, human experience -- then more editorial rigour must be applied to his efforts. A writer of Clarke's gifts owes it to his readers to fulfill that potential.
Adam Sol's most recent collection of poetry is Crowd of Sounds. He teaches in the Laurentian University at Georgian College program.