The review below first appeared in The Danforth Review some time ago. I first met GEC at the University of Waterloo around 1991. He visited a writing workshop led by writer-in-residence Greg Cook. He lit up the room, charmed everyone, and left a lasting impression. Since then, of course, he has published many books in many genres and created a complicated legacy (and he's not done yet). As I'm reminiscing, I might as well add that I once ran into GEC at IKEA. Poetry lives in language, but poets live in the real!
by George Elliott Clarke
Some of the poems in Blue, George Elliott Clarke's latest full-length poetry collection, first appeared in Execution Poems, a chapbook published by Gaspereau Press (2000) and reviewed by Geoffrey Cook in an earlier edition of The Danforth Review.
Here is what Cook said about the poems in that earlier collection:
With all this language, you get, of course, a defiant, exuberant, provocative black-on-white (titles-in-blood-red) spirit dance of politics, racism, religion, psycho-sexual song and grumble, all whipping the reader on. Shocking, comic, controversial, a liberation of both fact and fiction for the sake of song, Execution Poems gives a nastily clear image of “how history darkens against its medium” (from “Childhood II”).
Here is what Clarke says in a brief introduction to Blue:
These poems are black, profane, surly, American. Their bitterness came honestly. US-torched, I wept these lyrics twixt 1994 and 1999. I confess: The Great Republic's fiery liberty set me blazing. An incendiary dérèglement charred by brain black.
Clarke then lists the poets he considers his precursors ("I pursued poets who immolate themselves in the inferno of witnessing"): Syl Cheney-Coker, Wanda Coleman, Henry Dumas, Allen Ginsberg, Irving Layton, Ezra Pound, and Derek Walcott. Clarke: "I craved to draft lyrics that would pour out - Pentecostal fire - pell mell, scorching, bright, loud: a poetics of arson."
To accuse Clarke of heated, overblown rhetoric would be, of course, to miss the point. He has chosen his words deliberately; he knows what he is trying to achieve; and he succeeds. He is following Keats: "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be True" (quoted at the beginning of the book). Which makes Blue a historical curiosity. Clarke is blatant in his use of High Romantic tropes and supremely unanxious about his more immediate modernist precursors, notably Auden: "Poetry makes nothing happen." How interesting, how odd, how wonderful and dangerous all at the same time.
Auden had ample reason to reject Romanticism (even if he didn't manage to escape its shadows), and we should be wary of the exuberance of many of George Elliott Clarke's narrative voices. Of course, Clarke's rhetoric is anything but simple - and he's capable of layering his ironies with the best of the best - but still, let's be careful. Clarke begins Blue with the warning that he's seeking "a poetics of arson", after all.
Here is Clarke ("Calculated Offensive"):
To hell with Pound!
What we desire is African:
Europe is so septic, it seeps poisons.
Why abet the mass murderers
and the famine- and munitions-makers?
All Plato and Aristotle ever did
was waste Nat Turner's time.
A machine spewing
porcine professors analyzing feces!
Who needs all those hymns printed on toilet paper?
Put Europe to the torch:
All of Michelangelo's dripping, syphilitic saints,
all of Sappho's insipid, anorexic virgins.
Use the Oxford English Dictionary
and the Petit Robert for kindling.
I like this poem. I think it's very funny; it articulates - albeit somewhat narrowly - an important cultural struggle; but it's also obviously problematic. On the one hand, it is a "calculated offensive"; it is an act of rhetoric, a heated wail of premeditated anger and contempt. (Interestingly, it also assails one of the poets Clarke names as an influence in his introduction.) That is - let me say it clearly - it should not be read literally: "Put Europe to the torch," etc. In our post 9/11/2001 world, perhaps we are more sensitive to words like these. On the other hand, Auden wrote his warnings about Romanticism in the context of the Second World War. That is, we have been given ample warning. Perhaps Clarke ought to have given greater weight to Wystan's cooling influence.
A "poetics of arson" isn't something we should celebrate unconditionally. Blue is a book we should celebrate, and Clarke is an author who should be read deeply - and (in some cases) be deeply read against. In many of the poems in Blue, Clarke has staked out a deliberately provocative position. His provocation should be taken at face value as a challenge to the communities Clarke lives in - not just the Canadian literary community, but Canada coast-to-coast, particularly the nation's many supposedly race-blind citizens. Blue is many things: the blues, sensuality, the high sky overhead. It is also a bruise - and a reaction. It is a book that should be read, debated, studied, and challenged.