Black, George Elliott Clarke’s 2012 poetry collection from Gaspereau Press, is reworked from an earlier version from a different publishing house. I’m not familiar with its genesis, but this latest edition may have been not just an editing reappraisal, but also an addendum, since it clocks in at a stout 141 pages, sans end notes. The book is indexed by thematic dividers: Black Ink; Black Eye; Black Ice; Black Light, etc. And though a first impression, here, may gravitate towards unsubtle metaphor, the poems at once transcend racial didacticism. And like his Red and Blue, and against what Clarke’s titles may suggest are colour-specific metaphor, his scope overspills what must be a temptation in jargon-ridden ideological poli-sci students juggling ideas for a Master’s thesis. I say “overspills”, because, unlike the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s masterwork, The Golden Notebook, with its neurotically compartmentalized sections of black, yellow, blue, and gold, Clarke is impetuously integrative. The poems’ many modes aren’t an angled show of workshop chops, but a natural outpouring of complex emotion and vision.
“Natural outpouring” may cause craftspeoplehoods everywhere a wince or three. Visions of Whitman’s democratic acolytes scribbling delightful nonsense faster than a shorthand secretary at a decision on bomb deployment in a hurried State Dept convening. And, again, there’s that flagrantly, even arrogantly, unfashionable 141 pages (though with scattered pics) to consider. To the poems:
In a cheeky personal continuum, Clarke begins with “George & Rue: Coda”, a narrative sequence that immediately raises the pulse, with “Rufus slammed the hammer/ ... into Burgundy’s head”. The second couplet, unfortunately, highlights Clarke’s more than occasional problems with word choice. “Like a bullet bashing the skull” is echoed, in botched image or illogical link, by the later “words flood out”, “eunuchs droning” (eunuchs maintained a high and sweet voice, which was the point in the cut of European castrati), “surge of sun, lemony, cantankerous, warm” (the middle adjective is the worst, and “lemony” and “warm” are analogous to “wet water”), and “little rills slur the frothed river/ ... Bright as tinny, sitcom laughter, drowning/Out every serious thing”. (Sitcom laughter is, by definition, an amplifier, not something that “drowns” or eliminates. And how can a rill – a natural phenomenon – be equated to a human manipulation? The images here aren’t contrapuntal, either in harmony or dissonance.) Other problems? Clarke has always had a compulsive desire to clang rhymes – off-centred and full – like a mischievous schoolboy unattended at five a.m. in a church tower. It’s not that it’s unappealing (a reader who doesn’t delight in “vague ague plaguing” is probably better off reading intergovernmental marketing manuals), it’s that Clarke uses it as an all-purpose lyrical option, like a stuck music box that eventually morphs into a jackhammer.
But for all Clarke’s faults, they pale when remembering (and, dammit, reading aloud!) lines like “I gabble a garrote argot, guttural, by rote,/A wanton lingo, taunted and tainted by wine,/A feinting langue haunted by each slave boat”; “I suffered vicious, viscous visions/Of that Bible-toting tease, that hymn-singing quim,/That wriggle of a woman in a squiggle of a dress”; “a sour, righteous condemnation,/perpetually fountaining, brilliant,/ from the holes in the orator’s chest,/ his multiplied mouths” (the latter from “The Assassination of Malcolm X”, Clarke’s brilliantly shocking life-from-death dramatic metaphor); “A Frankenstein-masked, meeching, elfish ghoul,/Skulking in a graveyard of prime ministers”, (that last from “Jean Chretien”); his “Autobiography (II)”, the “so-called poet/Ink on my hands like bomb residue”; and “Breathless, she inhales leaves, their incensed green/Ebony, dark narcotic chlorophyll,/Then faints at the crux of branches and trunk” from his remarkable “Elegy on a Theme by Gasparini”, itself inspired by Len Gasparini’s exceptional “Elegy”.
I mentioned Clarke’s emotional breadth earlier. Poems here traverse the elegiac, the address to students, lyrical poetics, stinging ethnography, ars poetica, epigram, anaphora, georgic, confessional and lament, bitter proverb, racial myth, erotic paean, satire, celebrity monologue, economic squib, prophecy, encomium, pasquinade, personal appellative etymology, and soliloquy. In an emotional range reminiscent of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, where the composer resubmits Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” with his own contrasting take on multiple moods, Clarke’s far-ranging modes are what we still refer to as classical, yet they are entirely his own.