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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke, ed. Jon Paul Fiorentino

I’ve always been partial to the Laurier Poetry Series, produced by Wilfred Laurier University Press, a series of critical selecteds, somewhat like the “essential poets” series that The Porcupine’s Quill, Inc. has been doing more recently, with a critical introduction, roughly fifty pages worth of poetry over the writer’s career, and a new essay by the author as well. After previous publications on the work of Don McKay, Christopher Dewdney, Dennis Cooley and others, the most recent is Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke (2008), selected with an introduction by Montreal writer Jon Paul Fiorentino. As Fiorentino begins his introduction:
The blues singer, the preacher, the cultural critic, the exile, the Africadian, the high modernist, the spoken word artist; the Canadian poet. These are some of the voices and identities of George Elliott Clarke. His influences are many. Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and many others are intertextually linked to his practice. He is a poet who seems at times haunted by the anxiety of influence, but a closer reading of his texts reveals that the multiple voices of George Elliott Clarke are the result of his poetic fluency and scholarly acuity.

Clarke’s poetics negotiate cultural space through adherence to and revision of tradition. A collection like Whylah Falls establishes a voice for the Africadian community—a voice that employs diverse poetic strategies such as iambic pentameter, the Mississippi Delta Blues, and modernist vers libre. A collection like Blue establishes equally multivocal poetic voices, but its various strategies are deployed to a more polemical/performative end.
Part of what makes this collection interesting is showing the range of what Clarke has been up to over the past twenty years, including work from such collections as Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems (Pottersfield Press, 1994), Beatrice Chancy (Polestar, 1999), the Governor General’s Award-winning Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of “George and Rue” (Gaspereau Press, 2001), Blue (Raincoast, 2001) and Black (Raincoast, 2006), as well as highlighting the fact that such an author hasn’t yet had a selected poems published. How has he gone so long without one?

April 1, 19—

Air smells purely of wine
where I have fallen—
an allegro Negro—

sueing brunette paleness.
unused to beauty, I
catch the blush of stars,

run my brain along
a line’s razor edge,
Basho being sharpest—

or her arrogant thinness!I draft wrecked words, gulp
draughts of wrecking wine.

To hold her is to hold
perfume—whitest breath
of lilies, or fathom

Gold-dark eyes, fierce as Sade.
A brief kiss—one brief kiss—
And I’ll breathe the future.

One missing feature that would have been interesting would have been a list of Clarke’s publications over the years. The biography mentions that Clarke has published “nine poetry texts (including this one), three chapbooks, four plays in verse (and three opera libretti), a novel, a scholarly essay collection, and edited two anthologies” but doesn’t list any of them, but for the titles the included work is selected from. Still, one of the highlights of the series is the essay by the author (usually a new piece, written specifically for the selected) at the end of the collection. Apart from a wonderful mix of influence, from blues to politics to Shakespeare, one of the essential elements of Clarke’s poetry over the years has been how closely attuned his ear has always been to the music of it. In the piece “Let Us Now Attain Polyphonous Epiphanies,” included as the afterword, Clarke talks about how it was music that initially brought him to poetry, writing:
On a sunny Saturday Halifax, Nova Scotia, afternoon in April 1972, my father gathered up his three sons and a few of our friends, crowded us all into a station wagon, and just went driving. I sat up front, near the car radio, and listened intently as Bobby Vinton sang “Sealed with a Kiss” (from sometime back in the 1950s), but I also concentrated on the hits of the day, such as those by the Jackson 5 (“ABC”) and by the Osmonds (“One Bad Apple”). This attentiveness was memorably strange, for I knew it was separating me irrevocably from my childhood. Indeed, one chum riding with us was a girl I had a crush on, and the radio songs were suddenly communicating my inarticulate angst and exposing my secret desire. Later that day, I borrowed the portable radio, laid down in my bed, in my room, and tuned the set to the Top 40 songs that had just begun to speak to—and for—me. I laid there with my eyes closed, fantasizing about that girl, while letting song after song alert me to the promise of the kiss, the embrace, the dance, and even everlasting love.

I think I became a poet then, though I did not begin to write what I called “songs” for another three years. I became a songwriter—a lyricist—before I became, indelibly, a poet, so I learned to state my yearnings and my fears in a heart-felt, three-minute formula—a sincere orature, straight from the gut, and straight to an auditing girl’s ear. (Some of us young “bloods” loved to sing, late night, strategically, beneath the window of neighbours’ daughters.)

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