Writings / Reviews: George Elliott Clarke

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Fiction, Poetry and Black History


The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2012
112 pp. $25

Vox Humana
by E. Alex Pierce
London, ON: Brick, 2011
76 pp. $19

The Testament of Mary, a novella-size novel by Irish, New York-based author Colm Tóibín, was released just in time for Xmas 2012, and not likely International Woman’s Day. Yet, Toibin tries to imagine Jesus’s mother at the moment of her son’s crucifixion and its aftermath, and so he depicts an archetypal mother, whose anguish opposes the tortures that she associates with patriarchal faiths and politics. Mary’s Testament is a woman’s gospel, one that departs defiantly from Christian belief.

Tóibín presents us with a very human Mary, who sees her son, not as the Son of God, but as the victim of conspiratorial fanatics who want to launch a new religion, complete with a martyr and miracles, so as to challenge the cruel rulers of Rome and of Jerusalem. Mary’s proto-feminist viewpoint is given early: “all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty….” In her eyes, Jesus’s disciples are “misfits” – mere “children, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye.”

Mary even complains, “It takes me weeks to eradicate the stench of men from [my] rooms so that I can breathe air again that is not fouled by them.” She is not referring only to disciples or apostles here, but to all men. Tóibín continues his attack on patriarchal Christianity by having his Mary question the most famous miracles and wonder, over and over, whether her son is the pawn of “spies and observers,” “informers, middlemen,” and is just spawning “commotion” and “whipping up hysteria among the crowds.”

So, the transformation of water into wine at the wedding party at Cana is explained as a matter of Jesus discovering and making available “good wine,” amid “shouting and confusion,” including the guess that the host had saved the best stuff for last. Was Lazarus risen up from the dead? Tóibín’s Mary is uncertain. But even if he has been raised up from the dead, she wagers that he will die again soon, and that his current new life is such a great disturbance of the peacefulness of death, that he is more like a zombie than a true human being.

Tóibín’s descriptive powers are put to effective use in musing on the resurrection of Lazarus: “Slowly the figure dirtied with clay and covered in grave clothes wound around him began with great uncertainty to move…. It was as though the earth beneath him was pushing him and then letting him be still in his great forgetfulness and nudging him again like some strange new creature jerking and wriggling towards life.”

Not only does Mary doubt the miracles and distrust her son’s mission, in her elder years, seeking comfort, she prays to Artemis, “the great goddess…, bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her.”

Tóibín’s feminist emphasis is clear. Unflinching, too, is his rendition of the crucifixion. Reading the scene is like watching Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ (2004). However, Tóibín’s avoidance of the story of Jesus’s birth is a fatal flaw in his portrait of his fictitious Mary.

E. Alex Pierce is a Nova Scotian poet who published her first verse collection, Vox Humana, in 2011. She is devoted to the arts – music, theatre, and photography. In her writing, she likes to revise canonical texts, according them a feminist edge. Thus, her Ophelia keeps a journal, and writes of Amleth (Hamlet): “Black, he was so black. And I / could not stop near him. He / took, cut up my dress…. / Wasps / undressed me, laid me / down. It was a bramble thorn / that punctured every wound.”

Pierce’s approach recalls that of the late British author, Angela Carter, and her rewrites of fairy tales and adult literature to revivify their heroines, to give them their own authentic voices. Thus, Pierce’s version of Puccini’s Cio-Cio San is no simple suicide. Instead, “Her sword has come for you.”

One of the strongest poems in this fine debut is “My Jerusalem,” a love poem with all the ferocity of Eros. But the tender lyrics are welcome too: “When I said I, I lost him. He – / offering the halved, tinged pear / against my mouth.”

Love Cake
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Toronto, ON: TSAR Publications, 2011
112 pp. $18

Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names
by Soraya Peerbaye
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2009
108 pp. $19

March is International Women’s Month – or should be. Let us read Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Soraya Peerbaye: two South Asian-Canadian poets who are fine in nicely different ways. Piepzna-Samarasinha is part-Sri Lankan, part-Irish, Lesbian, and totally lyrically political – or politically lyrical – which is a way of saying that, like U.S. poet Walt Whitman, she sings the body – her own – electric, shocking, enlightening.

Love Cake marks her debut as a poet, but Piepzna-Samarasinha has long been a writer, contributing to numerous anthologies interested in “queer and trans people of colour” as well as “queer people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.” Furthermore, Piepzna-Samarasinha has toured her one-woman show, “Grown Woman Show,” throughout North America, and also co-founded and co-directed a touring cabaret, “Mangos with Chili,” featuring performing artists who are queer (or trans) and coloured.

Clearly, her art worries identity issues—powerfully. The opening poem reads war as inflicting bodily harm – not only in terms of maiming victims, but also in terms of causing long-term trauma: “someday, our bodies are gonna tell everybody / just what it was like / to live through this // how the news ripped us open / … crashed our sound barrier / shuddered our bodies / with bombs….”

Massachusetts-raised, “Toronto-matured,” and now California-based, Piepzna-Samarasinha names no Canadians as influences. But there’s a touch of Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje in her sensuality, and also of Trinidad-born Dionne Brand in her direct treatment of “issues.”

She does name African-American and Native American women poets as significant models, and one can see their traditions of open-mouthed kissing and open-mouthed crying (in protest). There’s also a Whitman or Allen Ginsberg sensibility present in her use of lists: “relatives who know how to drive drunk around all the army checkpoints”; “creaky hipped aunties”; “Mission Impossible badly dubbed in Sinhalese”; “a sea that is a ghost / cupping 100,000 tsunami bodies….”

Piepzna-Samarasinha understands memory, history, and reality as a constant condensing or coalescence of essences, things: “Sunlight, hot lavender flowers / sweet and musk, deep plum centres”; “Your new face circled in flames… / that brings me here to windows, / hot pink and plum musk flowers // thirsty, unbroken by my history / walking in a new city….” Yes, there are plain love(making) poems and confessions of angst. But also valuable are Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poems that speak to our shared moment of liquidity crisis and financial corruption: “I tell myself that Merrill Lynch can’t pay their bills either / so why … should I worry about Mastercard, VISA, and the $16,000 line of credit”? When her persona says, “I’m a 33-year-old woman with four jobs / $37 in my chequing account,” she identifies a global epidemic of debt and joblessness. Disabled in body but strong in voice, Piepzna-Samarasinha resembles the late Nova Scotian poet Maxine Tynes.

Piepzna-Samarasinha’s name is long and her book title short. Soraya Peerbaye’s name is short and her book title long: Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names. I was a reader of the original manuscript, so I will not write at length about Peerbaye’s book, except to say that it is also a significant debut by a South Asian-Canadian writer whose family home is Mauritius, an Indian Ocean and African nation about 1,000 kilometres east of South Africa. Peerbaye was partially raised in Ottawa, and now lives in Toronto, but her first collection is not just about family and her ancestral nation; it is also about her travels to one of the most remote parts of the world, i.e., Antarctica.

Fluently bilingual in Canadian French and English, Peerbaye also utilizes the Creole tongue of Mauritius. The result is that she is deliberate in diction and delicate in nuance. Every word is careful; every line is sculpted: “Pyjamaed intellectual, pillow-propped; woody giggle (of Scrabble) and chatter of tiles, in their crushed / velvet Crown Royal pouch; // dictionary’s fluttered lisp.” That compositional care – and balance – reminds one of the strong art of Elizabeth Bishop. Not one word sounds wrong.

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