by George Elliott Clarke,
Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2016
160 pages, $21.95
Blue (2001), Black (2006), and Red (2011), George Elliott Clarke’s previous “colouring books,” have now been joined by Gold. In his preface, Clarke says that the three earlier works “were attempts to, in part, write outside lines and connect moving dots. Now, here is Gold,” a colour I carry in my skin, even if I am not, alas, formed of such mettle.” Whatever Clark himself is formed of, his poetry certainly is gold.
As usual, Gaspereau has published book that is appealing both for its literary content and for its physical design. Interleaved with the poetry is a number of photographs taken by the author, photos that are, perhaps, visual poems. The most affecting for me was the one titled “The Light Gets In: Auschwitz, May 2015,” in which the shadow of the sign “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” contrasts with the light. In a way, contrast is one of hallmarks of this collection. The first poem, “Duplicity,” sets up the complexity of what’s to come by describing a portrait: “Two-faced poet? That’s me. Guilty—as framed. / My double visage suits my double tongue[.]” And wordplay immediately dances across the page: “I redouble lies by dubbing aloud.”
Clarke’s poetry reveals his erudition; for example, they are filled with allusions to other writers. Pushkin, de Sade, Dickinson, and Plath occupy space in the volume which is filled with references to Canadians who are treated with the same care: Pierre DesRuisseaux, Flavia Cosma, Crystal Hurdle, and Austin C. Clarke, for example. In a way he brings to light the gold in others, and he does so with an exquisite control of form, varying length of line, stanza, and poem to suit the subject. He creates free verse forms and uses closed forms, such as the sonnet. He uses rhyme effectively, something not that easy to do or particularly fashionable these days. Other techniques employed include italics to draw attention to specific words and explanatory footnotes to alleviate obscurity.
One of my favourite poems in this collection is “Upon Reading Flavia Cosma’s ‘Thus Spoke the Sea,’” a four-page poem in four parts that dissects the academic approach to literature, which is “moaning, dying, / In a professor’s suffocating briefcase.” Poetry is alive or should be, says the poem, but it also must suffer: “In true poetry, ink must bleed.” Clarke’s poetry deals with the body, both blood and other fluids in a direct and often coarse way. In poems about sex, Clarke is extremely direct and somewhat harsh. There’s a challenging tone to the male perspective on intercourse or oral sex. In “Desolazione Cosmica” the reader is told, “Unsheathe your slick, orgulous instrument, / Pickle it in that snacking gash; sink black / Twixt its two coral halves—like a raven /Chipping at a dripping watermelon.” It’s powerful, but the use of second person is likely somewhat destabilizing for some readers.
The longest poem, at eleven and a half pages, “Austin C. Clarke’s ‘When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks’ (1971): Subtext,” is firmly fixed in Toronto, specifically the Pilot Tavern where a man is getting drunk and talking to a divorced woman, who tells him,
I’ve gone through a lot of men—
goats in togas—
and now I go through a lot of pills.
Loneliness is unnerving, toxic.
But most motherfuckers have elementary personalities:
Typically Clarke binds the earthy, with the conceptual, creating vivid images and activating thought. The sense of place is strong, whether it’s Toronto or Nova Scotia or any other place, and his use of language bounces from the vulgar to the elevated with ease. The poetry is often uncomfortable, as Clarke never shies away from difficult topics of ethnicity, prejudice, desire, and pain, and I’d argue the discomfort felt by readers is an indication of his Clarke’s power.
There’s an enormous range in Gold; it’s a volume that necessitates rereading and much contemplation. And it’s definitely worth it.