Reviewed by Paul Watkins
George Elliott Clarke
Red. Gaspereau Press, 2011.
“Beauty must never be explained.” So states the Ezra Pound epigraph that prefaces George Elliott Clarke’s Red. In his new book, Clarke has followed Pound’s maxim with a beautiful volume. Gaspereau Press has exquisitely assembled Red. The textured taupe pages provide an aesthetic wall on which Clarke’s words pop with the punctuated scarlet elegance of a Duke Ellington tone poem. The poems brazenly and blazingly incorporate the mixed Odyssean waters of sex-infused pre-Christian Rome, the crimson violence of Titus Andronicus, the rhetorical syncopation of James Brown, the metaphysical cadence of Pushkin’s verse, and the insurgent politics of Mao Zedong and Malcolm X. And Clarke’s collection crescendos with its reimagination of the great African American jazz bassist Charles Mingus as a Canadian. Despite these diverse voices and characters, Clarke’s latest collection of poetry is candidly self-reflexive. He works to self-identify: he describes himself as part-Aboriginal, as a “noir ‘peau rouge’” (9) whose “typed face glows” (30) like “a portrait etched in lye” (157) and dedicates his poems to his polymath father, William Lloyd Clarke, whose artwork appears on the cover of Red and throughout the volume.
Clarke’s modeling of his creative voice in relation to a variety of artist-intellectuals across borders (with personal anecdotes) allows for his poetry to be read in the same way that Houston A. Baker Jr. reads the blues: as a matrix, a “point of ceaseless input and output, a web of intersecting, crisscrossing impulses always in productive transit.” The matrix metaphor befits Clarke’s trilogy of poetic colouring books—Blue, Black, and his latest in the continuum, Red: the colour that scatters the least of the visible spectrum of colours, and can be seen from the greatest distance. Red operates beyond the visible end of the spectrum to take the poetic contours of “red” into “new” territory. This infrapoetically expansive territory is aptly displayed in Clarke’s “Other Angles,” an epic catalogue of red’s representational possibilities. The poem ranges from the scatological “Red is a bloody shit” (19) to Clarke’s own red-infused poetic catalogue:
Red is Aboriginal and African and Chinese and Cuban and Nova Scotian
Red is George & Rue, Illuminated Verses, Trudeau: Long March / Shining Path,
Blues and Bliss, I & I, and Red—
Poetry in the blood. (20)
Like any fiery, fervid artist dedicated to his or her techné, Clarke—drawing from the polyphonic matrix that comprises Red—unapologetically makes contradiction and reimagination a poetic act.
In “Poor Imitation,” Clarke quotes Miles Davis as a proxy—and perhaps parodic—voice that asks, “Why should some motherfucker make me feel bad because of their ignorance?” (71). Clarke is fearless enough to embrace change while acknowledging the past, avowing a heteroglot African Canadian identity that “[mucks] up black-and-white states” (72), for “Negro experiences transgress all borders” (149). In “Malcolm X: The Last Interview,” Clarke imagines that Malcolm X gave a final uncensored and improvised interview to James Baldwin immediately before he was assassinated, speaking in a terse blues-prose: “The blues are my only language— / each elegant, crisp text” (127). In the 10th Anniversary edition of Whylah Falls Clarke asserts that his poetry emulates jazz and blues improvisation: “you have to understand improvisation, how a standard reference can become something else.” Clarke demonstrates that once you have mastered a technique, you can create new amalgamated spaces of play upon the old standard. Reimagining Charles Mingus as an “Africadian” poet/musician in Red, Clarke writes, “Your bass sounds like a typewriter / Punctuating Ulysses, / Or like a shotgun puncturing Odysseus” (143). These lines highlight the phonetics of sound-poetry through sibilance, creating a listening experience that synchs song with text. Clarke is not only a poet, but also a songwriter intent on scribing beauty.
As readers we are left feeling Red in the pit of our guts, as an embodied act of listening to such beauty in its manifold forms. There are, however, other moments in the volume in which beauty is eclipsed by brute violence, as in the case of Clarke’s stage directions to Titus Andronicus. Yet, Clarke’s fearless bravado and willingness to materialize difficult poetry is what really makes beauty productively complex in this text and the poetry worth reading, listening to, digesting, and rereading. Here is another great collection of fierce and fiery poems sung full-throated with the “lightning of prophecy” (102), courtesy of one of Canada’s most prolific poets.
At press time: Paul Watkins is a SSHRC-supported doctoral student in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies, as well as a doctoral fellow with the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) project. His dissertation will focus on intersections between music and text, particularly as voiced by African Canadian poets. Recently, he has published reviews and articles on multiculturalism, Canadian poetry, jazz and improvisation, with a recent paper in Critical Studies in Improvisation titled, “Disruptive Dialogics: Improvised Dissonance in Thelonious Monk and Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers.” Currently living in Toronto, Paul is an aspiring musician, poet, and writer.
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