The next logical choice for George Elliott Clarke’s poetry collections associated with colour (there was Blue, Black, then Red), was Gold. The book brims with the musical and learned force we’ve come to expect while managing to feel like a sunset, casting a glow and shadow over his seminal works. The gold sleeve covering the cover, and covered with the chemical symbol, “Au,” is a physical manifestation of his belief, and opening quote, that, “Beauty…is the sole business of poetry.”
The ‘colouring books’ have always been a conversation with poetic legacy, and we’ve moved forward in time from Black’s insistence on Pound to contemporaries and peers, such as Dionne Brand, recent poet laureate of Toronto.
Many of the works were commissioned—a natural extension of his position as current Poet Laureate—making his poems feel more rooted in the present sphere of letters than a struggle with titans of the past. Given Clarke’s unerring ear, this can’t help but remind one of Tennyson, but with lines such as:
the whites aped “playful” papists,
but Rape is a martial art,
Cancel all bullshit blandishments:
History is Europe playing “blackface.”
he is still plenty subversive and uncomfortable. But there’s a sense of arrival: no longer pounding at the gates, but shaking hands with eccedentesiasts at the gala.
One way Clarke achieves this transition is the manner in which he wields his learning. Where in Black, he displays a defiant challenge, spitting out lyric fireworks rife with reference oblique and direct, here he integrates more naturally, using impressions of the past to augment explicit homage. Poems honouring Austin C. Clarke and B.A. (Rocky) Jones include the Browning-like interjection, “pardon my freedom, I know / it’s so unlady-like—/” and the Eliotic: “The chap was earthy / and down-to-earth, / plain-spoken because / lying is an abuse of Time.”
There is a liberal dose of the sensualist, the carnal, and the challenging: Clarke has never shied from the misogyny of the sexually frustrated, unflinchingly probing the inward dialogue present in us all, whether fleeting for the good, or wallowed in by the bad:
…”Christ,” shouted, chimes hotly in the tryst,
Overturning the palace of her skirt;
And the fine-ass, small-tit wench shakes as if
Martha Beck, quaking in her electric chair.
But here rather than indulge excessively, he turns to higher pursuits such as the elegiac:
The City has already carted off
ugly, disintegrating Xmas trees,
sprawled like ex-dictators’ staggered statues
or delirium tremens drunks,
occupying disinterested sidewalks;
The poems that take the most time (and perhaps an internet connection) are engaging, but the stars, as always, are displays of Clarke’s virtuosity. Villanelle, terza rima, and plenty of modern sonnets compress wisdom and sound so digestible it’s easy to move on too quickly:
Her catastrophic nudity
Fells male, female, in fouling Vice.
Our agile, gleaming enemy,
Some Dante-designed, dream-debris,
Is born in flames, but damned to ice.
Is, at palm-tree shore, rococo,
Not tawdry or tourist-hollow….
Thanks to bronze-tinting sirocco,
The strongest poem of the collection, Wisdom, is precisely what Clarke is searching for and displays. A softer, modulated voice, shining at the edges, solid at the core, traversing history, politics, passion, and loss: a gold soul.
Roy Wang is from Toronto, ON. He now lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI, where he tutors math, physics, and teaches martial arts. He has been published in Prairie Fire, Jones Av. and Shit Creek Review, and has written reviews for New Pages, ARC, and The Globe & Mail.
MUSIC GLEAMS GOLDEN IN ARC!