Madmen and Specialists: George Elliott Clarke’s Canticles I (MMXVI)

Here are the stark opening lines of his poem “Zong!”: “Mores / can’t apply to Moors— / only moorings / of iron and steel:”. The murder by throwing slaves overboard for reasons of cashing in on insurance are notorious even in the sordid saga that was the Atlantic slave trade. What’s remarkable is that once Clarke leaves these nameless men dealt such an ignoble hand (“…the Carib Sea becomes / a Black sea of centaurs— / …treading water until only water’s left”), he channels the voice of the cruel crew in the very next poem, a crew who matter-of-factly describe the fate of their cargo as food for sharks (“as excess cargo, pretty bilge / for fangs to gnash and gnaw…”).

Poets such as Camões, Portugal’s most eloquent bard, are taken to task with blistering lines for being an accomplice to imperialism: “…as we machete through Geography / and hack our way into History, / shadowing sunlight, we erect Calvary / on every backwater’s waterfront.” There are other moments when Clarke’s criticism is myopic, such as Calvin’s racism, which is given starkly without any context, and Ferdinand of Aragon’s murderous proclamations against the Moors could have also been better illumined by referencing the complicated preceding colonization of Iberia and the centuries long struggle against it.

Clarke’s interests are broad, and his range catholic. The reader gets a sense of this when Clarke breaks his flow with an entry into the fourteenth century’s eastern European slave trade (where the victims were Finns rather than West Africans), and later pens a paean to Pushkin: “Pushkin’s lips are furnace-fiery. / He sings like the olden poets / to out-sing his peers.”

There is deep pathos for the many characters who abut these pages, and many get more than one treatment at different chronological stages. One of them is St. Mary of Egypt, a Desert Mother, widely revered as the patron saint of penitents, who before her conversion led a sordid life that revelled in promiscuity; she infamously paid her fare to Jerusalem by plying her body to fellow-pilgrims. In “Memoir of Ste. Marie d’Égypte,” Clarke closes with these lines: “Having combed Christendom with Cupidity­— / seducing priests and pirates alike— / I was quite astonished / to spy Christ / staring me down, / pitiyingly.”

I don’t think any student of history will come away from Canticles without feeling the dizzying power of Clarke’s ferocity and integrity. There is perhaps no better way to close than to mimic the final lines from “Student Posters at the University of Timbuktu (1327)”: “To hear a poet sing, / is to hear Scripture being written live.”


Daniel Bezalel Richardsen is the founder and editor of Foment, the literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada’s largest independent literary celebration. Daniel is a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum’s Ottawa Hub and is the legislative speechwriter at the Department of Finance. His work has appeared in Tablet, National Post, The New Quarterly, Convivium, C2C Journal and other publications.



1 Title borrowed from a play by Wole Soyinka from 1970.

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