To write a black poem: Austin Clarke’s In Your Crib

The poems read like one long concentric chant. They speak about recovery through self-consciousness, black pride and vision, the sacrifice of politeness, the price of assimilation and ignorance and the desire to “Let the world be a Black Poem.”

For Clarke, language is the sign, the thing that connects people to blackness: a black voice is a black face, a blackness that does not melt like snow, a blackness rich in colour. Reality is neither black nor white but filled with immeasurable degrees of colour. For all its challenges, the possibility of living in harmony with one’s neighbours exists. And it has nothing to do with living quietly or invisibly.

Oftentimes a small book can say much more than a larger one, especially if it is full of intense fire. These poems are the mature reflections of a man taking account of the recent history of black integration, oppression, assimilation, repression and self-deception in North America. With no “Elders to remind [him] of [his] age,” Clarke nevertheless invokes the names and memories of a few fallen giants, including famous spokesmen like Malcolm X (whom he interviewed in 1963), Bob Marley, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, John Henrik Clarke, LeRoi Jones and Elijah Mohammed. Clarke writes: “I have walked in the company of true-true Elders”.

Just what does it mean to be black? The Elders say it means to have “black faces, faces that are black, a black community.” Meanwhile, according to Clarke, “the face is not identiful enough.” One must be willing to “take the risk….” … to go and “write a black poem…” to “Let the world be a black poem.” While Clarke recognizes the complicated path towards equality in a multicultural society, steered by Law without distinctions, the incalculable cost of trying to fit in by becoming invisible taxes his expectations of his inner self.

I do not hear your anger walking
on the tidy squares of white cement
blocks covered with snow

Despite a prophetic, Jeremiah-like tone, there is irony and humour, pregnant phrases, overlapping repetitions. Beyond his ostensible subject—the black experience in a multicultural setting—In Your Crib is about exile itself, the visible and invisible realms of human experience, the price of wearing masks, the painting of faces, incorruptible truths, the paradoxical Other. Clarke remains serious and purposeful, providing us with a very focused meditation. The theme of colour returns at the very end. “The suddenness in the changing of the colour” is a result of having taken the risk. Clarke writes: “you are now, living amongst neighbours // who see only, the colour // of your heart.” He has, in effect, made good on his promise, taken the risk, gone and written a Black Poem.


Since 2013 David Swartz has lived worked and studied in Lisbon, Portugal. In 2014 his reviews and translations appeared in the Malahat Review, Vallum Magazine, Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and the Prairie Journal. His co-translation of the University of Lisbon’s 2014 conference AND Painting: Questioning Contemporary Painting, will appear online this summer.



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