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Jon Paul Fiorentino
is a poet, editor
and teacher. He is
the author of two
collections of
poetry, Resume
Drowning
and
Transcona Fragments.
His current poetic
project is a book of
synaptic syntax
entitled Hello
Serotonin
(forthcoming from
Coach House Books).
His current editorial
project is the
anthology Post
Prairie
, a
collaborative effort
with Robert Kroetsch,
to be published in
2004. He lives in
Montreal, where he is
an Editor for Matrix
Magazine.

 


Blackening English: The Polyphonic Poetics of George Elliott Clarke
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This essay will address modes of polyphony and hybridity in George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls and Blue. In addition, the anxiety of influence will be addressed as it applies to Clarke’s two extraordinary texts. Clarke’s poetics are interested in the negotiation of cultural space through adherence to and revision of tradition. Whylah Falls establishes a voice for the Africadian community – a voice that employs iambic pentameter, the Mississippi Delta blues, and modernist vers libre. Blue establishes an equally multivocal poetic voice as well; but it is through lyrical means, and employed to more polemical/performative ends. Despite the impressive range of Clarke’s influences, I will, for the sake of brevity, limit this discussion to the intertexts of Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, Christina Rossetti, Ezra Pound and Petrarch. In the process of discovering the complexity of Clarke’s poetics, I will also discuss issues of history/historiography, political rhetoric, and “gender trouble.”

In order to understand the pressure placed on Whylah Falls by the anxiety of Derek Walcott’s influence, it will be helpful to look at the following excerpt for Walcott’s poem “Homecoming: Anse La Raye”:

sugar-headed children race
pelting up from the shallows
because your clothes,
your posture
seem a tourist’s.
They swarm like flies
round your heart’s sore.

Suffer them to come,
entering their needle’s eye
knowing whether they live or die,
what others make of life will pass them by
like that far silvery freighter
threading the horizon like a toy;
for once, like them,
you wanted no career
but this sheer light, this clear,
infinite, boring, paradisal sea,
but hoped it would mean something to declare
today, I am your poet, yours,
all this you knew,
but never guessed you'd come
to know there are homecomings without home.

You give them nothing.

In a very clear biographical sense, the crisis of exile that is faced by Walcott in the above excerpt was also faced by Clarke after a disastrous reading in front of his community. After this formative experience, Clarke swore that he would never write poetry that was inaccessible to his community.

“So people started yelling at me: ‘Get off the stage.’ It was very direct: ‘You’re boring. Go home.’ The people didn’t want to hear some dry shit” (Compton, page 145).

Clarke was not performing, but simply reading poems from his first collection, Saltwater Spirituals, when he was heckled so mercilessly. His discovery was that his poems from that collection could not be performed. His response is found in the polyphony of Whylah Falls – these are poems that combine abstract, intellectual, and specifically literary, content with a home-place vernacular. The poems are meant to be performed and sung. (Although I am using the term “polyphony” to denote multivocal verse, the musical connotations of the term can be applied to Whylah Falls.) It seems that Cora’s advice to Missy, in the poem entitled “Symposium,” to “sit back, relax and be black” can be read as a sublimated, lyrical internal dialogue.

The influence of Walcott, the “Commonwealth Bard,” on Clarke is based on more than just one biographical intersection. Formally, both poets strive for a hyper-literate, high modernism. Clarke looks to Walcott’s “blackening of English” as a movement out of exile. In fact, the notion of exile-as-trope is the essential point of departure for both writers. Consider this excerpt from an almost sycophantic open letter to Walcott, penned by Clarke:
“I write in a cold place where I possess beleaguered rights. Canada wants nothing to do with any combustible sorrow or inflammatory blues. It demands a clipped, precise speech, some tone of majesty to restrict American slovenliness, republican vulgarity. It demands metre akin to its own War Measures Act. The climate will hardly let you spark any fire. But your books are portable infernos. I use to warm and illuminate this hostile, killing environment.     

I write to you and I have no right. Commonwealth Bard, born thirty years before I was born, born in another backwater province (but warmer than where I was born), born in an era of war, I thank you for pioneering a way of blackening English, of roasting syllables upon the righteous fires of your anger and your love until they split and crack. You cannibalize the Canon and invite your bretheren and sistren to the intoxicating, exhilarating feast” (pages 16-17).
It is interesting to note that Derek Walcott wrote much of his celebrated verse in New England – a climate that is not altogether disparate from Clarke’s Nova Scotia. 

Both Clarke and Walcott desire the engagement of the canon, and the mythification of “non-literary territory” (i.e. St. Lucia for Walcott, Nova Scotia for Clarke —- both poets share the Atlantic). And, as noted, the poets desire the poetics of exile – the negotiation/ renegotiation of the community from the position of the exile (in the case of Walcott and Clarke, the exile is self-determined) and the inevitable revision of the community to integrate a new poetics or world view. Clarke’s evocation of Walcott as Commonwealth Bard illustrates that this is a postcolonial modality as much as it is specifically a Canadian one. The essential difference in the two poets’ respective points of departure lies in the distinction between the Caribbean colonial experience and the African American/Africadian experience.     

The poem, “Look Homeward, Exile” is a suitable example of both Clarke’s fixation on the Walcottesque and his fixation on the tropes of home and exile. The nostalgic voice is X’s: “I can still see that soil crimsoned by butchered / Hog and imbrued with rye, lye, and homely / Spirituals everybody must know” (page xxx). The crimsoned soil foreshadows the death of Othello Clemence. Besides the spilled blood, the earth is also marked with rye, lye and spirituals. The imagistic establishment of the home place occurs at once within the first few lines of X’s reminiscences.

From this position of retrospect, the exiled poet cannot be soothed: “Still, nothing warms my wintry exile – neither / Prayers nor fine love, neither votes nor hard drink” (page xxxi). Despite the familiar iambic lines and the seemingly cathartic subject matter of nostalgic memory, the poet remains outside of home. The exiled X provides us with a more than sufficient hook for the sweeping, extravagant narrative-based poem sequence that follows. 

Anne Compton makes the following observation regarding Whylah Falls and geography/history: “Whylah Falls mythologizes a specific place (Weymouth Falls, N.S.) and an event (the killing of Graham Cromwell), but it does even more than that. Under the pressure of events (the razing of Africville and Cromwell’s death), it reconceptualizes a people and a 200-year-old history in mythic terms” (page 139). In other words, Weymouth Falls is the historical/geographical home place; Whylah Falls is its fictional/mythic analogue. The Sissiboo is the historical/geographical home place; Sixhiboux River is the fictional/mythic analogue; Cromwell’s death is the historical/sociological event; Othello Clemence’s death is the fictional/mythic analogue. 

Despite efforts to establish a poetic voice of the Africadian community, Clarke, like Walcott, cannot resist a corresponding consistent fetishism of English Literature (i.e. “Albion”), from the classical to romanticism to high modernism. Shakespeare, Shelley, Milton, Chaucer, Eliot, Yeats, etc., are consistently evoked. Is this an effort to legitimize the text? To include the Hegelian master/slave binary within Africadian poetics (like Walcott)? To acknowledge the prosodic and thematic literary modalities that Clarke cannot seem to live without? Saltwater Spirituals was written entirely in free verse. Clarke confesses that he was never at home within this tradition: “I’ve never been comfortable within unfettered free verse even though I was writing it in Saltwater Spirituals. I needed blank verse . . . This is the way we speak” (Compton, page 147). The notion that there is something natural about the iambic pentameter, that it is the closest textual, poetic transcription to the speech patterns of English, seems archaic. Perhaps Clarke meant to say “this is the way we sing.” Clarke goes on to uncover a much more compelling reason for the persistence of the sonnet, and of blank verse in Canadian poetry, saying: “I think this is [the sonnet form] also postcolonial. We have inherited this thing. Now what can we do with it?” (Compton, page 148).

What appears clear to me is that the communal poetic voice is perhaps too ironically informed by Clarke’s hyper-literate and colonial training in literature. The attempt at negotiation of inherited language seems clear, but I cannot help but think back on the community response to Saltwater Spirituals and wonder if Clarke has really captured an idiomatic truth about the community through his hybrid voice of colonial/postcolonial rhetoric. I will turn to the more recent collection, Blue, in order to continue this interrogation.

Clarke indulges in poetics as far-reaching as performative rhetoric, and as conventional as the traditional Eurocentric, Petrarchan sonnet in Blue. Inspired by poets ranging from Ovid to Ezra Pound to Amiri Baraka, Clarke succeeds in conjuring up a plurality of poetic voices that range from imagistic to politically stunning to appalling. The polyphonic success of Blue is based in its ability to perform poetic difference (that is, the ability to perform the difference between the self and other, the subject and object) within the subjectivity of one poetic voice. (There is a quite different realization of polyphony in Whylah Falls.) In the section of Blue entitled Black Eclogues, Clarke manages to evoke the most strategic elements of vitriol in his homage to Baraka’s aesthetic in the poem entitled “Calculated Offensive.” Here, the poetic voice rages:
To hell with Pound!
What we desire is African:
Europe is so septic: it seeps poisons . . .
Put Europe to the torch: 
All of Michelangelo’s dripping, syphilitic saints, 
all of Sappho’s insipid, anorexic virgins (pages 23-24).
Compare Clarke’s rage against Eurocentrism with Baraka’s original incendiary text entitled “Black Art”:
We want “poems that kill.” 
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent back to Ireland (page 998).
Note that both Baraka and Clarke employ the collective “we” as a rhetorical device, drawing in or excluding the reader, depending on his/her ethnicity. What is achieved in this brief, emulative poem is the revelation of hyperbolic language: how it succeeds to evoke emotion, anger or discussion in both Clarke’s text and in Baraka’s. The skilfully written rhetoric reminds me that poetic language needs to function in a hyperbolic mode. Whether the aim is the image or the idea, modes of rhetoric and/or figurative language are dependent on hyperbole. This is the essential truth that poets like Baraka teach us. I think it is not an overstatement to claim that what Walcott is to Whylah Falls, Baraka is to Blue.

The second section of Blue, Red Satires, is not a departure from the vitriol of the first section, but rather a slightly more articulate version of it. What emerges here is a lyric I that replaces the rhetorical we in poems that pine for, and spit on, Pound, Yeats, et al.:
Imbibing libretti and bleak liqueur
I dread the dim shade of dour, spectral Yeats
and defrocked, unsavoury Pound, who liked
to put negroes in lower case (in their place) . . .
your voice your own (Auden in the margins,
Eliot, Yeats, and Pound in the Dungeon),
a veriloquous, unadulterated voice,
extracting black blues from a yellow Oxford (pages 6
7-68).

The title of the poem from which the above text was extracted is “Onerous Canon.” The notion of canon reformation and/or canon revision is an ever-present preoccupation of Clarke’s.

In Whylah Falls, the exuberance of the hybrid poetic voice is strikingly intoxicating, and the pressure placed on canonicity and on the Africadian community’s history falls in line with Linda Hutcheon’s discourse on historiographic metafiction (or metapoetics, if you will). Informed by Marjorie Perloff’s discourse on postmodern verse, Hutcheon makes room for verse in her definition of historiographic metafiction: “As in fiction, there is an opening up of poetry to material once excluded from the genre as impure: things political, ethical, historical, philosophical. This kind of verse can also work to contest representation and the traditional notion of transparent referentiality of language in its problematizing of narrative form and, as such, resembles historiographic metafiction” (page 64).

Note that Hutcheon’s claim is based on the reductive assumption that poetry has not been political, ethical, historical or philosophical from the outset. Note also that Hutcheon can only concede (in the case of poetry) to a resemblance to her theory of historiographic metafiction; she cannot concede that poetry is a fictive/fictional mode.

Dorothy Wells points to Clarke’s use of the sonnet as a means by which the narrative of Whylah Falls can maintain its private/political narrative: “Clarke translates themes and imagery from Petrarchan and Elizabethan sonnets into a Nova Scotian context” (page 56). The translation is an interesting notion to apply to Clarke’s text. Most strikingly, Petrarchan conceits are translated or revised in order to accommodate the Africadian experience. It is within the realm of the Petrarchan and neo-Petrarchan conceits that we see the most problematic aspect of Clarke’s hybrid poetics: there is gender trouble in both Whylah Falls and Blue. In Whylah Falls, Pablo’s desire for Amarantha exposes gender concerns that are inevitable in Clarke’s text. In order to accommodate the Africanadian context, the Petrarchan conceits of golden hair and alabaster skin are necessarily revised: “Amarantha Clemence, twenty, a contemporary quilter, wears apple blossoms in her silky, sable hair that spills down her back to her thighs. Her skin is indigo accented by white silk” (page 75). The direct translation of Petrarchan conceits into their Africadian analogues presents us with a problematic realization of gender that is still essentialized within the terms of the original Petrarchan context. The maintenance of Petrarchan conceits are performed not exclusively by the men of Whylah Falls; the women also engage in Petrarchan discourse.

The true power of polyphony is found in the diverse characters of this Africadian community of Whylah Falls. In fact, the revision of traditionally feminine symbols are most effective when performed by the women. Perhaps the most impressive example of Petrarchan revision occurs in the poem “Rose Vinegar.” In this text, Shelley makes vinegar out of the Petrarchan conceit: “Shelley trusts in reason; thus, though she admires the / blossoms for their truthfulness to themselves, she does not / hesitate to distill a delicate and immortal vinegar from . . . the ephemeral petals of X’s desire” (page 10). X’s “quixotic romanticism,” which takes its shape in Petrarchan prosody and sexual tropes, as well as the literal offering of roses and rose blossoms, is provisionally received by Shelley. However, the resonance of the act of turning the blossoms into vinegar is striking. We are witness to the fact that the poetics of traditional compulsory heterosexuality will not fit into Shelley’s subjective poetics. We encounter a similar conscious revision of the rose image by Shelley’s sister, Selah: “She places pine branches in her dresser to perfume her clothes that would otherwise smell of roses” (page 49).

Despite the revision of traditional Petrarchan conceit, there is a persistent male gaze in Whylah Falls, and not simply because much of the verse is filtered through the character of X. As a community, Whylah Falls is far from flaccid. Consider this utterance of X’s during his courtship of Selah: “Black Madonna! I love your African essence, your faith in children . . . your lips like crimson berries, / your skin like soft moist night / your eyes like dusk, your / hair like dark cotton, your scent like rich butter, your taste / like raisins and dates and sweet wine. / Let us join. My love, let us join” (page 61).

Selah’s fertility seems to threaten her femininity or, at least, status as the beloved. The short poem “In the field” reveals this: “Selah stares at me / impatiently, not seeing / the apple blossoms” (page 68). Wells aptly points out that this is a haiku, reminding us of Clarke’s ever-present fascination with poetic form. The apple blossoms create an intertext with Christina Rossetti’s “An apple-gathering,” in which the poetic voice picks apple blossoms and returns to find no apples —- a symbolic depiction of barrenness:

“  I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple tree  And wore them all that evening in my hair:  Then in due season when I went to see  I found no apples there.  With dangling basket all along the grass   As I had come I went the selfsame track:  My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass  So empty-handed back . . .   I let my neighbours pass me, ones and twos   And groups; the latest said the night grew chill,  And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews  Fell fast I loitered still” (page 896.)
Rossetti’s voice is one of dissatisfaction with the terms of sexual political/poetic discourse. Rossetti’s aims are to re-evaluate and revise gendered tropes and their traditional associations. The poetic voice “loiters” unapologetically within a poem that sets up a provisional construction of feminine power dependent on fertility/motherhood. Selah’s sense of self is perhaps too problematically based on her status as a woman incapable of childbirth: “You could never dream / my womb is gone /hollowed by scalpels / and Casanova cancer” (Rossetti, page 70). Wells argues that Selah’s infertility is the reason for her rejection of the rose symbol: “The traditional symbol of perfection [the rose] is inappropriate for her because she is lacking a uterus” (page 66.) Further, Blue contains consistent evocation of traditionally feminized tropes: “Selah opened like a complex flower” (page 66), “Shelley’s a garden enclosed” (page 56). It appears that the terminology of the sexual discourse too is informed by the male gaze. However, the women, specifically Shelley and Selah, possess the power of poetic revision. Shelley eventually negotiates a relationship with X on her own terms. She has the last word in the last poem of the collection, entitled “Envoy”: “X and I ramble in the wet / To return home, smelling of rain. / We understand death and life now – / How Beauty honeys bitter pain” (page 181).

In Blue, we find a more problematic male gaze in all of its assumptive, interpellative power. In the section entitled Gold Sapphics, the “lyric I” moves into the space of sexual and textual desire. In “April 19, 19C: A Sonnet” Clarke’s poetic voice waxes conventional: “This sorrow-stricken canal, pent-up sea, / April-fierce water welling, ferries old, / Harsh news: I’ll love her down to extinction” (page 90.) His verse is striking and strikingly phallocentric dependent on Pound and Petrarch as much as it is resistant of them. The poetry and the beloved that Clarke desires are seen exclusively through a male gaze – there is no deeper understanding of gender present, just the looming promise to “love her down to extinction” with a perverse delight in essentialist pleasure inscribed for good measure. Clarke’s poetic voice warns “No child should read me! / Some lines are encased in ice (chiefly the ones inked for a slut)” (page 136). This ironic utterance refers to the anticipated resistance of readers to embrace the poetic voice’s indulgence. What is at stake in any text such as Clarke’s Blue is whether the poet has the ability to persuade his/her reader into his/her performative realm: I am persuaded to give in to reactionary, political utterances such as “To hell with Pound!” but I resist the wonderment inspired by the “wonderbra” (page 81) that is celebrated in Gold Sapphics. In fact, I would argue that there is very little that can be read as sapphic about the poems that make up this section. There is no traditional sapphic verse in the formal sense. However, there is the theme of desire that inhabits this section. Sappho’s desire is indeterminate and incandescent. Here, Clarke is too preoccupied with a specifically masculine desire to persuade me that the Gold Sapphics work completely. Specifically, the lack of characters to inform sexual discourse makes this section somewhat disturbing. For a poet who values polyphony and hybrid poetic voices, this section is strikingly singular. Whylah Falls depends on the values of polyphony/hybridity for its salvation. The blues are the antidote for the formal fetishism; the postmodern historiographic approach is applied to the historical event of Cromwell’s murder; the establishment of an Africadian poetics redeems Clarke’s dependence on the model of modernist/Walcottesque exile; the gender problematics of Petrarch are evoked, challenged and inevitably left in an indeterminate state as a result of the complexity of the female characters. Blue does soar with pluralistic possibilities as well. In the section Blue Elegies, we find the heart of this collection. The first poem simply numbered i, is an anaphoric and powerful piece that defines Clarke’s notion of “blue” within the context of plurality and complexity:

“Blue is a noose strangling the vulnerable sky Blue is a generic nigger, a genre nigger, an angry nigger . . . Blue is a guitar in a Wallace Stevens sonnet carved from The Cenci... Blue is Hitler in bed with Chamberlain in Munich with Eva Braun” (page 107.)

Blue is most certainly about the African-Canadian experience (as opposed to Africadian in Whylah Falls). However, the text attempts to transcend ethnicity and performs complex, perverse juxtapositions: “Stevens’ triumphant “The Man with the Blue Guitar” is referenced here, alongside the image of the “genre nigger. angry nigger.” What Clarke captures is the weight of poetic history: the historical presence (Stevens’ canonical text) and the historical absence (Clarke’s genre/angry nigger). Aside from the specific poems that are elegies, the entire text can be read as elegiac longing for an African-Canadian/Acadian history and mourning of the history that has been lost or put under erasure.

In Whylah Falls and Blue, Clarke’s unapologetic engagement of literary/poetic tradition, his use of polyphony and hybridity, and his preoccupation with the negotiation and renegotiation of cultural imperatives, is both effective and troubling. Critic Judith Butler insists on the importance of “troubling” language, of making “troubling” an active verb. Butler is referring to processes of performative language: rhetoric, hyperbole, energetic language (and I would add polyphonic language) that bears witness to, and engages in, itself and the other. This is language that doesn’t just rest on the page. Clarke’s astounding poetic skill and attention to detail allow him to engage in the process of “troubling” where a lesser poet would certainly falter.    

While Whylah Falls uses characters to enhance Clarke’s tendency toward polyphony, Blue celebrates a diversity of rhetoric and form within lyrical means; the polyphony of Blue is based on Clarke’s voice-throwing – from the Baraka-esque to the Petrarchan, to the (near) Sapphic. The anxiety of influence in both books is evident.

I have looked specifically at the influences of Walcott, Rossetti, Baraka, Petrarch and Pound. This just scratches the surface of Clarke’s influential anxiety. In a seminal moment, Clarke reveals, near the end of Blue, that his poetic voice is concerned with the notion of content and intent: “Is it grace?” In the case of both books, Clarke achieves performance through polyphony that coheres – an impressive state of grace.




Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. “Black Art.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W.W. Norton and Company. New York, 1997. 

Clarke, George Elliott. Blue. Polestar Book Publishers. Vancouver, 2000.

Clarke, George Elliott. “George Elliot Clarke to Derek Walcott.” Open Letter 11.3. Fall, 2001.

Clarke, George Elliott. Whylah Falls. Polestar Book Publishers. Vancouver, 2000.

Compton, Anne. "Standing Your Ground: George Elliott Clarke in Conversation." Studies in Canadian Literature 23.2. 1998.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. Routledge. London and New York, 1989.

Rossetti, Christina. “An apple-gathering.” The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory. Broadview. Peterborough, 1999.

Walcott, Derek. Selected Poetry. Heinemann. London, 1981.

Wells, Dorothy. “A Rose Grows in Whylah Falls: Transplanted Traditions in George Elliott Clarke’s ‘Africadia.’” Canadian Literature No. 155. Winter, 1997.



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