Clever Wordplay At Times Beyond Me: Black

BlackI really wanted to love George Elliott Clarke’s Black. He is a master poet and wordsmith whose ability to craft sound into clever phrases is almost unmatched in Canadian poetry right now. However, I found Black at times too obscure, difficult, and/or dense to get into. Let me be clear, this is not Clarke’s fault, but more my own as I did not give it the time it needed to settle. There were parts that I loved, including poems like “Jean Chretien” and “IX/XI,” but too often I found myself uninterested in or unsure of what Clarke was doing. Let me say it again, this is not Clark’e’s fault but mine. Reading poetry in a condensed and compressed timeframe does not do it justice. I feel like I should spend a lot more time with these poems rather than reading them in snatches over a few weeks.

“A Discourse on My Name” is, perhaps, the crowning jewel of the collection. In it, Clarke reflects on his names and their connections back to slavery, the Black Atlantic, and Nova Scotia’s role in both. It is full of rich word play that rolls off the tongue and it is extremely self-reflexive in a productive way. This is the style that I appreciate most in Clarke: his ability to tell the narrative of Black Loyalists in Canada (or Africadia as he calls it) while making clear that this history still matters and carries its chains in the present. He reminds me that Canada has a long and less than clean history with slavery and racism, that, in many ways, we are just as bad as the Americans were, if not worse for claiming naivete or ignorance of this past.

I found the second half of the collection was stronger than the first half as some of Clarke’s work on poetry, poets like Ezra Pound, and experiments in style left me cold. The collection itself is a continuation of the work he did in Blue, his previous collection. The poems in this collection are grouped roughly by theme and framed with black and white photos of a black female nude. I appreciated the groupings, but it meant some sections dragged for me while others left me wanting more. I found the love poetry section too bawdy for my taste, perhaps too sinful as Clarke describes himself at one point.

My sense is that Clarke is a hyper-intelligent poet whose work may be over my head. I love poetry, but I am not in tune with its form or style either. A poem like “Decima,” working with eight syllable lines draws attention to this fact, but I would not have noticed this without it saying so. This kind of poetry reminds me that I am still very much a novice in reading poetry, that I need many more hours of reading (and perhaps writing it) under my belt to start tuning in to all the subtleties of Clarke’s work.

I would recommend this book for those who already know and love Clarke, but for those looking for an intro into poetry, stay away.

Clarke, George Elliott. Black. Vancouver: Polestar, 2006. Print.

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