Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review #17: Blue by George Elliott Clarke

A superlative poet whose work rings with energy and joy.

George Elliott Clarke is a unique voice in Canadian poetry – ecstatic, sensual, gospel-inflected, occasionally vituperative, always engaging.

Using the entire history of literature as his playground, he writes with the energy, freedom and profusion of the young Ginsberg or the Kerouac of Mexico City Blues.

More black and blue than beat, the “Nofaskoshan” poet can celebrate rum, brown girls, Ovid, Nabokov and Miles Davis in short order, mixing a word cocktail of gorgeous music: “I crave, suffer for, luscious song among apples –/Blessed orchards where I’d think long of coupling,/Stagger drowsy–but holy–with liquor and berries,/Praising peaches and peerless apples-” (Canto XXXIX)

An early work by Clarke, Whylah Falls, stands as one of the strongest works of poetry ever created in Canada, and would hold its own anywhere in the English-speaking world, with its fabulously rich detail and fully realized story line.

With Blue, he continues in that tradition, voicing lyrics soft or hard, from “orchards dusted with snowing light” to “I crave a sound like poison because genius is greedy”.

Numerous poems here are dedicated to other writers and artists (Nietschze, Colette) and some are written “in the manner of” (Pound, Coleman), but there is nothing derivative in the work of Clarke. Like an ecstatic struck alive by jazz and light, he can sing alone or in chorus.

He can also whisper love lyrics sweet enough to melt the hardest hearts: “To hold her is to hold/perfume – whitest breath/of lilies…” or “I could behead the roses/for snatching their scent/from you as you pass.”

Whether Clarke shouts pentecostal-like from the gut, whether he rages and burns, or runs soft as water, we hear poetry.