Review by H. Nigel Thomas, Author.
Delight in the poetry
I & I, George Elliot Clarke’s latest book, is a verse novel much like his earlier Whylah Falls. It is written primarily in a mixture of closed and run-on couplets. As in Whylah Falls, the reader encounters the characters directly via poems ascribed to them: poems that function like monologues; through dialogue between the characters; or via the omniscient narrator.
Whereas Whylah Falls is held together by its focus on a single family and its blues tone, it is plot that unifies I & I. The plot is centred on the protagonists Betty Browning and Malcolm Miles, who are on an adolescent odyssey that takes place over the years 1974 and 1975 when both are eighteen and nineteen. Malcolm, who, at eighteen, is already an accomplished boxer, gives up boxing to accompany his sweetheart Betty to Corpus Christi, Texas, where their lives quickly become a nightmare.
Because the protagonists are from Halifax and are more or less Black, racism is a fact they must contend with. They were born a few years after de jure racial segregation ended in Nova Scotia. They are a few years younger than their author was at that time, the time the story is set. Clarke avers that Malcolm’s portrait “is a mix of personal and other people’s stories from thirty-plus years ago.” In the character of Betty’s father, Henry, we observe manifestations of the self-hate that racism inculcates. Culture and geography also shape the character of I & I’s antagonist Lowell Beardsley.
Anyone who has heard Clarke perform his poetry knows how extensively he exploits the sensuous quality of language. I & I is no exception. Clarke seriously follows Alexander Pope’s advice that sound and sense should converge. But equally important is the link that could be made between Clarke’s writing and Zora Neale Hurston’s observation, in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” that drama is a vital component of Black writing, that “the stark trimmed phrases of the Occident seem too bare for the voluptuous child of the sun.” To a lesser extent Langston Hughes, arguably America’s best-known African American poet, shared these views, and he has been a seminal influence on Clarke. All of this is to argue that the at times explosive language of I & I can be intricately linked to a strand of African-American aesthetics. The title I & I is itself a Rastafarian expression of identity.
But Clarke, whose admiration for the aesthetics of Ezra Pound is well documented, does not privilege a single poetic tradition. Throughout I & I there are evocations of poets of the Euro-American, Euro-Canadian traditions: Eliot, Pound, Tennyson, even parodies of Shakespeare. In keeping with the fact that this work is a novel, the narrator presents detailed portraits of Halifax and Nova Scotia, of Maine, and of Corpus Christi and Texas, where the protagonists and their chief antagonist encounter one another. There are cameo portraits as well of the Canadian cities and towns that Malcolm and Betty move through as they make their escape back to Halifax via a Pacific route. Halifax receives a grim but nuanced portrait, ostensibly because it is the city Clarke knows best, the city he grew up in. Here’s an excerpt:
In this Halifax of facts —
Hard facts — and Hell:
Mist smokes up the night.
Sewers gurgle with rain.
Saxophones shriek blues,
The ooze and swell of jazz.
White-knuckle cocksuckers and brass-knuckle pimps
Slink about as gaudy as preachers.
(So easy to mistake this burg
For Marseilles, French fount of garbage and rats.)
(“Halifax (April 1974),” VI, 15)
There are references to the popular culture of the time and to events that occurred during the period: the murder of fourteen-year-old Cluett in Point Pleasant Park, the shooting of a wife by her husband on Gerrish Street when Clarke was 12.3 The portraits of Corpus Christi and Texas and of Maine are highly subjective. “Corpus Christi is alive with corpses,” the “licence plates warn ‘the N. R. A. is # 1 here.’” City Hall is “run by old-time crackers in felt hats … is an opium den …” (94). Maine is a place of “shotgun shacks, shotgun weddings, shotgun deaths, . . . where daddy-done daughters breed Mongoloid mongrels …” (106). The descriptions of Corpus Christi and Maine subserve, extend so to speak, the depiction of Lowell and the Texas justice system.
In spite of its grim plot, for those readers able to connect with its references and allusions, I & I is outstanding for its ludic quality. Clarke’s onomastics contribute to this ludic quality. The easiest connections are in the names Malcolm and Betty, names that evoke Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz. (Malcolm Miles becomes a Muslim at one point albeit one who ignores Muslim ascetic practices.) Lowell Beardsley evokes Aubrey Beardsley on the one hand and puns on Lowell — low well — who is a rapist and pedophile. (Others might make a link to the three Lowell poets: James, Amy, and Robert, for Clarke’s Lowell is indeed a poet.) But most delightful is Clarke’s playfulness with history in his naming of Betty’s parents. Her mother is Nancy Cunard and her father Henry Browning. This brings into play the romance between British heiress Nancy Cunard and Black musician Henry Crowder. Neither has any connection to Halifax, and their romance is a full forty years before Clarke’s narrative. The reader delights too in Clarke’s creation of Henry as Caliban turned Prospero confronting a rebellious Miranda who falls in love with a member of Caliban’s tribe.
Of course, the reader’s chief delight is in the poetry itself: the use that Clarke makes of diction, tropes, prosody. In its sometime startling metaphors, the work is quintessential Clarke. Here’s a sampling from the first poem describing Halifax in April:
Above this shale-and-shell-strand Atlantis,
Clouds knife like sharks …
The Sargasso of a harbour
Floats benzene and feces to mock divinity.…
Beyond this miasma, April snow petals down
Seeding the Atlantic.
Halifax, this ship-coralled harbour,
Erects a North Atlantic Cape Town —
Wooden architecture rickety and leaky,
A port of squalls
And squalid race riots: white
Against black and back again. …
Here fog looks as dense as slate and twice as dark.
Here water feels as solid as turquoise or lead. (15)
In this verse novel, Clarke’s skills as storyteller, creator of character and graphic poetry conjoin effectively to engage the reader in Malcolm and Betty’s tragic sojourn.