Review by J.A. Wainwright of Trudeau: Long March & Shining Path, published in the November 2008 (#151) issue of The Antigonish Review:
I was fourteen years old when JFK demolished Richard Nixon in the first televised Presidential debates in 1960. Although I would find out later that John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson did some good things for Canada and even for the rest of the world, they seemed to my generation like two cranky old men who were always complaining about one another. There may have been substance in Ottawa, but there certainly wasn't much style, and any combination of the two was absent. Nixon would have felt comfortable on Parliament Hill, but JFK was a different man entirely - he moved with an ease that belied his bad back, and spoke to my generation like an older brother or tolerant uncle who had been around rather than a grandfather from another century. Of course Kennedy was closer in age to Diefenbaker and Pearson than he was to me, but he didn't sound or look like he was. When he was assassinated, as irrational as it was to think so, that older world seemed to have taken him away, and his death marked the true beginning of the anti-authority Sixties and social rebellion on a mass scale.
We struggled, however, as the aging twins continued in Ottawa and Nixon returned triumphantly to Washington, our hopes of alternatives crushed by the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and, on another level, as Michael Herr says in Dispatches, by rock stars falling like lieutenants in Vietnam. But the day after King's assassination, the Liberal leadership convention opened and Pierre Trudeau subsequently became Prime Minister. His combination of style and substance overwhelmed us, and we confirmed him in office three weeks after RFK died. For the next sixteen years he was at the centre of our political attention, and for another sixteen after that, while lesser lights governed again, he was stronger in the wings than they were on centre stage. We forgave him his many imperfections - among them his arrogance, his single-minded focus on federalism at all costs, his careless throwing away of a majority government, his weakness in economic matters, his lack of charity towards any who did not measure up to his standards - because this older brother or uncle figure (almost the same age as JFK) was hip in language and movement, as his 'fuddle-duddle' in Parliament and his scarves and felt hats, let alone his pirouette behind the Queen's back, resisted the very authority and institutions he represented and obviously believed in. He was, if nothing else, a paradox, and we loved his parading of personal strengths and simultaneous exposure of his own contradictions. The hypocrisies of others became visible in his light.
In Trudeau: Long March and Shining Path, George Elliott Clarke has written a remarkable dramatic poem that displays the essence of Trudeau's quixotic personality and deeply intelligent considerations of the world around him. What better way to assess a man than to place him in dialogue with giants of his time - Mao Zedong, JFK, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, and with those whose names conjure up a significant cultural context, such as Neruda, Fanon, Cixous, and even the suggestion of Oscar Peterson.
Clarke's Trudeau debates with Mao in 1949, questioning the Chairman's adage that "Political power flows and runs/Out of the barrels of the People's guns" with his own pacifist lament of war's waste: "How can men fire guns at others?/In such fog, aren't all men brothers?/ Who is fighting whom? Why? What for?/In history's fog and fog of war?" But the future PM's flippancy is also visible at this early point in his life as he shrugs off Mao's demand that he identify himself as either a Capitalist or a Communist by saying, "Truthfully, I'm just a canoeist." The essence of their debate concerns the aesthetics and efficacy of violence versus the beauty and power of poetry. Mao states, "Violence exudes a sly succulence - /Like violins serenading executions" and calls poets "privileged and pampered parasites." Trudeau does a pirouette in front of his adversary and relates how, attacked by bandits in Palestine, he defeated them by crying out poems and spewing "mad madrigals." Even the Chairman recognizes that he's plagiarized Shakespeare's Cyrano de Bergerac. Clarke has the young Trudeau advocate the chanting of "haikus/And albas and sonnets and epics and blues" against the roar of firing squads and dictatorial rhetoric, and promote the making of history through making love in seeming anticipation of the coming decade of social revolution when sex and the State would collide.
The brief meeting between Trudeau and JFK occurs in Fredericton in 1956 where Senator Kennedy has just received an honorary degree. They exchange clever ripostes about the necessity of a politics of style, with the future President spouting perhaps the most memorable lines: "Act with chutzpah - like Hemingway/Shooting white foam or winged clay." Trudeau, not yet the active politician, reveals his naked ambition by proclaiming (again a Cyrano echo) "I'll rise highest - or not at all." The limitations of both men's sexual politics are evident in Kennedy's macho declarations about the sacking of virgins like cities and Trudeau's immediate applause.
When Trudeau sips rum and smokes cigars with Fidel in Havana four years later, he is still concerned about the fog of war, especially as it relates to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Just a few months later, his personal history, particularly in his connection of Mao's "antique truths" with those of his father and his subsequent paradoxical claim that he "can be no man's disciple," prompts his ambivalence about how power is to be attained and maintained. Mao tells him to "melt down gold for bullets:/They beautify more than ballots" and Trudeau replies "I am, perhaps, a naïve guy - /To trust silly, slimy, smelly,/Noisy, nasty democracy!" Clarke underlines once again the poetic power of Trudeau's vision and discourse, but intentionally leaves the reader wondering at what cost such beauty: "I go now to get drunk on lotus,/Then tarantella/With peasant virgins gone hoarse/Moaning the deaths of dahlias."
Between Castro and Mao, Trudeau cavorts in a Montreal nightclub with a sexy Québecois journalist and a Black jazz pianist who admires him as a "white negro clone/…a rolling stone." The rest of Dylan's famous chorus about being "on your own" comes to mind when Trudeau's views of the limitations of a future career in Ottawa are suggested: "Parliament's a bundle of posteriors/Bugling profundities or tooting errors."
Like that of many, Clarke's take on the young Margaret Sinclair, who as the "coy rose" seduces the "earthy, saturnine, and martial" Trudeau, portrays her as a one-trick pony to be ridden by male self-regard and ambition. But in a single line Margaret complicates such narrow perceptions of her when she echoes and develops Trudeau's earlier words to Mao: "Our love will make history muse."
As Trudeau moves towards his fateful confrontation with the FLQ in the 'October Crisis' of 1970 Clarke displays the Prime Minister's sense of hybrid self as a "white Negro" who inhales the Sixties yet looks for the measure of a "Just Society"; exposes the essentializations of his personality by the media beside his own reductive responses to any who oppose his policies; and compares his loose-tongued obscenities to the shallow slogans of Quebec nationalists and Margaret's flower-power chant that "Revolution's the orgasm of history." We see Trudeau become more rigid in his philosophy and how the jazz pianist and previously sympathetic journalist have severe doubts about his attitudes and actions when the scribe declares, "Mesmerizing charisma fades/To peep shows and circus charades." Trudeaumania is in full swing in the late Sixties, however, and the man who, in the beginning, would not be king, seems to covet a throne. It is perhaps not fair for a Quebec nationalist named Fanon to describe Trudeau as a "vampire [who] apes a butterfly," but there is certainly some truth in Fanon's perception of glamour as "a kind of amour" that seduces the unthinking voting populace. By the time this Trudeau accosts the FLQ he is spouting Mao's rhetoric about political power running out of the barrels of guns and saluting France's most famous soldier-emperor. Once again Dylan's song comes to mind in terms of the relationship between the Trudeau and his acolytes: "You used to be so amused/at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used/go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse." When asked how far he will go, this Trudeau shouts that he will "bulletproof democracy!"
Although Clarke deals with the aftermath of the Trudeau marriage and allows Margaret to pronounce her necessary independence, what is more interesting is the emergence of Trudeau as philosopher of a "new Canada" who speaks of his country as possessing "eternal policies" of "love and snow and death and ice" and is prepared to embrace the "beautiful mess" of humanity. This isn't good enough for the jazz pianist who sees him now as a "dandy, natty failure," but one who may, nevertheless, deserve to have an opera written and composed about him. If Trudeau is a Canadian failure, this perception is complicated by Clarke's association of him with another Canuck high priest who has loved women and the authority of poetry, Leonard Cohen. Already referred to as a "lady's man," Trudeau paraphrases lines from Cohen's poems "For E.J.P." and "I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries" in a conversation with Nelson Mandela and Castro about freedom. He then places himself and the two others in a metaphysical context that will provide the basis for ultimate judgment of their intentions and results: "Gentlemen, we are old. I see/Politics faint before Eternity."
Eternity is complicated for the elder Trudeau by the loss of his youngest son, and the Shakespeare he cites in 2000 underlines his fragile humanity: "'Oh, God, why do you make us love/Your gifts, then snatch them away from us,/Before we've had the mercy of death?'" This Trudeau interrogates who he has been to himself and for others, wondering if he dreamed enough and whether he loved power more than people. The long march and shining path are thus interrogated too, but Clarke's homage to an extraordinary individual who clearly passed the Canadian way but once offers a supreme example of what poetry is and can do. Indeed, the art of this dramatic poem comes as close as possible to making its flawed protagonist what Leonard Cohen would call "worthy and lyric and pure."