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Black

by George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke is one of Canada’s most prominent literary citizens. His work to date has garnered praise and prizes galore. And justly so. The problem with being a prominent literary citizen, however, is that it becomes very easy to publish whatever you want. Black, Clarke’s latest collection of poems, seems to be evidence of this phenomenon.

To be sure, some of the poems in this book have all of the vernacular vigour of vintage Clarke, particularly the inventorial invective of “Negro Nova Scotian Art: A Primer” and “Africadian History: An Exhibit Catalogue” (both of which are reprinted from a Gaspereau Press chapbook). But so much of the rest of the book – and there’s a lot of it; at 180 pages, it has twice the girth of a typical collection – feels like occasional notebook jottings that need more formal flesh or flabby prose requiring more time on the treadmill, both modes lacking the verbal punch that is Clarke’s trademark. He repeats tropes and phrases to the point of self-parody, stealing strength from the poems in which his choices are most appropriate.

One gets the sense that with all of the demands on Clarke’s time as a professor, lecturer, and cultural ambassador, he hasn’t enough left in reserve for the business of writing poems. In this, he is perhaps coming to resemble Irving Layton in his latter career, an analogy Clarke cleaves to when he writes, “Like Layton, I’ll say what I please!” Well and good, but Layton also said, before he let his own grip on craft slacken, that “it’s all in the manner of the done,” and Clarke too often substitutes stance for style.

Clarke has built into this book a preemptive strike against such critical carping. Time and again, the critics get a good skewering on the tip of the poet’s satirical pen – nowhere more entertainingly than in the long rhyming poem “Contre la nouvelle trahison des grimauds.” But the critics aren’t always wrong.



A NOTE TO OUR READERS (included in our July-August 2006 issue)
We have since discovered that Raincoast Books mistakenly provided for review a manuscript that is significantly different from the finished book. We stand by the review as printed, as does Wells, and while the error was Raincoast’s, we do wish to acknowledge that some of the review’s criticisms do not accurately reflect the final version of the book. “George Elliott Clarke is a writer whose work I have long admired and respected,” says Wells, “and it is a shame that something like this should have happened.”