George Elliott Clarke's third "colouring book," Red, follows 2001's Blue and 2006's Black. While most of Clarke's other releases, such as 2009's I & I, have one theme, these have a standard collection's range. The naming convention is justified through strong commonalities: the voice of a subversive, monumentally erudite black author; the battle with political and poetic establishments; and a worship of beauty.
The key quality Clarke exhibits throughout the three is fluidity, to push any mode that tickles his fancy with virtuosity enough to get away with it. This not only describes the poetry's global characteristics, but within any single poem, the changes from high voice to patois, tracing out canonical references with single words. Exuberant, percussive riffing can all collide, bursting and bound by his unerring ear.
The maturity of Red is easy to miss. The poems are simpler, leaning more on music than the explicitly Ezra Pound-laden Black. Continuing his "à la manière de" poems, he invokes composers such as Ennio Morricone more than poetic ancestors. This is both a further abstraction and a thrust at standing nearer the centre of poem as sonic event. Listen to this example from Quemada!, where he also stands closer to Lorca:
What good is chastity – if it's for good?
That lover, crumpling under caresses,
Is a saint, incandescent with sweat.
Jangle the bed! Shake it! Splash the wine!
At their core, the colouring books are a conversation with the poetic past. Creole Lyric distills the bipolar exuberance and sobriety of the task:
Beware all premature euphoria!
(Dust upon dust, word after word, defines failure)
Be extravagant and seize clarity,
Cadenced, alive with elegy, then turn
To papal silence: Until the page turns.
However, the Red Sea section is the book's real heart, where we glimpse the source of the persona. Taxi claims his father's legacy in a display that reminds us not being a hip-hop mogul is a lifestyle choice for Clarke:
Courteous, cordial, proper, politic,
He lavished wit impeccably impish,
Encyclopedia-posh, and polished –
With scholarly asides and rhymester's timing,
Moving on to other landscapes, Looking at Alma Duncan's Young Black Girl (1940) encapsulates many of Clarke's ideas:
How to position a young black girl –
against the cool, mercantile air of Upper Canada,
Cotton plays contrapuntally
against the girl-woman's copper skin.
(Ain't she a smoky black gal,
her limbs all sheen, or pure music?)
Love lyrics (erotica to some) are Clarke at his most fun. (Check out Gold Indigoes or Illuminated Verses) "Let us meet in cities of refuge and of poetry,/ Where you, learnèd, turn shameless as an animal."
This is a fun, accessible book, hopefully a symptom of confidence and not of editing for easy consumption. One thing is sure: We need more authors who write with the freedom and easy virtuosity of George Elliott Clarke.
Roy Wang is a Canadian poet living in Bloomfield, Mich.