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by George Elliott Clarke

In Blue, George Elliott Clarke aims to strike the incendiary note Irving Layton hit when he wrote that “good poems should rage like a fire/Burning all things.” In case we miss that epigraph’s point, Clarke labels his own poems “black, profane, surly, American.” He calls himself “a child of napalm.”

The opening poems strike the surly note straight away: “Le negre negated, meagre, c’est moi.” Aiming “to take apart Poetry like a heart,” the poems skillfully work up their alliterations and juxtapositions into a demonstrative rawness. Clarke’s language as he explores black history, love affairs, and memory is daring and fun. These are poems alternately bitten-off and soaring, sung and spat out. Yet their sassy blackguard raunch marinates in concoctions of Auden and opera, Shelley and Baudelaire.

Like the onion-skin pages of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, though, these layers of literary schooling can add up to a weighty, white burden. Poems like “Calculated Offensive” playfully rage against this powerful and tainted poetic inheritance, while dedications to Dionne Brand, Wayde Compton, Claire Harris, and others position Clarke as one voice amid the full and vibrant choir of black Canadian writers. When the tone becomes more reflective, there’s the sense of Clarke’s appreciative truce with Poetry. Voices once stagily renounced – Ezra Pound’s for example – become a source of “fresh, untainted measures.”

The breadth of allusion and self-conscious reflection on the poet’s position make Blue a real “writer’s book.” A scholar himself, Clarke offers his colleagues, especially theorists and identity politicians, plenty of scope for headaches among the overtones. Yet the book also offers itself to any reader who, like Clarke, is a sensual lover and caresser of words. In that department Clarke is impressively effective, teasing out more frissons and tremors in a page than some might do in a career. Taken together these qualities make Blue a pleasurable, unsettling work no reader should ignore.