In an introductory note coyly entitled “Directions,” George Elliott Clarke explains the self-indulgent premise of his latest book of poetry. I & I links “phrases and images cannibalized […] from adolescent inklings.” It is the product of “Hilroy scribblers and Camp Fire notebooks inked up by a fevered teen” – juvenilia, in other words, that’s been rescued from filing boxes and co-opted by Clarke the Elder, senior statesman of Canadian letters.
In fact, everything about this book is self-indulgent, from Clarke’s amphetamine-addled musical line, which drives the plot forward like some mad Beat figure pounding out rhythms on a typewriter (“The bright tribe/ Of youth, dieting on diatribe// And Diet Coke and rum,/ Dialogue, dance, duet, and divorce”), to its “gaudy” (Clarke’s word) plotline and garish, graphic novel-style illustrations.
The permissions section of the book dubs I & I “a pop-song opera”; elsewhere, it’s a “comic-book ballad.” Call it a verse novel, though, and you would be closer to the truth. The book is divided into individual pieces, each part of a larger narrative: the tale of Malcolm and Betty, two star-crossed teenage lovers.
The plot is simple enough: When Betty’s father tries to come between them, Malcolm, a professional boxer, gives dad a going over. The two lovers then flee to America to live off the prize money Malcolm has amassed while Betty undertakes studies at a Texas college. And then (for reasons I won’t disclose for fear of revealing too much), the book bleeds into something of a revenge tragedy.
It’s thrilling stuff, largely on account of Clarke’s inimitable style, but one can’t help but wonder what the point is. I & I is darkly comic in a gothic vein, and is in every way a grotesquery of excess. It riffs on many of Clarke’s perennial concerns – violence, social inequality, racial prejudice – but does so in such a blithe way that none of these seems terribly concerning to us.