Multiculturalism is a myth Canadians like to console themselves with. Politically correct language and bromides about the cultural mosaic notwithstanding, the Great White North does not have a stellar history when it comes to its treatment of minorities, an inconvenient truth that Austin Clarke has spent a long and noble literary career documenting.
Now 80, Clarke has written memoirs, novels, and short stories, but In Your Crib is only his second book of poetry, following 2013’s Where the Sun Shines Best. Like that earlier volume, the new book is a long narrative poem, featuring two characters, identified only as “you” and “I.” The speaker is an aged Toronto resident whose previous association with the “true-true” figures of the Civil Rights movement mirrors that of the poet: “I have talked with, and walked in lines behind Malcolm X; / shared a microphone with Stokely Carmichael; / brushed shoulders and jokes with Floyd McKissick.” He addresses a “stupid-acting” youth who is steeped in the iconography of the gang lifestyle – guns and expensive cars and “cut-down pants … unrestrained by no belt or buckle.”
The dominant mode here is anger: at the youth, who is devoted to rap music but has never heard of H. Rap Brown; at the dominant society that has put its misplaced trust in men with “guns that [keep] the community safe / from guns”; and at the speaker himself, “a man, old of age and disappointment,” who has lost faith in his own ability to provide an example or create change. One word that crops up throughout the poem is “again” – a mantra of frustration that battles for equality and justice continue to rage despite the years of bloody history that have brought us to this point. A post-racial society is “the lie of this multicultural land,” a land built on rocky foundations of misunderstanding and mutual fear.
Rhythmically, Clarke’s blank verse harkens back to the bebop of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, though the poet’s own influences run more to Coltrane and the reggae of Bob Marley. The latter’s “Redemption Song” looms large over this book, as it did in “Old Pirates, Yes, They Rob I,” from the author’s 2013 story collection, They Never Told Me. The repetition here feels somewhat stale, as do the occasional clichés that crop up in the writing (“it confuses us, / trained to listen / to a different beat / and drummer”).
But burning throughout In Your Crib is incandescent rage at a smug society that allows itself to believe its own lies, while members of the black community continue to suffer the depredations of racism and indifference. The poem extends the work Clarke has passionately invested himself in for the better part of six decades, a passion that is neatly summed up in the book’s rallying cry: “Let All Black People Speak / This Poem / Silently / Or LOUD.”