Review: White by George Elliott Clarke

Reviewed by Elana Wolff

White by George Elliott Clarke

Gaspereau Press, 2021; 252 pages

ISBN: 9781554472307

In his new collection of poems, White, George Elliott Clarke expands his quartet of ‘colouring books’—Blue, Black, Red, and Gold (yellow) to a quintet, or, as he biblically submits: “a Pentateuch!” White, which Clarke deems a “necessary colour,” is not the end of his rainbow; he aims to extend his series to seven, as in the visible colour spectrum, which comprises the three primaries, the three secondaries, and indigo. Clarke waives orange, indigo and violet, in deference to brown—the earthy tertiary, and black and white: not technically considered colours. But hey—a poet can claim license to say whatever he needs to say and Clarke is a poet with much to say, in his inimitable way, on a broad band of talking points.

White comprises a one-page introduction, politically titled “White Paper,” a Contents page prismatically titled “White Light”: twelve sections in all, with black and white images interspersed. The opening section, “White Lies,” features eight poems on Poetics; “White Noise,” seven poems on Praxis, or what Clarke calls “Trancelations” (translations); “White Trash,” five Satires; “White North,” seven Georgics; two sections on Politics; “White Coat”:  Anatomies; twelve Elegies; and two Sapphics sections. “White Flag” contains Notes on the poems, and “White Sugar,” Acknowledgements. Clarke riffs on culture, identity / politics, literature (tributes), history (“The Truth must suffice: / History’s blood-rife”), and ‘personals’ with bold, bristling, rambunctious brilliance. A public poet who doesn’t shy from delivering “squawkin, squeaky, manglin English…. harangue[s]; “scat-sing / catatonic, atavistic, primitive…. googoo”; “insolent snarls, squalid as diarrhea.” Clarke whips, thunders, spouts and sings from ground and mountain. Every injustice, every infringement, every outrage, and any love is fair game for his vernacular passion, lush tongue, sizzling wit, and sweeping erudition.

“Listen! Look!”:

“True: Guilty people are born with every breath…. Politics is a sink-hole of Amorality…. My full response can only be numberless poems—Canticles—” (from “Living History”)

“K = Ku Klux Klan (of course), them white sheets / swishin neath the judge’s Gestapo-black robes, / them white dunce-caps of the S. S.-hissin jurors, / them white, newsreel lights of the circus / Big Top struck invisible / in the risible, kangaroo courtroom.” (from “Emmett Till (1941-1955): A Beginner’s ABC)

“Now, you and me and he and she and they / Are pronouns defining Humanity, / But they are not—really not—definitive: / For how we lean determines how we live. / Note that he is within she or that she / Includes he: Fluid is Identity.” (from “Pronouncement on Pronouns”)

“Equality terrorizes the elite…. white doll heads / got snapped off because males enjoy / smashing things rather than talking. (Anyhow, what victories do the weak / win? They’re better off being subtle, / seditious, secretive—just as poison / works best as tasteless, odorless, colourless.)” (from “Landing: A Love Story”)

“White is off-white, half-white, non-white, i.e., the vast majority of homo sapiens…. White is unsteady as a flame, wavering before shadows…. White is unbelievable cornucopia or conspicuous absence…. White is moonlight tonguing a window…. sanctified—if spectral—illumination / O! Let my true colours(s) beam!” (from “Whitewash”)

Declarations, tirades, indictments, insights and rousing calls to see, hear, listen and think.

Clarke can also be tender, unabashedly old-fashioned amorous, biblically romantic. In lines like: “How beautiful the song of her breathing”; “Your slim, trim figure transfigures the night”; “Dawn binges on birdsong trill, / and I kiss you Giovanna”; “Your carnation lips, carnal with lyrics…. played twixt piano-ivory teeth”; “Her hair flows down—/ a gold dispensation / o’er the Galilee of her body—/ the white empire of her body.”

Page 88 displays a young, handsome, bespectacled George sporting an afro, white tux, bow-tie and black-frilled white shirt, wide-smiling for the camera in a street shot. He looks to be not much older than he was when he first read Pound’s free verse translation of Li Po’s luminous “River-Merchant’s Wife,” which struck him, in the formally gorgeous self-portrait poem, “16 / 61,” as “lustrous.” Indeed, it is. And in “Weathering,” another formal piece, Clarke has penned a poem for the ages: “That Beauty and Peril come twinned…. Uncompromising is Beauty—/ And Love—while frost to blossoms melts—/ To breathe is to love. Our duty? / To spy—past clouds—how light results.” One might also say, ‘how white results’.

Provocative, touching, eminently germane, Clarke’s White, potently on the pulse, makes reading an immersion experience, an education. Take it up.

White by George Elliott Clarke

Gaspereau Press, 2021; 252 pages

ISBN: 9781554472307

Elana Wolff lives and works in Thornhill, Ontario—the traditional land of the Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat First Nations. Elana’s poems have recently appeared in Arc online (Awards of Awesomeness), Best Canadian Poetry 2021Bear ReviewCanadian LiteratureGrainMONOMontréal Serai, and Taddle Creek. Her collection, Swoon (Guernica Editions), won the 2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry; her newest collection is Shape Taking (Ekstasis Editions, 2021).