Sunday, May 10, 2015

8th Candian Challenge - 18th Review - Traverse

I came across this recent book of poetry completely by accident.  I was exploring the Toronto Poetry Map, which is a web application hosted by the Toronto Public Library.  It is quite neat: the city is laid out with various dots representing how many poems have been written in various locations throughout the city.  Not too surprisingly, most of the poems they have in their database are from Old Toronto, though there are a few spread throughout the city.  There is also an address to nominate other poems with a Toronto connection.  I didn't see too many specific to Riverdale or Leslieville, though there were a few.  Apparently, according to one poem, there had once been streetcar service up Withrow Avenue.  Who knew?

At any rate, several of the dots were linked back to Traverse by George Elliott Clarke, who happens to be Toronto's Poet Laureate.  Since the library naturally had quite a few copies of Traverse, I borrowed one.  Traverse has an interesting back history.  In 2005, Clarke decided to write an autobiography in poetic form as he was turning 45.  He wrote out the whole thing in one day (41 blank verse sonnets).  Quite a few were published here and there, and then he added 9 more sonnets in 2013 and published the whole thing as Traverse.

I have to admit to considerable jealousy, since I was going to do something similar in sestina format as I was turning 40 and here I am, just turned 45, and I think I have only partially written two -- and still don't have any I am ready to share with the wider world.  I can make plenty of excuses, but clearly I could have done it if I had pushed everything else off my plate.  At any rate, I figured if Clarke could write these poems in a day, I could read them in a day, which I did.

I don't really know how to review the poems, aside from noting that for an autobiography it seems awfully shallow.  We find out who Clarke dated and slept with, we find out quite a bit about various jobs he had, particularly when he showed up complacent white folks to get a plum position, and we hear about him moving back and forth across Canada and occasionally to the States.  He also works references to various cultural touchstones into the poems, name-dropping The Band, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and even Hall and Oates. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of interiority to these poems, or times when Clarke is really telling us something interesting about his thoughts or feelings.  Or maybe I am just missing it.  There are moments when he talks about white-on-black violence and a quiet or not-so-quiet Black pride.  But not much of interest (to me) beyond that.  Almost nothing (that I can recall) about what he was doing or thinking as he wrote the poems that made a name for himself and allowed him to become a professor at Duke and now at UToronto.

Of the poems, my favourite by far is Stanza VIII:
Didn't I freeze, perambulating frozen,
     peninsular Halifax,
North End to South End to North,
As intoxicated as Lear, I staggered raggedly,
      taking blows of rain and snow,
or slaps of rain and snow and tears,
      stinging my black face breathless.
Fog and snow and rain and tears....
      Store windows spit neon to bleach me white.

I also like Stanza XXIV, which reminds me just a bit of my own journey across Canada, which is finally finding its way into my work:
I bade us execute what we could prosecute,
      negotiating railway mix-ups,
classroom metaphysics, missed-bus fiascoes,
      my "Long March" hitch-hiking to Vancouver --
      slogging kilometers that were upteen miles long,
snapping pics, thumbing rides, praying, writing,
      hungry, wolfing wild blackberries,
swatting mosquitoes, getting shat on by gulls,
      then kiting from Vancouver straight to her bed in Québec.

If more of the poems had been along these lines, I would have considered it a masterpiece or near masterpiece, but the vast majority just read as Clarke bragging about this thing or that thing that he had done.  I realize this is basically a celebratory autobiography (and one written for a certain kind of performance where modesty doesn't really have a role to play), but I found it quite boring honestly.  While Clarke in person may be a completely different from how he has portrayed himself in Traverse, I would have no interest in meeting anyone so interested in trumpeting all his accomplishments.  I can't honestly say whether my disdain for the content of the later stanzas caused me to sort of disregard them, or I simply didn't find the language as compelling as some of the earlier stanzas.  Nonetheless, for the most part I found myself unmoved by and disengaged from Traverse, with a few exceptions as already noted.

Edit to add: And yet, on reflection, he actually reminds me just a bit of this math teacher that I worked with for a couple of years in Newark.  He generally also talked up his accomplishments, but in person it was a bit easier to take (than if I had read them all in one place, as in Traverse).  He might well have said that the broader culture places so little emphasis on Blacks achieving anything, other than as entertainers and athletes, that it is basically necessary to blow one's own horn.  I can understand this perspective, but it still doesn't mean that I respond well to it, particularly when there is the distancing effect from reading all these accomplishments.  The WASP way is to engage in (false) modesty or the humblebrag, both of which I have practiced from time to time.  It kind of stresses me out that I am in an industry where you have to be at the very top of the food chain before you can afford to feign modesty about your accomplishments.

No comments:

Post a Comment