You might be excused for wondering why I bothered reading another book of poems by George Elliott Clarke after I had not been particularly impressed by Traverse. That's a fair question. I suppose it is the fact that I kept seeing his books when I went to the City Hall library. At any rate, I decided to read another collection, and it was Lush Dreams, Blue Exile: Fugitive Poems 1978-1993.
The first section is vaguely political, and Clarke has a few poems about the October Crisis when Trudeau sent troops into Montreal to try to stomp out the FLQ separatist movement. It is just a bit amusing to read a poet with Black Nationalist leanings contemplating this use of state power/aggression, aware that he was not being targeted or particularly at risk.
"October Crisis" is probably the best of this group. First Clarke watches the police move in (or imagines he is there watching, which is nearly the same):
All this hurt night, police clatter through rues
Constricted by their fears, and splash through glass,
Wade through sawdust doors, to handcuff lovers
And strip-search their fat, suspicious tomes,
Mistaking cubisme for communisme ...
There is something intriguing in how it was primarily intellectuals that were swept up in the arrests during the October Crisis. This occurred in France and other European cities during the 1960s, but was far less common in North America.
Back in Ottawa, there is quite a different response, where party politics (and party tribalism) outweighs any genuine outrage. (For that matter, it wasn't as if the Progressive Conservatives could afford to be seen as on the side of the FLQ!)
Now Liberals quote slick, quisling Latin
To each other in the gun-hushed Commons,
Softening, with suave, veronal accents ...
Their unapprehended insurrection.
It's very difficult for me to say where I would have fallen on the spectrum regarding the October Crisis. If I had been under 20, I definitely would have been opposed to the government's actions. I am not as sure how I would respond to armed rebellion (on the part of the FLQ) now that I have far more to lose. I would probably have been a resigned supporter of doing what was necessary to keep the peace. In any case, regardless of what one thinks about Trudeau's actions, by definition the State cannot lead an insurrection, so I think Clarke's final word of the poem is poorly chosen.
While in general, Clarke comes across as an urban poet, he has a few poems where he is exploring the countryside and the people living there, acknowledging they are much closer to nature. "Hinterland" and "Homage to the Beloved Country" are probably the best two along these lines. Ironically, even though he is writing in a negative fashion, saying essentially that there is much to be found and studied in the "hinterland": Hinterland is that country / you cannot even begin / to imagine," almost all the interesting imagery in the poem are wrapped up with the urban, either full-blown cities or "sea chanty towns."
I simply think Clarke is on firmer footing when in urban contexts, and it was a relief for me when he turns his attention to Halifax in "Halifax Blues." He certainly doesn't pull any punches, painting a pretty bleak picture:
Junked cars bunch, hunch like rats; laundry,
Lynches, dangles from clothelines; streetlamps sputter,
Gutter, blow out; gross, bloated cops
Awake and pummel Lysol-scented drunks,
While God grins at scabbed girls who scour the streets
To pass pestilence to legislators.
(I wasn't particularly impressed with Halifax and particularly not the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, but I didn't hate it with such passion. I would be interested to hear if Clarke was persona non grata in the Maritimes after publishing this and a few similar poems. He's probably better off in Toronto anyway.)
While there were a few poems that stuck with me in Blue Exile (that's how I refer to this book), in general I wasn't particularly taken with this collection. I think I am basically through with reading Clarke, as I am just not on the same wave-length he is, aside from sharing a very general interest in "the urban," but most 20th Century poets are urban poets, so that in itself is no real recommendation.