Clarke, George Elliott

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CLARKE, George Elliott

Pseudonyms: Nahum Shaka; Nattt Moziah Shaka. Nationality: Canadian. Born: George Elliott Johnson, Windsor, Nova Scotia, 12 February 1960. Education: University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1979–84, B.A. (honors) 1984; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1986–89, M.A. 1989; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 1990–93, Ph.D. 1993. Family: Married Geeta Paray-Clarke in 1998. Career: Legislative researcher, Provincial Parliament, Toronto, 1982–83; library assistant, Halifax Memorial Library, Nova Scotia, 1983; newspaper editor, University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1984–85; social worker, Black United Front, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, 1985–87; parliamentary aide, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, 1987–91; freelance writer, Kingston and Ottawa, Ontario, 1991–94; assistant professor of English, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1994–99. Assistant professor of English, University of Toronto, Ontario, 1999—. Awards: First prize in poetry, Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, 1981; second prize, Bliss Carman award, 1983; Archibald Lampman award, 1991, for Whylah Falls; Portia White prize, 1998; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center fellow, 1998. LL.D: Dalhousie University, 1999. D.Litt.: University of New Brunswick, 2000. Agent: The Bukowski Agency, Toronto, Ontario. Address: 7 King's College Circle, Department of English, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3K1, Canada.



Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Pottersfield Press, 1983.

Whylah Falls. Vancouver, Polestar Books, 1990.

Lush Dreams, Blue Exile. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Pottersfield Press, 1994.


Whylah Falls: The Play. Toronto, Playwrights Canada Press, 1999.

Beatrice Chancy. Vancouver, Polestar Books, 1999.

Screenplays: One Heart Broken into Song, 1999; Beatrice Chancy: The Opera, 2000.


Editor, Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Pottersfield Press, 2 vols., 1991–92.

Editor, Borderlines. Toronto, Copp-Clark, 1995.

Editor, Eyeing the North Star. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1997.


Critical Studies: "An Unimpoverished Style" by M. Travis Lane, in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 1985; "Whylah Falls" by Arnold Davidson, in Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier (Stuttgart, Germany), 1997; "A Rose Grows in Whylah Falls" by Dorothy Wells, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 1997; "Even the Stars Are Temporal" by Wayde Compton, in West Coast Line (Vancouver), 1997; "Some Aspects of Blues Use" by H. Nigel Thomas, in CLA Journal, 1999; "G.E. Clarke's Redemptive Vision" by Maureen Moynagh, in Playwrights Canada (Toronto), 2000.

George Elliott Clarke comments:

I come to poetry as a dreaming singer. I have spirituals in my blood, blues in my heart. I keep striving to get trumpets, pianos, guitars, and drums into my poetry. I can only think of it as song. My poetics is revelation.

I embrace all the poetic forms—from vers blanc to vers libre, from haiku to rap, from epic to proverb. For me poetry is whatever a poet chooses to do.

My first influence was my mother's voice and then the King James Version of the Bible, which I have read thrice. Now I read everything: the British—Shakespeare, Shelley, Clare, Yeats, Walcott; the Canadian; and the African American—Toomer, Hayden, Baraka, and the "Ugly American"—Pound.

In the end I am interested in singing the Bible and dreams of Africadia, a portion of Nova Scotia settled by African Americans more than two centuries ago. But I also just like to sing.

*  *  *

George Elliott Clarke comes from and writes about the long-established black community of Nova Scotia, some of whose members are descended from Loyalists who fled north during and after the American Revolution and the War of 1812. This genealogy of the "Africadians" (to use a word Clarke has coined) is important because, together with a strong lyrical and rhetorical impulse, the poet clearly sees himself as a witness for, and chronicler of, his people. To that end he often intersperses local archival photos among his poems. Yet Clarke is never insular. Not only does he take account of the Scots and the indigenous Micmacs, but he also draws on the wider African-American heritage of glorious gospel and blues. He reaches out to American expatriates in Paris and touches on the Africadians who migrated to West Africa in 1792 to found what became the nation of Sierra Leone.

Clarke's first collection, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues, commemorates the cohesive and energizing role of black churches in an alien land and laments the destruction of Africville, an economically stricken but culturally vibrant community in the Halifax area. In "Campbell Road Church" a railway porter remembers the

   shabby shacktown of
   shattered glass and promises,
   rats rustling like a girl's loose dress.
   he rages to recall
   the gutting death of his genealogy,
   to protest his home's slaughter
   by butcher bulldozers
   and city planners molesting statistics.

The lament becomes a personal one in "Crying the Beloved Country" when he considers what amounts to his own expatriation from his province's "sea-bound beauty/shale arms and red clay lips/sipping fundy streams":

   why can i not depart from you
   like any proud, prodigal son,
   ignoring your eyes'
   black baptist churches?
   what keeps me from easy going?
   Mother, is it your death
   i fear
   or my life?

In any case Clarke aims to achieve the vigor and syncretism of what in "East Coasting" he calls "bagpipe jazz hymns."

Whylah Falls, a verse novel later adapted as a stage play, assembles a busy and complex cast of characters in a fictional village founded by black Loyalists, a place that Clarke terms a kind of northern Mississippi, "with blood spattered, not on magnolias, but on pines, lilacs and wild roses." Here his documentary tendencies take a different turn: "These poems are facts presented as fiction. There was no other way to tell the truth save to disguise it as a story." The interwoven tales of violence, persecution, and love are told in voices that alternate between romance and realism. One of them, Cora's, leans toward realism. In "Cora's Testament" we read,

   Uncle was sniffin' me, and I'd be damned
   If I 'lowed him to stir my sugar bowl,
   And I shushed a cryin' doll; so when a skirt-
   Crazed Saul, who trudged nine miles and back to spade
   Gypsum, came courtin' me, I swept his house,
   Slept in his bed.

In Lush Dreams, Blue Exile Clarke organizes his poems in sections, giving them place-names that, he tells us, "refer to states of mind, not actual geographies." For example, the section "Axum-Saba" derives from "ancient African-Arabian kingdoms ruled by Queen Saba (Sheba), the beautiful Panther-in-the-Blossom" and consists of love poems. This wide-ranging collection includes the stronger poems from Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues and in the aptly named "Gehenna" section encompasses public, indeed historical, events like the assassinations of García Lorca, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Kennedy brothers, and Indira Gandhi. In "April 3–4, 1968" Clarke shows King preaching in church and then, the next day,

   After the rain, he steps into the cool
   Dusk, into the cool, wet, Tennessee dusk.
   Andy dreams he hears an engine crackle.
   Ralph jumps instinctively, then turns, then turns,
   And sees King, his arms outstretched, blood blazing
   From the hole the bullet's punched through his neck.

Yet no matter how somber his subject matter may be, Clarke always strikes the celebratory note. On April 3 he has King tell his rapt audience, "I've been to the mountaintop," and he makes another preacher, Richard Preston in Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues, exhort his flock to "go sound the jubilee."

—Fraser Sutherland

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