J’Accuse by George Elliott Clarke | Essay by Dennis Cooley

You might think the moment was propitious. George Elliott Clarke had been invited by the University of Regina to deliver the Woodrow Lloyd lecture in 2020. Clarke’s reputation would have been high. He was an esteemed writer, having served as Poet Laureate for the city of Toronto and for the Canadian Parliament. In addition to many other recognitions, he held eight honorary doctorates, the Governor General’s Award for poetry, and membership as Officer of the Order of Canada. He had taught at many prestigious universities. As a person of African-American, Jamaican, and Afro-MĂ©tis ancestry, he would have seemed especially appropriate for the occasion. He was expecting to talk about Saskatchewan poetry as it might pertain to missing and murdered Indigenous women. The match seemed ideal. As poet, as critic, as public intellectual, as a prominent member of the Black community, he was impeccably qualified. And so they invited him. Clarke intended to deliver the talk.

What most immediately sent things askew was a CBC interview. The interviewer had learned that Stephen Tyler Kummerfield, who years earlier been one of those who killed an Indigenous woman, Pamela Jean George, had come to be a friend of Clarke’s. The murder had been deeply racist and vicious, and the subsequent trial became cause for outrage because it was informed by racism and its ruling unjust. Those in Regina who had with horror followed news of the murder and of the trial (which had treated the two defendants far more sympathetically than the victim) had now discovered that Kummerfield, who had transformed himself into Stephen Tyler Brown and relocated somehow to Mexico, knew Clarke as a friend and mentor for over a decade. After the journalist got wind of the information, she made a point of inciting attention. She stuck Clarke’s visage “shoulder to shoulder killer K.S.B” in “WANTED-poster style.” As Clarke remembers it, the flippancy in her following report—”Maybe he will and maybe he won’t”— set off uncertainty in listeners. The journalist had reduced Clarke’s two-hour interview to one short provocative sentence.

The information about Kummerfield was almost new to Clarke. He had discovered only in September, 2019, that his hip friend was a racist who had eagerly participated in the grotesque killing. The information caught the attention of a few more figures and led to “breathless” hints that Clarke was guilty of evasion and contamination by association. The detractors redirected the narrative until Clarke was suspected of harbouring sympathy for Kummerfield. Was he apt to bring the infamous killer harmfully, favourably, into his Woodrow Lloyd lecture? The growing confusion and fear shifted the situation still further. Clarke doubted that knowing the criminal, mentioning him, or quoting his poetry, was akin to condoning “his vile Infamy.” But that argument carried little weight. Evidently, there was little to distinguish the poetry that a person wrote from a person who monstrously killed someone. In retrospect, Clarke explains that he was not going to Regina “to praise (or bury) a killer, / but to assess a body of poetry.” His position is one you probably would expect a thoughtful person to assume: he might have quoted Kummerfield-Brown if his research had found it to be instructive. You do the research and you begin to construct your statement.

Distrust increased: Wasn’t he causing hurt, “grinding ‘salt in wounds'”? Who was he, presuming there was no need to assure? The reluctance to respect his cultural and personal credentials seems inexplicable, an instance of bad faith, perhaps. Clarke began to suppose that he himself was becoming a recipient of racism: Who was he, uppity Black man, to be so cavalier? An increasingly vexed Clarke wondered whether little else would be heard: “Accusations never debated, so never doubted.” The reluctance to support the talk hardened to a point that Clarke nicely distills: “Moi-mĂŞme, j’Ă©tais la bĂŞte noire de la Tour d’ivoire!” They managed “To put the kibosh on my speech,” The vexing became a whole lot worse. Clarke’s cultural life became a frightening sequence of cancellations, refusals, and insults.

No more talk from Clarke. He had replied over and over that he had not yet determined what he would say. He asked whether, believing in free inquiry, we would seek to silence words (words we don’t know because they are unwritten and unsaid) on the grounds that they might cause us pain—”too nerve-wracking” for “finicky diners” for those “Holding a scented handkerchief to their noses.” Further, as he later argued (something his doubters ought to have realized): concerns for listeners’ discomfort can be no justification for silencing the truth in what one may say. A person might acknowledge some legitimacy in the worries, for who would want or seek others’ needless pain? Hardly what Clarke had in mind, but the objections—characterized in Clarke’s rhetoric as unremittingly excremental—had become so solidified that some would not concede his point. In any case (though he didn’t publicly at this point say as much), his record as scholar and pedagogue points clearly to his awareness of racism and denied humanity in a tyrannously colonized Canada. His history as a person of Black and Indigenous ancestry ought to have assured others of his standing and his integrity.

Worth noting is the force with which Clarke depicts the two men who in acts of staggering brutality raped and killed Ms. George, and who in court shamelessly presented themselves as exemplars of harmless gentility. The “lads” who had been “tooling about” had “plunked” themselves into the car within which they would carry “Ms. Pamela Jean George— / parfit, gentil, splendid, a poet” to her grotesque death. In Clarke’s rhetoric the killers figure as foul and loathsome defilers, undeniably stupid, fit perhaps for Dante’s hell. The passage on the actual murder is particularly gruesome, and Clarke impolitely persists in it. Its visceral violence won’t let us turn away. There’s no pretending that Ms. Pamela Jean George’s killing was ‘only a murder.’ When they attacked the “unsullied” woman of “floral and honeyed undertones,” of “wine-dark eyes” and “pine-dark hair,” they disposed of her “as if smashing a fly.” The two killers stand as particularly heinous representatives of a country that has been racist and murderous from its very beginnings.

Clarke’s explicit response in J’Accuse is clearly and strongly evident. His reply here is also implicit and perhaps even more explosive.

The entries become a spasmodic series of takes and retakes that make no attempt to lay out a clear, uninterrupted, and premeditated structure. The sections jump in and out of the narrative. They return again and again, almost compulsively to the painful events, to the principals, to the contention at the heart of the affair. The result would seem to suggest that the entries have come from intermittent bursts—one go at it, and then another; all of them mingling new material and old material. It speaks of a troubled and impassioned speaker who throws off equanimity. In a flurry of attempts, it is engaged, argumentative, provocative. We might say that Clarke has written “essais,” because they are unfinished, picked up again, replicated in new allusions and resonant terms, invested in the material.

J’Accuse is a virtuoso performance, a bold and flamboyant barrage. It speaks in bursts of anger, indignation, dismay. It is an animated reply to misreadings and misrepresentations. What are the clarion calls doing here? The book is a prophetic shout—damned be the defilers of truth and justice, to hell with the slingers of excrement, who sully and befoul. It releases a splurge of Beat—is it jazz? does it jump? Documents, letters, chants, learned references, choppy entries—they splatter across the book. Irony, sarcasm, wit, ridicule, abound—enough to make an Augustan blush.

We have the benefit of a personal biography, much of it covering 2019-2020. We also come across tender tributes to his own mother and to Pamela Jean George. There is more. An academic CV. A poetic manifesto. An intellectual argument, stashes of facts and syllogisms. A jetting that throws the reader into near vertigo. It becomes a pastiche of ballads and tirades, blessings and curses, rebukes and reasonings, pleas and denouncings, and horrors. We encounter loads of citations, much of the material composed from non-Anglo sources; a mix of languages (chiefly French, German, and Italian). Clarke’s poetic impulses throw him into ferocious rhyme and near rhyme, dynamic rhythm, and cacophony. The book is partly documentary, partly evidential, always fiduciary. It persistently names names (including the names of Clarke’s contemporary tormentors). J’Accuse. It compiles offences. The spirits and names of the murderers’ (and, Clarke insists, our) abhorrent kin puncture the pages (Hitler, Brown Shirts, White Hoods, Dummkopf, Nosferatu, Caligula, Dracula, HernĂ n CortĂ©s, Kit Columbus, Putsch, Proud Boys, Odin Soldiers, Conrad’s Kurtz, McCarthy, KKK as in “SasKKKatchewan-squatter vicious,” Goebbels, J. Edgar Hoover, the Spanish Inquisition. Their like are named in the unnamed persecutors of “Riel, the Beothuk, Mi’kmaq.” The names proliferate in acronym and acrimony. Seemingly everywhere, they infest and infect the world. In clever mood the names also include someone we may be less familiar with—Cinna the (sinning) poet, who was killed by a mob that mistook him for another and culpable Cinna, the ‘real’ murderer. The association, which under other conditions might have sounded melodramatic, works well here. So does the list of the poets “exemplar” who (like Pound, like Zola) had “run afoul / of regime after regime of attempted regimen of the Soul.”

The inventive names, acronyms, letters, and etymologies springs loose damning associations. The book relishes wrenchings of grammar and syntax, sets loose storms of slang and neologisms. The formal and verbal fireworks serve often in mockery, but invariably they open acerbic and larger meanings. Clarke makes his charges bluntly, constantly, vitally. He raises them, too, in clever, whimsical, even show-off ways. The writing is combative, accusing, risking, judgmental. It is an entertaining and sobering look at racism that underwrites colonialism in Canada.

How to name the agglomeration that is J’Accuse? The collection is, in Clarke’s own words, a “blues jeremiad” or “my own plangent chant.” What is it we are looking at? How are we situated? What do we make of this, whatever “this” is? We might do no better than to adapt Clarke’s own definition—an “essay-in-poetry”—that appears late in the book. It certainly includes a lot and it works in many ways.

The whole affair became a distressing tangle, and on a personal level it does not speak well of those who unreflectingly turned against Clarke. The story of the cancelled talk reveals the unreadiness of some to refine their thinking, or to rescind their charges. The book lays bare Clarke’s immediate ordeal, and the drastic hit to his psyche and reputation that he continued to face.
His response is an eloquent, angry, and moving demonstration of what he profoundly believes in. J’Accuse testifies to the racist horrors that for generations Canadians of non-European descent have undergone. It tells a cautionary tale about the fragility of truth in a democracy.