George Elliott Clarke
Vallum Chapbook Series, 2022
I was married to a ghost on a mountain in northwest Seoul back in 1994. A trivial enough anecdote; I mention it to suggest that I might know a shaman when I see one. George Elliott Clarke is a shaman.
No doubt all poets ought to be; but with Clarke, the force is strong. He can go to that place that Ulysses goes in Book 11 the Odyssey, seemingly more or less at will.
One fine thing about shamanic poetry: it breaks through the popular idea of poetry as self-expression. Self-expression is all very well, but it severely limits the scope of the art. One suspects a Freud in the ointment. It is far more interesting in the end to speak in tongues. Who needs the prison of the self? Poetry is as probably about escaping the cracked fun house mirror of self. Keats spoke of negative capability and the chameleon poet. Whitman claimed the true poet contains multitudes.
In War Canticles, Clarke channels the voices of some long dead: Sally Bassett, a Bermudian slave burned at the stake as a poisoner and perhaps a witch in 1730. Abraham, a Seminole chief of African ancestry who sheltered escaped slaves and fought the US for freedom in this or the other Seminole War. A Chinese Confucian official alive during the Opium Wars. A soldier in the American Civil War; Langston Hughes; and the Emperor Napoleon. So convincingly, one feels one feels what they once felt.
These are the very sort of hungry ghosts Korean shamans summon. Hungry ghost are the souls who cannot pass to their next life, for they have died with something to say. They have some last desperate message, often of injustice. We, the living, owe it to them and to divine justice to listen.
Not that Clarke is merely a passive vessel here. Are these the actual souls of the departed, as they were on Earth? Surely not. I feel confident that Sally Bassett, during life, could not have come up with a phrase so magical as “Th’Atlantic’s reflex sparkles.” That Abraham of the Seminoles could not on his own have conjured “To high-step through pudding-thick swamps.” That Napoleon’s rudimentary English could manage “At sea, toys—blobs—of chopped boys bob in brine.”
This is Clarke’s own mighty way with words. He acts here rather in the manner of a lawyer, a “mouthpiece,” as the Mafiosi liked to say. He empathizes, then distils the raw feelings into beauty in our ears.
These are no polite Victorian parlour ghosts. They are angry; they are bloodthirsty. Such is the way with hungry ghosts. Why else would they need to speak to us?
Injustice does not die, as the body dies. We do not know how or why, but we know this universally. This is the law of Dike, which even the gods must obey. This is the divine justice; this is the wheel of karma. This is the unbreakable vow made by the river Styx. Injustice will not be silent, and will be avenged.
George Elliot Clarke gives this universal truth a voice. It is a voice worth listening to.
In his current incarnation, Stephen Kent Roney is a poet, college professor and past president of the Editors’ Association of Canada. Originally from Gananoque Ontario, now living in eternal lockdown in Toronto. Learning how to say “Gananoque” made him a poet. Recently, he won the 2021 Mensa World Poetry Prize.
This review was originally published in Verse Afire. Thanks to Bunny Iskov. Permission to republish granted by the author.