Seven years later and I got the chance to meet GEC in person at my landladies' house in TO. I was now 33; seven years of isolation, starvation and deprivation had taken a toll. I was still unpublished and yet seated at the table were George Elliot Clark and Al Moritz, two celebrated Canadian poets. It was a lively and impassioned night, led by my landlady and her girlfriend, the subject of which was poetry. Mostly I listened though I got in a few stories about the valley and how a couple of rowdy fellers who got kicked out of school set a school bus on fire one Halloween Night and rolled it down Gaspereau Mountain. That little bit of storytelling, and certainly not my literary achievements, got me a little attention that night.
I saw George Elliot Clarke perform shortly after at an event at the University of Toronto and he was an excellent performer on stage as well as reading. His selections that night were from Beatrice Chancy and the soon-to-be Governor Generals' Award-winning Execution Poems. He read in the form of a performer and dedicated one of his poems to his wife. I was a lonely and down at the heels struggling writer and so to me, dedicating a poem to his wife, meant something I could hardly articulate. Later Paul Vermeersch asked GEC to blurb my debut book of poetry Scouts are Cancelled, and he did; I'll always be grateful for that.
Roll on a further ten years this time in London and the exuberant and animated linguist now approaching fifty was equally friendly and polite at a well-attended but rare poetry event - the launch of a new Canadian Poetry Anthology from Carcanet. At first GEC struggled to recognize me but then after puzzling at a newly grown salt and pepper beard, he said:
"Oh, John. You've got a slight English accent now, too."
Despite my mortification at this at least he didn't say that I sounded like an Upper Canadian.
The evening started and I stood at the back of the packed room despite the well-intentioned efforts of poet Todd Swift and his fellow anthologist, Evan Jones, to usher everyone into the seats in the middle of the room. While marveling at the books in the stacks, I listened to GEC read. Through the chit chat of London weather and economic woes and the free wine, I listened to the words of GEC: first a dedication to Irving Layton (and a poem) and then a short reading from Beatrice Chancy. I was again struck by the images of the rail road tracks cutting through the valley like an accordian, the africadian bitterness and unspoken tenions of the people there, the familiar glow of the valley's most bountiful crop: apples. (Now they tell me it is grapes.) As it was a crowning night for Todd Swift to launch his Anthology, (the first such anthology on Canadian writers in fifty-seven years) GEC kept it short and sweet and sat down at his seat after the reading; then other poets read, David McGimpsey - one about Gilligan'sIsland - and another plus Eric Ormsby who was sobre but terrific.
After the reading I obtained a copy of GEC's latest chapbook, "Gold Indigoes" for five pounds and I went to talk to him flanked by two admiring women. One of them, a Finnish translator eyed me up as eased up and I told GEC that I wanted to thank him for the reading (and the original book blurb) in person: "It is so great to hear people so passionate about poetry, especially ones that look like a big ice hockey player." The lady piped in. I looked at the little woman. She had a look in her eye, which only a poet can have, a kind of mysterious, beady-eyed stare, like the piercing look in the eye of a crow. I said to her, pondering the five o'clock shadow on my chin,
"That's funny. I only know two words in Finnish: Teemu Selanne!" "
"Who is that?" asked GEC.
"A Finnish Ice Hockey player" answered the translator, smiling.
"I'm going to review this George," I said. And so I was off with my chapbook in tow. I thought about the night and the poets as I wandered back towards the tube.
A night later I was watching Leonard Cohen perform on TV on the BBC iPlayer and detected certain similarities in tone while flipping through Gold Indigoes. Though late in his career, there is a definite nod to the Bard of Montreal, something Cohenesque about GEC'S new work - the marrying of the sacred and the profane, and while GEC's setting is equal parts NS and Ottawa/Quebec City there is a hint of an English pirate in there. What? How can this be, you might well say, he is a Canadian Poet. I can only ask you this, as a man and as a man in this woirld, walking these streets. Do you think those pockmarked scallywags, weighed down with rum and mollasses didn't have an eye for Nova Scotian women? And do you think those women did not have an eye for the men who sailed in on tall ships from the Caribbean, drinking up the Halifax North End. So BLOW ME DOWN, me 'ol Matey, I wait for the back woods spirituals and indeed the opera which is bound to come out of this.
A short review of: Gold Indigoes
Carolina Wren Press,
Durham, North Carolina
120 Morris Street,
Durham NC USA
The Leonard Cohen comparison is strongest in George Elliot Clarke's poem, Naima, with a nod to Cohen's most famous song, Suzanne:
Naima I should perfume my letters,
confuse spices with my ink,
spirit tea from orange peels and sugar....
I know the lime or vinegar taste
of leaves in rain,
but I crave the criminal flavour of red
wine sick with magenta lipstick.
Our poetry will close
either in flames or flowers.
In 'Nietzsche' there is a return to the constant undercurrent of vice and sin, which is prevalent in the new work.
"A world of good," they
insisted, "it would do me
to try the brothel."
I was not exactly expecting this, as I am not a great GEC scholar or any great scholar in general and perhaps was expecting more a cacophony of words, as I had heard at the reading at U of T all those nights before but the distillation of themes of love, sex, regret and carnal passions are all carefully placed, each poem its' own entity, its own statement. There is a deftness of touch, less of a tendency to show off here:
In Au Moment the familiar cold French streets present this arresting image:
"Six days to go, six days too long.
Snow is fainting in the streets.
My money is unhappy, love,
and all the beds are hard."
As Clarke is an Africadian poet, with an eye for the local sensibility imbued with history of intolerance and shame and neglect and racial undertones of his beloved Nova Scotian homeland his strongest work in this collection must be:
September 17, 1977
Dissolving, I am dissolving under
Persevering cold and severing rain
A bit of winter in that bitter wet
Guillotining us like a death sentence
The North Street Church steps spumed up frost, waiting.
As clouds and she stormed colder and later:
Her gold hair delayed even rain-weighted.
Standing stuttered by chills at chasms edge.
I was not quite, not quite, understanding
Her Irish name fronting an Acadie
History who she really was, I knew
No history about Evangeline
Or Eve, only that she was departing.
Deporting me from her occupied heart.
So? So what you might ask? I guess it is like this. When I read the words, I hear the voice. And the voice takes me back to that place that I come from, the people, the cadence of speaking, the rythymn. And those are the things that carry us through out lives: the memories that we have when we are old of when we were young. I can see George Elliot Clarke saying this poem. I can hear him reading it too. It stays with me. Imagine the struggle that he must deal with, that all poets must deal with. If you can get a person to read a poem, even? And get them to say it, and remember it? Well then, then you have really accomplished something haven't you? This is part of a larger work evidently. And I, even though I didn't know it, have been following his work for nearly twenty years.