Poetry with Purpose: A Review of George Elliott Clarke’s J’Accuse

George Elliott Clarke (Photo: Harvard University)

In his latest book, J’Accuse, Poems Versus (Exile Editions, 2021) George Elliott Clarke pulls out all the stops and delivers a book packed with emotional and intellectual punch. It is a multifaceted work: at once a book of poetry, a memoir, an essay and narrative. The mixing of genres perfectly compliments the book’s multi-layered musical richness.

The text abounds with dizzying sounds and rhythms: this is a book meant to be heard and not only read. It is generous with consonances, assonances, internal rhymes and puns, and repetitions. It is language steeped in various slangs and vernaculars, but language also culled from the highest cultural and intellectual traditions, with words borrowed from Italian, French, and other cultures. It is rich in linguistic textures, but also in mood and emotion.

Clarke’s voice can be lyrical and compassionate, and then can angrily switch to sarcasm and invective. The emotional range is broad, but it never escapes the poet’s control. This is a book with purpose and aim, and it never strays from it.

And what is the purpose and aim of this book? It is essentially Clarke’s side of the story concerning his “cultural cancellation” in 2020, and the public shame and hardships that it has generated. It is a defence of his position and actions, while at the same time a defence of poetry itself. It is an accusation of what he terms “Kancel Kultur” and the injustices it perpetuates. The book is aptly called J’Accuse (a reference to the famous Dreyfus Affair) because it not only lays bare the unfair accusations that dented the writer’s life and career, but it also accuses his accusers:

I should have known I’d be pursued
by birdbrains, quacks, grotty gulls, vultures, shitting,
plus pterodactyls, quick to blame-shame-frame
a dingy, black-singed poet ––
to tar me with the squatters gore.

The catalytic event that permeates the text of J’Accuse, expressed over and over like an idée fixe, is the 1995 murder of an Indigenous woman, Pamela Jean George, in Saskatchewan. Clarke’s obsession with her is not limited to the brutality of her murder and the lack of justice that followed; he identifies with her as a victim. Clarke sees himself as being killed by the rabble who mistakes him for some other poet. He unfairly suffers a death that should rightly belong to someone else. As a black man, he sees himself as having been beaten up by privileged whites – like Pamela George. Her actual murderers were two middle-class white men who only served three and half years for the crime.

One of the murderers, Stephen Kummerfield (later Brown), became a poet and sent his work to Clarke. The senior poet saw promise in the work and mentored the younger man. The two formed a long-distance friendship, but Clarke had no idea of Brown’s criminal past.

It was not until September 2019 that Clarke learned the truth, only to find suddenly that his association with Brown brought with it shadows of doubt and suspicion in the public eye. A CBC reporter, Bonny Allen, learned that Clarke was scheduled to give a talk in Saskatchewan about Saskatchewan poets, and asked Clarke if he would mention Brown’s work. Clarke responded that he needed time to do more research, though he could very well include Brown in his talk.

When his response circulated in the media, it was interpreted as his being sympathetic to the murderer. This view spread to the university, and Clarke was pressured to cancel his talk. Future lectures, talks and tours were also cancelled and publication deals reneged. From that point on:

(obscene rooks camouflaged as Kancel Kulturists)
would claw my preening books off library shelfs,
would rip raw my quill feathery attributes
down to disjecta membra of persona non grata—

The incident begs the question: what to do with good art that comes out of bad men? Caravaggio was a murderer, Francois Villon a thief, Oscar Wilde a pedophile, Ezra Pound a Fascist anti-Semite.

J’Accuse is poetry defeating silence. The work is loud, rambunctious and relentless, spanning a wide linguistic and literary terrain. Despite its vitriol and anger, it is often playful, taking joy in the plasticity of language and the ingenious fabrications that can stem from it. In the end we are left with the poet’s indomitable poetic spirit which will not bend to dejection and silence. Despite the setbacks he has encountered, Clarke chooses to dwell and play in the sandbox of language, art and truth.

Luciano Iacobelli is a Toronto poet and visual artist. He is one of the founders of Quattto Books and publisher of Lyricalmyrical Books, a press specializing in handmade poetry chapbooks. His latest book of poetry, Noctograms was published in Spring 2022.

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