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Robert Colman: Plot Lost in the Details, Review of Where Beauty Survived by George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke has carved a name for himself in Canada’s poetry landscape as a talented modernist paradoxically charged with verbosity. The richness of his language, the energy and directness of his address, and his exploration of “big” themes (racism, love, poverty) have garnered him understandable praise. In his best work, the focus of language and theme creates an undeniable force.

When we’re dealing with not his best work, on the other hand, one is often left wondering, How much is too much? For Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir has many passages where Clarke’s lyric abilities are in full spate. Any reader will come away from the book with a better understanding of the author and a head full of impressions of the life of an Africadian boy in 1960s and 1970s Nova Scotia. But as a reader, I also came away thinking, When are the details going to add up?

Clarke was raised both in Halifax and Newport Station, one of the historical Africadian (African-Nova Scotian) settlements dubbed collectively Windsor Plains. Clarke stresses his feeling of having a foot in both the country and the city throughout his life. His lyrical writing about his grandparents in Newport Station makes clear his affection for this rural idyll: “My nanny’s pear tree (which seemed always transfigured by lightning) loomed like a lone and stern prophet beside the driveway and in front of the hayfield next door to her home, which was always an oasis of pound cake and bologna and honey-flavoured well water.” (5) Sentences like this echo Dylan Thomas’ reflections on childhood.

For readers like me who know little about Black history in the Maritimes, the book is illuminating on many fronts. Through Clarke’s experience we get glimpses of Black communities outside of Halifax, as well as a sense of the Black experience in the city. We are able to see how Clarke and his family navigate both the racism and classism they are faced with. As an example, speaking of his father, Bill, Clarke writes: “Bill understood that Art could free him from the customary humiliations visited upon Africadian men.” This understanding came from another unique connection Clarke has: his great aunt on his father’s side is Portia White, a successful contralto known for becoming the first Black Canadian concert singer to achieve international fame. Other members of his family were high achievers, but Portia White seemed to loom largest in Clarke’s (and likely his father’s) imagination as someone who could be idolized for her ability to escape “partially — the boundaries of race, gender, and class.”

Clarke captures the blend of “European and Black influence” in his household as a child, where he says the general precept was “‘Follow Caucasian ‘norms’ where beneficial; reject em when they seem inhumane.’ So, dad always had Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms circulating on the turntable, and he’d whistle along while he bent over a painting-in-progress. But when he wasn’t hogging the hi-fi or the radio . . . Gerry [Clarke’s mother] could throw down the Platters, the Supremes, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, all the soul and R&B that she loved.”

Clarke paints a picture of a family life where curiosity and a respect for learning was celebrated. Both parents were intellectually engaged but not bound to societal constraints that might place more value on “high culture.” It is easy to see how this upbringing could bring about Clarke’s later poetic voice.

This book is essentially the “creation story” of the poet Clarke. Ranging over 300 pages, it ends when he is in his early twenties. This gives him a lot of space in which to run wild. Indeed, there are several points where I thought, Is this necessary? For the Clarke completist, it’s all gold, of course. But for someone who wants to read a well-paced memoir of a life, it can be a slog.

For instance, there are many examples in which a whole paragraph is placed in parentheses to offer a secondary story to sit alongside the main narrative. On opposing pages (66 and 67), one such paragraph reflects on Halifax’s university-dubbed streets for seven lines, while a second tells of a brush with death due to a fish bone being caught in his throat (another seven lines). None of these asides are dull — in isolation as part of an article I would likely have welcomed them — but they miss the point of a usual memoir, which is to pick representative scenes to piece together a larger whole. For Clarke, the emblems are assemblems.

Pacing is important, and it isn’t just these asides that throw the reader in this work. As readers, we come to expect certain conventions — not so much that every chapter should be X number of pages, but that there be a sense of balance in the rhythm of any volume. Three chapters of this memoir run more than 50 pages; not a sin in itself, but when there is a loss of focus along the way, it’s hard not to ask if the work might have been reconfigured somehow towards greater concision.

Take for example the chapter “about the ‘North Ender’; a draconian and / or apollonian haligonian” (41). Great title if we’re talking poetry, but as a prose title, perhaps a foreshadowing of how tortuous the following pages were to be?

The chapter begins as a discussion of the family’s move to the distinctly rougher / poorer North End neighbourhood of Halifax. It captures the challenges Clarke and his brothers had adapting to life in a very different neighbourhood from what they were used to, describing school life, their divergent friend groups, bullying, and more.

Clarke includes a charming description of him and his brothers mischievously cadging lifts on the fender of a bread truck — just to show that, though they were well-disciplined by their parents, they weren’t above causing trouble: “we’d run and jump and sit on that back step, our little legs swaying as the truck would jerk and swerve. We’d leap off before it could get up to any real speed, but I was likely only six when leading my brothers on this little adven-ture, and that none of us was grievously hurt was truly a miracle.” (48)

This captures childhood impishness perfectly. However, it is then followed by a one-page description (48-49) of an unrelated incident when Clarke was hit by a car and rushed to the hospital. An amusing story — the young scalawag insists that he be allowed to ride up in the cab of the ambulance — but ultimately an aside. Clarke ends the story saying “maybe I’d also learned some-thing about the power of words” but it’s a thin explanation for including it.

In the same chapter there is then a section about the family’s attendance at Expo ‘67 and how his father came home and created an homage to the event on one wall of the family’s living room. It connects to the house Clarke is discussing in this chapter but has no connection to the themes of the chapter thus far. But then, soon after, it does veer into a discussion of his father as a “North Ender,” and eventually into discussions of Bill’s mother, the veneration of Aunt Portia, and Bill’s artwork. By page 76, we are reading about Bill’s life pre-marriage in a short-lived career as a commercial artist. Six pages later, Clarke is discussing his parents’ house parties. By page 91, he is describing his father getting a ticket for driving without his headlights on when Clarke is 17. This one chapter tackles likely a half-dozen themes without settling on a single narrative. Too many side exits don’t allow it to be a picture of life in the North End in a coherent manner. What it could have been was one chapter delving into Bill Clarke and his life, and another about George Elliott Clarke adapting to life in the North End. There would still likely be loose ends, but as a reader we wouldn’t be at pains to follow the bouncing narrative.

For all my complaints about reading the book to review it, I’m impressed by Clarke’s ability to give the immense detail he provides. At one point, in a footnote, he goes so far as to explain which Playboy magazines he found among his father’s possessions after his death, including the month of publication and the name of the centrefold. Does anyone truly need to know this? For Clarke completists — and I know a few personally — I guess it holds some sense of insight to his father’s character.

If there were ever a television series about Clarke’s young life — and the details of character and personality, in many cases, would welcome such treatment — all the research is taken care of in this one volume. And for students of Clarke’s poetry, there is now a reference guide to his influences and inspira-tion up to his early twenties. However, his poems still tell the story best. As they should.

— Robert Colman
is a Newmarket, Ontario-based writer and editor. His fourth full-length collection of poems, Ghost Work, will be published with Palimpsest Press in spring 2024.