La beauté est nue
- George Elliott Clarke (Author)
Illuminated Verses. Canadian Scholar's Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kevin McNeilly
According to George Elliott Clarke, it took eleven years to find a publisher willing to issue this volume, a set of poems composed, as he puts it, in the shadows of Ricardo Scipio’s photographs of nude black women. The challenge, as both poetry and preface speculate, was that, maybe,
the idea of the unclothed black feminine seems to brazen, or just too dark a concept for a society addicted to depictions of elect whiteness. This racially-toned pushback recalls the reactive cultural politics of Negritude in late colonial Africa, particularly the poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Senghor’s
Femme nue, femme noir . . . , while never quoted directly in the sequence (which, like all of Clarke’s verse, nonetheless overflows with iterations and echoes), seems to be roiling underneath each poem, as Clarke effuses with deliberate excess over the luminosities of exposed melanin-hued female flesh. As a project, the sequence feels a bit old-school, as if Clarke and Scipio were offering an aesthetic challenge to the broad problematic of racial and sexual representation that ought to have been addressed decades ago, after Senghor. Clarke’s vernacular formalism and Scipio’s shadow- and sepia-saturated portraiture seem to re-do and to intensify techniques derived from a mid-century, second-generation modernism. The point, however, is not that these texts and images are nostalgically out-of-step with their time, but that their cultural problematic has persisted into the present, where it continues to be either suppressed or masked; in response to such a pervasive disavowal of undressed blackness, Clarke calls for an
honest poetic adoration of an
shining femininity. While cooked-up lines praising how one wet, warm image
rouses drowsy azure and drizzles sizzling copper might not strike a reader as particularly direct,
treating hard facts, as Clarke himself put it,
to a soft focus, neither poem nor photograph ever strives for blunt social realism, but wants instead to open the gates and let loose a necessary, unacknowledged libidinous surplus; to be honest means to celebrate and to objectify his own richly objectifying gaze—categorically not a voyeurism, but instead an erotics of representation, the
bare-naked eye stroked by light—and also to open the visual and verbal surfaces of these pages to give those black women’s bodies license to push back, to speak:
But hear her speak, as always, for herself. Neither Clarke nor Scipio shies away from looking, nor do they conceal the sexual politics of that eye—
Don’t every eye gravitate toward your abundance, gal? he asks, shamelessly. But the images, poetic or photographic, are neither diffident nor deferential.
I ain’t readily shook, Clarke has these exposed women say:
I can’t easily break. Clearly, he’s offering a ventriloquism, a projection of the poet’s voice onto what are, after all, mute images, but what’s important to recognize in these poems is that they never claim absolute advocacy, and affirm instead the boldness of black femininity
beyond all photography or poetry, texture or text.
Make love with her, Clarke writes—not to but with—
so you make song with her. These poems and photographs want to recover and celebrate that intimate collaboration: fiercely flaunted, a beauty unabashed.
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MLA: McNeilly, Kevin. La beauté est nue. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 22 May 2012. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 138 - 139)
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