Between I and I

Reviewed by Katherine McLeod

George Elliott Clarke’s verse-novel I & I is a psychedelic love story of the 1970s. It is a “pop-song opera” that sings of Malcolm and Betty, whose teen romance takes a serious turn once they uproot to Corpus Christi, Texas. Here, Betty’s plans to study scripture are violently halted when she is raped by her misogynistic teacher, Lowell Beardsley. After taking revenge upon Lowell, Malcolm, a former boxer, becomes an outlaw. The lovers flee to the “canaan” of Canada and the poems documenting their Trans-Canada journey home to Halifax provide an inventive imagining of the nation through eyes of returned exiles. In this section called “Canada,” a poem describes Vancouver as “Istanbul with snow, with mountains / With saki” and includes a nod to the city’s literary landscape with a reference to Daphne Marlatt having “just released the photogenic Steveston.” In Ottawa, a poem called “Parliament,” penned by Malcolm, speaks of “Hansard ‘blues’” after he and Betty are invited to a Question Period in the nation’s capital.

Opening with an epigraph by Pain Not Bread (Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, Andy Patton), “Beauty is concentrated by order and wildness,” the poetry of I & I explores the meaning of “Beauty,” or, rather, it explores Malcolm’s question: “I yearn for Beauty. Is it only a word?” One way of reading I & I is that it asks where the place is for “Beauty” within that “disreputable decade”—a time when “wine was chrome, guitars were machetes, music was sex, TV was the Bible, neon was ink, and poetry was James Brown growling out a midnight radio.” Musical references from the era permeate the text, ranging from Stephen Scobie’s Alias Bob Dylan (“The singer is always divided into I and I,” echoing the title of Bob Dylan’s song “I and I”) to Charles Mingus (“an I and an I and an I that we do comprehend”). Significantly, Mingus’ words open up further permutations of “I and I,” layered upon the meanings already offered by the text itself—“I and I, / Says Betty, is Rastafarian for ‘you and me’”—along with the formal enactment of “I and I” in that nearly all of the book’s poems are written in couplets, a continuous duet on the page.

Another kind of poetic duet resounds from the pages of Blood is Blood by Endre Farkas and Carolyn Marie Souaid. Published as a poem and video-poem on CD, Blood is Blood speaks through two voices, each placed on opposing pages with the words “Jew” and “Arab” written above each voice. These words gradually fade until they have disappeared for the final line: “Let us take an eye for an eye until everyone is blind.” In the video-poem, Souaid and Farkas speak this line in unison, powerfully conveying togetherness even though conflict persists. The authors met at the Trois-Rivières International Poetry Festival, where a shared interest in writing led to discussions of their differences: “One of us was Jewish and a child of Holocaust survivors; the other, a Lebanese Christian with family still living in the ‘old country.’” For Farkas and Souaid, collaboration created a space through which to confront histories of violence, prejudices, and misunderstandings, just as the words in the poem intersect in dialogue both on the page and off.

On the page, Shane Rhodes’ poetry collection Err catches the reader’s eye with innovative linguistic performances that beckon to be read out loud. Invoking the spirits, Rhodes sets a whimsical, inebriated tone for a series of alcohol-themed poems:

Stagger up from caudled cups, fuddled sops
Revive & sway from allsorts pots, debauched sots
Crawl from bar stools & tabletops . . . o rise
Intoxicants, rise up & speak

Playing upon the chemical composition of alcohol, “Choreographed Echoes” exclaims, “OH C2H5OH (aka alcOHol), alOHa!” The second section continues formal and sonic experiments but speaks with a sombre tone, turning its attention to AIDS, “a virus [and its 33,000,000 faces] / that loves everything it erases.” Still, playfulness mixes with seriousness, as in a found-poem composed of questions posted on an HIV/ AIDS web forum. Err’s final poems range in subject matter but all explore and explode language: “F is frayful friction, like the fighter jet F-16 / while two fingers (V) fake the fiction of peace or victory” or “Umpah! Umpah! our tuba-wallah / hammered polkas while, on our howdah, / our hooters hooted, Hooshtah! Hooshtah!” Reflecting upon poetry itself, Err concludes with “Dark Matter”: “it’s bright / it’s brilliant, / it’s it.” This elusive “it” takes on multiple metaphors but in the end, “it’s had it, it means it, it quits.” The poem is over—“it” is done. Yet, returning to Clarke’s title I & I, the doubling of “it’s it” resembles the doubled “I and I,” whether heard as seeing eye to eye, or as speaking (or reading) between you and me. The poem may have “quit” but it has now been passed over to you, the reader.

This review “Between I and I” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 157-58.

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