During a pandemic, with democracies faltering and new media redefining truth and our perceptions of reality, recourse to poetry is not always a comfort. David Helwig’s A House in Memory is possibly too rose-coloured in retreating to an unblemished nature; George Elliott Clarke’s Canticles II (MMXX) is bloody with unconstrained sex and violence. In very different styles, both books speak to crises of truth today.
Truth is not the major concern of either text, but it is a preoccupation of both, especially Canticles II (MMXX). In the introduction, Clarke describes the book as “a conjured, ‘Africadian’ Bible,” but qualifies that “[o]ne will be careful not to read it as if it were The Bible.” Clarke’s reflections on his adaptation of sacred texts imply that his book seeks versions of “the” truth. Various characters make statements about truth: “Truth is the fulfillment of Mortality. / Truth is how Time ends.” Later: “To stand for Truth / is to be targeted by irrevocable spears.” Later still: “Truth is a veil torn open.” Finally, Jesus (known as “X”) declares in “The Odyssey of X” that “Truth carries no accent.” But then truth becomes a lot more relative. In “The Gospel of X,” Pontius Pilate responds to Jesus and sounds like the infamously untrustworthy Donald Trump: “The facts: / No fake news.” Pilate gets his own narrative in “Appendix: Chronicle of X’s Last Days,” where he concludes by stating that “[t]here is no other proof, but Rumour.”
Rumour is often sexual, so I wondered if Clarke’s Pilate’s view of truth-as-rumour is one reason for the oversexed diction and style of his Canticles. (Another reason is simply that his energy for creative writing is so audaciously vital.) Like the previous volume of Canticles (2019), this instalment is a veritable dictionary of sexual dysphemisms and wordplay, the latter evident in “Ezekiel XXIII,” in which the character “Ahola doted upon Assyrians / (abutting em cos how their name starts).” In the Bible, Ezekiel 23 has similar sexual content, only sanitized; Clarke adds gratuitous, graphic details. Clarke’s Mary di Magdala eventually asks herself whether “Scripture should be as direct as Porn, / if it is to work any good.” He is profaning the sacred; he footnotes Leonard Cohen twice.
Clarke’s allusion to Pilate-as-Trump is not isolated. He allegorizes Tony Blair and George W. Bush as Conquest and Massacre. As he did in Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path (2007), he gives characters names that belong to real people from other times and places: e.g., the nineteenth-century British historian John Acton, who said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Indirectly, the allegorized characters suggest that truths about the corruption of power—and its abuse—cycle through history as embodiments in human figures, even if these figures cast doubt on truth.
Clarke’s “X” alludes not only to Jesus but probably also to Malcolm X, and yet with one more implication: “He’s too doubly, dingy a black! / X resembles . . . another dark, salty, / silk-pants Nova Scotian,” like Clarke himself, perhaps. Clarke finds Black, brown, beige, tan, copper, and other-coloured people throughout his adaptations of Judeo-Christian sacred texts, vividly countering the whitewashing of Western religion.
Meanwhile, I noticed a strange (but beautiful) greenwashing in A House in Memory, Helwig’s posthumous book of late poems juxtaposed with selected early poems. Even though the poems are often set in nature—e.g., “at the shore of the sea where time is urgent”—I found no explicit references to the urgency of today’s climate crisis. There is a “doomed grey goose,” but even “Migration in Orange” makes no mention of the effects of climate crisis and pollution on butterflies. The “mass extinction of species” in “Untitled” happens not during the Anthropocene but “during thousands of millenia [sic]” before human interference with the planet. One reason for this potential oversight seems to be that nature in A House in Memory is part of the “garden of memory, all shapeliness”; nature is a construct of the imagination.
Partly as a result, many of Helwig’s poems—though never sounding old-fashioned—seem to be an escape from the modern world. There is a counterpoint when A House in Memory turns back to the early poem “Illuminations,” where the title refers not mainly to medieval manuscripts but to the “luminous presence, / agitated electrons” of a digital image. Soon thereafter, however, Helwig leaves town in “Kentville, October,” and announces: “I am abroad in a forest of the first age, / a lucky survival . . . safe / somehow from harvest or from fire.” Whether as an indication of his thoughts and feelings, or those of his daughter and literary executor, Maggie Helwig (or both), A House in Memory prioritizes peace, the legitimate desire to feel “safe / somehow” at the end of life, even if that means ignoring (here, anyway) the truths of climate crisis and war.
Clarke’s preoccupation with violence is scarcely evident in Helwig’s poetry, unless it is in “marauding / criminal gangs of slugs” that attempt to infest a garden, or when “busy hermit crabs / prepare for war.” On the rare occasions of “O Summerland” or “Alien Newcomers,” “[h]istory calls out for battle,” and we do get some Clarkean lines: “Blood / flows, wood burns as cannons blast, ships drift while thick / smoke chokes the seasick admiral.” Reflecting on Helwig’s “Oedipus at the Crossroads,” I could almost see Trump again: “A king stands above the law / in a mask of gold foil”—if only Helwig could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. “Is the old pain serious?” asks the final couplet on the page: “All its truths are lies.” Ultimately, Helwig offers a suggestion about altering our reality that is similar to one from Clarke. Helwig: “The shaped desire’s consequence: / spasm, cramp, literature.” Clarke: “Be convulsively alive, compulsively active, / so any dire prayer bursts spontaneously / into inspired verse.” Desire shapes truth; literature teaches how.
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