Gil Scott Heron is on Parole
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Reviewed by Greg Westenberg
The rhythm: insistent, consistent, beat-heavy in places but with enough sunlight in the words to take us out of the club, into a community’s irregular syncopation; the rhythm, that I couldn’t always get (white boys, everybody knows it, can’t dance).
It’s the rhythm that is the strength of Maxine Clarke’s new book, Gil Scott Heron is on Parole. I should admit, here and now, that Heron’s name was unfamiliar to me before it appeared on Clarke’s title page. He now is not. That’s score one for Clarke. She’s already made a change, and actual; not words you have to believe in.
So I’d better mention the politics. If you like scoopings of agenda baked through your poetry, Clarke delivers a rich boiled pudding of politics. If, on the other hand, you’re an ivory tower aesthete, firmly and with MGM ars gratia artis, Clarke will challenge.
But back to the rhythm. Opening the book is like turning on the radio to something quite funky. It sets you moving in its own time. The translation of rhythms from music into print; that’s the achievement, impressive, as the many who write poetry will know, the significance, of Clarke’s collection. Turn to any title. You’ll find its movement gets into your own, into your foot against the chair leg, your fingers on the keypad. It gives you an idea of the strength to be found in Clarke’s live performances. (Clarke is a slam champion and, though I’ve not had the experience, supposed to be superb.) The fast little riffs in unmiracle:
‘solution might not bring healthcare / world peace
race peace / education / unpoverty / a revolution’
Or in my people, married here to a refrain:
‘ringlet locked on the auction block
whip licked back
jumped like jack sprat
and the cotton picking man’s like dust
It’s an effect similar to Hopkin’s sprung verse, helped along with a whole lot of assonance and alliteration. But let’s put aside the technical analysis. What struck me most was that Clarke, for all the metrical irregularity, the unpunctuated sentences he would have hated, reminds of Malherbe. ‘Then Malherbe came,’ Boileau says, with him coming the many rules of classical French verse, leading to the alexandrine, and, reading Clarke’s poems sequentially, the grinding rhythms, syncopation, fast slow stop starts, become uniform as a crowd of individuals becomes uniform, predictable: becomes as soporific or exciting as the alexandrine itself. (This isn’t to denigrate. I’ll happily make a threesome with Clarke and the alexandrine.)
Again like Malherbe, Clarke is a rhetorical rather than a visual writer. Her language moves in connections of meaning. Her language is inferential. Malherbe’s most quoted line, ‘She lived that which roses live, the space of a day,’ is an idea rather than an image. Look again at Clarke, the excerpt from my people – no single scene is drawn. There isn’t room in the terse rhythm for the space of a single scene. There are certainly images in there, powerful, if not arresting, because they are part of a fast-cut montage. In white bred bun the bodyguard is ‘ripped’:
‘gold haired & knock-kneed
buttercup and coon cheese
bandaid on a scratched knee
judge me by a wet T’
There’s an idea here of the scene. The beginning cliché is undercut by the ‘knock-kneed’, amplified by the dairy products; but then the laconic impressionism tails off into associative suggestion. This is not so far from Malherbe’s beauty which, more statuesque and less fluid, is equally associative. Not that poetry need be portraiture or landscape painting. Concrete language does, however, differentiate poems. Without strong-chiselled language, individuality tends to become diffused. The meaning has become diluted by running through too many networks of association.
This can be particularly a problem because these meanings, it is clear from the collection’s title, are crucial for Clarke. And they add to the poetry. Usually positively, sometimes not.
The positive? plantation rumour, carrying the world, notably gil scott heron is on parole (really the collection’s philosophic, rhythmic, thematic crux. That its title is also the book’s should be a tip off, but its centrality is not imposed, is only more apparent after digesting every poem.) The message is made part of the poetry and Clarke is saying something genuine, personal. She cares about people.
The negative? if: a rewrite does not add anything to the plays listed in a roll-call of notable characters. We know nothing new about Caliban from Clarke’s painting him in ghetto-wear, The Tempest will be no different. Particularly set as it is next to important poems like my people, if reads like a record industry caricature of afro-american culture. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Ice Cube’s A Gangsta Fairytale seems a better start for pointed reinterpretation. if had the taste of a posture, overcooked after the finely spiced dishes accompanying. we want poetry back is another poem that would not have been missed from the collection. Its ‘old white men who marched pentameter poised across the slaying fields of tongue’, is acid irony in its place, the second poem after if talked of Shakespeare, whose irregular pentameter inspired the nineteenth century French parents of free verse. They turned to the English because the English tradition has never been of rigidly applied metrical rules. I wondered who were these old white men, ‘squinting iambic eyes’. Experimental verse has been the norm in English poetry for the greater part of a century now: Clarke aims her right cross at societal hallucinations. Perhaps a certain amount of posturing is entailed by a large measure of passion. Perhaps overstatement is necessary if passion is to be seen. At any rate, in these poems there is disjuncture from reality, and it is that which lessens these two poems.
The sum then? Rhythm, politics, language, subject = ? A flawed collection, Gil Scott Heron is on Parole, yet, n.b., with highlights that are worth visiting. Revisiting. Perhaps it’s asking too much of a poem that it be twin-masked, Janus-faced, that it stand head and shoulders over the competition at a slam and on the page. The over-playing of if and we want poetry back might work better on stage. What is too much for a single reader might project to an audience. Perhaps. Still, Clarke has succeeded extraordinarily at the one, and if she has succeeded less at the other, it is nevertheless a success. Even not carrying the revolution under its arm, her book should certainly make the streets.
Greg Westenberg is a Sydney-based aspiring writer. It is his ambition one day to be taxed for writing.
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