Friday, April 3, 2009

Poetry Month Challenge - I and I by George Elliott Clarke

I first read George Elliott Clarke when I was assigned Whylah Falls in a modern poetry class during my undergrad. It was my first experience with the idea of a verse novel, where the poems in a collection work together to tell a single story. This was a real hook: it appealed to the fiction reader in me, but also allowed me to experience the playfulness of language that is more commonly associated with poetry.

George Elliott Clarke has a command of language like of no author I’ve ever encountered, drawing on a vast catalogue of words (English, French, vernacular), and references (local, academic, popular) to create crystal clear images and evoke sounds and scents and rhythms. I’ve been a fan of his writing ever since, dipping into some of this other poetic works, championing his novel George and Rue amongst fiction readers and even taking a peek at his opera libretto Québécité. So, I was naturally excited to learn of a new piece from him, and another that is considered a verse novel at that.

I and I is the story of Betty Browning and Malcolm Miles, two young Haligonians who fall in love in the 1970s. The narrative part of the collection tells the story of their blossoming love, their elopement style escape from Halifax to Corpus Christie, Texas, their encounters with violence and its aftermath and their eventual return to Halifax.

I tore into this with excitement, but about midway, I was surprised to find my enthusiasm lag.
The elements that make me love Clarke’s writing are here, but there was a certain gaudiness I wasn’t sure what to make of. With frequent and effusive descriptions of the lead characters’ blossoming love life, as well as graphic descriptions of violence and degradation, there were times when eye rolling and/or stomach queasiness were my instinctive reactions. When I looked to reviews, I found I wasn’t the only one feeling a mix of admiration and doubt.

In a Globe and Mail review that ended up really shaping my final impression of the book (a review called, btw, “A Teenager’s Wet Dream”), Sonnet L’Abbé heaped praised on Clarke, while acknowledging that I & I has cheap thrills, a “seamy, sex-sells plot” and “graphic depictions of violence [that feel] gratuitous”. Why did the Globe’s review change my reaction? Because it also points out that the excesses in the writing style perfectly match the era of the setting, the age of the characters and the action of the story that’s being told, and recognizing that, I couldn’t help but respect the choice to embrace those excesses. As a result, it’s the very indulgences that I first shied away from that make me think the book is great.

Which is why, when all is said and done, I feel like this is the perfect book to review here during our April poetry challenge. My vision of our poetry challenge is that we’ll entice someone who previously hasn’t read poetry (because they think it’s dry or difficult or something you read in school) to try some, and I feel like I & I might be a great place to start. This is poetry ripped from the headlines: romance, intrigue, violence, revenge; but’s it’s still poetry with rich, beautiful (or sometimes, ugly) images, allusions and creativity. It’s the stuff of tabloid news, but it’s also the stuff of literature (hey - isn’t that the same thing we’ve said before of Shakespeare?)

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