Parliamentary Poet Laureate pays visit to Mt. A
Braving tempestuous Sackville weather, recently appointed parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke presented at the Owens Art Gallery last Wednesday. Clarke primarily read passages from his book, The Motorcyclist (released Feb. 2) as well as a few poems from his 1990 collection Wylah Falls. Reminiscent of a time before brutalist architecture engulfed Halifax and automobile culture peaked, Clarke’s novel reignites memories hidden beneath the hard edges of the city’s downtown.
Based on the contents of Clarke’s father’s travel diary and set accordingly in 1959, The Motorcyclist tells the story of Carl Black, a 23-year-old black Haligonian who embarks on a road trip to the United States and back. Clarke first read from the novel’s first chapter, in what he called a “philosophical” attempt to answer the question, “What does it mean to drive?”
Like Clarke’s father, Carl is bent on getting respect and justice through self-exceptionalism and does not actively participate in or even mention the Civil Rights movement. Rather, he prefers to evade confrontation and discrimination, taking pride in his ability to outwit the ignorant. Carl’s internal narrative is by default a political one: a perspective whereby the hyper-respectability imposed on people of colour is bypassed by the reader directly accessing the thoughts and feelings of the black protagonist. Rather than cater to racialized respectability politics, Clarke’s book forces the reader to internalize the unfiltered experiences of a black man, complete with his occasionally jarring imperfections; Clarke himself described the novel as a “very interior story.” As the narrative of The Motorcyclist advances through Carl’s eyes, the passages seem to uncover the protagonist’s determination to persist and thrive across his escapades and misadventures.
Polished with visceral, grimy prose, Clarke’s poetic flair amplified the tone of his performance with a bluesy, rhythmic tempo. After especially explicit passages, he would invite questions from the audience with a chuckle, engaging in a conversational style and mellowing his captivated audience rather than allowing attendees to feel distanced from what they heard. Clarke’s seamless blend of prose and poetry forms a personal tribute to his father and unearths one of many perspectives often hidden under whitewashed layers of Atlantic Canadian history.