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Extra Illicit Sonnets by George Elliot Clarke
reviewed by Linda Rogers

Extra Illicit Sonnets
George Elliot Clarke
Exile Editions


The sonnet, Shakespearean, Petrarchan ad hoc, is about shape-changing. This sonneteer is a trickster from the Africville clan, a philosopher fool, sometimes the hellfire deacon in black, sometimes the chorus of sceptical crows in the Disney movie, “I be done seen ‘bout everything/when I see an elephant fly,” and othertimes Brando in Paris.

He moves from sermon to scherzo in the time it takes a bottleneck to slide down a G-string, shazaam, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. George Elliot Clarke, the magician/musician, who “like(s) to love/ As nakedly as I write.”

Sonneteers make sultry music, their voices transposing from Donne, to Mason Williams of the pissonnet, to the invalid midnight kitty, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They morph to the context, anything to get the beloved, a dark ladyboy, a wyfe, a Victorian husband, into that thorny bed of roses.

I want to make love as if I have hooves
And horn and bray in brazen, Maltese must!

The sonneteers are all horny, but horns play in more than one key, even when they sound like apothecaries grinding bones for the ultimate cure for loneliness. From abba, not the nauseating pop group, to ababa, the rhymes and rhythms vary to carry the plenipotentiary’s message. Italian, Shakespearean, Clarkian, they deliver their political blows (and what is politics but group sex?) in the arena of the personal.

Sweet little lamb who loves a buttery,
Battering ram, you ask. Do I obey
Enough? Well, you’ve donned silk, but have
Nothing beneath. That’s a blessing without disguise…

Clarke is not devoted to rhyme, which appears internally and sometimes overtly, to surprise. In the informal scurry to remove the outer layers of skin, he takes his raunchy verse direct to the marrow, or whatever bodily fluids: sweat, jism, spit. In Berlin, “you were juicy/ as a kissel, delectably juicy.”

My poet, you blurt, Love,
But –really – spurt, Lust!

Down there, pardon the geological pun, differences don’t compute, neither age nor ethnicity. These poems, a dialogue, are a rollicking celebration of love without obstruction or impediment, the exterior of exclusivity. Clarke’s lover and beloved couple beyond boundaries, beyond form, the construct of repression.

Could I couch you in a cushion of ink-
Posh, nocturnal words – and picture you, white,
In black letters, on a white sheet – white
Candle inflaming night, shaming moonlight,

With his pen, oh pardon, the puns keep coming, he annihilates the traditional contexts of poetry and love.

If amore is light more real than Roman
Marble, then there is no empire outside us.

If deconstruction is a crime, then Clarke has chosen an “erotic eldress” in his audacious book partner Claire Weissman Wilks, Bonnie to his gun blazing Clyde, whose unrestrained drawings define sensuality. Ripe is the right word to define two artists in their prime, Donne’s erotic islands, linear and literary. Sexual love is its own beatitude, as holy as anything holy, holier than the rectitude of priests and poets who colour inside the lines, in the safety zone, the safety dance of the non-confessional.

Like Shakespeare, defender of the status quo, and the non-conforming Catholic Donne, Clarke has reason in his random rhyme. His jouissance is deliberate. Lust is the breakable toy he takes to the playground of politics, and humour is his engine of joy, the battery in that toy. At once lovemaking and a comedic commentary on lovemaking, the poems, with their reckless impetus, break the sound barrier with sounds calibrated by a poet who understands music as transformation and life as ephemeral.

“He is so attached to his sadness,” Carol Shields once said to me about a mutual friend who is beyond funny. Humour, with its analytical energy exploded in laughter, is a powerful polemic tool. Clarke, the sermonist, disguises himself in crow feathers and laughs. He throws his voice but it says the same thing about the one in the many, the power of love or any of its sisters: lust, affection, and friendship.

Clarke’s poetic energy is his non-servium; and the force is with him as he romps through page after page, laughing all the way.

In life and in poetry, death always follows sex. Le petit mort is the portal to heaven, as Donne asserted, “ascension to a better library.” Ibid.

Linda Rogers is the author of Bozuk, a Turkish memoir and “You Need Me at the River,” from Cli-Fi, an anthology of Climate Fiction from Exile.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 23.