the Dusty Owl Reading Series that is.
Aside from lovely chats with Marcus, Kevin, Greg, Jessica, Kate, Cathy, Steve, Heather, Mark, Rona and others, there’s the feature, George Elliot Clarke…on the small stage with the big sound, no need of a microphone.
reading from Trudeau, his opera and then having Steve play a track of the opera composed by Nepean local DD Jackson. All this political stuff that most people would bore us to tears with, Clarke makes poetry out of. A fictitious meeting between Trudeau and Castro, Trudeau’s love of girls, Marks, that’s Groucho Marks ,Cuban cigars and of course, rum, cuba libres. Clarke is the only contemporary poet I’ve heard that I’ll accept rhyme from. He does it well…it’s not cheesy, well except when he rhymes Neruda with Gouda, but why not?
Clarke reads from Whylah Falls, the book that won him an Archibald Lampman Award back in 1991 when he lived here (I think?). He says this is a book with seventeen characters, love and death.
In Look Homeward, Exile, Xavier Zacahry, in love with Shelly Clemence talks of “my love’s dark, orient skin that smelled / like orange peels and tasted like rum…” There’s an uninhibited exuberance to this man’s writing. He’s not afraid of revitalizing tradition or writing passionately about love.
He lived at 57 Elm Street here in Ottawa and listened to John Coltrane when he wrote The River Pilgrim: A Letter, his response or retranslation of Pound’s The River Merchant’s Wife. Talk of “Hank Snow’s woodsmoke blues” and the “garden flutes: E-flats of lilacs, G-sharps of lilies.” A synaesthaete’s delight. Earlier, “ Negro exiles/ in France…Drink blurry into young debauchery, / Their glasses clear with Cointreau, rain and tears.”
Clarke changes voice when he changes character, going from Shakespearean lyric to Muddy Water’s blues, buzzing from poem to poem. Or the selected proverbs of a wise old woman named Cora: “the road to hell is paved before elections.”
Clarke reads from Québécité, the opera he wrote that was performed right here at the Ottawa Fringe Festival last summer and produced by young dynamo Jessica Ruano.(Ruano has an art list, sending out event notices. To get on it, e-mail her here: jessicaruano at hotmail dot com. In the audience is Greg Frankson, aka Ritallin who performed the role of Ovide in the opera. Clarke gets him up on stage and the two of them act out a scene from the opera together. It’s moments like this that make the Dusty Owl something you just don't want to miss too often. I regret not seeing this play at the Fringe. Greg does a fine Ovide.
Then DD Jackson shows up in the audience and this means we get to hear more of the opera Trudeau at the end.
Clarke’s gracious enough to thank Octopus Books who came in to sell his books tonight but also has supported him throughout the years.
Next up were poems from Clarke’s latest collection, Black (Polestar, Raincoast Books, 2006). There was a lovely and visceral poem about Jean Chretien that made me request an poem of equal emotion and power about our newest politico, Mayor O’Brien.
Clarke also read from his libretto, Beatrice Chancy, a tragedy about slavery where everybody dies. He said some of the poems appealed to eight and nine year olds, who like nothing better than to invent an outrageous string of insults.
Then it was time for Illuminated Verses, a beautiful book of poetry illustrated with nude photos of Black women, taken by Ricardo Scipio. The book is based on the Bible’s Song of Solomon. This is a gorgeous book published by Canadian Scholars Press. Clarke had trouble finding a publisher comfortable with publishing this book. Eleven Years! The poems and photos are odes to the beauty of femininity. Clarke seduces with his language and vibrancy.
I’ve never seen the crowd give any feature at the Dusty Owl a standing ovation before. Apparently it was a first. And it was well deserved.
The open set after was crazy beautiful with mimes, guinea pigs, found poems about cats, and pink haired bunnies. And then Greg Frankson sang something he’d written about the migrant workers who come from countries like Jamaica to work in the fruit fields of Niagara. I had no idea he had such a beautiful singing voice.
Back into the evening for the frost and cold as the Dog and Pony karaoke show began. I wish I could say the sky was clear and there were stars, but we didn’t need any. Steve had poetry goggles. It was a perfect evening. And I heard the Owl call my name and lived to tell the tale.