Book I of The Canticles puts into dialogue -- as dramatic monologues -- those who fostered the transatlantic slave trade, or who demonized the image of the Negro in the Occident; as well as those who struggled for liberation and/or anti-racism. In this work, Dante can critique Christopher Columbus and Frederick Douglass can upbraid Abraham Lincoln; Elizabeth Barrett Browning can muse on her African racial heritage and its implications for child-bearing, while Karl Marx can excoriate Queen Victoria. Book II will focus on Black folk readings of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, with a few other religious texts canvassed too. Book III will narrate the rise of the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia.
Canticles is George Elliott Clarke’s most textured work to date. Like Virgil guiding Dante, Clarke guides us deep into the dark echo chamber of history where he remixes an epic catalogue of multicultural voices from Hannibal to Harriet “Moses” Tubman. Weaving these voices together, like bards of yesteryear churning raw material into epic song, Clarke plays the role of a chameleon poet inking a brutal lyricism onto the page. These canticles abound with polyphony: Clarke echoes slave and imperialist debates that stretch back to Cleopatra, provides new voice to Marie-Josèphe Angélique and Phillis Wheatley, and revises and reworks history with the powers of a firebrand poet in full control of his craft. As spirited and incendiary as Ezra Pound’s querulous Cantos, Canticles is a manifesto that tells us—howling, screeching, testifying, rhyming—that poetry makes things happen, and that it has as much to tell us as ever.