Ecstasy of Skeptics

by Steven Heighton,
ISBN: 0887845606

Lush Dreams, Blue Exile

by George Elliott Clarke,
ISBN: 0919001831

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The New Lyricism
by Scott Ellis

ANGLOPHONE VERSE HAS suffered a strange inversion of status and function. As a public form, poetry has been superseded by other media, which use constant repetition of image and soundbite for emphasis and memorability, in place of rhyme, regular metre, and rhetorical tropes. Poetry has been sundered, with figured language, rhyme, and social themes alive and well among branches linked with illiterate subcultures, rap and cowboy poetry for example, while educated verse deals mostly with private concerns and often differs from prose only in having line breaks.

When traditional lyric devices have become arcane to most readers, any poet seeking greater range of theme and more public form faces great obstacles. As a means of reclaiming poetry's former scope and authority, in Lush Dreams, Blue Exile, George Elliott Clarke tries to meld the private, idiomatic language of modem verse with the muscular euphony of the Black Protestant church. In "The Martyrdom of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz," Clarke gives us a fresh, powerful martyrology on the death of Malcolm X, using liturgical imagery in ways that bump up against the senses, yet would be familiar to ancient scripturists: "Like bees scenting the myrrh and frankincense / Of his flesh, bullets congregate around him / Blood honeys at the exit wounds of his heart."

He is at his best in an oratorical form, now hectoring, now praising, now bleakly ironic. Occasionally, he falters at more personal ranges and his hybrid voice seems like a shotgun marriage:

My love, our green and wild bed wet by tears

When night poured oblivion into my skull

Crows gathered force to break and enter dreams

And I thought I slept on barbed-wire or nails

Here Clarke comes down with a slight case of an ailment widespread among 20th-century lyrical poets, the DTs (Dylan Thomases). This isn't surprising, given the Welsh poet's links to Low Church rhetoric. In all, though, Clarke's vision is his own, and his generosity, sanity, and concern to directly reach the reader make Lush Dreams, Blue Exile an attractive, accessible book.

In contemporary poetry, the elegy is often an alloy of public and private language, because neither alone seems adequate as a memorial to the dead, in an age that distrusts official pronouncements but craves communal acknowledgement. Steven Heighton's The Ecstasy of Skeptics further mixes the two modes by loosely situating its threnodies within the framework of the Apollonian (identified often with the poet's English father) and the Dionysian (his Greek mother), their opposition and confluence.

As you might guess, this is ambitious stuff, prefaced by quotes from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, among others. Heighton almost always pulls it off, though; the title's promise of lyricism, edged with a dry, modem down-rightness, comes through in pieces like "You Slept Better Then":

Masks I shed and left by the roadside share this view with me tonight (Blue hills and beyond the snow-cloud an inkling of the lake)

Here's one that fit all right -- I wore it sometimes when I loved you, and stowed it away like a weapon, loaded whenever you slept.

One of Heighton's central problems is celebration: how can the lyric exalt in Dionysian immersion in what is, while keeping a sharp Apollonian sense of what's wrong and what needs to be done? He explores this dilemma in three linked poems, which take as a starting point the famous "By the rivers of Babylon" psalm, the 137th. "How can I sing?" the poet asks, but sing he must, not only of lost Zion, but of "barren hills/ More beautiful than gardens whose and splendour comes from toxic groundwater leached through mine tailings. Nor does he ignore the Biblical poem's martial context, speaking of the bodies that "bum in a lake of fire" as they did in present-day Babylon, Iraq. By these and other siftings and re-considerations, Heighton obsessively tries to price some peace from the postmodern condition, the way in which a song is the sign of the loss it mourns and aesthetic pleasure is always some form of schadenfreude. It's a daunting project, but fruitful, despite (or because of) its ultimate impossibility, and Heighton has the tools to do it.


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