By Eli Clare
By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
I remember when I first saw Eli Clare’s collection of poetry The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion. I was checking out the poetry section at Toronto Women’s bookstore (one of only two women’s bookstores left in the stolen land called Canada).
Clare’s book stood in the middle of a shelf with its cover facing me: a painting of his thick, strong arms pushing aside branches as he walked through the bush; a map of his home taking up half the cover; and his very catchy title.
Many writers say they want to cut through to the bone of things. Natalie Goldberg’s classic Writing Down The Bones teaches writers how to do so. Clare goes past that. He goes for the marrow. As someone who has broken a few bones, Clare’s title got me, fast.
Published in 2007, The Marrow’s Telling is a collection of fifteen years worth of poetry. The inside cover shows a listing of the many publications where Clare’s poems first appeared: nineteen publications in all; many being zines and activist magazines, others being queer anthologies, some being very respected literature journals such as the Michigan Review and Hanging Loose. There is also a lengthy acknowledgement section, a preface (not common in poetry collections but much appreciated by this writer), and a warning.
Clare cautions readers in his Author’s Note about seven of his poems that explore and illustrate “child sexual abuse, ritual abuse, and/or torture and include graphic, but not gratuitous, details.” Clare tells his readers, “As such, they may contain triggers. Please take as much care as you need.” Not all poets are as thoughtful and considerate. Not all poets write from experience. Not all poets are as brave.
Before you begin the text, Clare asks his readers to digest his poems differently than they would other collections:
In the United States, too many of us have been
taught to fear or avoid poetry, to feel bored or
stupid in its presence. As an activist poet, I
want this book to be a door held wide open.
Read it like a demonstration, a riot, a late
night spray-painting action.
Clare’s words are all three: demonstration, riot, and subversive paint imprinted on your psyche.
In Cleaning Dead Birds Clare brings you back to the days of his surviving sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Growing up in the country, Clare partook in many different land based activities such and hunting, fishing, and berry picking. A child to an abuser, Clare learned such skills from his father throughout years of abuse.
Cleaning Dead Birds is about a child who at the same times feels anger toward his father while wanting to be at his side. With a new marriage soon to happen, a new child entering his father’s life, Clare explores the relationship of abuse, the fear of a new child soon to be in danger around his father, and the jealousy of the new child possibly replacing him.
The girl soon to be his stepdaughter:
will she walk the logging roads
with him, learning the shape
of rocks and forest, books
and music, only to wear
his semen nearly
transparent against her body
as I once did.
Spend hours in the woodshop
watching as he sands and oils
bird’s eye maple, then together ,
cleaning dead birds.
Clare shows the power an abuser has over the abused, the building up of a person and then breaking them down. The classic hook em in, gut em, and sow em back up; the time spent in making the survivor feel the need for their abuser; the false love; the broken relationship made to feel strong; the hate for an abuser that is accompanied by the want for them in the life of the abused.
Clare brings readers to the wedding, the relationship building between father and new daughter through laughter at the dinner table, the fear of birds soon to be cleaned, and the dying urge to tell his stepmother of what is to come.
I warn my stepmother,
tell her the stories
he denies, pitting
memory against memory,
proof lodged in my body.
Earlier in the poem, Clare describes the birds being cleaned, the cooking of them, how they are a gift from his father’s students (showing that his father is a respected man in the community); sometimes biting down on the ammunition lodged in the dead birds, and later, his emotion around the possibility of a new child experiencing the same horrors he did for years. Clare writes from memory, “Fear tastes like buckshot.”
In Last Refrain, found later in the collection, Clare continues his sharing of the sexual abuse he survived:
For years we’ll live,
my father and I,
python and prey.”
Like a true survivor, Clare not only writes of the abuse, he writes of overcoming it and thriving afterward. Seven of the poems are graphic details of some of the worst things that can happen to a person. Many of the poems are of celebration, strength, and solidarity.
No Longer Small and Lonely is a poem displaying all three. A prose poem spanning four pages, Clare uses repetition, crisp descriptive sentences, and questions to keep his reader engaged. It’s ending is the end of not only the poem but of the abuse itself:
The man I used to call father, let him tumble
forever. I have stormed his bunker, picked the lock,
found my heart amidst the rubble, laughed him off
the edge of the world.
No longer small and lonely, I live among the
furious and joyful. We dance, sing, drum, limp, roll,
walk, swish, howl, our way through the world.
Clare, a white transgendered male with a disability, writes of survival as well as the life of a white man in a world that honours skin privilege, and at the same time vilifies trans people and people with disabilities. The Marrow’s Telling is an exploration of a man who is privileged and not privileged at the same time.
In And Yet Clare demonstrates his walking in many different shoes:
Crip skin marked,
white skin not.
The two lines above are at once the taking back of a harmful word—cripple, now used as “crip”—and the acknowledgement of walking as a member of the dominant class, the most dominant of all, white men.
The activist poet, ally to Indigenous Peoples and people of colour, acknowledges his whiteness and challenges it in later poems. Battle Rock is a tour of white celebration that masks real history. Using the personal letter of colonizer Captain J. M. Kirkpatrick, Clare tells the real history of his home from the first landing of the white man, to the present day celebrations, of what was rape, theft, and murder in 1851.
The poet writes of “white boys dressed as Indians” jumping around a fire; white men carrying loaded rifles and a cannon while re-enacting the “founding” of Port Orford; fire crackers joined by shouts of victory.
He ends with:
we dress ourselves
Clare does not look for pity or pedestals, he uses his experiences, many being horrific, others beautiful, to educate readers on the complexities of his life, and to show those who share those experiences that better days are possible, and there are better days to come.
Living with Cerebral Palsy, Clare takes readers into his daily life in Tremors. The constant shakes his body performs are written on the page. He then shows the results of his uncontrolled movements:
Kids call cripple. Bank tellers stare silent.
Doctors predict arthritis. Joints crack
in the vise grip: my hands want
to learn to swear.
Tremors takes you on the at times rocky road that is Clare’s daily life and then has you walking on a smooth plain at its end. The activist poet brings you through the mud and cleanses you with images of desire and acceptance. His shakes that wish to speak violence early in the poem, end with kind whispers of intimacy:
Late at night
as I trace the long curve of your body,
tremors touch skin, reach inside,
and I expect to be taunted, only to have you
rise beneath my hands, ask for more.
Some of Clare’s poem are long yet they don’t waste real estate. Scars and Gawking, Gaping, Staring span several pages, the reader realizing this after they are finished reading. This happens throughout Clare’s expository, memoir like collection.
Taking the advice of a friend, “Don’t write it pretty,” Clare throws hooks at, then hugs his reader, as he softly advises:
By itself, story isn’t enough. We
need to tell, talk, translate the marrow.
Translate it as history, policy, fierceness,
rebellion, civil rights, a poem sung in
the streets. Let the story be that kite,
wild blue of sky, tug and beckon,
dialogue and demand.
There is no overwriting in The Marrow’s Telling. Living true to its title, Clare’s collection takes you deep with just enough air to breathe. You read, re-read, contemplate, and give thanks for his words with no want to rise up from the depths of his inner bones of the page.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet next Wednesday September 22, 2010 for an recent interview with Eli Clare!