The poem, written by George Elliott Clarke, Canada's poet laureate, is a summary response to Ezra Pound's notion that "epic is a poem containing history." He is working on a three-book epic poem, "Canticles," which revisits the histories of slavery and European imperialism. This poem is the conclusion of Part 2 of Book 1, and so references other epic poets — in their particular styles — to accent the fact that we must engage with extremely problematic histories.
Extro: Reverie & Reveille*
Homer: A dog tried to hold up the corpse of Hector—lacustrine flesh, tinting black—
Once he was flung into the latrine-black Mediterranean, black sharks—
An infestation—swarmed. An epic poet is like that dog, upholding
Classicism and Virtue, despite fresh, imminent Decay, and current,
Ongoing Decadence. We swear into the open ears of the dying
To curse the souls of the vulgar, unheroic dead: Our poets’s task.
Milton: The Black Panther partisan, Jesus Christ,
Insisting His pure Flesh be sacrificed,
Heeded never Roman joking and Hebraic jests—
The scourging thorns, the spikes drove through his wrists
And ankles. His hummed spirituals dulled Pain.
He gulped vinegar like so much champagne.
A spear thudded in—budded from—His side.
But He knew His demise was sanctified—
So He’d be risen up—resurrected
In a crescendo of Light perfected.
He’d look as fresh as if he’d wandered
From a wedding-cake table. His speech thundered,
And His disciples flocked to the rose scent
Of His Rose-Up Life, His flowered Government.
Epic poets are mirror martyrs, of
Sorts, whose faithful words witness deathless Love.
Dante: The epic poet is like a weasel,
digging up the dead to retrieve the execrable
booty of their sanguinary, but truthful bones.
Our Muse is Medusa, unhurt, hissing,
unable to loathe spirits. Each of us is
a scrapbook poet, not a textbook poet:
Our images aren’t canvasses,
but broken, splintered, shattered, stained-glass:
The prism of the smashed looking-glass.
Pound: Let assistant professors, untenured,
slave over epic, the endless endnotes,
where what’s original is illegible.
Walcott: The masque of Interpretation is what each epic
undertakes, no matter how metrically
sophisticated, bluesy—as in a Bessie Smith classic.
Such free-for-all? That’s Négritude, aesthetically,
as we tally awfully black histories, allegorically,
wherein masters mutate to monsters, evermore—categorically.
Auditor: I hear my forebears—
Voices from a hearse.
Biblical leaves curl
Like lips set to snarl.
Crippling are these truths—
From elders to youths.
Dirty as a grave—
Is what ex-slaves have.
Our verses must be:
Bleeds no plain nectar
Or honey. Hector—
And our noble dead—
Must inspire each head,
Pluto and Venus—
Beauty got from dross:
Sparkling at the brink.
[YVR (Vancouver International Airport, Richmond, British Columbia) 24 février mmxvii]