Before I discovered poetry—whimsically at thirteen, seriously at fifteen—I entertained several fantastic enthusiasms. As a boy, aged five to ten, I planned to be an astronaut. That dream faded when I learned—drat!—that wearing glasses disqualified me for the military pilot licence. Then, as an older boy, aged twelve to fourteen, I felt I could be a track star—not a flash-in-the-pan sprinter, but a glamorous long-distance runner, specializing in the mile. But Canada’s switch to the metric system, when I was fifteen, meant I’d have to contest the fifteen-hundred-metre race instead, a rather prosaic challenge. At thirteen, swayed by Parliament (the funk band), I pursued the idea of becoming a “boss” funkster pianist. However, having first to learn the classical repertoire seemed a bleached-out fate. (Down with Beethoven! Up with Bootsy!) Then, when I was fourteen, I became an actor—for six weeks—in a travelling school drama production. But my singing was just croaks, and I only learned to dance the Charleston, and not well.
These intended “careers” mingled (potential) public adulation with a soupçon of personal mystique, and were thus attractive to my boy-and-then-teen mind, and they were all tolerable for my parents. However, the one near-vocation that alarmed them, righteously, was my desire, between the ages of ten and thirteen, to become a saint. Dear reader, because I am black, you can only imagine me blushing at this confession. (However, I am blushing most abjectly.)
Sainthood? I know the idea’s pretty twisted. Blame it on my reading of a dozen or so biographies of actual, beatified saints—all Catholic. Though I was (and am still) a nominal African Baptist of Nova Scotia (a distinct sect, by the way), I adored the catalogues of madcap miracles and manic martyrdoms: Saint Patrick casting out the snakes; Saint Francis parleying with “critters”; Saint Teresa doing something with roses; and, of course, Saint George skewering the dragon. These stories were teetotally intoxicating for me, and I thrilled at the strange power—discipline—that fasting and praying instilled.
Miracles I can’t say I accomplished. I did read the Bible—wholly—thrice. However, during the period of my “election,” I endured one instance of “martyrdom.”
One summer day, in North End—working-class— Halifax, an old white man gave me, in front of my playmates, a silver dollar, which was in the early 1970s a practical fortune. My friends demanded I share this prize with them. Selfishly, I refused to do so: I made a fist around that coin. So my buddies pushed me up against a fence, grabbed my bare arms, and held them straight out from my body, so that I had the posture of crucifixion. Then one of them stripped the bark from a lean branch and, with this fresh, green, stinging switch, whipped me religiously up and down my arms, striping them with red welts—and striping my face with tears.
I did not let go of the dollar. Did I let go of grace?
George Elliott Clarke’s new book of poetry is Illicit Sonnets, just out from Eyewear Publishing. He is Toronto’s fourth poet laureate.