This is the third installment in acclaimed poet Wayne Clifford’s series of sonnets, The Exile’s Papers, a project decades in the making and now recognized as one of the most inventive creative projects ongoing in Canada.
Wayne Clifford’s The Exile’s Papers first appeared in 2007 with the publication of The Duplicity of Autobiography, but this creative project -- a four-part series of hundreds of surreal, straightforward, narrative or mythic, and endlessly varying sonnets -- is the culmination of decades of effort. In 2009 the series continued with The Face As Its Thousand Ships, and now emerges the third installment: The Dirt’s Passion Is Flesh Sorrow.
Described by critics as ‘resonant’, ‘striking’, ‘quixotic’, ‘elegant’, ‘ribald’ and ‘jazzy’, Clifford’s sonnets defy categories or boundaries. He is a master of the form and every page is an example of how a great poet can use a complicated structure to achieve depth of thought, beauty and explosive resolutions (or, in many cases, questions). In fact, every poem reinvents the sonnet itself, and, despite all poems sharing the same form, each one is sharply, conclusively differentiated from the others. These are sonnets like you’ve never read before.
Clifford often draws on his own life experiences -- fatherhood, love, death and uncertainty -- but he also has plenty to say about God, pop culture and the foolhardiness of certain current political figures. In the end, though, the collection remains a remarkably cohesive, intelligent and death-defying foray into an ancient form that never knew what hit it.
‘As with the first two installments of The Exile’s Papers quartet, The Dirt’s Passion is Flesh Sorrow leaves the reader challenged and changed, both conceptually and intellectually.’
That morning I awake without desire to set the puzzle on the page winding toward some resolution is the moment of my most terrible liberation. No more to struggle with the many threads of making, the different knots and weaves, but simply sitting with the cup of coffee cooling in my hand, and staring out the window, satisfied with the compromise that there’s the world, here am I, and nothing much matters but the slide toward nightfall, well, at least I’ll be able to say aloud ‘So what?’ with a convincing lack of conviction.
I’ve tried a number of ways of making. Some years back, my experiments with brush and pigment led me to abandon pigment and apply clear water to unstretched paper, and then admire the ruckles so formed in a shadow-box. Those contracted convolvulus blossoms on otherwise virgin Arch sheets constituted the last sequence in Studies for a Filthy Postcard. Music, both spontaneous and orchestrated, resulted in the strange stuff that allowed me to understand why my favourite violist is Eyvind Kang, not perhaps a household name. Path-beating into the three dimensions brought me at one time to collecting and reassembling roadside detritus, muffler sleeves and other bits, some with faces, not necessarily of Jesus, more or less clearly portrayed. The finest example was an accidental shaping of a teenage mutant ninja turtle. But writing, writing has ever been my passion. Folk have a peculiar understanding of that word now. They don’t seem, really, to remember what Jesus went through at all, let alone what motivated the cartoon character, Raphael.
Mind you, I’m not talking messiah, or any other dupes of a desert god. I’m not saying there’s any connection with the old story of Good fighting Evil. I’m certainly not talking about my importance, nor publication, nor prize-winning, nor carrying a card entitling some condition of my entry to the national literary circus. If an English-speaking Canada survives into the next phase of the process that’s life on this planet, and wants a literary history, hopefully those someones more responsible than the present academics and other boosters will sort such a history out. And I may not be any part of it. There aren’t desserts in a national myth, just needs. If a Sri-Lankan-born, British-schooled narrator of Unitedstatesean outlaws is more needful, well, I’ll have drunk my coffee.
In this long book, The Exile’s Papers, I’ve written sonnets. Sonnets can be simply units, beads on a string, single bright shinies, but some can be concatenations making up chapters, or episodes. Sonnets are old in their cultural presence, and I enjoy them for that reason. Old presences remind me there are lineages beyond the cloying compression of all culture into pop culture that seems otherwise to go, in the narrow and recent now, unnoticed. Many Canadian poets, or North American poets, or even English-writing poets, don’t have or want any longer the wherewithal to write sonnets successfully and convincingly, because sonnets are difficult, as exacting, as morphic, as Orphic forms. And to be most successful, they have to be reinvented with each writing. Most ’tators of the commen- variety don’t understand such a simple fact. They think forms are for following, for mashing content into, not for re-inventing with each usage into a succulence of how and what and why.
Exceptions? Yes. Enough, in Canada, to fill an anthology, as Zach Wells has done. David Helwig, for instance. There are those examples of his based on The New Testament I’ve found genuine, not because of the religious correspondence, but for the depth of feeling that brings alive for me a person caught in a struggle with a moral problem. And there remain some excellent practitioners in Britain, where the national myth is deeper rooted and more inclusive. But certainly not any stupidities of Modernism like the Unitedstatesean Ted Berrigan, as an instance, who pasted together a book he bragged The Sonnets, and then got talked into importance by the very needy in their construction of a very odd national myth. Solipsisms of navel fuzz and self-indulgences of dick cheese on his pages! Pity Helwig hasn’t had a better, broader and much less deluded press than Speedfreak Ted!
But then, who reads poetry in Canada? Not my mothers-in-law, and I’ve had a few; they’ve voiced their hopes that my writing sonnets doesn’t lead to a future of more intense therapy than I’ve already had. And in an after-the-fact understanding of this blurb for this latest book, Part Three of The Exile’s Papers, in which the dirt’s passion is flesh sorrow, and in which I bitch as did Dante at and about those who’ve made my life harder, who’ve destroyed my personal myths of Santa Claus, goodness, mercy, trust, who have held the keys to the compromises and dealt out the disappointments, you should understand, reader, that every author lies. I’ve tried to steer my lies herein towards the general, with the justification that by so doing, you might find equivalences and resonances in your own life. On the off chance that you read poetry, of course, not just blurbs to sell bookfuls of it.
It’s my plan to add to The Exile’s Papers into the future, for so long as my aging brain allows. There are sequences I’ve not put in this version of Part Three: the encounters of Dipsy Fado and Sir Jack, involving a reclusive bibbler and scribbler and an academic with ego more bloated than his Falstaffian girth, in which we learn once more that fate favours the recorded, not just the victorious; the story of the woman who knowingly takes into her home and among her small daughters a criminal diddler of little girls; the kaleidoscopic memoirs of a man who keeps deluding himself about a true love he’s likely incapable of; further speculations on the ancient battle in our minds between The Knife-Handed Man and The Poison-Appled Woman. If I live, and if these strings become finished to my satisfaction, I’ll want to include them in a future editions, if there is a future edition. If .... If our human-social world persists beyond the contaminations and destructions of the natural structures upholding our so small, so fragile contingency. If we survive the resource wars and the viral pogroms Hollywood is so fond of pulling out of our collective unconscious. If fools, however well meaning, are still allowed to comment.
Those segments I have included, the crying out that the barbarians are already through the gates, and are our tattooed children, the retelling of the First Myth, with a very feisty mother-of-us-all, the unfolding of a very ordinary marriage, the on-the-job re-education, are branchings I hope you might recognize, and in them recognize a universal foolishness. But then, I write sonnets because, by their attended-to demands, they show those fools who claim to write them for what fools they are.
The lovely reality for me is that you, reader, decide the importance of an outcome. Me, well, does my life prepare me to know what I’m talking about? I know I care, more deeply than is likely good for me. And I know my commenting has changed since I came to this island so apart from the doings of the busy and the great and the marvellous. Toronto digresses on without me, oblivious in the pretence that it’s the focal point of what it doesn’t see to be the most boring, most predictable, most obsequious and chummily corrupt political unit north of the United States, that money addict which apparently has first rights of refusal. My breath, my bread, my bothersome eruptions of ideas are mine here freely to worry and enjoy. I feel lucky to be just out of bed and nose-first into the puzzle on the page.
Oh, and buy this book. The Exile’s Papers, Part Three: The Dirt’s Passion Is Flesh Sorrow. Unless you’re entirely satisfied with television on the page, in which case, vote early and often.
—Wayne Clifford, Grand Manan, 2011
Excerpt from book
Here, at the Now
I set out on a journey. Someone else
came back. And home seemed a mock-up elves
had glued from shattered memories set false
against a much too perfect background. Selves
of who had been a tourist, who had bought
the cheap, unpackable, bright, woven wares,
persisted, as did those of he who sought
at last an absolution from the cares
of things. Sunlight itself seemed thinned; the dark
was filled with shaky handholds, bed a grief
that brought a sleep with no relief, left stark
afterimages of deserts, and the too brief
comprehension he was somewhere else
at last, this stranger rousing in my pulse.
Wayne Clifford was born in Toronto in 1944. He studied English at University College at the University of Toronto in the mid sixties during which time he came to be associated with a small coterie of students that included Stan Bevington, Dennis Reid, Doris and Judith Cowan, and David Bolduc. Wayne also remembers Tangiers Al, but not clearly, which says something about the time. While still an undergraduate Clifford won numerous Norma Epstein prizes for his poetry and also one E. J. Pratt Award (1967) that he shared with Michael Ondaatje. (One poet kept the money, the other, the medal. In the end each felt equally cheated.)
Stan Bevington had started his fledgling Coach House Press in 1964 and asked Clifford to acquire a few poetry manuscripts suitable for book production of an experimental sort. Wayne secured early work from George Bowering, Victor Coleman, bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. At the founding meeting of the League of Canadian Poets (1966) Wayne proposed a Writers’ Anonymous akin to other, similar, twelve-step programmes. Clifford’s idea was not seriously considered. Shortly thereafter, Clifford left Toronto to pursue graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Clifford began working at St. Lawrence College in Kingston in 1969, when the College was just new, and was involved in the Creative Writing program and the Fine Arts Program, until both were discontinued in the 1980s. Clifford then joined the General Arts & Science Program (GAS -- and yes, he does enjoy this irony of this acronym) and began teaching remediation in language. He retired in June of 2004. He was working on a poetry collaboration (unpublished) with bpNichol at the time of bp’s death in 1988.