“Rome means nothing except we come…”

Illicit Sonnets, George Elliott Clarke (Eyewear, £12.99)
reviewed by Emma Lee

A sequence of sonnets between two lovers loosely inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, her sequence of sonnets about her love for Robert Browning. George Elliott Clarke’s sonnets are more explicit, move viewpoint between the two lovers and aren’t restricted to rhyming iambic pentameters but are a mix of traditional form and a freer, contemporary monologue that retains the volta so the resulting poem is quite recognisable as a sonnet. His lovers are Salim (a Moor) and Laila (a Nordic), their skin tones referred to in “My dark hands quivering your ivory breasts” [‘Istanbul II’], “Ophelia opens to Othello” [‘A Trieste’] and ‘Black and White’:

I’m black, bull-black, and handsome as dark wine –
Or the swarthy grape, the Othello grape.
But on that sable couch, you are sunlight,
Ice-cool, in your pose, yet white-hot to touch.

Fine! We do complement one another –
Just as ink is black to clarify light,
Or shadows mimic flexible mirrors:
Blackness welcomes whiteness as its balance.

Laila means night, but you show passion
Of snow, to conform to contours, to wax,
To gleam as phosphorescent as the sea.
(Ain’t night happiest when the moon is whole?)

Bright, feminine image, I render you
Darkness most tender, blackness that is sweet!

‘Rome’ is a sonnet from Salim’s viewpoint – he’s given to declamation and grandiose gestures:

Rome means nothing except we come – and come
Again, again and again, together:
Gratification beats beatification.
Rome’s cathedrals and monuments are ruins
Compared to the opera of Love – the scale
Of it, masterpiece and epic and song.

Laila on the other hand has a complementary directness, ‘To Salim II’

You unzip – and I’m undone,
or you’re undone when I unzip.

Our loving isn’t just good, but gaudy –
and bawdy, as we like it.

Next time, take me into the woods I love:
Take me hard in the soft grass, crushing it softer

Illicit Sonnets has a celebratory, exuberant tone and was clearly written by a playful stylist. Some poems touch on the difficulty of translating a physical act into words. A joy to read.

Emma Lee

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