Review Short: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World

By and | 22 February 2017

Carrying the World by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Hachette, 2016

At the launch of Carrying the World, Maxine Beneba Clarke shared the mic with spoken word performers who were part of her decade long journey in poetry. The poignancy of Clarke’s gesture demonstrates how embedded she is in a literary community that erases the distinction between ‘high art’ (page) poetry and the spoken word.

In her poem ‘show us where you’re publishing’ she boldly declares:

and if so inclined
could mic some words across
and blow your fucking mind

Our review of Carrying the World is also a review of our journey into poetry, and our alienation from it. Both of our formal literary educations from high school to university, from the 1990s onwards, entailed a favouring of the Western English canon. While one of us studied Indigenous Australian playwright and poet’s Jack Davis’s play, No Sugar, none of his poems were offered by the curriculum. We struggled with our prescribed poetry and literary texts and missed the opportunity of reading and studying great Aboriginal Australian poets like Oodgeroo Noonuccal / Kath Walker, Lisa Bellear, Lionel Fogarty and Ali Cobby Eckermann. Also absent were non-Anglo poets like Pi O, Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey, Ouyang Yu and Merlinda Bobis. Our experiences of poetry were dull and un-relatable. In contrast, Clarke’s poetry aches and roars of experiences that we can relate to as cis-gendered-identifying women of mixed race Ballardong Noongar and Peranakan-Chinese Malaysian descent.

Carrying the World traverses the autobiographical to the fictional, and ‘Demerara Sugar’ anticipates Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race. Funded by the Hazel Rowley Fellowship, Clarke and her children traveled to England on a research trip tracing her family’s history and her diasporic Jamaican-Guyanese identity.

this niece of mine a-coming say
she going voyage west africa
some writer say she trace
our lineage /

Clarke’s clever use of patois in conversation effectively conveys intimate moments that
provides insight into her relationships with relatives and the uncovering of family secrets.

she going old country
what / she gon feed the chain 
back through the black
atlantic /

The title poem ‘Carrying the World’ is fictional, historical and mythical; it’s a poem you would expect or imagine a black writer and activist to write. At the same time, it also highlights what it feels like to ‘carry the world’, being weighed down by the heavy social justice work that black women must do. Work that is hard, and rarely acknowledged:

the rocking chair strains
under weight of it all
the ole woman’s frail
but she’s carrying the world

In comparison to black male historical figures, women who have participated in this fight remain under-appreciated and anonymous:

y’all don’t know her name
so let’s call her Black History

The pressure that this responsibility places on black women writers like Clarke is further demonstrated in ‘what are you going to say’, where she directly confronts the expectation that she must respond to the shooting in the shopping mall in Nairobi.

people / they have been writing to me
what are you/ what
are you going to say/ about
what just happened
about the westgate mall siege
like they think I am
the oracle
or something

By the end she realises that ‘the only weapon I have at my immediate disposal is a pen’ resolving to take up the fight. But in the act of writing Clarke acknowledges the exhaustion that comes with ‘carrying the world’.

but just maybe / I don’t
want or have to be the one
to write it

However, with her growing reputation, she unintentionally falls into being ‘the voice’ for a community, a positioning she questions.

maybe they need a poem
to make sense of it all

In ‘skin’ she conveys the trauma of racism with an honest simplicity that reading it felt like the words reached out and slapped you.

some nights
i try to claw my way
out of this skin
but pull and scratch and bruise
seems i’m locked tight in

In short sharp sequences we witness the abject conditioning her body endures in a white settler nation. The nightmarish image is a shocking reminder of the experiences people of colour have come to live with. For this woman writer of Afro-Caribbean descent, race has a strong and powerful presence throughout her collection. Often it is Clarke’s depictions of racial injustice that are the most gruesome but leaves a powerful impact. For example, in ‘mali’ she describes the fear she carries for her unborn son, an emotion that eludes the baby’s father.

your dada said
chill out / these are different times
you’re behaving like it’s 1965
but when I looked in his eyes
all I could see were whites

The poet Lia Incognita wrote in the Overland article ‘Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry’ that writers of colour are ‘largely ignored by publishers, critics, prize judges, anthology editors, curriculum writers.’ Carrying the World begins to redress this imbalance and for readers like us, it is thrilling to read someone who speaks a truth that is often silenced.

The collection also reveals how challenging her journey has been towards mainstream success. In ‘the end of the affair’ she expresses the struggle of pursuing a passion where race and gender discrimination lurk in the background.

between me and you
it was wild while it lasted
but poetry/ he got all single white male
for the last part there on me
it’s true

Carrying the World encapsulates the extraordinary journey of a single black mother, poet and author within an industry dominated by white men and women. From writing and performing poetry at the margins to her recent win at the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for poetry, Clarke’s work is breaking down preconceptions and prejudices in white publishing circles. However, what is equally important as her accolades is that her popularity and force is creating new spaces for other vital voices to emerge:

we want poetry back / we
are the children you
left / wailing / without a backward glance
oh / but when you cut down word
the roots undergrounded / and grew
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