The Passing of the Pointer Man

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 31, 2021


“Pointerman/The crossroad is self…./ seek the source of rivers/ begin here, in your hands, begin/each beginning,/new beginnings/ like vertiginous sacraments of water/ begin at the navel’s resolve, new/ incarnate flower.”

—LeRoy Clarke, Douens: Poems and Drawings

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoePainting was LeRoy Clarke’s true forte, but he was equally adept at poetry. In Parables of Joyless Days, Clarke described himself as “The Poet Who Paints With Words.” In 1981, he shocked our sensibilities when he cried: “Carpenter, shoemaker, dancer, wirebender,/ let me be the Artist—Poet—Farmer./ I will fork this earth, with my tongue/ let me plunge into your ear/ through syllables of violet, the science of turquoise, / through populous ochres and energetic reds/ through fathomless greens, through supplicant blue, / through the arterial vegetation of the rainbow” (Douens).

Like Derek Walcott, the St. Lucian Nobel Laureate, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the English poet and painter, Clarke brought a painterly eye to his poetry. One discerns this dual gift in the stanzas: “Cults of rollicking consonants,/ variegated coats at the edging,/ greens of greenish yellow blue green,/ spiced earth, ochre smells, mourning celebrants,/ half-eaten islands of fruit…bird spit.

“Brown, gold-tinted flakes of rust, scabs/ of age; sharp vowels of pronounced fire…/ virile reds, squeezed oranges, wounded vermilion,/ startled uteruses, roaring incense and chlorophyll….” (Douens,).

Clarke’s poetry was also shaped by the richness of African culture, the many rivers his people crossed before they arrived in a strange land (a’ la, Jimmy Cliff’s “Rivers of Babylon”), and the treatment meted out to them when they arrived here. In his desire to cultivate a home (a Black Diaspora as it were), Clarke used the images of rivers, water, seas and crossings in his poems to capture his new spatial reality as the epigram at the beginning of this article suggests.

Langston Hughes, the famous African-American poet, also reflects this diasporic poetic imagery when he declared: “I have known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/ flow of human blood in human veins./ My soul has grown deep like the rivers./ I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young./ I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep./ I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it./ I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/ went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom/ turn all golden in the sunset” (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).

Nathan Huggins, a former professor at Harvard University, said of Hughes’s poem: “The River is an important symbol not only because it connotes the religious division between the temporal and eternal life, but because it is relentless, persistent, and timeless. It is eternity itself, with no beginning and no end…. The Euphrates, then thought the cradle of men [civilization], and the other three rivers are not only mother waters, sustaining life around them, but they have known the Black man and the Black slave…. The Black man, therefore, will, persist because his soul has become one with the streams of life (Harlem Renaissance).

Although there is prolixity in Clarke’s prose, there is a warm beauty when he strikes the correct note: “Reminiscence is a fern—tiarra’d head fished from sunken horizons that border dreams. The shelves on her walls spoke octaves of interests: literature, music, art, philosophy, cooking….She winked, that Coquette, mine, who had fated a grand intellectual framework without diminishing her soft chimes or the convocation of turquoise spilled from her autumnal shoulders” (Parables).

In “WHO, If Eye Cried….!” Clarke invokes the importance of his roots as the springboard of his genius and to re-positions himself in his spiritual landscape: “Where am Eye heading? Eye ask myself. Eye am moving towards something that awaits me to complete itself; perhaps, only perhaps it will complete me! Idea fails to gain its form in his listening for rain….” (Parables).

Death—perhaps, his approaching death—also occupied Clarke’s mind. He writes: “Death does not happen without a journeying towards it, without our participation. We might say that we are living our lives in search of Death. In stricter observation, we are living our Death, while living our lives. Living life and living death are mutually, an abiding syncretism in which we dwell” (Parables).

In “Prefacing Mine Own Epitaph!” he says: “In my rather short stint with this immensely impossible world and me in it, Eye can say with some certainty in resignation to moments that conscript me, that Eye have been given to a strange calling from something that compels me to take the lead. Eye must leave…. The first to leave….Leave what, whom….To go where something awaits me to complete it, that it will fulfil itself, while knowing full well, that it may not fulfil me. Abysmally perhaps, repeating an unending apprenticeship!” (Parables).

Ultimately, Clarke takes his cue from Romare Bearden, who he calls “the Immortal,” and of whom he says: “Bearden is of that breed of artists that re-charted ruins by being ‘involved in a civilization-making process.’ It was to that end that his Art, without a shadow of doubt over his excellence, that he had, if not invented the genre—Collage—surely, he perfected it” (Parables,).

It is from this sentiment that Clarke derived his signature motif/motive: “Who will rechart the ruin…?/Who will piece it together/ in its beginning…?/ Who will utter the cipher’ (Douens,).

In 1982 Clarke gave me a copy of Douens in which he penned the inscription: “Toward erecting our sovereign architecture.” Clarke not only wanted his people to rechart their ruins. He also wanted them to erect their sovereignty.

Hence, his siren song: “Begin here, in your hands, begin each beginning…as a new incarnate flower.”