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REVIEWING

The Essential Clarence Major: Prose & Poetry

By Clarence Major

Golden Age Press | 2020

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

There is much to like about Clarence Major, the poet, writer, editor, and painter. He is as prolific as any notable American writer, but maybe not as highly commercial as the most promoted scribes on the national bestselling lists. As the pundits of World Literature Today, Major is a “polymorphous writer who has been iconoclast, black esthetician, modernist, surrealist, postmodernist, and deconstructionist.” That’s what readers admire about Major and hold him so high regard.

Fans have always wondered when the author would release a reader of sorts. Well, here it is: The Essential Clarence Major: Prose and Poetry, a well-packaged collection of novel excerpts, short stories, essays, memoir, and poetry that will give the reader a generous sampling of  the writer’s creative range. The segments of his prose writing are most revealing and intriguing. Some of the early works have not featured, including No, Emergency Exit, and one of my Major favorites, All Night Visitors.

Before going deeper into the collection, let’s meet the author, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, who later moved to Chicago with his mother. The writing bug bit him when he read Raymond Radiguet’s 1923 Devil in the Flesh, leading to a youthful obsession with the books of Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Also, he fell in love with the style of Impressionism and the genius work of Vincent van Gogh, but he reconsidered his artistic goals at 17 after attaining a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Following his discharge from the Air Force in 1957, Major reentered the Chicago literary scene, editing and publishing Coercion Review from 1958 to 1961, where he encountered Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams.  He relocated to New York City’s Lower East Side in 1966, moving into a creative environment of artists and writers, eventually publishing All Night Visitors with Maurice Girodias’ imprint, Olympia Press in 1969.

In fact, Major has been considered a wanderer, collecting ideas and experiences for his prose and poetry along the way in Chicago, Seattle, Washington D.C., Boulder, Davis, San Diego, and Nice, France.

“It seems to me that the impulse to write, the need to write, is inseparable from one’s educational process – which begins at the beginning and never ends,” Major explains in his essay, “Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer” from the collection.

In a recent interview last month with On The Margin host Ethelbert Miller, he was compared to a literary Miles Davis with a masterful array of style and genres, both traditional and modernist. A look at the Novel Excerpts section is revelatory, from the experimental Reflex and Bone Structure, the finely detailed My Amputations, the home-spun Such Was the Season, the unsettling Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar and Dirty Bird Blues. As a craftsman, he possesses the prowess as a consummate writer, capable of providing effective characterization, dialogue or setting. Any examination of any of the excerpts is proof positive of this fact.

One of the classic Major stories, “My Mother and Mitch” leads off the short fiction section, having won the Pushcart Prize for Fiction in 1999. This stripped-down coming-of-age story overshadows the others in this segment, except “Chicago Heat,”

“Victoria,” and “Five Years Ago.” His versatility with image, language, and cultural realism is on display here, as with his notable Chicago Heat (2016) and Fun & Games (1999). It’s a reader’s feast in all of its bite-size excellence.

How does Major see his role as a writer? “The writer’s role is to be a truth-sayer,” he recently told an interviewer with The Rumpus. “I sincerely believe that each society, each country lives by a particular fantasy vision of its self. The truth of how they live is hardly ever faced…We, as a country, have also had some difficulties facing up to the horrors of American slavery. So, in the interest of the ethical and moral health of the country, the writer, the poet, the artist, the thinker, must hold a mirror up his or her country and say look, this is who we are, this is how we live, this is our past, we must own it, forgive ourselves, transcend our transgressions, and become better people.”

The essays gathered in Part Three show some of the author’s favorite interests: the stellar “Thanks for the Lunch: Clarence Major Has Lunch with James Baldwin,” two gems featuring Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman, and appreciations of William Faulkner’s Light in August and Richard Wright’s neglected The Long Hallucination. Also, one of the passions which consumes Major is painting, which has bewitched him since age ten.

While there is the recent release of Uffe Sparre Fischer’s The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major, he considers that volume a companion work for this collection. “Poets almost inevitably reflect painterly ideas and ideals, and methods and processes in their work,” Major writes in his essay, “Painting and Poetry.” “Painters too almost inevitably reflect the principles of poetry – metaphor, narrative, symbolism, and so forth.”

But Major does not confuse the two art forms. “The main way they are not alike is this: Painting is primarily spatial, and poetry is primarily temporal and conceptual,” he concludes. “They can, however, be seen as parallel activities. But ultimately the words in a poem are not going to achieve the same effect on our senses as paint strokes on canvas.”

An accomplished artist, Major has had 15 solo exhibitions and paintings in more than 28 group shows.  He has been awarded many honors for his art, including a 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts by the Congressional Black Foundation.

In Major’s bio in Wikipedia, there is mention of two marriages, children, two divorces, and a restless spirit, but the dirty laundry is left out and that’s for the best. The author is very private and that suits him well. Part Four consists of his memoir or subtitled: “From Taking Chances: A Memoir of a Life in Art and Writing.” This section contains some personal information, featuring writers, books, and the art scene, yet there is nothing rude or embarrassing about it.

I first encountered Major through his poetry, with two books, Swallow The Lake (1970) and The Cotton Club (1972). This was not the usual voice from the neighborhood. This was assured, confident, capable of pressing all of the emotional keys, skillful in assuming assorted personas and genders. The samples in the poetry segment of the book is outstanding, but we crave more. I have my favorites: “Hair,” “The Slave Trade,” “Father,” “Alchemy,” and the jazz duo, “Round Midnight” and “Un Poco Loco.”

Now retired, Major is distinguished professor emeritus of 20th Century American Literature at the University of California at Davis. His academic career is a long and varied one. His writing career is not

finished, especially not after this release of his “Greatest Hits.” Or his  seminal The Essential Clarence Major.

Major hits the nail on the head with the summary of his mission. “But I, as a writer, could not afford the luxury of a vision of my own experience as sentimental as the one suggested by my country (of itself, of me). As I grew up, I was trying to learn how to see through the superficial, and to touch, in my writing, the essence of experience – all of its possible wonderment, agony, or glory.”



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