When He Was Free & Young (1971)

mezzo-soprano & piano [6’]; words George Elliott Clarke; 2023.

George Elliott Clarke
Premiere: Laura Swankey and Juliet Palmer, The Canadian Music Centre, December 15, 2023.


Austin C. Clarke’s “When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks” (1971): Subtext


Navigating the archipelago of rainbow lips

and neon-lustrous nylons,

plus islands of pepper in the Caesar,

the reefs of lime in the Cuba libre,

and dodging the chiseled, Aztec, bas-relief

of Cruelty ebon Shebas profile—

their chatter always as indecipherable

as Papal Latin

swished suave I into the Pilot Tavern—

me garbed as for Tiger’s Coconut Grove

(at Kensington Market), but now

stepping off Bloor into Yorkville

(5th Avenue gone Greenwich Village),

under an August moon as lemony

as that unmoored by the untaught Rousseau—

but projecting wishes as dreamy

as the philosophy of the other Rousseau—

came this black-ink scribe to escape

the chop-chop guillotines of cops’ mouths,

the manacles of critics’ eyeglasses,

the dismembering megaphones

of Dixieland Kitsch jazz

(the engrained dirt in Wonder-white-Bread,

ad-jingle-crammed, T.O. ears),

and the unspoiled fists of Black Panther imports,

kept tight-leashed by Brampton Billy’s thugs—

and so boogied down I to chant Rastafarian,

Ah, frumoasă! Frumoasă!—

Ah, beautiful! Beautiful!—

because the Pilot Tavern is Toronto’s Parthenon

(at least for tonight),

and the silk patina of my Bombay Sapphire

gin martini (with three olives),

hid from Inhibition,

the subversive Geometry of sable breasts

or ladies’ angular, flexible legs,

one black woman’s stretched out leg

lecherous gainst mine,

under a table sized to fit only two glasses,

so that the poetry of my Negroni cocktail

outshouted and outvoted

all that short-pants, childish, Anglican theology,

all that incense that ferries the aroma

of young corpses

or of kiddies cored and/or buggered in the warrens of His and Her Majesties’ churches…


— George Elliott Clarke