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Constance Alexander: Louisville native Bernard Clay is on his way with first poetry collection ‘English Lit’


The woman on the cover of Bernard Clay’s first book of poems has stars in her eyes. Literally. Perhaps she is enchanted by glitz and glamor and dreams of celebrity, or maybe she looks to the future with high expectations. The blurbs on the cover of “English Lit” — from four distinguished Kentucky writers – are more down to earth than starry-eyed:

Fellow Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker calls Clay one of the “nappiest voices of his generation.”

Kelly Norman Ellis is certain that Bernard’s debut collection will “become a classic of Kentucky literature.”

Crystal Wilkinson lauds Clay’s “ability to slice truth down to the bone and hold it up to the light.”

Gurney Norman praises Clay’s work, not only as a major contribution to Kentucky literature, but to American lit as well. He describes Bernard Clay as “a new force that will be felt for years to come,” and readers of “English Lit” are likely to agree.

Born in the now-demolished Southwick housing projects in Louisville’s West End, Bernard Clay’s poetry collection helps readers see beyond the stars in their own eyes. He begins with “Field Trip,” an excursion to the zoo with a bunch of first-graders. Clay calls the bus ride a “safari” through his home turf, a neighborhood “most of my classmates/ are bused to every morning.”

Excited to share his knowledge, the narrator child is the guide to this exotic world. He eagerly answers questions and even points out his home, his excitement immediately clouded by “a collective gasp/ and pity glance.”

One of the chaperones makes it worse by saying, “I lived there too/ before this place went to hell.”

The trip proceeds as planned. The kids sing typical school bus songs “like a flock of egrets/ and one crow/ until we get to where/ the real animals are.”

From start to finish, flickers of reality like this one illuminate the poems in “English Lit.” Paging randomly, I land on “Kinky Birthright,” where the narrator watches his sisters endure “years of third-degree/ chemical burns and scalp scabs” to straighten their hair. Thirty years later, he tells us, things have changed. His sisters no longer “singe their scalps.”

Now, “they all/ wear their hair like Eve.”

In “Corner Store,” the narrator evolves from being dispatched unwillingly to the store on errands to “electing to go,” with each new trip an education in urban geography. A “necklace of cars” lines up at the drive-thru. Men he sees as statues kiss “paper bag medusas.”

The alley “is a casino.”

In this environment, the narrator is no longer a lone crow. He is a member “of a new flock/ of fructose fiends/ jittery off of jolly rancher jolts…”

In the title poem, “English Lit,” Clay takes on “conquest-thirsty cultures” whose enterprise is celebrated in literature classes where he sits “in classrooms/ full of white girls/ who aspire to be teachers/ or pontificating writers…”

He is told that his own writing attempts “should cease and desist” but he resists and rejoices as he watches “the queen’s English/ being lit.”

A self-described “griot of urban decay,” Bernard Clay kept writing because he knew he had something to say. According to his website, he has spent most of his life in Kentucky cultivating an appreciation “…for the state’s disappearing natural wonders and unique but sparse urban areas.”

He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Kentucky in 2017 and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective. No longer an urban resident, he and his wife live in Berea.

“English Lit” is available from Old Cove Press. To order or for more information contact: books@oldcove.com. Access Bernard Clay’s website at bernard-clay.com.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.


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