The last two years have been tumultuous ones and have left people reeling. You can either dwell on the hopelessness of it all, or try and seek out the light. Poet and writer, Maxine Beneba Clarke does both of these things, but mostly the latter, in her fourth poetry collection, How Decent Folk Behave. This work contains such powerful observations about recent times, it’s like Clarke conjured up our histories and placed them in a time capsule.
This award-winning author has a strong and incredible voice. She is also successful at writing across different genres, including non-fiction, essays and children’s books. Most people probably know her for The Hate Race. Her background is in slam poetry and it’s obvious from reading this that she loves the written word. In fact, she’s like a master artist crafting whole worlds and pictures for us. It should come as no surprise that at the time of writing, this poetry collection has been shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Award.
2020 and 2021 will likely go down in history books as some of the most challenging we have experienced in recent time. They have also provided fertile ground for Clarke to process her thoughts on many important issues. Those wanting to read her perspective on things like: Black Lives Matter, racism, refugees, domestic violence, climate change, feminism and toxic masculinity, will find many exciting ideas and food for thought.
The title, How Decent Folk Behave comes from her poem “Something Sure,” which Clarke wrote in the aftermath of Hannah Clarke (no relation) and her three children’s death at the hands of Hannah’s ex-partner. It’s such an incendiary piece and a testament to this poet’s expert abilities as a writer that she can make us feel this gut-punch of empathy for a family many of us do not know.
Clarke is a mother and a woman of colour. Her identity shines through in much of her work. While her experiences may not always be the same as her reader’s, where she excels is in painting pictures of our common ground. She knows how to crystallise where we relate and intersect in our emotions as human beings. You can feel her protectiveness for her children as she writes about the Friday Climate Change March, and when she laments those people spending too much screen-time in Generation Zoom.
How Decent Folk Behave is a distillation of Maxine’s thoughts and perspectives from the past few years. It is something that should offer a collective sense of catharsis to the many challenges we have all experienced. Clarke ultimately makes poetry accessible for all with her well-honed observations and moments of sheer vulnerability. This collection will equally appeal to our minds, guts and hearts. Gorgeous.