White Thought, by Tom Clark
reviewed by Dale Smith
This piece is 1,200 words or about four printed pages long
"Every life is the story of a collapse," writes Tom Clark in his book of poems, Like Real People, quoting the writer E.M. Cioran. Clark then expands on this statement, insisting that the poet contains diverse lives, retrieving the "deepest and purest voices of the human collective's several selves."
"What else," he continues, "are the figures of poetry but the extrapolations of all the continually collapsing lives that quarrel within us?"
Clark's new book, White Thought, offers powerful, lyric energy that attentively reveals these collapsed lives. The failure of life, the aging body and the enduring pain of mortal awareness, conflicted by "the blood of good and 'simple' people," connect these poems under the hermetic cloud of "white thought." In "Time Goes By, We Are Here," Clark writes:
White thought, too, is perhaps mere atmosphere. Yet were it not for the atmosphere's protection the sun would shine on us with fierce intensity, unveiled, rampant, predatory, beating down upon us brutally out of a pitch black sky from which we should, if we shaded our eyes, be able to pick out stars in the daytime (p. 63).|
Air has been a symbol of life for Clark in earlier works, most notably in his book Air, where it represented a shared breath of unity and cohesive clarity. But here, the atmosphere is a shield that offers protection against the deadly effects of the sun. White thought is presented as a protective, metaphoric layer, that places the chaotic, frightening truth of death's reality safely beyond the realm of daily awareness. White thought also carries racial implications. It preserves Americans of European descent who, like Clark, long to maintain the atmospheric layers of psychic protection. The poems contained here, however, reveal too clearly the delusions of such teleological shields. In the title poem of the book we read:
Here's what I love about the slipstream blankness
Of the white page, and why at least until
My sail sets against the gold sun going
Down into some quiet red ocean
With its promise of perfect crescent
Reefs whose emerald shadows beyond
The yellow sands of a dream paradise
Harbor an illimitable conception,
I'll beckon, white thought streaming through the pale
Veins of the white leaf, to sink deep into
The watermark and insinuate the margins
The way a sailors' girl wraps her leg around
A lamp, whose illumination also falls
To its knees before the grand fog incoming (p. 10).
The occasion of the death of the poet's mother forces this introspection and meditation. Clark interrogates his perceptions, taking the reader close to the nerves of a man faced with the mysteries of a parent's death. In "Surrendering the Site," he writes:
"If one still thinks and feels in a world of real people, where awareness of pain or danger keeps on providing an excuse for repeated postponements of hope, and the unknown fibers of unsuspected neural connections still report their limits even while they are being forcibly broken, there is an unmistakable sense of a concurrent central disintegration that promises inevitable ends not far out of sight" (p. 9). These bleak insights are gained through an intensity of poetic sympathy with the subject at hand. They also are crafted with great focus and sealed with the perfection of a poet's intimate knowledge of lives that fall apart inside and out.|
"White," as H.D. describes it, is the result of a "point in the spectrum / where all lights become one . . . light is not a color." Clark's poems show the "white day opening" (p. 11), "days with a kind of white haze" (p. 12) and "days atonal as white noise" (p.13). He provides a "glimpse of daylight" (p. 26) between fog and shadows, juxtaposing an "eerie coppery glow against the deep / blue black of the night" (p. 50). The poems reach skyward "through bare branches cotton clouds drift by" (p. 13). "A few white blossoms" (p. 14), "a broken glass light of clouds" (p. 41), "dreams like cigarette smoke" (p. 23) and "snow falling all around the edges / Of the world" (p. 25) reflect the idea, the very blankness, of "white thought."
The whiteness of snow, fog and haze obscures the world, providing images that are analogous to an "eternity of thought against / the momentariness of sensation" (p. 12). Light is in conflict with the atmosphere while fog and cloud shadow a brilliant sheen of snow. The earth itself eclipses the moon's light to create a "dull coppery orange glowing inside its own aura" (p. 50). "Rays of light just grazing the rim of our blue globe / must be slowing down as they pass through these dense atmospheres" (p. 50). The conflict of light and air, knowledge and survival, frames "the gray slipstream of unretrieved memories, ... flow[ing] back to wherever it is that everything that's ever been forgotten is stored" (p. 55). "The blood aswarm with imagined lights" (p. 12) in another poem becomes "a point of light appearing in the dream" (p. 39), while "the moon is the soul of dreams and shows" (p. 52). The moon here is not a symbol, but a tool. It is a satellite that deflects not only the sun's light to the earth's night, it also reflects the poet's own projections, making conscious his hidden nature. The movements between light and shadow, cloud and sky, reveal the anxiety and loss of a man confronted by death. The pain of knowledge and of memory fights against the survival mechanisms of repression and forgetfulness. What was once familiar turns strange as, in "Light Sleeper," "the shapes before my eyes became / obscure as all those lost relationships, / as all the ballast of familiar life" (p. 38).
White Thought reveals a struggle between fear and knowledge. A vulnerable submission to fear provides Clark with strength to examine the universal human experience of emotional and spiritual loss, confusion and collapse. Playing on Donne's "Holy Sonnet #10," in a poem entitled, "Trinity," Clark writes, "Batter my heart, three-person'd pronoun" (p. 21). The ironic substitution, "pronoun" for "God," complicates Donne's theological position by updating the reference for a more secular audience. The allusion also carries the weight and scrutiny of that English Renaissance poet's own intense conflict between body and spirit, the knowledge of the latter given only with physical ruin. The Trinity of the poem's title, "my soul, my / mother and my father" (p. 21), is the center of a young life as yet unaware of "the broken hands of awful father earth" (p. 21). A mixture of nostalgia and bitter awareness push this poem toward the only hope offered by it: "whatever agonies the body suffers pass" (p. 21).
Those "collapsing lives" continue to quarrel in other poems, but White Thought exists, finally, due to the poet's own self-compassion, and for addressing the "slipstream blankness / Of the white page." Clark "prepares the air for what the dead don't know / How swiftly we are coming to join them" (p. 13).
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