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Dale Smith reviews

The Spell, by Tom Clark

LAST WINTER scientists reported an ozone hole over the Arctic the size of North America. This leads me to believe there could be a giant hole blown through the climates of our spiritual north, to use a metaphysical term referred to by certain North Africans of the medieval period to describe the imaginal geography of the soul. I don’t know if that helps explain the psychic anti-matter blowing over us like nuclear fall-out, or plucked columbine petals, but I think it’s true, as one friend of mine recently suggested, that we live in an economy, not a world. But Americans are spellbound people, plunging into a dense abstraction, where career, market shares and various material models of growth direct attention away from those now quaint ideals of medieval romance. Fidelity, loyalty, camaraderie and the life-altering adventures of the quest lie in the deep-frozen permafrost of distant atmospheres. But the quest, that at heart always belongs to the warrior, remains one of few responses for those in possession of their senses.

The Spell - cover detailThe Spell is Tom Clark’s mock allegory and inverted heroic romance. It magically invokes the ancient honor of a species demoted from medieval adventurers to technicians of social hierarchies. Clark suggests that a regressive doom dance between Stone Age psychology and the tools projected from it have all but debased the courtly ideals and shadow deals Caxton relates in his Preface to Malory’s Mort d’Arthur: ‘noble chyvalrye, curtosye, humanyté, frendlynesse, hardynesse, love, frendshyp, cowardyse, murdre, hate, vertue, and synne.’ Perhaps we have not only neared but succumbed to the anamorphic conditions branded with exemplary wit and craft in Clark’s book.

The Spell presents a transposition, where the form of romance overlays a sci-fi landscape cranking and creaking with mechanical creatures. But correspondences quickly show through this prose-verse narrative, and the highest ideals of medieval European clanship are exploited in the story to reveal pulp fiction lives familiar as our own. This transposing of old form on new time brings to our interpretive lenses the delicately sensitive psyche, a winged imago newly born from chrysalid sleep. This morphology presents through narrative sequences the possibilities of a quest-realm, where innocence achieved is innocence hard earned.

... Time sleeps
for the blue morpho. The wink
of wings as she probes
orange-throated corollas
of shaded woodland flowers
was programmed eons ago

but as she spirals up
to break away the airflow
data mosaics
and flight plan codes
show up on bright screens
in a cool dark corridor
of the hero’s dream
this moment now.

And so opens the romance, written with an upsurgence of dream-image on floating lines and hollowed vowel clusters, set between a comic, conscious pulp prose that paints in sharp light the heroic order of the Central Falls Central Knights.

Mysterious is the force
that drives arrogance to call
down fate ... (19)

But down fate comes all too soon, the body of Nivene, (‘that skinny little pink-haired roadhouse chanteuse’), found ‘inside a wrecked pickup truck down at the dark bloodshot bottom of Madder Lake’ (20). Compact prose builds a comic undersurface while revealing an alternate geographic projection that could be Anywhere, USA, some time in the not-so-distant, toxin-dumped future. But these lucid and compressed sentences narrate with great beauty the ugly facts of a dark world. ‘That poor girl,’ Clark writes, ‘was still locked up like a fetus in a womb, with those once-pale-blue peepers of hers gleaming bright as a couple of ruby-colored grapes dropped into a glass of mud’ (20). The wild geography quickly forms in these early pages that introduce the Flypaper Towns (‘stuck together as they were in a tenuous protective band between the helix-shaped chain of Crazy Lakes’), and the Pelting Villages that are annually threatened with ‘damage wreaked by venomous swarms of funnel clouds.’ In these ‘spooky precincts backwoods mysteries of hex-casting, changeling species and toxic-spellbound ritual inbreeding were carried to mystical extremes,’ while ‘misjudgments based on unfortunate prejudices amounted to a tradition, an unavoidable atmospheric hazard, almost a way of life.’ It’s in this setting we find the book’s hero, the high school sport star Knight, Big Jesus Toomer, himself named ‘after the hero of an obscure ancient sect’ (28).

In this sublunary landscape the Central Falls Central Knights, victorious in football if not life, live animated by some dimly perceived code of conduct that prevents the disclosure of individual quest. They mount instead ‘Furies and Chargers, their Impalas and Darts, out on to the several roads of life’ (23).

And out there beyond the headlights’ feeble glow the dark would be full of the spinal-fluid-cooling sounds of invisible, yet more substantial beings: the howls of the two-headed dogs, prolonged and subliminally threatening, and the weird, tremulous hoots of spellbound mechanical owls (23).

Big Jesus, by the hook-and-crook of the heart, awakens to his own inwardness through the charms and deceptions of the chanteuse Nivene, who sings ‘on the little two-bit stage at the No Nothing Inn’ (35). Her ‘signature number’ contains the magic spell that paints her own unconscious morphology in a bluesy tune called ‘Doofus Voodoo.’

Gray strings of pain unravel,
distant puppet masters
Punching their remotes
Wire you to the carpet
Break you up like shrapnel.
By the burning river
Frozen bridges thaw (36).

This voodoo hexing against sub sentient powers spills out of the book in an alchemy abluted by the challenges and tests that shake a feeble, lumbering psyche. Big Jesus’s quest awakens self-knowledge through a wilderness shrouded in violent ignorance. It’s the world of ‘puppet-dwarves’ with names like Buthoe Thub, (‘to be jerked around on invisible leading strings, tugged, shaken, compelled, until the mechanical dance of life seemed strange and unreal, was the common fate of those helpless creatures’), and taunting witches whose spells keep the world dumb.

Say Gosharootie again, said the witches, taunting and tormenting. Say it, or else.

Gosharootie, uttered the puppet-dwarf obediently. His face broke into a terrible pained ecstatic smile. Crimson rivulets streamed from his strangely large round eyes like tears.

Big Jesus had happened into a training session of art-magician’s school.

Okay, said the witches. Now say Thylvia Platho.

Big Jesus could stand no more knowledge of this dark business and slunk off into a dump of bramble bushes at the edge of the compound, where he lay back a while to get his breath (148).

As the Romance unravels, Big Jesus’s quest is recorded by the likes of Epaminondas the Particular, whose Life of Big Jesus is quoted as a source for the legend of the hero’s quest. The interlinking poems between descriptive prose deepen The Spell by compressing narrative in allegorical reverbs that register to our ears with cultural significance.

Through the forest canopy the toxic sun blazed,
turning the leaves silver brilliant one minute,
the next a blinding matte black. The hero, stupid,
stumbled on in his spellbound waking dream.
It was in those woods the Keepers of the Secret Shacks
had forged the Spell dubbed ‘Destroyer of Worlds,’
tested it on animals and so turned them
into machines. Their name was Legion.
They swam in charged pools and chattered from stunted trees.
Into those woods the hero stumbled, stupid
if not senseless. Wonder not at the disappearance
of Nivene, for the ‘Destroyer of Worlds’
is like a wand which upon contact with life
magically deadens it into legend (168).

The tale is woven, or unwound, as Big Jesus’ hulking psyche slowly morphs in the outskirt wilderness of Lake Insanity. The ‘melancholy of overnaming’ (170) overtakes him in his chanteuse butterfly obsession, and

Toward the end of his program the hero felt
As if he were approaching metamorphosis -
Perhaps the last foolish emotion
He would ever feel, as dissolution joined
Metaphor to reveal larval
(In his case) as a stage in degeneration,
And the hollow husk he was now to leave
Behind (thinking stupidly of that shed
Integument as part of interesting pupa
History) as a glittering death
Mask (198) . . .

Pop pulp language submerges in this noir narrative a psychological and mythic knowledge embodied by brief passages where clarity of Big Jesus’s situation blurs eerily into our own.

Anamorphic distortion, according to Abbot Squayre Dood, always causes the twisted to turn out straight and the bent to show up true, in the old funhouse-mirror histories. Yet it’s also a fact, as everyone knows, that in reviewing old histories the distorting-glass of our minds habitually sends the broken fragments of language that come in to us back to their seeming ancient senders with the mixed messages ironed-out into shocking simplicities. What indeed could have told Big Jesus more about any one-dimensional truth, at that moment, than the monsters crouching in wait in concealed corners of his own spellbound imagination - those incorrigible creations of his hex-crossed mind, with their blinding mysteries now at last to be exposed to him (199)?

For more than 30 years, Clark has contributed significantly to poetry as a critic, poet and defiant knight errant. At a time when to write words is enough to make a career for both poet and critic alike, Clark has labored to apply an active and perceptive intelligence to all he addresses. The Spell is no exception, and in many ways is an achievement of wit and hard-won knowledge gained by an artist resigned to discomfort in a culture where to be comfortable is to accept complacency in it. In these pages the ‘rude mechanicals’ are revealed, and the landscape suffers under their repetitious and certain anamorphoses.

Dale Smith is the editor of Skanky Possum
You can read his informative article Reading Philip Whalen in Jacket # 5.
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