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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Tom Clark

Thirteen poems

Hazard Response

As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby
When the white sky darkens over the city
Of ashes, far from the once happy valley,
This daze spreads across the blank faces
Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived
Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.
Did I say kingdom when I meant place
Of worship?  Original when I meant
Damaged in handling?  Promised when
I meant stolen?  Gift when I meant
Trick?  Inhabitants when I meant slaves?
Slaves when I meant clowns
Who have wandered into test sites?  Test
Sites when I meant contagious hospitals?
Contagious hospitals when I meant clouds
Of laughing gas?  Laughing gas
When I meant tears?  No, it’s true,
No one should be writing poetry
In times like these, Dear Reader,
I don’t have to tell you of all people why.
It’s as apparent as an attempted
Punch in the eye that actually
Catches only empty air — which is
The inside of your head, where
The green ritual sanction
Of the poem has been cancelled.

The Pilots

Ziad Jarrah danced at his female cousin’s
Wedding. Slender with glasses, intelligent
Looking, a seemingly happy young man,
Smiling pleasantly, his arms waving in the festive air.

Having lost his son, Mohammed Atta’s
Father rages against the Americans. Mohammed’s
Boyhood friend weeps to recall the ‘delicate,
Innocent, virgin’ youth of their childhood hours.

Marwan Al-Shehhi lived behind that gate
Between the two buildings, see that obscured
Back yard, where the street starts to get real
Ramshackle — dedicated, serious, committed to the cause.

The standing pool of language, thickened then with
The algae and flotsam of guilt and time
And fear, coagulating to clog
The throat; the conscience anyway never clear...

How to build sentences of such transparency
The strange accidence of those pictures of the dead
Peels away to reveal a grammar of humanness
Life our school, knowledge of suffering our teacher.

Night Sky

to Blanqui

The universe as the site of lingering cosmic
catastrophes — points of conflict in the text,
          Nablus, Jenin,
through which it’s impossible to see the stars.
Dark spots that shade the eyes. ‘This eternity
of the human being among the stars is a melancholy
thing... There exists a world where a man follows a
road that, in the other world, his double did not take.’

The routinization of the suffering that comes with
having a soul. The martyr’s pain is repeated in
the same moment over and over again at infinite sites
scattered through the universe, pockets of darkness between stars.

Life as the monotonous flow of an hourglass
that eternally empties and turns itself over, teaching
yes, but always the same lesson, the new sand is
always old the old sand always new.

November of the Plague Year

Unwilling to turn and glimpse the blind exorcist’s face,
Unconditional suspenders of disbelief,
Back-to-Normals shop to live, drive to shop

So a busy world spins by my window again
Till buying hour stops, and night noise
Falls through the white rain and hangs there.

Sky glows red with last few searching tracer lights,
Infant tenement memories and other spectral
Mystery silhouettes, shifting in the mind

Between the first and last breaths, a blank disassembling.
Between the first flashback — a brick airshaft,
Carlight Zero diving, wartime voices distant —

And the evaporation of the tribe, replaying
The great mobilization of ghosts
In the grey area, somewhere before dawn.

How long? The shadow of a doubt moves
Across a door in the imagined dark
Of the ancient cranium, under a patriot sky.

Lustration Rite

Saturday night kitties loll about bathing
in milky blue flickering tv light and shade
as if it were not the end of the world after all
chimneysweep girl Dark Sister furiously
pecking at herself then abruptly pausing
to stare off into deep space quizzical while
Princey the great sleek black head potentate
laps daintily at his own snowy breastfur
and glances up through slit eyes sphinxlike
across the temple of the disinterested moment
at the advertised world apocalypse



Little Prince basks serene
As an Egyptian god on his barge
On the green cushion, gently breathing

While in his sleep mouselike plays the mind
With its empty toys less real
Than the large drops of rain the nightwind tosses

The night, dark as the flooding of the Nile
The brain, that clouded crystal ball
Blurry with drowned thoughts —

A waterlogged squirrel that gathers
Its nuts to float this dream of words sub noctis
From magic to error, from aether to terra

On the upriver stream toward morning


Black doldrums, then a stir, then tackle snapping —
Which would you prefer, the calm after, during
Or before the storm?  Anxious news flutters
Its broadsides across our ragged, tattered
Sails; lightning darkens, and it rains more
Than if the sun, drunk the night before,
Staggered by a wave, fell below the hatches;
While the moon, tossed overboard, washed ashore
On that island which no sailor reaches,
Returns to haunt our sea-locked ship, and night
Comes back to unsettle restive stagnant day.
A rotten state, finally, bearded by flies,
Dogged by the death of the wind at noon
And the breathless simoon at evening;
Black doldrums, then a stir, then tackle snapping.

The Vacant Estate

The estate stands vacant: the silent stone dogs,
The lawns well grassed, the checkered polyanthus,
The polished porphyry, and — thus
The fool’s delusion of an opening —
All the machines are running. It appears
They have simply turned them on and gone.
The coral root oozes syrup sharp as quince,
Jasmine clings to the perspiring palms,
By the rock silverlings glide belly up.
In your dream all the machines are running
(Can they be turned off?) out of the empty house
Across the emerald turf toward you,
Tridents waving like wild stalks of corn,
Antennae scraping the clouds... and then they’re gone.
You turn around and it’s tomorrow,
Nature has shut her doors.

A Fairy Tale

The ambassador to the hall of mirrors
Losing himself in troubled reflections shows
His cards against a green felt field of chance:
One turns the page over — how will it come out? —
This formal dance of a tale in need of
A fairy tale ending, starting with a dream,
The storied ball in which the princess
Prepares to die of heartbreak when the music
That rings against the painted sky and tree
Has ceased and the ball is over, finishes
Instead in accident not tragedy,
The bright life in the dark half-life memorized,
The sole remaining sound quiet tires leaving,
The guests’ faces pressed to the iced windows,
The long black sigh of the departing diplomat —
Deep in a time that’s independent of us
Where that music long ago stopped echoing —
Spiraling like a stopped scream through the blind elms.

At Life

I am no good, nor, I have to allow,
Are many others so much better at it
That I might learn to be good from them.
And besides it’s too late now for the blind
Clown to take up the scholar’s hornbook
As he pedals off the unobserved cliff.
‘I’ve worn the dress in this role long enough,’
Says the speech balloon that suspends him,
‘To know how to catch the wind in it
And on this billowing chute to float me down
Gently to touch the fathomless drink
Upon which the dying sun breathes its meanings,
Shadows born yesterday to die tomorrow —’
The ice shelf collapsed, the dust cloud swiftly coming.


for Angelica

Old clichés finally speaking untold volumes,
‘Getting on in years,’ that comedy without laughter,
Drifting through the fitful intervals in
Which insomnia presages a dull oblivion,
Half dozing, I am awakened suddenly
By the sharpness of the aromatic root
In your name, which has your fragrance in it,
Like a flower pressed between the pages
Of a book put aside long ago, and reopened
At the beginning of the unread final chapter.


Self reborn as lotus in head

better late than never low in the southwest

the full moon a half degree wide
                      just after sunset peeping

           later still, indigo cheesecloth night

Redwood cloaked in fog
raccoons moving from floor to floor,
          from room to room
in the fog,

with a sound like thin paper tearing.

Lullaby for Cuckoo

Did you suffer, or was it just the one who made you?
Little bird, deluded or self-deluded,
close you eyes, and let these chirps resound
mechanically. Was vision the clue you lacked,
when emerging from the works you sang sweetly
of midnight, though it was purple noon
and purple riot ran through you, while
the big hand batted and rocked around
the clock, and you alone had time for me?
Or was homo faber the missing link
who forged you in his workshop of stupid toys?
Either way, the little hand is catching up,
the door is opening; you aren’t coming out.

Tom Clark The American poet Tom Clark attended Cambridge University and Essex University in England in the early 1960s, where he edited a series of mimeograph magazines featuring a generation of younger poets who would also appear in The Paris Review during his ten-year tenure as poetry editor (1963—1973). He now teaches writing on the Core Faculty in Poetics at the New College of California in San Francisco, and lives in Berkeley.
You can read an interview with Tom Clark in this issue of Jacket.
You can read Tom Clark’s biography, a detailed bibliography, a statement on poetics and a list of live links to all his pieces in Jacket magazine here, at Jacket’s Author Notes page.

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