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Elaine Equi reviews

«Light & shade: new and selected poems»
by Tom Clark

Coffee House Press/ 337 pp. / $20 This review is 1,230 words
or about 3 printed pages long

The natural

In one poem from his latest collection, Tom Clark describes a “blue jay/ with electric black/ wings/ and a simonized/ gorgeousness/ about him…” The phrase seems an apt, in fact perfect way to also think about Clark’s own writing which I’ve always associated with a hard (in the sense of durable), bright coherence and quasi-Elizabethan love of literary ornament. His poems, though written in a variety of styles, are in essence highly reflective surfaces of shiny words bouncing acoustically and semantically off one another. Consider the opening stanzas of “Easter Sunday”:

Someone has frozen the many-storeyed houses
Under this planetarium
A brilliant silence like a foghorn

A perfect frieze before the complications
Arrive with dialogue and
The olives of daily life

Clear, he is. Transparent, never.

Having been a long time reader and avid fan of Tom Clark, I was interested to see what new insights would come from looking at “the bigger picture.” One surprise was the idea of Tom Clark as a nature poet. Since we tend to think of nature poets as an unnaturally solemn and serene group, this category may at first seem too pious and at odds with Clark’s irrepressible irreverence and caustic wit. Reading through the book, however, I began to appreciate the elegance and particularity of what constitutes a Tom Clark landscape. His skies of “wild peach liqueur/ spilled on dirty pillows” are as distinctive as Turner’s. His view of the ocean “In Water World” has the subtle quality of Japanese silk screen:

The sea repeats itself in dreams, a green-grey world of water
Calm boats frozen in shade
Pale blank clouds, pines, rocks and kelp shrouds
Like woolly fish in mist pink distance floating
The beach stretches as far as the sand bar
Clean detached waves wash over dry stone, tears of rain drift
The water is perfectly still, restructuring everything

But Clark is not merely painterly, no matter how lush and seductive the scenery may be. His readings/ writings of particular places also convey a sense of their history, of the way they’ve changed and the social and economic forces that have changed them. He shows us not just the mansions of the very rich, but also missile sites and mining towns like Gillette (Wyoming) where:

The coal trains go through all night long
with a racket like all of hell being unleashed as noise.
At first, as you lie in bed in your motel room or mobile home
it merely disrupts your sleep, your nervous system. Later you kill
your dog and wife.

In the same way one associates Baudelaire with Paris, or Frank O’Hara with New York, Tom Clark is one of the great poet/ painters of California and the American West. It is interesting to note that one of Clark’s earlier books was entitled, Paradise Resisted. Thus, one might say he is a chronicler of disenchantment with the American dream, able to capture its shimmering golden aura, as well as the dark, corrosive qualities of late capitalism run rampant.
I began by talking about an aspect of Clark’s work that, though always present, would not be the first thing that came to mind if you mentioned his name to me. What I would think of is his buoyantly playful sense of humor, along with the zany, almost cartoonish way he juxtaposes high and low, literary and mundane references, box scores and secret alphabets. For myself and a whole generation of then younger, now well into middle age, poets, Tom Clark was the Godfather of Metaphysical Pop. His cosmic reordering of the universe allowed him to look at baseball in terms of mythology, and to put an English Renaissance spin on an Everly Brothers hit, teasing the line “Here I come: That’s Cathy’s Clown” into the frothy, poeticized “We clown in airs of each other’s consciousness.”

Somehow it seems fitting that a quintessentially California poet be able to expound upon not just natural beauty, but also on the fake, the plastic, the glossy, the manufactured, and most important, the entertaining. The two aesthetics of nature and artifice must be viewed in light of each other, in dialogue so to speak. For Clark, the truest beauty of all turns out to be that of form — which he uses to link different spheres in surprising ways, as he does when comparing birds and basketball superstars in “Birds:”

Sky full of blue nothing toward which the Magi
Move, like dream people who are Walt Fraziers of the air…
Sometimes the moves they make amaze them
For they will never happen again, until the end of time; but there they are.

So shall I be like them? I don’t think so … and yet to float
Above the rolling H2O
On wings that express the mechanics of heaven
Like a beautiful golden monkey wrench
Expresses mechanics of earth … t’would be bueno.

I confess to having always been partial to that last line and the way it splices two dictions in the wink of an eye. No one can shift gears faster than Clark, moving from a lofty (celestial) tone, to a more colloquial (earthy) one. It is his classic combination to inflate with giddy metaphors and hyperbole, in order to set us up for a well-timed punchline later.

Another poetic device Clark often uses is that of direct address. I remember a whole series of what I’ll call epistolary odes from the 70s where he pays tribute to a diverse constellation of heroes (literary and non). I wish more of these had been included, but two excellent examples are here. One is to the Egyptian born Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti, whom Clark hails warmly as Giusep’; the other, to baseball great Roberto Clemente begins: “So long Roberto Clemente/ you have joined the immortals/ who’ve been bodysnatched/ by the Bermuda Triangle.” Rereading these poems, I’m reminded again of Frank O’Hara and his manifesto “Personism” where the poem is “at last between two persons instead of two pages.” Several of Clark’s other poems are dedicated/ addressed to various of his friends — among them Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan. Particularly moving to me are the poems for Ted, for they have that feeling of being written to someone you feel you can say anything to.

A book by Tom Clark is a good companion because its author is always happy to point out an especially amazing “yacht blue/ sky,” egregious social injustice, or stunning epigram by the likes of La Rochefoucauld: “Love/ Like ghosts/ much talked about,/ seldom seen.” I enjoy the poems, but I learn a lot too. It is gratifying to have such a representative selection of his work in one volume. Light and Shade spans an impressive career of over forty years that is still going strong. In an early poem, Clark writes: “Lady,/ I ride straight to you/ Like a line out of a geometry/ Book” — and it’s true! His work has always, and continues to have an unwavering directness, while still remaining immensely textured, complex, and rich. His poems are a reliable compass. Whenever I forget why I liked poetry to begin with, I can count on Tom Clark to give me plenty of reasons.

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