Over the past 5 years, Tom Clark has been quietly publishing some of the best work of his life (which is saying a lot). I identify the following books of poems:
Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010)
At the Fair (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Canyonesque (BlazeVOX, 2011)
Distance (BlazeVOX, 2012)
The Truth Game (BlazeVOX, 2013)
Evening Train (BlazeVOX, 2014)
There may be others. These seven books account for some six hundred plus pages of poetry that see Clark deeply investing his earliest poetics with a hard-hitting concision in the facture, combined with a wistful yet ultimately optimistic sense of observation. This observation can take place in the poet’s immediate neighborhood, the changing fabric of north Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Angelica, or it can travel the universe, via Clark’s omnivorous reading and wide-ranging research. He uses his knowledge knowingly, that is, specific details are marshaled in the service of a deeper message, delivered with wit and sophistication.
There is much that is elegiac in the tone of these poems, but the emphasis on the mind thinking and the eloquence with which these tonalities are orchestrated add up to an experience that is terrifically energizing. The way Clark uses line-endings and continuations is unerringly precise. We know we are in the presence of a master. Here is an example, the poem “To a Certain Friend,” from Something in the Air:
Presence comes before everything, even before being
The you to whom everything once belonged
If by everything one means the fullness of nature’s beauty
You must remember now that much has been taken from you
Grief too will go from you as from sorrowing songs
Sorrow goes, leaving nothing for you after a while
But the memory of the melody, some old familiar tune
That’s lingered on long past the moment you first sailed
Gracefully into the room, as if all the modern languages
Were coming down to me so that I could say these things
Then there are poems that are haiku-like in their brevity, American takes on the immediate and the passing, such as “Fame” from At the Fair:
A hot dog paper blows across
the infield, passing into
shadows near third base.
Other poems register, in language that becomes surprisingly activated, a particular scene observed. One such poem is “Full Moon through Clouds” from Canyonesque:
the brief deep blue middle
of the night window
between the third
and fourth in a series
of cold Pacific storms
through an opening
in the flotilla of big
low rain saturated
city light pink underside
a brilliant full moon
Some of Clark’s observations take place on the web, and those familiar with his blog Beyond the Pale can attest to his acuity in combining words with carefully researched images. Here’s one example, a poem embedded within a series of images, Clark’s usual posting technique. This time, the poem comes from painter Jim Dine:
And Clark himself adds a comment:
“In case it doesn't totally go without saying, there are a lot of poems in this giant poem of Jim's, and a lot of meanings, Jim's, yours, mine — and he's open to all of them, of course.
Sometimes an incorrect educated guess is the only thing that will get you through the night.
Had stubbornly thought maybe somebody would get up the nerve to pip a squeak about the poem, think it's great, hate it, have a feeling, one way or another, as in — whatever, like, don't like, am confused by, but — dream on, old timer.
Pretty obvious that at least the hosts here (okay, boring old people, but we get to think things too, nothing so smart as the thoughts of the idiot young, but still) were impressed, honoured, grateful.
The psychogeographic mapping power, gestural energy and emotional drive of the thing, remarkable.
To entertain the weird idea that poems should mean or say anything at all about anything real, or have anything at all real buried within them, or should deserve and earn and receive actual serious attention, before being filed under whatever idle categorical predisposition, is, of itself, a sort of violation of the current way of things — too demanding, like. To be serious, to mean something, to admit to and attempt to honestly articulate strong feeling — total no-no's nowadays, ask any ambitious junior professor anywhere.