At the Fair by Tom Clark
(BlazeVOX Books, New York, 2010)
I first read a number of the poems in At the Fair on Tom Clark’s blog Beyond the Pale. When published online, most appeared in concert with photographs. I always related to the poem and photos as a unit. So it’s interesting to read them here sans their images. I don’t think it’s a criticism to wish that they could have been published as they first appeared, since they stand perfectly well on their own, but Clark’s ear-eye for “harmony” and/or “counterpoint” is impeccable, and I strongly advise readers of this book to check out the blog as well.
Unlike many back-cover blurbs, which often seem as if written for no particular occasion except that of showing off the cleverness of the blurb-writer, there are some lovely ones on the back of At the Fair that say exactly what I’d like to say, so I’ll quote a little instead of trying to outdo or redo them: “This book … is a mutable one-handed keep-awake smack in the forest of loss.” (Tom Raworth) “Memory, time, and the suffering of puny humans who resonate nonetheless with beauty, are indelible in this work …” (Andrei Codrescu)
Or, as William Flesch put it elsewhere, in “Great post plus picnics!”, a comment he appended 15 Oct 010 to Joshua Landy, “SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within”, at http://arcade.stanford.edu/suny-albany-stanley-fish-and-enemy-within Arcade, 14 Oct 010, “And isn’t the triumph of the picnic over death, however briefly, the lesson of the Aeneid (7.116-117)?”
Pace Virgil, this question is ultimately unanswerable. But it hangs in the air, doesn’t it?
Pierre Joris recently posted some translations of bits from Habib Tengour’s Gens de Mosta:
He scoffed at his own lamentations, felt them to be fake too. What was all this? A masked ball! How to penetrate souls? Answer the questions? Deliver oneself. Be at peace. Impressions of his adolescent readings of Tolstoy swam to the surface. The shepherds use a lash to drive the flocks to pasture. The world remained an indecipherable enigma and yet in bowshot distance. How to realize such a displacement?
Same question as that which Flesch asks?
So: what if a contemporary Ecclesiastes with a killer eye and a killer ear had spent a lifetime in Vanity Fair not just watching the pie-eating contest but digging in himself? He might have been the voice that reminded Hugh Romney “there isn’t just the Life-Show and the Show-Show, Wavy, there’s the Life-Life, too”; he might have been the thief who whispered that verse to Dylan, which ends: “ … you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate/ /So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”. Ceasing to talk falsely, he might have written these poems.
A hot dog paper blows across
the infield, passing into
shadows near third base.
To me, what makes this poem memorable is not its sic transit gloria mundi, but rather that said sic transit is visible literally everywhere.
Again, another short one:
The descent beckons
The finite stands before the infinite
as a perfect
Perhaps it’s unnecessary to note that these are not a youngun’s poems.
“The descent beckons”: one does, of course, hear Dr Williams. Carl Rapp writes of Williams’ “The Descent”:
“The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned.”, says Williams at the beginning of his final phase, and he means by this a descent into memory, a descent into his own inner depths, wherein he finds compensation for the increasingly disturbing poverty of that which is revealed by the senses. Like Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass, Williams reaches a point at which the external world no longer seems to provide an adequate correlative for his desires and expectations. His only recourse is to turn inward, as Wordsworth does, in search of satisfactions which the outward world apparently denies. … “The Descent” establishes a pattern often repeated in Williams’ later poetry; Williams takes the facts as he finds them and interprets them in such a way as to give them a new, more beneficent character. The facts in themselves are neither disguised nor altered, but Williams makes it possible for us to see them in a new way and to give them new names. As a result, the problems they pose appear to have been dissolved, while Williams himself appears to have been elevated to a life of the spirit in which he is inwardly more secure than ever before …
(From Rapp’s William Carlos Williams And Romantic Idealism, as found at Modern American Poetry)
Clark, though clearly among the inheritors of much of Williams’ aesthetic, cannot be said to have interpreted facts and “interpret[ed] them in such a way as to give them a new, more beneficent character.” If Rapp were to transpose some of what he wrote on Williams to describe this project of Clark’s he’d have to have written
… the problems [the facts] pose do not appear to have been dissolved, and Clark himself does not appear to have been elevated to a life of the spirit in which he is inwardly more secure than ever before …
Clark refuses Williams’ recourse, and in fact offers none. Which is why these poems are so moving.
I don’t want to leave the impression that these poems are all “it’s hopeless, it’s hopeless, oh woe, oh woe, let’s just get fetal and forget about it.” Not at all. They’re just realistic. It ain’t over til it’s over. I’ll quote one more, to give a little of that flavor:
Oh, so much stands in shadow, so little is understood; so many images wish to speak, so many voices have been misplaced; best intentions having left us behind, where to begin catching up, so late?
Was it we who denatured nature, or was it merely following its own path, having its way with itself, regardless of us?
Without having come to an edge, how shall we know when it has come time to turn a corner?
Once having separated things, and inserted an “and” between them, how shall we (re)discover their orders?
Is there any direction we can take, but to keep falling into it all?
(“In the Wind, in the Reeds”)
Online, the stanzas of this poem are interspersed with fully though slightly mutedly colored images: Ercall Wood Nature Reserve, near Arleston, Telford And Wrekin, Great Britain: photo by Bob Bowyer, 2003; A Great Skua (Shetland dialect name “Bonxie”) swoops to defend its nesting territory by the burn of Winnaswarta Dale, on Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland: photo by John Dailly, 2002; Reeds, Swan Lake Nature Study area, near Reno, Nevada: photo by Ragesoss, 2007. Check ‘em out.
Life is beautiful. “Is there any direction we can take, but to keep falling into it all?” I’ll leave the last word to Clark, as quoted in Stephen Ratcliffe’s afterword: “Here we go.”
John Bloomberg-Rissman is the author of No Sounds of My Own Making (2007) and Flux, Clot & Froth, which he’s currently beating into “camera-ready” shape. His two most recent chapbooks are World Zero (2007) and the collaboration with Ernesto Priego, Inheritance (2008). He edited the international anthology 1000 Views of ‘Girl Singing’ (2009), curated, with Eileen R. Tabios, Ernesto Priego and Ivy Alvarez, The Chained Hay(na)ku Project (2010) and is responsible for the publication of 2nd NOTICE OF MODIFICATIONS TO TEXT OF PROPOSED REGULATIONS (2010) His work has appeared in numerous journals and in several anthologies. He is co-editor of Leafe Press. His ongoing efforts can be seen at Zeitgeist Spam.