The New World by Tom Clark
(New York: Libellum, 2009)


(New York: Libellum, 2009)

Review by John Latta


Tom Clark Notes (I)

Tom Clark’s The New World (Libellum, 2009) is one of a recent blessèd onslaught of Clark books: there is, too, Trans / Versions (Libellum, 2009)—works “after” Baudelaire, Reverdy, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Brecht, and Vallejo. And Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010) with its counterweight (Clark calls it its “‘other side’ companion”), Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVox, 2010). And a sterling chapbook of prose, Problems of Thought: Paradoxical Essays (Skanky / Effing, 2009). All seemingly sprung forth with the forsythia. (Though, the attending soul’d note that Clark’s formidable and resolute drives and manœuvres at Beyond the Pale—concurrent, semi-overlapping with Vanitas—is “behind” the sudden tumulus, any magnificent heap the upshot of regular daily work.) I intend to random and divagate amongst the lot, straying where need’d. Took, d’abord, by the Trans / Versions, that insuperable splendid need to work (re-work) the textual “other,” to inhabit another, to fiddle—re-adjusting, gunning it a little—with the gears of the machine he (or she) assembled. Here’s Clark’s Rimbaud:

Tear (after Rimbaud)

Far from bird noise and lazy cattle and chatty girls
I knelt in a drowsy glade to drink
As the purple mist of the afternoon closed
In on the green growing things around the lake.

Was there something in the water there
Under those phantasmal mist-cloaked trees,
A golden liquor, barley colored, jewelled,
Under shrouded skies, that caused me to break out

In a strange feverish sweat? You could
Have made a Motel sign out of me I was so lit up,
With half the neon on the fritz
Spelling out VA*AN*Y into encroaching evening.

Then storm changed the sky: dark nations,
Poles, columns, shelves and terminals of cloud
Blown in a vast wave across the blue night.
The stream escaped away through the woods

To white sands. A sharp wind came up.
Sheets of isinglass spilled across the lake. To think
That intent as a searcher after Eldorado or a pearl
I persisted still in stooping to imbibe!
Two mimick-moments: “closed / In on the green growing things” and “break out / In a strange feverish sweat?” That WilliamCarlosWilliamsian (thank you, Frank) “VA*AN*Y” spritzing its fritz’d solenoids like soda! The perfect foreboding of “dark nations” of cloud is akin somehow to the tawdry manufactory’d “Sheets of isinglass” (the “new world” inimical to even common natural phenomena). Here’s Rimbaud’s 1872 original (though apparently a somewhat lopped off version accompany’d the Alchimie du verbe prose of Une Saison en Enfer):

Loin des oiseaux, des troupeaux, des villageoises,
Je buvais, accroupi dans quelque bruyère
Entourée de tendres bois de noisetiers,
Par un brouillard d’après-midi tiède et vert.

Que pouvais-je boire dans cette jeune Oise,
Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, ciel couvert.
Que tirais-je à la gourde de colocase?
Quelque liqueur d’or, fade et qui fait suer.

Tel, j’eusse été mauvaise enseigne d’auberge.
Puis l’orage changea le ciel, jusqu’au soir.
Ce furent des pays noirs, des lacs, des perches,
Des colonnades sous la nuit bleue, des gares.

L’eau des bois se perdait sur des sables vierges.
Le vent, du ciel, jetait des glaçons aux mares . . .
Or! tel qu’un pêcheur d’or ou de coquillages,
Dire que je n’ai pas eu souci de boire!

In Wyatt Mason’s fleet translation:

Far from birds, herds, and village girls,
I drank, crouched on a heath, surrounded
By hazelnut trees and
Warm green afternoon mist.

What was in this infant Oise I drank?
Voiceless elms, flowerless grass, cloudy sky?
What was in this colocasian gourd?
Its dull golden liquor makes me sweat.

As it was, I would have made a miserable tavern sign.
Storms kept changing the sky until nightfall.
These were dark lands, lakes, and poles,
Colonnades beneath the blue night, harbors.

Water from woods disappeared in virgin sands.
Wind from the heavens tossed ice onto ponds . . .
As if that would stop me from wanting a drink,
Like a panner for gold or diver for shells!
In larme, literally “tear,” a sense, too, of the faux-modest drinker’s “drop” or “splash,” un tout petit peu (not meaning it). Clark’s Rimbaud is one of particulars (see, “chatty girls” fleshing out villageoises, or the lovely “golden liquor, barley colored, jewelled” for the straightforward liqueur d’or, fade.) And, supremely, see how mauvaise enseigne d’auberge expands to fill Clark’s whole third stanza, becoming a miniature of Clark’s sense of things, self and the “dark nation” both: “lit up,” and “on the fritz,” with the end of something “encroaching.” (One thinks of the plaice, the flatfish that turns colors dying.) That “VA*AN*Y” “reads,” beyond the hosteller’s usual “VACANCY,” as an unletter’d Johnsonian “VANITY,” what flourishes amidst our human, too human wishes.

In The New World: aging (“time now opens up its eyes, / Yawns, stretches, struggles in dark to discover / Where it is among whirling things, places, years”); “the fading vestiges of the American dream”; the “Persistence of Memory” (“The not remembering / Is not so bad, it’s the resurgence of not / Forgetting that ruins everything”); childhood’s way of returning unbid (or through music—“Is That All There Is? Peggy Lee sounded / Justifiably disappointed. Fever / Kindled in me such heat that, after hearing / It in the back of a convertible en / Route to a softball game in La Grange, or some / Such western outpost, my suppressed and / Unacknowledged passion for unsuspecting / Fourteen-year-old Jan D. so distracted / Me that, playing first base, I lost a popup / in the lights . . .”); loss of friends and cohort (Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan). The terrific final piece:

To one about to leave it, how beautiful and large
And familiar—as the old saying goes
Almost like home. And yet, the almost sticks
In one’s throat, just as one was leaving,
Why was it never better or more? What was
The real thing one expected? Always somewhere
Else and never here? And where do those
Winding roads go, and what’s around the next bend
And can this really be the end?

Never thought to skywalk, had doubts
That got in the way of transcending self
With its dumb momentary occupations,
Timidly and confusedly entered caves
To find the firelight on the wall dimly signifying,
Felt awkward with the ins and outs of thought,
Cheered inwardly oft for little reason,
Was shy of others, never to draw near
Yet longed for some company to be found
Down the line, can’t recall now where, in the end
Hoped only one day to find feet planted firmly
On this ground, wanted only to be here.
Affirmatory against an omnipotency of odds. (I note a lovely rhyme between “the almost sticks / In one’s throat,” and yesterday’s line in William Fuller’s “Reply to Experience”: “in that small excess of ‘almost’ clouds appear.”) I love the acknowledgment in “our” era of rampant selfishness (and its self-serving multiples) of the commonest self, the one of “dumb momentary occupations.” Sense of a sloughing off of all “display”: how refreshing. Another, an elegy:
Nasturtiums and Eucalypti (for Philip Whalen)

The plum-lacquered woven Japanese basket Phil
Lately back from Kyoto gave us,
Juliet’s baby bed on Nymph and Cherry,
The year Phil dwelt over on Larch with Don A.
Beyond the shimmering silver dollar eucalypti,
Still packed away in the basement to this day.

Sometimes strolled two dirt road blocks to visit.
People mad at him if he came over, or if he didn’t,
He averred. Even in paradise poverty is a bother.
Tones if not words are always recollected.
Portly Bodhidharma mendicant
Toting his laundry downtown, two sad sacks.

Later on he camped down on Terrace tender
Dear heart crotchety and all alone as a song
In the same town with his vivacious Muse,
The elusive butterfly diva, Joanne K.,
Not quite on the outs and not quite on the ins with her,
Impatient amid nasturtiums as the day was long.

Time fills in the holes, cement in the ocean,
Dark parts of memory shading into bright.
One day when on acid the eucalyptus tilted,
A circus of silliness shimmering into play,
Phil sternly informed me, Thomas Clark,
Poetry will never get written this way.
To note: an earlier version of the poem (call’d “Phil”) appear’d in Clark’s Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House, 2006):
The plum-lacquered woven Japanese basket Phil
          lately back from Kyoto gave us,
                    Juliet’s baby bed on Nymph & Cherry
The year Phil dwelt over on Larch with Don
Beyond the shimmering silver dollar eucalypti,
Sometimes strolled two dirt road blocks to visit,
People mad at him if he came over, if he didn’t
                              he later recollected.
Toting his laundry downtown, two sad sacks.
Later on camped down on Terrace tender
                dear heart crotchety and alone
In the same town with the vivacious Muse
Not quite on the outs & not quite on the ins with her,
                                          amid nasturtiums
One day on acid sternly informed me, Thomas Clark,
Poetry will never get written this way.
The notational style mimicking Whalen’s, the piece is fleeter, refusing to spell it all out. The fragmentary and singular “impatient / amid nasturtiums”—rather heartbreaking in the context—isn’t a thing to lose. (Though it is—to me, the gossip-challenged—of some note that Whalen’s “vivacious Muse” be “The elusive butterfly diva, Joanne K.,”—I think it bulks up a streamlined poem.) The one place where Clark’s adding of material here seems apt: the portly awkward mouthful “Portly Bodhidharma mendicant”—strengthening the intent that Whalen himself is one (the other’s laundry) of the “two sad sacks.” Risible quibbles.