Evening Train, by Tom Clark, BlazeVOX Books, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-60964-187-0, $16.00
The first thing to say about Tom Clark is that he is an American poet; this may seem too obvious to need stating, but it is fundamental to his art. The language, social norms and history of the United States are woven into the very fabric of his verse. This is made explicit in the first poem in Evening Train, ‘Moving House’, where the process of house removal is folded into the myth of Manifest Destiny, a people
…always moving out
ahead of the next wave yet not
riding the last wave to the crest
Clark writes poems that encompass memory (a central preoccupation), the natural world and our role in it, ageing and death, the interface between technology and social control: but all these matters are examined in a landscape that is specifically American and generally urban. Many of the poems set in the now reflect the geography of the city of Berkeley, where Clark has lived for many years. For instance, the almost surreal, apocalyptic poem ‘skyfalling’ is firmly anchored to a specific street junction in a precise social milieu:
Ninth and Bancroft, West Berkeley
insecure householder half dressed
emerges from behind barred gate
looks up into dark sky
one arm bent overhead as if to shield, crouching –
Equally, the poems of memory tend to be firmly located in space and time. For Clark, there is no escape from what was:
There is no such thing
as a clean break
with the past
Chase it off, it comes back sneaking
And so he makes no attempt to chase it off, but holds his memories up to the light, to examine how his past has made him what he is.
And part of this is a political animal, concerned with questions of the environment and our relationship with it; his inadvertent killing of a ladybug leads him to the perception that
Beautiful things ought to be left alone
In a natural state
Frequently, he observes the intersection between this ‘natural state’ and his own urban environment; deer in the city crossing through a ‘lethal stream’ of traffic, for instance. Like memory, nature cannot be confined, and if you try to it will pop up again where least expected.
Clark is an active blogger, but his adoption of new technology hasn’t blinded him to the dangers of ‘A generation/mesmerized by/small screens’. These are the opening lines of ‘Blank (Don’t Be Late)’, the first of a run of poems in the second half of the book that are concerned with the digital world. In these poems, Clark imagines a kind of virtual world, with forests of ‘cell phone tower trees’, a world controlled by computers where people feel constrained not to speak out for fear of ‘administrative penalties’ and where even those dependent on medical care are doomed to wait
not for any imaginable compassion
but for the computer
Questions of health and mortality are also important to his work. His poems about death are reminiscent of the work of Cid Corman, the same matter-of-fact idiom is evident in the writings of both men. In these poems, a sliver of light through a curtain prefigures the closing of a coffin lid. In ‘Negative Development’, the perception that ‘Old is a kind of plague’ follows from the lines:
A game of tag.
An everyday thing.
The untypical heavy end-stopping of the lines enacting the subject in a carefully crafted stanza. There is an almost Buddhist calm at the back of Clark’s view of death which, again, reminds the reader of Corman, an attitude that informs the final poem in the book, ‘Blown Away’.
unmoored yet not unmoved
tossed cloudward, flipped
into the flow
Clark’s language is, as already notes, pure American. This is explicit in the poem ‘So Now You Know’, which is a litany of idiomatic phrases beginning ‘you can blow’, but is really the given condition of his writing. These poems give the impression of being casually constructed, conversational, almost easy, but this is just a superficial impression. If he is engaged in conversation, he takes it to some very odd places, to silence, as a rule. When you reach the end of one of his poems, you may not be entirely clear on what exactly has been said, but you do have a clear sense that there is nothing more to say.
Not that the poems are unclear, the language is as limpid as you could ask for, the ‘content’ is in no ordinary sense obscure. Whatever confusion that might arise stems from the fact that the act of reading does not exhaust the best of Clark’s poems; they linger in the mind like unresolved questions, inviting contemplation. As the poem ‘Words’ has it
Even in the middle of nowhere
there are words
words turn nowhere into a putative somewhere.
I can think of no more accurate description of these poems.