A poet unloosens nuanced strings

Special to The Times

The Little Door Slides Back

Jeff Clark

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 100 pp., $14 paper


Music and Suicide

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 68 pp., $20


"Je est un autre," Arthur Rimbaud announced in a letter to Georges Izambard, his old teacher from Charleville. That phrase, which translates as "I is an other," would be a fitting epigraph to Jeff Clark's first volume of poems, "The Little Door Slides Back," which has been reissued to accompany the publication of Clark's new volume of poems, "Music and Suicide." First published in 1997, "The Little Door" is a rambunctious, intoxicating mix of lyric poems, prose poems, fables and dramatic monologues that often rework the same scenario, which involves a persona desperate to cultivate a subjective life by inhabiting, or allowing him or herself to be inhabited by, an unruly foreign voice.

"The Little Door" is an assault on what August Kleinzahler has called the Human Potential Movement of American poetry, by which he means poems -- mainstream or experimental, personal or political -- imbued with a spirit of usefulness and uplift. Clark turns his back on such sweetness and light. Using a baroque prosody brimming with slang, portmanteau words and liquid rhythms, he sketches scenes of self-effacement and self-delusion that sometimes bleed into messy and unresolved moments of self-definition.

In "Some Information About Twenty-Three Years of Existence," a central poem of "The Little Door," Clark offers a terse catalog of phenomena from different years and periods of his life:


Wondering: Pre-dawn?

Preyed on? Prie-dieu?

Mother says, "Please come -- and bring a pick."



Beginning to understand

pine trees.

In the prose poem "Marie-Pristine," Clark makes a piece of naif writing into a witty and somber exploration of the difficulties of surrender. Marie-Pristine is a native French speaker composing a letter in English: "There is about three minutes that I received from you this postal card of eleven lines -- but a silence of three years? I had fears to write you -- fears -- imagining your address to be empty, or your body." The letter itself is not an empty address, and the grammatical and linguistic gaffs are not jokes Clark makes at Marie-Pristine's expense. The letter is rich precisely because Marie-Pristine unintentionally writes sentences that go off the rails, and her wayward words clearly convey her gnawing desire for contact: "Pray, more postal cards with lines of you. Even: navigate by wine this very night to your writing-desk. In this wish I kiss your cheek, and wave most tenderly."

Tenderness is rare in the 22 poems in "Music and Suicide." So are subtlety and finesse. The book's final poem, "Entrance," ends with a declaration of beginnings: "that need to eat, to / love, to live lost." This is a fine definition of dandyism, and "Music and Suicide" strains under Clark's stage-managed attempt to illustrate it. The dandy enjoys sneering at the earnest, but Clark is too earnest about being bad, as if he were writing exercises for Rimbaud's teacher in Charleville. Consequently, many of these poems are precious and pious, especially the long prose poem "Teheran," in which Clark dilates on the wanderings of a slacker living lost.

In other poems, Clark seems to advertise his fascination with horror -- a shift from the focus on the horrifying dimensions of fascination in "The Little Door." In "A Corpse More Constant Than Hearts," a murderer casually asks his victim, "Did strangling have a sound, did you think at all of painting?" In "Farewell Antithesis," Clark uses a combination of crenelated rhymes and supple rhythms to describe a goat's dismemberment by a pack of wild dogs. A few pages later Clark uses the same prosody in "Blood Dub," a carpe diem lyric: "crave tasting the plum drug / a purple pearl on my ear / crave catlapping your lips / and the sun to swell as in the fable / of Jah's throb in a cherry aperture / and flood the folds."

Perhaps because its speaker is a decadent opportunist, someone who craves another person only for the frisson of poetic sensation the encounter is expected to provoke, "Blood Dub" is one of the few poems in "Music and Suicide" that matches the linguistic magnetism of "The Little Door." But one poem is not enough to shake the suspicion that the arch characterization of a catty Clark offered by Jennifer Moxley in "Aide-Memoire," from her book "The Sense Record," is on the mark: "Incredulous as a cat to every gratis revelation / you, the poet, blandish the ear, the same you enter / and tear to shreds in quest of a truth you scarcely believe."


John Palattella writes about poetry for The Times and such publications as the London Review of Books, the Nation and Dissent.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World