|Apr/May 2015 Reviews & Interviews|
WordTech Communications. 2014. 86 pp.
In this artfully arranged collection, the first book-length offering by Antonia Clark, the reader enters a rich world of memory and metaphysics, family and finality, imagination and illusion, lust and love of language.
The book is made up of three themed sections, each comprised of 20 poems. The section names, "Smoke and Mirrors," "Dawn in the Glass House," and "Amends," are also the titles of poems that set the tone for each section.
In "Smoke and Mirrors," the narrator imagines a conversation with a departed sister, conjuring a world shrouded in mist and fog, into which the sister slowly disappears:
My sister dressed in the colors of water
and stone, walked out on foggy mornings
in search of misted rivers,
folded herself into low-lying clouds.
She insisted that none of this
was for the purpose of deception.
The smoke of the title becomes the shadow that hides the sister, and the mirror, the reflections of the narrator watching and listening as the sister explains her intent to leave without notice, without a visible stirring of air, as if dying were only another illusion.
As if it were that easy, the author seems to be saying. As the poem ends, the pain of loss is evident, despite the sister's assurances. Unforgettable endings are a hallmark of many of Clark's poems:
The hard part is what to do with the body,
she told me. The rest is nothing.
It's easy to disappear.
The book's first section also includes many poems of family life, remembered and imagined. Paired poems, entitled "Easter" and "Christmas With Event Horizon," capture the mix of sharp pleasures and dull pain that often accompany family holiday memories. In "Easter," two sisters and their parents attempt to pose for a house-call photographer. The mother "keeps trying to get it right," to capture a wished-for perfect day, as the sister cries unremittingly. The pain sharpens as the poem ends:
They are all dead, the photo lost, the trout
plunged into the icy stream. You keep reeling
it back, the sweet smell of cellophane grass
and chocolate eggs, the scratch of stiff petticoats,
the old photographer's bobbing head: hold still,
smile, freeze. The flash and the blackness after.
In "Christmas With Event Horizon," Polish surnames, singing and cuisine set the stage for another bittersweet family holiday, where "The mistletoe hangs in the archway, Mom and Dad avoiding it when they pass." Again, Clark's mastery of the memorable ending draws this beautifully drawn family portrait to a poignant close:
And all of us now take our ritual places
after Mass as if with purpose, as if for posterity --
my father with his harmonica and red hat,
mother ensconced in her tapestry rocker
with a steaming mug, a plate of pork pie.
My sister arranging the presents to make
a perfect picture, the way I'll always see it.
My own slender fingers, now those
of a stranger, smoothing the ribbon
of a shining bow before I pull it loose.
In the second section, "Dawn in the Glass House," the themes of water and ice, fire and desire and questions and answers characterize many of the poems. In "Everyday Arithmetic," Clark begins,
I have finally figured out
how you do your math...
Your balance sheet
Of insinuations, grievances
totted up like daily expenses.
But as with several of the poems in this section, what begins in the mind moves on to the body:
Each night, you whisper
the same formulas
against my neck, fingers busy,
tracing equations, pressing
upon me your need to know,
to master, to make me
yield up one right answer.
Nor is "Arithmetic" the only elementary school subject that demands graduate study in Clark's poetics. Two poems entitled "Punctuation" and "Direct Object" twine grammar lessons with more adult pursuits to delicious effect. In "Punctuation," Clark's semicolons get hot and heavy:
I am a woman...
who succumbs to semicolons,
to the throb of breathlessness
at the almost end-stopped pause;
when you know there's more to come—
and then the coming undone;
"Direct Object" is equally inventive, by turns slyly humorous and just plan sexy:
A sentence longs to climax,
cannot lie unresponsive,
while you go through the motions,
putting one word after another.
This isn't bricklaying
we're taking about...
A verb isn't really interested
in stroking, endearments,
your slow stoking of the fire.
A verb needs to get down to business...
to find the object of its desire
and come blasting through...
Clark's sophisticated and subtle approach to sexuality, love, loss, and longing continues into the final section, "Amends." Among the many pleasures of this grouping, there are two poems that are almost ecstatic in their chant-like telling of extraordinary events with dire undertones and delightful sonics. The first, "Let There Be Light," takes a biblical title in a decidedly non-pious direction:
Until they turned off the power, we lit
the place up like a Vegas starship,
a blazing last exuberant blast before
When the police arrived, they immediately called
for backup, surrounded the place
and Jesus, it was gorgeous—
all those flashing cherries and blues.
We were dizzy with power, with the whole
goddamn electric spectacle...
it was all we'd ever really wanted:
to banish the dark with a flick of the switch.
"Lunatic Blues" sets a similarly unforgettable scene, a night gathering outdoors, this one lit by the moon. This poem, appropriately written in blues style, conveys equal measures of beauty and despair:
There was a lunar eclipse that night and we watched from the meadow.
There was a lunar eclipse, but we could see, through cloud shadow,
the fat copper penny of the moon, shrouded like a widow...
Slowly, the moon shed her garments as in an exotic burlesque.
The moon shed her garments. It was somehow erotic.
Some kids sang a country-western song, vaguely patriotic.
You gave me that look: we're the last two sane people on earth.
You gave me that look and I kissed you. Our goddess of mirth,
the moon, trailing her gauzy dress, smiled for what it was worth.
A man behind us smirked and said, "You gotta get your kicks."
And we laughed, though everything we love is dying and there's no fix.
Laughed till we cried, like there was no tomorrow.
These poems, like the others in this diverse collection, reward the reader again and again with the author's joy in language and its ability to shape and transform experience. Clark's deep awareness of the complexity, pain and pleasure of being human, and her ability to convey her insights through strong imagery, surprising language and skillful storytelling, make this a collection worthy of a place on any poetry lover's shelf.