Madder Lake and other books by Thomas A. Clark
Review by Karl Young


Madder Lake, by Thomas A. Clark. Coach House Press, 401 (rear) Huron St. Toronto, M56 2GS.

Some poets create their own worlds out of an arduous struggle with their inner selves. Vicente Huidobro, who called himself a "Creationist," is a good example of this kind of poet. Others create a new world out of the world around them, reshaping their environment through their own commitments and passions. Donald Davie titled a study of Ezra Pound Poet as Sculptor, and Pound certainly fits into this category. Both approaches involve struggle and force.

In the poetry of Thomas A. Clark we find no evidence of this kind of struggle and force. We can see Clark in his poems as a sort of quietist sage, who does not try to create or change the world, but simply to live in it and allow it to create or shape him when it is moving in a decent manner. Clark's poems seem to have been created when the author was in a state of serenity and detachment, paying close attention to what was happening in his environment but not interfering with it. At precisely the right moment, he fixes a small bit of that environment, and that bit is a poem. He may see or think of a forest and find in it:


and that is enough to make a poem. This poem is best surrounded by silence and the designer of Madder Lake has had the sensitivity to place each poem in the book alone on a recto, or right hand page, leaving the facing verso, or left hand page, free of any type. In this way you see only one small poem at any opening of the book. Because these poems are brief -- few contain more than ten words -- we should not think that they are necessarily simple. Often a poem seems to sum up years of careful observation. The following poem may have a theological treatise behind it:

as the moon climbs
pebble after pebble
briefly shines

Or, then again, it may not: the reader's job is not so much one of finding information or solutions to arguments, but rather of finding temporary focal points in his or her observations of the world. Whether or not Clark had any larger notions in mind when he wrote the poem, we can be sure that he had carefully observed moonlight on pebbles. He invites us to share in the process of observation, and doesn't keep us from forming our own conclusions about what we see. The poem has no punctuation, so as you read it the first time, you will probably see the second line as a continuation of the first: "as the moon climbs pebble after pebble." But when you read the third line, you may notice that a comma could end the first line, and that the second line could then begin the third rather than continue the first: "as the moon climbs, pebble after pebble briefly shines." As you reread the poem, you will probably change your mind several times, and finally conclude that lines one and three set up a frame inside of which line two vacillates. The faint slant rhyme of "climbs" and "shines" and the symmetry of "pebble after pebble" reinforce this vacillation, while the b's and l's in "climb," "pebble," and "briefly" remain stabilizing points keeping the three lines from being forced apart. The interplay of soft vowels and sharp consonants strengthens the poem's rhythms, symmetries, and dynamic movement. The two "pebbles," for instance, have a lightly percussive sound (reinforced by the similarity in the b and p phonemes), clearly insisting on their symmetry and connection with the other two lines. The sounds of the words used in this observation are as important to the observation as any quality of the phenomenon observed. The moon climbs the sky. The moon climbs the pebbles. The moon is as brief as the shining of light on each individual pebble. The pebbles are little moons. Etc. The phonemes of the poem follow all these possibilities.

Clark's job as a poet, then, is not one of remaking the world, but of finding significance in it, and an important part of the process is selection, or reducing the part of the world in which he finds himself to its essence. We can see this clearly in the following poem:

Still Life with Fruit and Flower


In this poem Clark does not describe the fruit or flower or what is around them, he simply lists their colors. Among the names of the colors we find the name of a fruit (orange) and a flower (violet). We also see that the colors form a spectral sequence -- the sequence of seven colors into which white light breaks down in order of wave lengths. Of course, light is the vital energy that produces flower and fruit. What we have, then, is, first, a list of the colors in the potential still life; second, the name of a fruit and a flower; third, the possibilities of light's action, both in terms of its visible wave lengths, which allows the poet to see the still life, and light's ability to produce flower and fruit. Clark presents us not with a picture of an orange and a violet but with the dynamic energy that produced them and a suggestion of the whole spectrum of things that light can create. Light is essential to flower and fruit; the position of objects on a table is not.

Of course, the world that Clark lives in is not simply one of phenomena and his perception of them -- it includes wills and perceptions other than his own. And even here he has the ability to reduce complex situations to their essences:

A snail's shell
comes down on
the thrush's
favorite anvil.

On the stone
and round about it lie
fragments of quiet.

The thrush's power and the snail's helplessness not only play out their mortal drama in this poem, the drama informs everything around it. Clark's perception is part of this environment, but only a small part of it -- snails will continue to grow, thrushes will continue to eat them, selecting their favorite stones to crack the shells on, and this sequence of actions will continue to be a small but significant part of the ecosystem after the poet is gone. In this poem Clark is not creating the action; but he is becoming part of it, and offering us the opportunity to join him. The moment of jagged silence becomes audible to us.


Throughout the 70's Clark experimented with a large number of approaches to the short poem. You can, perhaps, see the widest range of possibilities in Some Particulars (Jargon Society, 1971), a book that includes concrete, modular, cubist, collage, and found poems. It also includes several poems which seem to be attempts at working out principles of projective verse in miniature. Clark has been particularly adept in the genre of found poetry -- A Ruskin Sketchbook (Coracle Press, 1980) is a good example of this mode. Laurie Clark has contributed drawings to a number of her husband's books, and in Proverbs of the Meadow and Proverbs of the Mountain (Moschatel Press, 1980, reprinted in a single volume by Membrane Press in 1986), the two Clarks achieve perhaps the most successful collaboration between poet and illustrator to see print in the last twenty years.

Madder Lake seems to mark a turning point in Clark's work - it sums up the work of the 70's and, at the same time, points the direction in which Clark has gone since. All that can be carried forward from Clark's early work is represented, if only by a poem or two, in Madder Lake. Throughout his early work, Clark made use of given forms - haiku, for instance, appear frequently, and Under the Brae (Moschatel, 1982) is a sequence of waka, the Japanese form from which haiku evolved. Early poems sometimes tend to formulate themselves as quatrains, Clark uses rhyme when it seems appropriate, tropes reminiscent of the Romantic period appear frequently, and his main theme is the traditional one of an individual man's appreciative and humble presence in nature. In his work of the 80's, we see Clark accepting more and more from traditional, most frequently Celtic and Romantic, sources. But he does not incorporate tradition without slowly and carefully testing it and making it completely his own. As a result, the patience and concentration of his early work gently, respectfully, and naturally work their way into time-honored forms. In Vagrant Definitions (Membrane, 1984), Clark works the kind of perceptions we find in the early poems into what at first glance appear to be conventional rhymed quatrains. Although these poems immediately present themselves as quatrains, Clark's dexterity with unconventional accentuation sets them apart from quatrains of the past - a comparison with the quatrains of Walter Savage Landor, for instance, makes this immediately apparent. Out of the Wind (Moschatel, 1984) is a collection of sonnets. Each poem is fourteen lines long, but standard rhyme schemes, dialectical structures, and iambic pentameter lineation are not present. The basic line measure is quantitative, hovering around seven syllables. Sound patterns and logopoeic constructions are extensions of those found in his early work, based on symmetry, syncopation, and a mildly ambiguous syntax unresolved by punctuation. These poems are more abstract than the earlier works, relying much less on imagery, definition, and tight logic. Perhaps we can see Clark moving into new territory in these poems. If so, he is making the move with discretion and serenity.

A measure of Clark's finely tuned judgment is that he has always seemed to know when he has exhausted a form's possibilities, to know when it is time to move on to something new. The concentration and relaxation needed to handle the forms he has chosen is a perfect reflection of his subjects. It takes skill and patience to precisely register the progression of moonlight over pebbles or the interaction of sunlight with a leaf. The thing that makes an island or a wren unique and important can only be found through careful observation, completely honest introspection, and a sincere capacity for unpretentious cooperation. These powers are often mentioned in discussion of contemporary verse, but they are found rarely in the practice of our time -- or of any other epoch. Thomas A. Clark is not a flamboyant poet; instead he is a quietist sage, a self-effacing participant in tiny miracles.

Copyright © 1981 by karl Young
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