I am no proselyte for poetry as a category of human effort. I would no more advocate for poetry than I would love or dinner or shimmying. People will pursue or enact these things, and it makes little sense to agitate on behalf of that which you cannot stop from occurring, especially since poetry and love and dinner and shimmying gain meaning in the particular. This does not prevent us from claiming we love poetry when what we mean is that we love either certain poems, which do not altogether constitute poetry, or we love the idea of poetry, which perforce excludes actual poems.
And yet I always find myself looking for books of poetry that solve in the particular a problem that presents itself as a negative generalization. I should not care that many persons dislike poetry without ever having met many poems, but I do, and because I hoard prejudicial criticisms of the thing itself I seek always those poems that neutralize those criticisms, that cause them to disappear or collapse, or transform complaint into delight. This is boneheaded. It is a disservice to the righteous distaste of the many and an unfair burden to place on the poems of the few. I prefer to read so that each book makes a case for itself, but I cannot help but read books as if they make cases they oughtn’t be asked to make.
And so I keep visiting Jackie Clark’s Aphoria, and trying to determine how much of my admiration for it derives from the poems themselves and how much comes from what extraordinarily masterful evidence it marshals on behalf of confusion. Confusion is useful: you cannot exit the condition without occupying it, and the fact that you can be confused about whether or not you are confused is, itself, edifying. It is this latter function that tempts paradox and taunts it, that accounts for how I can read a poem and characterize it as not-thinking even as I admit that the poem certainly thinks it is thinking. Before this degrades into observations better served by set theory, let me just generalize and say that thought is difficult to capture (even the idea that thoughts are discrete enough to allow that metaphor) and that the impression of having attempted to capture thought is difficult to avoid. And maybe this is why I find myself begging poems to stop thinking as frequently as I beg them to please think. Once I engage the possibility, I cannot be satisfied; I cannot but engage the possibility and thus cannot be satisfied.
Reading Clark’s Aphoria immediately activates this pattern. Aphoria itself is a word that solicits and disables its understanding. It has a meaning, but it isn’t the meaning you are likely thinking of, unless of course it does mean what it sounds like it means, which it does or does not, depending on what you think it sounds like, depending on whether you are drawn to aphorism, or euphoria, or aporia, or something else altogether. I’ll leave the details of deliberation to you, but rest assured that here we have a word that gets to the problem of words themselves in a fantastically expeditious manner, as befits one of the meanings it should (but doesn’t) have. And this the word happily anticipates the poems in the book thereby named, which solves the problem of over- and under-thinking in smart and delicate and suggestively rich ways.
Clark divides her Aphoria into three sections: “We Gather At Night,” “The City Salutes Itself,” and “I Live Here Now,” which reverse the process of granting concessions to the reader: the poems become easier to read as the book advances, but that ease is complicated by the uncertainty Clark initially sets. Most obviously, Clark assigns punctuation and enjambment a set of substantial burdens at the start. For example, here is the whole of one of the poems in the first section (Clark dispenses with titles in lieu of closed parentheses):
by the handful
but I don’t
This takes great advantage of the inevitable fact that every act of lineation or enjambment creates (at the very least) a binary: stop/go, backwards/forwards. In this case, however, it’s like handing someone a handful of hinges and a stack of planks and having them give you a labyrinth in return. The combination of coyote and lemon invites an absurdity which then becomes a recognizable if uncommon descriptor, but the actor implied by that first “I” lends itself unequally to “limit” and “disperse” if we don’t attach “expectations” to “disperse”. “I” can disperse itself; it can also disperse expectations. But if we go with that, then “them” refers to expectations and “at everything” becomes directive and general, unless limited to the qualifier of “I remember” but that, too, is uncertain. Is the speaker throwing expectations at everything? At everything she remembers? Or is she noting that she remembers in general? If so, is she fully contradicting that claim when she says “but I don’t” or is she mitigating it by appending “remember much”?
Speaking of binaries, there are two ways to resolve this problem. The first is to make the problem disappear by insisting it is no problem at all, and the second is to simply read the poem out loud. The latter approach doesn’t solve the ambiguity altogether, but it does resolve it into something approximating the propagation of syntax: the poem comes to sound like thought, even as it forces to confess that thought doesn’t sound like anything in particular.
Clark makes this magic happen again and again in “We Gather At Night” and often concedes to the reader’s default interpretation of enjambment only with the cue of capitalization (“X marks the spot / is a cautionary tale / as with the arrow / that imposes / precision The sun / goes in / and there is relief / What else is the sky / but blue / and yet I love”. This is why it comes as a surprise when we reach “The City Salutes Itself” and encounter full capitulation to lineation, indentation, enjambment and punctuation as discursive markers that speed, rather than slow, certain types of reading. A sample:
We refer metaphorically to the house being on fire, to the obvious
connection between the fire and leaving the house. The metaphor is
victim to this thinking, as do those with a strong sense of moral purpose.
What is different about this? The tone differs, but mainly because we accelerate through the syntax with greater confidence than we would have previously. This suggests something interesting about the relationship between authority and aphorism itself, which is that an assertion with clearly unidirectional progressions approximate a quality of thought that seems more determinative than speculative. It’s as if we mark an aphorism by the degree to which it provokes thought, not the degree to which it evinces the process of thinking. But since Clark has already accustomed her reader to a greater measure of uncertainty, the pleasures of this aphoristic authority create unease, a different sort of pleasure. This makes sense, we think, but are forced to wonder if it simply sounds like it makes sense, which is very much like drawing a distinction between essence and appearance by claiming something isn’t red, it just looks that way.
Clark revisits features of poems from “We Gather At Night” to recycle the very confusion she has induced. She writes
of the knife, the knife
must be used
will again be fortified.
The turning axis reaches the window in bird song.
I am reporting anything
I can remember.
I think this is a fascinating example of what happens by virtue of locating this poem subsequent to a section of poems that necessitate focus on the ambivalent syntax. Given that uncertainty, I should respond to the relative confidence of this with greater suspicion, but I don’t; I feel greater confidence because the authority has demonstrated the mechanism of its own illusion and gained thereby the very thing it undermines. Do not trust me; everything I say is a lie.
From here, Clark strategically overcommits in “I Live Here Now” to the markers of which she previously makes sporadic use. Free of indentation, every line (save the ultimate) in every poem in the section concludes with a comma; each poems becomes a sort of checklist.
Liberty ports adjusting to siphoned rivers,
counting the moments like counting the moments,
everybody has them,
at least goodbye is complete,
at least the personal has been extracted,
has no reason to ever return,
my head interrupts,
sends vertigo behind my eyes,
what is there to revere about porcelain,
I’m not sure what awaits,
perhaps this is an admonishment of the foundry,
exchanging windows for windows,
a higher ceiling,
varying degrees of vault,
I rally to daydream,
it is not a crime to stay until the end,
only a preference,
my brief terminology,
rounding the docks,
the sound of metal bobbing in water,
I will arrive when I arrive,
who knows what it will be like,
how fast the day will pass,
who I will sing face to
Again, what does this enable Clark to do, relative to what she has done before? If the first section floats, the second proceeds at a stately pace, and the third races and almost but never quite tripping over itself. Were this order reversed, Clark would leave us with the impression of something both ethereal and highly distilled, which would, I think, inevitably privilege the accompanying language. The impression would be that of someone who began with scatter, organized that scatter into regimented thought, and then upgraded that thought into “special” thought: aphoristic thought. Mud, mortal, angel. I am hugely pleased that she has resisted that order, especially since she seems concerned not just with how to capture thought but whether that is a practicable effort at all. Her sequencing allows her to resist both didacticism and diffusion, and find a balance that isn’t simply a weak solution of the strengths of each. Aphoria is gorgeously complex without being complicated, and even though she shouldn’t be valued in such reductive terms, Clark proves that the properties that inspire such dislike of poetry—that it either must tell you what it means or else mean anything at all—are neither vices to be deplored or values to be assumed. “All doors do / something different,” she writes: their structural ambivalence is a set trait with endless expressions, and yes, proven here with the fastidious joinery of a door hung perfectly on its frame.
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