In the poem “Cama,” which appears early in Jeff Clark’s Music and Suicide, the poet writes the line

wellings and smells embellish the bed

and then immediately asks

Do you hear the music in that line?
Why not remove it? Why remove it?

Only to answer with

Art is permissible sickness

and then to conclude the stanza with the following

Laughter and slight torment, liquids, cherry-red robe
Where are you tonight?
Where should I go? New music plays
the same black ink as last year
same cheap pen with which other words
I want this bed to be almost empty, no longer want
to be part of my lines, no desire
to be anywhere
only to kiss your eyes again
pupils and irises singular
Seers and haunters

from “Cama”

Seers and haunters, and the repetitions of sickness: Music and Suicide participates honorably in Rimbaud’s tradition of poetry as systematic derangement, most conspicuously in Clark’s application of rhyme-logic to dream-logic. But unlike Rimbaud and most of his modern inheritors Clark renders a vision fundamentally and finally suffused with compassion; his poetry thus makes for an earnest eeriness.

Even if I didn’t like this quality (and I do like it, quite a bit: there are lines from this collection I’ll be humming for months) I would have to salute Clark for struggling with his sentiments using these particular syntaxes and suggestive motifs: his sincerity, his reliance on rhyme, his evocation of dream narratives. These three make for strange companions, difficult in their own rights and even more difficult in concert. Sincerity is hard to master as an affect, and in poetry almost useless—often irrelevant where absent, ingratiating where obvious. Likewise, rhyme outside traditional forms carries with it risks, which very much resemble the risks of dream-logic. Yet Clark manages to avoid most of the excesses and ill consequences of each, perhaps by using their respective strengths to neutralize their respective weaknesses.

So what do I mean by dream-logic? Let me give you an example, from “Teheran”:

A man and I, in a Burmese restaurant, see a flat black
spider floating at the surface of a small aquarium. He
puts his face to the water to let the spider attach to
it. Pulls his face out of the water, dripping. On his
cheek is a ladybug, which is still for a moment before
flying off.

Ride a motorcycle into a house, up a staircase, into a
little room where two couples are cooing at babies in
prams. I excuse myself overpolitely and maneuver the
motorcycle through the room, down the stairs and back

Evocation of dream-narratives here could have proven especially perilous, especially those narratives defined by events loosely associated, neither random nor linear but reminiscent of psychoanalytic conventions, tangents of sex and death and their affiliated symbologies. I think dream-logic suffers a bad poetic reputation because it’s so easy to misrepresent, and because these misrepresentations—which originate in the fear that a dream’s intimacy renders it more challenging to reproduce than any other kind of experience—therefore err on the side of loosey-goosey generalizations, which in turn manifest as poeticisms of a particularly facile, psychological sort. Of course, dream experience is no harder or easier to reproduce than any other kind; it’s just that flat representations of common experience tend to come across as banal at worst, while flat representations of dream wobble and lurch into the precious or cosmic. Sloppily prepared hash browns are merely adequate, while similarly ill-made flan will likely prove inedible; the relatively exotic nature of the task somehow prefigures its difficulty, when in fact it is the presumed difficulty that marks the task as exotic, or, in this case, oneiric.

Clark never explicitly acknowledges this risk, but does manage it deftly. Even in the two most overtly dream-leavened pieces—”Shiva Hive” and “Teheran”—the poet navigates the dangers of narcissistic navel-gazing that dream-writings engender. And it’s important that Clark succeeds here, because these pieces (both the longest and, I think, the weakest in the collection) still earn some measure of the reader’s patience by appearing in a diction less immediately challenging than that of the shorter poems. “Shiva Hive,” for instance, reads like a combination therapy session and speed-date as conducted by two parties who know each other far too well to bother with the conventions of formal dialogue yet persist nevertheless:

When I look at you, I see someone who loves another so deeply, so purely and marvelously, that I must thank Chance that I am permitted to know, through you, that love.

Can you tell me: is it a capacity that existed within you before you ever existed—or is it, instead, the fortune of your having encountered one whom you could love, one who could be so loved?

Your question makes me uncomfortable. You are idealizing, and therefore distorting, something or someone. You are engaging in a flight of fancy that, whether you realize it or not, is the shape that love itself takes. To love and to imagine are one and the same thing. An opening to what can never be fully present. If I were to confess any capacity to you, it would be the capacity to contain that opening, that emptiness. For loving has no meaning but “to be found wanting.” Desire, also, is the rapturous study of distance. And the maintenance of this distance is an art that must be cultivated.

And back and forth they go, for many pages more. Some of this material is funny, some of it provocative, but after a page or two I start to miss the poetry, and I miss particularly the music of lines like

But a parallel barrel obliterates a pearl
A parallel barrel resonates a pool in a garden
that dries and leaves alkali
Like cats coming out of clocks
You saw a lily tilt when you were ill
Like cats coming out of clocks
Or a hummingbird struck from the air in Oroville

from “Like Cats Coming out of Clocks”

I think Clark’s use of rhyme here, weird and wonderful on its own, also describes a model of how this poet’s intelligence works altogether, and helps me understand his reliance on dream-logic as well. Rhyme, traditionally applied, balances surprise against familiarity—the rightness of the twinned sound only slightly dominates the subsequent rightness of the diction. Sound first, and while the echo commences, the meaning clicks home.

Clark, however, trusts intimately in the degree to which this rightness of sound not only predicts a clarity of meaning, but perhaps renders that form of clarity redundant. His sentences begin with deliberate force but inevitably follow the logic dictated by rhyme itself, and then warp back to their original intent, bringing with them all the treasures acquired by aural affiliation. The poet thus trusts that following the sound will serve sense. It’s a classic formula, obviously, the foundation of poetic enterprise, but Clark pushes the formula to its limits:

because sometimes you contorted to kiss the side of a false staff
and you dreamt you were decomposing
were dooming your face
to have wanted to kiss a stick in a mirage
and not a marigold harem or a brown crown
You saw madness was to love a woman you extracted from a tale
of man-made everglades in which masqueraders play
and get sprayed from the cars of a passing parade
because sometimes your face tasted of the taint of those papers
of escape
and psychic counts dictated your fainting or what you would trust

Sometimes you reclined so mistily on the wet lips of states
so shimmeringly on states
that a specter slid up a gold or silver surface
you never leveled until it possessed and emptied you
and now escapes to exist in other ethers

because what is to be burned
is equally unpresent in your urns and blurs

from “A Chocolate and a Mantis”

And this is from the very first poem in the collection. I’m utterly charmed by how browser-oblivious this gesture is; Clark must know that many readers would read lines like these and back away in fear, thereby foregoing both the pleasures of this particular poem and many of the later, less intimidating ones that appear in the book. Yet I don’t think that the poet placed “A Chocolate and a Mantis” as the inaugural poem out of spite or even ill-attention—I think he placed it there as a gesture of good faith, as a testament to his trust in his reader’s aural faculties.

And the extension of this trust is how I find myself praising a book of poems due in part to the poet’s sincerity. I’m on record as suspicious of poetry that participates in the possibility of naked emotion; it isn’t that I prefer ice-cold cerebration, it’s just that I often detect the effort of the poet to negotiate how much sentiment or emotion they think the reader can abide. Those poets whose work I find most emotionally compelling are not those who best guess or tune my particular readerly tolerance for such things, but those who don’t seem to have put any strategic thought into this concern at all. In this way Clark reminds me of Olena Davis, who also achieves sincerity by apparent unself-consciousness. Both poets attend to other aspects of language with the utmost precision, but neither seems to worry much about what emotions or desires a reader will find either plausible or palatable. Thus, I find myself moved by Clark’s “Limbs of Life”:

Gazing at flame in a locked room
unable to leave, sleepless, relieved only in daydream
I reanimate a bed in which I’d lain
loveless and ill once
and heard somewhere outside
provocative, despondent song
whose source I soon sought
and found high up in a nest
I struggled to reach I thought
This creature is also not well
With each higher bough I mounted
the coal-colored bird also climbed
For weeks I brought it seed
bread crumbs, grubs, honey
fudge, crushed nuts, each morning
replenishing a fresh dish
and its caution turned slowly to trust
It was caught, carried home, put into a cage
in a small room from which care had been taken
to remove other such cages
A bird released will resume its flight
as in flameshapes I see gold trees again
and red

I believe this poem, even though I do not believe in any way what the poem claims, that “A bird released will resume its flight.” And I don’t confuse my belief in what I describe as poetic sincerity with any property of the poet himself. But whether he’s writing about sex or heartache or failure or, well, whatever, Clark’s poems convince. As the song has it, he simply doesn’t mess with Mister In-Between. This corresponds to his trust in rhyme, his trust in rhyme’s parallel structure in dream-narrative, and his trust that the force of these two in combination can buy us room for a belief in the widest range of the possible.

When these properties collaborate, Clark works miracles. I’m going to quote all of his “Dilator” to demonstrate:

What I was lacking you brought back
I was building a clean, strong structure
and it cracked

I was untangling a lady’s medicated braids
as she sought surplus purple for a gamay garment

Your money always shared in prescription store aisles
while malevolent mimes

aimed hoses into the ocean
with things burning right beside

But your eyes and words were sucked yesterday through blinds
over waves and daydream-made azure ghats

We scaled spires and gutted ourselves
Blue light spied through a gloryhole

Tan transmitter dismantled
and wanting white noise escapes the collapsed baths

Green grams fanned through air
and the irrigation corps

desiccates in stations
A vaulted sky violent with nimbus symptoms
an ambulance tremulates lengthening silences

We never quieted cries or shot at odious offshore ships
Sick fractured voices from vaporous places

No longer even questions but the sound of questioning

Memories of azalea-colored lips that suck well
A woman who painted dosage boats,
trauma-dowsing dunes, floral flares

Her tongue a hoe of astral agriculture
The diceholes fill with dew,
her designs with lobal foam and beams

In an orchid store
Deranging rays, the fluttering inverted comb,
softly bouncing snout
of a dead sea horse
in a tank with darting disks and oval pieces

Blood does not accrue but moves
You pretend there is
something in the sand the water wants
backwash ramming incoming blue walls
past the bridge a black ship on glassy resins

Cunning things thrive in sunless dungeons
No longer her songs but the ache of playing

Pearls augment the neck of a woman in this park
an Asian boy chases a rolling melon

Our antitheses drain cathedrals with droll catheters
meant to clean

Sickness and hope: a return to seers and haunters. There’s only one way I can account for Clark’s writing’s almost-ineffable mechanics, how he manages to make of elements I find suspect a poetry I utterly trust. It’s music.