Tom Clark:: Problems of Thought & Vistas of Limbo & White Monkey & Suicide with Squirtgun in Happy Valley

Full Introduction for Tom Clark:: Problems of Thought & Vistas of Limbo & White Monkey & Suicide with Squirtgun in Happy Valley

The formal collisions that define Tom Clark’s work leave us, as Murray in White Noise would claim of car accidents, yearning for naiveté. The loquacious talking around of topics both impossible to ignore and to articulate, the juxtaposition of tones both earnest and humorous, the mixture of long and short sentences—these are all strategies that aim to stage a certain anxiety of awareness, the knowledge that words, sentences, and plots are as much an obstacle to meaning as lies, propaganda, and false memories.

One strategy common to each poem is Tom’s use of syntax: by extending some clauses to great lengths, he can dramatically—even brutally—stop the rhythm with a short periodic sentence. There’s a joy in texture here, a sensibility that has no problem leaving readers behind in an almost Proustian sentence that begins “Vistas of Limbo” (weighing in at 108 words) and slamming the breaks in the following paragraph with 5 words: “And of course this is dangerous”. As prose constructions, each poem takes measure of the sentence as a rhythmic register, one capable of sustaining labyrinthine passages and compact rooms (to borrow, of course, that common trope typically associated with stanzas). Nowhere is this tension more obvious than “White Monkey”: the kinetic shift from the periodic to the compound/complex formations divides a loose narrative into a montage plotting its own digressions.

Plotting also gives these poems a semblance of control. Each poem wanders in that vague “event horizon” between readily integrated meaning and formal difficulty, a sustained and deliberate awkwardness. One almost sees the hand of Russell Edson in “White Monkey” with its surrealist gesture in the title, its obsessions with particular subjects (especially of simian taxonomy), its ability to accomplish several narrative turns in a small shadowbox of space. Yet Tom’s work also formally resists this comparison; his interest in proofs that cannot be proven—at least in the typical registers of logic—does as much to subvert the later narrative as to provide it meaning. Thus the montage of proof statement and white monkey, speculation and forests, sets up a postmodern theme park: complicated, elaborate, exhilarating. Only in the minutia of “linen, paper, copper, wood” can we know the emotional consequence of a sentence like “We’ll never visit the forest”. This need to twist and turn and torque demands a constant return so that each sentence—in its grandeur or in its simplicity—can resonate in its various tones and implications.

Such sudden poetic turns are often compared to roller coasters. Indulging in this comparison for a moment, Clark’s poetry resembles an ultra-modern roller coaster, one that requires some patience but which is also over almost as fast as it began, a formal pattern so twisty in its syntax and surprising in its diction that we are grateful for his engineering, the thrills that he can accomplish while always wanting to forget that this wild experience emerges out of careful control. Ryan Winet

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