Chalkboard Dyspepsias & Intransitive Decantings

Music and Suicide by Jeff Clark. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004. 67 pp. $20

Music and Suicide is Jeff Clark’s fourth book of poems and its advance billing in publishers’ blurbs seizes glowingly on this poet’s growing reputation as an “unclassifiable classic in underground American writing.” His The Little Door Slides Back urged Rimbaud’s reactivated star, shrouded since the dog days of the hallucinogenic ‘60’s and early ‘70s, and if the countercultural growl of that gone time is still audible in this new collection, its throatiness is less due to eighteen-year-old Scotch than to some “unclassifiable classic” of American moonshine. The rage to disorder is still very much to the fore in Clark’s new book, but it is now filtered through a range of dyspepsias whose etiology, proceeding from obscure to positively arcane, fuels psychodramas more at home on a chalkboard than on a Harley-Davidson chopper. “Once again, forgive my delay in replying,” the correspondent of “Shiva Hive” intransitively decants,

“I’ve been burdened
with the indexing of Newton’s Principia. (The laws of falling bod-
ies seem to describe a tragedy—though not everything that falls ex-
periences impact. Think of orbiting, tracing out a trance.) I’m
hardly in a position to write the story you requested.”

No longer is Clark’s persona willing to accept dislodgement of the senses as either a fate or a passively endured hang-up. In contrast to the shared protagonism of the recent novel and film The Hours, whose rioting of personal demons is sentimentally attributed to a quirk of genetics or virology, the recidivist manias of the poet’s work under review seem geared to a dynamic which, though empowered by Laing, Cooper, Basaglia and Szasz, is ruthlessly governed by a consortium overseen by Big Nurse and the March Hare.

Jeff Clark’s personal universe is writ large and as though in lipstick on a mirror, thus assuring a modicum of indelibility, if nothing else. He is also very much of the “grab ‘em with a title” school, which, one has to suppose, is understandable in this late-Dylan plenum of ours where “desolation rows” have been old feathered Stetson for well on forty years now. “A Chocolate and a Mantis,” Like Cats Coming Out of Clocks,” C Major Quay” and “Shiva Hive” sound more Frank Zappa out of Wallace Stevens than they do the Wunderkind from Hibbing, Minnesota. (Worse still for ‘60s-style poets stuck in pre-electrification mode: the gravel-toned Rimbaud who helped bring the Paris Commune home to American record players continues to draw record crowds to the same venues where, prior to Jerry Garcia’s ascension to the right hand of Castaneda’s Don Juan in 1995, the marriage of grass and blues had come to seem a thing made in purist musical heaven—not to mention the gesture of legitimation recently bestowed on Dylan’s lyrics by Christopher Ricks, a critic one would think duly empowered to weed the singletons from the simpletons. Actually, the Woody Guthrie-ephebe-turned-rocker poet never much favored the sort of whimsical axis on which the Clark poem normatively spins. With the early Dylan at least, things tend to pick up past a song’s title, which was there as much to enervate resistance to what follows as to blow smoke rings at things easily flushed away as laughable or deplorable.

In Clark’s Music and Suicide, heading up a poem with a teaser can have its downside as well as its up. “G Major Quay” opens rather awkwardly, not quite sure of the tone to adopt in the face of so many falling things crying timbre:

Now I write it in verse for the last time: birds found on the ground
form a grid of lost times
and the grass beside untended corpses still climbs
the best set and forum, looking down

I have been in the opera twice, a cloud in a warm climate
sitting where all work remains to be done
June sun so forthcoming that to see him in the sand oval alone
Denies songs as being the perfect fit . . .

The urbane runes of a C. K. Williams underwrite this sort of thing, as do the much different charms once ably stirred to canticle by the late Robert Duncan. What’s missing from the mix (since being inimitable, they cannot be faked) is the rubato accompanying true feeling and the pure singing line of a poetry that not only knows its business but believes in the product it’s committed to hawking on the printed page. Clark’s at his best when reflecting what the desertscape of his poems causes to shimmer into focus on those magical days when the laws of photography are suspended and the lens of the sun is wide open to the coupling of light with what is:

Wild dogs in a pack, matter fur
mad eyes, maybe rabid

The sun’s explosions hunt cold in the sand
and burn dirt paths the pack travels

Against a rock, black but seeming to flame
leans the weak white goat they’re after

Gray long tongues and dirty foam on spiked vises
The guttural rumbling would be a swarm’s sound

broadcast in a rainy canyon but for the sun
and the smaller dog’s yelp

at the smell of feces, bowel oil licked
off the hot rock, meat tugged from the bones . . .

This is verse which keeps the actual on a short leash and every hallucinogen but the real out of the poet’s armamentarium. How much less readable—and even tolerable—are those Clark poems that are merely phoned in from the Magic Bus, that rattletrap of a bateau ivre from which Ken Kesey colonized the imagination of stoners too zonked to see the Medusa staring back at them from the pages of doorstops like Sometimes a Great Notion:

Nurse of terminal birds of blistered lily No black sun aristocrat
fantasy. Red rays beat on wet bed and dead palm Caustic powder
Fear pulse Siphon blood to themes in perishing shadow A relic
propped against sunflame Wall wet Red light Mustard-colored
stinking stocking Warm fur Fear pulse Sun on 6 . . .

And so on, for another thirteen lines held together by no more adhesive a motif than the phrase “Sun on 6,” which is also this satyr play of imponderables’ title. Again and again in confronting emanations of the Mr. Hyde persona in phrases like “Quince battered by orange magnets,” Clark’s reader is driven to wonder: Hasn’t poetry—inferior poetry—been there and done that in times when surrealism was young and the Freudian unconscious a maw to which the vagina dentata of such as Breton’s Nadja bore a significant resemblance?

For some, no doubt, Clark’s verse sits atop a cutting edge—if not the cutting edge—of something still struggling to be born in American writing. I invoke the looser term “writing” in this connection because Music and Suicide straddles—often uncomfortably—the border between verse and what presently designated as the “prose poem.” Of the twenty-two pieces in Clark’s new book, two, “Shiva Hive” and “Teheran,” are really more prose poems than examples of verse having wholly pulled free of prose’s gravitational field. “Teheran,” for instance, consists of six pages of descriptive jogging in place reminiscent of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s semi-autobiographical ramble, Her (1960). This—all right, unclassifiable—conversation piece resembles a free-floating mind-film in which the poet, ever his own action hero, leaps tall bildungs at a single bound. Roving fretfully over the dream-terrain of an apartment complex housing a desert wilderness, a phobically charged jungle, and an overturned ark of ill-sorted predators and Mighty Joe Youngs, this simulacrum of the poet’s inner turmoil combines the gooey stick to-edness of Spiderman with a cinematic Travolta’s or Schwarzenegger’s smaller-than-life depth of field:

Looking out back door of apartment. Gorillas foraging in lush
foliage. I throw dirt stones at them. They become agitated, then
enraged. As soon as they’ve almost reached me, I slam door shut.
Jumping up and down in a field of dead grass, hollow sound be-
neath. Lions have been killing raccoons, who rid the field of rats,
he therefore wants the lions shot. Follow him a ways into a concrete
drainage tunnel beneath the field. He says, There are bones every-
where. I wade further into the tunnel behind him. Inside is an
enormous, flooded basement, as if beneath an equally enormous
apartment building. Cabinets, storage locker, bed frames, car parts,
boxes, etc. He goes far in, wants me to follow. I don’t. . .

Such stuff palls sooner rather than later, especially when spooned out in the dollops served up by Jeff Clark. Indeed, a whole volume of it is likely to send one squeaking and gibbering into the streets. To have Rimbaud’s number, a poet must be hitched up to more than a switchboard directing callers to off-the-wall numerologies and Moog-synthesized nightmares—

The charms will change, elegy engines return as worms in this
grass, will cross from beneath zero to a living five

Three of it will be love. Born into sevens rich with raped sixes as
you will pass through the gate of all wonder without wanting

death will draw you to it though it will be life you lead
inside these rows. Block-long hedges. Hallways of leaves

alleys of boughs. Thickets
Naked in thickets, be killed in leaves

Heavy red sky then white sky, ice. You will become lost
I will be trying to eat flies. Openings will accept then want

to swallow . . .


Most readers of verse today, one would think, prefer poetry which, if constrained to view suicide as an earnest of life, would see it as an “or” indissolubly connected by a slash to an “either” of greater, or at least comparable, viability. Music or suicide is a mantra one might possibly concur with the Ezra Pounds in getting behind. Music and suicide, however, sounds too much like it heads a manifesto insisting the baby be thrown out for winning a look-alike contest with the bath water. Unless, of course, Jeff Clark is only playing at apocalyptic mumbledy-peg. He needs to step back from the surrealist Valhalla he has enthusiastically put flame to and take a deep breath. Sometimes a time-out can work wonders with a temperament open to confusing Shrek with Götterdämmerung. Come now, it can’t be that difficult to tell them apart. Only one, after all, rhymes with dreck.

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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