By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA
The Fall semester often takes me by surprise. Certainly, that semester did. After a summer of solely focusing on my craft of poetry, I had to come to terms with dividing my time between grading, lesson planning, and meetings with students. This division is often one-sided. My creative work falls short. With 130 college-level students, I
considered myself lucky to read a poem once a week
that wasn’t on the syllabus. Writing seemed out of the question. But there is
always the joy of this column coming at the semester’s end, and the thrill of
pairing poets whose oppositions deliver clarity, whose differences remind me of
why I write. In today’s divisive political climate, I find it comforting to
turn to these poets who, at first, seem to have little in common, just to
discover their undeniable connections.
When I write this column, sometimes my observations fall into criticisms. Sometimes I simply observe. Regardless, it is through this act of reading poems by poets whom I admire that I come to recognize what I want to capture within my own work, what rhythms I’d like to listen to, borrow, what phrases I wish I could claim as my own. Writing this column is often the catalyst for the surge in my own creative work. I hope it instills something similar within you, too.
This winter, I want you to find yourself a warm blanket and a comfortable chair and curl up to the work of Jeremy Michael Clark, Mat Wenzel, and Tiana Clark. These three poets hail from different backgrounds, and their writing invests itself in various themes, from abandonment to identity to acceptance, yet, regardless of their differences in form, content, and voice, their work teaches us over and over we write to make things right.
To put to words our emotions is a difficult task. This difficulty is a lesson I repeat over and over again to my poetry students. Readers don’t want to just be told an idea, they want to feel it. They want to see it. Breathe it. Smell it. Be able to feel as if they’ve held it in the palms of their hands and held it. I’m a believer that if one has never experienced a particular emotion, it is very difficult to find the words to describe it. Some psychologists and doctors use the term “Alexithymia” to describe those who suffer from an inability to describe or identify particular emotions occurring in the self. The poet Jeremy Michael Clark does not suffer from this disorder. In fact, Clark’s words are often so acute that even if we have never stood in front of a home that once belonged to our father, we begin to empathize with what that experience might be like.
And what it seems like is a painful experience. At least that’s how it’s described by the speaker of Clark’s poem “Those that Flew.” The scene, the catalyst for the poem. It begins:
“I stand before the house I believe
is [my] fathers…”
As the speaker stands in front of the house (not home), he recognizes a “rust-flecked fence & the answer, a latch” that he can’t lift. Clark’s work often takes up the subject
of the home as an extension of the body, a symbol of loss,
abandonment, structural inefficiencies, of memories remembered and unwanted. Here,
it’s as if the home is the answer. Even more, it’s as if the speaker knows the
question to ask. “Those That Flew” is composed of nine couplets, eighteen lines
that stray across stanzas as the speaker strays from his past, from his future,
from them all.
|Jeremy Michael Clark|
In “Those That Flew”, amongst many other poems, Clark’s tone is starkly to the point, a strong rhetorical tactic when considering the fleeting ephemera described: moving, leaving, always the distaste of reality. His wryly observational voice is persistent and hypnotic. Parataxis embodies much of his poetry, short sentences broken exquisitely to drag the reader’s eye and steady the momentum of each piece.
Like the idea of home, the nature of birds, Clark’s speaker encounters a constant deliberating over where he belongs. “Why I Keep Writing About Birds” confronts the speaker’s obsession in the form of a litany. The repetition of “because” at the start of consecutive sentences beckons to the speaker’s need to find a reason as to why he keeps writing about winged-things. A seventeen line poem with no stanza breaks, the reasons intensify with more philosophical and mythical intensity as the poem reaches its conclusion. The speaker says: “Because to stay / still requires so much motion.” For Clark’s speaker, the idea of living is exhausting. There is a deliberate effort needed just to be.
“Those That Flew” contemplates the process of leaving, the idea of abandonment. At the poems’ close, the speaker confides to readers that
“From my mother
I learned my name. I don’t know
What to call those birds that flew
but I’ve heard their song. Is that enough?”
The speaker gives us, always, just enough to keep us wanting more. “Now You See It” charms in its title – such ambiguity, such flexibility: The familiar phrases of a magician, the calling upon others to finally understand, the insistence that in just a moment it will be gone again.
The content of Clark’s trajectory spans from confronting the challenges surround the existence of black men to examining relationships between fathers, sons, and mothers, and developing a fondness for the land. Except the fields of Clark’s south evoke images of distorted familial pastorals in desperate need of care.
Jeremy Michael Clark is from Louisville, Kentucky. Currently an M.F.A. candidate at Rutgers University-Newark, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Horsethief, Vinyl, The Rumpus, Nashville Review, Scalawag, and elsewhere.
A house in Jeremy Michael Clark’s poems can stand in for the body.
In a Mat Wenzel poem, the body is the body, and the body, with its quirks and weaknesses and desires, well, the body is enough. It is the earth, the enemy, and the guide – the sacred is never too far away.
Wenzel’s recent work includes a turn towards the abecedarian; a form whose lines are arranged alphabetically, 26 lines, A through Z, and poems that aesthetically resemble perfect squares. As playful as these structures may seem, the speaker need not be taken lightly. In fact, Wenzel’s playfulness, like his use of internal rhyme, offers a linguistic protest against the standard. This resistance (to the earth, to the enemy, to the guide) wholly embodies Wenzel’s work. Consider “Sticks”, which begins:
“I forgot until this morning
that I once lived in a tree-
tall valley by a lake, forgot
the mist from my shared
Wenzel’s intriguing use of enjambment here carries readers forward within the memory. His unique sense of word-play enters readers into a mystic world, one no longer part of reality – instead of a tall-tree valley, it’s tree-tall, a simple yet imperative semantic switch, distorting our expectations, taking us for a spin. Such inventiveness channels itself through the rest of “Sticks”, and through much of Wenzel’s poetry.
“Sticks” is divided into 8 stanzas with 9 lines in each stanza, and gathers, like one might sticks in the wood for the fire, the speaker’s thoughts on the control, or lack thereof, of the self. The first stanza ends on the image of a “rock body”… “stronger / material than we human / animals are made of.” According to this speaker, we are not just human beings; we are animals; there is no thing in our control, no thing to be, there is no being, no being but instinct. Later on in the poem, when the speaker meditates on the animal community, he writes:
“I’m sure birds sang; though
they’d be east-side birds
where I lived. And at least
one banged his beak
against a tree over and over…”
In “Sticks”, readers realize, not even animals have control over their bodies. Like the birds, we are all just creatures of the earth, banging our beaks without knowing the reason. The speaker continues reveling in reverie, fixating on one that occurs in “his village” where the morning is “penetrated by the deep / blue-violet voices of men” singing. Their song is a prayer, a formal gesture for a mostly free-verse poem. Prayers are often questions without answers. The prayer interjecting the memory in “Sticks” is lyrical, and comes close to defining the grace of the physical world; the “billows / roll, fastened to the rock…/…grounded firm and deep”: in short, beautiful language. But the prayer “burned” the speaker’s ears. This religious-oriented village in which the speaker lives with his brothers forces him to come to terms with his own sexuality. Like prayer, denial is a powerful movement; it is consciousness turning its back on reality, the human beings ability to say “no.”
But what it seems the speaker of “Sticks” says is nothing, as he overhears “Christian soldiers / joke / It’s time to throw / another fag on the fire.”
Mat Wenzel is a poet in the English Ph.D. program at Florida State University. His poetry explores the space and conflict created between his faith and sexual identity. He is a Lambda Literary Fellow (2015) and earned his M.Ed. at Lesley University and his MFA in Creative Writing at Ashland University. His work can be found in Glitterwolf Magazine, Guide to Kulchur Creative Journal, Off the Rocks Anthology, Penumbra, and Puerto del Sol, among others. His most recent publication can be found online as part of a special feature issue of Glass: A Journal of Poetry of LGBTQ poets responding to the massacre at Orlando.
In many ways the poet is addicted to the other. The other word, the other detail, the other side of the story. The speaker of Tiana Clark’s poetry often addresses her own obsession with loving the other, whether it is the other self, the other option, all of the other, whatever other it may be.
In “Waking in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital”, the speaker describes herself having a “pinot-bright DNA”, and being “so black she was blue.” The poem begins
speaker watching her “students come and go”….as the “bright indigo of daylight”
sluices “through / dark boundaries on” her “skin’s hue.” The scene is obsidian.
The speaker comes off as aware, not critiquing the gaze, but participating in
it. But in a few stanzas, there will be “creamy pills, pills three times a
day.” Addition brings the other.
The poem begins and ends with couplets, but between them, tercets composed of internal rhymes and rhymes that reach across stanzas explore the history of the speaker’s life in the absence of the father. The three lines symbolize the instability of memory, and the tart taste of accepting reality. At one point, before calling upon Langston Hughes, she implores:
Drink me, eat me,
Wash me clinical and white.
Seduction and sadness. “Bessie, Billy, and Simone.” In the poem, the speaker writes
I want to write a happy world,
but every line jazzes elegy.
And while this sentiment seems perfectly natural for the speaker of “Waking in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital”, the idea also speaks for most of Clark’s work, which often infuses elements of polyrhythms: jazz and the blues. Music, for Clark’s speaker, is akin to nature, and nature is akin to history. All of the rhythms are connected. It all matters.
“A Blue Note for Father’s Day”, a poem written in hypnotic couplets that weave in and out from the margin’s start, describes a speaker aware that she won’t do it, but still dreams about speaking with her father. In the poem, sends him “John Coltrane”, claims that “We destroy ourselves for splendor-- / emerging form the buried deep / like cicada song to mate”, and says she will send him the sound of “wet piano keys.” She wishes for her father to know that she’s “done good with” her life, and that she knows “how to kneel before imperfect men.” For the speaker, making good demands sacrificing the self.
During a turn in which the poem’s content directly addresses the father, Clark writes:
“Dear father, I hope you know that I can love
the absences of a thing even more than
the thing itself.”
Abandonment is either acceptance or denial of the other. Sometimes, it can be both without us realizing it. The speaker of Clark’s poetry wrestles with sexuality and loss and with the idea that the pleasure and love are not mutual exclusive.
Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry chapbook Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition sponsored by Bull City Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Tiana is currently an M.F.A. candidate and teaching assistant at Vanderbilt University where she serves as Poetry Editor for Nashville Review. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Sewanee Review, Rattle, Best New Poets 2015, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Offing, Grist Journal, and elsewhere.
Tiana grew up in Nashville and southern California. She is a graduate of Tennessee State University where she studied Africana and Women's studies. Tiana has received scholarships to The Sewanee Writers' Conference, The Frost Place Poetry Seminar, and The New Harmony Writers Workshop. She has been awarded funding from the Nashville Metropolitan Arts Commission for her community project, Writing as Resistance, which provides creative writing workshops for trans youth. Additionally, Tiana has taught various creative writing workshops for the Porch Writer’s Collective including SLANT (Student Literary Artists of Nashville, Tennessee—a creative writing program for teens).
Jeremy Michael Clark
Jeremy Michael Clark