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Tom Dvorske on Adam Clay

Review of The Wash, by Adam Clay. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2006. Free Verse Editions. Jon Thompson (Ed). 66 pages.

Adam Clay’s first book The Wash sustains a hermetic tone in an elemental landscape that becomes increasingly palpable throughout the course of the book and with each rereading—so much so that what start out as quiet, contemplative poems occupying a cloistered but brightly lit architecture grow in boldness and volume as from the delicate song of a single thrush to the almost deafening scrawl of migrating blackbirds.

His poems reach into early romantic sensibility (one blurbist compares his work to John Clare’s) and for their occasional anachronistic spellings, one is left with the feeling of being very much a contemporary visitor bearing down on a romantic past that nonetheless pushes back with frightening force. If the “make the familiar strange” mantra still pervades our contemporary poetic sensibilities, then Clay has done something unique. He’s taken us into a past weltanschauung in such a way that it reveals to us the persistence of an imaginative perception, of a force and grammar as secret and as powerful as the Eleusinian mysteries.

Clay’s poems can overwhelm the reader with their precision and minuteness of detail that succeeds because it insists on referentiality. We may be called to attend to language as language, but never to the point where the poem and the imaginative apprehension of reality gets lost. In some respects, one sees a bit of Charles Simic’s work knocking around in the wood shed. While most of the book consists of short lyrics of delicate forcefulness and drowning, dreamlike textures, my two favorite poems are the longer sequences, “Notes on the Constraints of Architecture,” which reads like an idiosyncratic update on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and “Elegy for the Self-Portrait,” the penultimate poem in the book, which reinscribes the romantic gesture of self-expression and subjectivity as essentially a gesture that confronts the terrifying paradox that meaningful connection can only be found in oblivion. Because, after all, Clay’s poems are about relationships and only through complete, or near complete, dissolution of oneself into another (an other) can we connect on an “elemental” level as in the two-line poem “Elegy”:

I took cold water from the river in my hands, drank,

And looked down to see a rock black with the memory of my face.

And from “[Our Hands Sailing]”:

Of the faces seen drifting in the wake of our boat,

My Father’s stare is the deepest.

Clay’s lines never cease to surprise and to delight the reader with odd juxtapositions and strange music, demonstrated adequately enough by these lines from “Elegy for the Self-Portrait”:

Yes, the pianos are quiet, yet they remain

consistent even in their silence.

The consistent and ample use of white space throughout the collection reinforces this notion of music in silence, a kind of John Cage effect, that lends to the volume and force of what at first appears to be a kind of Faberge (bird) egg of a collection.

All that said, one needn’t worry. Yeats is still the last romantic. Clay just revisits romanticism and allows us to experience it in much the same way that I imagine those first readers of Blake, Shelley, and Clare might have experienced their work. And it’s a visit worth making.

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