Saturday, January 11, 2020

Poem366: Some thoughts, and an appreciation of "A Finitude of Skin" by Clayton Adam Clark

Although I may slip up and use the word from time to time, “Poem366” is not a series of book reviews. A review is something very different from these little essays, which I refer to as “appreciations.”

As a journalism major, I was trained up in reviewing in what was probably my favorite course in the curriculum. The 300-level class was called “Review and Criticism,” and it was held one night a week. Most of what we did was watch classic movies — All About Eve, Citizen Kane, that kind of thing — and then write reviews about them. I hadn’t seen those films, so the course was doubly educational for me.

But we also talked about the ethics of reviewing, and it was made very clear that a review relies on trust. Audiences need to be able to trust reviewers not to have a financial stake in what they’re reviewing, be it a restaurant, movie, or what have you, and they should also trust that they’re getting a straightforward look at the subject, both the good and the bad, with the writer’s personal concerns not mixing too much with the job of reviewing.

Although I come from, and work again in, the journalism world, I’ve spent a lot of time tooling around on the literary scene, and I’ve found the ethics here to be quite different. Friends review friends all the time; I’ve even been in Facebook groups where people have attempted to swap reviews — you do me and I’ll do you.

Whether in blurbs or “reviews,” you’ll find very few poetry collections that aren’t luminous (or numinous) and essential. We seldom get the straight poop, because I read a lot of collections with language that could use some tightening or imagery that misses the mark or rhetoric that lacks precision and logic, but these are said to be as numinous as all of the others.

In the Poem366 project, I’m offering a taste of the work that I am reading and enjoying. (What I’m reading and not enjoying, I just skip over and don’t mention here.) There is a lot to like in most poetry collections, and I love to see what I can learn from anything I pick up. What I find, I share with you.

Because I’m really just being a fan instead of a critic in these little essays, I am free to bring you some things I would never find ethically appropriate to review. One of those is today’s selection, A Finitude of Skin by Clayton Adam Clark. This collection is the winner of the Moon City Press Poetry Award, and I am the series editor for that award. With my partner Lanette Cadle, I chose this collection as the prize winner, and I edited it in close partnership with Clayton himself. I feel very connected to this book, and I’m excited to share it with the world.

Could I review this book? Never. Can I love it and tell you about it? Yep. And right now I’m going to do just that.

A Finitude of Skin by Clayton Adam
A Finitude of Skin by Clayton Adam Clark (Springfield, Missouri: Moon City Press, 2018).

Clayton Adam Clark writes beautifully about place, and I know this because I’ve been to many of the places this Missouri poet writes about in A Finitude of Skin, the winner of the 2018 Moon City Press Poetry Award.

I helped to choose Clark’s collection for the MCP prize, and I did so on the basis of his careful use of language — no extraneous words or syllables here — and his lush imagery. But I think I was most impressed by his keen understanding of the environment, which he describes in precise and scientific terms.

The tone of the book is set in the first three lines of “The River of Ugly Fishes,” the first poem in the book:

Blame it on the limestone—the sinkholes,
the speleological interest, an overwhelming
karstness here. People get lost.

I’ve lived in Missouri for eight years, and this seems true to me. The state has a way of taking us in, and it can also feel a little hard to get away from.

Clark writes about a hellbender (giant salamander) that is new to the region, and the way he presents it makes a reader feel as though it’s right in front of her:

                        The snot otter, grampus,
   devil dog can breathe underwater
   without gills, lungs only for floating,
   and most closely resembles crayfish-eating
   petrified wood. Until it swims. …
                        There’s nothing wooden
   in a hellbenders wiggle work upstream,
   the backbone soft, the little flesh around
   infused with capillaries that filter

Clark writes like a naturalist, or like a journalist whose beat is the disappearing world.

Another favorite poem of mine is the multipart “The Noctambulists.” Here, too, Clark writes with meticulous care about nature, this time about an unexpected Missouri denizen: sharks.

   Bull sharks swim up the Mississippi, singular
   in their blood’s regulation of salt in freshwater.
   The northernmost shark caught on record

   was hooked on the Illinois side near the Piasa Bird,
   a fish-bird-reptile-deer painted on a bluff
   in red-black-green.

It’s a real petroglyph, and bull sharks on the Mississippi are well documented, too, but for some reason, Clark can write about simple facts and make them seem not just unlikely, but wondrous.

The poet’s appreciation for scientific detail even shows up in a beautiful love poem, “7-10 Years.” Writes Clark,

   There’s nothing left of your skeleton
   from the day we met. Every cell
   forming, your spinal column, your femurs
   and scapulae, has been replaced.
   Your blood traversed the thousand miles
   of your body and died in your spleen
   again and again, and I’m sorry
   I never saw you change.

It’s certainly a strange sentiment, but so tender and loving that I fall a little in love with the voice of the poem myself. If there were a prom somewhere, I’d ask this guy to it.

The end of this poem shows that the poet’s philosophical range extends beyond details and data into deeper waters. After explaining how the body regenerates every seven to ten years, he concludes,

                        What I can’t let go of
   is if we want to change the people
   we have been, we don’t have to.

Change will come, whether we want it to or not, whether that’s in our fading natural world or in each other. It’s a thought that’s as horrifying as it is comforting.

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