's new book of poems, Light and Shade: New and Selected Poems
, is wonderful. Clark, who Billy Collins calls, "the lyric imp of American poetry," is delightfully deft with his pen, funny and engaging, and always surprising. This volume is sheer pleasure, ranging from a rave introduction by Amy Gerstler
, to early material that tastes lightly of the likes of Eluard
, to heart-wrenching love poems, to the incredibly agile, tongue-in-cheek poems of recent days. I really don't get it: how can someone write so well, so tightly, and be so funny and trenchant all at the same time? And, over a forty year span? It's a rare hybrid we have here; few people do it well and Clark's definitely among them.
"On the Beach"
The storm has ended and death steps back
Into the waters once more. All our troubles
Are behind us once and for all.
The moon looks down in single glory.
The apocalyptic view of the world
Supposes things do not repeat themselves.
But they do. And they do. And they do.
The sky clouds up. A new storm comes on.
Apocalyptic thinking presumes
All this has never happened before
And will never happen again. I know,
As the moon beams down on the photo-plankton,
All this will never happen again, too.
Wisdom is cold and to that extent stupid.
÷ ÷ ÷
Have you read Charles Simic? If the answer is no, you definitely owe yourself a treat ? get those fingers flying, and pick some up. The opportunities are legion, as he's an incredibly prolific poet and essayist. His latest book, The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected and Late Poems, newly out in paperback is a great place to start.
Simic could rightly be called our reigning troubadour of the bizarre. His poetry's deeply rooted in classical surrealism, and his amazing and disturbing images come marching off the page like an army of ants, all dressed in pilgrim hats, to take over your mind and win the heart of your imagination. Another important influence on Simic's work is his native Serbia's violent history and incredibly vibrant culture. And, of course, the latest round of Balkan wars had an impact, making much of his poetry darker with more disturbing contemporary allusions. All in all, it's a heady mix, one exceptionally worthy of exploration.
I well remember a hungover New Year's Day in Washington, DC, in which I and some roommates took turns reading prose poems from Simic's mind-boggling collection The World Doesn't End, a book for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, out loud. It was an afternoon of transport and enchantment such as I've rarely experienced. The poems took on a life of their own, achieving an almost hallucinatory intensity, and my friends and I were moved by poetry in the most intimate way. For some of us it was a first time. At least for me, it wasn't to be the last.
Here's a poem from that book:
It was the epoch of the masters of levitation.
Some evenings we saw solitary men and women
floating above the dark tree tops. Could they have
been sleeping or thinking? They made no attempt
to navigate. The wind nudged them ever so slightly.
We were afraid to speak, to breathe. Even the
nightbirds were quiet. Later, we'd mention the little
book clasped in the hands of the young woman,
and the way the old man lost his hat to the
In the morning there were not even clouds in
the sky. We saw a few crows preen themselves
at the edge of the road; the shirts raise their empty
sleeves on the blind woman's clothesline.
By the way, if you find you like his work, hunt down his collection of translations from the Serbian, The Horse Has Six Legs. It illuminates some of his influences, as well as being a rich, disturbing, grand book in itself.
÷ ÷ ÷
One last thing ? and, just a little thing, really... but then, I'm a sucker for little things. The little thing I've fallen for this time is Harvard's new A Loeb Classical Library Reader. Consisting of thirty-three passages drawn from the omnipresent green and red volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, this selection of excerpts from the great literature of the ancient world is a delight. Like the Loeb volumes themselves, this book is set in facing page Latin or Greek and English, and the selections cover the whole width and breadth of human thought, from philosophy to drama, from letters to history to satire. The authors are the stuff of legend: Homer, Josephus, Livy, Horace, Aristophanes, and on and on.
The choices, I have to say, are very cool as well. There's a description of Herod's fortified palace at Masada, a piece by Cicero on the duties we owe to others, and an account of Pliny the Elder's observation of the eruption of Vesuvius. Of course, one can always pick on the selections ? I would love to have seen some of Seneca's philosophy rather than an excerpt from a play, or different selections from Herodotus.
If I have one serious quibble with it, it would be the same quibble that I have with the body of the series itself, and that's that the English translations are often stiff and somewhat archaic in their use of language. But, they could quibble with me in that I read neither Greek nor Latin, and that, after all, is their main reason for existence. Fair enough. I'm going to read it on a forthcoming trip to Europe, and I suspect that, long after I've come home, it will profit me to visit it again and again.