February 10, 2011

Review by Donna M. Marbach

GOOD LONELY DAY
by John Clarke

The Backwaters Press
3502 N. 52nd Street
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN 978-1-935218-06-7
2009, 106 pp., $16.00
http://thebackwaterspress.com/

As a person who reads quite a lot of contemporary poetry, I enjoy discovering new (to me at least) voices. Thus, I chose to read Good Lonely Day primarily because the author was someone unknown to me. Though I may have previously encountered John Clarke’s work in one of the many literary journals in which his poems have appeared, I honestly can’t recollect any specific piece. That may be my loss, however, since Clarke has apparently been writing poetry for quite some time. The Acknowledgements section in Good Lonely Day references a privately printed chapbook, Inland Tide, that he had published by Snowy Road Press back in 1981.

Good Lonely Day certainly seems to reflect the thoughts of someone who spends a great deal of time out of doors, observing nature, and contemplating its significance. As Makuck’s endorsement states, the book is indeed primarily “about the natural world,” but it’s also more than that. It’s about nature and everyday life filtered through the eyes and mind of a thoughtful and careful observer—someone who attends to details and who seeks the truths hidden in those details. Clarke’s poems are not just pretty word pictures of autumn leaves or sentimental musings about family events. For the most part, his poems are little pieces of the ordinary carefully polished into small gems of revelation or mystery.

A poem, that I particularly liked for its delightful and rather original perspective on snow (which many of us dread as winter’s nemesis) was “One Dog Day.”

I miss the falling
and the fallen snow
and the sidelong snow
a while unfalling.
I’m weary of summer’s
things as they are
and ready to say,
“Come, snow. Come, snow—
your gift is what
you take away.”

In ten short lines, Clarke surprises and delights us, by turning a poem allegedly about summer into what is essentially a small Nerudian-like ode to winter and its much maligned snows.

Actually, several of Clarke’s poems are reminiscent of Neruda’s work. “Odd Sock,” is such a poem. It is an amusing little poem by Clarke that plays with the universal problem of single socks, a piece which immediately put me in mind of Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks,” to which Clarke’s poem seems to tip its hat.

Both Neruda and Clarke write about the same ordinary, mundane object: the sock. Both poets hone in on details about the sock, then playfully imagine a life for socks that goes beyond the obvious. Neruda turns socks into “two fish of wool/ two long sharks” or “two immense blackbirds.” Clarke echoes the Chilean poet by likening pairs of socks to “blackbirds” in the opening stanza of his poem:

It doesn’t matter
if you have eleven or seven
socks in your drawer—
symmetry loves to shuffle its pairs
like blackbirds
unstringing a telephone wire
no odd bead out
till the last.

Using common objects for subject matter is something both Neruda and Clark have in common. While Neruda wrote about tomatoes, lemons, salt, and artichokes, Clark’s book includes poems on a bottle, hands, leaves, a bowl, and even a school bus.

After having said that Clarke’s book is primarily a collection of poetry about the natural world, it may seem odd that I have chosen to such pay close attention to a poem about socks which isn’t really about nature at all. Okay, I will confess. I am not a particularly enthusiastic fan of “nature poems,” per se. Over the course of time, I have read hundreds of poems about crickets, kingfishers, sandpipers, snow and the moon (all topics addressed in Clarke’s book). And how many different and original things can one say about colorful autumn leaves or migrating geese? I am afraid I have become numbed to these topics and it is easy for me to dismiss most nature poems as “nice” or “competent,” but few grab me by the collar and scream “pay attention, woman!” Clarke’s nature poems—at least some of them—may be an exception.

In “December News,” (definitely one of those nature poems) Clarke practically knocked my socks off with the wonderfully original image that ends the poem:

and it is snow, first snow,
tapping its small canes.

What can I say, but “Wow!”

In “Little Marsh,” a poem almost Haiku-like in its sparse imagery, there is yet another strikingly beautiful description:

And seven cattails bent
two ways—
four heads to one grief,
three to another.

And who could not help but love the “One-Footed Pheasant” who “pogoes over the grass”? Yes, Clarke’s book has definitely caused me to significantly modify my blasé position on “nature poems.”

However, as much as I liked this book and as much as I would recommend it to others, I do have one teeny tiny bone to pick with it. I am guessing that John Clarke’s favorite color is blue. Why? Because he uses the word “blue” so many times in the opening section of the book that, for me, the word became a distraction and I found myself pulled out of a poem every time he used it (okay, I’ll admit to being a bit weird). Clarke uses that plain little four-letter word in at least 14 of the book’s 75 plus poems. That in-and-of itself might not seem such a bad thing. However eight of those poems are in the very first section of the book and four of those are among the first six poems in the book. While I began to notice the repetition of “blue” after the first few appearances, what pushed me over-the-top and made me start counting it, was the sixth poem “Kingfisher, which repeats the word “blue” five times in its modest 18 lines. I am all for repetition as a poetic device, but this particular word for some inexplicable reason jumped out and inappropriately grabbed my attention at every opportunity.

Nonetheless, John Clarke’s passion for blue notwithstanding, Good Lonely Day is a book well-worth the read. Accessible, thoughtful, and original, it is a book that is sometimes amusing, sometimes profound, and at all times delightful.