June 20, 2011

Review by Bill Neumire

SELF-PORTRAIT WITH EXPLETIVES
by Kevin Clark

LSU Press
3990 West Lakeshore Drive
Baton Rouge, LA 70808
ISBN 978-0-8071-3645-4
2010, 80 pp., $16.95
http://www.lsu.edu/lsupress

When I was an undergraduate at SUNY Brockport I took a class called “The Writer’s Craft” that featured weekly readings by visiting poets. This was back in 2002 when Kevin Clark was reading from his first book, In the Evening of No Warning. I don’t remember many details, but I recall being duly impressed as a young writer. When I saw that Clark’s second full-length collection had just won the Pleiades book contest, I had to find out if my (hopefully) more experienced taste still received Clark’s work as well as it did back in 2002. I wasn’t disappointed. Clark, who teaches at Cal Poly and the Rainier Writing Workshop, has a winner with his latest collection, Self-Portrait with Expletives (LSU Press, 2009).

The book begins with a proem, “Six Miles Up,” shaped like a Shakespearean sonnet (sans the rhyme and regular iambic pentameter) that works something like a Greek chorus. It’s a catalogue of “As ifs” and sets the reader up for the altitude and distance of this collection’s memory, its hindsight sweep of a life of learning, teaching, writing, and escapades. It also acts as a species of last will and testament with lines like, “As if you, son, were reading this fifty years from now (…) As if you, daughter, bequeathed this poem to your daughter.”

There are only twenty poems in this four-section book, so many of them sprawl out and occupy more space than the factory-line contemporary lyric. In fact, while there is plenty of sound and rhythm throughout, these are heavily narrative poems that flow with a very smooth plot and detailed characters. Characterization is, I dare say, the core strength of Clark’s latest book. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Maurice, a Vietnam vet Clark recalls teaching, a man who “looked like burst flesh will back into a man”; a man who wrote an essay on Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and was the only student to “scare the wise-ass right out of [Clark].”

It’s a book of a generation with titles like “Eight Hours in the Nixon Era,” “Sixties Noire,” and “James Dickey at Florida.” It’s also an ars poetica at times (aren’t all books?), some of Clark’s and some of Dickey’s, and even some of Auden’s and other characters. In “James Dickey at Florida” Clark recalls a class in which Dickey told everyone, “You don’t fuck around with poetry” (Clark wasn’t bluffing with the collection’s title). He offers, as counterpoint in the same poem, Auden’s question that he posed to winnow students: Why do you write poetry? The correct answer? I like to play with words. Not quite in the same ballpark as Dickey’s “When you’re masturbating (…) / there’s that feeling just before you come… / That’s poetry.”

The expletives in this collection are abundant. The title poem alone (a poem that calls to mind C.K. Williams’ terrific poem “The Gas Station”) employs “douche bag,” “Fuck,” “Goddamn,” “Dumbass,” “bad shit,” “life’s a shit sandwich,” and “skinny-assed pussy.” Does he need to use this language? Absolutely. First of all, it’s the language of the suburban sixties New Jersey characters that Clark so painstakingly creates. It makes them real. Secondly, it’s used in order to expose the youthful bravado and posturing of many of these characters, including the narrator. There’s a humbling self-deprecation evident in many of these poems. A message that says, yeah, we swore and dropped acid and got in some fights, but we were kids and we were trying to figure out the universe. It creates of the expletives a startlingly ironic innocence.

The opening poem, “Six Miles Up,” portends a cyclical strategy at work here. For instance, in “Self-Portrait with Expletives” the narrator says:

It was high school, the suburban sixties.
What did we know? Twelve years later,
when he and I got run off a wet road
in early morning Ohio by some yahoos
in a pickup rigged three stories high,
we were blitzing home to Jersey where
most natives stick for lack of options.

Later on in “Whipping Post” this is manifested in the speaker’s son as the narrator says, “Two minutes later my son will force a pickup halfway into the left shoulder.” Its four sections could be four seasons, everything beginning to repeat with the new generation.

The last section of this book is the poem “Accident Alert,” a poem centered and sound-tracked by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s “I’m a Fool to Want You.” The opening of the poem instructs readers to let the Gordon song play until the 1:23 mark at which point the poem kicks in. For all the efforts poems have made at being music, they never exactly are. But this poem bridges the gap. It cleverly marries the two without claiming they are the same.

In the end, these poems are successful because they move so well together. The narrative carries surprise, grit, and poignancy. The characters assemble, perform, and engrave themselves in the reader’s mind. Self-Portrait with Expletives is, ultimately, Clark’s own moveable feast reflection on a life of teaching, writing, and being an American male over the past four decades.

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Bill Neumire’s reviews have appeared in the Cortland Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Pedestal Magazine, and Umbrella. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Sugar House Review, The Toucan, and Cloudbank. He writes and teaches in Syracuse, New York with his wife and dog. He can be contacted at: wjneumire@msn.com.