Kevin Clark: “When my heart-close friend and editor Judith Kitchen died in November of 2015, I was intent on writing about her, but soon enough I found it was too early to do so directly. Instead, I was scratching words on a page when I found myself remembering the classic 1938 movie Angels with Dirty Faces, which I’d seen when I was very young. The most powerful scene in the movie depicts the priest (Pat O’Brien) imploring the murderer (James Cagney) to act the coward at his execution so that all his orphan admirers might ultimately turn from crime. I was with Judith (and her husband Stan Rubin) on and off for years after she received word that she had a terminal disease. In the face of her diagnosis, Judith’s continual writing, teaching, and friendship—as well as her open-hearted poise—never failed to move me. She was my inspiration for the poem’s ending … and much more.” (web)
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.
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: email@example.com.
It was clear Maurice had been messed with plenty—
and that he’d messed right back. At the second class,
I asked him a question about a Faulkner story,
and he sized me up with a look that said
you may be my age and my teacher, but
if you ever screw with me I’ll guarantee
the DNA you’ve stored in your miserable balls
for that sweet-ass kid you’ve been planning
will meet a death so horrible only dogs will hear
your screams. I’d never had a vet that burnt
in class before, but I knew to believe the look.
Semi-official word from on-high claimed
at least three released murderers had joined
the student body, and that day Maurice
brought this factoid into gut-check relief.
I’d already explained how each student gets
at least one question every class, but plainly he
wasn’t impressed with my pedagogy, so I made sure
only to call on him when his face said it was okay
this time. Raw red skin between black strands
of beard, the irises of his eyes full open as if he saw
inside and out at once, he looked like burst flesh
willed back into a man.
Only one other
re-entry student took my class that term:
A criminology major, pretty dark-haired
middle-aged Angel from down-state Ohio
read every assignment with check-list zeal.
Each break she’d pull out a compact
for her midday mascara. She liked Frost,
she said, because he was just like her mother,
who, if you want to know, was hired on
as the first female cop in the county exactly
one year after her father died. The poet,
he seems all ladylike, she said. You know:
looks good sounds nice but down deep cuts no one
no slack, not like her two redneck sisters
who married way down the food chain and
didn’t care their husbands roughed ’em up
every couple months. No one else spoke to Angel
outside of class—one girl said she was too weird
for wheels, a real nouveau bitch. But they liked
her stories, even if she talked over them all.
And since Maurice rarely spoke, the two hadn’t
A month into the term, he arrived
like a hit man at my office door—only to discuss
the upcoming essay he was writing on
Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” All along
I’d wanted to ask him about his name, the kind
of crap even best friends must have put him
through. Then again, I wanted him to like me
well enough he’d never kill me, so with practiced
diffidence I asked what drew him to that story, and
he simply said, Nick had been to war. Turned out,
his paper was better than I’d have guessed, the writing
chopped into short, chewed sentences that linked
Nick’s lonely, hip-booted fishing to the moment
Maurice shot up a hundred-yard line of bushes
from his boat on the Mekong, how he’d heard
the cries over the engine, but couldn’t see who’d
been hit. That was it. Though he never wrote why Nick
pushed deeper into the thicket, he seemed
pleased enough with his “B.”
before finals, the class squeezed into a circle
for Hurston’s “Sweat.” I asked them to imagine
Delia’s life with her no-good husband Sykes
before he tried to kill her. Not a black kid
in the group, the usual talkers spoke up right away
with the kind of righteousness Hurston used
to condemn bony Delia into the four walls
of our own sins, how Delia remained outside the house
doing nothing while Sykes’ mortal pleadings
poured from the windows. Twice I’d asked Angel
to screw down her urge to speak, at least so others
had time to answer questions. But this topic
just stripped her bolts of thread. That woman did
what she had to, she told the class with a clichéd,
uptempo sneer we’d not heard before. Haven’t
you been in cities when those animals walk
full across the sidewalk and won’t give you
the right of way? And in case we didn’t catch
her meaning: Listen, she hummed, you gotta know,
those so-called men, they’d just as soon kill you
as rob you, then laugh as you’re bleeding
there in the street. She paused, gave out
a last conclusive sigh. That’s why they’re called
Shot silent as the rest of the class,
ever a believer in their democratic right
to make ugly fools of themselves, I raced
through a brain full of broken lines. It was 1984,
and I felt that old teacherly urge to preserve
what we’d come to call “student dignity.”
But I was also pressed to counter each word
she’d said, especially the last, going off
again and again in our ears. Angel sat back
without noticing the motionless air of the room,
her legs crossed in their black tailored slacks,
the pearl necklace, the earrings, the silver bracelet
all hung in place as if she were born to being right.
I was still looking at her
when I heard his voice.
At first, it came at me like static. I turned to see
Maurice speaking at the floor, then slowly raising
his face. When I turned back, Angel’s eyes
began their slow-motion focus on him. It’s not hard
to figure there’s lots of different groups
in the world and none of them are all one way
or the other, he said, his low voice finding its way
through the brush. It’s just a fact that
there are ones you can tell right off
they’re okay, and then there are some, he said
—rotating his two-way gaze Angel’s direction—
who are plain scum.
I can’t remember
what I said. I know I stumbled a few seconds,
hyper conscious of the class, how we’d lost
any chance at that high when teacher and students
forget the other life, when only hours ago
an old boyfriend called in seductive apology,
or a wife to say she’s ovulating, or
a drunk lieutenant to kill a few hours.
For a few seconds, all that’s vanished. Decades
back, I expected transcendence every class. Pissed
at my own hesitation that day, I didn’t realize
the students took home a story they’d tell for weeks.
I probably called it a class, then crawled back
to my office. Your students are the lesson,
was the Zen motto. I doubt they felt I failed them.
Two weeks later I gazed up at Maurice
from the front desk as he handed me his final exam.
When I said goodbye, he looked me directly
in the eye, then simply nodded. I never saw him
again. Though he’d been the only student to scare
the wise-ass right out of me, I can still recall
the measured pitch of his voice that one moment,
as if he were talking to himself, even
as he stared right through Angel’s stung face.
He was at war. She was not the enemy.