Poetry Review: Yellow & Blue, by Thomas A. Clark

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This review first appeared in The Literateur Thursday 24 April 2014

The experience of reading Thomas A. Clark’s Yellow & Blue is much like taking a walk. The small and unassuming stanzas, resting in the clean white space of a page without capital letters or punctuation, lead us on a journey past sea rocks and skerries, gables and gardens, sandwort and shells, bog-cotton and birch, mountains and moss. Clark delights in simple, natural things and the power and beauty inherent in them:

 

————————————after rain
————————————briar leaves
————————————have a scent
————————————of apples

 

This is quiet, contemplative, Zen-like poetry that records what Kathleen Jamie termed a ‘walking-pace life’; a life in which time is taken to pay close and careful heed to the natural world surrounding us. As Clark puts it: ‘If we have been given the gift of the world, the very least we can do in return is give it our attention.’ His poems act as ‘little spaces of quiet where things can be seen clearly’.

Though Clark’s is a peaceful sort of poetry, Yellow & Blue is filled with a sense of liveliness and humour. It is poetry with a wink:

 

————————————here is a garden
————————————of tansy run riot
————————————around anyone
————————————bright enough
————————————to neglect it

 

Though he revels in rivers, flowers and mountains, he does not turn his back on human life. The stanzas which linger awhile on domestic scenes are some of the most powerful sections of Yellow & Blue:

 

————————————in a back parlour
————————————the best furniture
————————————is seldom used
————————————linen is folded
————————————neatly in a drawer
————————————fresh for an occasion
————————————that never arrives
————————————the clock ticking

 

The apparent simplicity of such stanzas belie the close attention Clark pays to language and sound. Indeed, this is poetry for the ear as well as the eye:

 

————————————in a wilderness
————————————or bewilderment
————————————of sandwort
————————————and bladder-wrack
————————————small shell place
————————————sheltered

 

So much is going on beneath the still surface of these lines; Clark’s work may be quiet and contemplative, but it is bustling with life. The visual and half-rhyming repetition of ‘wild’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ evokes the untamed nature of the landscape Clark is describing, and the alliterative quality of ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’ gives an onomatopoeic effect of a hushing shush, the quiet nature of this sheltered place. Visual and aural patterns are created by the assonance of the ‘i’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’, the ‘a’ in ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘wrack’, and the ‘e’ in ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’, as well as by the consonance of the ‘d’ and ‘r’ in ‘wilderness’, ‘bewilderment’, ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘sheltered’. These patterns aptly echo the rhythmic, flowing quality of a well-paced walk.

There are so many layers to this one small stanza, which reflects the multi-faceted nature of the landscape Clark is describing; the open land may appear vast and clear, but look closer and you will find it packed full of the intricate details of living things. Such richly textured evocations of a peculiarly Scottish landscape are brought to life by the cadences and lilt of Clark’s words, their rhythmic quality and the patterns of sound that emerge as each line progresses. The multisyllabic ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ are reduced to the shorter ‘sandwort’ and ‘bladder-wrack’, followed by the monosyllabic ‘small shell place’, ending in the one-word line ‘sheltered’, the hard ‘d’ acting as an aural full-stop and mirroring the simplifying, quieting act of finding shelter, of being enclosed and protected from the noisy elements.

Clark’s literary snapshots of his journey could be classified as ‘the art of the ordinary’, a term which highlights the painterly nature of his verbal landscapes. Robert Stacey has commented on the three categories into which Clark’s work falls – still life, landscape and domestic interior – referring to his poetry as ‘a still life in action’. This can be seen most clearly in lines like:

 

————————————by a window
————————————blue cornflowers
————————————in a yellow cup
————————————continually
————————————wake up

 

These ordinary objects are brought to life by Clark’s close attention, and the titular colours of yellow and blue are a recurring theme in his work. In one of his installations, the phrase ‘one blue moment’ is printed in blue on a white wall in a room containing a blue bedspread, and in another room the phrase:

 

————————————Anyone
————————————who comes
————————————to yellow
————————————wants more

 

is printed in yellow on a white wall beside a yellow wall. Such rooms, in which Clark’s words find the space to breath, demonstrate how his work does not fit quite so comfortably in magazines; the texts require a different kind of reading process. In book form, their spare, isolated situation on the pages of collections like Yellow & Blue provide this crucial breathing space. Poetry outside the clustered pages of a conventional book or magazine, in Clark’s words, ‘takes you by surprise’. Rather than being tucked away out of sight, arrived at through deliberate searching, it can be stumbled upon accidentally.

The sense of poetry being part of our everyday world, whether it is placed in a hospital in Glasgow or an old kimono shop in Nagoya (where Clark’s poems have appeared), makes poetry accessible rather than lofty. Clark’s belief in ‘poetry as making, as a practical rather than an intellectual activity’ underlines this down-to-earth appeal. Though the poems of Yellow & Blue appear in book form, there is still a craftsman-like quality to their shape and movement; they could just as easily be carved into stone or painted on a wall. Indeed Clark’s own publishing endeavour Moschatel Press, which he runs with the artist Laurie Clark, produces hand-made artist books that bear out this sense of poetry as craft or practice.

This meticulous, crafted and objective quality grounds Clark’s poems in their linguistic materiality and in that of the natural world they gesture towards; they are pastoral but never Utopian. As John Freeman has commented of Clark’s work: ‘To value the light is to be aware of the darkness’. Though the beauty and joy to be found in natural things is felt throughout Yellow & Blue, they are not quite idealised. There is a sense, felt in the silences around the words, that these things we cherish might someday be lost. The act of valuing something stands alongside the horror of losing it, and how awful would it be to lose our connection to certain landscapes and the things they contain through apathy and negligence?

Recording and revelling in a particularly Celtic type of landscape that might someday be lost brings to life shades of myth and folklore, found in lines such as:

 

————————————sylphs and nymphs and kelpies
————————————might slip between
————————————silks and shocks and sulks
————————————of water into real bodies

 

Such images escape the pages of fairy-tales and emerge into the very real world witnessed throughout Clark’s walking poem. Yellow & Blue closes on another stanza in which the fantastical is placed in the real, a magical image that could have emerged straight out of a tale of bygone days:

 

————————————a lamp of fish oil
————————————with a wick of rushes
————————————gathered by the light
————————————of a full moon

 

Through taking this imaginary journey with Clark, we come to realise that we have not yet lost our connection to a host of precious places and things. They are there, waiting to be discovered and treasured, if we would only take the time to walk and listen and look.

Book Review: Captain of the Steppe

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This review first appeared in The Literateur (21 June 2013)

From the gallows to the trenches, the most desperate environments can give rise to humour, and the ferociously bleak landscape of Oleg Pavlov’s Captain of the Steppe is no exception. But can humour act as a means of expressing rage at a despotic system, or does it in some way make light of an unavoidably dark situation?

Set during the dying days of the Soviet Empire, Captain Khabarov is stationed in the godforsaken steppe, an enormous plain stretching far across the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. It is an unfathomable place, so bitterly cold the light-bulbs pop like boils and the inner walls grow skins of ice. The soldiers stationed here to guard exiled prisoners (or “zeks”) are sent last year’s newspapers and rotten food, surrounded by lice and rats, their wages as frozen as their bones. It is a place of stagnation and decay, of sickness and overcrowding, where the men feel cheated, lost and overlooked. Pavlov describes the penal colony as a blood clot, a glob of phlegm, a kennel and a graveyard, stinking of fried food and soiled laundry. He paints a vivid, often nauseating, picture.

And yet, despite taking place within this grim enclosure and the confounding landscape that encroaches so relentlessly upon it, Captain of the Steppe is far from a demoralising read. This is due in large part to Pavlov’s macabre sense of humour, vibrant language, startling similes and vivid characterisation. Pavlov, who was just twenty-four when the book was published in Russia in 1994, spent his military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan, infusing the narrative with a strong dose of authenticity. Though the plot is fictional, the petty officiousness, political corruption and obscene injustice depicted are so sad, funny and engrossing because there is a resounding ring of truth to them.

One particularly illuminating source of the book’s grotesque humour is obese Cossack Ilya Peregud, a non-conformist, resourceful escapist – and hopeless drunk – who lives in fear of having his ponytail cut off. Ilya does not want “to turn into a worker ant” and knows “a hundred different ways of making vodka… from rice, wheat, rotten apples, wood chips, old women’s headscarves or sour cabbage soup”; when he drinks, “Ilya would take wing!” It is a heavenly depiction of drunkenness, and who can blame him when he has been placed in such dire circumstances?

What of the eponymous Khabarov? The novel centres round its hero’s decision to plant potatoes in order to feed his half-starving men. It is a simple act, done out of goodness, yet has lasting repercussions. The fact that Khabarov has not been ordered, or sought permission, to plant the potatoes angers and frightens his military superiors:

“So the matter has nothing to do with potatoes, really, but with the fact that a man like that, with nothing to lose, like this Khabarov, has dared to go against the rules. Turns out this is a political problem. Such people are more dangerous than any infectious illness.”

The potatoes are a demonstration of rebellion to the officials but represent hope for Khabarov, and in their green shoots the reader can see a symbol of the captain’s conviction, tenacity and humanity.

Though such events take place in the faraway land of the Kazakh steppe, there are a surprising number of vernacular words and phrases included throughout the narrative (“go on a bender”, “taking the piss” and “bullshitting”, to name a few), giving the dialogue an earthy, authentic feel. Credit for this should go to translator Ian Appleby, whose light touch makes a topic foreign to most British readers feel accessible and intimate. Equally arresting are the surprising similes with which the book teems: “a link of smoked sausage, curled round like a mongrel’s tail and with the same sort of red, crimped arsehole”. There are also some magically surreal moments: potatoes are personified; a wolf talks; and a man fuses with the wood of his chair. Such familiar language and left-of-field imagery add colour and life to the bleached-out, dead nature of the steppe.

Men dominate this barren landscape and yet, peripheral as they are, a whole article could be devoted to its women. They seem to fall into one of two categories: lascivious, cruel and ugly; or frightened, mute and submissive. Pavlov expresses a strikingly ageist vision of female beauty: “The young women were fair-skinned and slim, while the old women had skin like cured ham and were fat.” True, he might have witnessed such women in this particular landscape, but with no other more varied depictions of women on offer it is hard to excuse such dismissive, binary descriptions, especially when the male characters are so diverse and nuanced. However, it is a story that can be firmly classified as a product of its time and environment, and Pavlov should perhaps be forgiven for lacking feminist ideals in Russia, 1994.

Yet, while Russia remains plagued with corruption and totalitarianism, while media compliance and electoral irregularities add to the sense of a deeply flawed democracy, Pavlov’s work will continue to strike a chord. It is filled with black humour, but within this lies the heart of the men’s despair; you either laugh in such terrible situations or you cry (or worse). By showing the men’s humanity, their lack of otherness, Pavlov highlights the injustice that has been done to them and makes us feel their torment. In this way, Captain of the Steppe becomes a brilliant and lasting expression of a bitter, righteous rage.