Alice Notley


A Miraculous Escape from Death

Tom Clark's AT MALIBU is one of the books one feels like singing of tonight in one's idiotic ramble about the recent books one feels deeply about and will.

I didn't know how to begin talking about AT MALIBU so finally looked up kudzu vine ("And Don't Ever Forget It") in the dictionary. It is a leguminous, climbing vine of China & Japan having tuberous sturdy roots & stems that yield a useful fiber

...lay back
On my big brass bed
In your pink slip
The one with flowers sewn on it
Not the one
That certifies the registration of your auto

It's a lovely auto
I just don't like it
Because it has kudzu vines
Growing out of its body
And you know how I hate kudzu vines

                   I just wanted to know if it is real. It is real in the poem making it mysterious hard-edged and a bit cuckoo at once. May I quote Kenneth Koch on the lyric from "The Art of Poetry"

                   The lyric must be bent
Into a more operative form, so that
Fragments of being reflect absolutes (see for example
         the verse of
William Carlos Williams or Frank O'Hara) and you
         can go on
Without saying it all every time. If you can master the
         knack of it,
You are a fortunate poet, and a skilled one.

Tom Clark is indeed the latter, and his predecessors have here been pinpointed. And we really do know all about those kudzu vines don't we. It's the auto that's interesting: the acquired machine or is it the autonomy of one's own the one one would believe in? to quote from the poem "Popeye & Co."

And reality creeps in
Between the you
That exists
And the you
You merely dream, you who came
Before knew as we do, and equally
Did not speak of it! No you didn't Popeye!

Across the page from kudzu vine in the dictionary was kontakion a short hymn honoring a saint. AT MALIBU contains kontakions mostly to baseball players and to Tom Clark's wife, saints modern and traditional respectively; the book contains a long stunning address to Pierre Reverdy, who is somehow the saving saint in a despairing rage that is a poem called "Japan." For saints are the Needed. AT MALIBU was written by the master formalist Clark of old, the newer inventor and concatenator of real languages, and the universal half-crazed grownup who face-to-face with life death and money and his own personality writes the poems that come out with it, whatever it it might be. He has gotten to the bottom of himself and by virtue of his virtuosity and character must be permitted to lay it on us, and for our sake too. The book is beauty framed by/with horror, like California.

                   Of course a lot of the poems arise purified of horror out of something like the geometry of baseball and formalism in general. The final thing I researched extra-book was what going "5 for 5 against Vic Raschi" might mean most exactly I'm sure you know I won't explain so I could cite with utmost confidence the poem "Baseball & Classicism," which is one of those you know exemplary of the book distillations...

Every day I peruse the box scores for hours
Sometimes I wonder why I do it
Since I am not going to take a test on it
And no one is going to give me money

The pleasure's something like that of codes
Of deciphering an ancient alphabet say
So as brightly to picturize Eurydice
In the Elysian Fields on her perfect day

The day she went 5 for 5 against Vic Raschi

Kontakion for sure but is the saint box scores, Eurydice/Vic Raschi or Tom Clark? For me the saint is that poem.

I haven't mentioned at all so far the language used in the opening sequence of poems, the first of which is the title poem, which are an evocation of creepy California all in between about 1960 and now, that inbetween sort of sliding around amongst its inbetweens and unequivocably including the poet as participator. The vision is "mucoid," slimy like stand food, and the slime expands into an enormous hulking amoeba that'll getcha one of these days. Sample language

       Vomburgers were broiling
                 over an open fire
                      & the delicate anemone BENT
                           INTO THE SHAPE OF A
                           TACO w/catsup

                                  tasted boss!

                                                                    ("Beach Party")

Taco shells are like delicate anemones, but "the delicate anemone / BENT INTO THE SHAPE OF A TACO" is stunning syntax. As usual I've chosen a beautiful instead of yucky passage, or is there a specifically yucky passage?

                              I vommed up a string
              of what looked like bird shit,
                        and cried out
                               to the ripped-up air:
                        "What Me Worry?"

                                                                    ("At Malibu")

"Ripped-up air" is, again, stunning. Actually the lines previous to the above seem to sum up what happens throughout in the sudden terror realm

                Then a spatial cliff
                              loomed up before me
                                like a breakfast of gray rock

                              and spanked my ass.

But there is something else new, esp. around the 2/3rds mark of the book that Tom Clark is doing with language: he has found a realer way to be pretty (I believe it is wrong to belittle prettiness; I've never been sorry any time I was told I was pretty).


Sky full of blue nothing toward which the Magi
Move, like dream people who are Walt Fraziers of the air...
Sometimes the moves they make amaze them
For they will never happen again, until the end of time; but there they are.

So shall I be like them? I don't think so... and yet to float
Above the rolling H2O
On wings that express the mechanics of heaven
Like a beautiful golden monkey wrench
Expresses mechanics of earth... t'would be bueno.

"The Buddha's psychological experience of life as pain and suffering was intensely real and moved him to the very depths of his being, and in consequence the emotional reaction he experienced at the time of Enlightenment was in proportion to the intensity of feeling." (D. T. Suzuki) May you, Tom Clark, float on wings that express the mechanics of heaven.


Tom Clark, AT MALIBU (Kulchur Foundation, 1975).