Dale Smith


Dead End:
     A review of Threnody by Tom Clark

by Tom Clark
effing press, 2006

Dead ends are ponderous. You look over your shoulder to see if anyone is looking. You listen for the echoes of your thoughts crashing through memories you had once forgotten--and then they resurface to haunt you. Perhaps the tides of living people everywhere suggest that all is well. We spend. We thrive. But we live on air and are habituated to the patterns of ghosts. "Literature" and "poetry" leave a sense of mystery strangely alive, and then words and images are absorbed by the cellular bulge an audience creates to honor the transference of language from person to object and back in a finite coil of sound and hope prolonged and misplaced. The dead end appears enormous for a moment, like a medieval glimpse of heaven. And then you return to earthly things--to live in the hallucinated fragments of a gone world.

Toward an exegesis of contemporary ghost culture, Tom Clark, in the mournfully titled Threnody (Effing 2006), writes:

Click for a bigger imageThe heavy industries that built our world and shaped our lives are dying. The sounds and sights in these grim cathedrals they've left behind--the empty vestiges of their once throbbing rituals, the iron foundries and sheet metal works, the copper smelting and cable manufacturing plants--echo and reflect their death throes. A pall of absence as dense as a toxic cloud hangs over things. Yet time continues to move forward: along rusted tracks and corroded rails, down dark alleys, across suspended gangways, past girders dangling precariously in black air, around blind corners through a labyrinth of internal factory corridors. Time that is the ghostly material medium in which we think and act--compelled onward yet never knowing where we're going, turned aside, derailed, misled, diverted, confused, disoriented and finally lost--continues to grind on, as long as we keep breathing. This world of time through which we travel, which we have made, and which has made us, has only one direction, forward, and one speed, this speed, and one destination, a dead end that repeats itself over and over.

Click for a bigger imageClark's poems in this brief meditation relate a stark sense of time (like, our times, or modern times). "The flagman waves," on rails that "stretch out before us." This is a work of spatial and temporal urgency where signals arrive against backgrounds of snow with "A few barren branch-frosted trees fingering the wind." In the world of the poem we find "A lonely semaphore in the snow / Its signal a brief pill of color melting into and blotting the monochrome white / Snow thinly drifting on the tracks." Against the barren extension of "empty loading ramps," "interstices in guardrails and fences," and "white-dark hulking shapes," one dream persists: "A pale glimmering signal light." One poem, "Locomotive," is significant for its spare relation in imagery of internal vacancy, impending doom, and a cold, industrial wreckage in which we find home:

We continue on between long low abandoned factory buildings with loading
               ramps and crooked rickety wooden steps
Leading nowhere
Absence the air that we breathe
Emptiness now again pervading the world through which we move
Blowing snow
We follow the tracks
The windows in the squat dark buildings opaque and black
Snow-drifts scarred by dark shapes of heavy industrial equipment dismantled
               and left in pieces
Iron rusting under snow
Gray-white light
On rails parallel to our own a steam locomotive approaches
Belching black smoke into gray-white air

Click for a bigger imageThese ten poems are presented with line drawings by the author in a folio edition elegant and spare as the poems. Images reveal tracks and containers that vanish against the horizon. Empty street-scenes too reveal industrial parks with geometric sturdiness and relate a kind of hygienic decay of old forms. It's as if the phenomenal world mirrors our internal states of mind and emotions. I wonder if such external forms feel pressured into compliance with a future that slips into them according to failures of human vision. Or do we, according to Clark's spatial elegies, receive news or omens of our crumbling temporal present through objects against which our bodies move? Each image traces parallel lines through empty urban spaces. Gorgias of Leontini comes to mind, for of the older Sophists it was he who denied both the existence of being and non-being. For nothing, as he has it, can be known. If it were known, it could not be communicated, and the incommunicable has no form. But Clark's more social aim embraces language as the medium of our situation, and so there is a unique, but ghost-like pleasure in these spare visions--pleasure in an accuracy of perception given to our situation now as migrant wanderers in a world of objects we are slowly losing grasp of.

Click for a bigger imageI can understand Clark's committed social inquiry and condemnation. Or is it more properly a sad realization? The impotent husks of a world transposed to transparent forms. He reads these structures to reveal something in post-human and abstract spatial geographies inhabited by ghosts. These poems are powerful because they are true to a certain condition of experience. It's hard to imagine an audience for this book who won't be drawn toward a meditative vision--a kind of Schopenhauerian blunt rejection of what life purports to be in the great blank expanse of our present. This is a critical, yet unrelenting, sequence that moves attention into the nature of things--an accumulated present of forlorn forms that, much like the inner life we inherit from the past, mutates and atrophies according to the uses of each member.