Hazard Response

April 26, 2006 at 4:00 pm 10 comments

Tom Clark


As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby
When the white sky darkens over the city
Of ashes, far from the once happy valley,
This daze spreads across the blank faces
Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived
Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.
Did I say kingdom when I meant place
Of worship? Original when I meant
Damaged in handling? Promised when
I meant stolen? Gift when I meant
Trick? Inhabitants when I meant slaves?
Slaves when I meant clowns
Who have wandered into test sites? Test
Sites when I meant contagious hospitals?
Contagious hospitals when I meant clouds
Of laughing gas? Laughing gas
When I meant tears? No, it’s true,
No one should be writing poetry
In times like these, Dear Reader,
I don’t have to tell you of all people why.
It’s as apparent as an attempted
Punch in the eye that actually
Catches only empty air—which is
The inside of your head, where
The green ritual sanction
Of the poem has been cancelled.

from Light and Shade: New and Selected Poems, © 2006 by Tom Clark

I like the call and response style the poem uses right after it sets up the contrasting opening lines, “grey exurban wasteland” and “once happy valley”. The poem goes well with the title of this book – Light and Shade (which in turn evokes Keats).

Here is a bit from a conversation featured in the Jacket‘s April ’06 issue, where Clark talks about this poem,

“I had that passage[from The Great Gatsby] in mind when I started the poem: ….

With “happy valley,” I was thinking, perhaps, of the America of Johnny Appleseed, in the Disney version, bright and abundant fields and orchards, that cartoon dream of an American past supplanting the endarkened vision of the present and future which Fitzgerald saw, or vice versa, …
The poem was written in that interesting early Fall of 2001, just after 9/ 11 and during the subsequent anthrax terror scare. One gaped with wonder at one’s TV while white-lipped network newscasters grimly presented footage of Hazmat teams in yellow plastic suits swarming pointlessly around outside suspected toxic terror sites…

Meanwhile crowds of evacuated workplace normals could be seen apprehensively looking on, too sheepish to acknowledge the real terrorists might be those they’d chosen to govern them. That image of the doubled wastelands, the wasteland in Gatsby, the wasteland in the suburban office building parking lot was indeed, as you’ve said, the switch that opened the floodgates of the “call and response” structure that holds the poem together, even as it tries to fall apart.”

UPDATE: a link to Tom Clark’s blog Beyond the Pale, where he has linked to this reading! :)


Entry filed under: 'New' Poetry, Black Mamba, English, Tom Clark.

The Landscape Bathed in Dust and Ash

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. larry meyers  |  July 8, 2008 at 12:33 am

    An effective poem. Not least because the opening lines inexactly reproduce the geography of The Great Gatsby. But chiefly because the energy of taking back everything one has just said, biting it back, really, results in a kind of ferocity that doesn’t depend on a fake echo of machine lingo that a number of poets I can think of seem to believe supplies their lines with electricity. It doesn’t. Clark has been up and down as a poet over the years, but damned few poets get into the insides of experience the way he can. When the dust settles, and the Pinskys and Sleighs et all are forgotten, and such sentimental gestures as the publication of Grace Paley’s verse no longer are made, Clark’s poetry will emerge more fully than ever as what was of true value.

  • 2. Zephirine  |  March 17, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I am helping Tom Clark with his own blog at http://tomclarkblog.blogspot.com/, and will be adding a link to your reading, as Tom found it recently and liked it very much.

  • 3. Steve  |  May 15, 2009 at 5:13 am

    Love the poem. Love the reading. Bravo!

  • 4. wordnerd7  |  August 24, 2009 at 6:09 am

    I couldn’t agree enough with the last comment. . .

    … Such a rare experience of listening to a poem by a contemporary poet, for me. When I walked away to make myself some tea after the reading ended, the lines were stil going through my head … are even now.

    A beautiful voice, and perfect enunciation; an arresting freshness in every line of her delivery.

    And yes — that is Gatsby indeed, in the beginning.

    Thank you, and this site is a wonderful discovery.

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