In life, there are moments when the intensity of joy and sorrow either pitch you to your knees in the dirt or raise your gaze to the tree line, the mountaintop—you wonder how they maintain such firm footing through both seismic shift and strange weather. Patricia Clark’s fourth collection of poetry, Sunday Rising, alternates between these skyward and groundward gazes to show us where they meet, and how, in fact, they are the same wonder-filled and bewildered perspective, that light “enter[s] the river with the same / intensity of burning / we see in life at its peak, / or life with the flame / threatening to go out.”
It is hard not to recall the deft turns of Mary Oliver in Clark’s work—both poets seem to be working within a tradition that seeks to understand the self by way of the natural world that is so often viewed as “other,” asking the human how and why and where it belongs in this world. Poems such as “Anti-Love Poem” and “Rockweed, Knotted Wrack, Dead Man’s Fingers” give us pause with questions that ask of us what is required, as Rilke says, to “live the question.” We are asked: “How else to be human? How else to be saved?” and “Why so often / at the shore, seaside, the margin, the brief / deep, intimate talk?” Through this investigative work, Clark teases out the points of separation and cohesion between self and other, life and death, destruction and sustainment.
Clark’s poems transgress boundaries and borders, locating the human within the more-than-human world. The gaze of this collection feels longer than a human life, wider than a singular perspective. The speaker in “Heron, in Sunlight,” for example, steps outside of her limited perspective, watching herself be the watcher, finding herself within the world in a new way on an ordinary day:
…along I came with the dog,
walking, watching as we do—
most ordinary of all mornings—
…we were stuck in time, pinned—
triad of self, dog, bird—
before the moment went whirling
Other poems, such as “Olentangy Elegy,” link the wearing away of the land with the disintegration of a family. The speaker begins by summoning the river in Ohio: “olentangy / whetstone creek / whetstone river / whitestone creek”—so many names and yet the one it retains, Olentangy, is based on a misinterpretation of the original name given by the indigenous Lenape people. Just as the river is misunderstood, misused, misappropriated, so are the members of the family who live their lives neither caring for nor noticing the presence of one another, rather looking past each other, searching instead for an empty space in the corn field where “a person could // slip in and disappear.” Being alone, unmoored, is so much easier than bearing the tension of being connected—the headwaters to the river, the river to its complicated history, the land to its uncertain future. It is after recognizing the river’s deterioration that the speaker acknowledges her own disintegrating relationships, realizing that she must instead follow the “Rivers, creeks, small / tributaries” because “water will find / a way, // seek a low spot.” In an era when it seems like the only appropriate response to water is elegy, Clark asks readers to consider whether it’s possible to “begin a new legend”—one that does not begin with misunderstanding or misuse.
Formally, Clark employs sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and free verse to contain, constrain, and press each poem to its point of crisis. In the sonnet “Plane of Last Scattering,” the first two quatrains ponder the unbending repetition of time and how or if we can escape its pull by way of the natural world:
…saffron, a hint
of crimson, palest daffodil cup blonde and waving
in sun. These might be the notches enabling us to climb
out of ourselves…”
The last two tercets turn us from climbing “hand over hand” to the possibility of flight:
…not mallard or heron straight
but with the woodpeckers’ evading, curvy, up, down, up,
though still direct from point A to B. Abundant sheer
pleasure of repetition, the day come again—old friend—
to serve us. If learning how to live were simple flight—
or the magical extension of wings curving to cup air.
The turn here suggests that the dailyness of living, of endless repetition might in fact be a source of comfort rather than a cause for escape if we follow the winding path of the woodpecker rather than the “spinal column ascending, / regular, unbending” that we are introduced to in the first quatrain. There is a yearning like this throughout this collection—a desire to shed the flesh of the human and imagine what other creatures, what other bodies and shapes one might assume.
Sunday Rising is a collection that reaches. The handsome cover art conveys this skyward strain but does not hide the shadow, just as Clark’s work does not. In “Ravine Goddess, August,” which begins as if it is merely describing a bur stuck in a dog’s coat, this single image kaleidoscopes into metaphor:
…hurt could still be heard, angling in the way a bur
catches by one prong…
…And always the most tender
of places—notch behind the ear, foreleg, rump
or belly hair close to the animal’s sex.
This is how Clark’s poems evolve: they probe the tender spots, the places we hide to pretend we are invulnerable, the same way we pretend the earth itself is indestructible, only to find that we have been wounding ourselves and others by holding a defensive posture for so long. In these moments of crisis, Clark offers the hope that we might “learn, living, how to be ragged on the wing / before another, loving the sun in each fiber and cell, not / hiding where it’s torn.”
About the Reviewer
Kristin George Bagdanov is in the M.F.A. poetry program at Colorado State University, where she is also a Lilly Graduate Fellow. Recent poems can be found in 32 Poems, Cutbank, Redivider, and Rattle. To see more of her work visit www.kristingeorgebagdanov.com.