March 14, 2015KR BlogBlogReadingWriting

The Exceptional Lines of Robin Clarke (Poems that We Need Right Now)

It is a book about oil. I will not profit. A book about my father, though he did not work for the Defense Department, as many fathers do. The woman in the wedding dress is not my mother but does appear in the family record as Linda. Our family pictures were kept in a plastic bag. -Robin Clarke, Lines the Quarry

It makes me wonder: do we start out as human as we are going to be, or do we end up as human as we are going to be? Lela Krackow, student, age 11, after reading Lines the Quarry

There have been few new poetry books in recent years that have shaken my heart and thrilled my mind like Robin Clarke’s Lines the Quarry (Omnidawn, 2013). It’s a book I turn to so frequently for inspiration that for months now it’s had a permanent place on my desk. Clarke’s poetry is a hybrid of narrative and experimental traditions, and Quarry offers a heart eclipsed partly in shadow, so we can both touch/know/trace the story and also wonder/ask/go wild with intuition. As such, Clarke strikes a balance in language that evokes lovely, terrifying and totally new volumes of feeling.

And what does she evoke, what does she say? These poems explore some of the most pressing issues of our time: workers’ rights, racism, the abandoned poor, a failing healthcare system, environmental degradation, corporate power, political corruption—issues directly woven with a personal narrative of a family afflicted by alcohol, cancer, depression, poverty, prison. Anyone can draw the lines between larger systemic failures and human (and environmental) suffering, i.e., a coal miner gets cancer from coal mining and can’t pay for it, can’t quit, but Clarke takes us deep into the emotional consequences of these broken systems, and refuses to look away. One poem begins by remembering the famous Kentucky coal-mining strike in 1976:

The women of Harlan County used a cadillac to stop the train. And began singing: Which side are you on?

It’s hard in this moment for the reader not to feel herself the you, in that famous protest song, in the middle of a book that attempts nothing less than to change the world, reader by reader, including now, here, in a poem that later continues:

The Black Lung cases would be incurable. We’ve come a long way baby cigarettes. Until all the rotten memories vanish into space. It was the 70’s, my father lived in high-priced homes, always drinking, driving, but one day they had to pull his body from a boxcar, too.

I love the way Clarke quietly pins the personal into the larger constellation of “what is wrong with the world.” The narrator never asks for pity for herself or her family, but places herself and her family in a continuum of so many whose voices and needs continue to not be valued by society. As if those needs, unmet, also “vanish into space.” We watch the fall of the speaker’s own parents among the ranks of others who were born into cycles of poverty or abuse, who were born into bodies and cultures considered lesser, who were born, essentially, not rich, white, or ready for power. At moments it’s overwhelming, but in the most deeply affecting way; the best writing or art always is. We carry it in the chest, full to feeling.

And yet, despite the darkness, there’s a streak of wild running through the book, shoes untied, breathless, bearing an urgency of, “what if?” Clarke reminds us that, for better or worse, what is difficult about humanity so often prompts what is beautiful about humanity: those women uniting to stop a train, for one. Elsewhere, we find hope in poems whose sandwich boards might read: we will not accept the oil pouring into the ocean, give our poor town a hospital, and you can’t kill our children out of what you call your right to fear.

Clarke also illuminates the role played by chance, opportunity or DNA in any individual’s existence—her poems reveal how the slightest shift in a life might render things totally different. More eloquently, she writes it:

Like a bulldozer goes on

without you, imagine

just one person had folded

your hands, chosen differently

or stayed among the possible.

My mother was born & died

non-Prodigy with Picasso

nose, Warhol lips, for five minutes

there was that famous Pittsburgh


in her shoulder from “ringing

the register.” It was cancer,

the changes, when I buy shirts

it is still her hands to me

reaching across the counter.

Offered no whole actions

the protestors need no reason

for what they do.

While poignantly recalling Rachel Corrie, “Goes on without you,” can also read as, what are you willing to risk, too? Whose side are you on? Whose side is on yours, when, sick with cancer, you are poor? Maybe protestors need no reason in a world where “reason” is hard to discern.

Ultimately, what makes this book so powerful is the reminder that yes, there may be strength in community, power in numbers, and that’s something to celebrate. At the same time, at the end of the day what we have is ourselves, as the sole inhabitants of our bodies and experience; we can try, but we can’t count on great change to come, or when we need it. This is an idea Clarke encapsulates so beautifully in only two lines:

Help never arrives so be

where you know how to find you

She doesn’t shy away from this truth, but rather acknowledges the potential horror of it, and then immediately pushes back, offering, the only choice is to try—to be—to try to keep being.

 I think &/or am

under black damp completely


correct to wonder why paint

this Brueghel in the slag heap


Father, daughter, mother, son

what do you see as details


what do you see as derails

This makes you human, this

Left open ended we ask ourselves, “What makes me human?” and “Am I?” This is a way toward hope. This is a book that can help us there.