August 23, 2019KR Reviews

Spinning Ambivalencies: On Music for a Wedding by Lauren Clark

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. 88 pages. $15.95.

Among the many penchants that classicists and poets share, perhaps most endearing is the desire to dig up roots and excavate etymologies. An accomplished classicist and poet, Lauren Clark has achieved something truly astounding in Music for a Wedding, their debut collection: they have spoken two languages simultaneously. In the poems, it feels as though Clark is speaking Latin and English both, at once. Theirs is a mind that understands and knows what words mean and meant. In doing so, they have not just jettisoned binary structures wholesale, but rather they have taken instances of potential division or bifurcation and metamorphosed them to one-big-beautiful-mess—think webs, ecosystems, language(s). Think wedding.

The collection’s sure-footed opening poem, “[untitled],” functions as something akin to a classical invocation, yet the speaker doesn’t beg the muse for anything, let alone the gift of gab. “[untitled]” might serve as a good example of when Clark is at their best. They most flourish in those poems that deploy clear, simple syntax (often via declarative sentences), but retain a complex tone, a recipe Clark seems to have mastered: one part whimsy, one part gravitas, one part mystery.

The poem begins, “There is a sorrow being outside your body / even when I am in the places where it has been.” The lines are interesting and confounding in equal measure—haunting and haunted—and almost seem to be spoken by the muse. Or rather, they seem to be spoken by a separate consciousness layered into the speakers’ personhood(s). Likewise, although many classical invocations can be (unfairly) reduced to “the measure of a man,” Clark literalizes this figure, without retreating to irony, without a scintilla of self-satisfaction:

I measure your body beneath the sheet.
Two of my fingers, width of your hipbone.

My whole palm, hollow between hip and cock.
So that when you are gone—and you will be gone—
I can recognize you onto some other body.

While acts of measurement are integral to all poetry, they take on a unique imprint in Music for a Wedding. Here, the body is the tool and the object of measurement, as if to say the objective systems we use to understand the world around us are also inherently subjective (re-cognize!). There is no either/or. Even the big-sky landscapes of the Midwest and West are figured subjectively, though the tonal authority keeps the utterances from verging into projection, anthropomorphism, or fallacy: “The quiet ratio of land to sky—a sky so pale, so casually blank that / it seems almost sardonic—that, finally, you have come to the place // that is bigger than loss” (from “Illinois in Spring”).

Much like Clark’s treatment of space, time also functions through subjective lens. It’s neither the propulsive temporality of narrative, nor is it the timelessness of lyric. Clark writes in “Vortex Temporum”:

So I change my face. I make the room
dark, so that the person who positions themself between my legs
is also darkness. There is no pleasure.
“I” “want” “none.”

With my eyes closed so we could be holding hands
across the kitchen table in the night heat, our arms
sticking to its warped vinyl surface, while the bowl
with its six tomatoes sits between us, their enormous
redness pressed up against the glass as against

 

the open air. To live in a refrigerator saps tomatoes
of both taste and nutrients. Out in the air
I can almost smell them breathe.
And we listen. And the listening
seems to take no time at all.

Don’t the quotes, just there, hovering around I, Want, and None, do something strange to the poem’s temporality? “Warped . . . surface,” indeed. They don’t so much break the spell, as self-reflexivity often does, or even recast it, but simply speak a new charm overtop. (My sneaking suspicion is, they function in precisely the opposite manner from the pseudo-Middle English of Jos Charles’s Feeld—an interesting example of divorcing signifier from signified, word from meaning—but that they produce a similar effect.) It’s gestalt-in-action, and that’s to say nothing of the temporal leap we make via the speakers’ imagination. The reader slips away from Music for a Wedding not only with the feeling that the Trojan War was fought just yesterday, or that Troy happens to be located just next-door, but that Troy isn’t Troy and never was.

In “May Day,” the reader starts to catch glimpses of the connections between time, ritual, identity, and language that Clark has drawn for themself. “We bought the flower chair together at a garage sale from a woman whose / father died. Sitting in it was time travel,” and later:

The aged tan satin: orchids missing strings, profiles of roses, chair springs in lilacs, camellias overlapping.

It does not feel like I never touched before. My hands on her head.

Her head on my pudendum. I bowed beneath the burden.

For Clark, for Clark’s speaker(s), time, ritual, identity, and language blend and blur into the same thing; in this iteration, “pudendum” isn’t merely a Latin word, or a Latin word that has been colonized by English, or a Latin word held-over by and through the annals of Medicine, no, it is both languages once. That’s the feeling, at least.

One can see it play out through Clark’s ability to combine classical and pop-culture allusion in that seamless, organic way that can only occur when Odysseus has been floating around in your head for a very long time. “Listening to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for Twenty Hours Straight,” a poem about the pop singer Adele, but not about Adele at all, begins, “Everyone else has plugged their ears with wax, I thought. / I thought. I am the smart one.” Much of Music for a Wedding reads with this immediate, layered tone, though somehow, it never becomes onerous. (There is plenty of humor, too, despite what all this close reading might have you believe. In “Western Zuihitsu,” Clark writes, “So often I have wondered what the fuck happens in Idaho; this, I suppose, is it.”)

Despite all the comingling, enmeshing, and knitting of reference and context, to call the collection polyphonous feels anachronistic, as does oracular, though, of course, it’s both. It’s not so much the Greek Chorus at work here, but rather a consciously performed multi-faced-ness. Think Janus, but with quite a few more expressions.

As I read Music for a Wedding, the sense that surfaced again and again was that of a child standing on the curb looking both ways, checking for traffic. The thought-experiment that arose: The child looks one way, then the other, but they cannot look both ways at once, though that is what’s needed for utter certainty, safety even. Seemingly, the only option is to keep their gaze forward facing and their feet rooted in place. But if the child spins like a little gyroscope, they can see both directions at once, because both directions have become the same blurry, beautiful expanse.

Music for a Wedding is one of the best books of poetry I have read in a very, very long time. It is that rare collection that will appeal to the academics and armchair enthusiasts, to the aged and ageless, the thinkers, beach-readers, and pleasure-seekers alike. Drawing on their archaeological engagement with language, Clark returns words to their thing-ness. The marks on the page start to feel less like symbols and more like dark little animals. In Music for a Wedding, they don’t sleep or scamper; they rear up, defiant, like the spirited creatures Clark, quite clearly, knows them to be.

J. P. Grasser
A current Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry, J.P. Grasser is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief for Quarterly West.