• Michael Black

(REVIEW) The Threadbare Coat by Thomas A. Clark






Michael Black examines ludic and aesthetic strategies in Thomas A. Clarke’s selected poems, The Threadbare Coat (Carcanet, 2020). Delving into and through Clark’s poetic objects and layering of linguistic and poetic ecologies — brought forth by desire for and immersion in the spaces and places of the Western Highlands and Islands — Black uncovers ’a rhythmical accumulation of minutely particular reflections that builds a cadence’, and within this cadence, a wearing away of perceived barriers between poet and world, human and non-human.






For a long time now, the poet Thomas A. Clark has worked according to specific, minimal formats that suit the specificity of each project, making artefacts that are sometimes more like artist prints, on a small scale, for friends, colleagues, and collectors. His independence in setting up his own Moschatel Press — in collaboration with the American visual artist Laurie Clark — could be seen as a reluctance to find a large market for his poetry. But his approach is far from a refusal to engage: rather, it shows an acute awareness of where to find enthusiasm for the minimalist poetry he has written and published with Moschatel. Not a poet who makes work for an anonymized audience, Clark knows his readers intimately. Moreover, exactly defining poetry’s relation to the market is always contentious. In my experience, some world-famous poets claim, somewhat paradoxically, that there is no market — ignoring, as a result, the heterogeneous and diverse state of contemporary poetry. There is no singular market but multiple, adjacent spaces in which poetry is given attention.


Moschatel Press gets its name from a green flower that blossoms in the shade from March to May. It is also known as ‘town hall clock’ because it has four flower heads that point at ninety-degree angles to one another.

The cute Moschatel has kept time with Thomas A. Clark and Laurie Clark’s independent artistry.

This informal name mimics the flower’s shape, making it perfect for an independent publisher devoted in part to concrete poetry — a visual poetic form and practice in twentieth-century poetry whose important proponent in England and Scotland, Ian Hamilton Finlay, was also a good friend and influence on Clark. [1]


Moschatel collaborator Laurie Clark also designed the cover for The Threadbare Coat (Caracanet, 2020), an inviting edition of Clark’s selected poems edited by the poet and novelist Mathew Welton. Commissioning Laurie Clark demonstrates Carcanet’s respect for Clark’s habits in self-publishing. While an edition of selected poems might give Clark’s work a wider audience, and us an opportunity to consider what unites his poetry over the last few decades, it might also lead us to forget Clark’s focus on the discrete poetic artefact. Welton has followed the exact typography, but our attention must still jostle with the shape of the books produced by Moschatel: 


Two of Clark’s self-published works from 1979: adjective for grasses and After Pisarro, both illustrated by Laurie Clark

In a video introduction to The Threadbare Coat, Clark performs a reading and speaks about how his work developed a ‘coherence’ from persistent ‘explorations of and responses to the different landscapes of the northwest Highlands and Islands’. Clark is interested in the ‘great clarity and resilience’, the ‘surprising gentleness’ of this area. His poetry concerns objects perceived while walking. [2] It is not beauty, sublimity, or repose that is sought. The poetry concerns itself with a state, signaled by the central image of a ‘threadbare coat’, in which ‘cultural accretions’ lose their dominance, where it becomes possible to renounce these ‘accretions’, especially those creating consumerist harm to ecologies — so that we understand, in Clark’s words, that there is ‘only the lightest membrane between you and the landscape. Some sort of tattered garment between you and experience.’


Clark wants to suspend our attention, to slow down our rapid consumption of information. He explains that the ‘threadbare coat’ is also a slow air in Irish fiddle music, a piece played while dancers pause in between faster tunes. There is no narrative or climax in this kind of poetry, but instead a rhythmical accumulation of minutely particular reflections that builds a cadence, effective on the page and resonant in the ear. The influence of Hamilton Finlay on Clark’s work is perceptible in the way that anaphora, the identical opening of successive clauses, brings visual formal constraint to the page (title in italics):


of many waters little swift one little rough one little one of virtue little stony one little loud one little herbaceous one little ember little rushy one little one of difficulty little lasting one little dry one little thwart one little one of alders little talkative one little dusky one little minnow

Similar sounds re-appear throughout the collection. Clark sees this is a way of becoming familiar with linguistic terms. In the Carcanet video, he thinks about games played by children in an effort to become familiar with a word by repeating it many times until it loses meaning. While this suggests a sound that is non-linguistic, Clark is neither exactly simply a visual poet nor solely a poet who prefers sound over sense. Instead, there is a tension between these different kinds of poetics threaded throughout his work.

Related to this interest in words being reduced to mere sound objects is Clark’s idea, articulated in the interview with Carcanet, of a poet’s primary preoccupation:

Poetry nourishes words in their context. It tries to refresh the language. Perhaps this is the proper ecological concern of poetry. It’s not to write about birds or flowers, or the quality of the air and water. It is to care for words and their relations. You could ask the question: what impact does language have on the environment? Can there be a poetry that is not yet another humanism? It might be the responsibility of poets to ask this kind of question.

Gavin Goodwin observes that key to Clark’s voice is a ‘fusion of folk and avant-garde traditions’: an interest in revitalising language by employing both simple and elaborate aesthetic strategies.


In response to Clark’s comments above, we may ask: is it not likely that he does care greatly about the natural world? Moreover, can a poet not be sensitive to natural ecology and words? The theorist of ecological critique and ecological philosophy, Jane Bennet, offers a resolution to this bind. Bennet is interested in what she calls ‘vibrant matter’, an ontology sensitive to objects irrespective of their secreted and accumulating ‘human meanings’. Clark’s poetry shares Bennett’s interest in a mode of perception or a means of activism that allows us to stop interpreting objects through ‘human activity’, to achieve a phenomenology in which, Bennett says, ‘stuff’ comes to deserve our ‘attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects’ (Bennett 2010). Bennett’s terms, all falling under the sign of ‘human activity’, are comparable to the complex of information and experience Clark calls ‘cultural accretions.’ While Clark cites the Highlands as a resource for his poetry, his engagement with place is both precise and abstract. There are works about specific places such as ‘coire fhionn lochan’ and ‘creag liath.’ But in works like ‘by a rill’, location does not seem specific:


by a little rill that trickles down a gully from a patch of snow on a shallow but moist and sheltered ledge the tufted saxifrage

The word saxifrage comes from Latin, saxifraga, meaning stone-breaker, a compound of saxum, rock or stone, and frangere, to break. This reminds us that Clark’s natural world is not cohesive. In the title poem, the figure or speaker is ‘smitten with distance‘ from the opening. This is an older, biblical meaning of ‘smitten‘, trying to capture something about natural force. Clark’s poetry is sensible of the limits of trying to understand nature. It knows that to understand nature absolutely could be a violating reification, which leads in all his work to an appreciation of deferral, a writing based on ‘the absence / of a thing / in the presence / of its name.‘


Generally speaking, there are two kinds of poetry about nature: georgic and pastoral. The former has often been a kind of poetic instruction manual, a work of husbandry useful to agricultural farmers. This is clearly not what Clark’s experimental poetry offers. The latter, pastoral, has often been the preserve of city dwellers, the kind of poetry promising rest from the busy life of the city or court. I think Clark is closer to pastoral, but even then, I am reluctant. His poetic project seems incompatible with a brief sojourn and recovery in nature, only to allow us to return to money-making in the city. Although my thoughts here on Bennett’s ‘vibrant matter’ as an approach to Clark’s work might be impressionistic, I mean solely to indicate that his poetry is not only of interest to Highland communities or those who love the Highlands. Perhaps, more than anything else, Clark’s work needs to be distinguished from tourism or nostalgia. This retrospective of Clark’s poetry from Carcanet demands that we oppose, rather than submit to, our current relation to nature, a concept as vexed as any, whether this is done through rewilding activism, or by following Jane Bennett and Thomas A. Clark in trying to fashion a new relationship to the non-human.



[1] Clark and Hamilton Finlay are both discussed in a recent critical survey of concrete poetry in England and Scotland: Greg Thomas, Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019).

[2] On this see Alice Tarbuck and Eleanore Widger ‘Editorial’ for Green Letters: Special Issue: Traversing the Field, Volume 21, Issue 3 (2017).



Bibliography

Bennett, Jane Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (London: Duke University Press, 2010)

Goodwin, Gavin ‘Beyond the Page: The formal possibilities of Thomas A. Clark’, Writing in Practice, Volume 5.

Tarbuck, Alice and Widger, Eleanore ‘Editorial’ for Green Letters: Special Issue: Traversing the Field, Volume 21, Issue 3 (2017), pp. 247-245.

Thomas, Greg, Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019).


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Text: Michael Black

Published: 16/03/2021