August 2003

Monique van den Berg

poetry

Cold Spring: A Diary by Tom Clark

"As we grow old / even the length of the day / may make us wet-eyed."
-- 22nd day

Cold Spring begins with thirty days' worth of "spring" poems, all accompanied by the poet's artwork. Clearly informed by the tradition of haiku and other Japanese forms, the poems are deceptively simple, with a focus on the imagery of nature. The book concludes with three longer "Winter Elegies" in which death, which has been lingering in the backdrop, finally intrudes.

Tom Clark's primary textual concern is sound (one can see Ezra Pound's influence throughout) while his thematic focus is on aging, death, and the melancholy absurdity of life. One can see both of these emerge in the first poem -- thirty-eight words, including blows/wrote/over/go/old. The vocabulary is simple, and the repeated long "o" sound evokes the moan of a spring rainstorm-- the "spring rain" which is alluded to over and over throughout the text as an image of gloomy renewal (or obliteration).

In that same first poem, the speaker admonishes himself to seize spring's promise; "Old owl! / Change your expression / in the spring rain / before it's too late!" This sets up a scenario of hopefulness in which it isn't yet "too late" for anything. The book's progression, however, seems to be from hope to hopelessness. In "11th day" he "cries geezer tears" and in poem 30 -- the final poem of the series --he is shedding "stupid tears / at the foot of the century tree" and smelling "things under the ground / turning to mulch." The book is an acknowledgement of death, without ever coming to terms with it.

However, the speaker does not seem to resist old age in itself. "26th day" attacks this paradox humorously: "O, the days that are no more / so glad they're over." These are moody poems, reflecting the speaker's efforts to reconcile his current existence as an "old owl" with the hopeful promise of spring. However, they also have a sense of sly fun, which moves the reader through the poems with wryness rather than woefulness.

The poems feature many repetitions -- particularly of the nature imagery that is the book's primary motif. I responded to the spring rain (to take one obvious example) at various times as joyous, erotic, renewing, startling, inevitable, and oppressive. This is the best kind of recycling -- recurrences that continually subvert the reader's initial understanding of an image or symbol.

Many animals pop up in Cold Spring -- both in the poems themselves (raccoons, prairie dogs, crabs, glow worms) and in the artwork (dragonflies, monkeys, birds, foxes). The speaker begins by calling himself an owl, and two of the three elegies at the end of the book are, heartbreakingly, about the death of his cat. (The third is an elegy for Ed Dorn.)

The poems do seem to lead up to these elegies (rather than having them feel "tacked on"), which I did not at first expect. The spring poems are heraldic, frequently hinting at the allegory beneath: the speaker is all of us who age, the "old fucks" and "geezers" (aging poets, perhaps) are all coming to terms with their eventual deaths and possible obsolescence. It is fitting that the book ends when death finally makes its appearance.

There is no whole peace in these poems, no sense of acceptance or surrender. But peace is not entirely absent, either. The struggle for the speaker is perhaps to be like the animals he presents in these pages, free from the awareness of morality. But the continual efforts to attain this sort of peace -- even if it is a fruitless and somewhat ridiculous struggle -- "This also is spring tranquility."

Cold Spring: A Diary by Tom Clark
Skanky Possum
ISBN: 0970395205
72 Pages