Kevin Clark’s ‘Self-Portrait with Expletives’


Self-Portrait with Expletives
by Kevin Clark
Pleiades Press, 70 pp., $16.95

Early in Kevin Clark’s Self-Portrait with Expletives, we learn that, though the speaker of “James Dickey at Florida, 1973” yearns to identify with Dickey’s “fast, hunter’s yawp,” he can’t. He’s just not wired that way. While Dickey tries, unsuccessfully, to take home one woman after another, and is ultimately portrayed in a workshop slapping a student, the speaker dreams of a soul mate, “a woman as conduit and twin.” This constant evolution and reevaluation of the self is one of the central ways Clark negotiates the sometimes-nostalgic terrain that his poems cover. He moves among the viewpoints of the poet/hippie, poet/teacher, poet/parent and poet/partner, underpinned by remembrances of and elegies for his father. We see the emerging poet both overhearing “the radios of the male Northeast,” with his “beat father cackling to himself…while Jean Shepherd tells his story,” and making bequeathals to his granddaughter, who might (though, more likely, Clark admits, might not) read “what’s said here” in time to come.

“Six Miles Up,” the proem that begins Clark’s second collection, is situated at the intersection of Clark’s concerns: “Eight Miles High” echoing among “the crematorium of the attic.” With so much focus on family and friends past, present, and poetic, one imagines Clark’s poems as a kind of inheritance, as a photo album, which seems appropriate given the tremendous role albums—vinyl ones, in particular—play throughout his work.

Remembering the past, imaging how the past might be remembered, remembering oneself remembering; such are the jambs through which these poems pass. Lyrics like “This Morning” and “The Bedspread at Echo Lake” yearn for transcendence. And yet, in the manner of those whose work mines the memory, that transcendence is reached through the everyday, the quiet moments “after canoeing” or “when she wakes me,” and relentlessly returns to the everyday: “the moment her skirt rustles / Up the beach path in the imminent evening, / or we return home.” As these poems oscillate between tales of the idealism and abandon of youth and the domestic intimacy of married love, one is struck by the overall degree of…satisfaction. If, as some have suggested, Modernism is simply Romanticism without God, then these poems might be described as Post-Modernism without the guilt.

But must a self-portrait necessarily be a scrapbook? Not if, as in the best of Clark’s work, the poet finds the events, the personas and moods that turn the reader from listener to participant. Whether it’s the dreaded FBI on the phone while living at mother’s house, on the day Nixon’s packing his bags to go, or the unexpected classroom contribution of a heretofore silent Vietnam Vet, Clark’s abilities to enter into the revealing ambiguities of intention, perception, and action show the best complexities of his work:

A month into the term, He arrived like a hit man at my office door—only to discuss the upcoming essay he was writing on Hemmingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.”

Or, in “Eight Hours in the Nixon Era,” when the question “did we laugh too easily” is asked and answered in several ways:

The parabola of the suitcase as it flew from the Watergate balcony mimicked my inner life the year the low voice on the phone said, FBI, do you know a Bob Grant? My mother, a Republican County Supervisor, was at church.

Later, the speaker admits: “I gave up Bob, / then hung up.” Meanwhile, “My mother’s hero the President / was a traitor—nothing else / to call it. He’d lost her faith.” These are the covenants that are broken in the early poems of Clark’s portrait of the artist; the covenants kept are, in keeping with the later poems, always the personal ones: a toll-booth attendant paid in hash; what the jukebox played; the true friend of the immortal cross-country trip. The anthem-like strains of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” are delivered via a father-and-son scene; even as we contemplate the ways the earlier cultural touchstones are absorbed in this generational exchange, Clark insists on the moment as it might actually be remembered. It is this movement in the poems, more than any other, which allows Clark his chances to “live in two places at once,” as he says in “Flashback at Castlefranco.” The closing lines of that poem read as a guide to how this Self-Portrait is painted: “There is darkness and there is the lit-up world, / And behind both / An immeasurable quiet.”

RYLAND BOWMAN is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing and served on the staff of The Greensboro Review. In 2009, he was awarded a North Carolina Arts Council Grant. Several of his poems will appear in the upcoming issue of Jelly Bucket.