The fourth section is a long narrative poem ( clearly a lot of work must have gone into organizing the information in it) based on the history of the mongols. Sounds ambitious, unusual and laudable but it's a dense sequence of obscure ( unless you're well up on the history of the Mongols presumably) references.
The third section ( saving, I'd hoped, the best till last) is the `Cat Poems' which were `written for children with adults in mind.' In their favour, they are comprehensible but I honestly don't see them appealling to any age group and certainly not to kids; they're not lively or funny enough e.g. `I am back from the shopping/ Laden with bananas and clunking cans/ To be greeted by scurry little feet.' Scurry little feet!
Returning to the glossy cover ( the paper and printing are of the highest quality) I see that `At heart Horsemen is a book of the cleansing of the spirit.' Such loose talk makes me think, possibly unfairly, of the Fawlty Towers episode which featured a joke with this punch-line: `Pretentious? Who moi!'
There is a strident truth in the joys of adolescence
If you are feeling in Germanic mood, or wish that Whitman had been sterner, then these might appeal also.
Fritz Cat is a fourth rate cat.
Firstly he is not a dog.
Dogs are such affectionate creatures.
(`Fourth Rate Cat')
and a deeply felt sadness:
All I am is hate
As I sit in my cave
Staring at shadows on the wall;
(`Merlin in Winter')
HORSEMEN: A second volume in a trilogy led by `Troubador'. The range is wider, moving from the personal to the historical and mythical --- Arthur and Merlin are recalled. Unaccountably there is a section of `Cat Poems' which don't (and can't) emulate Eliot. There is a final long poem on the Mongols, which works and is probably the best one in the book; it has echoes of Pound's `Cantos'.
COATHAM is the last volume of the trilogy, and is a return to childhood in an attempt to trace the sources of the author's ideas.
Since the publication of Clark's five volumes of poetry since 1985, culminating in this Selected Poems ten years on, I have been attracted to this unusual poet for a number of reasons, not the least of which `reasons' has been the very special way he is able to personalize his historic and mythical scholarship through a kind of controlled messianic egotism. `I have come pure from the beginning...' `I was born a god', `I pretend to be the master poet./ I tell stories of a thousand years'; and there is the secret, the constant switching back and forth from the self-centred `I' to the universal `Thou'. As the poet says in the last two lines of the whole book, `I write these words and think of Heaven/ You will understand'; and both God and the Reader --- having completed this volume --- do get the picture, not only the poet's many preoccupations (His-story and History) but of his especial technique as well. And, more fully, here it is:
What is best is what is old. My life has been a raw bleeding wound, Healed I look back and savour its richness. Poetry is love, and it is ever new to write it.and pushing the logic further still:
I believe only in poetry. The supernatural is a voice in the head. It is necessary to be absolutely modern.You will hear, faintly, in that last line the influence of MacDiarmid; and Clark, though English-born, is deeply of a Scot's background.
All poets are hewn from the same piece of laurel wood; but in some the grain runs one way, in some another --- hence their varied temperaments and elective affinities. Clark is a brilliant dreamer. All poets, of course, are dreamers, but some are more obviously so. And Douglas Clark in his poems dreams-up much of myth and a recorded history into his poetry. For the past --- whether it is the long ago past of Celtic or Arthurian myth: or of recorded history; or of his childhood and his lost loves --- is obsessively interwoven with the emotionalism of his present. It is this mixture of past and present that he intimately personalizes for the reader's pleasure which is so pre-eminently an attractive feature of his poetry. Yet, oddly --- and this may be augur of greater work yet --- the most outstanding poem in the book is `The Mong', an historical meditation on the campaigns of Chingis Khan. And this is his greatest achievment because it is the only historical work of Clark which completely transcends its author --- i.e. the poet vanishes from it. Which, in one way, contradicts what I have said is so attractive in most of his other poems. But, in defence, I would say that even where the personal intrudes (as it mostly does) it, too, becomes objectified so that the poems are not marred by sentimentality, whimsey, mere self-expression, therapy, etc.; and that is because the personal elements are, as it were, always being subtly measured and tested against his more synoptic knowledge, his universal learning. See, for example, the poem `Cernunnos' where the `self' and its privately-lived life, is re-lived through a pagan god-figure: here autobiography is apotheosised.
Another, and smaller and wholly unphilosophical test --- but one that is absolutely final in the general reader's mind --- is the poet's gift for fine phrasing and beautiful lines. This Douglas Clark undoubtedly has, `They listened to the sad music played by fountains,/ Elegies sponging up their open hearts'; `Babyland was a feast of monsters'; and, from his poem `Stonehenge', `A landscape of unwanted sounds/ Mark the serenity of old stones'; or `For I will go where the starships go/ And follow the bleating wail of a child'; or `Little cat and I/ Sit huddled before the fire,/ We know the price of magic.'
But beyond all that, what really counts is poem-making --- what makes poems genuine and not `mere verse' --- is the poet's ability to put across feeling. Poems are not about things or events but, in the final analysis, they are about what the poet `feels' about things and events. To parody Laura Riding, the true poem-event is feeling. And it is two kinds of `feeling' that Douglas Clark is best at putting over; the historical sense and the lament for loss of love. And how does he achieve this? Well, of course, by following Sydney's famous advice, as he admits in the poem `The Moor's Sigh': `If you want to write poetry it must be done with all the heart'. And Douglas Clark's poetry is not only individual --- as all achieved poetry must be --- it is also sufficiently unusual to be more than usually attractive.
I think on Poetry
And how I am the unknown outsider.
I think on Love
And how it has always been outside me...}
and he does himself no favours by describing his own collection as `more of a vanity production.' This alone will put off any readers he deserves; a shame when he can write such succesful poems as `The Moor's Sigh (for the Granada of Federico Garcia Lorca)', which is thirty one lines of sustained panache. If only Clark would work with a sympathetic but firm editor --- it is no good in insisting on total control over your own book production if that control consists of banging the lid down on your own head with such firmness.
I pretend to be the master poet.
I tell stories of a thousand years,
Not knowing where we are going.
Though I think Clark is wise not to claim to be a `master poet', some of the work in this collection is worthy of attention. STONEHENGE, for instance, where, `A landscape of unwanted sounds / mark the serenity of old stones' is an engaging poem; another is CRACKED, a quirky piece that ends with the line, `I live out of my mind'. These poems have a degree of energy and originality that the others lack. Unfortunately Clark's work, though occasionally cogent, doesn't, have either the sustained assurance or, for want of a better phrase, the imaginative substance of first class writing.
Hulagu, grandson to Chingis,As with Ezra Pound, there is an expansion of the ego over all of history, a wilful juxtapositioning of things, a bit of colour and some good details.
brother to Mongke Khan, the Lord of All the World,
Two years to collect the army at Samarkand
For the campaign.
Whilst Mongke, at Karakorum,
prepares simultaneously against the Sung.
Hulagu, 'as far as the borders of Egypt',
The year breaks and the horsemen ride,
Europe so unimportant,
The fabulous world of Islam exposed,
The most beautiful civilisation extant.
My father died 20th February 1983
Of a heart attack.
It ripped my soul as I realised
I was the only one who understood his miserable life,
And how he had left nothing behind
to demonstrate his existence.
One day that summer I went mad,
One of the most marvellous experiences of my life,
Susan's voice and the mandalas,
The men in their blue jeans and the women in pink dresses,
The underlying pattern of the world.
Also in this book, and it makes a nice change, there are some poems with music in them and a pleasure in the moment, all about love.
Mary, the April witch,
Spins words from a gossamer web
Into tapestry for my ears.
At five in the morning
She floats from her woods in Arkansas
To my window.
There she taps and enters
Bringing with her the goodness of sustenance
We lie in the morning light,
Her touch like thistledown.
We are in each other forever
Until she departs for her chores.
There is milking to be done,
Chickens to be fed.
I lie in my bed and love a dream.
I pinch her bottom as she heads out the window
To make her real.
She is Mary, Queen of Arkansas.
Now I am a very minor poet, I have to massage my ego (`Exegi monumentum...') When I write I am all the poets in history (`Egotism')I couldn't help getting the impression of a wee man shouting through an Alpine horn to scare off the giants. My cheese factor was getting high, so I checked the introduction by Fred Beake. (Wasn't he a puppet on some kids' show in the 60s? Or maybe that was Ollie Barker.) Old FB rated him so I checked out Clark's site on the World Wide Web. (Mr. Digital or what?) I got more interested, although there's a great deal of posery pish on it. Apparently the `Mary' poems are known in the USA as the `Arkansas' poems. Well, now, I don't live in the USA and those who do already knew that, so why burden me with it? And another thing - I don't give a rollicking fuck about his cat, Ludovic. What is it about some poets and their cats? `For I will consider my cat Jeffrey'... and all that shite. It's everywhere. Beverley Nicholls rules. I don't dislike the animals but there is something far too familiar about all this. It'd make a startingly different poem if somebody wrote about skinning their bloody cat for a pair of fur gloves and a nice lean roast with rosemary, garlic and salt. (Leave that one in, editor, I dare you.)
Anyway, I went back to the book. It's a collection of two halves, the first of which makes me as sick as a parrot, and the second of which has me over the moon. The second consists of the aforementioned `Mary' poems, a suite of deft poems with the lightest of touches about a muse who may or may not be a real woman.
Mary won the Faulkner Prize. I can write at four thousand miles But can I write when she's with me? `I have broccoli and cucumber in my garden', Says Mary. `At night the thunder comes.' Mary writes alone. (`Mary and Writing')
Douglas Clark/ Reviews/ Benjamin Press, 69 Hillcrest Drive, Bath BA2 1HD, UK/ firstname.lastname@example.org