Calling the Garden from the Grave — A Review

Calling the Garden from the Grave, Lesley Clinton’s new chapbook (available here from Finishing Line Press, $14.99), is a collection of well-balanced tensions — rooted in place, yet unafraid to travel; modern in tone, yet grounded in tradition. Clinton has crafted these poems with care. The result is a chapbook deserving of careful readers.

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A chapbook is a short work. In this short work, however, Clinton introduces us to a panoply of characters. Some persist through various vignettes. Other seem ephemeral and momentary. These characters are wide-ranging, from Tejanos to the final man and woman. But common themes unite these characters around common goods — family, love, and the Divine.

One persistent character is a woman whom we meet in courtship, marriage, and motherhood. In From The Gage Hotel, the speaker recounts a walk with her love, interrupted

     when in a velvet sweep

     a night train formed:
     a metal ghost ship

     run off-sea, having found
     its rails[.]

The train and the ship becoming one mass of “screeching friction” then “leaving us / at its wake.” Clinton often reaches for these surreal images, but stops short of stepping into the insane. The surreal images accent and adorn otherwise domestic scenes, not leaving the reader mired in another world, but introducing the reader to a deeper world beneath everyday experience.

In Dancing Before, for instance, the same speaker recounts the couple’s night, “years before children,” stumbling upon “a hall: Tejano and light radiating / from it like a western aurora.” (This sense of the American Southwest and, often, of coastal Texas, pervades.) “We danced there, … / to twelve-string fretwork / decadent as fireworks for two.” But they are not just two: the “large families” around the couple blend with the couple’s “someday” family. The decadent dancing leaves their future “[a]ll / illuminated.”

It is easy to read this speaker as Clinton herself. Perhaps she is Clinton. Perhaps that same speaker in Mother’s Reply (a Shakespearean sonnet — Clinton is no stranger to traditional form) is also Clinton, speaking to her “newborn, / a restless calling in my arms[.]” But the power of these poems is not in their ability to give insight to the poet, but to transcend the poet — to illuminate shared human moments, human sorrows, human joys. The joy and sorrow of holding your child “[l]ike holding the horizon close”; they are here for a moment, and only for a moment, before they must sail on and away to their own vocations. These may be moments from Clinton’s life, but they are more than that — because the reader sees in them a moment from his or her own life, as well.

Other characters seem not so permanent. In Graceless, Clinton presents a tableau of a graceless cliff-diving girl — “in mid-air / for just a fraction of a blink, / two mere, abysmal feet beyond / the cliff[.]” The girl hangs there, frozen in Clinton’s words and time and space, “finding out firsthand / about the risk in risk-reward[.]”

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter without rhyme — a kind of blank verse, but appropriately less graceful than the pentameter would have been. The girl in the poem is “the victim of mock-epic whim”; Clinton chooses to take up a mock-epic meter. (I am tempted to make a comment about both meter and jumper being a foot short, but I will refrain.)

Read aloud, tetrameter almost forces a reader to pause at the end of each line; pentameter does not. Enjambments like “the air hums with the clarion call / of local kids who’ve sailed this cliff / all morning” cause the reader to hesitate at the line breaks just a moment. This is a feature, not a bug, in this poem about second guesses.

Furthermore, Clinton knows how to twist her chosen form to her advantage. The diver hangs,

                       … failing to achieve
     with even happenstance good luck
     some form that might result 

     in a smooth meeting with the water 
     far below.

The line “some form that might result” is three, not four, iambic feet long — six syllables. The line “in a smooth meeting with the water” is nine syllables and can be scanned several different ways (anapest, dactyl, amphibrach, for instance), none of which are iambic tetrameter. Clinton chooses to break the form, in a line talking about “form,” just as our diver fails to find her own form.

This is an excellent example of the strength of metrical poetry (i.e., formal poetry). Although decried as stuffy, constraining, and old-fashioned, formal poetry offers yet another dimension of our language that a skilled poet can exploit to create meaning. Here, and in other formal poems in the collection, Clinton’s dedication to her craft shines.

The Sure Roots offers an insight into that craft, serving both as a window into the artistic life and a kind of ars poetica. Art — all art — is an “[u]nkempt, unbridled vine[.]” The vine is always present, although sometimes neglected, growing “leggy with wilderness[,]” sometimes “wilting inside the house.” Nevertheless, art is ever-present, “threaded through thin floorboard cracks / and veined along the undersides of eaves.” The art “tangles in the junk drawer,” an implacable, growing force that pervades domestic life. As an artist,

                              … [a]lthough wary
      of the order in its tendrils, you tend 
      it anyway, working in that early
      way — with pen, paint, proof, song, or pinch of salt[.]

The music in these lines is self-evident without being forced; the meter is conversational. It is everything that we want from a formal poem.

The strength of the poem is not in its performance, but in its conceit. The poem presents art as a calling: one vocation among others in an artist’s life. Artists tend that calling as gardeners tend a vine. The art — the uncertain fruit waiting “in the grove / hugging the soul’s wild banks” — springs not from the artist, but from those sure roots which “have found their reservoir in hallowed ground.”

The idea of artist as gardener is not new, but it remains revolutionary. Some have thought of the artist as the source and creator of her art. On this view, the artist produces by an act of will and power, a calling forth of something out of nothing. The other view — or perhaps a caricature of it — takes the artist as mere channel for the Muse, speaking words not her own.

But a gardener neither calls forth fruit from nothing nor reaps a harvest where she does not work. Art is not an act of will, nor is it a mere channeling. Rather, art is a calling — one vocation among many, for the service of our neighbors. To tend our callings, Clinton tells us, one must “putter, pore, / tinker, and dive[.]” Under the artist’s careful hand, we see “leaves unfurl, / gleaming mischief, trekking up barren walls.” As in all vocations, the artist works within the created order; the artist shapes creation to serve others. This is a “restless calling.”

Nor will this restless calling ever cease. Undying shows us the “final man and woman” who “have come to the desert floor / to hear their ancestors’ echoes.” It is a bleak scene: the sky is filled with the Milky Way, “[a]ll gleam and teeth,” while “[b]leached bones like runes / glow silver under cool night[.]” But even the last couple echoes their ancestors’ “drive to build, / to knead from the sand one last civilization / even as the foundation caves.” Even here at the apocalypse, humanity desires to shape creation in service of others.

Apocalyptic art serves, in part, as a memento mori. Where society shows us a well-ordered facade, apocalyptic art reminds us that, as Aurelius said, “you could leave this life right now” — every person is the last person, every day is a little eschaton, every couple is the final man and woman. Apocalypses ask us whether the objects of our faith can save us from the inevitable end. Thus, it is fitting that Undying should respond to its apocalypse with a small confession of faith about our final human couple:

     They are a spark from an eternal hearth.

     Suns blear in the failing sky. Burn
     cold. Lie in wait for the spark to land,
     and tense for the bright reply. 

It’s hard not to read “blear” as a nod to Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur. The connection is appropriate — and not just because, at the end of the world, generations have indeed trod, and trod, and trod. Like Hopkins, Clinton sees the whole of creation charged with the grandeur of God. The suns may have bleared and burned cold, but they are not dead: rather, they wait for that divine spark to land, to catch.

Clinton’s answer to the end of the world is the image of God in humanity — our calling tells us of the One who calls. Undying is, thus, an argument for the existence of God (although one made obliquely and in a whisper). Moreover, Undying is an answer to the question “how then shall we live?” The final man and woman have “read their fate— / blood, decay, re-formation— / but still chart the abyss undaunted.” They have stared into the face of a world that cannot sustain life much longer; nevertheless, “all ache and urgency,” they have chosen to build. They have seen a world which cannot satisfy, which will soon end them; still, they build.

It is not for a lack of things to say about the collection, or for a lack of other excellent poems in the collection that I end my review here. Rather, I believe that I have said enough here to convince you to get Lesley Clinton’s excellent chapbook, Calling the Garden from the Grave, and to read it carefully. I have tried to write something of a map to the chapbook — to sketch the territory, point out some landmarks, and mark the elevation. But the map is not the territory, and my review is a poor substitute for Calling the Garden from the Grave. Clinton’s is a generous and compelling work. I encourage you to get it, read it, and enjoy it.


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