The speaker of “Our Eternal Sounds,” a poem in the second section of Stranger, observes, “We don’t know why we speak // but yet our voices / persist.” These persistent voices serve as intermediaries between the mind and the world throughout this expansive, yet intimate collection. “Stranger” describes the world and the speaker. Throughout the collection, he searches for something to contain the world and for something with which to unify himself with the world, and language is part of that, but just as the speaker has framed the world, it curves, or his mind changes, and he loses his bearings. Even familiar places become strange, or he becomes a stranger in them. Partially because of memory, the mind can never really synchronize with the external world, yet without memory we are perpetually lost. In Stranger, Clay explores these abstractions from a deeply personal place, traveling as close to the world as one can ever hope to get.
The first section of the book reminds me a little of some of Mondrian’s compositions. In a contemplative but not detached tone, the speaker seeks to understand the world through distance, perhaps even by distancing himself from it. “I’d like to be stranger than I’ve been,” he says in “Exhibit A.” In “Even a Straight Line Must Curve to Shape the World,” the speaker says, “My mind / in these moments wants / to return to the linear.” He “wants / to string a thread from here / to there in such a way that you / would think it had always / been there.” He would like to think that “nearly leaving this world / can color our existence in a particular way.” And it can. But this color cannot contain our existence, and the lines fail to hold it in place.
In the second section of Stranger, the speaker’s attempt to find a place where he can reside brings him closer to the world that he describes from an almost aerial perspective in the first section, and brings him into closer contact with other people. “You are a nonresident and I am a nonresident,” claims the speaker of “Sounds of an Emptying House.” Clay takes this banal bureaucratic term and amplifies it with white space on the page, making it resonate as an existential term. The speaker and his interlocutor might not be residents, but they belong to the same category and reside in the same state of being as outsiders. This shared state of being creates a sense of familiarity, but it’s like seeing a city across a river with no bridge to take you there.
The speaker of “Start This Record Over” wonders “when forgiveness / found its way into the world // in a time before bargaining and beckoning.” It appears that reconciling to other people—particularly the “you”—might be a way of reconciling oneself to a place, but Clay later writes, “I thought forgiving each other / would somehow forgive the house as the wall moved // away from us.” The verb “thought” suggests that forgiving each other failed to forgive the house. The couple is left in “a place no one could even want to exist but (their) longing for it / remains the last thing (they) could possess.” Asking us not to imagine “a field colored to coal // with a thousand crows” but “the single crow // in a harvested field / where corn once stood, // the prairie sky / like a disaster // yet to be named,” the speaker of “Occupied Elsewhere” tells us that “there was / only the fear of dissolving // or becoming a landscape / that never really existed.” The poem concludes, “[A] silo to contain each thought / surely made sense there.” The silos prevent dissolution—at least temporarily—but they fail to unify the mind; each thought has its own silo.
The third section of Stranger contains a single long poem titled “This is a Frame,” which Clay begins with an epigraph from Mario Santiago Papasquiaro: “A poem is occurring every moment / for example / that fluttering of mute flies.” Taken with the title, these lines create a kind of Zeno’s Paradox of Poetry. Poetry happens perpetually, yet the poem also operates as a frame. The poem happens inside of time, yet contains time. Consequently, the speaker sometimes “sing(s) a sentence out loud, / then wonder(s) if anything has escaped // (his) mouth.” Later in the poem, Clay writes, “It’s startling how one’s perspective / of self can morph / moment-by-moment into / another self altogether.” The speaker wishes “a sonnet could contain / any day in its perfect grip.” He “marvel(s) at the joy of containment— / what won’t fit simply ceases to exist.” Then, the speaker realizes the futility of his efforts, saying, “I try to capture it / like an idiot / like // bait lost in the waves.” He says, “The way a sentence can fall apart / in your hands is a wonderful thing,” and “syntax falls away from the idea // it once attempted to contain.” Near the end of the poem, the speaker says, “Words aren’t / enough. A phrase isn’t // either, but the space / a body holds in any moment // is a marker of something greater than ourselves.” The poem concludes with this image of the “peripheral vision / of a child”:
there are no words
yet for the things
she sees, though the images
maintain their own heaviness:
a cemetery filled
with golden light,
the flowers growing less sure
of themselves in the wind
and the rain as the sun sets
and rises in a city collecting noise.
Even though there are no words, the heaviness of the images seems to constitute a poem. This is the poem of the body; this is the body as poem.
In the book’s final section, the speaker of “Abstract Evolution” says that “naming might as well be a flood / of mirrors.” He seems to have traded words for “the way // the sun pleads sense / from the smallest cradle of dew.” It is often morning in these poems, and they “invite the first moment / you open your eyes…to stay / around for a while.” Outside, the birds are burrowing “their boredom into the unbroken branches / of the trees that run between loneliness / and nirvana, the mercy for which no words exist.” In this section, Clay manages to create rich, striking images while maintaining his minimalist style, and he charges the world in such a way that “our skin seems too alive to hold us in.” We see a hummingbird that seems “too big to be a hummingbird.” But the “mind / imagines disunion so // dumbly, so openly, it / might be a way of surviving, // like a snowplow to the infinite / islands of straw and thistle.” We can’t live fully exposed in the world with the world fully exposed to us, so the mind dismantles it and corrals us with words, returning us to the edge of the field. It is this tension that pulsates in Stranger. The poems call out to us, “as if we’re building a nest, one word at a time.”
Stranger, by Adam Clay. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, February 2016. 96 pages. $16.00, paper.
Jordan Sanderson grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in several journals, including Better: A Journal of Culture and Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Red Earth Review, burntdistrict, and Caketrain, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (forthcoming from Slash Pine Press). Jordan’s critical work has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Heavy Feather Review, and Alehouse, among other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.