Equilibrium, by Tiana Clark. Durham, North Carolina: Bull City Press, September 2016. 56 pages. $12.00, paper.
Could it be magic?
The white bunny we lift from the hat
like early fog on the road to work.
To get through. To get through the day, the night. That miserable winter. Grief. All of that. To get through to you. What does it mean to get through? What does it mean, through? Does it mean the end or the beginning? It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to tell where we end and where we begin again. So we let words do it for us. We invent images, metaphors and resemblances to carry us through a piece of thought, a memory: “With you, it was real.”
The conversation between reality as we perceive it and the reality afforded to it in the imagination can often create the impression of a momentary clearing. A metaphor can open up worlds, create communities, emotional edifices. But only if it were possible to predict where we might end up after such clearings! I’ve long been haunted by Annie Dillard’s words: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Of course. “I only smoke with friends.”
No, not with language. Language doesn’t only carry us through, it carries us through to somewhere, to an elsewhere, where the self awaits new metaphors and explications. We accumulate like an avalanche and at times feel convinced that we are finally a whole. But as W.G. Sebald writes in “Poetry for an Album”: “If you knew every cranny / of my heart / you would yet be ignorant / of the pain my happy / memories bring” (translated by Iain Galbraith). Our transactions with language is a part of those memories, and poetry never only saves the day. It also saves pathways and connections in the mind, registers that crop out when triggered again by other images and metaphors. In a speech on Proust, Walter Benjamin once talked about “images that we never saw before remembering them.”
This kind of seeing is at the heart of Tiana Clark’s debut Equilibrium, in which the poet moves between images, times, places and seemingly disparate fields of association with such anesthetizing wizardry that we often lose control of the idea of a self until it emerges again, as an abstract notion, scattered around the poem and waiting to be reclaimed by reading. Not begging for it. But just easing into the poem with every connection, breathing all along, so that its breath becomes audible once we give ourselves to the poem and stop demanding that it become something else, that it become a subject or a whole that we have learned to expect from poetry.
Clark says that “at the seam of every poem” lies the question posed in the title poem “Equilibrium,” which uses the split line:
What is left
whispering in us, once we have
stopped trying to become the other?
This is not a question for the poet only. We must also wonder what happens to us after we encounter the most acute reverberations in these poems. The tercet at the beginning of this review is from “Particle Fever,” which refers to the 2013 American documentary about the series of experiments that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson. The poem begins:
They built a seventeen-mile circle
to recreate the big bang,
how the laws of physics crash
like a drum beat of what makes us.
This last line, repeated in the poem, is what survives the previous stanza, and what animates the rest of the poem. It is like the “images that we never saw before remembering them.” Even if intend to bring things into existence, the poet seems to be saying, there is a duende, a special energy that animates the unknown. An excess that returns from the land of the dead to bind the intensity of the current moment to other such moments where we might have overheard a confirmation of our emotions. The poem continues with another instance:
Your hand finding mine in the car ride home,
as white lines on the highway blur into memory.
As if this is also an experiment, conducted with everyday scenes and gear, yet one that never fails to reverberate “like a drum beat of what makes us.” Poems live through such moments also. The “gong” of what they gather makes us wonder if we were what they needed, or, of course, if they were what we needed to hear all this time, as James Merrill wondered in “Yannina”: “In so many words, so many rhymes, / The brave old world sleeps. Are we what it dreams / And is a rude awakening overdue?”
In Equilibrium, Clark says, we hear a bi-racial speaker “confronting the opposing forces inside and outside of her body through history, place, faith, family, and systematic racism.” This confrontation happens through the speaker inserting herself back into structures that she was previously either forced into or simply existed in. The overwhelming desire is to understand the claims such structures make on individual identity so that the speaker can loosen these structures within language and hope for a refashioning of the self by subverting their originary claims. “Magic,” which begins with “Light as a feather stiff as a board, light as a feather, stiff as a board,” transfuses the naiveté of a childish belief in being able to “levitate bodies with / our words” into the firm and oppressive imposition of religion, and admits to “pretending” to be touched by transcendence:
How to fake the magic inside us. It took me a while to understand
that I didn’t have to beg for it. God was already washing the dust off my feet.
The ease of this movement between an innocent childhood experiment and religious discourse allows for the emergence of, what Afaa Michael Weaver calls, “a voice that disembodies itself in order to search for the love that made it whole.” This is partly ironic, since the ease depends so much on control and how the poet is able to traverse different fields of experience with calm and clarity. Yet, it is not the kind of control that determines its territory. Instead, it’s control that keeps reminding us that “a relationship can become so many things at once” (“Triptych for my Father”). Just as history can become so many things at once. Clark shows this very clearly in how she experiences poetic history within the space of her poems. A poem by Emily Dickinson might reverberate in a different and painful way when it is overheard in the context of racial violence. The line, “Because I could not turn my signal on for Death,” launches a poem about “Sandy Speaks,” in which the poet remembers the voice of Sandra Bland:
Sandy speaks to me
beyond her grave
her voice on YouTube—
The most powerful poems in the book have to do with systematic racism and racial violence. They mourn not only the tragic loss of black lives, but also the practiced readiness of grief to turn into public discourse which does another kind of violence by way of repetition. Clark chooses to write a “Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott,” which attempts to disrupt the repetitive structures that appease violence:
A video looping like a dirge on repeat, my soul—a psalm of bullets in my back
I see you running then drop heavy hunted like prey with eight shots in the back
A ghazal is a poetic form written in autonomous couplets and a knotty rhyme scheme: a strong and often a phrasal rhyme established in the first couplet appears only at the end of each succeeding couplet, creating an intricate structure of repetition that also has a pleasing effect on the ear, with the delayed echo realized at the end of every couplet. Clark subverts this scheme by refusing to delay the repetition until the end of every couplet, so that the rhyming word “back” infiltrates the poem:
you have to stop watching this video. Walter is gone & he is not your daddy,
another story will come to your feed, stay back. But whisper—stay, once more,
with the denied breath of his absent CPR …
The violent passing of a life and its gradual fading from collective memory into oblivion finds a compelling expression in this ghazal. It’s painful. But Clark resists. This is not a representational poem. It’s a careful, forceful and demanding dismantling of structure. I don’t think that I will be able to read a ghazal quite the same way again.
Another reviewer, Stephanie Barbé Hammer is spot-on: the poet “makes free verse and the prose poem feel fresh and newly dangerous.” I hope Clark does not leave us waiting for too long.
Melih Levi is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He studies English, Turkish and German poetry from the-late-nineteenth-century onwards, with particular attention to poetic form and prosody. He is also a translator. His co-translation of one of the earliest Ottoman novels, Felatun Bey and Rakim Efendi, was published by Syracuse University Press earlier this year.