Ruins by Jeff Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been after this incredible chapbook for years, ever since Jeff Clark and his wife (the very talented poet Christine Hume) came to speak and give readings at Notre Dame while I was an MFA student there. By pure chance, Jeff Clark’s ‘Music and Suicides’ had been, years and years earlier, the first book of poetry I ever bought. It was strange and lovely to me how this bit of happenstance had come full circle. I was happy to share this little story with Jeff as I had him sign my copy. I was even more happy to hear him read from ‘Ruins’ — he and his wife are both stunning readers, very different in their performative styles but genuine and moving.
I fell in love with ‘Ruins’ that night, and though Jeff had several copies on hand to sell (a bit ahead of actual publication, shh) I was sad and frustrated to be without the money to grab it up at the time. Luckily several copies from Turtle Point Press are still available and I grabbed one up quickly. Jeff’s reputation as a book designer is apparent in the physicality of it — one of the only hardback chapbooks I think I’ve ever seen — the poems bookended by stark black-and-white photos, and the chapbook also contains a translation of Louis Aragon’s poem ‘Poem to Cry in Ruins’.
The work here is genuine and incredible, sparse personal poems that are deeply charged with remembering and nostalgia, loneliness and anger. Nearly every poem is looking to the past with a refusal to let go and frustration with the self that keeps refusing. Memory is a constant pull throughout, centered often on a grotesque and sad father figure that the speaker dwells on heavily with a mix of contempt and longing that speaks to the hold that the father still has, despite the intensely unpleasant portrait offered.
This small book is dark and thunderous, ironically doing the most work in its more quiet moments, where the storms of the past and present both remain as echoes and ringing in the ears. There’s such raw and rigorous longing for connection in the present and lamentations of the broken past that every line stings and reaches out and goes numb and starts again. The cohesion of all these effects is haunting, and leaves a surprisingly large impact for such a small book. If you can still find a copy floating about, buy it immediately.
You eat well and transcribe
You shit quickly in the morning
You only slander in self-defense
You manufacture affection
You get up, shower, and check your messages
You network, correspond, advance
You write preening, disposable statements
You wash come off quickly
You drink bottled water and monitor headlines
You check your money and messages
In sorrow you’re seductive, in catastrophe a fascist
You think precisely what you’ve read
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