My Father on a Bicycle

Todd Davis

My Father on a Bicycle
by Patricia Clark
Michigan State University Press

Chanting the names of friends long past, of landscapes and the living things that sustain them, Patricia Clark weaves a hypnotic web of verse that does exactly what Robert Frost declares poetry ought to do in the book’s epigraph: “And what I would not part with I have kept.” Frost’s declaration is the footing stone, the foundation for Clark’s love of the earth and how she records that love in painstaking detail — flora and fauna; people and places; loss and deliverance released and captured within the same breath, within the same line. Clark’s quietly stunning poems are about the kind of people who have bent their bodies in devotion to the earth: to study the flower, to learn to recite its name, to touch the world in subtle, gentle, often improbable ways, while remaining faithful to both the good and ill it delivers.

As in her first book of poems, North of Wondering, Clark calls out to the lives of green things, both wild and domesticated. Her way of seeing the world and its participants is embedded in the language and knowledge of place. The two dominant landscapes that Clark studies in this volume are the Pacific Northwest of her youth and the Michigan of her adulthood. In “Male/Female,” for example, she offers a portrait of her father and the ritual of steelhead fishing in their home state of Washington: the poem presents the perspective of a young girl who is left behind as the men depart but who imagines in their absence:

the Puyallup River, the herons
rising, cattails and redwing
blackbirds with their bottlebrush
shapes and streaks of color . . . a reel
singing as the steelhead ran
with the line.

And even though she “was never / actually there to see it,” the girl envisions her father cutting open the belly of the fish, “his forearms / all silver and orange on fire” with the eggs, saying “Yes, good thing this was a female.” In poems like this, Clark establishes, then illuminates the tension between the beauty of the natural world — the orange globes of the eggs the father holds to the light — and the violence and loss inherent in this world, a violence that we carry, too, and that she reinforces with the image of “the guts / and severed head . . . a mass on / papertowels.” Clark also highlights the political within the personal: the gender boundaries that keep the young girl within the cage of domesticity, that prevent her from joining in what her father clearly sees as a male-exclusive ritual. The strength of Clark’s storytelling is that such observations and subtle critiques are embedded within the human, within the personal dimension that has the possibility to resonate with more readers than the overtly political, and while her assessment cannot be ignored, neither can her adoration for her father as she imagines what it must have been like on the river and later cleaning the fish.

Similarly, in the volume’s title poem, Clark confesses that she only saw her father ride a bicycle once, and that when she looks now through the lens of memory, she “can see him, heron-alert, bare-headed,”

the waters of the Satsop or Nooksack, the cold
Chehalis, up past his knees, casting a line
among boulders, deadwood, and drop-offs.
Deep, moving water his abiding friend.

Clark’s abiding friend — perhaps an inheritance from her father — is the manner in which she calls upon a living thing as metaphor or connective equivalent for what she either celebrates or mourns. As she says at the close of “White Sweet Clover and All the Other Named and Unnamed Flowers,” “Daily you fill in / one more name on the family tree, daily a new one / blooms.” What blossoms in “Inflorescence: Fennel” is a meal made into communion. Here the poet pays homage to the “airy green stalk that raises / a compound umbel, seeded / and gold, as it grows.” She invites us to share a fall evening when she will bake trout, place its body upon “a bed / of Roma tomatoes, sliced / and seeded, with carrot, garlic, oil, / fennel.” Such acts — although sunk in the material world — are deemed holy and sacred by Clark: the care of life, the taking of life, and the ways this sacrifice replenishes our own lives are highlighted time and again in her poems. “Aromas rise, / like prayer, into the trout’s / flesh,” Clark professes, and as the poem concludes, she can only praise these small but important acts:

Praise to the dark caverns
of magic, ovens of earth
and house, blending of all
things together, cuisine’s
alchemy, art.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not counter this image of Clark as a writer who sees the sacred among the fleshly things of this world with those moments of doubt or “plain-speaking” that she uses to balance the tone of the book. In her poem “Cataracts,” for example, she reminds herself and the reader that not everything we wish to see as a spiritual epiphany is mystical. Speaking of her dog’s failing eyesight, she recounts taking her dog to church for an Earth Day celebration and being comforted by the service:

it was eerie
and oddly beautiful to look and see
a rabbit’s ears pointed alertly next to
a child’s, or watch a young man bend around
to pet a woman’s snake.

But as the poem concludes with her dog licking tears from her face, instead of overreaching toward some greater meaning, Clark takes the simpler path to explain her dog’s behavior: the dog did not lap away at her face out of “empathy so much” as for “the good / briny taste of salt.”

In the book’s final section, Clark includes two poems that point toward the true core of her artistry and how that artistry cannot be divorced from her way of seeing, her sacred vision. In “Spirit Bundle” and “Creed,” Clark presents us with a catechism and a liturgy. “On the Lake Superior shore,” Clark writes, “I constructed a vessel / to carry it, fashioned a container out of birch-bark curls, / ferns, a few leaves already turning red.” And she makes these materials hold to one another with “pitch, sweat, saliva, glue / of cobweb and dew.” Clark’s poems may be made of language, but it is the language of the body and the earth. Her litany of pitch and sweat and saliva could easily describe the elements that bind her own poems together, and at the conclusion of this particular poem, fittingly, her vessel is “pulled around a point, water silver and lead, / silver and blue, but moving, moving away.” Clark’s poetry recognizes the ephemeral and fleeting quality of existence. Her poems — once she has constructed them from what grows around her — inevitably move away upon the water. For some readers this may prove daunting: to construct the sacred only for it to drift from view. But because of the renewing of everything that lives and dies, Clark takes solace and tells us in “Creed” that she believes in the “body, ligaments almighty, skin / wrapping the thankful bones, and the resurrection / of the stomach, waking to hunger each day.”

We would do well to believe in a poetry as strong and sensual as Patricia Clark gives us. Her studied and thoughtful poems return us to the most elemental relationships, both human and earthly, reminding us, as her own poem “Next Door” suggests, that we would do well to catch “whatever light there is.”

Smartish Pace
Smartish Pace