All is Clarity

All is VanityA long time ago, I wrote poetry, just like too many sensitive young people. But I was marginally successful, reaching the height of my art with a couple of things published in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse (now just known as The Corpse). But in looking back at my work, on balance, I would have to say it was all crap. (I didn’t put the image on the left because it was a skeleton. I put it there because it is the painting All is Vanity — What a card those artists are! — and the title of this article is a play on that.)

Recently, I wrote a love poem of sorts for one of my many passing fancies for librarians and bank tellers — the only women I come into physical contact with. So I sent it off to my friend Kristen McHenry. Now she’s an actual poet. And, well, great. Her first book is The Goatfish Alphabet. It is very good and will appeal to most people. It has some amazing moments like her poem “Museum,” which I don’t think she will mind me reprinting here:

For Dolly Arthur, Resident of 24 Creek Street, Ketchikan

They took the furtive jouney all alone,
Up the dank path, heads bent, ashamed and thrilled.
Feeling their blind way through the drenched black pines
Into her thick arms and opulent hips;
To remember themselves lost in pleasure,
Weakended with the ache of want and release.

They smoothed out their fivers like ironed shirts,
Laid down their sore bodies for the giving.
Dolly rocked them in her pillow thighs
As the rain spread on the swaybacked ceiling,
And the house slumped inch by mouldering inch,
Towards the soft enchantment of gravity.

It splays there still now, sunken and silent
In all its perishing pink and pearl.
And we fish out our damp five dollar bills
To gawk at the remnants of the floozy—
This corpulent blonde audacious whore
Redolent with bright tarty birds and bras.

I forage for clues to which ones she loved,
Who she conjured in her last loneliness.
Two miles uphill at the hatchery
The salmon writhe in their florescent tanks,
Sniffing out the rank scent of their birthplace:
the fluid, forgiving bed of home.

Wow. I could write thousands of words about that poem. But what would be the point? What could I possibly say that would begin to get at the power of the work itself. It is, quite simply, perfect and better than anything I’ve ever done.

The truth is, however, that not all the poems in The Goatfish Alphabet are this strong. They are all good, but they are culled from years of writing over which McHenry refined her craft. And so, it is not surprising that her most recent book, Triplicity, is this good throughout. I plan to write about it in detail, but I’ve only read it four times and I’m still not ready. But you don’t need me to walk you through the book; she does an excellent job herself.

Triplicity is combined with Chella Courington’s Paper Covers Rock, which is also quite good, but I’ve only read it once and can’t say much more. Together they are well worth the $16 cover price. You really should buy it now!

So I sent this horrible poem off to Kristen and she worked it over and sent it back to me. It was amazing. What she’d done was kind of like an etching: she’d removed all the crap and left only what was good. Frankly, it was humiliating. She told me that all she does when she works on other people’s stuff is to try to make it as clear as possible.

That sounds simple enough, but it is so profound. It is a truth that any halfway decent writer knows, but which we all forget. So I am forever thinking back on it. Clarity is all.

Unless you’re five:


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