Calling the Garden from the Grave by Lesley Clinton
Review by Herman Sutter
Reading Lesley Clinton’s exquisite first chapbook, I was struck by the breadth of her vision–the feeling of scope and magnitude radiating from her poems, but even more by the simultaneous intimate intensity of her focus. And I was reminded of two of the 20th century’s finest poets: Elizabeth Bishop and Jane Kenyon. Clinton clearly walks a similar path, a razor’s edge between a kind of ordinary grace and something like sourdough surrealism, evoking a very appealing sense of vertigo. Through her transcendent shifting of focus from the dry rot of an old rubber band to the starlit wonder of a desert night, she gleans the fine dust of the infinite in even the simplest and most earthbound moments. As she writes, despite the fact that so much of our life seems wasted puttering around, there comes a moment when we lean horizonward and catch a glimpse of something more. This book is wonderfully full of those glimpses of that something more. Including the “fossil drama” found in a paleontology exhibit case in the poem, “Contingency”:
Here, a fossil drama, cast
in Paleozoic throes.
A horseshoe crab trenched
in mire. Its death march kept
Clinton, an award-winning Texas poet, and celebrated English teacher, writes often of her daily life as a wife and mother; but–as in the brief and quietly intense, “Careful,”–she is always aware of the risks lurking just beneath that apparent stillness:
A rare ice day. We tend to things
gone still or stuck, add heat—but slowly,
or a crack might burrow in
and root apart what’s whole
has punched the windshield white. You run
a tepid lip of water
on the glass to clear a vision
of the road ahead. But we don’t speak–
I find that some of her most powerful writing comes in poems where she takes on a persona. Poems like “Cabeza de Vaca Weathers the Gulf,” “Jacal Mother,” and “Rothko Paints the Central Triptych,” where she adopts the persona of the suicidal painter, the lost explorer, or the indigenous mother. Through these voices, she is able to give us glimpses into a world that feels both foreign and familiar.
Pushing away from the kitchen table, she leans horizonward and fearlessly explores the pain, the loss, and the sacrifice and discovers in it moments of courage and hope, truth and grace that expand our gaze, open our hearts and inspire us to look up and see the glorious and uncertain world around us. With “Cabeza de Vaca Weathers the Gulf” she comes to see that perhaps survival itself is something worthy of wonder and praise. The explorer in search of a new horizon, new worlds, loses almost everything only to discover something stranger. Broken, he rises from the swelling surf, realizing suddenly that:
I’m no part of the swell
after all maybe churned
in its maw all this time
but now beaded away
like loose mercury
on a mad roll
And rising from the waves, he finds that, though he may be “marrow formed,” he “can’t go back.” There is only one way and it is forward:
I heed the drum its pulse
writhe self from selfish germ
and rise go forth made new
I find myself returning again and again to the poem, “Jacal Mother.” It is a poem that reminds me of Tolstoy. (Which may be one of the highest compliments I can pay any writer.) In it, Clinton imagines life as a primitive woman living in a wattle-and-daub hut in the deserts of the Southwest, evoking a life lived in the inescapable shadow of loss. Life and death walking always hand in hand,
______________________________ The baby
roots for milk. Another labor
gathers within. One day
the stepchildren will whisper
rain and gardens to my babies.
A woman will braid my orphan’s hair.
The fourth wife’s daughter. Now my daughter.
In a year, whose?”
In the character’s quiet acceptance, I hear an echo of Tolstoy’s peasants, especially the quiet and simple Nikita from Master and Man.
One of her finest poems, “Undying,” is a brief narrative about the last two people on earth. In some obvious sense, it is a poem of catastrophic loss, and yet feels not oppressive nor elegiac, but lit by a spark of hope that arises out of what Keats called “negative capability,” which simply means the ability to contain contradictions without feeling the need to justify them. This poem never addresses why these are the last two survivors, a kind of mythical bookend to Adam and Eve, if you will. Nor does it assert any new Eden to come; but she acknowledges the human drive to assert itself, to always and everywhere leave a mark:
___________________ Survival on his breath,
he exhales into her hair, a gesture
wholly human—the last of such,
of saying, wanting to say.
The veins teem with a drive to build,
to knead from the sand one last civilization
even as the foundation caves–
for something always lasts,
That phrase, that hopefulness, the belief that “something always lasts,” could be the key to her poetry, to entering into these splendid pages; we must open our eyes and see that despite all we think we know of life and loss, there is always something more to learn, another song to hear, another hand to hold, another sky to ponder, another dance to step into as we leave our longings behind and discover that there is a tenderness in the hand that guides our lives; the hand that holds all history is the same hand that invites us to come and join the dance.
I have known Clinton for a few years now and seen a handful of these poems in their nascent state, watched them develop under her tireless scrutiny and dogged efforts. She is a writer of such energy and insight that I am humbled every time I approach her work. When I compare her to Kenyon or the wonders of Bishop, I don’t do so lightly. In Clinton’s lyrical narratives, I sense an echo of Kenyon’s stories of hardware stores, dog walks and doctor visits. And her verbal juxtapositions create the kind of off-kilter surrealism that one discovers in Bishop’s strange fable-like pieces or her quietly transcendent “The Moose.” What amazes me, though, is how Clinton’s work stands up to such comparisons. She is already a skilled and polished writer, accurate and honest in her observations and keen in her sense of details. She has a musical ear for language that is at home as easily in formal works (whether in the sonnet: “Mother’s Reply,” or the lovely blank-verse: “The Sure Roots”) as it is in free verse meditations like “Engulfed” or the gorgeous imagistic “The Cathedral Sees Morning,” from which are the last lines that are the book’s title.
I would venture to say that someday not too far hence, when people talk of Texas writers, they will mention Clinton’s name alongside Vassar Miller, Larry McMurtry, Horton Foote, and Katherine Anne Porter as one of our finest writers, and when someone in that distant conversation begins to recall a line from one of her poems, the others will pause and listen and all will feel the warmth of “holding the horizon close” and the gathering soft-light of solitude rising as the word itself takes flesh and steps from the page.
Read these poems, experience the beauty of their mysterious calm, their contemplative peace and the radiance of their incredible artistry. These are poems to contemplate and to nourish the soul, but they are also poems to delight and inspire. Open this book anywhere and you will find genuine poetry, and the voice of a great writer discovering her art.
Lesley Clinton, a Board Member of Catholic Literary Arts, has won awards from the Poetry Society of Texas and Press Women of Texas. She has been a Juried Poet at the Houston Poetry Fest three times and in 2019 received the Lucille Johnson Clarke Memorial award. Her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as America Magazine, Mezzo Cammin, The Windhover, Texas Poetry Calendar, Ever Eden, Ekstasis Magazine, Radiant Magazine, Sakura Review, Literary Mama, Euphony Journal, Gulf Stream Magazine, and By the Light of a Neon Moon. Her chapbook of poems, Calling the Garden from the Grave, is available from Finishing Line Press. Lesley has a Master of Arts in Teaching. She teaches at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory and is Assistant Editor of the Crusader Chronicle. Her husband and three children keep her smiling with game nights, backyard s’mores, and general adventuring. The family pet hermit crab has grown shockingly large over the years and is hatching an elaborate scheme to take over the house.
Herman Sutter (poet, librarian and volunteer hospital chaplain) is the author of the chapbook The World Before Grace (Wings Press) and a long-time reviewer for Library Journal. His work has appeared in: Saint Anthony Messenger, The Ekphrastic Review, tejascovido, The Langdon Review, Iris, Benedict XVI Institute, Touchstone, i.e., The English Review, The Merton Journal, blonde on blonde, as well as the anthologies: Texas Poetry Calendar (2021) & By the Light of a Neon Moon (Madville Press, 2019). His narrative poem Constance, received the Innisfree prize for Poetry, and The World Before Grace, a poem for voices (about a survivor of the Bataan Death March), was honored by the Texas Playwrights Festival. He is also the author of the blog: The World Before Grace (and after) in which he contemplates the counter-cultural paradox of finding grace through the loss of self.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe