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Aled Ganobcsik-Williams

Review of recent small publications from Thomas A. Clark and Laurie Clark’s Moschatel Press

 ‘Poor Poetry ‘ (2016) (card 145mm x 105mm); ‘Wild Flowers’ (2017) (card 145mm  x 210mm); ‘dun na mairbhe/ the fort of stillness’ (2017) (booklet of folded paper 75mm x 105mm); ‘hills are slow waves’ (2018) (folded card 210mm x 110mm); ‘the call of the oystercatcher’ (2018) (booklet of folded paper 105mm x 105mm).

Since Moschatel Press began in 1973, Thomas A. and Laurie Clark have produced hundreds of small cards and booklets of their own work, from which I have chosen for review five published over the last two years order to explore some of the expressive possibilities of that mode of presentation.  One reason for the small size of the publications is a pragmatic, financial one in. As Harry Gilonis writes, ‘for practical reprographic (and financial) reasons the page size of small press publications is often smaller than that of more mass market books’ (121). However, Gilonis continues, there may also be ‘strong aesthetic arguments for conciser modes,’ so that there can be a productive dialectic between material determinations and artistic vision. Tom Clark, for example, thinks of restricted means as formal restraints that are as empowering as they are confining: ‘The fairly severe limitations of the Adana [table-top letterpress machine] have been a continuing influence on my poetry, as confining and empowering as let’s say the haiku or the sonnet [ . . .] The pleasure is to be inventive, to play with the financial and material constraints. [ . . .] Hopefully, self-publishing can constitute not a vanity but a freedom. Instead of being dependent on a weighty external agency, an industry, the poet can take the whole thing into his own hands. The means can be creative. Everything can be exact but also light, since production is a way of life, an activity rather than an occasion’ (‘An Inconspicuous Green Flower’ 143-44). As I shall suggest, as well as having financial and aesthetic justifications, the small publication format is motivated by ethical and ideological commitments that relate to the world beyond the poem.

‘Moschatel’ is the name of a small and inconspicuous (because entirely green) plant, whose botanical name Adoxa moschatellina means ‘without glory’ (Tucker, n.p). As the publications reviewed here attest, this is an appropriate description of poems that use few words and minimal means to draw our attention to common or familiar things. ’Poor Poetry,’ a small dark-brown post-card  with six lines of text in black ink, is a description of this ‘inglorious’ poetry:

          ‘a thin inconspicuous poetry, persisting on the margins,
          A neglected, threadbare, hedgerow school of poetry,
          light and resourceful, a common or poetry

          a poetry without glory, using plain diction, withdrawn
          from ambition, lacking in rhetorical skill, a spare poetry,
          not given by the culture but passed from hand to hand’

not a lament for the general neglect of all poetry in our culture, ‘Poor Poetry’ is a celebration of a particular kind of production on the margins of the publishing industry, whose cultural insignificance can be thought as an advantage (‘light and resourceful’) that will enable it to adapt and persist. ‘Poor Poetry’ is a manifesto and it defines an approach-- a plain and rhetorically spare poetry—which can form a kind of verbal parallel to the unexceptional and unassuming objects of the poetry. ‘Wild Flowers’ is a light green card with text printed discreetly in white ink. The card has four stanzas of five lines. Rather than name the flowers, the lines—all of which are composed of a preposition and a noun phrase—identify where they may be found. Here are the first and last stanzas:

          of the wayside and woodland
          on high peaks and corries
          on grassland and open moorland
          along sheep tracks and trampled paths
          against ancient walls

          on poor soil
          among bricks and rubble
          rooted in mud and floating in water
          on gravel and in rock crevices
          in old hay meadows

The plants invoked here grow in relatively inaccessible places and on margins of human culture.  These are the places where, in spite of humans’ best efforts to destroy the natural habitat of native flora, the ‘wild’ still flowers or thrives, forming as Clark once said a ‘decorative margin to one’s life’ (Pursglove 12).

The apparently simple and self-effacing character of these small publications is part of their charm and, indeed, their whole point. For Clark, discretion or reserve is a kind of protection accorded to things that they are not subsumed by the words that would name or describe them: ‘description, by translating non-verbal information into words, tends to falsify or corrupt the information. This gets increasingly the case the more description you have - a tendency that the ‘new nature’ writing fails to grasp. Since I mostly deal with the immediate, or the fleeting, the small poem (often very small) is one way to make some kind of duplicate’ (Thomas A. Clark, email to author). In a review of several works by Ian Hamilton Finlay—whose Wild Hawthorn Press was an important influence on Moschatel--Clark reflects on Finlay’s composition in small forms—postcards, folded cards, booklets—as well as his frequent recourse to ‘affectionate diminutives’ (‘little,’ ‘wee’ and ‘peedie’) in a culture more given to ‘hyperbole and hubris’ (‘Paper and Stone’ 66). For Clark these recurrences are part of a ‘sense of justice’ that he discovers in Finlay’s poems: ‘a care for fragile, unprotected things,’ ‘homage paid to the small or unconsidered,’ ‘a memorial accomplished to what is light, tender, reticent’ (‘Paper and Stone’ 66). Sounding a cautionary note that might serve as a guiding principle for his own publication, Clark writes that ‘we do not do justice to the small by inflating it’ (‘Paper and Stone’ 66).

Other cards reviewed here are still more ‘spare’ (‘thin’ or ‘threadbare’) in their use of verbal resources. But the Moschatel publications, though they are modest and unostentatious, and marginal to the main institutions of poetry publication, are designed so as to have a significant presence and role in the world.  Clark describes how the cards or small booklets were sent out to friends: ‘The recipient might read the poem again and again, place or on the mantelpiece, and have an altogether more intimate and resourceful relationship to it than a poem lost somewhere in the middle of a collection. It was a modest attempt to let poetry have a use, to bring it into the centre of everyday life, rather than keep it restricted to a separate realm, the literary, shut up between covers and relegated to a shelf’ (‘An Inconspicuous Green Flower’ 143). ‘hills are slow waves’ consists of a white card folded in half (greeting-card style) with the four words printed in green ink on the front serving as title and text of the poem. The card is the result of a poet and artist collaboration between Tom and Laurie Clark. The illustration consists of a row of rounded hills in green and beneath it a line of spiked waves in blue; the long, open vowels unstopped by consonants seems to enact the idea of slowness, as well as that of fluidity and flux. The inside of the card is blank, perhaps to give the idea of natural spaciousness or to represent a concealed and protected interior quiet. More obviously, the design also allows the recipient to prop the card on a mantelpiece, as one would a ‘greeting’ card (a printed ‘wave’).

Designing a poem for the table or the mantelpiece has artistic implications: ‘Moschatel publications were designed, rather than the bookshelf. But that had other implications, that somewhere one had to find words that would stand up to that amount of looking. Anything that was too narrative or too anecdotal was not going to work, because it would very soon become exhausted, so you had to have this openness’ (Pursglove 15). This idea is reminiscent Robert Smithson’s sense that language is ‘printed matter’ to be ‘looked at’ rather than a vehicle for the communication of ideas  (Smithson 61). It is helpful to think of this ‘openness’ as a resistance to narrative determination and to interpretive resolution that keeps the poem alive. For a reader willing to approach this textual ‘openness’ with a corresponding attitude of open responsiveness, the small poem may have all the resonance and expansiveness that we expect from poetry: something inexhaustible, before which one will have to pause and to which one will need to return. The reader of Clark’s work becomes (to use one of his own words) ‘implicated’ in drawing out the sense and significance of the words. Again reviewing Finlay’s work, Clark writes that ‘with this artist’s work it is necessary not only to look and to think but also to wait and allow a nuance or metaphor to come into the mind unbidden, as a deer might come into a clearing. A certain patience and reverence is required’ (‘Pastorals’ 153). As the simile here suggests, reading with patience and openness can be a rehearsal for the respectful attentiveness one could bring to other situations.

The ethical or political commitments of the poems can be appreciated most clearly in their concern with the natural world. A publication that manifests this ecological commitment is ‘the call of the oystercatcher/is a string of pearls,’ a small folded booklet made of grey-brown (buff coloured?). The text in black ink is on the ‘recto’, the inside of the back cover. There is no text on the front cover; instead it is decorated by one of Laurie Clark’s characteristic pen and ink drawing of the distinctively-marked oystercatcher in flight. The poem presents itself as a riddle or puzzle. In what way, we might ask, is the loud peep-ing noise of the oystercatcher a string of pearls? One solution is to see the pearls as the visual correlative of the clarity of the bird’s call--each note separate and distinct and yet linked to other similar or identical notes in a series--as though the oystercatcher in its meal had taken in the pearl along with the oyster itself. Then again, we might think of the juxtaposition of bird and the pearls contained in the oyster shells as standing for the different ways in which the natural world is valued or enjoyed. Unlike the bird, which consumes the oyster to live, humans’ consumption of the world’s resources—the harvesting of pearls, for instance—is motivated by commerce and by the wish for conspicuous display. The likening of the bird song with pearls suggests a hidden or overlooked pleasure, one freely available, that we might miss in seeing the natural world as a source of profit. But the pearls are not just there to remind us of the pleasure we miss in not heeding the oystercatcher’s song or not attending to the bird’s appearance. They also suggest the bird’s delight in its own performance of flight and song.

That other beings experience joy is axiomatic for Clark, a principle that underlies his ethical stance to the natural world: ‘We should understand that land and plants and animals exist and enjoy themselves before any meaning they have for us. Even from our side, it’s necessary for our own survival that we start to appreciate the non-human world’ (Finlay ‘Standing Still and Walking’ 63-4; emphasis added).  For Clark, our own pleasure and enjoyment is interwoven with this ecological understanding: ‘The first of all pleasures is that things exist in and for themselves’ (Distance and Proximity 41). As a philosophical outlook, this resembles Wordsworth’s primitivist vision of the universe pervaded by a feeling of ‘joy’ or ‘love’ in a poem such as ‘Lines written in early Spring’:

          Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
          The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
          And ’tis my faith that every flower 
          Enjoys the air it breathes. 

          The birds around me hopped and played, 
          Their thoughts I cannot measure:— 
          But the least motion which they made 
          It seemed a thrill of pleasure. 

          The budding twigs spread out their fan, 
          To catch the breezy air; 
          And I must think, do all I can, 
          That there was pleasure there. 

The final item I want to mention here, ‘ dun na mairbhe / the fort of stillness,’ is a booklet of attractive simplicity of design. Blue paper is folded and cut in such a way as to make a booklet with four interior pages. On each page a short stanza of four lines is printed in black. ‘Dun na mairbhe’ is the Gaelic name of a site on the Hebridean island of North Uist, where there is some evidence of an Iron Age roundhouse on a small tidal island. The evidence for the fort’s having been there at all is scanty; or as Clark poem has it ‘no remains of a doorway/can be verified’ the defences are/ now inconspicuous’ and ‘where the walls/have disappeared/they must be/inferred.’  The poem enacts a respectful hesitation and reticence before the culture of the past which, while it certainly existed, is now inaccessible for us. Clark translates the place name as ‘the fort of stillness, but ‘mairbhe’ literally translates as ‘the dead’ so that the place name can also translated as the fort of the dead. It may be Clark translates ‘mairbhe’ as stillness, because (the name notwithstanding) ‘life’ still continues in that place: ‘round an interior space/for the most part indistinct/ the foxglove is abundant/the rare wild rose.’ The celebration of nature’s flourishing in our absence and apart from our purposes is a common note-- ‘When the people are gone, and the house is a ruin, for long afterwards there may flourish a garden of daffodils’ (Distance and Proximity 104)—and again suggest the influence of Wordsworth (in a poem such as ‘The Ruined Cottage’).

What is not Wordsworth-like is Clark’s presentation of a formal equivalent to the ‘stillness’ that the poem talks about. The minimalism of Clark’s poems, the presentation of a few words on the white space of the page, is an attempt to work against the propulsive forward movement of narrative and to evoke the ‘stillness and quiet’ that are absent in our crowded culture and that are necessary to our sanity (‘An Inconspicuous Green Flower’ 143). ‘The poems, Clark avers, are ’in answer to a movement of desire—for clear air, silence, responsiveness, in the midst of a life no different from anybody’s life in which these things are largely absent’ (Finlay). These modest publications ‘offer a small counterweight to rush and noise, to a deliberately induced bewilderment’ brought on by the unsorted information thrown at us by our culture (Tarbuck 37; Herd n.p.).

 

References
Thomas A. Clark, ‘An Inconspicuous Green Flower’ in Simon Cutts (ed), Certain Trees: The Constructed Book, Poem, and Object, 1964-2006. (Sant-Yrieix-la-Perche: Centres des livres d’artistes, 2006), 143-4.
Thomas A. Clark, Distance and Proximity (Edinburgh: Polygon and Morning Star Publications, 2000).
Thomas A. Clark, ‘Paper and Stone, Oatmeal and Cheries’ in PN Review 59, Vol. 14. No. 3 (January-February, 1988): 66-67.
Thomas A. Clark, ‘Pastorals’ in Alec Finlay (ed), Wood Notes Wild: Essays on the Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995), 152-5.
Alec Finlay, ‘Standing Still and Walking in Strath Nethy: An interview with Thomas A. Clark’ Edinburgh Review 94 (1995): 59-64.
Harry Gilonis, ‘How to Read (2)’ in Simon Cutts (ed), Certain Trees: The Constructed Book, Poem, and Object, 1964-2006. (Sant-Yrieix-la-Perche: Centres des livres d’artistes, 2006), 118-27.
David Herd, ‘Making Spaces: An Interview with Thomas A. Clark’ Oxford Poetry VII. 3 https://www.oxfordpoetry.co.uk/interviews.php?int=vii3_thomasaclark (accessed 03.09.2019)
Glyn Pursglove, ‘Thomas A. Clark interviewed by Glyn Pursglove’ Poetry Information (London) 18 (Winter-Spring 1977-78) 12-20.
Robert Smithson, ‘Language to be looked at and/or thing to be read’ [1967, press release written for the Virginia Dwan Gallery, NY] in Jack Flam (ed), The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1996), page 61.
Alice Tarbuck, ‘In, Among, With and From: In Conversation with Thomas A. Clark’ PN Review 229, volume 42, no. 5 (May-June2016): 37-41.
Alan  Tucker, ‘Preface’ in Moschatel Press. A catalogue printed in connection with a Moschatel Press exhibition at the Coracle Press Gallery, Camberwell New Road, December-January 1979-80. (London: Coracle Press, 1980).

 

 
Copyright © Aled Ganobcsik-Williams, 2019