“we are meant / to lose count”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

37 of 100: To Make Room for the Sea by Adam Clay (2020, Milkweed Editions)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • People have opinions, as they say, about the concrete vs. the abstract in poetry. However, one of my favorite things is when a poet deploys details to craft an abstraction. For example, in a poem called “Last Anniversary,” Clay writes, “Back inside, an emergency exit / for each of us– / though the doorknobs / were taken off in a fit / of hope: perhaps / a worst-case scenario / won’t arrive if we stay / unprepared for it.” We have the concrete (exit, doorknobs) blended with the abstract (worst-case scenario, hope) so that we better understand what’s at stake. The effect is similar to the gesture made here: “what became overgrown wasn’t intention, / but how to blame the specific for growing more obscure.” Blame the specific for growing more obscure. I really dig that.
  • As a sucker for good line breaks, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that throughout this collection, Clay is masterful in this regard. Note the breaks in the lines quoted above — after “hope: perhaps” and “if we stay.” They make space for that moment where hope does exist, just briefly, before it’s dashed.
  • This global pandemic, which broke shortly after this book’s release, has me thinking more than ever before about the role of the “I,” not only in poem (as in first person) but bigger (as in outside ourselves, philosophically, physically, cosmically. Clay seems to chew on this a lot. For example, “Ultimately / we must manufacture our own importance.” Here, too: “Because today we did not leave this world, / we now embody a prominence within it.” And here: “This room needs our bodies / less than we need the room. / There is always something / to guard against.”
  • Reading this collection is to see stars. There are stars in nearly every poem. For me, this is satisfying: to see our human tribulations set among the stars and also be reminded of the something else out there. Somehow, the poems capture both ego and humility.
  • In lots of my reading notes, I capture a cluster of lines that seems to define poetry itself. While the lines are obviously “about” something else entirely, they symbolize for me the power of poetry. Here’s that moment in this book: “These words / this moment are a record of how // I’m embracing a single ounce of wonder / for the way it sharpens // my heart into a perfect fit, / into a stumbling mess of stars.”
  • When I research each collection, I also learn a lot about process — the poet’s process, my own process. Reading about Clay, I’m reminded of a few things about the importance of writing as a practice and how I thrive in daily writing challenges. Clay has some things to say about that:

“Many of these poems came from writing daily for a month or two at a time. I used to just write when I felt inspired, but I’ve found that writing daily actually makes inspiration arrive more often. I’m a long-distance runner, too, and a lot of training goes into preparing for a marathon. I’ve found that writing also requires that we train and develop our minds to be inspired. Writing habits help bring about connections between daily life and some of the bigger questions that I want my poems to reckon with.”

an interview with Southern Review of Books

“I rarely know what a book’s going to be about when I’m writing it—my focus is usually on simply writing one poem at a time (and for a single collection, I might write hundreds of poems—I’d estimate I wrote roughly 300 for this one).”

an interview at Frontier Poetry

Lines I want to remember:

  • “how should / we muscle meaning / into days?”
  • “The real wilderness is not out / there–it’s in here, deep inside / the quick run of blood. Every day // I consider what going home means / now that I’m here again.”
  • “I’ve arrived in this body how many times / on the other end of sleep?”
  • “What should a life be for, // if not for opening these questions”
  • “You’ve looked out the door each morning // only to find the view’s changed little over time … / … the bees keep their // sight on a task and find temper in the heat of their movement. / … What else would you expect / unearthed from the little buzzing impulse within them and you and me? / Very easy to think of us as a we, but that’s not quite right. In actuality, // what I mean: the stars glowed golden long before even / xerothermic times.”
  • “search engine histories / have become the closest thing // to prayer we have.”
  • “Go on. Ask / the question of yesterday / in the light of today. / Like describing / an empty field with / only three words, / there’s no point / in hovering over absence so directly.”
  • “a train that circles back onto itself, / its path leading to the question / of how many rivers one can cross / in a single day. / In our implicit design, we are meant / to lose count”
  • “I had always / imagined a different type / of fatherhood before / fatherhood found me, but if you / asked me to describe it now, / I don’t think I could / find the words. Try to find / a way to describe living / a few different ways at once.”
  • “Now looking back feels / like looking forward. It isn’t / a mistake to see wreckage / before it happens.”

What others have said:

  • from Southern Review of Books: “In their lyrical phrasings and human connection to the everyday, the poems in To Make Room for the Sea vividly paint images of the space between known and unknown, the space where hope first takes its hold. The result is a collection of meditative poems that never lose faith in the persistence of the human spirit. Experiencing the world painted by Adam Clay is to discover that most enduring of human traits: the will to survive.”
  • from Foreword Review: “His poems play with the connection between individual experiences and the public, political nature of moving through the world, chronicling the impulses and emotions behind invisible connections and interrogating chance, choice, and linearity.”
  • Jericho Brown on the book’s back cover: “This is a beautiful book of persistence, of fatherhood, of romance, of heartbreak, of the American South and what its history can mean for those who leave it and return, and yes, this is a book about faith.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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