on Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of, poems by David Clewell (University of Wisconsin Press)
David Clewell has never been hesitant about spelling things out – what he sees, what he loves, how he feels and how we should feel about how he feels. He may be America’s most reliably engaging poet of unabashedly giving a damn. He gives praise and advice. No coyness, no mistaking who’s talking to whom. Now 61, he has produced five collections and has motored around the state of Missouri as its poet laureate, no doubt pulling over on a whim to check out the local color and sites of rumored UFO sightings.
A Clewell poem invites you to speak aloud its companionable language and then expends all your breath for the sake of itself. Often long-lined, the poems venture out to the far edges via their own manifest destinies, eager to fill the pages' white spaces and scornful of an editor’s excisions. His new book is titled Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of which is Clewellian for everything hangs in the balance, maybe by a thread. It’s an atomic age refrain that retains its punch nowadays.
He is a hoarder of totemic actualities and cultural remnants, a docent in the museum of all things living, dead, inanimate and invisible. The book’s first poem alone, “The Real Story of Adam and Eve, Wherein the True Cradle of Civilization Is Revealed,” includes a fire-red Pontiac convertible, T-shirt emporiums, Skee-Ball, Bruce Springsteen, a Tilt-A-Whirl, Brian Hyland’s 1960 hit “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and much more -- icons of the Jersey shore where Clewell grew up. This is his creation myth: we rise each day out of memory. There is rust on what we find and, if we can manage it, restoration.
DO NOT OVERINFLATE
Until the first time I came across those actual words,
it’s nothing I ever would have thought of doing, not once –
and, frankly, never would have known was even possible.
But the pointed nature of the warning made me suddenly
self-conscious, turned me from then on into a living,
breathing wreck: what if my next breath or pumpful of air
were the one to cause whatever I was huffing and puffing
to burst, to fly apart at the seams, to be blown out of
all shapely proportion? This printed insistence was a bad idea
that really should have gone forever without saying:
on the ridiculously shallow backyard kiddie pool
with its six inches of water getting warmer by the minute
until it’s nearly simmering under the summer afternoon sun;
on the ubiquitous hard-red-rubber kickball, that harsh boing
echoing when it smacked inevitably into someone’s unsuspecting face
on the red-dirt grade-school playground of small indignities;
on the tires of that classic ’59 Schwinn, aqua with gold trim,
fenders like Cadillac fins, the coolest ride by far
my clunky self would ever almost manage to pull off;
on the mail-order Female Companion – more scary than even
remotely sexy – that I filled with helium to see how far she’d go
into the Newark sky, and in the next day’s Star-Ledger she’s a UFO story;
on each of the worn-down radials holding up the ancient Ford Escort
that to this day, and against all reasonable automotive odds,
somehow gets me unfailingly where I still need to go;
on the life rafts that even right now are being lowered all over,
and quickly, into one more day’s choppy waters,
where so far any blood’s just metaphorical, and so too, for now, the sharks.
With whatever we’ve tried breathing some honest portion of ourselves into –
jobs, friendships, marriages, recovery programs –
it’s as if, had we not been repeatedly warned, we never would have known
when to stop: Do not overinflate. At a certain point,
like the CPR that turns out so often to be not nearly enough to rescue anyone,
we might as well have saved our breath for the next time
we were sure to need it again, might as well have kept on going,
walking away still under anything that’s left of our own power.
Clewell’s work, for all its chummy gabbing, generous in-gathering of the world’s strange bounty, and comedic rib-poking, for all the effort invested in erecting a recognizable and welcoming surface, takes a certain pleasure in suddenly dimming the lights, turning the tables, and leaving a manhole uncapped or at least a banana peel for the unsuspecting to curse. There are complexities – the kind that trade in a familiar bafflement. When Clewell says do not overinflate, it’s a warning to his voluble self to curb the charm, take cover, and add up the costs. He knows, of course, that in the final stanza above, the inflation trope is stretched to its limit. The poem embodies the life under pressure.
A Clewell poem delights in simultaneously going somewhere and getting nowhere. Coming up short seems to be his métier – like Charlie the Tuna who gets an entire poem about himself. And just like Charlie, Clewell comes up time and again with a novel scheme to prove he deserves the expense of our attention. The poems’ titles function like lobbies before the performance: “A Lesson from My Brief History in Professional Wrestling,” “Since So Many People Don’t Seem to Know What No Soliciting Means, I Tried to Spell It Out More Fully on My Front Door” and “The JFK Assassination Deluxe Diorama Kits are Here!” The sheer displayability of his materials ultimately yields something more modest – and more steadfast. You can count on its appearance -- a stubborn persistence. His work tweezes the difference between subject matter and content – the former is what’s there, the latter is what you find inside it.
Like fellow Jersey Boys Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, Clewell opens his arms wide for humanity at large -- and favors it over individual humans. This is not to say that he expresses no particular affections but that he opens the lens on people about as wide as it can go even as he zooms in on so many telling objects. In "The Bartender Doesn't Ask Much," a "Mister True Believer" blabs away even though the barkeep has posted a sign saying "Don't talk religion or politics ..." Almost everything needs to be rectified in Clewell's cosmos (thus, his overwhelming love for what exists), and obeying the bartender is a good first step. And then there's Clewell's wonderful poem, "Social Media and Me," in which he not only disparages Facebook ("I neither make nor take requests. I prefer real life, where actual friends / don't ask to be"), but claims he would like to go around "unfriending people I'd never / heard of before: anti-social master of the preemptive strike."
In the last of the book’s four sections, Clewell groups several poems on music and jazz. “Trying On Hats with Rahsaan Roland Kirk” is one of my favorite Clewell pieces – his story of attending a Rahsaan concert in the 70's, the great musician trying on hats for the audience’s amusement and consideration before beginning his set. Rahsaan throws a folding chair at some people in the audience who had been talking while he played. Rahsaan is scary! The poem ends with “thousands of bright Rahsaan moments / lighting up the dark until all of us can see for ourselves again / and again there’s almost nothing to be scared of, not as long / as there’s music like this, and not as long as we are here / to get with that music and swing.” Clewell, too, is a little scary, wielding all that material, piled up stuff in his memory. He comes at you assertively, then shows you how to swing with it.
At the end of a short poem called “The Stress Is More Pronounced at Times, but It Is Always There,” he admits that “There are some days that seem so awfully long, / you’re thinking whiskey. But you’re thinking wrong.” What’s thinking right then? You choose black coffee instead, you wake up: “Until your heartbeat’s back where it belongs / to what’s alive, still going on, not gone.”
[Published April 1, 2016. 150 pages, $14.95 paperback. Awarded the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry]