Grant Clauser’s Reckless Constellations (Cider Press, $17.95), one of two new Clauser collections mind you, resonates with a kind of jukebox sorrow. These poems are dressed in night’s clothes, drinking cold beer, or hot coffee, surrounded by loved ones, music in the air. Constellations is both elegiac and hopeful, and Clauser’s work channels the emotions of loss, disappointment, boredom, and joy; the sweet spot being the center, where the tension of contrasting emotions are balanced. Clauser’s work also acts as a kind of incantation, a spell against poverty, despair, and self destruction.
“It’s all about the dark,/the useless call, the flashlight shining in a paper bag...” Clauser opens with in “Confessions of a Snipe Hunter.” Clauser’s opening poem is both about the glorious make believe prank of a snipe hunt, and about the arc of adulthood as one realizes that the world has teeth behind its glamor, and our pointless rituals and beliefs are just arbitrary tools to bring light to our corner of the world. The poem is also a fine frame for book itself, a collection that is often about the futility of everyday life and it’s magic. For “Snipe Hunter” is also a poem about hope, its own kind of faith that “there’s something else/trusting and foolish enough/to enter your small light.”
Clauser crafts poems that sometime ache, sometime sing, and often accomplish a bit of both. Early poems in Constellations are colored by reckless misspent youth. The working class families of these Pennsylvania small towns, and beautiful but economically blighted rural landscapes are struggling. Constellations uses beautiful language to express the painful not so distant past. Many of the early poems are haunted by Shelly, and Dod, co-conspirators against boredom and authority. Shelly functions as a teenage muse and golden girl, pulling the speaker towards emotional stability, despite her own past emotional turmoil, and Dod pulls the speaker towards delinquency. In “Burning Down the Carousel” Dod was crying with a kind of glee when he “drenched the white stallion with gas, lit the bear/ and tiger, then tossed the can in the creek...” Clauser captures, through Dod, and the speaker’s own stories, the festering restlessness associated with toxic masculinity. It’s not just a media bullet point, but a modern American trope. Clauser’s Dod is in many ways an angsty working class Biff yearning for the west, for wilderness, for a way to shape a life with his hands and escape the trappings of domesticity. Dod’s countryboy danger is also like the restless hollowness of Eric Bogosian’s Suburbia. Without meaningful work, young men are drawn to trouble. Of course, Dod doesn’t actually express the same lost/displacement as Miller and Bogosian’s characters express, but it’s subtext, a murmur, the river racing through the woods.
If the first section is primarily made up of elegies of youth, the second section finds the poet as an adult with children to raise and an older generation to care for. This is the emotional landscape of the remainder of the collection. Clauser’s still operates via elegy, however Clauser offers more tributes, or odes, to family, love and wonder. In “To Read Dead Poets” Clause memorializes his grandmother’s apple “something” recipe, which is missing the measurements for sugar, but one that is not necessary, for the true measurement is in the heart-mind, or memory, which is what the speaker wants to give to his daughters, “the way I remember her house/...is as close/as I can get/to the taste I want/to tell my daughter’s about.” It is in this section that many of Clauser’s poems begin to function as incantations, spells, or wards against danger. The Celts believed that poets possessed a kind of magic. The scops of the ancient Anglo-Saxons, and griots in ancient African cultures were employed for ritual ceremonies; their recitations of ancient lore were precious because their knowledge, and power functioned as a kind of memory, and heart. Acting as a kind of rural medicine man, Clauser’s poems serve an ancient purpose, to heal and ward off danger. In “To My Young Daughters When They’re Older” offers up a ritual of sorts, “We’ll keep your room in order,/every doll, photo, and heart shaped/sketch saved to savor later, dried/flowers in a yearbook, walls still/painted the lavender you loved when younger.” It’s an emotion parents can relate to, a poem that explores the kind of love that promises the comforts of the past for the future. This familial ritual of stasis is balanced with the wards of danger that appear in “Cow Tipping.” Written with imperative sentences, the poem attempts to place the dangers of mundanity, and modernity out of reach. “Promise to save your receipts,/ to tell the truth on your taxes...Swear to tipping the postman....” Clauser’s older and wiser speaker has come full tilt, pitting antisocial impulses against impulses of compliance (in other words, adulting). The later poems echo the early elegies where Dod and Shelly pulled the speaker towards danger; Clauser strikes balance.
The third and final section of the collection is thematically similar to the second, but a bit more reflective, as the speaker is wise enough to know that the follies of his youth and his children’s youth are simply a cycle. The final section widens the scope of the poet’s eye, and is evident from the first poem, “History Lessons,” where the poet follows a Mennonite groundskeeper through the overgrown cemetery he struggles to maintain. In section three the poet catches and releases, and sees the tension between life and death more clearly; perhaps most elegantly expressed in “Cliff,” a response to Jane Hirshfield’s “Tree”:
It is foolish to build your house
Upon a cliff above a lake
While the earth is still moving...
nothing beckons like edges...
Each morning is a choice between
Falling over or stepping back.
As the collection draws its strings up to close around the reader, the poet isn’t looking simply forward or backward, but rather looking at the world from a point of balance. Even better, the poet doesn’t gaze or look, he sees. Existential clarity via balance and maturity is achieved. “Autumn Madness” and “Elegy for a Broken Sump Pump” continue to see the world in with nuance that recognizes the ferocity in the rot of the season, and despairs at the violence of the world.
With regards to form, Constellations echoes much of mainstream American free verse, being that it is composed of tight colloquial language that relies on assonance, alliteration, and consonance to make music, versus language that relies on rhyme to make music. Clauser’s poems are loosely formed, each poem operating under its own rules (though Clauser shows off his chops in “Villanelle for the Allentown Punk Rockers’ 30 Year Reunion”). Reckless Constellations is full of guitar riffs, cigarette butts, leather boots, old cars, home cooking, kids, and stars. His downspun idiom recalls David Bottoms, and America’s rich agrarian tradition. Like a pair of good boots, Reckless Constellations provide comfort and protection for the wilderness that is American life.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. His poems have appeared in Oxford Poetry, Grub Street, and Anderbo, among other journals. A two time Pushcart nominee, he is the author of four chapbooks, including the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize winning Field Recordings, and the USA Book Award nominee, All My Rowdy Friends.