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James Bourey reviews DeWitt Clinton

Poems by DeWitt Clinton

Now and then we find a book that lands on so many of the places we consider the holy ground of poetry we not only find a prominent place on our bookshelves for the volume, but we also order up copies to send to friends and family. And we send the copies to folks who don’t usually like poetry because we’re certain this one will convert the non-believers. By A Lake Near A Moon: Fishing with the Chinese Masters by DeWitt Clinton is that type of book. It is just that beautiful.

This book of 114 poems, adaptations/interpretations on the works of 9 Chinese masters is, itself, masterful. One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translations by Kenneth Rexroth from 1971, is Mr. Clinton’s source of inspiration. I dug out my old copy of Rexroth’s volume to see if it would help me to understand and appreciate this new work more fully. That was not at all necessary. These poems are not slaves to the Masters interpreted by Rexroth. These poems are originals, though they honor the spirit and mood and sensibilities of the Chinese ancients as captured by Rexroth. Clinton’s poems are modern, full of plain language, sometimes subtle, invested with emotion but never sentimentality, often topical, always demanding another reading.

The finest poetry asks that we examine our own experience or feelings or viewpoints as we discover what the poet is saying. Perhaps I became more fully engaged with these poems because they often look at life from a point not too far from its end, which I can easily relate to. But after multiple readings of many of these poems I can see where this poet touches a much wider range of readers than codgers like me. Several themes run through these poems: war and its individual human costs, marriage through the years, loss, our engagement with nature, struggles with personal demons, work and how it progresses and changes us. The author reads and references a poem by one of the Masters. Then he records his meditation or observation. Sometimes a title can give us a hint of what’s to come: “Mid-morning, Mid-January Reading Tu Fu’s Snow Storm in A Ford Focus” “After Watching a Documentary on Plate Tectonics and the Driest Desert on Earth, I’m Surprised to Find Tu Fu’s Overlooking the Desert” “With Spring Road Construction Everywhere in Our Village I Pause to Read Su Tung P’o’s On the Siu Cheng Road.” But often the “reading” cited in the title is just a springboard for a wandering stream of consciousness poem, taking many turns and finding many surprising connections.

I could pull memorable quotes from the lines of these poems that would illustrate the unique approach Mr. Clinton uses to tell his stories and make his observations. But it would be too hard to narrow down the best samples from such a rich offering. As he moves from poet to poet, we can see very subtle changes in style and structure. These changes are never distracting yet they alter mood and pacing, always honoring the inspiring Master. Yet, the poet never loses his own distinct, personal voice in the changes.

The poems in this book are in sections named for each of the nine Master’s. Marking the beginning of each section, and on the front and back cover and title page, are Chinese brush paintings by Joan Thomasson (1935 – 2015). We’re treated to panda’s and lovely plants and Chinese hanzi which are characters used in writing the language. These paintings offer a peaceful moment as we transition from one section to another. The poems also are structured in a way that helps the reader ease down the page, absorbing detail, savoring the many particularly fine gifts of poetry-craft presented by Mr. Clinton.

If a reader of this book is inspired to delve into early Chinese poetry, then that’s fine. But this book makes no demands for that scholarly endeavor. This collection stands alone as a clear, truthful, beautifully written and illustrated example of a modern poet building on an ancient and venerable tradition. This book will make a fine addition to my library. And I highly recommend it for yours.

James Bourey is a poet and reviewer now living on the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. He lived in Delaware for thirty years before this recent move. His chapbook Silence, Interrupted was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press, and it was selected as best book of poetry by the Delaware Press Association, and also received third place in the same category from the National Association of Press Women. His work has appeared in Gargoyle, Broadkill Review, Double Dealer and other journals and anthologies. His new book is The Distance Between Us.

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