Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars
Terrapin Books, 2020
Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars, by Patricia Clark, is part of Terrapin Books’ redux series, meaning a repeat book by an author the press previously published. The first of Clark’s poetry books to be published by Terrapin, The Canopy, won the 2018 PSV Book of the Year Award.
The epigraph poem grabbed me and won’t let go. I find myself returning to it, and it sinks in deeper with each reading. Titled “Coaster,” the poem describes the kind of coaster one would buy in an airport gift shop, “a square/of some ceramic substance backed with cork.” Clark immediately makes this coaster universal with the ending of her second stanza:
and stamped on its face the Puget Sound
map and all the cities of my heart.
I turned my head after reading those lines to gaze at my coaster from Boulder. Later in the poem she captures flying back to Washington State with lines that resonate. They perfectly capture my emotional response every time my flight starts its descent into Denver and I get my first glimpse of the Rockies:
fearing my eyes would fill right
then in the aisle seat of row thirty-two.
The final stanza contains the line that grounds this collection:
the past in front of you like a map
Yes, the past is a bright thread woven throughout Clark’s poems, and this final line implores us to pay attention, to let the past show us the way forward.
With four numbered sections, Clark bears witness to life, family, friendships, and nature. There are ekphrastic poems; the title poem could serve as one. After lines describing landmarks from childhood, from a time when the family was intact, we are told that “muscle memory holds so much, landscape memory, too.” How many readers have returned to a childhood town to attend a reunion, and missed a turn because the gas station or barn is no longer on the corner? In a reference to the Seattle World’s Fair, the speaker describes “how for months I’d begged Father/to take us to see it-a million dollars in silver dollars/coming out of the east, a police escort.” The poem ends with a wonderful metaphor for life passages:
A motor parade gone in an eye blink-I hadn’t understood
I’d never see a single, silver, gleaming coin.
There is a praise poem to a dickcissel-go on, look it up-expert poetry such as this challenges the reader while also being comfortably familiar. There is also an elegy. In “Canine Elegy,” Clark opens by addressing numerous anonymous dogs:
All over town, dogs are lying down
And then she deftly moves inward to talk about her dog:
She never dug holes in the yard
Clark makes the point that so many readers may have asked themselves when a beloved pet dies:
who do we grieve for,
them, or ourselves?
Water is prevalent. The Flint Michigan debacle is noted, the enlarged watershed after a controlled burn, a fountain near a tea house, the Great Lakes, the sea in an ekphrastic poem, Puget Sound, and many more references make the reader take notice. Water is fluid, it moves from one place to another, and it is essential to life. The poems are varied in style and length, which creates movement through the book.
These are quiet poems of shared introspection, best read slowly with time to ponder. Understatement is one of Clark’s strengths; she doesn’t need to rant to make the reader think. The final stanza of “Ravine Idyll” truly sums up this collection:
The charge: note what is here, what departs