Clint Margrave. The Early Death of Men. New York, NY. 2012. 96 pages. $14.95. ISBN 978-1-935520-60-3
Cover art is in interesting thing: we see it and it calls to us, pulling our sweaty palms to the spines of dusty books – or, it makes us violently avert our eyes and wish we’d never caught a glimpse of it. When I first saw the dark drawings of scapulae and vertebrae on Clint Margrave’s latest collection of poems, my sweaty hands were magnetized to its flesh. I believed I was about to bite into a piece of epic, morbid, and perhaps even gothic humanism. In, they are poems of the existential, poems of wisdom gained, of innate humor in dark situations. They are poems of philosophy, nostalgia, of recklessness. Not quite what I was expecting – but of course, I shan’t blame the author for not succeeding at something he wasn’t trying to do. Instead, I shall examine the part that actually matters the most about the book (i.e. not the cover) – the text. A poem’s title:
“The Role of Art”
Quite a noble topic to attempt to tackle in a poem, indeed. One that, after the Enlightenment period and the coming of self-awareness in Western society and thought, that became a topic of debate in many a French salon and thoughtful letter among the edified aristocracy. Surely though, since the topic is so heavily trodden, we should expect Margrave to provide an interesting twist, a new angle. Some lines:
“Like all who tell the truth,/ Art has few patrons,/is always offending somebody./Art is solitary,/rebellious/abstract./It is not communal./And when embraced too fully,/has a tendency/to crash things down.”
Alright. Here are some ideas on this grand topic, and yet I am left asking – where is the power behind these statements? They are constructed like those in a philosophical essay, and lack the spark that is required of a poem: the ability to revitalize what has been said by saying it in a way that can’t be said. The ability to make me, the reader (or listener) have shivers rocket down their spine with the knowledge that they have heard something carrying an undeniable truth. These statements saying things like “Art is an outcast/whose only role/is to protect its value” leave me not with a feeling that I have received a truth, but instead feeling discontent. If the function of this poem was to change or enlighten my perspective as to the role of art, it was not successful.
It can be said that the difference between a novel and a poem is that a novel opens the door to your home (with your good graces) and moves in with all of its stuff – furniture, un-nameable musical instruments, and psychological disorders – and camps out in your living room for a few months. A poem, on the other hand, opens your door without knocking, screams something profound in its haggard and tired voice, and slams the door closed again, perhaps knocking a few priceless artifacts off of your wall while doing so.
And thus, I have more difficulties as I encounter another of Margrave’s poems, Exposed:
“His last night at the hospital,/my dying father was in no condition/to change himself./The nurse and I slipped his pants down,/and for the first time,/I saw he wasn’t circumcised.”
Sure enough, this seemingly autobiographical story holds within it plenty of leads – the one that Margrave chooses is one wherein he speaks that the differences between the Voice and the Father goes beyond the internal, but to the external as well. It’s a perfectly plausible avenue, but one that is executed with such blundering imprecision that I found myself scratching my head after reading it, thinking to myself, “is that really it? Why is this a poem and not a personal essay?” Sure, plainly written, everyman-style poetry has a solid place in literature – Andrea Gibson, with her raw content that screams through a megaphone, even in the dark corners of a university library, is proof of that. But, that’s because she’s effective in extracting all of the emotion out of a thought without delving into contrived similes and cliché literary devices, so the sound of spoken language streamlines the emotion as it would in a tear-jerking argument. In Exposed, Margrave fails to make use of the tools and freedom the poetic form provides to elaborate upon his desired effect, or to compact enough emotion into its lines for me to rationalize its minimal length. I want the real story. I want the background. I want emotional history. I want to feel empathy for the Voice. As a reader, I feel denied of it.
The Early Death of Men is a collection of poetry caught in its fetal stages somewhere between non-fiction essays and everyman poetry, with as much precision as a jackhammer trying to perform neurosurgery. Ignore it, and instead scour and search for some literature that will truly shake, dismantle, and empower you.