Reflecting on the profound consequences of the contemporary drive to historicize, Susan Sontag once wrote, “Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming: the senseless and overdocumented rhythm of advent and supersession.” In other words, understanding has been sacrificed on the altar of relevance. Rather than honestly appraise and contemplate any “intellectual or artistic or moral event,” we cooly organize and rank: I just called it being in my 20s. Fortunately, however, time and circumstance inevitably intervene to beat the Prufrock out of us and make us stick our coffee spoons in the dishwasher. A baby is born, an illness intrudes, a job is found, a new house in a new city comes to be lived in, and suddenly sidestepping accountability for the dearth of meaning we salvage from the insistent current of daily life appeals not at all.
Written in response to such a galvanizing period of personal change, Adam Clay’s absorbing third collection, Stranger, is suffused with desire for recalibration and renewed attentiveness. With his second nature dislodged by the birth of a first child and relocation to a new state, the poet turns to language to scrutinize the role habit and instinct, place and memory, play in the construction and renovation of identity. Loiter long enough anywhere in the collection, and Clay’s Kōan-like rendering of the slow molt of personal history begins to install itself in the mind. With rhetorical inventiveness and tender curiosity, Clay catalogues and interrogates moments of estrangement in daily life. Rather than uncritically sorting experience, he grapples with the conglomerations of its meanings.
The somber, processional quality of the collection is bolstered by its loosely chronological and geographical arrangement. Across Stranger’s four sections, an infant daughter grows older, new parents grow accustomed to their role, and unsettling relocations start to settle in. Given the collection’s preoccupation with how the strange alloy of memory infringes on the present, the containment these sections provide also lends a stark finality to the life events they contain. A little over half of Clay’s expansive collection is devoted to a handful of long poems whose length proves particularly suited to his exhaustive rendering of a consciousness in transition. Chief among them are two sprawling poems, “Sounds of an Emptying House” and “This is a Frame,” which anchor the book’s second and third sections. It’s in these poems’ unfurling that Clay’s restless colloquialism is at its most magnetic.
Long or short, Stranger’s poems proceed through a characteristic blend of association, non-sequitur, and paradox—by way of contortions of simile, viscous enjambments, and switchback rhymes. Logic and music are the dual drivers of Clay’s tangential poetry, pushing and dragging the poems to new imaginative lengths. What at first seems like metaphysical filibustering and diaristic digression soon reveals itself to be vigilance—the desire to be at the bleeding edge where feeling and thought get translated into language. “Sounds of an Emptying House,” a twelve-section poem in which the speaker reflects on the psychic discombobulation trailing in the wake of his family’s relocation, exemplifies the way thought and feeling gather and dissipate in Clay’s work. The poem’s ninth section finds the speaker sorting through the mental and physical detritus of a taxing move:
I’m guessing the cranes will be around for a while.
There are certain things
that need not be brought into
an empty house.
I have already mentioned the sounds that persist
with such a gravity that they cancel one another out.
Does a piece of fruit rot from the inside out or from the
An abandoned puppet string or used dental floss?
Some other things? I’d prefer not to catalogue
events as normal, mundane, or abnormal,
but for the sake of survival, we might as well
signal before changing lanes.
And then there’s the kitchen:
the floor we walked
is the floor we put there.
Clay’s poems exude a Schuylerian relish for giving exactly the right frame to those simple, overheard phrases that stick in mind. Minor epiphanies might come couched in plain language, but Clay’s line breaks and wordplay pry suspense, implication, and scope from such unadorned speech, as they do in the following lines from the poem, “Along the Edge of a Season.”
[ . . . ] It’s a terrible thing
when we stop
and consider how having enough
different from even a year ago.
Here, the line breaks accentuate wordplay and fracture the meaning of a sentence that would be utterly unremarkable as prose. They allow Clay to raise the specter of mortality and let the reader decide whether “having enough” means fed up or fulfilled. By leaning hard on everyday language to expose its poignant vagaries, Clay reveals the metaphysical in the domestic, the uncanny in the pedestrian. Part of the persuasiveness of Clay’s approach lies in his willingness to treat flagging faith and inattentiveness as fitting subjects for serious consideration rather than the part of human experience to be gotten around. Lingering over such black pearls of wisdom constitutes one of Stranger’s primary pleasures.
No matter how beautifully managed, Clay’s rumination occasionally becomes hard work for the reader because he eschews descriptive language in favor of abstractions. Stranger’s rooms, towns, rivers, trees, roads, seasons, and weather, exist as things to be considered rather than described. While an appropriate choice—given the poems have the feel of overheard thought rather than monologue—duration can turn any task to chore. A certain dreariness results from following an endless train of thought without a window on the passing scene. But just when the reader nears the threshold of such disengagement, there comes a stretch of verse in which all the rhetorical filigree of Clay’s signature style melds with images grounding and evocative enough to carry the day.
[ . . . ] This town
exists without fire
escapes, without fires
most of the time,
though sometimes the sunrise
is as catastrophic
as catastrophe can be. I don’t
want to mistake
for the news,
but blame me from whatever
perspective you’d like to
take. Plate covers
off the light switches,
the paint drying slowly
in the dull heat of late-May.
My mistakes could
be anyone’s but who among
us has a guide
that’s not filled with drastic
measures, moon-heavy phrases?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the moments of greatest descriptive warmth come whenever daughter, Penny, appears. The combination of fatherly reverence and disquiet at time’s passing that arises in these moments, recalls the limpid humanity, if not the strict formalism, of Snodgrass circa Heart’s Needle. In the collection highlight, “Forecast and Its Failure,” Penny deposits a heartrending literal symbol on the collection’s table, one that exposes the melancholy role ritual and memory play in family life.
Penny collecting rocks from the shore each day,
a pile on the piano bench, some under foot,
others disrupting the smooth rhythm of the kitchen table:
flint, quartz, basalt, sea glass, chert.
Moments become disallowed from memory:
the shallows of the day like the shadows of the day.
While she sleeps, we return the rocks to the water,
as if the negation of a moment also admits its existence.
Each day begins with a rock in the palm—
the lake exists to saddle our apology.
Clay follows the unvarnished account of Penny’s behavior in the poem’s opening stanza with an ingenious simile showing how poignant experience flattens into language. The shallows and the shadows grow more alike as their details are forgotten. While the specificity that makes experience poignant may dissipate like the vivid color of rocks pulled from the water, Clay’s lines preserve the desire to ritualize experience in order to fight against such dissipation. Scrutinizing the role language plays in understanding and fighting against such dissipation proves central to the collection’s appeal.
Clay’s latest reveals him to be a subtle topographer of daily life in both its domestic and numinous aspects. If Stranger is a disquieting read, it disquiets because Clay’s poems speak honestly about how difficult it is to stay curious and strive to find meaning while countering the momentum of personality and personal history. As the speaker in the poem, “This is a Frame,” notes, “To think of each / day as a peculiar one // would be lawful, merciful, holy, / inexact.”