You have the right to demand recognition by the other. But you have no right to seek completion by means of the other. You will always be incomplete. Jeff Clark, “Shiva Hive”
I first encountered this little book in 2004 when it arrived in the mail as one of the benefits of my (now defunct) membership in the Academy of American Poets. I was enthralled with its music and daring. Clark admits to “a distrust of easy assonance/ musicality/ imaginativity not in the service of something progressive” and it abundantly shows.
The works contained in this book are varied in form. Sometimes they are free verse, sometimes in the form of an interview that reads like a confrontation with the self (“Shiva Hive”), and sometimes they look and feel like prose pieces. Not the short, one paragraph prose poems that readers are most accustomed to, but pieces which can stretch three pages. The poems are arranged chronologically and often read like restless- even disturbed- dream sequences.
Coming back to this book six years later was a completely different experience than the first read. I was charmed mostly by the surface stuff the first time around. However, seeming as it does that I have lived whole lifetimes in the intervening years, I was struck by the quote that opens this article. It seems that this is the point of the collection. It is treated on almost every level: as applying to relationships, the motions of life, even one’s experience with art. Every artist- particularly poets- have experienced this love/ hate, enamorment/ disallusionment in relation to their art. Clark takes a very tough-minded, urban stance toward these things throughout.
The book is packaged well. The cover is dark with an image of what appears to be subway lights or lights in the ceiling of an industrial building. Text on the cover is sparse and in a thin, stretched font. The pages inside are relatively thick and rough to the fingertips, which is appropriate. Sometimes the poems are divided by pages that are totally black, some with that spiny, white writing, some without. The book itself is thus a work of art that reflects what is to be found inside. This is not a collection for those seeking beauty. Rather, it makes poetry out of the sparse, cold, lonesome, dark, ugly.
Ultimately, though, I was disappointed upon returning to it. I could not sense the magic I had felt in it before. But perhaps I was seeking completion, which as Clark said, I have no right to. Maybe the incompleteness, the uncomfortableness is the point. Much as the deliberate unbalancing of the accepted sensibilities was the point of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It would be too much to say that Music and Suicide is a poetic equivalent to Wilde’s controversial novel, but it could be that was Jeff Clark’s ambition.