Thomas A. Clark has published his second collection of poems with Carcanet Press entitled Yellow and Blue (2014). Like his other volumes this book works within the minimalist tradition he has developed in relation to the Pittenweem Gallery that he now runs with Laurie Clark in the East Neuk of Fife. These short poems of five or six lines in trimeter or tetrameter are spaced two to a page, giving the reader the sense of them as small boulders strewn across the machair of a Hebridean heath or as skerries smattering the coast of Coigach. These are meditative, primarily pastoral lyrics that speak to the haiku as well as the Zen philosophy of poets like Gary Snyder.
Yet many of these stones fit together and speak to one another in sets of four or five, acting like small cairns. The links are various. One set speaks of the “battered foliage” of the “crashing pines” invoking the “gear and tackle” of loggers that leads ultimately to a “picnic on a log.” In another unusual substratum, we are introduced to one of the only appearances of humanity in the book, the faces of “big red men/ striding in an innocence/ regained.” These fishermen and loggers “drinking and falling” and “getting up and drinking” are described with a conscious repetition that marks the poet’s willingness to find rhythm in simple restatement. There are poems of geology that introduce us to “veins of gneiss” (a kind of banded rock formation) which “grow geodes or prismatic crystals translucent yellow” and a linked triad of poems that explores articulation itself (“sibilant affricates/ click clacks diphthongs”), but most of these pieces are concerned with water, flowers, and perhaps too predictably “sunlit hollows” and fluttering butterflies. Finally, there is the link of color (“blue cornflowers in a yellow cup”) that bathe us in green fields, blue water, and a host of yellow suns and plants (gorse, ragwort, goldenrod, pansy, marjoram, and tansy).
Although Clark’s work might be dismissed as purely impressionistic sketches of the Scottish landscape, they sometimes bring striking insight: “the line of a wall/ may be no more than/ a fortuitous arrangement/ of broken stones,” he writes, “but where it has disappeared/ a wall should be inferred/ the fort of stillness/ continually remade.” We move from such insights to “lying back in the heather” where the “winds are silk/ cloths drawn lightly/ over the slopes/ the cheek bones.” Yet not all Clark’s metaphors are quite as compelling (a water flow is a “tune run contrary”), his pathetic fallacies as convincing (“leeches” are “affectionate”), or his imagery as unhackneyed (“a basket left/ among the grasses/ is soon claimed/ by the grasses”). When the images become too predictably outdoorsy, the language tends to become prosaic (“all the water pouring/ over the waterfall/ confirms the notion/ of a waterfall”) and the message rather flatly Heraclitean.
Yellow and Blue is not a groundbreaking work; it explores fissures. Nor is it emotionally or personally risky; it lets landscape reveal its inner truths. Some would call this collection conservative, but its conservatism carries an original connotation— conservation. These are love poems to the geography of Scotland and in their own inimitable way bring a clarity and vision to the “scree slope” that “tumbles/ into the green lochan.”