“approach quiet by degrees”

Yellow & Blue, Thomas A. Clark, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

yellow and blue

Reading Yellow & Blue is a cool, slow, cumulative experience. Concise, epigrammatic, the poems inscribe themselves, two or three to each bare page. All in lower case, unpunctuated, untitled, unpeopled, they create an imaginative terrain at once of great clarity and great distance. Coming new to Thomas A. Clark’s work I was struck by its echoes of Basho’s journeying through wild landscape and his succinctly-expressed, impressionistic empathy with nature. On researching, I found Clark’s roots interconnect with the ‘land art’ of Ian Hamilton Finlay and his son Alec Finlay, on whom Basho has been a profound influence. He has also been associated with Simon Cutts (whose projects in landscape include a poem-engraved glass bridge and ‘Aeolean Neon’, words by John Clare illuminated in a small stone barn by wind turbine) and with artist/poet Johnathan Williams, whose Jargon Press published Bunting, Levertov, Niedecker, Zukofsky and Creeley. As editor of his own Moschatel Press Thomas A. Clark has also published poems by Cid Corman, a co-translator of Basho. So the interweaving of Objectivism, Minimalism, Black Mountain and art practice of Poetic Conceptualism form a dense canopy.

Even without the family trees, however, this volume stands tall. The lyric voice is tough, delicate, risk-taking:

seems full
until need
fills it


and often extremely beautiful:

at a tap
a cloud
of pollen
to drift
in a puff
of dust


It reads as a moving, tender eulogy to a world of natural things and creatures and to forces beyond language of light and time. The span of the poems goes beyond human life-cycles, swoops across aeons, swerves between enormity and minuteness of scale: stone forms and dissolves, blackbirds hatch and die. It’s a recognisably northern, Scottish environment, bleak and yet seductive with its pines, mountains, machair, thistles, burns, its “centuries of rain” (p.20), brim-full of animal, bird and insect life yet curiously empty. Nothing of the modern intrudes: Clark is no Paul Farley, unconcerned as he is by the ‘edgeland’ interfaces between urban and rural, the strange beauty of human-damaged spaces.

What comes through powerfully instead is the cold, spring water-like tone of the poems, so spare and pared-down they are deceptively slight yet strong as cobwebs and as meticulously crafted. Whether you choose to ‘dip in’ to this collection or read it through as a whole, it will take you to a quiet, meditative place where the mind is let free to enjoy the pure music of the poems and emerge deeply satisfied and replenished.

Pippa Little

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