In the poem “Understories,” Adam Clay writes, “Say observation / is the kindest of all actions,” and, in context, these lines are less a command than an experiment—which is good, because I think experience disproves the hypothesis: there are greater kindnesses than observation. At the same time, observation is a precondition for kindness. And in Adam Clay’s new volume of poetry, To Make Room for the Sea, readers will see just how fluently attentiveness can morph into kindness.
Indeed, Clay converts his powers of observation to a force of love. Because these poems pay such inquisitive and gentle attention to the rooms through which the writer moves, to the faces and phrases he happens upon, they illuminate what the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson calls the “dear ordinary.” To find the ordinary dear—it is a more difficult task than one might guess. It is also, undoubtedly, a nudge toward kindness.
Many poets, of course, write toward that end: to make the ordinary dear. Or, perhaps, many poets write in order to shine and hull the mundane, secretly dear all along. What distinguishes Clay’s poems in all four of his books is how unapologetically they haul out the truly ordinary. Day on day, he uses—and verse on verse, his writing imports—run-of-the-mill objects. Clay acknowledges the unvarying bulk of the furniture and the accustomed folds of curtains. His book A Hotel Lobby at the End of the World is rich in bricks and trains. He threads Stranger, for its part, with hallways; he sows it with trees and seeds the clouds.
This ease of Clay’s with the mundane things that keep turning up—the long-lived and unremarkable household items, the reliable landscape—corroborates his poems’ authenticity. After all, the alleged ordinary that poets hold up to the light rarely belongs so resoundingly to the everyday. Glück’s wild iris, a once-a-year spectacular, couldn’t have lasted more than a week. The lanyard Billy Collins braided together at camp was, at best, a novelty accessory. Brueghel’s painting never hung above Auden’s mantel. Don’t mistake me: I love these poets, and they do urge me, along with many other readers, to take grateful notice of the unsung beauties and pangs. Admittedly, moreover, Clay’s own poems do visit the odd museum. Mostly, though, his poems come stocked with much more careworn props than we tend to find in so-called lyrics of the everyday, which is why they ask a more difficult reverence of us.
For example, in “Only Child (I),” Clay describes the way that daylight absorbs the glow from a fixture his daughter has left on:
[…] The light of my
daughter’s room has been
on all night like every night,
but the sun shifting
changes the shape
of the space from
a square into an unfolding
The absolute ordinariness comes through clearly in the phrase “like every night” and thanks, also, to the predictable phenomenon of sunrise. But the tenderness of the father for the child who can’t sleep in the dark suffuses the lines, too, and not because of any flourish, but rather because they pay such focused attention to what they name. Similarly, the way that the sunlight overtakes and swallows the electric light, though it holds no surprise in itself, becomes, here, evidence of some cosmic generosity: the cube of the room recognized, welcomed as a part of “an unfolding universe.” In short, the ordinary turns dear.
Clay does not, however, train his meticulous attention only on dear, familiar people or on the places that routine and fondness have made into home. He also turns it on language itself, heeding seemingly common words. “Sometimes / I hold the word wonder up to the light / like a new species of blackberry,” he writes in one poem. In another he asks,
[…] Why must “missile”
contain the word “miss,” as if built
into its horror is the assurance
it will land where it
wasn’t meant to?
In the case of the word “missile,” admittedly, the writer expresses consternation, not delight. But a word can be dear in that way, too; that is, language can be costly. Begin noticing words—not just for their loveliness but for their heft, for the high stakes implied in their modest syllables—and, in that case, too, awe will follow.
The wonderfully named “For a Turtle Eating a Strawberry,” in fact, points up this ambivalent characteristic of language, that its dearness can be both sweet and extortionate. The poem opens:
Life mostly feels like walking the line
between an elegy and an ode,
between fierce love and fierceness
boiled down to a rock.
Those rocks of “fierce love and fierceness”: they are words. True, the ode holds the solid “wonder up to the light,” whereas the elegy weighs the missile, which “buil[ds] / into its horror” the signifier miss. Either way, though, the words are metamorphic stone, and they deserve all the attention we can spare them.
That said, Clay’s consciousness that language (and life} “wal[k] the line / between an elegy and an ode” doesn’t inflate his diction. His poems remain plainspoken, his attention trained not on the glitzy synonym, but instead on image and assonance, on the way that simple words, by clustering together just so, can tug a sentence from prose to verse.
And underpinning Clay’s craft—the carefulness that bundles sounds together; the exactness of the stark line trained to distill a dream; the patience that caramelizes pedestrian phrases, turning them to music—in that craft, we find a great reverence for the world as it is. Yes, “we usually stop finding the universe / new by afternoon,” the poet writes, but his work, nonetheless, makes his capacity for cultivating a “new species of blackberry,” wonder, unmistakable.
One of the great gifts of To Make Room for the Sea, then, is that it refuses to relegate wonder to the realm of luck. Reverence, in this book, proves more common, if more difficult, than many of us would guess. These poems are full of scuffed objects that glow if held at the right angle and of sullen weather that, nonetheless, shimmers, subject to the miracles of wind and light. For Clay believes in the epiphanies we will into being no less than he does the ones that surprise us. Thus, the first lines of this latest volume: “How should / we muscle meaning / into days?”
In part, the answer is to attend to the day, prizing its dailiness rather than sweeping the chipped mug and tattered bedspread out of sight. But the writer of these poems doesn’t just wrestle his deliberate awe into the days or into his poems. He wrestles himself, too, out of the reader’s way. “I am / drawing a self-portrait,” he explains, “and trying to remove the self.”
To “dra[w] a self-portrait / and tr[y] to remove the self”: what generosity that demands. Even so, Adam Clay does not hesitate. He tucks meaning into the fold of the curtains hung over the bright window behind him; he sets the acorn, charged with an oak, on the corner of his desk, and then he ducks out of the picture. That is, he gives the reader his place—a place thronged with the dear ordinary, a place where the universe is still new well into the afternoon.
Jane Zwart teaches English at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Rattle, TriQuarterly, and Ploughshares, as well as other journals and magazines.