Adam Clay’s second poetry collection is a solidly built book. If it were a house, you’d rush inside to wait out a hurricane. Organized into four sections gathered behind a preamble poem, “Scientific Method,” the collection displays an impressive structural integrity. All the parts are in the right places, and they hum industriously as you make your way from page to page.
Formal features aside, structure also happens to be an ideological concern for Clay. The word “brick” appears in a few poems as an object, idea, or core existential element—at times it seems a stand-in for some basic unit of language itself—including in the extended piece “As Complete as a Thought Can Be,” where bricks show up several times. The title of that poem gives some insight into the speaker’s preoccupation with the limits and potency of language. Completion and disintegration, or at least a failure of coherence, are among the major themes throughout the poems. Thought and language are unruly. “Syntax has never eaten from my hand,” the speaker declares early on in the book. But language is what we’re stuck with as we make sense of the world.
This kind of thing is old hat, but thankfully Clay is less concerned with linguistic manifestations and more with real things beyond the self. His speaker pursues how we make the world—naming it, gathering it, molding it, and sheltering ourselves within it—without ever forgetting that the world breaks and falls down on us with regularity. What’s really clever is he seems aware of how the world builds us. He is sensitive to the tension between the self and non-self that gives rise to language. One reason we name things is because they exist outside our minds and body; and we name ourselves because other people exist outside of us too. Each time we name, describe, ponder, praise, mutter, curse, argue, or otherwise speak out or toward or around our experiences, the world shapes us a little more, defining and refining our consciousness. The world forces us into language. Toward the end of “In Light of Recent Developments,” the speaker observes:
When I think of nature, nature thinks back.
Or nature blinks back.
In one of the book’s standout poems, “Goodbye to All That, the Birds Included,” the speaker reassesses his interpretation of a painting, calling into question whether it’s actually a painting at all:
It might even be a collage, now that I’m looking closer.
What does any of this even mean?
What is there in the world that we do not say goodbye to?
Goodbye to war? A scholar once said that war
makes us rhyme with each other. And music is the fluttering trash
in the collage or painting or whatever
we want to call it. It is under glass so I place
my face up against the reflection and wait for it to pull me inside.
The speaker yearns for communion, since the only way to fully know something is to actually be the thing itself, to get beyond language. My emphasis on this facet of the book shouldn’t distract from the other territories Clay inhabits. His poems are cerebral, pastoral, cosmopolitan, meditative, empirically inclined, observant, companionable, and invigorated by contemporary poetic practice with a simultaneous affinity for tradition.
A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World does have its flaws though, and they are not insignificant. Clay can get a little purple sometimes. The book’s title (also the title of one of the poems) is so poetically grandiose, my mind turns plush with images of candlelit rooms and ruffled sleeves whenever I see it. Generally, his considerations of memory feel derivative, with the exception of “Fragment for an Avoided Disaster.” Clay is also fond of various types of rhetorical repetition—anaphora, repetend, quasi-tautology. Encountered in individual poems, the employment of these devices works fine. But reading multiple poems in the same sitting, you wish he wouldn’t lean so heavily on this stuff. A droning effect develops as the poems accrue, and Clay appears versatile enough to accommodate other methods within his style.
More worrying, on occasion statements that aim for profundity come off hollow. Reflect on these lines from “As Complete as a Thought Can Be” for instance:
[…] A brick wall is only
a brick wall until you pull
a brick out and watch
the whole thing fall. When I think
of metaphor, the last thing
to enter my mind is a brick wall.
It falls—like a tree—slowly
and silently until the pavement
bears its weight and it becomes
something altogether different.
I don’t get this, or maybe I get it too easily. Either way, it’s not terribly interesting. Even so, there is enough choice material in A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World to make an exploration of Clay’s work worthwhile. His sensibility is mostly rooted in originary ground, providing pleasures that come at you hard in his best poems, and you’re happy to take the hit.
PETER B. HYLAND‘s debut poetry collection, Out Loud, will be published by Sheep Meadow Press in the fall of 2013. He is also the author of the chapbook Elegy to the Idea of a Child (Trilobite Press), and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Conduit, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and other fine journals and magazines. He and his family live in Houston, Texas, where he earns a living as a director of development at the Menil Collection.