The Low End of Higher Things by David Clewell

by Steve Mueske

24 July 2003


The Fine Edge of Poetry

Amid all the baseless whining about the death of poetry that seems to surface every few years, I’m here to tell you poetry never died and never will. Those essayists who stand holding the rope of the great black bell cite an increasing level of obfuscation and lack of cultural relevance as factors. Even if I agreed with this assessment, there are certainly quite a few poets whose work can be appreciated by initiates and unwashed alike: Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, Dorianne Laux, and others immediately come to mind. In fact, current poet laureate Billy Collins’s effort has been to introduce accessible poetry to high-school students in order to develop a life-long appreciation for poetry. His Poetry-180 project, which introduces students to a new poem for each day of the school year, has been regarded as an unusual success story.

Although not as well known, David Clewell can clearly be counted in this group of accessible poetry. Few poets, though, can match his all-out, accelerator-to-the-floor style. Billy Collins calls him an “exuberant and seemingly inexhaustible poet”. Author of six poetry collections, winner of the National Poetry Series, and professor of writing and literature at Webster University, Clewell celebrates this quirky adventure we call life, and does it with grace, style and aplomb.

cover art

The Low End of Higher Things

David Clewell

(University of Wisconsin Press)

Many of his poems are quite long—three or four pages and, sometimes, longer—and have funny titles that immediately pique a reader’s curiosity. “On the Eve of His Retirement, the Weight-Guesser Goes All Out,” and “The Magician’s Assistant Dreams of One Day Coming Clean,” for example, focus on a single, quirky character; then, with disarming ease, Clewell uses the character to take a mental side trip that unifies the reader with the character and with humanity in general. This is often done by a switch from first-person to first-person plural, as in this example from “Weight-Guesser”.

I’m going to miss this crazy life on the edge
of the only life there is. Most of all the ocean at my back
swelling, rising, cresting, curling on itself until it breaks—
that thunder in the surf drowning out another day’s inconsequential
noise, over and over, thousands of pounds
of elemental grace under pressure. Next to that kind of power, anything
we have to say is a word scrawled fast in the sand, and we’re gone.

Here, the poem’s speaker introduces the ocean as a figure for all the things in life we can’t control. Its success depends on the sheer size of the ocean and the noise of the waves. This noise parallels both the noise of a carnival and the static noise of our daily lives, a sort of inclusive parallel between subject and object that seems unnoticeable on the surface. This is a refreshing take on the old seize-the-day-for-it-is-short theme. Another strength of Clewell’s is his disarming use of humor to introduce a character he will later satirize. In “Nostradamus Had to Know” the speaker talks of Nostradamus as an ordinary, bullied kid.

I’m betting skinny Nostradamus must have taken it on the chin
more than once: that four-sided hat he sported wasn’t big
on the 16th-century playground. It marked him as the bookish chump,
an easy shakedown for another day’s bus money.

We recognize a bit of ourselves in the outsider beat up for being weak or unusual. But as the poem progresses we see that Nostradamus becomes a hack poet that gives people just what they need to continue believing that gifted people have the answers to the way the world works. This gives him a sort of niche power, and it is this progression that helps the reader understand that power and mystery can be both correlatives and defense mechanisms.

In fact, if Clewell has an overarching theme in this book, it is debunking the mystery of appearances using satire, whether humorous (as above), or serious. The highlight of this collection is a 13-page poem called “CIA in Wonderland” that takes place in the late forties and early ‘50s, when the CIA was experimenting with LSD as a possible interrogation tool. The “research” often involved dosing agents without their knowledge. The poem climaxes when Frank Olson, an ideal family man and co-worker, is slipped a dose at a party and goes through weeks of depression and dementia, culminating in a suicide by jumping from a building he thought he could fly from. Though this is deadly serious and disturbing, it is presented in text that is by turns serious, angry, and slapstick goofy. Collins writes that this “elegy for a federal agent who jumped out a window on LSD is alone worth the price of this collection of Clewell at his best, his most Clewellian.”

But if Clewell revels in satire, he also celebrates being human. There are ecstatic poems to his wife and son, and several poems that feature his obsession with collecting things, both as a kid and as an adult. If I have one complaint about his poetry, it’s that he can, at times, step over the line between being exuberant and being corny, most notably in poems about personal experience, such as “I Keep Dreaming I’m on the Wrong Train, but I’m Still on the Right Track With You”. Though his corniness can be endearingly, it can also be groaningly embarrassing. Fortunately, he crosses this line rarely, and I’d rather read a poet willing to take chances than verse that plods along in dense, cryptic blocks.

Okay, so now I’m going to complain a little bit. This cover is awful—easily one of the worst I’ve seen on a poetry book, and poetry books are notorious for their bad covers. If I were in the store and this book was facing out, I doubt I’d even pick it up. It’s a sort of amalgam of ‘50s kitsch, comic book lettering and a photograph of an oddly named diner set on an orange background. The price, though, is good, given the length of the book and the poet’s solid reputation. In an age when the price of poetry books is out of control (I paid $17.00 for a slim volume of poems that recently won the Pulitzer), this is a wonderful collection of poems that continually delight and satisfy. Clewell is one of the best least-known poets working today, and well worth discovering, if you haven’t already.

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//Mixed media