LYRIC PERFORMANCES Geraldine Clarkson “You taught me a new way of singing”

the words thick in my throat— like birds caroling, cat calls, badger / jazz, and all manner of tunes squirreled away / for the future. The lessons burned in my gullet / until in my tum I had taught them to others—/ and the two, three, four, seven of us/ were singing together and jamming—/ thrumming and humming, stipple-/ tonguing in clots and gobs of sound–/ dribbling and sliding, colliding in chords / and climbing, seven-handed, a knotted / bat’s-cradled tree-house skirling with hymns—/ us busking in Basque, arabesque —/ you bosky, you buzzing, you clopping in time.

from Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD Of REFERENCE For autonomy can take a rhapsodic form, as in Nietzsche, as well as a rational form, as in Kant. The moderating power of genuine friendship, its qualitative “evening,” proves important once again. It rescues freedom from both rationalistic calculation and the anonymous universal. The friend is a singular human, and the friendship of excellence can also keep us from the baser equivocities of some rhapsodic forms. Why? Because it is bound to a personal name. The personal name of friendship gives anchor or ballast to the rhapsodic energies of joy. There are no anonymous orgies of friendship. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (Columbia University Press 2016)

Geraldine Clarkson’s first book MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH is receiving rave reviews. There are many things to praise here: a searing compassion, a many-colored technique, a complex but confident music comparable to Celtic song. Above all is the choral nature of the praise: this book is a happening.

To go deeper into this phenomenon I’ve chosen one of the shorter poems, a sort of ars poetica. Readers of this blog will recognize some of the structural themes, starting with the second person pronoun, but also the increasingly charged interplay of verbal equivocity and conceptual dialectic.

So, who’s this you? It’s instantly followed by me—my throat. But not before some playful equivocity: the reader may do a double take at “thick in my throat.” Not “stick in my throat”? Well, yes, that too.

The verbal thickness of the style requires successive performances: at first, second, third… glance there is no way to master this text conceptually. As a proper lyric it pushes off the terra firma of the opening: I mean it says that singing lessons from many species “burned in my gullet”— the past tense and an autobiographical hook offers a narrative before from which to launch the future (of) song.

Not pausing that sentence becomes the flow to the end. It is a flow of others. Others conceived as specific non-verbal, non-rational expressions of individual voices. The ache in the throat releases two, three, four, seven of us… Then an extraordinary chaos of voices imitating the selving (via Hopkins notably and Joyce and…) of voices.

It is no blur. It is loud perhaps but not pointless. Clarkson’s vision of this new way of singing draws on the oldest “forms” or purposes of selving sounds: praise. Say: Poetic sound is originally and terminally liturgical. Its “end” is not the pure concept or the individual self refolded into an original unity. It is the sound of the finite, singular, intimate other. As in a riff on Augustine’s identity crisis in Confessions. Intimate because more “inner” than any conceptual outer. But also higher than any one you.

Clarkson “shows” what she means but can’t say in so many words (a move crucial to lyric concluding): busking in Basque, arabesque invokes the hooked cross of the Basque “lauburu” or four-headed cross, which is immediately compared with/to another cultural pattern, the arabesque. This epiphany of form suddenly took me back to my youth in the big den chair in Bakersfield exploring word origins in my foxed Partridge and dazzled and numbed by Celtic interlace as a universal voicing of me.

AND FINALLY: the lyric “you” behind the all-performing mask. Who? Bosky, buzzing, clopping— that’s who. See the FIELD OF REFERENCE for a philosophical gloss. This “you” is more intimate than any name, in friendship with mortal others it makes music out of potentially riotous energies of selving. Lyric unity is irreducibly plural, harmonious. Clarkson’s ars poetica is all about friendship.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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