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The Low End of Higher Things

by David Clewell
The University of Wisconsin Press
112 pgs. Cloth $19.95 ISBN: 0-299-18570-2; Paper  $12.95 ISBN: 0-299-18574-5


Somewhere along the information highway, poet Clewell claims he's broken down. Quite the opposite. David Clewell's poetry is high-octane-hydrogen-fueled-spiritually-tested; and it won't stop. If we want to teach "voice" in the classroom, it's best to find a poet whose every line testifies to a tone given to us, by reason of line length, phrase, and a diction that no one else could imitate. So we have it here with David Clewell whose jubilance would be impossible to confuse with anyone else writing today; this is what we seek more than anything. It doesn't take much to make up a crafted poem, but it also doesn't take much for a reader to spot a phony either. Here is what true sounds like in its inimitable voice. He bellows, he croons, he sighs, he laughs outloud with a verbal athleticism charging the page. David Clewell's craft is one to be envied, for the sprung line stays in control, is held in, then reined out and is delivered exuberantly like a full force of sun. Reading this book is watching an IMAX of the 21st century in living sound. The poems chronicle a popular culture of the heart and here are two examples from the book's rollicking massiveness. Here's a sample from the poem "Second Wind."

Second Wind (p.35)

It seemed like such a good idea, growing up:
if I had to walk my family's narrow hallways, I'd find a room
amenable enough to be myself in, find words they couldn't
bring themselves to say. Words that might have something to do
with the life I dreamed of getting away with out the door,
one day, forever. I scribbled hard into so many nights,
writing myself into any world where sooner or later I belonged.
I made it up as I went along, and when it turned into Zombies
from Zomboolia, I stapled those pages between two pieces of grey
cardboard from my father's pressed white shirts. I'd show them:
a limited edition of one. I couldn't believe how long it took
to get it down just right, a tale that positively meant
everything to me when I was nine, and for the life of me now
I can't recall a single thing that happened. You know: that old story.
    The first night that Poetry came to me, licking its painted lips,
lying through its metaphorical teeth when it said Come on,
I'm easy, I fell hard for every guarantee: similes like
open windows. Luxuriant images without end. Solace of a music
as effortless as breathing. All the sweet nothings I could handle
with Poetry's startling tongue in my ear. It was something
like love, another chance, and I took it, never dreaming

    how fitful it would be, how many nights I'd give it everything I had
only to wake up completely in the dark again

   … (2 stanzas from a 5 page poem and this portion from another poem:

I Keep Dreaming I'm on the Wrong Train, but I'm Still on the Right Track with You (p.51)

My resume' says it all for me‑I really should be somewhere
in the Serious Trouble club car, in my outmoded, unrepentant cups:
I'm happiest in the breakdown lane of the information superhighway‑
hazards flashing, muffler shot, no acceleration to speak of‑
humming behind the tiny wheel of my portable Smith Corona. 
I have never interfaced, networked, or prioritized. I've never been   
impacted. I have no box to think outside of. No address in cyberspace.  
I've never knowingly closed a deal, taken a meeting, or done lunch -
although, make no mistake, I've had lunches done to me, 
but my most rewarding lunch was far from work: a dressed‑to‑kill
cheeseburger with James "The Amazing" Randi who showed me up close, once
and for all, exactly how the so‑called psychics bend those easy spoons.

Now I'm an older dog than ever, with no time for New Age tricks. 
I won't read Auras Around the Office or The Stock Market, Chakras, and You.   
I'm not the put‑your‑positive‑energy‑to‑work‑for‑you type, and I'll be sorry
if it turns out there's a parallel, toy universe next door  
that's been running on batteries
forever.

   My surest reference  
is my second‑grade teacher, who saw it all clearly enough for me
without calling on the extrasensory: David doesn't work well with others.     
And the man next to me is suddenly talking
mutual funds, 401 (k), CDs and Euro‑dollars, which I hear somehow
as Sonny Rollins. Mr. Tenor Madness himself, I say, and I love out loud    
that he's still blowing away the young technicians‑only of the horn
until it's obvious in this guy's blank face that Sonny Rollins CDs 
mean nothing to him. I'm just that desperate to catch on, to jump in,
punch‑drunk in my little corner of the far‑flung workaday world.

                               … ( 2 stanzas from a 5 page poem)

David Clewell is the author of five other books of poetry. He teaches at Webster University in St. Louis, and among other honors, he holds the Peter. I.B. Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets.

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