"There's so much going on in the world that's nothing to laugh at/And he's not about to change the station this time." So ends David Clewell's latest collection of poems, The Low End of Higher Things. The poet is thinking of his father listening to Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, and he is thinking of us, himself and history, too.
There's so much going on in Clewell's poems: invasions, conspiracies, bad trips, dreams, magic tricks, chemical reactions and family dinners at the House of Neptune restaurant. The poet spins the dial of his imagination and relays the voices of people looking for redemption from history's absurdities. The eccentric cast he assembles -- fortune-tellers, astronauts, assassins, visionaries, rock & rollers, CIA agents on acid -- are, in the end, all poets. Caught in the madness and ecstasy of their moments, they crave meaning. In "the ecstatic hum of morning traffic," in "that last dangerous curve" of a lover's back, in stacks of comic books or record albums, in daily work and in enduring memories, they find that the "simple act of showing up," of simply believing, can amount to magical resilience -- or, as he phrases it in a poem, "cardboard miracles."
"Many of the characters that appear in the poems," Clewell explains from his office at Webster University, "are those who honestly believe in one thing or another, whether it's out-on-the-fringe stuff -- flying saucers, psychic stuff -- or just quietly, in love or mercy, abstract things that end up just as real."
Clewell composed The Low End of Higher Things over the past nine years, a decade that saw the appearance of his last two collections, Jack Ruby's America and The Conspiracy Quartet. His political preoccupations and generous temperament have remained constant; his voice has continued to ripen and deepen. "Obviously we're not talking about chapters in a novel," Clewell says of his latest book's structure. "But my ideal reader would read it from beginning to end. When I'm working on individual poems, I'm not thinking about where this or that poem would be in the book. I think of it as a movement. I get a couple of things that anchor the book, and where they reappear is significant. But it's really nothing mystical."
With lines that unravel with the rhythm of everyday speech and lines that ring with prophetic cadences, Clewell's poems reach beyond slices of past and present life. "I want them to be more than just historical time capsules," he says. "Even as I'm going down the rabbit hole and doing some research, I find that you really can't make these things up. You can just tone them down." Like a magical realist, Clewell may draw on facts which are so much stranger than fiction, but he never forsakes the mysteries of imagination and language, those essential tools of a good poet's craft.
As a teacher, writer and reader, Clewell also never forgets his audience. "I tend to read poems that, if I were sitting in the audience, I think I could follow," he says. "With a narrative poem, not just some endless, lyrical, belly-button-gazing thing -- at least I hope not -- there will be a thread to follow. People in town will know a bit more what I'm up to, but when I'm on the road, I will sometimes say, 'These are not haiku.'"