Jeff Clark: Music and Suicide

Jeff Clark
Music and Suicide
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

"Art is permissible sickness," poet Jeff Clark writes of his pleasantly rotten world. Of course, he's right: A certain derangement of the senses--a kind of temporary psychosis--is needed to release the muse. Otherwise one writes instruction manuals for marital aids with nary a smile. And although such suspensions of so-called healthy thinking aren't recommended in every instance, they can be permissible. Besides, Clark's is a delicious sort of decrepitude, as you can see in his poem, "Dilator":

Blood does not accrue but moves
You pretend there is
something in the sand the water wants
backwash ramming incoming blue walls
past the bridge a black ship on glassy resins

Cunning things thrive in sunless dungeons

Music and Suicide, Clark's second book, is one such cunning thing. It scurries through alleys, its tiny pink hands caressing the dark's darkest secrets. He squeezes enough violence, bad sex, and death into the 24 verse and prose pieces collected here to beget a season of the Sopranos. Perhaps what enraptures the reader about this realm is the music captured in his lines, or perhaps it's the seductive decadence that permeates poems like "A Chocolate and a Mantis":

The phosphorous cheeks of an ailing jester fallen that day
from an alien haze over jade lanes
to blades arrayed in ribboned mazes
created to flay a dilated spirit hole
He was a chaotic boy with phosphorous cheeks

Music and Suicide isn't for everyone, nor is it flawless. The graveyard of decadence is self-indulgence, and Clark can be found wandering among the tombstones on occasion. This is most notably the case in the seven-page prose piece "Teheran," which approximates the experience of listening to a friend recount a very long dream. But this is the exception: The other prose entries are crisp, rippling with mouth-watering language clusters and intelligence.

While some critics celebrated Clark's first book, The Little Door Slides Back, for groaning out the last gasps of the 20th century, his work also looks backward--to the Symbolists, to Baudelaire and Lautréamont--for inspiration. One can almost imagine Jeff Clark strolling down a Parisian boulevard in top hat and velvet suit, a flask of absinthe tucked away, or Jeff Clark wolfing down chocolates in bed while watching Extreme Makeover.

But those flights of fancy go too far. This louche Clark is a persona, a concoction of Jeff Clark the writer. The debauchery is the strategy of a poet slowly chipping away at the world. His hallucinatory realm of corpses, catheters, and oedipal nightgowns has been conjured to blow up your basic assumptions about love and life. After the explosion, Jeff Clark hopes you find meaning in the debris. You might see him there; he's looking too:

What I was lacking you brought back
I was building a clean, strong structure
and it cracked.

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