Reviewed by Nina Bennett
The Canopy deals with death, loss, and grief, yet always there is a reminder of rebirth and continued life. These are quiet, reflective poems, with nature serving as a backdrop for grief. Actually, something much larger than backdrop; nature is the container in which we mourn and celebrate.
There is a prologue poem, “Knives on the Irish Air,” which sets the scene:
The cry, though, came again, forming
around a name, my sister’s name,
Clark reminds us that grief is unpredictable and out of our control, that for many people, the way through mourning is to accept it by “letting the knife settle where it will, / blade nestled between a rib and a rib.” Ribs protect our heart, lungs, and stomach from physical injury, but the knife of grief slides between them and pierces us at the core of our being.
The book contains three numbered sections, and the title poem is the first poem in the final section, a somewhat unusual placement for a title poem. As a reader and writer, I enjoy small things like this that challenge the myriad books and essays stating that a title poem should begin or end a collection. According to Wikipedia, “sometimes the term canopy is used to refer to the extent of the outer layer of leaves of an individual tree or group of trees.” A canopy is also used over a grave for a graveside service at the cemetery. In the second stanza, we read about wildflowers whose “time of bloom/ in sequence before the canopy/ closes, dark, impenetrable.” Not only do wildflowers bloom in a special time before the canopy closes, but so do loved ones. The final stanza ties nature to human life:
I note how brief the time allowed for them,
for us, light, air, vertical space to thrive in,
before the canopy closes.
I have also endured the death of an adult sister, and so many lines in these poems resonated. I find myself returning to them again and again, seemingly simple lines packed with meaning:
I went on trying out sentences in my mind,
I was trying out a landscape without her.
(“Stippled Leaf, No Trout”)
In many of these poems, Clark names trees, flowers, plants, birds. This naming is a directive to store information and remember, similar to telling stories about and speaking aloud the name of a deceased loved one. By saying the name, we ingrain it in our memory, and we remind others. Think of being in elementary school and having to memorize a poem-many of us can still recall at least a few lines of those poems-and also think of cramming before an important exam. Naming is Clark’s way of underlining, highlighting, calling attention. “The list/grows long- wood anemone, / blue cohosh, great waterleaf” (The Canopy) In “Artisan,” Clark “demand(s) an end/ to this cataloging, this dreaded leave/taking.” The poem ends, appropriately, with “an invigorating heel-kicking tune.”
I admit that it took me a few reads to fully appreciate the depth of Clark’s work. I enjoyed her writing from the beginning, but her words needed to settle before the larger theme of grief sifted down through the canopy.
Delaware native Nina Bennett is the author of Sound Effects (2013, Broadkill Press Key Poetry Series). Her poetry has been nominated for the Best of the Net, and has appeared or is forthcoming in publications that include I-70 Review, Gargoyle, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Bryant Literary Review, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Philadelphia Stories, and The Broadkill Review. Awards include 2014 Northern Liberties Review Poetry Prize, and second-place in poetry book category from the Delaware Press Association (2014). Nina is a founding member of the TransCanal Writers (Five Bridges, A Literary Anthology).