Charlie Clark

Published in Panhandler Issue 3

Charlie Clark received his M.F.A. from the University of Maryland. He has published poems in Crazyhorse, Forklift, OH, Smartish Pace, and other fine journals. He lives and works in Washington, D.C.


The sun, so concentrated, simplifies
the glass clock face to a single glowing sphere,
hands and numbers burned away,
no longer a clock, so I’m left, temporarily,
outside time, outside the passing of seconds,
though from somewhere my love shouts
in three minutes time she’ll be ready to go.
For now, the clock blotted, Thelonious Monk
creeping from the stereo, a streak of the sun’s
heat runs down my face as the whole ball of it
falls behind the apartments across the way,
a few stars beginning in the blackening blue sky,
that dark making a mirror of the long bay windows.
No, not a mirror, and not quite a palimpsest,
either, though that sky, where my profile
glimpses back, is just the hue of the summer
of evenings I spent hauling dirt and apples
for a man who threw wrenches and liked to shout
time is money, docking my pay for being
so new to the trade and slow to learn. Fourteen-hour
days where all I got quick at was telling time
by the sun, leaving the rows of younger trees
only when it got down to their short tips.
I imagine it so badly now, so far from
the heat and sores, the tractor I trundled
through those wet fields. I hated it then,
no question, and counted off time’s passing
by the little increments of my pay.
So why, now, with flashes of that place
almost visible in the twilit window,
would I smile or sigh to be there again,
the constant worry of rent and exhaustion
giving a little twist of pleasure in my guts.
And the fights, on hot blue sheets, between
that woman and I, the unhappy hours of it,
my head hidden under a pillow, her
begging explanations for my relentless,
dreamy quiet. Such sweetness. Sweetness
for the one odd outburst I let slip
while she nattered some complaint about
what a guru wrote one hundred years before:
about imagining yourself whittled down
just to bone, your body gone, and then
those bones going too, ground to a fine,
blue dust. This was all we came to, he claimed.
A return to essences or whatever,
the only truth worth knowing. Something in it
made her mad at me, something sexist or
too male a way to think, us men and all our
muscular, bodily obsessions, our fears:
loss, sagging, decomposition. I think now
I know what she meant—that love of
meat and skin, sweet smelling, heavy,
warm to the touch, something desperate
in the way I crave it now. Is it ironic
that she killed all her free time
on tread mills and weight machines,
training her body so hard to be fit
and pretty, always asking what I thought
of her, nervous to show her body, hiding it
in long, loose skirts and pants, smacking me
if I looked much past her eyes? She had
the thinnest, tightest limbs, not like bone,
not that far gone, but almost as dense.
Her face, sunburned, helplessly plump,
always scowling at me. In the steam
of those days and nights my brain
bleated leave, leave, leave in flashes
of mind’s eye red—today I hold it tenderly
enough to yell time is money through the room,
hoping my love back there will hear it,
though I’m in no hurry to get anywhere,
cranking Monk’s solo rendition of  “Crepuscule
with Nellie a little louder on the stereo,
to hear better the delicious block chords,
against his right hand’s sure but sputtered phrasing,
imagining him with Nellie, whoever she is, beneath
the sky, Monk’s huge, odd body wrapped around her,
humming chord changes, remembering
the phrases and flourishes that come to him
from the evening dark, things he’ll put to paper
once he gets home, copying down the mood
the evening gave off, trying to get right
its passing, not seeing the night or feeling
Nellie beside him anymore, but composing
the memory, which—in my invention of the scene—
he’s quietly eager to get to, the way I am now,
watching myself in the windows, thinking how
my love likes to do yoga here in the nude,
with so many windows free to look on
if they like. Doesn’t bother me, she said,
and gives the pervs something to remember.
What that woman would have said, not letting
me even glance beneath the sheets when
our bodies clutched after each other, saying
gibberish like feeling is the only thing that’s real,
not the flesh that acts it out. Looking out at all
the windows across the way, as the opening
to “Blue Monk” jostles from the speakers,
I flex a time or two, for the pervs and me,
feel my body, softened since those farm days,
working until starlight, counting each new glimmering
spot in the sky like they were the change
I made that day, and then the full darkness
of those nights, slogging it out with that woman,
who in the day made late period Rothko
knock-offs, as big and blue as this
darkened sky, framed by the long white
of these window panes, paintings I loved
so much I said to her I wanted to live in them,
in their simplicity, like the long drone
of a monk contemplating his way
outside of time. Some lost thing
seemed tangible just inside them,
something like my twinge for what’s in
this darkened window, just beyond
my reflection, where I can see myself
so easily, enough to make me want
to walk into these windows,
to have them either break or let me through.

Orange Shoe Diary

Bought orange shoes today. I’m giddy.
Because I keep a journal, I mark the day by writing
bought orange shoes today. I’m giddy.
Was it Coleridge who said poetry was
experience reflected upon in tranquility?
What’s this, then? Upon what does
the self-conscious mind reflect in tranquility?
The degree of tranquility, the quality of reflection?
Tonight, in my new orange shoes, I sit beside a dead plant,
one I’ve failed to throw out because I sometimes find it
a convenient metaphor for the malaise of my life.
Days ago, seeing the plant, my mother said
it’s bad parenting to let a plant die. Now I sit
beside the plant, listening to a helicopter pass above.
It’s so close I can feel the rhythm of its rudders in my chest.
I look from the plant to a print of Paul Klee’s “Senecio”
to my orange shoes to calm myself, to keep
from wondering who the helicopter is searching for.
My shoes, I thought when I first put them on,
like a pair of creamcicles on my feet. There is
something inside that dies when someone else
indulges you the way you indulge yourself.
Wearing my orange shoes out of the store today,
a man said Red, you got creamcicles for feet,
and ruined the experience. No, that’s too facile.
Not ruined. It hurt, especially the simile,
stolen like that, my own line used against me.
Still, I gave the man a smile and walked home.
He was huge, in the last trimester of his own sloth.
I didn’t tell him that. I’m not that shallow.
I’m composed enough not to let it out until later, until now,
when I can reflect upon his corpulence in tranquility.
What manner of child would he give birth to?
How would he teach a child restraint?
I’m not a parent, but I think parenting requires
frequent rising above the petty,
with occasional correctives, given only
when a child’s transgressions go beyond the pale.
Perhaps killing a plant qualifies.
Looking at the plant, I don’t want to say
I let it die to better reflect the slouching indolence
of my inner being, but its down-hung papyrus
leaves make an appropriate companion
alongside the huge orange head in Klee’s “Senecio,”
each orange an orange to match my shoes.
Days ago, I discovered “Senecio” translated
in English means, roughly, “Old Man Going Senile,”
and has nothing to do with the philosopher Seneca,
as, without reason, I’d long assumed.
Not the mind in reflection; the mind going blank.
My mother said to assume makes an ass of you and me.
I like the painting because it reminds me of
the large, orange-curled hair of my youth.
I watched a lot of television in my youth,
in snatches, when my parents weren’t around,
though they caught me at it again and again.
They wanted me to grow an active mind
and I just wanted it shut off. There was such
pleasure in the revelation of images upon
the screen: cops and thieves and revving cars,
and I was nowhere noticed in it. When I was
a child, my mother said never to commit a crime,
because with my hair even the blind could pick me out.
That my father worked in prisons made
the prospect of incarceration much more real,
likely, inevitable almost, each misstep of mine
putting me one step closer to the pen. Once,
my father showed me a tape of fifteen haggard men
in orange jumpsuits, each one stripped and searched,
my father saying never to commit a crime
because the result is this and long sentences.
Why did my parents keep warning me about prison?
Maybe they sensed something in my character.
Looking at my dead plant, I wonder how I let it
get so sick, if it’s something in my character.
I don’t know. I have no old diary to consult for clues.
Or, rather, I have only an ill-kept diary. Back then
I wrote only when there was nothing else to do,
when even television offered no distraction.
And what I did write were only the barest bones
of experience: Drank beer. Saw tit. Threw up.
I didn’t see the point in elaborating. It only left
a record, evidence, something for my parents
to find and punish me for. There was so much
then I wanted to do, though most often
I wound up at home, watching Dr. Who, or
David Duchovny in some late-night sleaze,
wishing I were him, watching with a panicked
voraciousness, hoping my parents wouldn’t catch me.
Nowadays, I write down something as insignificant
as sitting alone, listening to a helicopter pass overhead,
looking at my dead plant, my orange shoes,
and the painting of a senile man. I write down how
I turn on the television and see David Duchovny anew,
this time chasing aliens in the dark. The helicopter
outside could have sprung from my television.
I listen for the sounds of nervous breathing outside,
for the fugitive to come to me. Though for the fugitive
out there I feel only the vaguest mix of empathy and fear.
This is about me, I think. I shudder, with a criminal
fear of recognition. Whoever is out there is
at best a metaphor for my own fear of exposure,
just as David Duchovny is another model for
something noble I’m too resigned to be. Which is why,
were I to raise the blinds and look for the fugitive,
I think I’d see first just darkness, then the reflection
of my head coming clear, wide-eyed, indolent,
and tranquil, breaking through the darkness.

Two Sounds

In my bathroom, two sounds at once
pull me from my evening’s routine.
One: the scrambled voices of a TV
cop drama coming from the next room,
a thing I swore days ago never to watch
again because I always watch it idly,
with one eye, so to speak, giddy and bored
by each week’s gloss and gore, and
because it offers no more than distraction,
a way to get closer to the day’s end,
and I don’t want distraction,
I want attentiveness, composure,
an impulse that arises from so many things,
but which I trace specifically to
an exhibit of Buddhist art I once saw,
to one Buddha in particular, sitting,
sublimely delighted as usual, with
a bucket at his side. But for the bucket,
you could have cut the piece in half
and kept the symmetry exact.
I’m a hundred jittery, misshaped pieces.
Even brushing my teeth I get so riled
I don’t count the strokes I give my molars
the way the dentist warned I should,
but try instead to hear what’s happening
onscreen in the next room, if it’s
an episode I’ve already seen. If so,
I think, I might try to write during it,
or at least through the commercials,
mash something together and see
what comes, like reading tea leaves or
an exquisite corpse. The second sound is,
I swear, a saw cutting something in
the bathroom of the apartment above me,
so I think Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s
perfect Chinese boxes of murder,
Raymond Burr hacking up his wife
because he couldn’t handle the distraction,
and how afterwards, if only for a night,
he sat in the darkness of his room
enjoying a cigar while outside the courtyard
sang the chaos of a slaughtered dog.
It’s a terrible thought, envying a murderer’s
repose. I don’t know who lives up there,
and doubt someone really is cutting up
a failed love, though if that is what’s
happening, it must be the clearest,
saddest expression of frustrated desire,
for things to go that horribly astray
with a person who once must have meant
the world, the best intentions ruined.
These thoughts tear at me like the teeth
of little worry dolls. They run such a violent,
scattered track tonight, buzzing alongside
the chatter and the reps of the saw I try
to match my brushing to, so keyed
I start hopping on one foot, thinking
this is the sound of one foot stomping,
thinking of my neighbors below,
what the sudden, steady slam of my heel
into the tile sets off in their minds,
if it’s one more pin for their attention
to ping-pong off like it’s become in mine,
or if below me someone is simply
looking up at the ceiling, surrendered to
the rhythm until the rhythm disappears
and there is nothing to regard but
a body in a room, whole, silent, still.

Rats Scrounge in the Sunset’s Vertebrae, with Competing Closing Images

The weather the color of rat hide
as sun skews through it in a certain way.
Not high up, not beyond the horizon, but here,
through this park of rats and local trash,
things sneaking and curling in the periphery,
and there, in the fog laying down with the night.
Somewhere in the mist, there’s a bit of pink.
What’s the physical thing, the source of the glow,
glimmer of rose-glass, molding onion skin,
because there must be one, some body
throwing that tone into the air about a heart’s
height up. Whatever, it only shrouds away,
no matter how I approach it, like sly thoughts
of old lovers. The stain almost the off-pink
pall of flesh, and it’s flesh it calls up in me,
what cracks me open. See a woman, walking
into the dark, her body just as permanently
distant as that floating shroud of pink.
Because I was young then, and felt both
melancholy and brutal about her going,
I etched our names onto a rock, then kissed
and tossed it after her. Each stone of a certain
weight since then has felt familiar, useless,
heartbreaking in its potential. I can almost
taste the body of that rock, grating my teeth,
so foul as to make me shudder, and, if
you want to imagine something close to it,
imagine a rat, imagine that one there,
beneath the bench, unafraid of me, reclining,
twirling a melon rind in the space between
its paws and teeth and heart. Or, better yet,
think of the heartbeat patter of the rat
I once caught in two paper cups,
long before all this: sneaked into the store
where I was working, its face nosing out from
a bookshelf bottom. See the drop of sugar
I laid in one paper cup at the aisle’s center;
see the forty minutes I learned how still
I had to stand, how cocked, ready to scoop,
how deep into that cup the rat had to investigate
before I could catch it, smashing the mouth
of the sugared cup against the one I held.
See the rat, pouring its small lightning body
from one cup to the next, knocking between
each with a force I had to talk my hands
out of fear of, saying, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat
to keep those cups together, to keep from
giving in to the creature’s body’s will.
Hear the thudding, held heart high,
the two crushed cups forming a sort of heart
in the angled way they came together,
my hands filling out the heart’s shape,
holding that pulse that would not stop until
I walked it into the dark, to a dumpster
in the street and there pulled the heart
in two, the creature dropping into the stew
of cardboard, glass, and grease. There’s
nothing to weep over in this scene. The rat
glad it’s free, and me, not yet thinking with
voracious self-pity that I had just ripped
the living body from the heart I’d made.
No, that comes later, that comes tonight,
when I need something to pour
the most recent failure of my life into,
walking in this park, surrounded by
the tinctured evening mist. It’s tonight
the scene becomes metaphorical, mythical,
or simply useful, something by which
I can explain myself; the memory locking
into place, or, if not locking into place,
metamorphosing into the adequate thing:
yes, that image right, that’s the one,
the breaking of the heart, and the body
falling through the widening gash.

Sunday Meditation

Hard not to wish the winter
were still fully raging,
that these blankets kept the body
barely warm, that the fire place
still burned red for hours
like one obsessive thought.
The weight of every molecule
of the body, of the sun in the room,
each bears down with such fierce
presence the mind can only
latch onto a phrase welled up
like prayer: back out of all this
now too much for us, words
suddenly inside, needling,
insistent as flame. It’s impossible
to step back out of all this, impossible
to empty the body, or the room,
as again the words repeat:
back out of all this now
too much, words followed
out the back door, though it does
nothing to step into the day,
nor turn back inside, into
the spastic granular air of the room.

The body is a temple,
so goes the saying.
But it’s more machine.
Electric, impossible to shut off,
to stop the nerves from running.
Never empty as a temple should be,
never silent, never still,
always a twitter of knees or mind,
always taking in
the space of a room, imagining
the live presence of the air,
the world of thought born in it.

The mind empty
only if an uncontrollable
confusion of particulars
becomes passivity becomes
entropy becomes emptiness
like the crucial emptiness of air.

The table, junk cleared off,
a shelf of books above,
books laid like cords of wood
waiting to burn, which,
until needed, would form a wall,
drawn between two trunks of pine,
with not a twig nor bit of bark loose
in the thin grass and overplunging
musculature of roots
that make up the ground,
for the men who laid the wood
care for precision, understand
how focus begets exactitude,
and the pleasure of such clean lines,
such restraint. They sit in the small
red heart of their cabin in my mind,
smoke gesturing from the chimney
into the real air of the world.
In that shack they take in the fire,
the way it envelopes,
so certain of itself, like a lesson
in purpose, in totality,
and they feel their bodies burn
electric with the thought.

I’m trying to concentrate,
to focus the body of my mind
on just a single thing:
the wood desk top, its body,
the finish, knots, the glass
sweat rings laid in it like history.
I’m trying to keep all this out,
stories born from the whorls
and grain, to keep my mind off
those myriad random spaces,
empty it instead into the actual wood,
into the space between two fingers
held just apart, get inside
that gap, the blood-pump shiver,
the narrow distance
of those two digits, pointer fingers
in the air, thumbs wrapped
into a triangle’s bottom line.

It brings to mind the children’s rhyme:
Here’s the church, here’s the steeple
open the doors and see all the people.
It brings to mind the broken
silence of my brother’s voice
raised up in church,
swatting at the mess of bees
that got inside somehow,
stampeding his face,
how he swung, imaginary ax
between his hands,
their bodies splattering like paint.

There’s Pollock, car like a saw
into the trees, wrecked drunk
to force some meaning from the world.
A critic I once heard called his work
sentimental, each piece
wishing it were his body,
the action of him kept alive.
Sentimental, trying to keep
the pure nerve of cave-man art
alive. It could be said of all art,
all failed prayers to keep
a moment’s nerve alive.

Laid down in the funnel
of an MRI scanner to see
how much my body had betrayed me,
and told for that half hour
to hold still, I couldn’t quiet
my mind, couldn’t shut off
the string of thought and after-
thought swirling and growing there.
I couldn’t even keep my feet
from moving, ankles shuddering,
the pre-sleep spasm, so much so
the tech taped my feet together,
sent me back in, arms crossed
like a mummy, sacred. No,
I thought, not like that, like
someone getting an MRI scan.
I wanted to hold that, thought
without allusion, the bare
and absolute fact of it,
machine rambling, the flights
of magnetics swarming invisible
over my body, spirits the machine
prayed down and set to map the path
the sickness took. The machine
an act of faith, the machine of my body
churning inside. When I came out
the tape around my feet was split,
each foot pulling its weight’s own way.

Frost, your words, your directive,
back out of all this now too much for us,
it won’t get out of my head.
Set down on paper or blazing
in my mind. I admit I’m traveling
in a thicket of words,
lost in the ink-scratchings
I’ve made of them. I stare, repeat them
until their meaning falls away,
until my mind falls away,
a kind of breathing to read them,
to say them in my mind.

Not to purify, not a cleansing,
nor to bless the house,
suddenly quiet, composed,
smoke unfurls from the knot
of sandalwood I’ve set
to smolder in praise of quiet,
the body of smoke disappearing
through the light of one lit lamp,
burning brighter than
my woodsmen’s fire,
though they themselves
burn brighter, impossibly brighter,
each of them as absorbed
in the fact of flame
as I should be, taken instead
by how my smoke points out
the world of empty air, space
I’ve seen exposed by the volume
of a chapel’s upper nothing,
the inward sloping ceiling wood,
ghost-body of it whirling,
held just so, billowed and snug
in the lacquered, interlocking lumber,
laced like two hands’ fingers,
worked together, cupping space,
a cracked goblet, separating
the emptiness that’s held
from the emptiness that falls away.