Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of. David Clewell. University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, Wisconsin. 2016.
Winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry
"We were overwhelmingly underdogs."
- Yogi Berra
Whether David Clewell is "Trying on Hats With Rahsaan Roland Kirk" or talking politics with a bartender who wants to talk baseball we here at Today's book of poetry want to hear it. Clewell's Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of is one remarkable tablet of tales.
David Clewell writes poems of every length, from two liners that are precise as lasers, to monsters that crawl over page after page. These are beautiful monsters. Clewell has just the right voice to glue Today's book of poetry to our seat. These poems pulsate with stories we need to hear.
When I Called the National Security Agency to Complain
About the Indiscriminate Collection of Private Citizens'
Telephone Records, I Was Put on Hold for a Suspiciously
Your call is very important to us. All your calls, as you must know,
are very important to us. This particular call may be monitored
for quality-control purposes or for no good reason we can think of.
Just because we can. Because these days, you never know.
People remain on the line until we've made a proper threat
assessment. Calls will be answered strictly in order of priority.
If you've got nothing to hide, you've got absolutely nothing.
to fear. This is still America last time we checked,
and we're doing everything in our power to keep it that way.
No one's ever guilty of anything as long as they can prove otherwise,
so please remain on the line. this country's storied history is one
of human ingenuity: we've always made it up as we go along.
Right now we're flying by the seat of our Patriot-Act balloon-pants,
but hey, at least we're still here, and we're especially glad
that you're part of this too, so please remain on the line.
That your Walgreens prescriptions have been ready for days
is not a threat, although they might reduce your mounting anxiety.
That you haven't spoken to your mother in weeks doesn't much
concern us either, but you don't want to hear the trash she's talking.
And frankly, we didn't realize anyone was still giving money to
Greenpeace. We're long past caring about that -- go save the whales,
but you could have sprung for much better seats down at the stadium.
Please remain on the line. Due to the extraordinarily high volume
of calls nationwide, your estimated wait time would be
just a wilder, more worthless guess than usual on our part. Someone
surely will be with you, though, sooner or later. So listen carefully
for a voice on the line or a knock on the door or even someone
bumping into the rearranged furniture in your dark living room.
And that's no lie, nor is it a threat. Consider it a promise, made
right here in America, where Security is our middle name,
and right now you need to remain on the line more than ever before.
The only thing we can never know for certain is tomorrow's weather.
There's no percentage in it for us, anyway--there's no stopping it
before it happens, ever. That's how weather is. It isn't ricin or
anthrax or fertilizer bombs. You can gather all the best intelligence
in the world, but if it rains, you're still going to get wet.
So please remain on the line, where it's always nice and dry.
We know where you live. We know how you live. It's almost as if,
oddly enough, you're a friend, but still we have no idea why
some outmoded notion of privacy is so damn important to you,
someone with nothing to hide. Nothing to be afraid of.
That's the reason every one of your calls is so very important to us.
If you want to be a dog with a bone, then you can count on us to be
the bigger, many-headed dog you'll never piss with, and rest assured
we've got a few bones of our own that we're not about to let go of.
Please remain on the line, even though we know already, word
for indignant, self-righteous word, what you're going to say,
and all because last night you felt strangely compelled to run it by
your old college professor of creative writing, who couldn't imagine
anything so important that you had to call him at 2 in the morning,
especially when, truth be told, it wasn't really much of a poem
he ended up only pretending to listen to, anyway.
Today's book of poetry loves Clewell's hammer. "When I Called..." isn't a list poem exactly but is a choice entertainment of political satire and mirth. Clewell gives us a master class is paying attention because nothing seems to escape his bemused intellect. He has a kind eye and a predatory heart.
Clewell is joined in Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of by a large coterie of pals, they show up on almost every page and bring something to the party. Here are just a few of the gang that drop in: Philip K. Dick, Frank Stafford, Walt Whitman, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Roger Paterson, the infectious silly 60's song "Itsy Bitsy Tweeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," Ammon Shea, some Jevovah's Witnesses, Charlie the Tuna, Buddy Holly, more than one UFO (as you will shortly see), Lee Harvey Oswald and JFK, Jack Ruby, Donald Finkel (more on him in a minute), old Cadillacs, Plato, Debbie Fuller, Shakespeare and believe me when I tell you that this list just scratches the surface.
We pay attention to our fan mail and we've had some complaints about Today's book of poetry being a sucker for any poetry that mentioned, smelled of, tasted like, jazz. So as much as we loved Clewell's excellent Charlie Parker, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ben Cartwright (Bonaza hat), Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and Saint John of Coltrane poems, we won't mention them here.
I'm Sorry There Are No More Flying Saucers
These days everything is a UFO instead:
military stealthy planes and flying triangles, satellites
and meteorites, suborbital space debris, the planet Venus
and Chinese lanterns attached to a horde of helium balloons--
hell, sometimes even my unlikely Uncle Bud,
lit up and soaring after a few too many again, until finally
he's recognized by someone who will see him the long way home.
It used to be when you said flying saucer,
you meant a nuts-and-bolts machine that had come to Earth
from somewhere else, and Bud never would have been confused
for anything like that--he's been down-to-Earth forever,
as homegrown as they come. And there's no way he'd ever be
onboard for even a minute with beings whose brightest idea
was invariably some version of Take me to your leader, which
always led to Bud shaking his head. He knew a bad idea
when he heard it, and he wasn't about to believe
this flying saucer business had anything to do with
the likelihood of intelligent life anywhere else in the universe.
Today's book of poetry loved how thick some of these poems were, like an extra warm quilt. We're convinced. Clewell is a poet we greatly admire -- and never more than when we read his tribute poem to Donald Finkel. Today's book of poetry has long admired Donald Finkel. We checked the stacks and Milo, our head tech, came back with A Mote In Heaven's Eye and the book length long poem Answer Back, but Finkel published at least 14 books of poetry and they are well worth checking out.
Too Far This Time
Never trust a poet at the wheel.
- Martin Amis, The Information
for Donald Finkel (1929-2008)
You were at your very best on foot,
never missing a step as you kept walking, always
thinking on your feet, your hands completely free
to animate the words you coaxed out of one more day's thin air.
A born pedestrian on the move.
If there was anywhere
we had to go that wasn't walking distance, I was the one
who said I'll drive. You'd be relieved again, a natural
riding shotgun. And so we made it every time:
to Santoro's or the races or hot jazz or Pizza-a-Go-Go,
to another far-flung poetry reading at Why-Do-They-Want-Us-U.
But most of all, I see you walking through your life
to the north through the woods near Holy Smoke, Vermont.
To the south in the hills above San Miguel, and still farther south
in Antarctica, where you carried the geologists' ice-cold water
just for the chance to write postcards from the South Pole.
Even that far away from the rest of the world, you weren't
about to drive. You knew better back East, too--your phantom
Bronx, where you first learned what it meant to walk.
I'll see you forever walking in St. Louis, this town
that somehow passed for your idea of the Wild West:
the U. City Loop at high noon, gunsmoke along the River Despair,
and your last-stand routine: Lafayette Park, visiting Willie,
the swan that lived there for as long as he could--strangely
gentle, you said. For a swan. You couldn't believe
your luck: this unlikely friendship. But it was something
more than that, my odd-duck, rare-bird friend.
Finkel-at-the-Wheel-of-the-VW-Van was already
the stuff of local legend. Forgive me when I say I'm glad
that was a legend mostly before my own St. Louis time.
Thirty years ago, when you first walked into my apartment,
Woody Guthrie's Car Song was spinning out its final notes.
You stood there at attention, laughing: Did I just hear
my national anthem? You had to cue it up once more:
Take me riding in the car, car. Take me riding
in the car, car. You and me and Woody, raucous all together.
We talked into the dark, luxurious part of morning--then
one last chorus: I'm a-gonna take you home again,
I'm a-gonna take you home again. Riding in my car,
with the lone-but-gigantic exception of those 1,600 miles
to Mexico, summer 1995. You insisted on the driver's seat:
I know exactly how to get there, man. Connie--regardless
of your mode of locomotion, your unwavering compass, love
of your life--was stubbornly back-seat driving up front.
And in the true back seat, where I hadn't been much
since Jersey childhood, I hunkered down with Patricia,
the love of mine. Fearing for ours, although we couldn't say so.
Each night's hotel was a sanctuary with a bed
we never wanted to get out of the next morning. To be driven
stir-crazy again in Spanish: Alto, Don, alto. But once you got going,
it was always hard for you to stop.
I wish I could have driven you to the Great Beyond
and back--especially back. It's always seemed to be a place
more out-of-the-way than it probably is. And I
wouldn't have known exactly how to get there.
I wish I could have heard you say It wasn't really all
that great, man.
You've gone too far this time, old friend.
Beyond where I can pick you up and steer you home
alive again. And here I am, driving myself a little nutty
thinking of your so irretrievably departed. I'm driving myself
talking for us both. and it's just not the same.
Today's morning reading was one hell of an affair and a very spirited reading. We invited every character that David Clewell mentioned or referenced in Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of. They all showed up. Shakespeare was resplendent. JFK, Oswald and Jack Ruby sat in a corner chatting amiably enough and they all took their turns when called on. Walt Whitman and Miles Davis kind of took hold of the proceedings, reading and laughing and assigning poems to the others. They cracked us up when they took turns telling jokes. It was a long reading because David Clewell has plenty to say.
Today's book of poetry is certain Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of is worth every second you can devote to it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Clewell is the author of a dozen books of poetry, including Taken Somehow by Surprise, The Low End of Higher Things, Now We’re Getting Somewhere, Jack Ruby’s America, and Blessings in Disguise. He is a former poet laureate of Missouri and also formerly a circus laborer, professional weight-guesser, and professional wrestler. He currently labors as a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Webster University in Saint Louis.
BLURB“Clewell’s lanky, chatty, extravagant, gimlet-eyed poems would make Ulysses ask to be tied to the mast again, they’re that seductive. This collection not only provides a place to catch our breath—it administers CPR to any disheartened reader.”
- Ron Koertge
Missouri poet-laureate David Clewell, Webster University professor of English, reads from his collection of poems.
Video: Webster University
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