This Time We Are Both by Clark Coolidge
Reviewed by JENNIFER STASAK
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010
Imagery is perhaps one of the greatest weapons in a poet’s arsenal, and one which many of us forget to utilize to its fullest potential. Clark Coolidge’s book of poetry, chronicling the collapse of the Soviet Union, utilizes vivid imagery and a unique stream of consciousness narrative voice that provides readers with a sense of chaos, desolation, and darkness. But also, the combination of stream of consciousness and Coolidge’s incorporation of mystic, fantastical words and images lends the poems themselves to feel almost dream-like in nature.
The first three sections of poetry in Coolidge’s book focus on the immediate fall of the Soviet Union and he incorporates allusions to Russian history, including Leningrad and Nevsky Prospekt among others. What is most striking amid the first sections of the book is Coolidge’s utilization of all five senses in his poetry, not only describing what he sees, but also what he hears—or doesn’t hear—smells, tastes, and touches. One such example is from the beginning of the collection, where the narrator provides many images of the turmoil that surrounds him:
Dark fur past taste high window elbow in move, placed than dark height then links, pin strikes septic smell of nerve say but high, dare I light? There is a number, and it is vanished vast here broken cable of light sugar to pin on blue…
Each word throughout all of the poems is chosen deliberately and carefully by the poet in order to construct a distinct image. What is so intriguing is that these words do not often flow coherently apart from the setting of the poem, but within, they meld together seamlessly. Coolidge focuses a lot on describing the destruction around him, contrasting those images with ones of wealth and stability in order to emphasize the chaos (“a racket of diamonds,” “sapphire in peridot,” “silk-laced wheels,” etc.). In the middle of the book, Coolidge’s narrator gets more personal, in explaining his current situation in the Soviet Union, particularly where he is living:
But I’m alive but I don’t know why I’m still the answer: use one long word you get charged for two and the elevator that snaps, I never thought to stay was just passing and stayed since Lenin’s Ideas Bring Good Things To Light to mistranslate the signs, roll about the tops where you have to wait for the statues anything of height, on the outside of this hotel a Bontecou of stone
One thing that is admirable—particularly in the passage above, but throughout the book as well—is that Coolidge constantly contrasts colors and textures, especially dark and light. He plays with these throughout the book, seeming to present the idea that the world around him is dark, vast, and yet the desolation is also ironically color. The last section of the book, numbered “XVI,” contains more of these images, including the image of a “sallow sun,” “red granite,” and “light in a home window of a lemon blue.” The final poem is characterized by the same uncertainty that is presented in the book. Yet, there is something different—a hanging, unanswered question: What happens now?
And to that question, Coolidge never truly provides an answer, for the poem, much like the poet’s life, is a “drift pencil.” But Coolidge’s poems sought to explore the human condition amidst the all of a country, and he does so quite beautifully, by providing stunning imagery of glimmering despair in a unique stream of consciousness narration.
JENNIFER STASAK is a current senior at the University of Central Florida, with a major in English, Creative Wrting and a minor in Mass Communication. Her poems and short stories have previously been published in Living Waters Review, Words, The Anemone Sidecar and Epiphany Magazine. After she graduates, she hopes to find a job working as an editor or a writer.