We Are Clay by Russell Evatt

We Are Clay We Are ClayRussell Evatt; Epiphany Editions 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
The title poem, I learn from Google, was originally titled “That We Are Clay.” Would it be too far-fetched to suggest that losing the “that” is emblematic of this poet’s progress from the slough of bull-slinging toward a firmer ground of revelation? Yes, it would. Still, winning the first chapbook contest from a magazine called Epiphany ought to count for something — especially when the hand-sewn, letterpress-printed result is as beautiful as this one is. And the element of bull still present in the otherwise unaltered text of the poem could well constitute an evasive maneuver. It begins:

We Are Clay

I am a city pigeon. One
step ahead
of dogs. Always
on the lookout
for bread.
Don’t test me.

He’s kidding himself, right? Clay pigeons are targets for shotgun practice. But this pigeon tries to distract us by retreating into the realm of the theoretical:

I wonder what you are
if I am a bird.
The lady throwing
bread, breaking it off
in pieces? The crumbs
falling to the ground?
This is sex. I’m not
the pigeon. I’m
the clown
with the camera.

Clowns were once numbered among the priests and shamans; clowning can be a serious business. “The bigger the room, the louder God’s voice.” That’s the whole of a tiny poem titled “Huge Catholic Cathedral.” Another poem, “A Playground Skirmish as the Beginnings of War,” betrays the influence of Vasko Popa’s Games:

The men stand in a circle until they realize
this isn’t a conducive scrimmage
and disband. One plays hopscotch. Another jumps
a thick rope.
Still another does the hula.
One man sees this and tries it with barbed wire.
Doesn’t work.

In “Man,” the games become more serious yet. A boy dislocates his little finger in a neighborhood game of football, and his father turns away from his Sunday television and “wrapped his arms around the boy so he couldn’t move as the pinkie was popped back into place.” The boy thinks he hates football now, but soon enough he’s back playing with his fingers taped together “because that’s just what he needed, to get back out there, not let anything stop him.” So American, this vignette. Especially given its placement in the collection between “Victims’ Bodies Arrive at Airport” and “Bad Water.”

One of the things that sets the U.S. apart as a developed nation, of course, is the extent to which religious discourse and belief permeate our society. It’s always bothered me that so few of our poets seem willing to grapple with this aspect of the culture. So I was especially pleased to see Evatts returning time and again to religion, as in “Ancient Civilization”:

When you say

I think of sex
then God.

Is this important?
Is the hour

upon us?

This is in the context of a relationship between lovers who do not want to commit and barely manage to communicate, which might or might not be a metaphor for something else. In “Noise Control,” the poet himself pauses to wonder if the central image is a metaphor, which I might’ve found annoying if that image (of a deep-sea “monster” that may be killed simply by bringing it to the surface) hadn’t been so compelling. Still, this kind of mock-wrestling with meaning is all too common these days, especially among younger poets, and therefore probably wouldn’t interest me so much if it weren’t for the counterpoint it offers to the truth claims of religion referenced in so many of the poems. The book ends with a shopping trip for “Groceries in the Afterlife,”

a place where you wander, pushing a cold steel cart in front of you with a stuck wheel, a place where the lights flicker and the freezer units hum hum hum.

I read the book to Rachel over Skype, and we each liked a number of the poems, but often not the same ones — which is unusual for us. I think that speaks to the high level of experimentation here. Evatt rarely plays it safe, and he never shows all his cards. How seriously are we to take poems such as “Huge Catholic Cathedral,” or one called “I Told You So Sonnet” with its 14 extremely short, unrhymed lines about what would happen if the sky actually fell? Is he putting us on? Does it matter?

Perhaps we readers are like the people in “Sketching People” — but which ones? Because, as the protagonist explains, there were two kinds of people: those whom he tried and failed to depict on paper, and the ones he actually did depict who failed to appear, and may not even exist. “My drawings would not change this.” It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a failed god — which is to say, a clown.