Review of Clerk of the Dead, by Alan Perry
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
Submitted by Jeff Santosuosso, June 2020
When you open your chapbook with an allusion to Magritte, you’re preparing your readers for something remote and unexpected. Yet the images are so basic, so recognizable even in their surprising and thought-provoking assembly. Juxtaposition and composition tweak the imagination and challenge the concept of convention.
So Alan Perry has challenged our tangible concept of life and death, body and spirit, action and memory. This is a book about physical absence, yet underpinned by non-physical presence, lasting if ephemeral connection. Things, particularly people, are lost, invisible, or merely remnants of their original, tangible selves. But their effect remains. This collection is no random ramble of a Dali or Miro. Rather, as Perry himself offers, it reflects, “the lightness and accessibility of Billy Collins, the familiarity of Ted Kooser, the natural world of Mary Oliver; the humanity and family themes of Linda Pastan, the mystery and heaviness of W. B. Yeats.”
On its surface, the chapbook is dedicated to the titular theme: death and its chronicle. That thread runs through every work, but the impact is far from grief or depression. There is loss, notable loss, painful loss, but there is also reflection, perspective, and wisdom. Those, along with the airy and implicating diction, generate a sense of calm and reassurance that carries the reader from first to last.
“Weatherman” kicks off the work to make Magritte proud. Humanity and nature are inverted, replacing each other. Which is which? Man is lost, unfound. That theme is step one along this left-foot, right-foot journey of the physical and metaphysical. The classic student/teacher relationship of knowledge and communication follows in “You Speak to Me.” There is a body; there is a voice; there is knowledge. There is also the aura of the person. This classic image of knowledge everlasting is fixed, at least for a few moments in the poem, while the message endures, indivisible from the messenger.
“A Bookmark in Her Bible” touches on sacrifice and loss, disruption in the family, faith. “Witness,” in three parts, begins with a witnessing followed by a prayer, then contemplative interpretation and afterthought. The speaker is yearning for some type of redemption. He insists on meaning, something permanent, if intangible. People exist and interact; things happen, finally separate; but significance must prevail. Here’s one implicit example of how Perry’s work attaches itself to our better angels, inspiring us to continue.
“Aspiration” may be the keynote piece of the work. This poem mentions death directly, both as an event and as a poetic topic. With his lightness and humanity, Perry reflects the natural world, the human presence, the physical exit, and the tenderness that sustains us. It concludes with this simple image:
… a curtain coils the moment
when his soft curled hands
are squeezed once more
and then are still.
The piece is about a poet, specifically a clerk of the dead, wrestling with things and words, striving for presentation, representation, and meaning. He will meet his own end. It is the gift of time on the Earth, the physical opportunity, that promises transcendence. Here, writing is the capturing, or rendering of the self and the world, the poet’s means of seizing the opportunity before his body perishes.
“One Day In Dallas” takes the global historical event and personalizes it as closely as the blood on Jacqueline Onassis’ dress. “Rounds” depicts a mass shooting, an awful cycle, before segueing to a natural image. “The sapling/ … has no idea of what’s coming.” “Foreclosing” portrays failure and decline, but comforts us “where a foundation hugged the earth.” Emphasis on “foundation.” “Brotherly” brings us the agony of Parkinson’s. “Cloud Bank,” a tearful reading of an obituary, reminds us that “In the cloud/nothing ever dies.” As bittersweet as it is, memory keeps us close.
Perry dwells on water with “Holes” and “Rain.” In the first he observes, “Nothing comes out of the water,” while in the second, he laments complete separation and lack of access. It concludes,
the calm that seems to survive
lies in a storm cellar,
but without a key to unlock it
from the inside.
We are locked in our calm? Quite a notion. Yet we cannot unlock it to release it! This is the paradox of separation, of writing. We wish to impart, but the essence of the message is locked inside. All we have are proxies and words.
But that can be enough! The collection’s first section concludes with the title piece, describing the speaker’s relationship, remote as it may be, with his subjects/objects. He realizes his role is his duty. He chronicles the departed “as if to say/’thank you.’” This is no facile submission. No, by now Perry has earned the right to use his direct language.
The second section, though similar to the first, follows a wider variety of imagery. We see souvenirs, flowers, kitchen measuring utensils. We celebrate dawn, consider rocks, visit another mass shooting, confront a copse of trees. “By Heart” charms us with a tale of yore, a simple legacy of cooking and recipes. These flavor the food, tingle the taste buds, and caress the memory. The insistence to deny measuring tools is more than stubbornness. It’s a metaphor for intuition, intimacy, and interaction. He dedicates “A Quiet Occurrence” to Mary Oliver, rich in evocative silences, a fine reflection of the master’s gifts.
“Closure” presents us with the metaphor of baggage. Perry laments,
Every day I weightlift
the quiet grief that stuffs
a briefcase I carry
from this place to the next –
not sharing its contents
with those who can’t see
me drifting away.
This section’s highlight, a counterpoint to the individual death in “Aspiration” is “The Weight of Rock.” With clear references to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Perry fixes our attention on headstones. They are not mere rocks, of course! Once again, Perry has earned the right to introduce this familiar image and theme. By now, we empathize fully, feel fully “people praying/for the weight to be lifted.” Spanning millennia and continents, the grief and search for peace are universal. Perry expands the individual struggle with eternal.
Ever-faithful, Perry follows the painful hollow of that piece with “Bequest,” including a quotation from Whitman. The piece is full of promise, a look back at the great sage and a look forward for poets to come. On its face, it’s about paper, ink, writing, poems. Subtly beneath it all, it’s about how, with all its approximations and imperfections, poetry illuminates its subject and releases new beauty to the reader. It’s a covenant fulfilled.
With grace and humility, Perry concludes the work by telling us what we’ve already come to know. He compares us as individuals to snowflakes:
Each one a unique countenance,
like a snowflake found
nowhere else, coming down
to touch the earth
and become it.
These are simple words, simple images. Perry’s text rides on implication, innuendo. The poetry paints in positive and negative space, with plenty of room for the reader’s active engagement. Pay attention, the writing is so graceful at times that you don’t even know exactly how it is you feel the way you do. How’d that happen? Where’d that happen? That’s the subtlety of the poetry. Introduced in the context of death, Perry’s words bring us to life. We live and die as individuals, mortal, corrupted, yet universal, transcendent.
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