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Premonitory (Teignmouth, 1818), by TOM CLARK

October 23, 1994|Georgia Jones-Davis

Mariners don't think about the deeps too much.

The canvas of my reverie: maritime,

With promontory, cave, and little antique

Town that's emptied for a sacrifice.

A boat tacks around the cove and disappears

Into my mind's eye, where the scene plays over

And over: a small town beside an immense sea,

A white sail tacks around the promontory.

Mariners don't think too much about the deeps,

Poets were once thought premonitory.

The canvas of my reverie is

Maritime, with a promontory, a town:

The town has emptied for a sacrifice.

I close my eyes, but the same scene plays over:

Above the victim's head the priest suspends

A blade, light plays cleanly upon bronze,

A sun beats down, the confused heifer lows,

The pipe shrills, the bright libation flows,

Those of the faithful with weak nerves look

away,

The blue paint splashed beneath a glowing sky

Bleeds across the harbor to the bobbing skiff

Whose white sail shows above the green head

cliff,

Moves around the point, and seems to freeze

in time

The unison hymn of sailors who forget

All that they know but their songs' chiming,

Chanting as we did when poetry was young,

Trying not to think too much about the deeps,

Our fear of death, and this abandoned town

Which itself has lost all memory of

The qualities of Life vacated when we die.

From "Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes From the Life of John Keats" by Tom Clark (Black Sparrow Press: $13.00 paper, $25.00 cloth; 180 pp.) 1994. Reprinted by permission.

***

Tom Clark's cycle of poems tell the whole story of John Keats' life. Keats was known only to tiny literary circles in England when he died at 25 in 1821 in Rome. His fame, as we know it, was entirely posthumous. As the 19th Century wore on, Keats--along with Byron and Shelley, who all died young--generated legends that could be compared to the contemporary obssessions with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or Elvis. By our time, they have been embraced by the "Academy"; they no longer represent the spirit of Romantic rebellion, but have become an integral part the literary Dead White Male liturgy revolted against today. Keats, Shelley and Byron are so ridiculously famous that they have lost their humanity. They are godly, remote icons, read at gunpoint by reluctant English majors.

Tom Clark--poet, biographer, critic--has resurrected Keats as a mere man in "Junkets on a Sad Planet." A mere man, perhaps, but an immensely gifted one, a modern one, brilliant, moody and doomed.

Anthony Burgess' novel about Keats, "ABBA," is weirdly beautiful; it is incredibly hard going as well. Not so Clark's evocation of Keats and his world. If anything, readers will be instantly reminded how seductive, sensual and inviting Keats's writing really is.

"Junkets" (the cockney nickname one of Keats's friends devised for him) sometimes lets us see things through Keats's eyes and mind, sometimes we watch him from a not too distant remove. Always the tragedy that was Keats's life breaks your heart. You can imagine yourself falling into step with the diminutive poet on a chilly winter evening in London as he "plowed through the crowd of street vendors hawking hot eels, hot pea soup and doubtful pies."

Anyone who loves Keats' poetry (and letters) will be stunned by Clark's "negative capability" to capture the essence of the poet's style and spirit in a minimum of elegant and haunting words.

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