Note: Reviewer Irina Teveleva and Adroit Interview and Reviews Manager Lauren R. Korn have created a Spotify playlist to accompany your reading of this review and subsequent (and inevitable) readings of Music for a Wedding. You can listen to “Music for a Book Review” here.
The epigraph to Lauren Clark’s debut poetry collection Music for a Wedding, the winner of the 2016 Donald Hall Prize, comes from The Kinks’ song “Strangers.” The lyrics that open the collection suggest a love song rather than a dirge: “’til peace we find, tell you what I’ll do: / all the things I own, I will share with you.” The song, though, is about grief. The Kinks’ guitarist, Dave Davies, wrote the song for a friend who had died young of a drug overdose. In a 2010 interview with Stay Thirsty Magazine, Davies said, “It was like, what might have been if he hadn’t died so tragically.”
As the epigraph suggests, Music, too, is a book that catches the light at different angles. It is a book about a marriage ceremony, but it is also about a journey through the American heartland. It is a mixtape that features poems written after songs by Derek & The Dominos, Adele, Whitney Houston, The Mamas & The Papas, and the Lonesome Sisters. Most of all, it is a book about moving through grief and about searching for love, community, and connection—even when you feel the most lost.
If Music were an album, it would feature train signals and church organs, party noise and birdsong—Clark’s voice drawing everything together. One can hear the harmonic structure in “Mother’s Day,” the second poem in the collection. The speaker’s mother is digging through backyard dirt, searching for her dead husband as if to exhume him. One might expect the speaker to intervene, but instead they encourage her:
You have to pick up every shovel
and keep turning the ground. You
have to move soil until your hands
curdle. […] They will tell you
it’s wrong to keep shoveling, but
shovel forever. We all do.
This poem becomes an extended metaphor for the necessity of unearthing family secrets and airing skeletons hiding in closets. Clark’s speaker is telling the reader, you must talk about loss. Others will tell you that it’s wrong to keep grieving. They are wrong.
From this overturned soil, Music travels by train through rural America, past dark hills and lakes, farms and water towers, past daffodils old and new toward “the place / that is bigger than loss. The place that is big enough to hold every absence.”
In college, an archaeology professor taught me that in traveling, you should tune yourself to the local landscape in the same way that you would turn the dial in your car to the local radio station. In this way, he said, you should be able to recognize a small brook or a nameless hill in the landscape as a site of revelation, as much as a mountain or a canyon. When I read Music, I finally understood the metaphor; in this book, a field of corn can take on spiritual meaning. In “Listening to ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for Twenty Hours Straight,” Clark’s speaker describes how they watched as, outside of the train window, “All the people I love were standing in a mass in the middle of the spring / cornfield.” The field becomes a stand-in for human connection; “the cornfield taught me how much / can be mistaken for the touch of a human.” At this poem’s conclusion, the loved ones turn from each other, walking away in different directions. The poem ends, and the train and the speaker, too, are carried away.
In Music, the landscape becomes transformed by loss. Several of these poems gesture at a relationship between domestic violence and the violent history of westward expansion in the U.S. This collection resists easy answers about abuse. In “Parable,” a young child likens their body and that of an alcoholic father’s to a leg partnered with a shorter leg that others might see as deformed:
Who says both legs
have to be totally the same. Leg,
I can love your shortcomings.
Think of us as a set that walks.
It seems apt that a marriage ceremony is intertwined with the cross-country journey—two melodies in counterpoint. Over its course, small animals burn in a field and flower pots shatter; kitchenware is left outside and is filled with rainwater. This is a book of love poems—for people and for places—from a speaker who knows violence but holds hope for healing. And yet, so often, the speaker is also confronted with the limitations of what language can accomplish. In two poems about falling in love, sentences end with “and” unexpectedly, and. Then carry on again. In Clark’s translation, Catullus 101 is carved down to “I love you and I can’t prove it. / I love you and you don’t know.” The last poem in the collection, “Illinois in Spring,” concludes with the lines, “The wonder of watching a flying bird land / on water. The end of the line will always give you that feeling.” It is the end of the poetic line and, because this is the last poem in the book, the last stop on this train ride. This is as far as you can go; poetry can’t prevent an ending. One can anticipate that the dead will stay dead and that the lover might leave for good.
There is so much that Clark’s poetry can do for its readers. I read Clark’s poem about a road trip through the West, “Western Zuihitsu,” last spring, before it was reprinted in Music. Two weeks later, in the midst of life changes, I bought a train ticket to visit a friend in Indiana. It felt right to be physically moved by a poem, but as the train I was on rolled through the Midwest, I also thought about loss.
In these moments of transformation, Clark’s poetry is a source of strength and comfort. These dream-like poems are enough to stand on. Their promise is not that you will not lose anyone, but rather that you will move through the loss. In Music for a Wedding, as Clark writes in “Western Zuihitsu,” “The ground is made of soft stones and clay. It is like standing on the most enormous heart.”