T. Clear: A House, Undone

A HOUSE, UNDONE, T. Clear. MoonPath Press, PO Box 445, Tillamook, OR 97141, 2022, 86 pages, $16.00 paper,

What a pleasure to read this book this morning!

“Pleasure” seems a less than adequate word as the topics of some of these poems drift far from the pleasurable. Unexpected deaths, lawsuits, houses slipping from foundations. Bird nests, dismantled. A beloved’s clothes trundled off to Good Will. Squalor of a homeless camp. Even so, in every poem we find the glitter of well-chosen words. The trajectory of the poems pulls a life together, lining up events like laundry on a clothesline: “ice brittled in every empty pocket.”

Kelli Russell Agodon, from the back cover: “A House, Undone becomes the beautiful architecture for poetry, where we live in a house of words on ‘a bed littered with leaves, / starlight for a roof.’” And Jed Meyers: “These poems turn personal loss and uprootedness into a highly contagious empathy for those whose dwellings we couldn’t call houses.”

I’m amazed by how the poet makes everything fit here. It’s biography (three sections: childhood, marriage, after) but settling in alongside the biography are two poems written in Ireland, a poem about cheese (“Autobiography of Cheese”!), beekeeping poems. I had to go back and reread just to figure out how Clear carries it off so convincingly. Maybe it’s the way house/home is always lurking around the lines: “a stone cottage hunkers / in decay, vulnerable to stars”; “let me be small enough to enter a honeyed hive / …fold myself, shoulder to shoulder, / into the sweet company of their cluster.”

I’d love to share a dozen poems, but I’ll settle for the first poem in the collection, which opens the door and invites us in:

Life Sentence

I live in a house of scant beginnings,
of rupture and leakage,

splinter and rot. A wire
dangles to nowhere, something

cut mid-sentence, a thought
that will never complete itself.

A house of raveling sweaters
and unpainted stairwells.

Crack in the glass, hemless curtain,
the last bit of aluminum foil

flattened and folded one more time.
Awaiting the phone call, the letter,

a knock at the window,
crow at the door—

here lie all my unfinished cadenzas,
my abrupted couplets.

—T. Clear

I always read the acknowledgments — “Gratitude,” here — and was so tickled to find a tribute to Professor Nelson Bentley:

…under whose tutelage I learned that one can be a poet and live a perfectly ordinary life. (Although “ordinary” is a slippery word, open to myriad interpretations.) His generous spirit, his sense of humor, and his inclusive community of poets profoundly shaped how my next forty years of “poeting” would play out.

A House, Undone shares that generous spirit. It won MoonPath’s 2021 Sally Albiso award, and you can read more about it here.

The Land of Overwhelm

I talked to my friend Carla this afternoon while I took my second walk of the day. After a sunny morning, the sky was overcast and the air felt close. Before I was finished I swear I felt a drop of rain. Carla said she was struggling a bit: “Maybe it’s the pandemic. But it’s not just that.”  I have been feeling antsy and, frankly, a little crazed, myself. Today I looked at the sky and reminded myself of how much impending weather plays with my moods.

I am finished with my mystery novel and poised to get it out to agents. Poised to begin in earnest with typing the new mystery (so far scribbled into various notebooks). I’m also making a valiant effort to pull together a poetry manuscript. My present writing mood is an anxious grieving coupled with a feeling of being about to burst … maybe into bloom. I’m not sure yet.

My youngest daughter is in California with a friend. “Do you know there’s a pandemic?” I asked her, and she said, “Can we use your car?” Right now she’s staying with an old friend of mine, who–like me–has an empty nest and a great need to mother somebody. She talked the kids into canceling their hotel reservations in San Diego and spending three more days with her and her husband. So that makes me happy. It makes me happy that Emma was in the ocean today and saw five dolphins and a pelican. Despite everything else going on in the world, there are also dolphins.

Who knows why (or check “all of the above”) but this weekend I have spent a bunch of hours reorganizing one of my writing spaces. On Friday afternoon, I decided to move a big file cabinet from a corner of the playroom downstairs to my “zoom room” upstairs. First, I had to empty it. I found records for my 1981 Datsun, a copy of my wedding invitation, and six months of bottle-feeding and diapering records that we kept when our twins were born — from July 12 to mid-December 1993. (Good grief, what were we thinking?)

I also found drafts of novel openings that never went anywhere, short stories I had forgotten I ever wrote, tons of old Creative Writing Program journals, and stacks and stacks (and stacks) of poetry. I had kept every program for the old Castalia reading series, and other people’s poems from four years of Professor Bentley’s workshops–four quarters per year, labeled and dated. 

From all of these, I kept copies of my poems with Nelson’s comments on them. I kept a handful of the Castalia programs and a copy of the news article about his death, at age 72, of cancer. I kept my wedding invitation.

I felt a little like Theodore Roethke in his “Elegy for Jane.” (If you don’t already have it memorized, click on the link to hear Roethke read this 22-line poem for his student.) Or, I don’t mean his experience in the poem, but the story Nelson told us: that when Roethke came across his student Jane’s poems in his office files, he gave the bundle of papers a kiss and threw it into the trash.

I threw most everything into the recycle bin. So many people I will never see again. So many poems that I thought someday I would make the time to reread. Maybe I didn’t feel like Roethke. I felt more like Jane, as though I were a ghost, “waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.”

But I also felt lighter. I felt a little more able to move forward. Or to imagine moving forward.

Before I finished for the day, rain began. The dark swooped in a little earlier this evening, along with that smell that is partly rain, partly chill, and partly the scent of woodsmoke. It reminded me that even in the “Time of Corona” (as another friend calls it), one season is ending and another tiptoeing into the room.

Carla’s right. It’s the pandemic, and it’s not the pandemic.


Guest Poet

On occasional Friday mornings I am able to meet with two other poets and spend an hour or two writing, and talking about writing. One of those poets is Darby Ringer. We first met in Nelson Bentley’s workshop a million years ago or so, and whenever I read her poem, “On Raven’s Wing,” I can hear Nelson say, “Send this out IMMEDIATELY to some lucky editor!”

The image, by the way, is borrowed from Loren Webster’s blog, In a Dark Time…the Eye Begins to See, which I began following for the reference to poet Theodore Roethke, and kept following for the birds.

On Raven’s Wing

He’s a half full gunny sack,
his eyes, black and burning.

He’s slow to wake,
sees raven’s wing in a dream,

follows its black shape,
the green line of its path.

He walks along the incoming tide,
squints into sun,

picks up a bone and throws it out to sea,
slicing the seaweed air.

With another bone, he carves a mask
to honor his Haida clan.

He returns to the beach,
carves and throws,

throws and carves
a thousand carving slices.

The tide curls over rocks,
takes his raven, his breath,

his life, a crescent of bone.
He plants himself on this spit of land.

And the tide keeps coming, taking.

Karen Whalley, “Family of Hard Workers”

So many poets, so little time. I barely dented my book collection, and left out so many other favorites. Next year, thirty more?

For the last day of National Poetry Month, I am pleased to recommend the poetry of my friend, Karen Whalley. I have loved Karen’s poems for nearly 30 years, ever since our mutual professor, Nelson Bentley, put us on a Castalia Reading program together. This poem, from her collection, The Rented Violin (Ausable Press, 2003), resides in the vast class of “poems I wish I had written.”

If I were giving assignments, this one might inspire us to write about what-happened, vs. what-didn’t-happen, and what that might have looked like.


I would like to forget
That I come from a family of hard workers:
Grandfather of axe handles carved
For the Georgia railroad, Grandmother
Of thirteen children flinging feed for the chickens
From a fifty-pound bag, forgive me,
I forget you. And if my father glorifies
What is, in actuality, a certain lack of choices
On the part of his relatives
Who rose at the cock’s crow
And made a day so similar to the one before it
That if someone asked what they’d done that day,
They would stand with their hands in their pockets
Then give you their one answer:
I whittled an axe handle. I fed the chickens. 
Then forgive me for not doing that, too.

Once, I kept a carved statue of a horse
On my window sill,
The right front leg crooked, like a little finger
Which made the horse seem always in motion.
It’s all I remember about the horse,
The arched leg ready to step
Into the green pastures of my imagination
And thrum with its hooves,
Churning up grass, unhaltered, unsaddled,
Its huge head rivening the wind.
Better if my family had said:
You come from a family
Where beauty matters.
Look at the horse, now,
Running for joy. 

–Karen Whalley

Finally, I can’t resist adding a link to Kathleen Flenniken’s The Far Field, with a poem by Professor Bentley: