Belated tribute to David Clewell

Another sign of my brain waking up again after a long hibernation: I started thinking about a poem that was very influential to me in the late 1990’s – early 2000’s: We Never Close by David Clewell (To read the entire poem for free, create a JSTOR account).

My own internal reading of it has always been a lot more deadpan; listening to this reading by Clewell himself helped me pick up some rhythms to this poem that I’d never quite picked up on.

David Clewell reads We Never Close, from an audio CD collection he created There’s Going to Be Trouble.

It’s hard to say why this particular poem was such a bolt of lightning for me. One of my hang-ups about poetry was (and still is) that it’s an activity that’s considered sort of “precious” and intellectual, especially in my part of the world. Clewell, and another poet from the flyover world, David Bottoms, helped me see that modern poetry could be about the real, the gritty, the raw, and other clichés, expressed much better in phrases like down to her last dime of crying (We Never Close) and what is left behind nags back through the distance (In a U-Haul North of Damascus).

Poets like these seemed like guys who might smell of sweat occasionally, and perhaps did more than read books and attend poetry conferences. They gave me a little hope that I could write about the real world. It took me a few more years to give up on getting published and just start blogging.

Being published – about that. I’ve been published in actual print exactly once, in Rattle #17. I was very chuffed by this one publication, which my friend Holly called “a hell of a debut,” if I recall correctly. I also re-read this poem (of mine) recently, and – let’s just say it owes a LOT to “We Never Close.” I think it doesn’t rise (or fall) to the level of plagiarism, but if I had turned it in to my snotty bastard of an English 102 professor as an assignment I bet he could have found a way to gig me about it. I’m not sure about the copyright ethics of posting that poem here, but since Rattle pays only in a subscription, they never did “subscribe” me, and after I nagged them they palmed off back-numbers on me, I’m going to say what the hell. Not that I’m bitter about this (and my English 102 professor) almost 20 years later.

Anyway, this poem that was very important to me – I forgot completely about it. I could remember scraps of it, but once you forget the title and the author’s name – let’s just say a poem that was published in The Georgia Review and perhaps collected in one of the poet’s books is not going to pop in Google when you start feeding Google scraps like “down to her last dime of crying poem” or even “sometimes you have to drive until you find it poem” (I almost remembered the first line but not quite). Google does not care how evocative a line is, or really even give a damn about much of anything besides sheer volume of queries for things. Google is pretty much your dim friend from high school who remembers everything about the football games but forgot his or her homework at the time, and forgets you ten year later.

So I’d been chewing on this problem for a few days, trying to remember more, especially the name of the title and/or the author. “David” had been coming to me, because David Bottoms’ poem sprang readily to mind, and I had it in my head about the author of this poem being David as well (or did David Bottoms write both of them? It was all going in circles.)

It came to me, not in a U-Haul north of Damascus, but in a Camry north of Costco, where we went this morning for a few supplies. First the title, which I asked my co-pilot (wife) to look up on Google before I forgot it, and then when she started reading results (many of which were vague) and came to David Clewell, I knew that was it. Much more googling when I got home, and here we are, writing a blog post about it.

It’s funny how the brain stores so much, but recalls so little.

My advice to you is that if a poem means something to you, pin a rose on it. Buy the book and stick a bookmark there, or copy it into a document and store it as carefully as you do your own writings (keep backups!) Don’t leave it to memory any more than you would a dream that you have at 2 am and think there’s a poem in there somewhere.

David Clewell 1955-2020

Sadly, the searching process also took me to his obituary. Clewell died last year, aged 65. I don’t know what to say about that except – cherish your literary heroes while you may. (An aside: I was offered a chance to hear Wendell Berry speak about a decade ago. I had a very hard conflict on the evening in question; I could not get away. It depressed me at the time. I knew then that I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life, even though it was impossible. He’s still alive, so there is still hope…). Buy their books. Subscribe to journals they contribute to.

As I run out of gas on this topic and drift further afield, I’ll also say: I suffered a lot in those days about 20 years ago of being reluctant to buy, subscribe, and collect poetry because I always thought there was something better around the corner. But sometimes, with apologies to Clewell’s great first line I didn’t remember – you have to stop driving, and buy and read something that you’ve found.

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