Across the Purple Heather


The Hundred Thousand Places, Thomas A. Clark
(96pp, 9.95, Carcanet)


Thomas A. Clark is amongst the most minimalist of contemporary British poets.  His writing remains obsessively attentive to form, for he likes nothing better than reducing his text down to its absolute essence: a fragment-like miniature of a few concise lines placed with care and precision within the quiet of the page. Presented this way, his new book The Hundred Thousand Places is a single poem that engages with the solitary experience of walking the island and highland landscapes of Scotland, notably the vicinity surrounding Fife on the east coast where the writer lives.

Moving from dawn to dusk through 'a dark country / of heather and moor grass / of deer grass and moss' there is a gentle unfolding of time and distance in Clark's intensely focused meditations. Walking through the landscape is essential to this process and the poet seems perfectly at ease with both the remoteness of the locality and the ambition of his long, solitary journey on foot:

                                        eight hundred
                                        acres of heather
                                        for the step
                                        and the stride
                                       
                                        on bright days
                                        the world is brittle
                                        the solid rock
                                        is insubstantial
                                        
                                        as you tread the deep
                                        accumulations
                                        a snipe cuts
                                        a curve in space

In this minimalist approach thoughts operate as sensations and yet resonate objectively, like stark observational snapshots of the natural world, as in

                                       slopes of sunlight
                                       slopes of snow
                                       sit together
                                       above the scree
                                       innocent
                                       of incident

However there is still a bleakness in the writing whereby cliffs fall away in the sea mist 'from the edge of a world / only half accomplished' and Clark clearly has an aptitude like Samuel Beckett to minimally articulate the void in the rapt instant of displacement when

                                        on the mountain's shoulder
                                        sit on a rocking boulder
                                        rocking and hugging yourself

which could either be a moment of existential crisis or, on a more prosaic note, a simple inability to deal with the cold ... or perhaps both.

It comes as no surprise that as a visual artist, Clark has for many years been involved with minimal and conceptual art, having made site-specific works in several gallery and garden spaces as well as in the landscape itself. Clark's poems are at times reminiscent of the work of the artist Richard Long, another figure who emerged from the land art movement, who reduces his walks to just a few sparse lines of commentary superimposed on a photograph of the terrain that has just been crossed: 'sleeping on the footpath / the mountainside in torrents / summer shrine in cloud / muddy cracks across snowfields', and so on. Like Long, Clark prefers brevity to describe the surprising strangeness of the walked world:

                                       strong hill shapes
                                       presiding over
                                       pastoral slopes

                                       sheep grazing
                                       salmon in pools
                                       of clear water

                                       runnels of water
                                       freshets of water
                                       many voices
                                     
                                       grey lichens
                                       resting on branches
                                       as if they had dropped

                                       from the air

There is a desire shared with Long too in wanting to use and explore the land freely, in opposition to the capitalist fixation to own it and fence it, so that walking becomes a truly democratic way of measuring, interpreting and experiencing the landscape.

The similarities, however, don't stop even there. In his visual work, Long remains the anonymous traveller and maker of tracks, for in the multitude of photographs documenting his walking expeditions and arrangements of stones, the artist himself is always missing from the scene. Likewise, Clark's writing benefits from the poet's absence as if the invisible walker does not allow the observing 'I' into either the landscape or the frame of the poem:

                                        as far as you can go
                                        over the machair
                                        there is only surface

                                        it is a plane
                                        of appearance
                                        where nothing
                                        is deferred

                                        lacking depth
                                        you walk on the richly
                                        embroidered ground

Without relying on first-person interjection to carry the narrative, the self and the landscape are able to co-exist throughout the poem, almost diffusing into one another at some points on the journey:

                                        what you feel
                                        you can contain
                                        what you see
                                        you will become

So admirably high are his ambitions that, in The Hundred Thousand Places
, Clark has attempted one of the toughest tasks in poetry:  the contemporary nature poem. This back-to-the-woods sentiment has tantalised and dogged successive generations of British poets in the two hundred or so years since the age of the Romantics. Clark tries hard to avoid the more head-in-the-clouds mode of pastoral verse, but just occasionally he can't resist associating himself with what has become Wordsworth's Lake-side tradition:

                                        it has taken half a lifetime
                                        to learn to sit in the sun
                                        among primroses and violets
                                        beside a dried adder skin
                                        your back to a broken wall

As a safeguard against the enormous risk in this kind of poetry, that of being reduced to offering only cliche, Clark manages to legitimise his wonder at the natural world with a more philosophical take where,

                                       you will need to know
                                       who you are, to walk
                                       by the solemn lochs

In The Hundred Thousand Places
Clark orchestrates a concise musical language within exquisite minimal form but like all astute and attentive nature writers, he makes us feel better informed about both the vulnerability and power of the planet while emphasising that as humans, we will follow only a tiny and momentary path on its surface.


        Peter Gillies 2010