Amy Clampitt: Nomad Exquisite
If I’m asked to describe myself as a poet, what I end up saying is that I’m a poet of place . . . . I feel a certain kinship with [Elizabeth Bishop’s] nomadism, if that is what it is; though I’ve been based in New York for many years, I feel less and less as though I really lived anywhere. Is that kind of uprooting possibly an American tradition? The more I think about this question, the more intriguing it becomes. Whatever answer there may be, I suspect, will have some relation to being native to the Midwest—and having left it. And then looking back.
Predecessors, Et Cetera, 163–164.
What can it mean to be an American poet of place so late in this century, when the fictions of place that formed the culture no longer serve it? If we once spoke of the American landscape in the language of Genesis, we are more inclined now toward the Book of Revelation. But Amy Clampitt does not slip easily into nostalgic or millennial rhetoric. She resists the version of the past that idealizes geography as a timeless absolute, a lost presence we can passively lament or naïvely reinhabit. At the same time, the abstract spatiality, the Disney dimension in which we exist cannot sustain us. This hyperreality presents an alienated posture that approaches the world as commodity, or retreats into the isolation of the mind. As a poet of place Clampitt is never merely decorative; she is diagnostic and instructive without becoming didactic. She portrays a culture of appropriation and exclusion which has failed to take account of its own restlessness, and the natural drift and variety of the world we inhabit. She presents an alternative, nomadic mode of habitation, neither place-bound nor placeless, but unsettled and open to astonishment. Reckoning as it does with our history and our contemporary reality, Clampitt’s nomadism provides an alternative, as well, to the neo-primitivism and idealized agrarianism that characterize much contemporary environmental writing.
Clampitt’s nomadism is more than a theme or ideology, however. It is a way of seeing, a sensibility, an aesthetic which can be distinguished from a variety of other stances available in American literature: the colonizing, the alienated, the touristic, the cosmopolitan, the immanentist, the transcendental. While Clampitt is not a poet of psychological or philosophical complexity, nor of radical formal innovation, her emphasis on the nomadic does accord with certain modern efforts to resist the codification of reality, to think outside of rather than from within, our frames. Clampitt reveals how poetry might become a guide in developing this nomadic imagination, searching out and crossing boundaries as it does, scavenging, finding value in what has been ignored, setting up formal patterns which it then works to defeat. She suggests how the poem, even within formally crafted structures, might become an extrinsic nomadic unit rather than a despotic unity or nostalgic retreat.
Clampitt frequently portrays the Midwest as a soil nurturing her nomadic sensibility even as its culture, bent on survival, became parochial. Paradoxically, this land of “settlement” promotes movement, drift, restlessness. This is not, of course, the vision of the Midwest with which Americans began. Rather, the Midwest was mythologized as the vast Edenic garden of the industrialized East, infinitely exploitable; the manifest destiny of empire on its westward course. An ahistorical sense of the perceived natural environment as given, timeless and original, prevailed through the nineteenth century and lingers to the present. But Clampitt sets history, natural and human, against environmental myth, examines the sense of the Midwest in terms of those who actually lived there and from the perspective of one travelling in the opposite direction. Repeatedly she uncovers a place and people in flux. Clampitt’s “Heartland,” which she began to describe in The Kingfisher, is not a place of abiding, primordial nature, confirming individual identity, but an elusive and ephemeral site we have struggled, in vain, to possess. An alluvial land of restless inhabitants, this void can be sectioned off-clotted with farmlots, but never filled. From the outset, then, Clampitt asks us to relinquish our approach to landscape as an escape from time and history, a donor of presence, a solid ground of meaning. We cannot dwell in the heartland, as in the woods of Walden.
Clampitt reads geology as evidence not of the stability of place, but of its fluent, metamorphic nature. The geology of the Midwest, with its abundant fossils from the Eocene age, reveals a space “half sea half land,” as she writes in “Imago,” a former ocean bottom. Through this association Clampitt gives a fresh identity to her native place; the “frontier” of American dominion has another story to tell, unflattering to claims and settlements. The prairie schooner “under unmasted coifs of canvas” is appropriately named as it crosses a landscape unyielding as the ocean that once covered it: “Midsummer’s welling bluestem / rose so high the wagons . . . / dragged belly-deep in grass / across the sloughs.” As if to imitate geology’s dramatic grammar, Clampitt forms single stanzas and even sentences that telescope transformation rather than suppress it (she is a nomad of history as well as geography). Her imagery reinforces this dynamism. In “The Quarry” a site of plunder, of raw material for our permanent structures, our banks and government buildings, becomes, for the poet, a space of historical inquiry, a timespace where “Light years / of ooze foreshortened into limestone” leave an unsteady footing in the present. To imagine back geologically is not to establish a sure foundation but to discover, literally, that your house is built on sand. Syntax is the sluice of history, washing oceanic past down onto marble-domed present. Such language exposes us to the forbidding anonymity of space that confronted our forbears:
no landmarks to tell where you are,
or who, or whether you will ever find a place
to feel at home in: no alpine
fastness, no tree-profiled pook’s hill,
the habitat of magic: only waves
of chlorophyll in motion
Clampitt writes specifically of the first settlers, but the syntax and tense leave the scene looming over the present. Even now, the vast horizontal of the prairie space tends to obliterate the pastoral feeling of Adamic belonging, enchantment, dominion, Clampitt notes the fragile markings of the human claim as so many potential fossils: “this festering of lights at night, this grid of homesteads, ” and today “the frittered sprawl of who we are, / of where we came from.” The anthropomorphic surface (“this hardening / lymph of haste foreshortened into highways, ” this “heartland” the “belly of the future”) funnels into the body of De Soto, gold-lusting epitome of human presumption and rapacity, at the end of the poem. His is an Ozymandian fate:
out of the heartland drainpipe,
the soft parts of De Soto’s body filtered
into the capillaries of the delta. Will
some shard of skull or jawbone, undecomposed,
outlast his name, as the unquarried starfish
outlast the seas that inundated them?
Against this image Clampitt asks us to imagine the unpresumptuous presences that have crossed this site, rather than lay claim to it: “the lilt and ripple of the dark, / birdsong at dusk augmented by frog choirs / . . . the wickiups / now here, now there.” The Indian teepees or wickiups in particular suggest the nomadic history of the place. Images of permanence are a late, imported addition; the gold-topped, marble capitol is a “stilted El Dorado” in this poem in praise of limestone.
The oceanic, nomadic past is an invitation to those called “shirkers” and “misfits” in a Midwestern ethos that works to claim, control, hem in, purify, commodity. If the “central fact” of Iowa, as Clampitt proposes in “The Local Genius” is not Olson’s abstract, conceptual SPACE but DIRT, that “utilitarian muck underfoot” of metamorphic earth, mortality, human imperfection, then the local genius, the neo-classical spirit of place, must be (so prairie heroism prescribes), the Iowan who invented the washing machine. But Clampitt offers a different spirit of place from both Olson’s aestheticized SPACE and Iowa’s anesthetized DIRT. The nomad, though “far from hot baths,” can nevertheless achieve a “down to earth transcendence.”
Clampitt rejects a hierarchical opposition between wild nature and human order, dirt and the washing machine. The nomad, respecting no boundaries, no fixed decorum, even of the inner self, sets her imagination exploring margins, liminal spaces; she thinks beyond the grid. Hence, in “The Woodlot” Clampitt remembers the magical places grown up around the prairie grid, havens from both the brutal horizontal of nature and from the rigid social order. “Air, that rude nomad,” having made the “fine manners” and neat borders of English gardens impossible, spares growth around the harsh articulations of plow and barbed wire to create this magical, soul-protecting, yet anonymous space where section lines give way to violets, where solid ground and firm identity open up to “a blue cellarhole / of pure astonishment”:
I/you, whatever that conundrum may yet
prove to be, amounts to nothing.
This suspension of both individual and group identity is crucial to nomadic thought, its pulsional intensity. This willingness to be awed by aground which cannot be claimed, makes the difference between the nomad and the exile and also between a place for discovery and a territory, a mere site of our imposing desires.
Clampitt’s desire to write a poetry of the prairie came to full expression in Westward with the long poem “The Prairie.” The poem is an historical, geographical, literary and personal account of the heartland, a semi-epic of “settlement” and restless movement across a continent. Its vision of environmental history presents the nomadic as a characteristic but suppressed sense of place, which has given way to a feeling of exile.
If Walden was for Thoreau a space of dwelling and presence, Clampitt’s prairie is, foremost, an unyielding absence where settlement is an imposed, enforced condition, not a natural dominion. The prairie is also, like Frost’s desert places, a metaphor for the absence within, the cause of restlessness and anxiety within the binding grid of prairie property. Against these inner and outer spaces the myth of the self-reliant American Adam, giving name and meaning to the landscape through intellection, cannot stand up. Clampitt acknowledges a deep debt to Emerson, but in this regard she offers a challenge.
In self- trust all the virtues
are comprehended . . . Self-trust. Man Thinking.
When—my father’s father might have wondered—
was Man Thinking, self-reliant, other than
alone in the vast stammer of the inarticulate?
Clampitt challenges, too, the ahistoricisin of Emerson’s vision of America. America’s individualism and ahistoricism have paradoxically produced a monoculture which views itself as absolute, original and authoritative. If “all history is epitaph” (in Emerson’s phrase from “Experience”), the past might, nevertheless, help to fill the emptiness of the prairie, and of modern life. Clampitt’s version of the nomadic accepts “attachments, links, dependencies”even as it rejects exclusionary, despotic social and geographic systems. Unlike the exile and the alienated individualist, the nomad imagines a social web and historic continuities that cannot be codified. The American tendency to shoulder aside what came before, to approach the landscape as if it had no history, to see the dominant order as natural and given, amounts to an ignorance of place and self which “The Prairie” addresses.
“The Prairie” is in many ways a bleak portrait of the Midwest, taken as a site of the human desire for settlement. Clampitt presents nineteenth century lives as desperately hard, hemmed in, anxious before an unyielding nature and merciless social order. But throughout the poem she presents an alternative to settlement and exile, more adaptive to the “tenuity of life, ” a nomadic way which once thrived on the land. Clampitt never suggests, as Wendell Berry often does, that we turn back the clocks. But the nomadic way of life she discovers in the prairie past has modern possibilities, and suggests an intellectual as well as a practical attitude. Far from being merely primitive, the nomadic way of life finds example in the life of Henry James. Forming a fluent parallel between the landscape and the psyche, Clampitt imagines hidden, unfenced regions of mind and scene, “secret coves” which “the landed, pacing their stiff saraband, / could not have known they harbored.” Settled nowhere, imposing no particular pattern on reality, the nomad is best able to discover, beyond the vacancy, a “pattern in the carpet,” no barbed-wire geometry but a rococo design full of furls and deviations, which has been “trodden underfoot” but may be revealed to the exteriorizing, “unformulating mind.”
Clampitt has found an ideal form for her subject, one in which the neat grid of the stanza is overrun by a fluent syntax and digressive, associative structure and a “chance fact” is allowed to “leap into place.” Three-line blank verse stanzas in eight cantos of 20 stanzas each hold together a bravely nomadic poem which begins in contemporary New York City, cuts to Chekhov’s Russian steppe, then the American midwest of a century ago, to California, and back. The poet intensifies this geographic and historical mobility with analogic and metaphoric leaps, as New York’s homeless, for instance, recall the prairie’s vestigial Indians and both recall the weary warriors of Homer’s Iliad, nomads all and, in the words of Simone Weil, “far from hot baths.”
Without yielding to the neat grid of plot, Clampitt does unfold a story here. Her protagonist in “The Prairie” is her Iowa grandfather, born the same year as Chekhov, whose restlessness and anxiety she recognizes as her inheritance. Her grandfather’s unsettled feeling, “straying sometimes at dusk in unfenced places” becomes a return of the repressed, evoking the nomadic character of American Indians for whom settlement is a forced, not a willed condition, a paradoxical exile. Against this “dimming memory” of “the species that persisted and that vanished,” of “namelessness, of dreamings” the shadow of monoculture always crosses, dealing with the tenuity of life by denying the past and dismissing all that will not fit its structures, that threatens its static preservation, “the puccoon, / the pasqueflower, the compass plant, and vervain” as well as the nomad. One of the sorry contradictions of our history, for Clampitt, is how often our nomadic instincts yield to despotic ones, how individualism leads to parochialism. The underside of prairie heroism, the adventure and daring that brought people to a new land, is the “fencerow patrol” that would conserve the new claims:
The gossip. The scathing whisper. Party lines.
Consensus. Stratifyings: oh yes, even in
a place so nearly level, someone to look
down on—renters; hired men and their unwashed
progeny; the drifter from nowhere.
In a manifold paradox, it is the nomadic red man who says of the settler: “the white man does not understand America, / . . . the roots of the tree of his life / have yet to grasp it.” The obsession with boundaries and parcellings has left him detached from the earth. The inevitability of the nomadic way of life on this “settled continent” (“what does it mean?”) is apparent at the end of the poem when a different kind of Indian returns to supplant the “settlers” who once “put a beleagured foot down against the shiftless” but have since drifted off.
I know or even heard of lives there now.
On Summit, from some long-obliterated
snapshot, I thought I recognized the house
a great-aunt lived in once: the number
not quite right, the tenant an old
deaf Mexican who did not understand.
“Dimming memory” is a kind of refrain in this poem of history and erasure. One would not expect the nomad to be the custodian of the past, yet without a stake in monoculture, without its relentless purposiveness, the nomad is more open to the palimpsest of the landscape. It is the nomad, finally, who tells the story not only of the excluded, but even of the “overlaid procedure, forethought, accumulation” that designed the prairie grid. “To be landless, half a nomad, nowhere wholly / at home, is to discover, now, an epic theme / in going back.” This odyssey is not a reclamation of the homeland or an indictment of the American past, but a testament to the human and natural ecology, “the linked, perishable, humming webs” that define and redefine place. Clampitt’s sense of place is deeply ecological; it defies the totalizing impulse that characterized other American visions of landscape.
If Clampitt’s experience of the Midwest positioned her for a nomadic sense of place, what was formative has become characteristic of her vision. Yet a nomadic sensibility is not a necessary result of being native to the Midwest. Until Clampitt, our primary bards of the Midwest were the “deep image” poets—Robert Bly, James Wright, William Stafford and others—and their sense of place is quite different from hers. As their epithet suggests, the deep image poets worked by selecting a scene or image and delving into it symbolically. The result was often a mysterious immanence, an unconscious sense of place with little particularity to it. Where William Carlos Williams’ fixed gaze might aim at objectification, the deep image poets moved toward an intense subjectivity, understanding Williams’ dictum “it is imperative that we sink” in a new way. Immersion, for both, has a vertical force rather than pulsive intensity. Stupefaction becomes a form of revelation. They often heightened their effects by using simple sentences and the “language of ordinary men,” but without discursive content or logical connection. Atmospheric images—night, shadow, empty roads—also placed feeling over intellection. The deep image poets tend to represent the Midwest as an emptiness, but a ghostly, elegiac emptiness, not one that casts doubt on the poet’s romantic desire for presence.
Nothing could be further from Clampitt’s sensibility. As if directly addressing the deep image poets she declares “depth isn’t everything” and thrives without taproot like the spruce which “hold[ing] on / spreads its underpinnings thin. . . .” Where a deep image poet will sink into a well of meanings and surmises, Clampitt will imagine out, exteriorize the image. Where they tend to stage meditation in a single scene, her mind refuses to stay put. Sometimes she moves through a paratactic structure (variations on a theme), as in “The Spruce Has No Taproot” where her mind bounds from cats to cinquefoil to roses and back to cats; sometimes she moves by association, as in “Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration.” Experience, scenic or otherwise is always at once highly specific and broadly connected, not through obvious contingencies or purely metaphysical leaps, but through reaches of the unknown or observed. The connections tend to foreground particularity rather than funnel into general principle, so that the effect is more digressive than inductive. Sometimes the movement is metaphoric, with those surprising bounds of connection which Frost called “fetching,” as when a pile of defunct cars is “lasagna-layered” or a lindenbloom suggests a stately “bell-pull.” This is the joyous nomadism of the restless imagination which refuses decorum and wanders freely from one order of reality to another. For Clampitt, the heraclitean and metamorphic nature of the world stimulates these adventures in language.
Clampitt’s syntax operates like her vegetation, linking highly disparate images in the loose clasp of the sentence, forming a temporary, expedient unit (a rhizome) rather than a deep rooted, unitary one:
a gathering in one continuous,
meshing intimacy, the interlace
of unrelated fibers
joining hands like last survivors
who, though not even neighbors
hitherto, know in their predicament
security at best is shallow.
No poet since Marianne Moore, fondly acknowledged on the opening page of The Kingfisher, can sustain longer sentences, pressuring subordination and closure without abandoning the rules of composition. Typically, the syntax drives a thought that will not stay put, so that sentences end (or only seem to end) somewhere other than they began. Clampitt varies her syntax, as an artist uses different brush strokes to evoke different moods. “London Inside and Out,” for instance, piles in clauses that give the poem a dimensionality of present and past (the perceived and the remembered), indeed, of outside and inside, within a single surface. Typically, the initial point of view is of the nomad, looking back at a former domicile:
Looked back on happily, the ivy-hung,
back-wall-embowered garden of our
d domicile in Chelsea
seems oddly like some dream of living
halfway down the well that sheltered
Charles Dodgson’s Elsie, Lacie
and Tillie—with those geraniums
in urns, that lily-of-the-valley
bed not quite in bloom, those churring
ringdoves, those thrushes murderously
foraging for earthworms: an exterior
so self-contained, a view so inward
that though at night we’d note
faint window-glimmerings eclipsed by ivy,
we seemed to have no neighbors either
to spy on or be spied on by.
By the end of the stanza, through the twists of syntax that break down the dichotomy of outside/inside, we are drawn back in, but invited to look out. The syntax and thought structure of the poem reveal both Clampitt’s homing instinct and her wunderlust. Other ways of being inside and outside at once have arisen in the stanza as well, through observation and association—the Dodgson book, the geraniums in urns and so on. The syntax lends to the compact, British feel of the place, an unterrifying exposure of inwardness that continues throughout the poem. This is one kind of pulsive intensity in Clampitt, but there are many others.
Like Marianne Moore, Clampitt replaces depth with an at times almost rococo surface. Yet Clampitt’s nomadic style is distinct from Moore’s accumulative one, at the level of syntax and imagery alike. The complexity of Moore’s prismatic syntax is built around constant ironic qualification and double negation, the absorption of quotation from various discourses, circumlocution, extrapolation pulled in by epigram, disgression disciplined by moral purpose. It is a poetry that takes in the world from the vast reading room of a Brooklyn apartment. Clampitt’s syntax wanders, pursuing the course of a memory or an association, a variation on a theme, interweaving experience and reflection, fonder of the dash and the parenthesis than the semicolon. Clampitt’s poetry is based on the premise that “our home is motion.” This theme certainly echoes Elizabeth Bishop (though the phrase may have come from A. R. Ammons’ Sphere); some of the changes in Clampitt’s form and syntax may well be traced to reading more Bishop, less Moore. In “Midsummer in the Blueberry Barrens,” for instance, the syntax is relaxed and the poem is all foreground, dominated by present tense. It makes a striking contrast to the inside/outside dimensionalities of “London.”
Away from the shore, the roads dwindle and lose themselves
among the blueberry barrens. The soil is tired;
what little there was of it in these upland
watersheds wore out years ago.
The deceptively aimless manner recalls Bishop as does the relaxed syntax, designed to hold back an apocalyptic dread. The dread follows the beholder to the luxury of the shore, where the resort houses are, and hovers around the figure of St. John the Baptist, whose feast day is celebrated. But this is not a day for martyrdom. Like Bishop, the nomadic Clampitt skirts but avoids apocalypse. Yet there are differences here as well. Bishop’s is an excursive and interrogative vision, a gradual sublime, in which the landscape’s meanings lean out but are never fully grasped or articulated. She tends to abide in mysteries and tonal ambiguities, to turn the questions of observation inward. Clampitt’s imagination is more likely to establish a footing in her subject, however tentative, to set up make-shift structures around it rather than rely on the cumulative effect of peripheral vision.
If “depth isn’t everything” for Clampitt, neither is height. Perhaps because her young eye fed on the Midwestern prairie, there are no mountains, no steep and lofty cliffs. Hers is a “down to earth transcendence,” “airborne, earthbound.” Her bird is not the soaring skylark but the fence sitting meadowlark. She eschews a rhetoric which scales up to the vague and the lofty, that experiences wonder only in the vast or the obscure, that builds a scaffolding when there is so much wonder near the ground. She finds the sublime not by staring at the sun but at a bog of insectivorous plants, in “The Sun Underfoot among the Sundews.” But if here a “wilderness swallows you up” and the ground is not stable, this sinking is entirely conscious and real; Clampitt needs no surrealism to experience mystery; the world already turns itself upsidedown. There is plenty of depth in surfaces, so much, in fact, that “you start to fall upwards.”
Scavenger that she is (hence her interest in birds, seeds, berries), Clampitt finds value in surprising places. But she also unpacks associations and allusions, blithely investing the world with the conscious human purpose which makes it habitable. Indeed, there is an instructive and even allegorical aspect to Clampitt’s verse, but the thought is not fixed to the thing in any monolithic way. On the contrary, for Clampitt the overflow of verbal invention and association may be the shortest way to opening the silence, not the silence of the tongue-tied and the unexplicit, but of the world’s word-surpassing variety.
“Gooseberry Fool” illustrates well how Clampitt can exteriorize an image, scan the world’s variety even as she contemplates a single instance. And here, as so often, her nomadic method leads to a humble reticence, an awed silence, rather than inducing a general law. The nomad is not necessarily a skeptic, but she does resist conclusion. She does not sink into the unconscious depths of an image but sets about making it into a delectable item for human consumption which defies classification, full as it is of life’s rich ingredients, brought along from various habitats. Typically, Clampitt’s intensely varied diction and incongruity of rhetoric and subject reinforce this challenge to decorum that careful observation inevitably produces.
Altogether, gooseberry virtues
take some getting
used to, much as does trepang,
tripe á la mode de Caen,
or having turned thirteen.
The acerbity of all things green
and adolescent lingers in
it—the arrogant, shrinking,
iness that loves no company except its,
or anyhow that’s what it gets:
As the subject becomes more entangled with association and memory, the sweeteners added so that we cannot reduce our judgment of the subject, the syntax likewise becomes more entangled, the lines longer:
Likewise inseparably en-
tangled in the disarray of an
uncultivated childhood, where gooseberry bushes (since
rooted out) once flourished, is
the squandered volupté of lemon-
yellow-petaled roses’ luscious flimflam—
an inkling of the mingling into one experience
of suave and sharp, whose supremely im-
probable and far-fetched culinary
embodiment is a gooseberry fool.
The nomadic spirit, unparochial and restless for the world, knows the world can only be digested in parts, however microcosmic we make them. She knows, too, that mystery is not the privilege of the unconscious, that our consciousness experience history and nature abounds in it.
I’ve wondered what not quite articulated thing
could render magical
the green globe of an unripe berry.
I think now it was simply
the great globe itself’s too much to carry.
Like many nature poets and poets of place, Clampitt is fascinated with names. Her botanist’s precision is one of the joys of her work and there is little sense in Clampitt that the world can be brought into poetry through the vague gesture, the symbolist’s nod; it demands precision. She is an advanced student of nomenclature. But naming is a form of claiming and classifying which cannot accommodate the world’s ultimate silent being. That must be approached, not through the inarticulate moan, but through exhausting the resources of the language. Hence in “Botanical Nomenclature” Clampitt relishes the various names that have been given to “ ’that pink-and-blue flower / you find along the shore’ ” and the myriad associations these different names call up. Each name is a perspective which gives the plant an identity, different from the other names, and none can quite embrace “the mirroring / marryings of all likeness.” For the nomadic poet, imposing no nomenclature of her own, bearing witness to the web of names, each thing is uniquely itself, yet universal.
Names do not merely classify, they embody lore. We name places to claim them, to stamp ourselves into them, to memorialize. The landscape retains the names even as it casts aside the identities. The stories fade away until we must feel that
in all the stories,
we tell ourselves, is finally
what’s durable, no matter how
we mollify it, no matter how our
pieties keep changing.
The permanence we feel in landscape derives not from the memory it retains, but from its role as a site of our will to remember. The landscape refutes monoculture not only by its natural variety but by the diversity of names attached to it. A meditation on names is thus a lesson in the transience of all descriptions; geographic names register the passing of cultures, divinely authorized as they may once have seemed. In “Matoaka” a meditation on geographic names, Indian and English, becomes a lesson in humility, not only for the patriarchal European culture that colonized the native one, but for the contemporary culture which presumes to judge its past, to deconstruct and rename. But the landscape opens a silence for the poet where the names have pressed into it. Lake Matoaka, bearing the tribal name of Pocahontus (christened Rebecca when she was imported to the English court, “what she called herself by then is not recorded”), becomes the site of meditation on the unnamed, unnameable life we all share:
to stroll thus
is to move nearer,
in imagination, to the nub,
the pulse, the ember of what she was—
no stranger, finally, to the mystery
of what we are.
It is the privilege of the nomad, approaching the world without designs upon it, to feel this pulsing identity.
Clampitt defines her nomadism against a prevailing tendency of American culture to homogenize and commodify, and to ignore or exclude whatever cannot be commodified. She implies that a culture concerned only with commodities inevitably stagnates, as in the “stilted El Dorado” of Iowa’s capitol. In “The Prairie” she sets the image of Chekhov’s money-burning Jew against the emergence of the American West as “essentially a customer.” “What I see from my own peculiar perspective, as a writer of poetry,” she argues in the introduction to Predecessors, Et Cetera, “is a conspiracy all around to stamp out the sense of living continuity, to stamp out singularity, to do away with everything that’s not a recognizable commodity. ” She celebrates what is ignored by monoculture: the beachglass, sea mouse, salvage, pokeweed. The nomad, who lays claim to nothing and carries little baggage is particularly positioned to appreciate this singularity of things, to decommodify the known and to draw attention to the imaginative value of what has been ignored. Where the alchemy of the commodities market would turn hay into gold Clampitt does the opposite, rebuking permanence in “Stacking the Straw” and making the harvest monuments stand for the transience of all human achievement, intellectual as well as material.
A great deal of Clampitt’s poetry directly protests the commodification of landscape, the slash and burn of enterprise, that seeks an opening for its lust but threatens the imaginative openings that nature provides in its delicate ecological balance and diversity of life. The legacy of Jefferson’s America in “Notes on the State of Virginia” is ecological destruction:
expansion, the imperative to
find an opening, explore, exploit,
and in so doing begin to alter,
with its straking smudge and smear,
little by little, this opening in
the foliage, wet brink of all our
enterprise: the blur of bays, the
estuarial fog at sunrise, the glooms
and glimnierings, the tidal waters.
Will our homogenizing enterprise stamp out the essential mystery of things? The “brink of all our enterprise” may suggest a danger, a limit we have reached, beyond which nature will be destroyed by enterprise in the sense of commercial technology. But Clampitt allows another sense of brink—an opening, and of enterprise—an adventure or risk, in which the artist may invest some hope as well as place a warning. Nature is the “brink of enterprise” for the poet and for culture generally because it is a source of renewal and creative inspiration; the wild acanthus becomes the prototype of the Doric column. If we destroy this opening to renewal we risk our own exhaustion. In “Marine Surface, Low Overcast,” for instance, Clampitt praises the virtues of that most uncommodifiable entity, fog. Here, as elsewhere in The Kingfisher, a series of economic puns highlights a reality which enterprise cannot construct. The descriptions are pitched to our love of the crafted, the delicate, the expensive: “Laminae of living tissue,” “aluminium, furred with a velouté / of looking glass.” The mist exceeds human ingenuity:
no loom, no spinneret, no forge, no factor,
no process whatsoever, patent
applied or not applied for,
no five-year formula, no fabric
for which pure imagining,
except thus prompted,
can invent the equal.
But Clampitt’s sense of human and natural economy is more complex than the ecologist’s, and less conservative. Human economy is designed to resist the tenuity of life, to control, hoard, convert to gold. Hence while the capitalist’s enterprise may seem ruthless in what it destroys, the conservative instinct behind it may be fundamental, even for the poet. Its emotional equivalent is elegy. In “Camouflage” an encounter with a killdeer’s nest is presented in an equivalent language of luck and lucre:
It seemed at first like a piece of luck,
the discovery, there in the driveway,
of an odd sort of four-leaf clover—
no bankful of three-penny greenery
but a worried, hovering, wing-dragging
The economic metaphor might seem here to mark a difference rather than a similarity with the commodities market, but as “luck” turns to Darwinian chance and the cards are stacked against what we invest with feeling, we take on some of the same reckless attributes as the “enterprising” capitalist. “We’d have turned that bird’s / entire environment // upside down to have preserved them.” This, certainly, abbreviates the paradoxes of the modern ecology movement. Nature’s economy is spendthrift, as the “broken-wing pageant” which follows the nest scene makes clear. Camouflage itself is but evolutionary accident, the eggs “a casual handful of dice, squiggle-spotted by luck / that made them half invisible. ” We, too, are subject to nature’s spendthrift economy, but our emotional economy emerges from memory (“not part of the shorebird’s equipment”):
For a day, we couldn’t quite afford
that morning’s black discovery.
Grief is like money: there is only
so much of it we can give away.
And that much grief, for a day,
bankrupted our economy.
This apparently anecdotal poem opens up a large question that occupies Clampitt repeatedly, about the economy of the elegy for the nomadic sense of place. In traditional pastoral elegy the landscape is both a responsive site in which the poet enacts his grief, and a counterpoint to loss, a space of memorial permanence and of nature’s regenerative powers. Clampitt’s elegies tend to emphasize movement across a landscape, not only the traditional processional movement of the bereaved, as in “A Procession at Candlemas,” but the inevitable drift and dissemination of the earthly which death confirms rather than arrests. In “Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration,” for instance, the “rest for the body’s residue” in this “settler’s burial ground” is “friable” and yields to the nomadic ways of dandelions, immigrants and butterflies, to “the unrest whose home—our home—is motion.” The high rhetoric of the poems ennobles an untranscendent, inconclusive vision.
Clampitt’s elegies make clear that the nomadic vision is by no means a facile one. She is really only “half a nomad”; she has the homing instincts of the pigeon. The feeling of exile, the longing for a permanent home, are inescapable human feelings. But no actual return home can eradicate such feelings, as “Black Buttercups” makes clear. There is an anxious as well as a joyous side to the nomadic existence, but Clampitt chooses it as one chooses necessity rather than delusion.
Clampitt’s most consistent critique of the elegiac sense of place occurs in a series of meditations on vacant lots in What the Light Was Like, Archaic Figure and again in Westward. In these poems one feels the play of memory and longing against the pull of change. The vacant lot is conspicuously a modern, even post-modern, space, the opposite of a wilderness or garden, no virgin land or terra incognita but a commodified space filled and emptied out, to be eventually filled again. Having been “based in New York City for many years” Clampitt has had a special vantage point by which to correct the ahistoric view of American landscape as open space; rather, it is cleared space. As a site the vacant lot marks the nomadic nature of humanity. The repetitions of lost time in “Vacant Lot with Tumbleweed and Pigeons” (“two summers / and a winter solstice since”) recall Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (“five years have passed”). The poem’s stoptime hyphenations (“;a not-yet-uprooted / tumbleweed, ” “the / soon-to-be-obliterated stations / of nostalgia”) recall Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem” with its “yet-to-be-dismantled-elms.” Clampitt’s poem enacts the erasure it describes, as it moves in 28 lines making two sentences, from memory (“The rooms gone, hallways and stairwells /air”) to the sense of forgetting (“the roofless staircase of outmoded custom”) to the forgotten (“the dispossessed, the razed, / the triste, the unaccounted for ”). But the poem most resembles Frost’s “Hyla Brook” with its layering of nostalgias in which imagination literally writes value onto the blank landscape. In Clampitt the tumbleweeds and pigeons become the surrogates of the imagination and of writing:
of the first December snowfall
inscribed with a not-yet-uprooted
tumbleweed’s whip-limber pyramid,
spare, see-through, symmetrical,
an evergreen in one dimension, each
brushed-in, accidental grass-stroke
beside it letter perfect.
Writing’s “evergreen” against the bleak oblivion of time is a transient if delicate way of marking out a “station of nostalgia.” The homing pigeons return, like dimming memory, in dwindling numbers, in “Progress at Building Site: With (fewer) Pigeons.” In this poem Clampitt’s imagination is turned less on the dismantling of the past than on the uncertain evolving of the future, the new writing on the vacant lot. Yet the poet does propose a kind of foothold available to the nomadic sensibility. If the vacant lot is a landscape without inherent meaning it is still a potential habitat, as we learn in “Vacant Lot with Pokeweed.” Passed as waste through a bird’s gullet, the pokeweed has taken hold of this vacant lot. Here is a mode of survival, a way of living, amidst the weeds and interglinting dregs, that real estate, its gaze set on scaffolding cannot recognize, but poetry, in its resistance to commodity, can. The vacant lot defines a new sense of landscape and of place; no longer a site of our nostalgia for power, presence or permanence, the vacant lot defines landscape as a space of temporary habitation.
The nomadic is not only a subject but a way of seeing and describing, even a way of thinking, situated, but always edging out and moving on. Unlike the cosmopolitan (“Walt Whitman the Kosmos”), at home everywhere, the nomad is at home nowhere. The nomad has a deterritorialized heraclitean sense of space, often evoking the atomic level at which existence composes and decomposes (“nothing truly is except the atom, / the whole a sieve of particles, its terrors / loomed of shadow’s cucumber”). Rather than recodify the world she presses against boundaries, examines “life on the edge.” The nomad does not abide in pure flux or drift; nor is she a solitary. “Attachments, links, dependencies” make up her human as well as her natural ecology, but these are dynamic rather than secure. She investigates habitats, looks for ways to dwell in experience, yet she insists “that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold / but roams untethered save by such snells, / such sailor’s knots, such stays / and guy wires as are / mainly of our own devising.”
On the first page of The Kingfisher Clampitt ventures out, unhinges domesticity, launching a nomadic career which has yet to rest on its laurels. “The Cove” recognizes the instinct to avoid exposure, to seek shelter in the “snug house” where “whole nutmegs / inhabit the spice rack. ” Even as we venture out we dodge for cover. A window leads to where the eiders in the fog “tip / and tick themselves into the swell, almost / as though diving under the eiderdown / in a gemütlich hotel room at Innsbruck.” The play on eiders and eiderdown is delightful, in its suggestion that nature might be our bed. Certainly the landscape Clampitt reveals has an uncanny power, both domestic and otherworldly. Like Bishop’s “embroidered nature, tapestried landscape” Clampitt’s scene is done in “ombre and fine stitchery.” But as the porcupine, with his “needle-tined paddle tail,” emerges, like one of Bishop’s animals, as a surrogate for the human, one senses the humor in our craving for domestic, anthropomorphic order. We watch the porcupine emerge at dusk:
to examine the premises,
and then withdraw from the (we presume)
alarming realm of the horizontal into
the up-and-down underbrush of normality.
Clampitt figures the rather clumsy, groping nature of our nomadic instincts in another animal;
we notice a turtle-domed repoussé
leather with an underlip of crimson—
as it hove eastward, a covered
wagon intent on the wrong direction.
Yet as the poet’s gaze moves out from the “snughouse,” to the yard, and finally to the shore, accepting the awkwardness of our attempts at domestic elegance, another kind of vision opens up, one perhaps only available to the exteriorizing nomad. The final tapestry of sea and sky, in indigo, a color the eye cannot perceive, is sublime rather than domestic:
intact, a curtain wall just frescoed
indigo, so immense a hue, a blue
of such majesty it can’t be looked at,
at whose apex there pulses, even
in daylight, a lighthouse, light-
pierced like a needle’s eye.
The lighthouse is there as an ordering principle, the poet’s reassurance to us that the life of the nomad need not be terrifying, that we will not wreck on the world’s blinding sublimity.
Wallace Stevens was perhaps more of a vacationer than a nomad, bu the understood the power of the nomadic sensibility, and his depiction in “Nomad Exquisite” brings us close to the quality of Clampitt’s imagination, the way it can “unhand unbelieving.”
As the immense dew of Florida
The big-finned palm
And the green vine angering for life,
As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,
And blessed mornings,
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors
So, in me, come flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.
Clampitt views nature, as Stevens’ nomad does, not for its eternal outlines but for its restless, even violent vitality, which brings forth, in beholder and poet, a comparable restless vitality of the imagination. Such an imagination, beholding the world for its “gold sides,” its metaphysical beauty, and its “green sides,” its sensuous beauty, responds with fiery forms. But while an “exquisite” nomad concerns herself with beauty, she does not build mansions to it. For she is “exquisite” in the other sense as well: she “searches out” and finds a home in motion.