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A Box Full of Alien Skies: Selected Poems 1988 - 1998
G.O. Clark
Dark Regions Press, 44 pages

A Box Full of Alien Skies
G.O. Clark
G.O. Clark has appeared in magazines such as Asimov's, Talebones, Space & Time, Dreams & Nightmares. His poems have been anthologized in 2001: A Science Fiction Poetry Anthology, the Rhysling Award Anthology, and Star Trek -- The Poems. In 2001, he was the recipient of the Asimov's Readers' Award for best poem, and in the same year he came in 2nd in the Rhysling Award competition, short poem category, sponsored by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Also in the spring of 2001, he joined the staff of Dark Regions magazine as an assistant fiction editor. He resides in Davis, California.

G.O. Clark Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: G.O. Clark

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

Readers have to be grateful for small presses like Dark Regions (Small Beer, Fairwood, Golden Gryphon, Four Walls Eight Windows, Ministry of Whimsy, Wildside, Ziesing -- reading off the publishers within eyeshot of my shelves) which continue to pump out author and poet collections, giving us devourers of literature a chance to examine en masse favorite writers who would not otherwise get the chance that major publishers gave collections from the 40s to the 70s and 80s. The genre would be far poorer without them.

Writers -- whether they are aware of it or not -- have an agenda that they work out as any oeuvre gathers enough mass to bear out. G.O. Clark's A Box Full of Alien Skies should fill that gap in poetry left by Ray Bradbury's more literary fiction endeavors proving that, yes, Virginia, it is a Science Fictional world... with poems like "Where Are You Now My Bug Eyed Ones" which puts Bob Dylan's eco- and humanitarian-lamenting lyrics of this title to strange use: half-seriously, half-mockingly lamenting the loss of SF tropes from 50s cinema.

But this next statement may surprise those who follow the sub-genre closely: A Box Full of Alien Skies is, by and large, not a collection of SF poetry -- a cumbersome and problematic name in the first place, using "Fiction" to define itself when fiction is most often what it is not -- but a collection about science and SF. I won't argue if some contend that is SF poetry. All the same, we must demand truth in advertising from our labels.

Likewise, the title would have been more appropriate -- though perhaps less hinting at a vogue for surreal poetry -- as A Box Full of Alien Skies, which would have laid another layer upon the foundation Clark lays throughout his poems, especially to "A Box of Eyes" where parts of living creatures, which may be human, make for a blue-green planet. Yet, the collection draws its title from "Report -- Stardate 2045":

...what [the survey team] brought back:

...the essence of a thought foretold,
a feather from the hand of the future,
the blueprint of a dream,
a box full of alien sky,
a secret shared by all, and
a reason to continue our questing.

Were I making the suggestions of order, I might have requested this to round up the collection, ending on a note of hope (a perspective not shared by my colleague Clayton Couch at Sidereality, but then I didn't quote the first half of the poem which describes the lost civilization) and ending on the note that, through collection title, might have resonated conclusively for me: if a box of alien sky brought back can give us reason to continue questing, what would an entire box full of alien skies do? By labeling the collection "Skies," we see we are to take each of these poems as an alien sky urging us to continue our quest.

The poem that should have led the collection off to tip his readers to the issues at stake is "Standard Time":

We are
our father's
science fiction,

old history to our

and past, caught up
in the present.

I deleted Clark's two stanzas of more concrete idea-things from the middle to make my point, but something else can be seen while we're here: Clark is of the Charles Bukowski variety (in style, not content): loose poetry structured less for purpose than for sound. Note how the end-of-lines, the one-word and two-word lines don't necessarily carry their weight. The place of emphasis is generally diffuse. This is not necessarily a criticism so much as a way of limiting what can be meaningfully discussed in Clark's work.

This does not mean, either, that Clark abandons poetic structures altogether. In the first two stanzas of "1958" you can see the parallel structure of contrasts and near-rhyme (though one speculates at the use of "despite... gravity" since who would have thought it changed our quest?):

up above,

down below.

The quest
for knowledge

despite the

of gravity.

This also demonstrates Clark's penchant for symmetry of lines and stanzas, seen in his two earlier non-speculative collections. With an overview of Clark's work now teeteringly established, let's back up to an earlier collection to see where Clark has been so that we might better position his latest collection (at the time of this writing, his eight page collection I bought is MIA among the jungle of books I call my room): In Letting the Eye to Wonder (nice pun on I/eye and the noun/verb play of wonder), Clark demonstrates an early interest in the fantastic, and the transition to speculative poetry is relatively painless with investigations of cosmic sodas, Godzilla and voodoo dolls, robots, gravity and angels. Although a few poems have merit, Clark has improved his craft from straightforward observations of our strange and baffling existence, such as a man watering an aluminum tree, the narrator giving a bird a bit of croissant and the bird giving him a bug in return. But the two poems here worth selecting for a book of selected Clark would be "Getting on with her Career" and "The Result of a Consequence" because the poems loom larger than their words on the page, expanding within the reader.

Yeah, yeah. "But William Carlos Williams said it was enough just to observe." Well, good ol' WCW was wrong. It wouldn't be the first time, either. WCW loved Poe's verse and failed to make a case for it as poetry. WCW said no ideas but in things -- a sound enough principle -- but what about Wallace Stevens who turned his ideas into things? If you're reinventing the way we look at poetry, then observation alone is plenty: by observation, I mean simply describing a cat walk on a mantelpiece without further insight into the human condition (my old poetry teacher would flay me alive for my blasphemy). But if you're doing what's already been done and your words have no more meaning than what lies on the surface, you're writing verse. Verse is fine -- and Clark had a few touching and eloquent examples in his early work -- but it isn't poetry.

"Getting on with her Career"

Down at the mall,
in the empty sunglasses booth,
a young salesclerk sits behind
the counter watching a sunspot's
slow progress across the carpet;
mentally hurrying its advance
like those Friday classroom clocks,
she thought she'd left behind.

This gives something to ponder after the eyes have left the words: It's like Loverboy told us in the 80s, "Everybody's working for the weekend"1 (but like many lyricists, Loverboy failed to capitalize upon their idea and should have turned it into a thing as Clark did here). This to me validates my point that poetry has to mean. We work and we die, but to what end? Entertainment? Who is to say or care we have passed here if we do not mean?

In "The Result of a Consequence," two wind-up Godzillas have just dined on the bones of a chicken behind them in the mind of the narrator:

...both are smiling, like two

old friends reminiscing
after drinks about the wild
times they once shared;

secretly wishing the
old spark would somehow return,
and life kindly favor them

with one, last, unabashed sequel.

(Clark pines and opines further on Godzilla in one of the links listed below.) The early endeavors for poetry become more frequent successes as Clark fully immerses himself within the framework of SF poetry in A Box Full of Alien Skies. SF done him good, you might say. He does much of the same but the genre adds a layer of dimension to his observations for a telescopic view -- giving the three-dimensional look of those old 3D Viewmasters or blue and red 3D movie glasses where you could watch one image move on top of another. This is nowhere better apparent than in "Mr. Zeno's Holiday" in which the father learns the paradox of "never getting there" when his children keep asking if they were there yet -- good observational detail applied to a mathematical concept. But, like "Earthbound" in his earlier collection in which the narrator observes a man in a wheelchair and in his lap sits a woman bearing wings, observation can keenly suit and touch the heart of its subject:
"Mr. Hawking's Starship"

Confined to a wheelchair,
skeleton tired, words becoming
leaden weights, he ponders the
continuum surrounded

by photons, fireflies for the
imagining on this summer's night,
the solar system a purring cat
curled up in his lap,

the great starship of
his mind reaching out to touch the
mysterious, fierce beauty
that connects us all,

trying to tame the wild
cosmos with his elegant equations,
while cat-like defying gravity,
space and time.

Clark has some elegant lines throughout like in "The Unfinished Map of the Sky": "atop a/cold hot plate -- the tea kettle no longer/whistles, a delicate spider web/crosshatching its spout." But the best I saved for last:
"Riding the 'A' Line"

Medusa has
materialized on
the Manhattan subway,
loudly lamenting about
lovers past....

Behind her....

a reflection
of snakes...

Rudy eyes afire,
she glances this way
and that, hoping to make
eye contact, ignorant of the
unspoken etiquette...

where a new life awaits her
down among the lesser gods, in
their labyrinths of stone.

It isn't the lyrical nature, nor vivid details, nor the idea that New Yorkers are inhumanly and paradoxically isolated in so crowded a space that makes this poem new. These have been done before. It's what you have to think about after the poem is done: maybe there's a damn good reason why New Yorkers don't look people in the eye. This alone makes the poem one of the greats in the sub-genre, ensuring Clark's place in a history yet to be written.
1 To get a take widely different take from mine (I think we read the same book), see

To sample G.O. Clark for yourself, check out the following:

Quoting Loverboy by no means condones its use in the torturing of laboratory animals.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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