Island, by Jeanette Clough. Los Angeles, CA: Red Hen Press, 2007. Reviewed by Patricia Crane in Poetry International (2010, vol. 15 – 16), pp 399-400.

If the physical world is the context for this voyage, then acute attentiveness is the means by which the voyager ultimately relinquishes her mind’s hold long enough to experience it more fully: Jeanette Clough’s Island is a journey, a series of journeys, traversing jungle, desert, ocean, islands, bluffs and even the body, wandering the edges between tangible landscapes and the more ephemeral realms of time, faith and desire.

While the speaker in these poems constantly resists urges toward coherence and “the Edenic compulsion to name everything,” she also understands her predicament called language, at times giving in to the litany: “gungurru, bangalay, manna,” “camphor, carob, copper-beech,” “ilex, cryptomeria, morus, quercus.” She resists and lets go, resists (“Again I fail the test of coherence”) and lets go until, mid-way through the book there’s a palpable shift, a greater willingness to surrender to what her unconscious offers up, whether it coheres or not.

The result is that sight and what sight evokes conflate, like a whale’s tail appearing above the ocean’s surface and a lover’s arm resting on a chair. Even the speaker herself merges with the physical world: “I have a breastbone of sand / where heavy curved water breaks constantly, / where the hollow exoskeletons of mollusks expose their edges….” From elephant tracks in shale to dogs running on a beach to a bow traversing a cello’s body to the curved lip of a lover, sight and experience accrue, culminating in what the speaker calls, “the entire thing of creation curving in a wave from whatever set it moving ….”

At times, Clough enters the object of her attention so completely, all reference points vanish and what is known suddenly becomes unfamiliar, the way repeating a word again and again can transform it into something foreign. When language no longer holds up, eels seen from a boat merely “move in a way suggested by undulate, and slither.”

Through her process of discovery and the concomitant struggle for what might be called ‘true’ perception, Clough finds herself face to face with the here-and-now. Which, like a fishing lure whizzing past her head, is “part of an arc thrown from the past into the fluid next.” “Even cataclysms and miracles,” she reminds us, “pick up with the present after the marvel retreats.” It is “the only beginning there is.” Of course, Clough acknowledges that even the present is elusive – “solidity is an illusion viewed from a long way off” – that life is a “chance batch of restless matter…a resilient mix surviving risk and flux,” that the best thing to do is “wake up…take in the scenery, ignore the gloss.”

We are islands and desire a reef: “the submerged geography that edges each island self. The edge is never far away. We step into thin air; all it takes is practice. Whether a word is here or there, the meaning will come out. The sequence is any body’s guess. Eternity becomes what you do now.”