Here’s a great review of Adam Clay’s book, A Hotel Lobby At the Edge of the World (Milkweed Editions, 2012), which first appeared in Cant Journal issue #4. Adam Clay has a new book, Stranger, coming out through Milkweed in the near future, so keep your eyes open, and pick it up when it arrives.
At one point in Adam Clay’s second book of poems, A Hotel Lobby At the Edge of the World, he writes about the experience of staring at a familiar painting, only to realize his observations have been incorrect. Rather than a painting with a naturalist landscape of birds, Clay’s speaker in “Goodbye to All That, the Birds Included” now sees that these birds were actually pieces of trash floating in the air. The realization that he has been choosing to see incorrectly is jarring, and he mourns the loss of his optimistic perspective: “What is there in this world that we do not say goodbye to?” (62). Moments like this are emblematic of the collection, where we receive a remarkable amount of insight into Clay’s humanity, both as poet and as witness. These are poems that are caught at the intersection of the natural and the urbane, urgently striving for connection to the world while embracing all of its disparate parts.
The title of the book establishes the notion of the traveler, and the poems within depict a transient figure who internalizes all that is external; whether Clay is writing about cherry blossoms or parallel parking, his speaker is one with a desire for clarity in a world of complication. Of course, his relationship with language is part of this struggle as well. Throughout the book, there is a curious lack of separation between language and the natural world. Instead, this is a world where the struggle to communicate is as urgent as the struggle to survive. In “Sonnet,” he writes:
I am trying to find a line of tenderness
to walk tonight. But wishing for something—
A deer, a possum, a squirrel, anything—
To make its way across the boulevard
At this moment would suit me fine. Do we wish
For words and then they come to us? Do we wish
For words and say the opposite of what they mean?
Syntax has never eaten from my hand…(8)
Clay’s preoccupation with a language that literally lives and breathes on its own is fascinating poetic fodder already. But he pushes the idea even further—if language is indeed alive, in what ways is it an independent decision-making agent? What happens when it won’t be our friend? What happens if it chooses not to reciprocate our love? Many of these poems confront the complexity of this fragile ecosystem while maintaining a remarkable level of charm and energy.
Later in the book, in part 16 of a long poem titled, “As Complete As a Thought Can Be,” Clay writes, “We are the words,/ yes, but we are swallowing/ swords by the second, by/ the handful” (40). This poem, like many others, is steeped in danger, and while there is frequently a playfulness to dampen it, we understand the urgency and severity as those of us in the world increasingly detach and withdraw from one another.
The epigraph by Bob Hicock before the final section of the book says, “Let us all be from somewhere. Let us tell each other everything” (65). Adam Clay gets this exactly right. These poems embrace the whole of the American landscape in Whitmanesque fashion. Where Clay separates himself is how these poems have the domestic heart of someone who more than anything wants to share some good conversation with dinner and a friend. When Clay tells us to “Look at a leaf and see your face./ Look at the sound of one hand clapping and hear it forever./ Look to the noise of a newspaper in the wind/ and hear it become the wind,” (54) we do it, because we are utterly swept away by his infectious, authentic enthusiasm. A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World is a tremendous display of a poet who is constantly searching but always participating, and one who we are grateful to ride alongside.