Originally printed June 10, 2012 in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
The final lines of Adam Clay's poem, "Scientific Method," have been haunting me for weeks."When left alone / long enough," he writes, "the prisoners / began to interrogate themselves."
I'm still not exactly sure what the lines mean, but they deftly introduce Clay's new, long-titled collection, "A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World" (Milkweed Editions, 2012). And the rest of the poems in the book follow suit in terms of their lack of pretension, their power and their sheer memorablity.
In "I'm Pretty Sure That's a Hurdle in the Distance," Clay writes of "A head filled / with vowels in a consonant world." He goes on to complain to his companion/reader that, "I'm fairly sure you could finish / my sentences and make them better."
But few people could write a better poetic line than Adam Clay does.
At his best, Clay has trained his lines to jump out and demand attention by themselves.
And, at times, they refuse to come back — refuse to reassemble into the orderly procession that we would expect from a poem.
In his "Sonnet," for example, Clay writes, "I am trying to find a line of tenderness."
But he never finds that line — even though he tries out nearly every other type of line he can think of.
And in Clay's longer poems — especially in the 20-section long "As Complete as a Thought Can Be" — those insistent, independent, idealistic lines create so much confusion and cacophony that readers may find themselves suddenly afraid of tripping over those verbal hurdles in the distance.
But Clay finds a way to make those periods of cluelessness part of the poetry itself.
"Not for a lack / of understanding," Clay writes, "but for a lack / of understanding / maps, I found myself / lost in the / big city."
Clay, in fact, manages to invent a new genre in this collection: The "Poem in Place of a Fractured Sonnet."
Starting with in a frozen riverside scene in which he remembers the river alive with movement and fish back in August, Clay's narrator considers all the grand, glacial metaphors he could draw from the natural beauty around him.
But the poem ends, not with a haunting meditation on how the site has changed over thousands of years of wind and weather, but with with the poet suggesting, "I could take you to the place / where I had my hair cut each month for five years."
Clay's poems are like finally coming to terms with the impossibility of things ever adding up.
They're like a "Self-Portrait with House Slippers and Tap Water."
They're like "A Thought Before Thought."
They're like "A Memory, Forgotten at the End of a Season."
But they're exactly the reading material you'd like to have on hand when you find yourself waiting indefinitely at a hotel lobby at the edge of the world.
Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at email@example.com.