Patricia Clark is a modern environmentalist. In addition to being a fabulous poet, she deeply cares for the fate of the natural world, and believes humans should appreciate their surroundings, and invest time and energy into exploring and rejoicing in the environment.
“I am concerned about our planet—and would like us all, as humans, to take better care,” said Clark. “I believe in looking around; in celebrating what is there; in noticing what is around us. We need to open our eyes to what is in our neighborhoods and on our streets.”
This is an interesting viewpoint for someone who majored in economics in college, and was on track to have a career in business. After she graduated with her Bachelor’s from the University of Washington, her interest in going to graduate school for poetry was sparked when she attended a writers’ conference in Washington, and from then on, she says, “I was hooked.”
“I had a gathering sense that I should follow my passion,” said Clark. “I knew that it was poetry but rather hated to admit it to myself. Once I did admit it, I knew I was on the right track. The stars got into alignment for me.”
It’s a good thing, too, because without those aligned stars, Grand Rapids wouldn’t have the honor of being home to Patricia Clark, professor and “poet-in-residence” at Grand Valley State University. In addition to writing poems for the University and speaking in the community as a representative of GVSU, Clark founded the Grand Valley Poetry Night, in which well known poets are invited to read their poetry and converse with the audience about poetry and writing. These events are open to the public, and therefore serve to enrich both the Grand Rapids community and the students at GVSU. The first Poetry Night bragged of such renowned poets as Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Naomi Shihab Nye, and drew upwards of 600 people to the event.
In addition to her passion for sharing poetry with her students and her community, Clark is an avid gardener, and loves nature. Her interest in horticulture and nature clearly influences much of her poetry, but even more significant is her dedication to preserving the natural world and learning to value all of its raw beauty. This enthusiasm for nature is a major influence on the poetry in her 2009 chapbook she walks into the sea.
Clark’s concern for the health of the planet seems to be a major theme of the book, and twines its way into many of Clark’s most elegant and catching poems. The opening poem of the book, “Hamadryad,” demonstrates Clark’s talent for writing vivid and intriguing descriptions of nature, and her ability to infuse a magical quality into ordinary experiences like watching seasons change and flowers bloom. Her careful language creates a bond between humans and nature, inviting readers to envision themselves as a part of nature, not outside of it, therefore calling them to invest themselves in the fate of the natural world.
Imagine flowering in early fall on leafless twigs—
that’s one of the witch hazel’s magic traits.
And the fruit capsule, when dried, can shoot its seed
A full thirty feet—a tree that can move.
Our fates have become linked, both about to be
Planted by the ravine-edge—
there to soar, to ride the night and morning air,
going through turns of the mood, tumbles of storm (1-14).
Clark’s style can be summed up in her ability to create resonant images that evoke emotion in the reader. Her sometimes unusual word choice and creative interpretation of everyday occurrences serves to really grab readers and cause them to think about ordinary things in a fresh, novel way. For example, in a description of the approach of Autumn, Clark compares trees to people, leaves to clothes: “All summer the trees have been packing to go. / See how they unfold and fold their fat leaves / as though they were sweaters (1-3).”
In addition, Clark often invites the reader to learn something new from his or her surroundings, by watching how a heron flies or how a tree grows and changes. In her poem “A Field Guide to trees” she declares,
Because they are free
of ownership, trees can tell us a thing or two.
The great stillness they endure, night into day,
gives them access to mystery. (3-6)
In fact, Clark writes about nature with such reverence that in many poems there is a deep spirituality present in the descriptions and tone of the writing. In her poem “Tree as Temple,” the theme of natural divinity is developed throughout the piece, and trees are presented as temples for birds, “in postures of prayer / or meditation… / priests and priestesses of the temple / of this ruined world” (8-10). As in the last line of this section, a note of melancholy is often intertwined in Clark’s mystical and positive descriptions of nature. This shade of sadness is perhaps a vestige of Clark’s anxiety over the deleterious and destructive power that humans have on nature, and the possibility that we could destroy something as beautiful and sacred as a quiet forest to make room for the materialism of commercial industry.
Considering Clark’s tendency to write about things she sees and experiences on a daily basis, it is unsurprising that she cannot name a single inspiration, but finds inspiration everywhere.
“I don’t have any favorite subjects,” said Clark, who likes to write about “anything that causes me to pause, to stop, to think further. It might be a piece of art, or something from the newspaper.”
This inclination toward anything that sparks her interest can be seen throughout she walks into the sea, with poems being based on anything from the process of boiling a bird for dinner to a willow tree. Clark’s ability to make these commonplace things and experiences magical and suddenly interesting is a hallmark of her style, and something that sets her apart from other poets. Also, her desire to create an understanding between humans and nature shines through in many of her poems, and gives her writing a unique twist. Patricia Clark should be appreciated as the luminary she is—gem of the Grand Rapids arts community, outstanding teacher and organizer, and conservationist to boot.