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Poet, critic, and political activist, Clifton Snider has been writing and publishing since the early 70s. Yet, despite good critical reception and the admiration of discerning readers, his work has flown under the radar. Perhaps Snider’s decision to live and work outside a major literary center might have as much to do with his low profile as his refusal to identify with one school or aesthetic. Whatever the case, World Parade Books’ release of Moonman: New and Selected Poems may at long last bring Snider the wider visibility he deserves. A hefty tome of nearly 500 pages, Moonman seems more collected than selected. And while this allows for the inclusion of some weaker poems, it enables the book to be read as a proper retrospective of Snider’s versatility and development across the decades.
Organized chronologically, Moonman traces Snider’s fluid movement from one idiom to another: restrained poems in traditional forms; intellectual utterances that demonstrate his awareness of Western and Eastern philosophical systems; chatty, casual poems that respond to aspects of popular culture; and, most impressively, concise and memorable imagist verse. One would be hard put to say, however, that any single kind of poem dominates any particular era of Snider’s work; rather, all of these strains are present in each of his books. While he may cite W. H. Auden as an influence (“For W. H. Auden” is one of the finest passing-the-torch poems I’ve ever read), Snider’s voice bears greater resemblance to D. H. Lawrence, a poet whose best writing is restrained yet free, and occasionally shamanic.
The first two sections of Moonman focus on a persona named Jesse, a charismatic semi-mythological trickster figure who is savior and confidence man, panhandler and lover. Snider’s conception is not uninteresting—and many of these poems contain turns of considerable power. However, his reliance on traditional versification (inverted syntax to ensure rhyme, ballad measures, etc.) shows him struggling to find an acceptable linguistic means of representing his ambiguous anti-hero.
Time worked wonders and the relaxation of form in Edwin: A Character in Verse (1984) allows Snider to sing more clearly and evenly than in the early collections. Here, the persona functions as an effective objective correlative whose dual obsessions with thought and body echo a whole generation of gay men. “All Their Philosophies” begins with a simple declaration: “Edwin wants to know.” For Snider, the quest for knowledge is linked to the body and its dissipations, as is clear in the last section of the poem:
Four in the morning:
dry mouth, glasses
to be cleaned, butts
to be emptied.
The world at the end
of a gravel driveway.
The world at the end.
Edwin has to know.
In “A Young Man,” the elusive object of the persona’s gaze is recorded with naked precision:
A slip of grass
lies on his navel.
With masculine economy
he picks it up,
Then, in a sudden yet controlled leap of perception, the persona confides:
He walks away
from my eyes
he walks away.
Further collections demonstrate the breadth of Snider’s interests, from sacred and secular goddesses in The Age of Mother (1992) to the author’s consideration of visual art (“Aspens in the Wind”), marine life (“Honey from Heaven”) and his Nordic heritage (“The Mead of Poetry” and “Norwegian Woods”) in The Alchemy of Opposites. Originally published in 2000, Alchemy also features the writer’s first extended mediations on HIV and AIDS, which he understands with moving honesty. In “Negative” he tells of getting his first blood test: “My fears were like strange insects / flying hard into a light bulb.” In “Secrets” he addresses a former lover who died in 1992. “Autumn Tulips” is a sequence of poems for another former lover, who died in 1995.
Impressive as the poems in Snider’s latest books often are, I am more drawn to his mid-period pieces, including those in Of Blood and Bones (1988), a kind of travel diary-in-verse that chronicles Snider’s tour through Europe and his sudden hospitalization in Belgium for a bleeding ulcer. Immediate, urgent, yet tempered by a calm detachment, these poems are lit with a delirious, visionary glow.
Another favorite are the poems from Bad Smoke, Good Body (1980), which are dedicated to Snider’s brother Evan, last seen October 22, 1976. Snider’s elegiac voice longs for closure made impossible by his brother’s disappearance: “I have become Antigone. / I want your body / laid out. / I want a eulogy.” That Evan’s body is never found gives Snider some consolation: “your body / will never stoop with age.” In the end, he moves on but never forgets: “You return at night, / uncalled for, hair short, healthy, / eyes steady with knowledge / I have yet to gain.” It’s a chilling admission made even more potent by Snider’s eroticization of Evan, whose absence eerily foreshadows the loss of future lovers.
Moonman: New and Selected Poems
By Clifton Snider
World Parade Books
Paperback, 9781470075460, 276 pp.