Adam Clay’s third book, Stranger, examines the ways we can be estranged from each other and the places we live, as well as the philosophical questions that arise from our attenuated relationships. Throughout the book, Clay uses colloquial phrases to convey abstract ideas in a way that leaves his poems approachable and yet distanced enough from his subjects to allow pause, consideration, and contemplation. In this book, one can be sure, behind every simple phrase exist multitudes of meaning.
As Clay’s narrator explains in “Exhibit A,” “I’d like to be stranger than I’ve been.” The purpose of this strangeness is to recognize the patterns of “numbness and carelessness” we so easily fall into. As he says in “This Is a Frame,” “without a pause, we notice nothing,” and so these poems pause over quotidian objects and relationships (furniture, houses, landscape, parenthood) time and again in order to invest thought in them anew. In these poems, all we think we understand is up in the air, nothing is definite, and all is possible. Clay’s language remains open to signifying newly, allowing the narrative voice to travel outside the normal boundaries of identity to take in world events, notions of self and others, and understandings of place, and to shape them into an attempt at meaning by “[taking] the words apart.”
Clay sets his poems in the liminal space between identities, existing in the inside and outside, included and excluded, all at once. Each of these poems could be read alone as associative experiments with knowledge. Yet, read as a whole, Stranger pulls into relation the wide-ranging thinking in these poems toward an aesthetics of openness to new perceptions, or, as Clay words it, the ability to say “perhaps” rather than always to define. As he says in “Start This Record Over,” the pauses he’s created in the narrative and language of the poems speak a kind of possibility: “Perhaps is a new and sudden way of being.”
In defamiliarizing the quotidian, Clay takes moments of daily living and examines, meditates, turns them over and inspects them again. He takes on the title of “stranger” for his narrator and uses it to find a liminal space to pronounce our current lives as worthy of unceasing questions. In these poems, constructing sentences, attempting meaning, creates a conversation that requires two interlocutors, an I and a you, and, even as that I and you might change across our lives, that “From / one thought to another, I’m calling out to you, // I’m calling out to you, // as if we’re building a nest, one word at a time.” By the end of the book, Clay reminds us that these acts of living and of poetry are tenuous in frightful and freeing ways all at once.
By Adam Clay
Milkweed Editions, February 2016
Paperback, 96pp. $16.
Jeremy Michael Reed is a doctoral candidate in poetry at the University of Tennessee. His poems and essays are published or forthcoming in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Still, The Rumpus, The Cresset, and elsewhere.