Clarence Major – Five Poems


Aesthetic Debt

We leave the casino in Monte Carlo.
A ship anchored in calm water.
In a generous gesture,
we suspend our sense of rootedness.
Should art always give pleasure?

What of the natural discourse
between art and the recipient,
the radical highlights,
the dismantled reverence,
religious reverence,
graphic turmoil?

Art is there, waiting.
It forgives a whole town hall of mistakes.
We arrive
with outstanding aesthetic debt.
To say nothing
of harmful critical judgment,
even critical prejudice.
Illuminations are flickering, flickering—
light through porous paper.

I study a lithographic stone
glowing in the dark.
The artist says it is art.
We come out in the open
where elephants are sunbathing.


My first home, long ago:
situated in a timeless harbor.
Never mind the resonant light—
its surest metaphor.
A compelling seriousness
served a massive stillness
rooted in majestic sobriety.
I grew up innocence and aware,
with three glories.
And grew out of glory
into understanding—not withstanding.
But the question is:
can I return
or would I want to?
To return to an inherited structure…
To return to a place of negotiated surfaces…
Grimly exacting,
structured for flexibility.
Is it necessary to re-embrace it,
to re-embrace its concept
or circumstances?
Its light shines on
with single-mindedness:
a conceptual paradox.
Now the stillness has given way
to a new clamor
and to inexact memory;
and that is a home
I no longer need
but can’t give up.

Regenerative Forces

I’m at the summit.
I’ve so far managed to elude the rules.
I was told yesterday to watch out
up here for a culmination.
So far, only an eruption has taken place.
I know, I know. I need to elucidate.
But so much remains marginal.
That is the problem with fluid elements.
Up here, so high up,
nightmares easily become daydreams.
Multifaceted problems melt into one.
Oh, I forgot to tell you.
I’m wearing a farmer’s smock.
I’m pretty sure nobody so far recognizes me.
I’m forging a new identity.

Undulating Contours

We’re both bourgeois audience
and performance.
We live with the dominance
of a certain tendency.
Yet we long for a joyous communion.
No doubt about it.
We’re headed to a blurred indefinite place.
Not that we want to go.
We certainly don’t fully believe
in its prospects.
The garbage truck comes.
Half the garbage is left in the can.
I ask what’s the context of the climate.
Yes, there’s a dominance
of a certain tendency.
It has become a rigid mission.
But not all is lost.
We make peace with our forebodings.
We love old movie posters and film noir.
We love trees reflected in water.
Shimmering, they somehow look coquettish.
We still read George Orwell.
We read Conrad too.
We watch voyeuristic melodramas.
We love silent cinema and the color mauve.
We say freedom, not emancipation.
Meanwhile, high in the hills above our city:
secret carvings on boulders.
We are struggling to understand them.
If we have the discipline
they may redefine us—for the better.

Vantage Point

It’s a peculiar inwardness,
as mysterious as the Baltic Sea is to me.
But I’m utterly free
to be carefree and transfixed.
What I meant to say is
I love the slope of the tree line,
the wind-tossed leaves
leaving the trees
like blind birds
and the jutting crags seeming to
crawl the earth.
From my vantage point—a gully
on a hillside, where I clip-clip-clip
as two seagulls watch, waiting.
The fraternity
of nature’s secrets enthralls!
The wonderments!
The wonderments!
I marvel
at the scattering of new growth.
I’m here
where all the parts coalesce
into a cohesive whole.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

Beauty is of course relative. Aristotle thought it was “symmetry” and a gift from God. Presumably his God. Shakespeare said it’s a “shinning glass” that fades quickly. He was obviously thinking of a blooming flower and how quickly it fades. Nietzsche said it’s simply a word, not a concept. Emily Dickinson said beauty is not caused, it simply “is.” Perhaps with pride, Eighteenth Century French painters painted pictures of dead rabbits and birds piled on the kitchen table. To them that was beauty. The average teenager today, looking at those paintings, might say “Gross!” The consensus seems to be that whatever beauty is, it does not last; but it and love are among the best things humanity has come up with.

Clarence Major is a prizewinning short story writer, novelist, poet and painter.  As a finalist for the National Book Award he won a Bronze Medal for his book Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958-1998.  Major was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The Bay Area Book Reviewers Book Award and The Prix Maurice Coindreau in France. He is the recipient of The Western States Book Award, The National Council on The Arts Award, a New York Cultural Foundation Award, The Stephen Henderson Poetry Award for Outstanding Achievement (African American Literature and Culture Society of The American Literature Association), the Sister Circle Book Award, two Pushcart prizes, the International Literary Hall of Fame Award (Chicago State University), the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts, presented by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, The 26th Annual PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement, and other awards.  He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Davis.