The first line from the poem “Seeds” in Conyer Clayton’s debut collection We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite out with Guernica Editions is “I pray to catch on fire” which puts me in mind of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s lines, “who made me as the world’s / first person, breathing / Fire and poetry.”
Perhaps it is not the same thing, but Conyer Clayton’s new collection reminds me a little of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poetry in its surprising, less-tangible, lyrically-dense, deeply interior images, but also of Ruth Stone’s In The Next Galaxy in its spare structures and short line breaks.
I get a sense Clayton does not want to say things too plainly which is an admirable quality in a young poet. She is intoxicated by the power of language, and many times the meaning of the poems appear in flux, the lyrical overtaking the literal, but for me, the best poems are the ones that have a home base in the world, the state in which things actually exist, even if they end up flying away from it. I love, for instance, the little poem “Trap”:
“We came home
a spider in a cocktail glass
and watched him;
among giants, silent
on a stranger’s walls.”
This is a perfect little lyric poem that speaks both to the mind and body. Its strength derives from its ability to share a common experience, while simultaneously adding human feelings of claustrophobia and menace bumping up against the spider’s fearlessness to appeal to our collective unconsciousness.
Another wonderful poem is “A Record on Repeat” which clearly situates the poem for the reader as it presents two people, perhaps lovers, listening to music while an uncomfortable, psychological silence lingers:
“We sent ourselves through,
the air, a kiss to the stars
planted on your best friend’s cheek, a record
on repeat to reference how I feel
to reassure what I already know; that
an adjustment is necessary.
I am repulsed to notice myself.
An empty arm-nest, longing.
This foils our plans for independence,
for nights spent in confidence.
I’m just an inconsolable fold
of skin over nerves.
I’m just the person I need to be,
all the things I can’t stand to hear you say.”
The lines “I am repulsed to notice myself. / An empty arm-nest, longing” is a startling emotional admission and an arresting image which for me makes me want to trust this poet’s voice, even if Clayton is slowly developing it through the course of this first collection.
The poet Conyer Clayton’s strength is her ability to bend images into standout lines like “If the river stood still it would / become a mountain” or “I own this body, / sometimes” while keeping her line-breaks short and poetic structures minimalist.
Conyer Clayton’s spare lyrics in We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite (Guernica Editions) revel in the interiority of the poet’s imaginative life while occasionally shining a light on our exterior world using both physical and psychological imagery. I look forward to her “catching fire” across many more books to come.
We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite by Conyer Clayton
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