if you turn around I will turn around
Paperback perfect bound, 64 pages
In if you turn around I will turn around Ben Clark explores the fading relationship between two friends who have known one another since adolescence. Or is this simply the narrative I imposed on a book that offers as much shadow as light? Either way, Clark presents poems that read as a correspondence between a man, Ben and woman, Kate as well as their personal journal entries. These forms can, at first, be hard to decipher since Clark has chosen to title his poems instead of using the constraints of formal letters, but I quickly found footing through the speakers’ distinctly rendered voices.
Clark’s poems trace this relationship with a tenderness that invites the reader in and asks them to stay. The intimacy conveyed by the two speakers quickly transfers to the reader; I found the space within each poem easy to fall into and difficult to leave. This isn’t by accident. Clark’s lines feel carefully chosen, yet unforced, so that the reader experiences them as instinctive. In “fever and me are old friends,” one of the early poems in the collection, Kate writes to Ben: “Tremble your thumb across the wrinkle on my forehead, say you can’t hold me / still. Low season has me scared. There was an accident with a close friend / and death is relentless.” Kate’s mix of vulnerability, candidness, and secrecy creates a seductive mix. By having her simultaneously command an action from Ben and the reader, Clark pulls us convincingly into the page.
The use of sound throughout the collection acts as a catalyst for the connection between speakers and reader, as well. Clark demonstrates a tremendous ear and a willingness to let his writing move with it. The poem, “I told you once I forgot you” begins: “From inside, your song / stopped my hands / full of seeds.” Clark is less concerned with definitions and more with the way words can make his reader feel. The repetition of “s” sounds imbues the lines with a sense of softness that mimics Ben’s affection for Kate. Yet “stopped” is a word both hard in sound and definition, imitating Ben’s hesitance in contacting Kate: “I only stray so far, / maybe the hallway, or the end of / the drive, before returning.” The poem explores the existing love and growing distance between Ben and Kate not merely through literal meanings, but through the meanings carried within language’s sounds.
As the collection advances, narrative threads emerge to accompany Clark’s stunning use of language. In “simple tricks,” Ben writes to Kate regarding her pregnancy:
With your son only a week from birth
you must know regret. This is the closest
you’ll ever be to him. Each day after,
he’ll seem further away.
As the title of the collection foreshadows, part of Clark’s brilliance lies in his ability to take common human sights and experiences and turn them askew, thereby presenting the reader with new ways of seeing. Instead of calling birth a blessing, Clark envisions it as the start of the journey a child makes away from its mother. But the birth of Kate’s son also acts as another barrier between her and Ben—or at least this seems to be the way Ben experiences it. Kate is already beholden to her husband, Jay, and her son is another life—another body—that she must commit herself to. It’s as if Ben sees himself as Kate’s son moving further away from Kate with each day her due date moves closer.
Yet the relationship between Ben and Kate is not so simply one sided: if you turn around I will turn around is a study in distance from both sides. In the second in a three-part series of title poems dispersed throughout the collection, Ben writes in a journal entry to himself:
Admit, for both of you, writing is no longer easy as skipping stones.
Admit you forget her again and again. That at times you read her letters
out of obligation. That not everything is contained within this border
of dust where the kitchen table once was, or in the arranging
and rearranging of letters that smell like someone in particular.
Here, writing acts as a mirror for Ben to look back on his past with Kate, as well as the limitations of a relationship acted out, and held together, through letters. Kate and Ben are, of course, people, but they are also the letters they’ve written to one another—the images they hold of each other in their own minds. Clark explores the ways long-distance relationships challenge the limits of communication and empathy through Ben’s questioning of his correspondence with Kate. How much do the “letters that smell like someone in particular” hold of Kate and how much do they simply hold of Ben’s memory of her? It is questions like this that drive the book forward while simultaneously turning it back upon itself.
As I’ve already mentioned, Clark generates a number of surprising images throughout the book by turning sight on its side, but his lines moved me just as frequently when they takes a straightforward form. In one of the collection’s final offerings, “asleep beside a dead tree, miles from anywhere or anyone,” Ben writes to Kate: “You no longer need to ask / if I think of you. One of your children is named / after me, and you’re miserable most days.” These lines present complex emotions while feeling authentic to a person experiencing the loss of a friendship, whether real or imagined. I can continue to discuss how Ben sees himself in Kate’s son and how Kate does too, but one of the triumphs of Clark’s poetry is that it does not need intensive dissection in order to move the reader.
When, later in the poem, Ben writes to Kate, “I buried some part of you years ago, / and don’t recognize what / has grown all around me” he is not only mourning their past, but speaking to the experience of growing older. Through Ben and Kate’s correspondence, Clark explores the multiplicity of memory and the self—how we fall into our past selves while simultaneously knowing they are no longer who we are; if you turn around I will turn around is a reconciliation of Ben and Kate’s past and present, of their physical and written, relationships. Clark understands that love—whether between friends, family, or lovers—cannot easily be defined: where one memory is buried, another blooms in its space.