The 26-Hour Day
Olivia Clare
$15, New Issues Poetry & Prose

The cover of The 26-Hour Day depicts mechanical wheels and pinions floating in a blue field, as though a wristwatch had burst underwater. It’s a snapshot of elegant disorder, and it’s a clue to what’s happening in Olivia Clare’s debut collection of poetry. Clare, a Black Mountain Institute fellow who splits her time between Las Vegas and Baton Rouge, isn’t interested in watchmaking, but watch-breaking. That is, in this collection ringing with spare, precise language, Clare aims to temporarily depose the handy coathanger concepts we use to hang our everyday understanding on — our conventional ideas about time, order, sequence, causation — and, that accomplished, she rushes into the resulting disarray to investigate history, art and love in fascinating ways. 

The title poem that opens the book almost serves as a kind of declarative pact in which Clare and you agree to set aside the rules: “It is black bear o’clock/ when the nightmare stalks/ dormeurs like you, little/ conjuring head. I will stay/ here tonight, blow the dust/ from your lashes ...” But if you’re getting the impression of a bit of fairytale playfulness, think again. The speaker warns: “And I will not sing/ any earthly thing.”

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True to that admonition, many of the poems address difficult subjects: war, atrocity, faith, the weight of history and tradition. But, again, in keeping with the premise of constructive disorder, Clare approaches these subjects in fresh, almost harrowing fashion. For instance, only in this clockless world would the nursery rhyme about the old woman in the shoe be retooled into a singular contemplation of the Holocaust. In this poem, “Bone and Hue,” the fabled shoe is multiplied, almost metastasized, to evoke the piles of clothing systematically stripped from victims in the concentration camps: “She had so many lives,/ she didn’t know what to do.” Another poem that interleaves new and old, wonder and history’s weight, is “Enoch’s Blocks,” which startles with an image of the biblical figure as a child seeming to construct sense itself with alphabet blocks. In Clare's vision, the blocks are potent monads that spark sound and meaning when fused: “So CAB was a whirring warbler./ BACH was the Spanish Armada crashing/ and crashing.”

But I don't want to give the impression that these poems are ponderous or sulky with weight. There’s a nimbleness, a strangely charitable offhandedness to them. Clare never lets the weight of her subject pull her away. But even saying that suggests it’s a question of control. It’s not. These poems are more like disciplined, thoroughly imagined visitations.

One of my favorite pieces in this collection is exceptional in how it takes that approach, and redlines it to the point of reckless, rollercoaster exhilaration. In the notes section, Clare writes that her poem “Thee” is inspired by Walt Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter” — his fevered, ecstatic ode to industrial power. But I like to think of her take as a cover song — in this case, an orgiastic doubling down on the original that reads like a hundred Wikipedia pages being run through an algorithmic cheese-grater: “Trick of the modulation emblem of motley and PR prick of the continent!/ Come sewage the Muse, and merge in autochthon with stratosphere and falling soapstone ...” It’s bewildering, yes, and yet wholly invigorating. To borrow the lyrics of another piece of hallucination-rich rock ’n’ roll: Take the hands off the clock — we’re gonna be here a while. Reading The 26-Hour Day is time bracingly well-spent.