Tom Clark (1941-2018)

Larry Bensky
Sunday August 19, 2018 - 11:09:00 AM

Tom Clark lived, for decades, as his health declined, on a busy street in Berkeley, in a house with many steep stairs. Crossing, haltingly, one of those streets he was struck by a car and killed on August 17.

One of the last times I saw him he made fun of himself for his frailty at having to pause while walking in the neighborhood, and even more when he tried to get to his front door. But, although he could have, he refused to move. His surroundings – mainly an enormous trove of books, magazines, newspapers, and his own voluminous works and manuscripts would have been too hard, and time consuming, to go through alone. And aside from his wife, Angelica, he trusted no one to help.

I asked Tom if he would be interested in being interviewed. We both knew we didn’t have forever to think about it (I’m 81; he was 77). My pitch was: “You’re probably the least best known person in this country to have written, and published, over 40 books. There’s a great diversity in subject and mode in what you’ve written. And you keep up, obsessively, with the literary and political world around you. Got to be some wisdom to communicate, no?”

Tom was polite, but obviously totally uninterested. He listened to me, and without responding, said he had to go lie down. Some time later, when he hadn’t returned, Angelica – who I’d known since their first days together in Bolinas in the late Sixties – came and told me he was asleep, and there was no telling when he’d get up.

We e-mailed occasionally after that, but never saw each other again. I liked him a lot and had always felt a bond with him. In fact, as I write this, I sense how nice it would be to have him here, as we would be watching the A’s (to whose fate he was emotionally linked) about to achieve what was thought to be an impossible climb to first place. 

As so many of us do – have to do – Tom compartmentalized his mind and soul.  

A glimpse at his published oeuvre gives a sense of this. 27 volumes of poetry. Biographies of Damon Runyon, Jack Keroac, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley. Five novels (including one based on the life and work of Celine). And diverse other tomes (and troves of articles) including books on baseball eccentrics Charley Finley and Mark Fidrych. 

Since 2009, he and Angelica produced an astonishing daily blog, “Beyond the Pale,” of pictures, poetry and prose, mostly centering on the endless horrors of refugee life in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. “Beyond the Pale” (archived on the internet) was (and is) worth grazing for the visually gripping photos, and the always apposite words.  

I wrote to him about how hard it was, sometimes, to immerse oneself in such intensity, no matter how much one empathized with plight. Amazingly, he called me to talk. After a long litany of health complaints he was tired and had to go. We never discussed the blog. But he did reiterate his gratitude for my Sunday morning classical music radio program, to which he was a devoted (and erudite) listener. 

I’m left remembering. Our days in Europe, when he was poetry editor, and I was Paris editor, of the Paris Review.  

It’s hard for those who weren’t alive then to imagine the circumstances of life, especially marginal literary/publishing life. For most of the time, neither Tom nor I had phones. Our addresses – especially his, since I had the tiny one-room magazine office in Paris – changed often. To send manuscripts and proofs back and forth was arduous and slow. When I visited him in Brightlingsea, Essex one time (he was teaching, sort of, in Cambridge) we spent hours comparing life’s passages, like our childhood baseball devotions (he had been a hot dog vender in Chicago) and lamenting how difficult it was to follow the White Six and the Dodgers from our exiles.  

The day after he died I’m looking at issues 32-37 of the Paris Review, dated Summer/Fall 1964 through Spring 1966 (it was supposed to appear quarterly but never did, due to endless financial crises and the undependability of its New York boss, George Plimpton.) The poetry includes works by Larry Eigner, Louis, Zukovsky, Charles Olson, Robert Bly, Ted Berrigan, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov (a rare woman!), Philip Whalen, Ron Padgett, and Aram Saroyan. Clark’s wonderful interview with Ginsberg was published (and is still available on-line, blessedly without pay wall!). 

Clark remained poetry editor until 1973, when he moved to California for a long – and marginal in every sense – life as a writer, and father. 

Every year, a book or two emerged. 

We are left with them as his shining legacy. 


Some of Tom’s last words…. 

When your twittering machine starts feeling kind of neglected... pouting there beside your pillow as though it thinks maybe you don't love it any more... and in the night you hear its familiar call... beckoning... something deep in your heroic teuton outerboroughs bonespurs awakens... as you go into motion your imperial robe pinches a bit... you loosen the belt strap... your twittering machine won't let you rest... tweet with me now, it croons impatiently... your tiny fat fingers do an anxious little jig around it and now you hardly know what you're doing... you're in power glide... then its strange ravening dead bird mouth beak opens and... out comes a sound only other dead birds and Republicans can hear!