Thomas A. Clark is ambitious. In a short essay on “Imaginative Space,” the Scottish poet describes our “late culture,” which is characterized by “derangement and disequilibrium,” the “constant and inescapable climate of a politics of bewilderment.” He proposes a plan to transform late culture into “one that is fully human.”
To achieve such a renewal, Clark begins “in the imagination.” Reclaiming space “as sites of imaginative transformation” will ultimately produce a “transformation at the level of materials and events.” Imagination can “redirect attention and awareness, invite a pause, introduce a value.” Imagination subjects spaces to “the imperative ‘as if.’”
Through imagination, “new models of order can be conceived, realised, maintained and dissolved.” Imagination frees us from anxiety when we bump up against “an objective and final reality” that cannot be other than it is, and so enables us to discover or form a world that is “less intractable.”
There’s an implied metaphysics behind this. Our “model of facts” is materialist, taking matter as “a density without space, separate and ungiving.” Clark calls this a “fiction,” but not because he’s an anti-realist.
Reality, he says, is “neither literal nor virtual but imaginal.” We don’t live in the midst of inert, unmeaning stuff, nor are the worlds we inhabit projections from our brains. Our lived worlds consist of “an array of images,” things and scenes brimfull of fear and desire, composed by imagination. We don’t renew imagination by closing our eyes. On the contrary: Clark’s proposal for imaginative space requires us to “come to our senses and to learn to live in the space they open up.”
Clark’s ambition is inversely proportional to the modesty of his means. There are no screeds against consumerism or narcissism or imperialism. “Isms” would be entirely out of place. Clark wants to transform late culture by taking long walks on the Scottish Highlands and writing about long walks on the Scottish Highlands.
The very subject matter of much of his poetry—walking—embodies the culture he longs for. As he says in his essay-poem “In Praise of Walking,” walking can be a form of protest. We can “refuse all coercion, violence, property, triviality” simply by walking away. As soon as we step outside, we discover a world “outside ourselves and our preoccupations,” a world that dislocates our “persistent self-interest.”
A walk is not a journey, much less an expedition. On a journey, we predetermine the direction we go and the miles to be “consumed.” On an expedition, we seek to take dominion of the space. By contrast, “a walk is its own measure” and includes “wrong turns, doubling back, pauses and digressions.” “Walking is the human way of getting about,” human because of its fragile fallibility, its scale and speed, its engagement with the world, its solitude.
We can walk on a well-worn path or “strike out entirely for ourselves.” It doesn’t matter what path we choose. What matters is that we stick to it: “One continues on a long walk not through effort of will but through fidelity.”
It would be easy for Clark’s encomium to walking to turn into cheap allegory, but it doesn’t. It’s “sacramental.” He never stops talking about actual walking, yet every line of the poem is an epiphany, evoking depths just out of reach.
Clark’s 2009 The Hundred Thousand Places, a poem cycle about a walk, shares this sacramental quality. The sequence consists of ninety-six pages of unpunctuated, uncapitalized poems of haiku-like compression, divided into four sections. “You”—the walker of the poem—begin in the morning beside a misty sea (perhaps near Clark’s hometown of Pittenweem), climb a mountain, trudge down through a forest, and end in the evening back beside water.
The poems are densely particular. By intense attention to what he sees, hears, and smells, Clark makes us aware of mysteries at the edges of the landscape. As colors emerge from the gray or morning mist, you see:
the gorse flower
nourished on rock
in a salt wind
At the end of the third section, you pause to rest after walking down the mountain:
it has taken half a lifetime
to learn to sit in the sun
among primroses and violets
beside a dried adder skin
your back to a broken wall
The poem ends with a haunting evening:
far out in the dusk
where qualities mingle
a figure is standing
at the tide’s edge
We might, in frustration, demand clarity. Are we to draw a moral from the fact that rock and salt wind produce delicate beauty? Is that adder’s skin a memento mori or a sign of regeneration? Who or what is that figure “far out in the dusk”?
Clark doesn’t answer. He wants the reader to become the “you” of the poem, slow, attentive, fully human, walking in an imagined space radiant with mystery.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.