Reviewed by Tony Greiner
Easter Creek by Gary Lark
Main Street Rag, 2021, 80 pages
Available from: https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/easter-creek-gary-lark/
Gary Lark has long been a favorite poet of mine, starting over 20 years ago when I heard him at a reading. Lark read one of his poems “Fishing” and another by Clemens Starck. I thought it generous of him to spend some of his time celebrating another poet’s work. Lark’s poetry also has this kind and accepting spirit, a heart-softening quality that embraces the humanity of even those who err.
This is not to say the poetry is sticky-sweet or namby-pamby. Take, for example, “Jacket,” from his latest collection, Easter Creek:
I was born into a racist family
in a racist town, in a county
that took its bigotry for granted.
I was born into a loving family
in a community of generous folks
who gave me all they could.
These were the same places,
the same people, mostly.
The racism lived in mechanisms of thought,
carried from place to place
like great-grandma’s quilt.
Yet, these were the people
I knew to be kind and willing
to help. They lived quiet lives
hoping to have enough in the bank
to bury them when the time came.
Racism was woven into the fabric
like a smoldering thread.
To dismiss or deny is to hand down
the garment from generation to generation
like some immutable heritage.
It puts a straitjacket on everyone.
I find it in the closet
when I’m looking for my boots.
I swear I’ve burned it
a dozen times.
Lark doesn’t shy away from recognizing the racism of his homeplace, but he doesn’t blame, he doesn’t point fingers. He does recognize that these fundamentally good people who have a fundamental flaw, and that he does, too. I find that generous.
Lark’s poetry is accessible. It doesn’t take multiple readings and a pile of reference books to figure out what he is trying to say; but, on the other hand, it isn’t simple. Look at the closing lines of “Jacket” again. The poet finds his own racism “in the closet”––the place where things are kept safe, but also the place where things are kept hidden; hence, the phrase in another context of “coming out of the closet.”
It is this combination of accessibility and depth that has led to Lark winning several awards, and being featured on three different occasions on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Easter Creek is in that tradition, but it is a step forward for in his career. The poems in this collection are mostly set in a fictional small town in Oregon, named for a stream in the Coast Range. The collection opens with “Decking,” in which the poet, a carpenter, is building a deck around a swimming pool at an upscale house. Although the carpenter has long been a resident of the community, things are changing––and he doesn’t always fit in. This is conveyed within a couple of lines: It’s a money job, building the deck around a pool/I will never swim in and The gate clanks shut. I know the code today/but I won’t in a week.
Having established his bona fides as a person with roots in the community, we go on to a series of poems grouped by season, some in third person, some in first. We meet a range of people, and witness some events, including a motorcycle riding bad-boy who interrupts a wedding to call a willing bridesmaid to him. Sometimes these people and events return in later poems giving an effect something like a more upbeat cross of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
This structure is sound, rewarding, and calls for re-reading. I just checked my copy and I still have five dog-eared pages to study, ponder, and enjoy.
Tony Greiner is a life-long reader of poetry. Aside from Gary Lark, other Oregon poets he likes are Clemens Starck, Kim Stafford, Flamur Vehapi, and Christopher Rose.