Review: Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven by Grant Clauser

Clauser, Grant. Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven. Codhill Press, 2020.

I read once that Sylvia Plath’s original manuscript order for Ariel began with “Love…” and ended with “spring” and that this was intentional and significant (despite being woefully out of step with the mythology that has grown up around her work since her death).

Similarly, Grant Clauser’s Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry award) begins, “Lord, forgive us our pessimism…” and ends, “…giving the world all/it can take, light/playing over every/precious thing.” These choices are also clearly significant in terms of the voice Clauser cultivates between these covers.

These are not naïve poems, but they are hopeful. There are times when the voice is wry or even briefly despairing, but they always seem to carefully weigh the natural world and the father’s place in his growing family to find something to rejoice in, as he states in the closing lines of one poem: “how in this life we tell each other/stories to get through the day, to teach/our kids to love something distant/…because it seemed/like the best way to preserve/the time we had, the time we have” (from “Adopting a Manatee”).

These poems build upon the voice and awareness Clauser first explored in Reckless Constellations (his 2018 collection from Cider Press Review). In that collection, the poet’s love and nostaligia for his childhood spent outdoors resonates throughout his poems. In this one, his meditations mourn the coming loss of the natural world from climate change. He also looks to past environmental disasters through the lens of individual creatures, such as the ill-advised dynamiting of a whale carcass on a beach in the 1970s, an “anti-ode” for the spotted lanternfly and the creature who lends her name to the collection, the Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (a fossil discovered in China and thought to be about 66 million years old), who “was beautiful/because even as it died/it was so close to flying.”

Several of the poems make use of Shakespeare or Miltonian lines as their titles, but the trained eye of Clauser’s poems return to the smallest living thing as a telescoping metaphor for our purpose here on the planet as in “Hummingbird,” which previously appeared in the Sugar House Review (wondering in the closing lines, “how dark worlds hidden from sight/can still bend starlight around them”). But the beating heart of the collection is the poem “Men Weeping in Cars,” where Clauser admits, “Maybe life is good after all,/you’ve worked and saved and built/but the color of the sky reminds you/how thin the line is between wanting/and needing, and you tell yourself/not to do this to your heart again.” Trust this poet and his brilliant poems.

Muddy Dragonby Grant Clauser