University of Georgia Press. 2013. 59 pages.

Reviewed by Trista Edwards

Veteran painter, novelist, and poet Clarence Major’s thirteenth collection of poems, Down and Up, constructs a visual world of spatial representations and the mental and physical dwellings that take place within those landscapes. Within these spaces, Major always seems to hint at the societal mantra, the grass is always greener. What Major brings to pass, however, is that his characters are not concerned with getting to the other side, so to speak, but with the passage it takes to get there—with the movement, rather than the destination.

In the collection’s title poem, “Down and Up,” the speaker details the host of people both descending and unascending a staircase. As the title suggests, it remains the up and down, the motion, that preoccupies not the destination. In section one, titled “Descending a Staircase,” Major gives us the following:

For the sake of art,

another woman, nursing her baby, comes down.

A man descends while reading a book

about sin and redemption.

They all come down,



where everybody else is waiting to ascend.

In the second section, “The Unascending Staircase,” the speaker begins the poem positions in stasis: “No one is going up—yet.” These characters are different; they are not moving, they are waiting:

The Calvinist minister must first finish her sermon.

The old woman with one shoe must stand up.

The man refinishing antique furniture

will try his luck when he finishes.

The bejeweled wealthy woman

may be too heavy for the staircase.

She stands on the landing,

inspecting the first step for its sturdiness.

Here is a young woman,

a pimple on the tip of her nose,

skeptical eyes, tight lips,

dimples, and fat cheeks.

She’s waiting for her intended.

They are intent on moving

one way or two ways.

Interestingly, the characters descending in section one appear to be in the act of completing a pleasurable, hedonistic, or life-fulfilling task—nude or not, they tend to come down, a woman carries a lantern, a woman fresh from a bath comes down damp and refreshed, two boys carry a woman asleep in a chair, a man reads a book, a woman nurses a baby, etc. The characters in section two, however, appear to be weighed down by completing their tasks before they can move rather than while they are in motion—tasks that seems to imply some kind of shackle in materiality—religion, furnishings, jewels, etc. Yet, the young woman waiting on her lover possesses the intention of movement. The casualness of “one way or two ways” stresses the argument that the final destination is not the goal but the fluidity. It seems, additionally, the banner concept of youth, to stay in motion, to never settle, that this “young woman / a pimple on the tip of her nose” represents.

Major returns to this concept again in “The Rope”—“Let’s follow the rope to where it takes us. / Lifesaver or hanging noose. / Roped off or roped in. / We depend on it.” The speaker pleads with us to take one end and he’ll take the other. He must travel but the where he ends up seems to be vague and nonexistent. He tells us to ignore all we pass by, the painterly, idyllic descriptions of blue trees, floating gulls, a silent city under white moonlight, boot prints leading to a barn. He reassures us, “Keep walking; / stay close” and “We’re almost there.” The speaker leads us nowhere and all we ever learn is that we are going to a place where “no one […] was ever found guilty.” In the end, we do in fact reach an undisclosed stop in which the speaker reveals:

Here is my end of the rope.

This is your end.

Now that we are here let us look

back at where we were.

The final line, however, almost seems to taunt the reader as an invite (or an urging?) to set off on a journey back “down” the rope. Even in reaching the end, the work is not complete. There is reflection and, perhaps, even a continuation of movement along the rope.

Major’s latest collection undoubtedly takes on the underlying Zen philosophy—it is not the destination but the journey—yet, these are poems are just as much obsessed with endings, limbo, stalemates as with the treks and commutes of a traveler. Perhaps Major writes to invite us back to into questioning what do we fear the most—the constant and revolving of down and up or the simple waiting to go either way?

Trista Edwar