James Wesley Clark

Mar 1, 2021 | Bubbler

James Wesley Clark left this world January 28, 2021, in Arnold, Maryland, where he was being treated for complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a poet, journalist, bookseller and collector, chef, and family historian. He was also long known and loved for the stories he told-peppered with vivid details-of everyday people he met around Church Circle, across Spa Creek in Eastport or anywhere he had traveled. Jim was a fourth-generation Annapolis native. He was the son of Agnes Colburn Clark and George D. Clark, Sr., whose West Street jewelry shop gave Jim some early inspiration. “Cutting a diamond leaves a very small margin for error,” he once said. “But that tiny fraction is where I’m most comfortable in poetry.” Jim attended St. Mary’s elementary school and high school, and briefly attended Washington College in Chestertown, before getting married and joining the army as a paratrooper. Jim’s Airborne company landed him in New Mexico where he began a life-long love of the desert and the West, especially border towns, and La Ciudad-Mexico City, which would become as much an integral part of his writing as the marsh fens that drank up the Bay. And after his duty, he became a stringer for the wire services based in El Paso. He learned to write poetry in a journalistic way, piecing together News of the World with hard won emotions that could stop a train. Moving back to Annapolis, Jim was hired to manage several local movie theaters, including the Circle, and the Playhouse. It was during this time that he began acquiring books. Every poet learns the careworn phrase: read a hundred books, write one. But Jim must have heard “read ten thousand books.” Throughout his life, he had a prodigious memory and knowledge of literature and loved buying books. He operated a used, rare, and out-of-print book business from home and then from several locations in Annapolis, including the basement of The Haunted Bookstore on Main Street. Jim was the author of three poetry collections, Daughter of the South County, Asleep with Whippoorwills, and I am Paraguay, as well as Dreamland, a mystery revolving around a steamboat that plied the Chesapeake well into the 20th century. The latter story was serialized in Chesapeake Bay magazine and gained him entry into the Mystery Writers of America. He was also a contributing writer to numerous magazines and newspapers, including The Capital, and published over 400 poems in numerous and varied publications. As a poet, Jim’s search for truth and beauty was a search for geography. Jim was obsessed with identity–one’s sense of one’s own creature and character–and place. Even in the pair of manuscripts he left behind-the Walt Bell poems and his critically acclaimed narcocorrida poems-Jim focuses on characters who haunt the land, and land that haunts the hero. In 1982, O. James Lighthizer, the incoming Anne Arundel County Executive requested that Jim write a poem for his inauguration. He also organized many poetry readings, bringing poets from around the region to perform in Annapolis and in the south county, and he was a co-founder and associate editor of Free State Review, a literary journal that originated in Annapolis. While Jim enjoyed bringing a great poet to his hometown as much as anyone, he was especially known for drawing gifted unknowns, young wordsmiths who like him lacked traditional academic credentials, and giving them a full stage. For three years, Jim worked for the Afro-American History and Cultural Office, documenting traditionally Black churches and other sites on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but even in this position he found a way to meet and connect with poets like Dr. Joanne Braxton whose sole collection, Sometimes When I Think of Maryland, would become a classic. Jim had written a poem as a child for which he won a prize that was presented to him by the literary and journalism legend, H. L. Mencken, and probably for this reason he loved the Elementary classes he taught as part of the Poets in the Schools program. He loved teaching the children Spanish words for colors and to add beat and meter to their lines. For Jim, poetry and theater were close cousins. He had a brief, one-picture movie career, portraying the villain in Hal Aldrich’s 1979 production of Robin, which premiered at the Playhouse in Annapolis. But his greatest love apart from literature was cooking. His beanless chili was legendary, taking so long to prepare that it seemed incubated rather than cooked. Jim loved to cook elaborate meals, including the preparation of terrapin soup and beaten biscuits and was always careful to separate the foot from the body in preparing linguini with clams, because as he once explained, “the foot takes a few more seconds to cook.” Jim is survived by his wife, Sherry Robey Russell; children, Zoe Crawford (Vincent) of La Jolla, California, John Clark (Andrea Mitchell) of Chicago, and Susanna-Michael Russell of Washington, D.C., as well as two grandchildren, Mary and James. An online guest book is available at www.johnmtaylorfuneralhome.com.