Empire of Skin

In his preface to Tom Clark’s epic poem, Ed Dorn writes: “In the American westward expansion . . . the search for peltry [skins, furs, ‘soft gold’] led the way before all other exploitation––mining, ranching, land hunger. The Pacific Northwest was the last of the late-eighteenth- and early-twentieth-century frontiers, and it is still ‘the last frontier.’

Empire of Skin is the recapitulation of the greatest hunting enterprise of the millennium, which brought the grounding and mapping of what is now demarked by the geopolitical term ‘Pacific Rim.’ The story encompasses the somber pursuit of prolific creatures [beaver, otter, buffalo, bear] irresistible to a race born without the hats and coats necessary for surviving extreme latitudes. This was the last great raid on nature before nineteenth-century advances in chemistry [yielded synthetic winter fabrics], allowing the masses a measure of warmth and affording the comfortable, morally opportunistic condemnation of the wearing of animal fur . . .

“[Empire of Skin] is a beautifully founded document. It is created with a poetry that carries the authority of the full modern tradition. Its exactitudes of diction generate and inform the imagination. It is only such poetry that is capable of saving such extensive cultural memory from the decaying vortex of history.”

Tom Clark has published many intensely felt books of lyric luminescence . . . but his new book, Empire of Skin, is on a different scale: it tells the epic story of the Northwest fur trade [from the days of Captain Cook] through the early years of the nineteenth century, a human drama set against the background of a dangerous and expansive landscape.
––Dale Smith, St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter