You may know the name Robert Clark because of his celebrated writing.
I’m a big fan of his fiction: In the Deep Midwinter — a poetic drama about infidelity, loss, and crises of faith — and an enthralling murder mystery called Mr. White’s Confession both commanded my attention over the last few years, and I’m looking forward to Love Among the Ruins, and The Lives of the Artists.
But he’s an accomplished author of creative nonfiction as well. Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces was my first encounter with his work, and it won the Washington State Book Award. He’s also written The Solace of Food, River of the West, My Grandfather’s House, and now Bayham Street: Essays in Longing, which I’ve been reading closely during my graduate studies.
Clark is also the winner of the Edgar for Best Novel, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as being a finalist in the Los Angeles Times Book Awards and the IMPAC Dublin Award. He’s also a member of The Chrysostom Society.
Okay, enough with the professional bio.
Robert Clark is also one of the most generous writing coaches a writer could hope to have. Since he became a part of our lives within that constantly rewarding community cultivated by Gregory Wolfe at Image and The Glen Workshop — he’s been something of a mentor for YA novelist Sara Zarr — we’ve made a habit of spending time with him to discuss movies, music, reading, writing, travel, and the fine art of cat wrangling. (Most cat owners think their cats are the best in the world, but I can tell you, Robert’s dear Theo is really is something special.)
In the last couple of years, Robert has hosted a small writers group that has given me some much-needed community and support during a year when major changes at work brought my career as a fiction writer to an abrupt halt. I’m grateful for his encouragement there. What’s more, he was one of the most encouraging influences in persuading me to pursue my masters’ degree in creative writing. (He is on the faculty of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program.) Did I mention the great films I’ve seen thanks to his recommendations?
Since I pay attention to his recommendations in almost everything, I was particularly interested in including his Christmas playlist in this series.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors”
Sara Zarr has already mentioned this one. This is a kinescope clip from the very first live production in 1952, the year of my own first Christmas, seven months old. I doubtless missed it that time but not thereafter. Tender, hopeful, love pressing us forward into love we didn’t know we had in us.
“Bethlehem Down,” by Peter Warlock
This is a 1927 hymn by Peter Warlock, by my lights the finest composer of twentieth-century Christmas melodies. Despite the tenderness and depth of this and all his work, he was scarcely sentimental or pious: among his other compositions is his own epitaph — “Here lies Warlock the composer/Who lived next door to Munn the grocer./He died of drink and copulation/A sad discredit to the nation.”
“The Christmas Song”
This was my holiday scenario when I was eleven in 1963: Judy, Liza, Lorna, and Joey, happy and functional, living in a television studio, and lo-and-behold, here are carolers at the door and Mel “The Velvet Fog” Tormé in the vanguard. And I would have found it perfectly believable; I would have thought, yes, this is what life is like, or can be. I hope Judy — fluffing her lines, shaky and fragile — might sometimes have thought so too.
“River,” performed by Tracy Thorne
I would never have thought this was a Christmas song until the wonderful Tracy Thorne (ex- of Everything But The Girl) covered it. There’s a brass band that might be playing “Hark the Herald Angels,” but no, it’s Joni’s winter yearning shorn of narcissism but none of its ache or genius.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
I thought this was one of those slight, sentimental secular Christmas songs until my favorite film director, Terence Davies, led me to “Meet Me in St. Louis,” one of the super-saturated, outsized MGM musicals that sustained him through childhood poverty and suffering in Liverpool. And watching it, I realized that it’s a song for the hopeless and disheartened, in this case, a family which has been forced to give up its most deeply felt attachments, friends, and lovers. The song is a consolation, then, which is not, I think, so secular or slight after all.
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” performed by Shawn Colvin
The ur-melancholic Christmas hymn, Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem set by Holst and beautifully covered here by Shawn Colvin. I know a little about Rossetti, a retiring genius born into a family of geniuses, and an Anglo-Catholic devout to the point of self-abnegation. Like me, she was fixated on winter, on the heavy, all-swaddling absence snow lays upon the world and the possibilities it veils; hope, in a word.
“Christmas Time Is Here,” performed by Shawn Colvin
Another lovely Shawn Colvin cover. I was too young for this to have an impact on me as a child but I’ve always loved its blend of melancholy and sweetness, a bit of cool jazz swing but also those minor chords to undermine any complacency we might bring to bear on the season. I never thought much about it — indeed, thought it was nearly as overplayed as “The Little Drummer Boy” — until I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with my own children; saw it in context; saw Charlie, serotonin-deprived as usual, trudging through the snow amidst the cheer and avidity of everyone else. But then, there’s the wallop of Linus’ explanation of what Christmas really means and it’s a profound epiphany; it’s all, I think, any of us — child or adult — needs to know.