Ben Mazer, now in his forties, looks like a terribly serious man in his photographs. He wants us to take his poetry seriously too. He publishes rarely and gravely: the poems in Poemswere amassed over a decade, and come to us in a slim volume of dark blue. No cover image, no author photograph, just a vaguely classical border and endorsements from serious men like John Ashbery and Philip Nikolayev. “I am a great admirer of Ben Mazer’s poetry,” says John Kinsella (gravely, I imagine), in chiselled white uppercase.
The poems themselves, particularly in the first half, rarely crack a laugh. One glorious exception — there are others — is “The Exile,” which begins with a breakfasting speaker, “nibbl[ing] at [his] ham” in what I take to be some mountainous Swiss village. It’s only at the poem’s end, when the speaker is “swept up in the exultation / of thousands of revelers’ descent to hell” that we realise we’re in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and it’s his own ham he’s nibbling. In general, what fun there is tends towards the familiarly postmodernist — ekphrasis, puns, allusions, multiplying doubles, folded-over time, a sense of belatedness and resignation — a familiarity that today risks boredom. But Mazer recognises that the lyric poem is more like a movie than like other literary forms — Poemsopens by recalling Casablanca — and the collection is accordingly more like the delicious Last Year in Marienbad than, say, an irritating boxes-within-boxes novel.
The first poem of Poems wanders streets, now in a car, now on foot, only to take us home to sleep, perchance to dream — “Past the doorbell / likes the paradise for which you are kicking yourself” — and Poems is a compelling dream world, more aesthetically pleasing than logically sound, where one had better not look too hard for an architecture. The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. Moments of declarative clarity — “I am missing from these documents”; “Writing is fighting in the Christ-whale’s eyes”; “Although I am only a moderate admirer / of your poetry, there is not a single other / contemporary poet who I do admire” — are best read as only temporarily, situatedly true. Contrary to Christopher Bock’s giddy assertion in Jacket that Mazer “makes few, if any, revisions, which produces a more pure work of art,” Mazer’s poems revise themselves as they go, as in “The Double:”
As time goes by. I remember red gray green blue brown brick
before rain or during rain. One doesn’t see who is going by.
One doesn’t think to see who is going by.
One sees who is going by all right, but one doesn’t see who is going by.
Mazer’s poems connect with one another in ways that are delightful to spot. George Washington’s windows, snow, archives and the notion of archetypal story lines are returning themes throughout. But, as in Marienbad, attempts at explanation might endanger the delight.
I say delight, but the mood for most of Poems is sombre. Maybe that’s fair enough: “The Long Wharf,” which constructs a brilliant if distressing metaphor for the global financial crisis, reminds us that we live in serious times:
We didn’t realise it was a wharf
we had come through, but at the end of it
a weather-rotted window peered out on
the ocean, we could see how far we’d come
held up above the sea by massive beams
a long way out, and swaying in the wind
“Rhapsody on a Winter Night,” the collection’s short, second poem, reads like a report from the same room in which the Irish poet Louis MacNeice wrote his great poem “Snow.” MacNeice’s poem, written in an unselfconsciously rhapsodic mode more characteristic of Paddy Kavanagh than the usually ironic MacNeice, is all overflowing speech and arguments that cannot be proven about the eternally surprising material world:
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes —
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands —
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
Mazer’s version, in contrast, is oppressively aware of its world’s limits: “The closed world adumbrates the snow,” the poem begins. Mazer’s snow sketches a faint outline; MacNeice’s snow was something “spawning,” suggestive of a burgeoning fecundity, gloriously out of control. Mazer’s snow is firmly under control, faint and tentative:
Midnight deciphers pillows at the window.
Though it was several months ago,
in dead of winter, nothing knows or shows
where the requested intimacy goes.
The silent isolated frames
of meditation have dispersed with names.
The couches crouch in feeble poses,
incognizant of roses.
The “we” that embraced both reader and speaker in MacNeice has been dispersed: so, who does the knowing in Mazer’s poem? The first line of “Rhapsody” seems sure of itself, omniscient, but later it is “midnight” that “deciphers,” “nothing” that “knows or shows,” “couches” that are “incognizant.” The intimacy that was implicit in MacNeice is made explicit and coolly dismissed, without so much as an acknowledgement of who it is that has “requested” it. What softness there is in Mazer’s poem is in the “pillows” and “couches,” but we can’t even be sure of these. “At the window,” they might just as easily be heaps of snow; and by the end of the poem they’re pathetic and dishonest either way, crouching “in feeble poses.”
In part — as the reference to reading and writing in “deciphers” suggests — Mazer’s complex little piece is a meditation on the spaces of the lyric poem, a form that “adumbrates” within “isolated frames / of meditation.” This could be irritating, like a novel where we discover the protagonist is the writer of the novel we’re reading, were it not for the fact that the contemporary lyric poem, precisely through meditation on its own spaces and relations, is an ideal mode for thinking through the individual in society. “Rhapsody on a Winter Night” is the lyric poem as Daniel Tiffany describes it in Infidel Poetics: monadic, creating its self out of itself, speaking a secret language, an individual related to other individual lyrics only through analogy. This, by analogy, is also a way of understanding the individual in society.
As Tiffany reminds us, the word “Rhapsody” comes from “songs stitched together,” and it helps to think of Poems as a medley or patchwork: diverse elements cobbled together. Later in the collection, “Second Rhapsody on a Winter Night” is subtitled “[Variations on a Winter Night]” as if to emphasise this. But Tiffany also suggests that modern usage of the word “rhapsody,” with its overtones of pure emotional expression, obscures the monstrous, riddling nature of the lyric poem. Brilliantly comparing the lyric to the Siren’s song or the cry of a street beggar, Tiffany brings out the extent to which lyric is made seductive by its very obscurity and menace. Mazer’s “The Exile” begins by flaunting its own alluring obscurity: “I was handled by the handler’s handler / someone (I know who) had sent me to.” The effect of that parenthetical interjection is startling. By deliberately withholding information it seems, at first blush, to betray the contract between poet and reader. The illusion of lyric is of a soul being bared. In fact, Mazer is here being more honest than most about the trick of lyric, and his illicit overtness (another kind of soul-baring) gives the poem its thrill. It is when the lyric poet seems at her most vulnerable, seems to surrender access to her most hidden places, that she has most power over you, the reader.
But Tiffany’s account also condemns the lyric to eternal repetition. If each poem is monadic, each cannot build on the last; there can be no progression. Yet it would be unfair to see no movement forward in Poems. The collection begins and ends with city rain and time going resignedly by, but still — as with an old-fashioned novel or movie — there’s a crisis at its centre: eleven pages of dense, near-unreadable, upper case in “Even as We Speak.” And, as in the most Hollywood of movies, the crisis seems to be caused and resolved by romantic love, a love triangle:
CHAPLIN WHO WINS THE GIRL AND LAUREL AND
HARDY WHO BRING EACH OTHER THE DEAREST
AFFECTION. INTERMINABLY WROUGHT OUT ON A COLD
NIGHT. TURNING TO EACH OTHER FOR LUCK AND
SPIRITS. [. . .]
HER SHAPE IS MAGNIFIED BY THE WINDOW. HER SHADE
TRAVELS THE MINUTES WITH A CIVIC MELANCHOLY.
[. . .] MADE
CONSTANTLY NEW BY HIS ABSENCE. . .
In the second half of Poems the crisis is over. References to the love triangle have become retrospective and resigned. “No matter, he has had enough of her” (“Epilogue”). And the second half of the collection is accordingly more fun than the first. “Tonga” is the riotous imaginary colonisation of that island, and “Divine Rights” is a pulling-together of mythic archetypes in the vein of Brian Coffey or David Jones, only a lot more tongue-in-cheek:
The insult given Branwen by the Irish
At Guinnion Fort
Arthur bore the image of Mary as his sign
Arcturus or the keeper of the Pole
and thus it was I watched the turn of winter
“I have made a heap of all that i could find” Nennius (Historia Brittonum).
Where Poems ultimately takes us is unclear. Like its opening, its “Epilogue” takes place over a rainy city in dawn, its speaker thinking yet more vaguely melancholy thoughts about old age and time going by. But what happens between rain shower and rain shower is strange and fascinating. The best poems here are those made lambent by their very obscurity, like the packages of sunlight delivered in “The Pegasii:”
Sunlight rests like a package at the door.
Nothing sees. The rich interior
Is useless to persons and chronology.
Once when the spring came to our caravan
I’d say the mountain streams ran in her hair.
Let these things rest without a memory.
Ailbhe Darcy is lecturer in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Subcritical Tests, in collaboration with S.J. Fowler, is forthcoming from Gorse Editions.