As If the Stars Invented Dinner

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So what are Mazer’s actual poems like? They are, in their way, haunted.

I tried making my doubly, bifurcated way into Ben Mazer’s poetry (he has two books which both came out in April: January 2008 from Dark Sky Books, and Poems from Pen and Anvil Press), I got, pretty quickly, frustrated and/or lost. Confused, generally. I’d take nips from each of the books, trying for little morsels and then, failing, I’d try to hide them from myself under stacks of other books (because if the books were out and obvious, I’d have to continually confront my failure to get them—the books sat in implication of me as a reader, which pissed me off even more). I did this for nearly three weeks, honestly.

Why was I having such difficulty? Before we get to that, let’s acknowledge that one of the contemporary ways in which poetry’s talked about has to do with a poet’s project; reading two books at once from an author whose work I’d never seen before all but teed me up to try to get at not just the poems on the page, but the project being wrestled with. So it was a double failure, each time I couldn’t obtain quite the clarity I was looking for in Poems or January 2008: I was failing the poems, and I failing the larger poetic project .

Against what was I so dimly struggling? Here’s representative stuff I confronted on opening either book. Most of the poems in January 2008 are untitled, and here’s the untitled poem from page 47 in its entirety:

A leaf below the crust again
replete bodacious gathering
investing whom to bloom within
expostulating medicine
to how whoever whom so be
retarded in the water crest
impervious beyond the sea.

And here are some lines from “EVEN AS WE SPEAK,” from Poems:


(yes, the entire poem’s in caps.)

I gave up and came back, moved forward against these books and receded. I could parse out aspects, try tracing elements that rose in each, but I couldn’t, in the end, make enough sense of things to satisfy myself. I should note, too, that, either by design or dint of a publisher snafu, the copy of Poems I received had its cover and back cover switched—the heavy paper covering the book’s beginning was full of blurbs and sported the bar code, the book’s back featured the title and Mazer’s name. I honestly couldn’t decide or tell if it was intentional, and Mazer was trying at some sort of playfulness, or if it was just an accident. Editor’s note: Pen and Anvil has since informed me it was a printer’s error. Those copies have been recalled.

After awhile, and after thinking enough about all of it, I, like anybody would, turned to Google.

One doesn’t need to search a thing to discover Ben Mazer is, in fact, as active an editor as he is a writer. He edited the most recent collection of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman’s poetry, and, more interestingly, was the editor of the inaugural Emily-Dickinson-Prize-winning collection Everything Preserved by Landis Everson. The Everson story’s worth going into in a bit of detail: A well-regarded poet in the 1950’s, Everson was friends with Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan (among others), and seemed, in the late-50’s, to be on his way to a distinguished career as a significant writer (he published well—twice in Poetry, for instance). However, he stopped writing as of the early 60’s for four decades and only began again when Mazer, gathering a selection of the San Francisco poets for Fulcrum (where Mazer’s a contributing editor), contacted him. Mazer, in fact, seems to have been something of a muse for the man (from an interview at Dark Sky Magazine : “He also was madly in love with me…[h]e claimed he was writing all the poems for me, that I was the reason he was writing them.”).

A reader doesn’t necessarily need to know much about Landis’s style—or Tuckerman’s, either—to see the significance of such a relationship on Mazer’s poetry. How’s the significance obvious? From the book’s back: “January 2008 collects 135 poems written shortly after the death of Landis Everson.” While Poems doesn’t feature anything quite that overt, “The Dome,” is a reconfiguration of some of the poems from January 2008 and “Divine Rights,” a seemingly especially significant poem in the collection (along with, I’d argue, “Tonga”), features the name Landis more than once.

All of which is simply to say this: when folks talk about a poet’s project, one of the elements that usually gets discussed is what the poems are in dialogue with, what context the poems are working within. One of the reasons I was so infinitely frustrated by both Mazer’s books for several weeks is because I couldn’t fully get what his work was in dialogue with, what sort of meaning or intent he was hoping to transmit.

From that same Dark Sky Magazine interview: “There is an almost fantastic (no, that is understatement–just plain fantastic) sense of discovery and openness, and of being visited and informed by what we might call ghosts, the wealth of the unconscious.”

So what are Mazer’s actual poems like? They are, in their way, haunted. January 2008 is wildly haunted, though not necessarily by Landis Everson. Things are absent in the book; meaning’s unclear. Intent is often mangled: “What I mean not what I wish to say” reads the last line on page 122, and there’s a hope throughout for new beginnings, new chances: “The dispersals of books, of rags of paper, / through the dark low streets might met with love / inspire a city of angels. Our new year.” (p. 72).

That, at least as far as I could tell, is what ends up being the theme at work in January 2008: Everson’s died, and Mazer’s seemingly found new love, and the twin drama of those experiences animates the whole thing. How, specifically, the drama gets manifested—what style Mazer writes in—is a lot more clear: he writes almost always metrically, largely in iambic pentameter, and maybe half the poems in January 2008 are sonnets (or take the structural form of sonnets—the fourteen lines, the ten beats per line, the rhymes). I’m actually quite a fan of formalism, but what made Mazer’s January 2008 difficult, for me, was his rhymes. Here’s a sample, page 37:

She is the queen of dream and every time
she seems to screen the scene she takes a dim
view to what is being. Nerves are fraying
but this year no one else is saying
that it ought to be replaced with what has been.
With every guess her gambit grows more thin.

I actually think this works pretty well, minus some awkward construction (and my sense of ‘awkward’ is entirely personal and subjective: “she seems to screen the scene” is hot, as far as rhyme, but it sacrifices a quanta of sense for the music of it). But this is a relatively strong sample. Here’s how else Mazer executes rhyme:

There is nothing compared to her
except for poetry and friends
my secrets I can bear to her
and in silence make amends.

That’s from page 90. It’s not bad, it’s just tired (bearing secrets to some love—using exactly that language), and, to some degree, lazy (a her/her rhyme). Again, this could be just subjective, but this is jow January 2008 reads, almost entirely through and through. More proof?

Frankenstein was often left alone,
and drew his plans upon a devil’s throne.
A wreck of marriage made he in the time
his scientific studies drew unto the time.
When he was electric, he was free
to nurture life itself, most stormily.

Again: a time/time rhyme, a round-aboutly awkward construction (“A wreck of marriage made he”), etc. This is page 51, by the way, and Frankenstein comes up often throughout this book. I’m not trying to unload unduly on Mazer and his work: the poems are satisfying, but they satisfy almost exclusively because of/through sound, and it feels, page by page throughout January 2008, that quite a bit has potentially been sacrificed to attain this sound and rhythm. If this is a sort of sound and rhythm you’re a fan of, it’ll suit you well; if you’re not, it likely won’t.

Amazingly, Mazer’s shockingly experimental, and Poems shows, in some cases, an almost radically different poetic self than the one offered in January 2008. Before getting ahead of myself: many, many poems within are structurally sonnets, again, and though there’s plenty of rhyme in this collection, the poems themselves feel less as if created by some free-wheelingly recently-intoxicated rhymer. Here’s the first half of “Evening”:

Coming in the vastly later
like a time we had prepared
as if the stars invented dinner
or the evening had been cleared
by sheer invention of another
long before the deal was queered
we stepped into the times of tables
and the primes of motor cars
waiting for us as in fables
under the invented stars

Literally, linguistically, this poem makes a sort of approachable sense which many of the poems in January 2008 do not; further, the language is just more alive—see the clever and cool trick of how ‘invented’ modifies the stars in different ways in the two uses.

Talking about Poems after talking about January 2008 is hard: the book’s much further afield, a heterogonous mix, inclusive of much more air, many other impulses. There’s no lone love, nor lone death, as in January 2008; there are several poems which read similarly between both books (look for all the poems which start with a line about monkeys and velvet; I’m not joking; I count at least 4 between both books). What Poems offers, though, is a bigger world than the one marked (circumscribed, really) by grief and love in January: the poem I’d elect as representative in Poems comes late, page 46, and is titled “Tonga.”

It’s a four-and-a-half page just skull-clutcher of awe and wonder; it’s, in all ways, a poem of remapping. It’s first person, and it’s (seemingly) Mazer trying to find himself—and to do so he’ll go out where he can live “far from contintents, / close to the dizzying moon and the southern pole / where day begins for all the certain earth’s / trust in firm numbers, nothing to the sea,” and where “No spyplanes and no spying satellites / will know what I am doing.” The poem’s a devastator—it reads, to me, like one of those poems one could conceivably spend the rest of one’s life pointing to as proof of genius—and within a page of its close the poem’s narrator says, direct as a gunshot: “No longer on any map, I’ll be myself.” The poem’s not merely about escape: it considers aggression, the constant build-up of arsenals, the degradation not just of ‘environment’ but of ‘life’ and ends, finally, with the narrator talking about being “where I make my fortune / as close to outer space as earth can be.” It’s not escape, not a this-or-that; it’s a Dickinson-ian notion of limit, of being part, fundamentally, of earth as it is, but right at its distant edge.

It’s a powerful line, an even more powerful idea—an animating one, in fact, throughout this whole book. Frustratingly, it’s not that January 2008 lacks cohesion and Poems has plenty: they’ve both their own sorts of cohesion. But January 2008 is fundamentally private, or feels private, and is monumentally individual: it’s got overt biographical elements, and it over and over sacrifices moments of potential narrative clarity for linguistic and rhythmic play, which is not a bad thing: if that’s your aesthetic, January 2008’s likely entirely up your alley. But Poems is, I think, the stronger, more available book: here the reader’s offered rhyme and meter in service of poems which are much more approachable, and here the reader’s offered poems which echo each other (the classical [and, I’d argue, classically American] idea of limit, of edge, of being at a land’s or age’s edge and being therefore nearly transformed) satisfyingly.

And the books, too, echo each other, though more distantly. And for however January 2008 didn’t ring my particular bells, the fact that Mazer can clearly do it, can write accessible poems of heft and beauty—to say nothing of the fact that he can actually come out with two books simultaneously, and that he’s got the guts to come out with a book of, essentially, grief and love (it’d be interesting to read January 2008 up next to Anne Carson’s recent and stunning NOX)—for this we should all, any of us interested in language and poetry, be glad.

Ben Mazer was one of our featured poets during National Poetry Month. Check out his contribution, “Epilogue”, in Rumpus Original Poems.

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →