Possibility Glimpsed Through Windows: A Review of Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems
Ben Mazer. Selected Poems. (Ashville, NC: MadHat Press, 2017). 248 pp., with a preface by Philip Nikolayev.
In a strange country, there is only one
Who knows his true name and could turn him in.
But she, whose father too was charged with murder
And, innocent, went to the electric chair,
Believes in him, convinces him to trust.
It is the tropics where they make their tryst.
They sip refreshing drinks beside a terraced
Pool where he is thought to be a tourist.
To clear his name, and find who killed his pal,
In a dark passage he finds hope and will.
What once had seemed exotic now seems near
Because he wished to be her prisoner.
The locale, the narrative intricacy, and the musicality of these lines prophesize the languid cinematic quality of Mazer’s mature poetry. The poem’s secrets are representative of the untold histories of lives: the quiet tragedies and comedies of the human experience. The legacy of romantic quest narrative here mingles with the poem’s nostalgia for a time that may or may not have ever existed, but which manifests the mystery of the most profound human motives and desires. Even this early in Mazer’s career, phonic echo is employed to enhance our sense of the places where life and art’s similarities meet differences. Consider here the “trust” and “tryst” that become conjoined through desire, the fugitive disguised as a “tourist” that becomes “terraced” by his own trauma and passion, at once seeking freedom yet desiring “to be… prisoner.”
These impressions of shared history push against Mazer’s sense of selfhood as a poet. Time and again, line after line, cultural experiences coalesce with what is personally influential. Mazer’s streets, shops, gardens, and corridors are imbued with collective meaning, memory, and potentiality as in Mazer’s poem “The Double” from Poems (Pen & Anvil Press, 2010):
in very dried out blue gray ink. Lots of dumpsters. And seagulls.
Or are they pigeons. They seem related, as the air is to the sea.
When it gets darker, or foggier, it is a really big soup
of souls, works of art, time tables, the hour before dinner,
theatrical enterprise, memories of things never happened,
warnings spoken in a voice familiar, a keen and quickened sense
of possibility glimpsed through windows.
Things that never happened—threads either cut off from us by some mysterious cosmic force —are intimated by the poet’s consciousness of history, nature, his ongoing relationship with both, combined with his artistic sensibility. Throughout his Selected Poems, Mazer’s readers become alive to the poet’s understanding of “Time / as a movie.” These lyric windows reveal the lives we might have lived as “The closed world adumbrates the snow” in “Rhapsody on a Winter’s Night” and “Beneath the porcelain awake / tidal waves of other lives / and unburied memory” lie for us to feast on. The past, present, and future are “resonances” that “freeze” for us, every line, every echo, capturing and reconstituting some deep human impression, revealing some strange rendezvous between reality and perception. Consider this dizzying phonic whirlwind:
And the sleeping melodies
of motionless uncertainties.
And the sleeping melodies
of abandoned vacancies.
And the sleeping melodies
of forms and structures without cease.
And the sleeping melodies
of abandoned centuries.
And the streetlight on the street,
the absent tread of absent feet.
This cyclone of repetition and variation reminds me of Wallace Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” its leaves, peacock feathers, hues, and planets in sonic orbit, yet the objects of contemplation in Mazer’s poem set in motion, with mesmerizing force, the images and sounds of earlier days faced with scenarios of the poet’s dream life. As this vortex of potentiality spirals phonically outward through Mazer’s interplay of trochee and iamb, assonance, and rhyme, memories and imaginings court one another in an oneiric song worthy of a place beside our great modernists.
Yet Mazer’s later work takes on elemental Romantic themes of love, madness, and the frenzied compulsion to compose. Travel again comes to the fore as Mazer’s theme of the lost soul attempting to carve out a home through song emerges during the finale to The Glass Piano (MadHat Press, 2015):
The headlines of the newspapers averred
a unified delight in the deferred
long hour of homecoming. All were heading home:
by days, and hours, changes at railway stations,
out to the provinces, with a little patience.
He closed his book, and leaned back in his seat,
and saw the thousand images repeat.
For him there never could be going home.
There was the eucharist. There was the poem.
These stories in the papers, sights and sounds of bustling life, are reminders of a dim reality outside of the poet’s inner bog of potentiality. The return to garden-variety existence can never occur for the poet. Mazer’s ritualized process of inspiration is as undeterred as the “deferred / long hour of homecoming.” A “thousand images repeat” and the emerging poem takes on spiritual significance as “the eucharist,” something that enters the poet and his readers transubstantiated. The machine of poiesis becomes engaged even as the train makes its stops. Despite the other passengers getting off at their destinations, for the artist “there never could be going home.” One cannot will back a lost lover or estranged spouse, and so Mazer graciously urges readers in December Poems (Pen & Anvil Press, 2016):
Start with the rain. The day starts with the rain.
The Sunday rain. Another Sunday rain.
Let it go on and on and on like pain.
Thus find your elemental theme in rain.
And later in the poem:
The calendar with love has been cast out.
The vows and promises another route
have taken, not what might have been.
The soul is empty underneath the skin,
the faithless lover lies in naked sin.
Just so. With rain you let the day begin.
Rain brings on the new day, and the devotions of the wayward spouse have washed away. Even so, a new day must begin. The day here “adumbrates” the point where the joys of poetic creation are shot through with the painful light of sincere anguish, “Caligari, tortured in oblong angles, / beer garden, mental institute, who mangles / memory.” Yet “There is a lot to see / in first encountered shards of history,” and:
After awhile the branches blue and thicken
with winter darkness, stillnesses that quicken
the senses, and an orange light comes on,
a single flare that signifies day’s gone.
Now that day is gone, blighted material revivified via poetry might flourish in the winter darkness of these lines. Though all light appears to have been drained from the speaker’s life, the world forever turned upside down by the utter disintegration of love’s security, these “stillnesses… quicken / the senses” and the sensibility.
Less than a year after this poem was published, Mazer’s February Poems (Ilora Press, 2017) provides us with a noteworthy sonnet:
Hands that are old and trivial, never be old
too much to remember these flashing scenes:
fainting in the parking lot on your wedding night,
the lawns of Claremont and their gossamer sheens;
the great joy, running away from the crowd,
to the celebratory nuptial garden,
the twin exits where lovers disappear,
or the calm of breakfast, away from the strangers.
Hands that rest in my hands, what is a year,
to the inexplicable, docent memory
of a thousand nights, and a thousand days,
Italian restaurants after the plays,
or the garland of flowers, dried and withered,
carried by hands to place on the graves.
This apostrophe to the hands of the absent lover, these warm memories themselves now like the “strangers” the lovers flee from, the command to “never be old / too much to remember these flashing scenes” all forebode “the garland of flowers, dried and withered, / carried by hands to place on graves.” The hands that carry one another through a brief period of love, elegized by these lines, are the same hands that place the flowers on the graves. Mazer reminds us that our “shards of history” are refracted with both light and shadow, love and grief.
Paul S. Rowe