Poems, by Ben Mazer (The Pen & Anvil Press, 2010)
January 2008, by Ben Mazer (Dark Sky Books, 2010)
Ben Mazer has been writing poetry for nearly two decades, but for most of that time he has published little. A single volume, White Cities, appeared from Barbara Matteau Editions in 1995, and then there was nothing more until the appearance of two chapbooks, Johanna Poems (Cy Gist Press) and The Foundations of Poetry Mathematics (Cannibal Books), in 2007 and 2008. During that twelve-year interval, Mazer “discovered” the long-silent Berkeley Renaissance poet Landis Everson and edited Everson’s first collection, Everything is Preserved: Poems 1955-2005 (Graywolf, 2006), which won the Poetry Foundation’s first Emily Dickinson Award and established Mazer as a committed, ambitious editor. A second editorial project, The Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, (Harvard University Press) appeared this past April in another attempt to restore interest in an obscure American poet. That same month, however, also saw a burst of publication from Mazer himself: after years spent studying at Boston University’s Editorial Institute and editing other poets’ work, he put out two full-length collections of his own poetry, Poems and January 2008, within weeks of each other. The first is a collection of mostly discrete poems, while the second is a series of 135 short lyrics, most of them untitled, written after the death of Landis Everson. In a prefatory note, Mazer claims to have forgotten that he wrote the poems and that they were saved only because he sent them to fellow poet Stephen Sturgeon.
The two new books reveal Mazer to be a poet unabashedly enthralled by the past, one who has the good sense to turn his own obsessions into his poems’ strength. Memory simultaneously masters Mazer and is made to speak through him. “The Double,” the first of his Poems, begins: “I remember chiefly the warp of the curb, and time going by. / As time goes by.” What’s remembered here is the experience of time itself, and indeed Mazer aims to write something like that experience—“Time as a movie,” as he calls it later in the poem—rather than precisely drawn memories. Movies themselves figure often in these poems; as soon as the speaker remembers “time going by,” “As Time Goes By,” Herman Hupfield’s Casablanca standard, begins to play, doubling the speaker’s own words. Mazer seems unable to escape quotation. He is truly an editor, even when he is writing his own poems. Other voices drift everywhere through them. Another passage from “The Double” seems a fair description Mazer’s own work:
Nora Laudani was the best actress in our elementary school.
One felt she was a great lady at seventeen.
The tragic view of ice skating frightens us
at night in winter. In a soup you never know
what you’ll run into next. All the ingredients repeat,
but you encounter some of them for the first time. Strangers
turn out to be people you knew later on. Sometimes even dead people’s
lives are only a stone’s throw away from your own. First you hear of them,
or heard someone speaking like them.
This passage presents many of the ingredients that repeat throughout these poems—actresses, old schoolmates (Nora Laudani seems to be both), family members, dead friends, dead poets (especially T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and Landis Everson), living poets (especially John Ashbery), and Anglo-Saxon lore—and by seeming to speak like all of them, Mazer finds his own unusual voice. His pastiche of styles, his mix of registers, and his conversational ease indeed recall Ashbery, but Mazer is the more earnest of the two, rarely running as cool. Jospeh Cornell’s elegantly and obsessively curated boxes are perhaps the more telling analogy for Mazer’s poem-collages (at least the ones in Poems, the more curated of the two books), which elude paraphrase but seem governed by a deeply felt logic.
This logic is primarily musical, and Mazer’s line is lively and varied. Long-lined discursive poems appear alongside those that are clipped and condensed. Assonance, consonance, rhyme, and pun occur frequently, providing both a sense of sonic play and an associative logic by which the poet builds an image or idea. From “Second Rhapsody on a Winter Night [Variations on a Winter Night]”:
Tangled prospects of the trees.
Scenery that no one sees.
Amid it all an ancient roar,
a disciplinary whisper.
A confidence of alcoves,
a confidence of loves.
And the disconnected spires,
and the disembodied towers.
The splintered multiplicity
of bare branches of a tree.
Scenery that no one sees.
The row of deserted balconies.
(A light comes on between the trees
and flickers from within a room.)
The tangled vacuities
of shade and shape
of shape and shade.
The tomorrow that’s prepared.
Here gradual repetition, variation, and recombination allow abstraction and actual space to become entangled with one another. Elsewhere Mazer’s sonic play is less patient, more madcap, as in the beginning of “Embarrassing the Gods,” from January 2008:
My urination violation
helped to pay for my vacation.
Oh do not ask what is it
when you make your mental visit,
quoth the raven, while my mental
escapades are accidental
only when I do not think it.
So I’m making you this trinket
in case you want to contemplate
our coinciding at this date.
The triple rhyme in the first couplet and the juxtaposition of “urination violation” with the fast allusions to both “Prufrock” and “The Raven” achieve a kind of a screwball humor. There is an echo perhaps of John Skelton’s relentless end-rhymes. Especially in January 2008, the poems may wear out the reader—either his energy or his patience. The often antic wordplay leads in some poems to effective and delightful surprises but becomes claustrophobic in others, a kind of obsessive talking.
With January 2008, Mazer has made a provocative choice in publishing all 135 poems. As its prefatory note announces, this is a highly personal book. While he is elsewhere a scrupulous editor, Mazer seems deliberately to let this flood of poems in the wake of Everson’s death stand largely unedited. He wagers that their emotional and verbal immediacy is worth the risks of embarrassment, imprecision, and redundancy the book runs. There are poems of grief, goofiness, courtly love, sexual obsession, and friendship. Mazer is willing to leave himself astonishingly vulnerable, and in his vulnerability he has written some remarkably generous poems, such as this poem about friends:
The stitch and thimble like the laundry lines
require vacancy. No one affords
the genius in his wastebasket
when gin soaks the evenings.
The roof is bare and Katy there
but little to add. I huff and breathe
the stars that Matt is shaking with his eyes.
Although poems such as these leave Mazer vulnerable, his work at its best also preserves mystery. From Poems, “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 those things rest without a memory.