on Figures in a Landscape, poems by Gail Mazur (University of Chicago Press)
Gail Mazur’s distinguished body of work reads as an irresolvable argument with herself, but at its core it takes unabating delight in the enigmas of human relationships and its own contrariness. The tension between opposing forces is omnipresent: the grip of memory versus the ascent of vision, the suspicion of bathos versus the urgency of sentiment, modesty of means versus the glut of experience, self-laceration versus audacious confidence, story versus stasis, the responsibilities of insight versus the deficits of the mind, results versus resolutions.
The antagonisms may become familiar to the reader, but not the ways in which they play out. This is because she is patient: she waits for a strange third thing to survive the sparring of antitheses. Sometimes the waiting is the whole deal. Each of her poems is a test of her mettle, an assessment of temperament and frequently of nerve.
In a 2006 interview in The Atlantic, she described her then recent poem “Enormously Sad” as an enactment of “a kind of progress from melancholic self-pity to what you might call a braver acknowledgement … an admonition from one part of the self to another.” Although many of her poems use this rhetorical conveyance, they rarely take the same route and their materials are various. With an avidity for apprehension, the work coincides with the moments of disquiet it relates and then attempts, somehow, to go further. Her voice speaks from within – and responds to -- the demands of unique situations.
At 73, Mazur seems to have no interest in cultivating her “late style.” Her sixth book, Figures in a Landscape, follows the 2006 publication of her celebrated new and selected poems, Zeppo’s First Wife, and continues to develop its obsessions. For instance, the newer poem “History of My Timidity” (“Little Sister, little fiddlehead, you unfurled early in me”) is sister to “Girl in a Library” from the late 1990’s. In the earlier poem, she writes, “I want to shake her and want to assure her, / to hold her – but love’s not safe for her, / although she craves what she knows / of it, love’s a snare, a closed door, / a dank cell …”
The problem of not-safe love appears again in the final lines of the title poem of the new book:
I wanted to walk by myself awhile
but I'd always been afraid to lose you
and the naked olive groves were hovering
as if to surround you.
That was the problem:
I craved loneliness; I needed the warmth of love.
If no one looks at us, do we or don't we disappear?
The landscape would survive without us.
When you're in it, it's not landscape
any more than the horizon's a line you can stand on.
The loves in Mazur’s poetry persist; they don’t flare and die. But love that keeps growing may hurt like sorrow because during expansion its formerly well-defined outline becomes blurry and thin. The effort to show (to prove) in response a commensurate love may become onerous. When two people are “in it,” neither one may be certain of what exactly they are “in.” The main difficulty reflected in Mazur’s verse is knowing how to live in reaction to others, those present and departed. Much of the rue and grief stems from an implacable sense of having come up short in years when “I was all attrition.”
Adam Phillips wrote, “The art of poetry is the art of being happily unacceptable in public.” James Wright said, “The great poets write their books in secret” but we “discover their books openly.” In a Mazur poem, the speaker may appear to reveal and regret some unacceptable behavior, such as in “To the Women of My Family” in her new book (“I was presumptuous to claim I could / fathom // your wounds born when you were born, / hostages, // as I thought, to your century’s contusions”). But another part of her psyche resists accountability. After all, the reader is yet another person to contend with – to please and to remain separate from. While Mazur’s disclosures draw the reader closer, she unpacks them to lighten her baggage and speed her departure.
In “Hermit,” the opening poem of Figures in a Landscape, Mazur lays out the terms of engagement with the reader. The hermit crab finds a vacant shell or cavity in which to live. He is a self-sufficient loner who “has internalized / life’s lesson to the point where he is the lesson” and apparently is a metaphor for clear-minded, sedate individualism. As such, ultimately he can only be an irritant for this poet who concludes:
And you, Gail, though you seem almost frozen,
Are you sure you won’t abandon
The crowded, calcified armor of your story,
Of what was given, what freely chosen –
This is in part a book of social commentary. In the first of three sections, the poems shuttle between meditations on marriage (“While You Were Out”) and family heritage (“October”) – and extended tropes on communal conditions (“The Age”). In the latter poem, the speaker pivots on the combined responsibility to teach and inspire (“I told the others we ought to study // history again, history teaches us more than erasures, / more than diminutions, there’d be something for us there”) and a countervailing skepticism (“Listen to them, // the name of a new leader they trust on their lips, O O O they chant, / and I hear like one struggling to wake from a mournful dream”).
In the second section, the gentleness and humor of the book’s elegiac tone become more apparent. She addresses her headaches in “Dear Migraine”: “I’ve given up trying to outsmart you … whatever you were to me I’ve outgrown, / I don’t need you, but you’re tenacity embodied …” The long poem “Post-Pastoral” not only illustrates Mazur’s attention to natural detail (often of Cape Cod) but strives to specify the fullest purpose of and response to such observations. The poem ends:
and then, only then, when I’d begun to feel
at home, when I knew I would never live
long enough to exhaust it, nor could I
protect it, nor could it protect me,
when I knew I couldn’t always return,
couldn’t always look and see the thousand
browns, the richness of greens, when I knew grief
was part of me and I would bear it, then I took my leave.
The third section looks back again, beginning with “Wedding Album,” a discursive poem that in lingering over imagery and memory now carries an excruciating load of restrained mourning for the poet’s husband, Michael Mazur, the renowned artist who revived the art of the monotype and who died in 2009 after a long illness. “Borges in Cambridge, 1967” juxtaposes the otherworldliness of the great writer’s voice with an SDS demonstration outside Harvard Yard. The final line reads, “The war we thought we’d helped to finish never ends,” not only because America’s serial wars continue, but because conflicting desires, so alive in this poem -- to dream and to act – seem irreconcilable.
In “Poem at the End of August,” she writes:
Once I knew what was required of me:
Patience. Vigilance. Kindness.
And what I required of myself:
empathy and selfishness;
to face the discomfiting asymmetries of truth;
also, to make something from them;
and wit –
the wit to make it all work.
Figures in a Landscape consists of necessary abandonments; the told story is a shed story; the stubborn doubts, guilts and humiliations are laid bare. The “calcified armor” of her narratives glints charmingly as it is peeled off. Perhaps this points to the deepening tones of this book: a heightening of the mood to accommodate loss. But the poet refuses to eulogize in the standard sense. On the contrary, Figures in a Landscape prefers potentiality (soberly considered but hardly anticipated) to memorializing. In “Shipwreck,” Mazur asks, “can anything this gone be consecrated?” What is “almost completely effaced” in the shipwreck is also “still resonant.” Nevertheless, a wreck is a wreck. She offers a most delicate and dicey affirmation of her ability to keep going and perceiving.
Although the moment of Figures in a Landscape calls for a summing-up and a litany of forswearings, Mazur’s longstanding requirements persist. This is a masterful and moving collection, and as stubborn and generous as hell. In “October,” she writes of her parents, “Their faults now only foibles / and all the meannesses and pathos, / hoarding and generosities, / the stoniness and warmth, // part of their allure.” All is forgiven! But “Poem at the End of August” ends with a brother running toward his sister on a beach. He calls, I have good news and bad! “And the girl cries gleefully, Tell the bad! Tell the bad! / subversive girl, thrilling for experience.” Gail Mazur exactly, happily unacceptable among the actual.
[Published April 15, 2011 in the Phoenix Poets series. 79 pages, $18.00 paperback original]