Ben Mazer’s new book of poems:
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April may be the cruelest month, but the heartbreak of Ben Mazer’s February Poems seems overwhelming. February doesn’t usually get such a bad rep. Margaret Atwood anticipates spring in her poem about that shortest of months: ‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’ Mazer himself, in his earlier collection The Glass Piano, declares that ‘[t]he earth emerges fresh and clean in spring / Disorder is the beauty of the thing.’ February Poems, on the other hand, is consumed by a wish for order, for an end to ‘these spiritual journeys’ after months of heartbreak, catalogued in these urgent poems.
Many of the themes of his earlier work reappear here, tightened, focused on the poems’ narrative. The Russian poet Pasternak demanded in his poem ‘February’: ‘get ink and cry!’ and while Mazer’s poetry is not particularly lachrymose, shadows of Pasternak’s own heartbroken early poetry haunt the pages of this remarkable book, though I do not know whether Mazer has read the great Russian’s work.
It is not, however, merely the ghosts of past poets that haunt Ben Mazer’s poetry: it’s, in some sense, the memory of love, and memory itself.
At a conference, I was reading Ben Mazer’s February Poems when an acquaintance leaned over, and looked through the book. Her first reaction was to mumble critically, ‘Boy, does he like form. That’s a lot of sonnets.’ Half an hour later she was still reading. Whatever else I can say here, this reaction strikes me as quite fitting for this enormous book.
Ben Mazer has married a mastery of form to a riveting emotional voice in these poems in a way that strikes me as quite distinctive not just in contemporary poetry but in poetry generally. These are poems about the failures of memory, and the pains of expectation: poems, in short, about a difficult present. Reading them, one shares in this immediate awareness with them, captivated and devastated. [You can read two of these poems here, on this site. — J.T.]
There, one is tempted to say, a timeless quality to February Poems, both regarding the poems themselves and their literary and cultural contexts and ancestry, as well as regarding the story — for it is a story — the poems tell: of a failed marriage, a great love and a terrible devastation. The first kind of timelessness is easiest described: Mazer’s work with form means that you can compare some of his verse to the Metaphysical poets, some of it to contemporary revivalists of form, like Marilyn Hacker, and a lot of it to W.H. Auden, Delmore Schwartz and especially Robert Lowell.
The debt to the last two is most obvious — Schwartz is quoted in an epigraph to the book, and two of Mazer’s poems cite two famous poems from Life Studies directly, and some others contain more oblique allusions to them.
Yet the Lowell we find in the poems is not the Lowell of Life Studies, despite the thematic overlap: February Poems is haunted by the Lowell of the Notebooks and of Dolphin. There is a sense of Lowell’s exultant use of the sonnet in Mazer’s well-formed but never rigid formal poems: one does not feel the material bending to the form or the form adjusting to the material: on the contrary, the book reads as if the poems are the natural expression of the emotions and issues Mazer needed to express.
The poems, like Lowell’s mid-career sonnets, are not all equally strong, but even the few weaker poems contribute to the overall sequence, leading us to the harrowing end.
The Schwartz affinity is more interesting than that: you can see Schwartz’s voice in some of the poems, the way Schwartz used syntax. It is impossible not to hear ‘poor Delmore,’ as Berryman called him, in lines like these:
A man and a woman interminably in thrall,
Till time grows weary, and takes away it all
But Mazer shares something else with Schwartz: a stubborn insistence on his own literary tools. There is an obvious development in Mazer’s poetry from earlier collections, but it is difficult to connect them to the larger movements of contemporary American poetry.
To be clear: this is not about offering a criticism either way of the relationship of individual poets to the changing literary fashions (though I have to admit an irritation to having heard a different poet I also admire being called ‘outdated’ on twitter).
The critical misunderstanding regarding Delmore Schwartz’s later work is a long and sad story, and hasn’t been told well by critics and fellow poets. Schwartz’s work charts a development in his work regarding autobiographical writing, and restructuring his relationship to form in poetry.
The way he developed wasn’t entirely at odds with the way poetry around him changed, but it was different enough to be an irritant to critics. In a way, it was as if Schwartz’s present and the present of the literary culture around him didn’t synch up properly, like two ships passing in the night, but broadly heading towards similar destinations.
With Mazer’s poetry, I think there’s a similarly firm sense of time, but it isn’t anchored in the poetry business around him, it is anchored in himself. There’s a description in Augustine’s Confessions of the three aspects of time in the soul: ‘The present considering the past is the memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expectation.’
February Poems is driven by an intense sense of presence, but Mazer’s immediate awareness is formal rather than part of the poems’ content. Mazer uses the cohesiveness of form, and the recurring terms and themes of the poems as a way to be immediately present, as a sharp and unique intelligence without ever really being fully present as a person.
Mazer haunts his own poems, luring his readers into this gothic edifice of a book, but then withdrawing from immediate communications: a method which increases the sense of sometimes incredulous loss that pervades these poems.
Maybe a few words on some aspects of that edifice are in order: there are many smaller and larger details that create a sense of immediate presence of the poet, despite the poems’ dwelling on the other two senses as outlined by Augustine. Some are curious: Mazer calls one of the poems ‘Man and Wife returning’. The title stands out because most poems in the book are untitled; it also echoes a Lowell poem, also called ‘Man and Wife,’ from the ‘Life Studies’ section of Life Studies.
That this is a Lowell echo becomes more clear once we find the poem ‘To speak of woe that is in marriage’ further towards the end of the book. This, too, is a Lowell poem’s original title. Lowell’s two poems are sequenced one after the other (in fact, they used to be a single poem in early drafts), while Mazer’s are not. Indeed, it is mostly the second poem that follows the Lowellian thematic suggestion.
Lowell’s poem is written from the wife’s perspective, expressing fear of an abusive alcoholic husband. Mazer’s poem is written from the point of view of the husband, encountering a fearful wife: ‘Later she’d confess / She thought I meant to kill her.’ Mazer’s speaker is locked into his perspective, and also lost to memory, and to the marriage that could have been. But Mazer is also present with us in the formal parts of the poem.
The limited perspective of Mazer’s poem is particularly pronounced by contrast to Lowell’s poem that allows the wife to speak. Mazer knows it, too: his poem starts with the line ‘[s]he describes it better than I could.’
Another aspect is Mazer’s rhyme scheme. Lowell’s original poem is a sonnet written in rhyming couplets, and Mazer’s poem, one of only a handful of poems in the book specifically not written as a sonnet, starts and ends his poem with rhyming couplets, but keeps diverging from the pattern, and returning to it, a disturbance with regard to the original poem that increases the sense of the poet’s own distress in the present, but leaving him to contemplate the past. Finally, the reference also contains a more indirect reference to Delmore Schwartz.
I hear you: this split sense of time could apply to any poem dealing with memory, and if this were your complaint, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. After all, Augustine didn’t dedicate his observations on time in the soul to Ben Mazer. Yet the specific way in which Mazer consistently retreats from the present of the poem and gets lost in the various Escherian hallways of his memory, in combination with his formal and textual patterning that keep the reader’s attention on the making of the poems, is unusual, to say the least.
February Poems is a curious title for a collection of poetry that is more well-constructed volume than a collection of poems assembled in a given period. Take Mazer’s use of rhyme. The early sonnets, talking about the early beginnings of love, often end on almost folksy rhymes, like ‘we felt such joy / Glad to be living, just a girl and a boy.’ And ‘why should each go apart and be lonely, / when truly they love each other only.’
Yet another poem ends on a couplet where both lines end on ‘light,’ and so on. Much like the shifting connection to the Lowell poem in ‘To Speak of Woe…,’ Mazer’s rhymes, particularly in the final lines of the poems, start with these song-like phrases and become more and more insistent, sometimes worryingly so, as with the poem whose final lines rhyme ‘insanity’ on ‘tea.’
There are occasional reprieves from this general sense of deterioration, but what’s remarkable is that the poems teach us to read them, and by the time we reach the poem ‘At the Altar,’ we are prepared for its intense end. The poem’s last 5 lines end with the following phrases: ‘and cry,’ ‘want to die,’ ‘falling in,’ ‘save my skin,’ ‘falling in,’ ‘want to die.’ Read in isolation, the poem’s drama could seem overwrought, but its excellent construction is placed into a long rhetoric of rhyme, where we as readers have now started to read form as the way these poems communicate with? us.
I mean someone has to. Because Mazer’s speaker sure as hell isn’t. Mazer has constructed a claustrophobically miserable speaker. We, who have suffered this kind of calamitous heartbreak, could say that ‘these poems speak to us,’ and maybe they do. But Mazer’s speaker isn’t.
And despite addressing his former wife in many of these poems, he is also not really speaking to her. This absolute separation of the speaker from the people who might hear them, this isolation in misery and memory is why I think Augustine’s statement on the senses of time in the soul is particularly relevant here.
The theme of the past is also explored in other ways. It’s hard not to think of Svetlana Boym’s remark about how Hollywood movies are essentially nostalgic when we go through a collection like this that is on the one hand obsessed with a personal past, but also tethered through form to a tradition and thus, a lifeline thrown by an Ariadne of literature to lead us through the maze of Mazer’s poems. And then there’s Mazer’s interest in movies.
It’s been obvious in his poetry for years, as evidenced, for example, by ‘EVEN AS WE SPEAK’ from the 2010 Poems, and it links him with poets like Ashbery. This interest hasn’t left Mazer and so in February Poems we are informed how things are ‘[i]n the old movies,’ we hear about ‘Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in ‘Top Hat’,’ and we find, in other places, a personal story transformed into a movie cliché. And those are just direct references.
Surely related are the many, many references to the mechanics of the laterna magica (magic lantern). Things are seen indirectly, projected by sun-, moon- or starlight, shadows abound. These thematic recurrences are another way February Poems is patterned, and one of the most interesting manifestations of Mazer’s immediate presence, as the laterna magica is a very traditional metaphor for the workings of the mind, as is the mirror, another recurring image in the book.
But what of the future? If the patterns, topical, rhetorical and formal, constitute the immediate present of the poems, and the miserable, alienated, isolated speaker of the poems constitutes the past, where is the future?
Oftentimes, poetry dealing in form and tradition, that alludes to Eliot and Dylan Thomas, and names others like Empson and Yeats, is seen as inherently backwards looking. Yet the very example of Mazer’s February Poems shows that writing itself creates an expectation of a future. The speaker ends the book on expressing hope for a future involving both husband and wife, but the poems, as creation, are smarter than the speaker in them. In their urgent expression of ‘a mind thinking,’ to quote Bishop on Hopkins, they implicitly show the way.
Robert Lowell knew something like this when he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop that ‘Writing […] gives me capacity to regrow, regenerate, and heal.’ I don’t know any other writer who uses form, in particular rhymes, quite like Ben Mazer does: they are their own force, and yet they are also integrally tied into the sad song of the poems: Mazer has no interest in dazzling his audience with technical prowess.
In the way all poems are aligned here, Mazer has added an element of concision, focus and, indeed, form, that his earlier poems, less yoked to a personal catastrophe, did not possess. The best way Ben Mazer’s poems express the future is in the expectation of writing: the possibility of being heard, of writing on, of finding another couplet and then yet another, even as the world crumbles around us is, strangely, one of the most hopeful things I know.