Raymond C. Barfield
Poetic Imagination in the Dock:
R.C. Barfield reviews
Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems, Mad Hat Press,
We readers of poetry bring our own lenses to the work of our poets. I suppose poets who make their poems public must foster a certain patience to endure our misreadings in exchange for whatever pleasure for whatever pleasure they find in being read.
I once took a line from Ben Mazer’s book, Poems, as the epigram for my own book, The Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry. The line was this: “Poems are but evidence of poetry.” The line struck me. Unfortunately, Cambridge University Press printed it with a mistake: “Poems are but evidence of Poetry.”
That capital “P” matters, and it was one that Mazer understandably resisted when it was brought up in an interview with him. Such is the world of publishing.
— Philip Nikolayev, from the preface
Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: MadHat, Inc.
Mazer would probably still resist the capital “P,” but his most recent book, Selected Poems, left me with the sense that his poems bear witness to a reality that, even in its most ephemeral flashes and shy appearances, has the stubborn and formal solidity of something I want to call Poetry.
In any case, my own misreadings are misreadings full of admiration for the poems, which are pleasures one by one, and which, collectively, never fail to make me step back and think about what it is this poet is doing. As I read and reread Mazer, I adapt the advice of Martin Luther regarding our sins: “When you misread, misread boldly.”
His poems are populated with a dizzying array of things – food, faces, foreign cities, and hints at the shades of verities. He celebrates them all, even when their luster seems to have faded. The world can be glum, but he doesn’t want it to be. He is a sometimes-beguiling poet who has written a book of hymns for the unchurched, full of delight, surprise, frustration, and sometimes sadness.
His ear is tuned to the music and he listens in on the world for whatever might be there, even when the only mind in the room is his own, and the universe feels vacated by the more benevolent ghosts. I suppose a poetic mind in such a universe is always at risk, situated as it is inside the coil of a fragile and temporary mortal.
the music of the sky opening its vein.
Without a sound, but wind that whips the leaves
and hammering like fingers on the eaves,
the day begins, the luckless lover grieves
sinister mysteries the mind perplexes
the lifeless throbbing of the dullest flexes.
(from ‘December Poems’)
To begin vaguely, the object of Mazer’s poems is reality, including the reality of unreal things, what Coleridge called “dear gorgeous nonsense,” referring to the images Plato used to construct his philosophical view of the cosmos and our place in it. The people, places, and things in his poems are valued for what they are in themselves (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). And yet, as I move from poem to poem, they sometimes give me the sense that there is something more and lasting toward which he is pointing, or else that he longs for there to be something more to the world, and isn’t quite sure whether or not there is.
On those days when we are unable to feel the immediate force of fables and myths, and our world is emptied of phantoms, gods, and the soul, we are sometimes only left with the poem itself. If a poem is all imagination, we see its peculiar reality for what it is. Mazer’s poetry makes us wonder if perhaps that is enough.
Perhaps… Dante was lucky: his imagination unreservedly tethered itself to hell, purgatory, and paradise, populated with the dead who literally lived on in a different form. Our imaginations are different from Dante’s imagination because our reality is different from Dante’s reality. Perhaps our minds are abstracted from the stories that shaped Dante’s reality and the way his baptized imagination used the things in the world: perhaps we only have the things in the world and our mere presence among them. That said, “God” (or at least the long shadow of god) shows up nearly 30 times in Mazer’s collection of poems.
Whole particular world cognizances suffer to aver
the wind wrought eyes the rain will wet and blur,
too soon too late. We are not what we were!
While god alone will scale and fill us up.
Unreality is not pushed back,
but like a fiction emerges, unreferenced
except in qualities or sense-data,
unverifiable in their own closed systems.
This is enough to posit they are true,
or in some sense neither true nor false,
but welcome enough, for their indications.
(‘An After Dinner Sleep’)
Reality as a whole comprises things as they are, our own imaginative presence, and the imaginative presence of others. The idea of the whole is an interdependent relationship of things as they are, plus imagination. This whole is the content and subject of poetry, and Mazer’s mind scurries over every surface as he populates his poems with people, places, and things.
His purpose — and in Mazer’s case it feels like a genuine calling, the work he has been given to do in a life — is to share imagination, lighting up the minds of others so that they live their minds in the midst of reality in a more interesting way. Poets make worlds, just as philosophers make worlds. As poets and philosophers come and go, worlds come and go.
But whatever the durability and fragility of a world might be, Mazer is nonetheless compelled to make one, populated with poems that have a solidity that requires not only the writer’s gift, but also a long and hard-won acquaintance with what poetry is and how it does what it does.
He is clearly not afraid to love other poets. Beyond world-making, some of Mazer’s work involves portraying his own mind. We have to decide what to do with the artifacts that show up in the wake of the poet’s work.
strange places I had visited on earth,
known faces as I made my breathless dash,
imagination that preceded birth…
I saw the lanterned gardens of old love,
of places I had never even been,
all indistinct as memory’s treasure trove
of what the heart keeps silently within
The mind of the poet brings about ways of seeing things in the world, always with a sense of purpose and, in Henri Bergson’s words, “forward movement.” The progress to which Bergson refers is that of saints and mystics, whose sources of inward light can seem incredible from the outside.
Mazer often quietly makes the incredible credible, which it must be, because poetry is conceived with reality. The poet wants to say true things, even if the truth the poet says is a truth the poet needs. But in his poems, I often feel a background sense of the fragility of our relationship to the people, places, and things we meet in the world.
even poets must confess their sin,
observing Christmas dinner from the bushes,
a pas de trois, and outside looking in.
(from ‘December Poems’)
Mazer’s imagination puts reality to use, but his imagination does not wholly belong to him — at least it doesn’t now that he has shared his poetry with us. In a sense, imagination makes us mystics. That mysticism can lead to other acts of mysticism, or it can lead outward into the common place we build among ourselves and share.
In either case, the world revealed by sustained imaginative work over a couple of decades eventually no longer feels made up of images and imagined resemblances, metaphors, and analogies, but rather feels simply real. This is a cumulative achievement in the life of a poetic mind. It is what Mazer shows us in his poems taken together.
light dimming until old memories are unblind
with ritual escapades, exodus stratospherics,
redeem all distance, portents of the mind.
The hours they live in, empty shells, adornments
of simple wishes, mornings of coffee with friends,
project in violet visages their torrents
of supple lucidity where mind unbends.
They travel far — were distance not an illusion —
only to return, wearier, wiser,
a momentary stay against confusion,
heaped in vast relics absence solidifies there.
How can they be upheaved — the droll bell drones
them whole again, lacking space to confine them,
as if some Europe sauntered to their homes
to rise again, to which the dead shall bind them.
The mind shall settle thus, in slim beliefs
exonerated by its supplication
to static roots, the true note of creation
falling blankly as spent and fluttering leaves.”
(‘The Glass Piano’)
Mazer’s imagination eludes and crosses moral categories, as it eludes and crosses seasons, dipping into winter while the body sweats the summer heat, accompanying the world, but directing from a throne, a play throne, as Wallace Stevens says, that in one sense does nothing, and in another sense organizes everything. The imagination is the power of the mind over the wilderness of possibilities, the possibilities of the meaning and value attached to things and thoughts as they appear before the throne.
As an ordering power, it is a domain where reality registers with all its form, feeling, and conflicting value. It is a power that nurtures our way of seeing by bringing an unreal order into chaos so that we see more than chaos, imposing a value, but never finding an adequate account of meaning. Again — not to irritate Mazer or anyone else — there is a strange and sometimes fierce mysticism in some of his poems. When the mind endures anxiety, feeling lost in the world, the imagination requires, and desires, some orienting idea.
all equally must face God’s reprimanding,
until all stretches out in endless sands,
and each no longer knows his lover’s hands.
(‘Entering the City of New York’)
So, Stevens was probably right that the central poetic idea is the idea of God. What could possibly be a higher organizing force, if not for the universe, at least for our minds? But if God refuses to exist in a clear and undoubtable way (or else won’t get honest, do the decent thing, and refuse to exist outright), we must find a new way to live imagination in the world. For Mazer, poetry as an act of imagination is an organizing force for the living mind.
Both the tragedy of life and the comedy of life derive their peculiar character from the workings of the mind that either sees its own limits, and lives despite these, or else cannot accept its limits and rattles its cage when it is frustrated. Both experiences show up in this collection of poems. It takes courage to keep trying to write true things, and I imagine it has been, at times, terribly disorienting, like being cheated on by a lover you trusted.
Experience had to the surface hurled
its words. Now all is past and streaky grey
of what the gods had rendered for display.
What of forgiveness? How bad must they hurt
to break all trust, imagine the faithless flirt?
Of resources in common that they had?
How to forgive the lover who goes mad?
(from ‘December Poems’)
Mazer shows us that even when the gods (or our lovers) thin and fade, and we are left with an enormous sense of loss despite being alive and awake in the world, our imaginations remain as active as ever. Neither the gods nor lovers can be replaced, because we actually believed in them, and we cannot generate meaningful faith in something we simply make up, any more than we can worship a log carved into an idol once a prophet has shown us the folly of splitting of a tree into two, and worshiping half while using the other half to fuel the fire on which we cook our dinner.
If the gods (or our lovers-gone-mad) dwell only in our naïve imaginations, once we see the truth, we will hesitate to submit to them again, as long as we crave reality more than comfort. But we are still drawn to places where our lives have been changed, for better, or worse, or both.
A night on my own. I wanted a good meal.
I went to where I had often gone before.
(‘Deep Sleep Without Reservations’)
There is a kind of philosophical thought that excels in sorting through the things of this world, testing local realities we explore in science, and challenging the very idea of knowing anything at all. But sorting, testing, and challenging ideas can leave us hungry for the tangible stuff that shows up in cities, at the dinner table, or on walks in Harvard Square. Mazer’s imagination carries us beyond the philosophical inventory of an abstracted universe, into the poetry of the local world. His poems are places we will want to return to, often.
Raymond Barfield MD, PhD
Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy
Pediatric Quality of Life and Palliative Care
Director, Medical Humanities
Trent Center for Bioethics, Medical Humanities, and History of Medicine
Durham, NC, 27708