Tuesday, 14 November 2017

GUEST REVIEW: PAUL S. ROWE ON BEN MAZER'S SELECTED POEMS


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.

 
A project that has been incubating since his debut collection White Cities (Barbara Matteau Editions, 1995), Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems (MadHat Press, 2017) has arrived. Spanning over twenty years of zealous creative output, this volume begins with three euphonious glimpses of Mazer’s poetic career. To read these early poems is to peer through the ornate window of some far-flung edifice to discover scenery and situations ripe with the allure of intrigue and espionage, as in the poem “The Traveller”:
 

                        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):

                                         intelligent inscriptions

                       
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.
                        Th
ere 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

Saturday, 11 November 2017

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN


THIS MAN KNEW WHERE ALL THE BODIES WERE BURIED IN HOLLYWOOD....
I was sexually harassed by an actor when I was a young teenager, after going to an audition with him, so the recent revelations about the great and the good of Hollywoodland and its outlying tar pits were hardly going to leave me cold.  Like a lot of people online at the moment, each accusation against a star, producer or TV actor, ricochets all over the place. But none of the downfalls has hurt as much as Kevin Spacey's.

I have taken flak online the past week for criticising the cynical, and to my mind, Orwellian, decision to reshoot film history and cut Spacey out of the new Ridley Scott Getty film. The Onion had a joke about the whole industry being repopulated with Christopher Plummer clones (some began to misbehave). Even to mention sadness at the news that Kevin Spacey's acting career is over was apparently tantamount to mourning the death of Satan.

However, I have a long and complicated relationship with Kevin Spacey - as an artist, not a person (having never met him in the flesh, perhaps a good thing). I do not think it condones molestation or sex crime to say that it is a melancholy and perhaps tragic event, when a great genius is cut off in their prime. And to my mind, Spacey is a genius.

I saw him in his first roles, on TV in Long Day's Journey Into Night; then, in his run of classics, which, unless someone buys and erases them, will be among the great films of the last century - Glengarry Glen Ross, Se7en, The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential, American Beauty; and, then playing Lex Luthor, after a decade or more of rather mediocre film work, but brilliant directing and acting at The Old Vic in London; and then in his triumphant return for 5 seasons of the remake of House of Cards, virtually turning Netflix, overnight, into a mainstream player.

No one acts like Spacey on film. His acidic, acerbic, diamond-sharp malice and malevolent charisma was built for villains, lowlifes, and creeps - but bad guys with balls and a whip-smart tongue. His machine-gun fire delivery was as fast as the screwball comedians' of yore, but he spewed a rancid dialogue, usually, of repellent, or cruel, or mocking jibes.

Spacey was always snakelike and weird onscreen - his almost-handsome features ruined by a sense of danger and menace in whatever he did, which made him a lousy lead actor in happy films and family-aimed comedies, but made him one of the greatest screen heavies of all time. Looking back on his career, it seems he was always really a character actor. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, almost his contemporary, and also a genius of stage and screen, he battled demons, but often brought his A game to a performance.

I found his delivery and confidence riveting. I studied how he spoke and held himself, and used his delivery to help me become a world class debating champion.  Everything I learned about public speaking came from Thor Bishopric, Ted Koppel, Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Spacey.

To me, Spacey has been as much a part of my life - films and theatre are about 20% of my life's interest (poetry, politics, art and music filling the rest) - and he was my favourite actor for the past 22 years - so I guess that means he was pretty much representative of 8% or so of what meant something to me, for a long time. If that seems an odd way of saying he was a hero, then yeah, put it that way.

Some of my other male heroes have had feet of clay - notably Oscar Wilde, Martin Luther King, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, and Ezra Pound, who each had issues with their psyches, sexuality or politics, of course. My female heroes - Ida Lupino, Plath, Dickinson, Meryl Streep - seem less compromised. Regardless, I have learned to try and separate the personal lives of great saints, artists, actors, from their works.

It was once a fact that theatre people were not viewed as respectable, and in Victorian times, they lived in a shadowy demi-monde of scandal, yet were paid to perform by a public that understood the haunted and strange profession of being an artist on the boards. In fact, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Spacey's first triumph, is a play about the damaging ghosts of the theatreworld, and how acting has infected and destroyed a family, with its sins of drink, fornication and even opiates.

It is maybe unfortunate for Spacey that he lived in an age where actors stepped into the daylight, out of the limelight, to try and lead more normal lives, of respectability. In the past, and this is not to celebrate or forgive, but to historicize, his actions would have been seen as unsurprising for a flamboyant movie star millionaire. Charlie Chaplin was obsessed with pre-pubescent girls. Erroll Flynn was a priapic predator. Walt Disney... well.  Howard Hughes used to buy women's contracts to control them. Sinatra, Heffner, John Lennon, Elvis...

Yes, it is probably a good thing that the coruscating light of Twitter is now able to expose the foibles, sins, crimes, weaknesses, and sometimes, merely bad habits, of famous creative persons. It is perhaps less good that the exposure comes with 100% condemnation, and no tempering filters of sympathy, or understanding, and no offer of a helping hand. No love, just rage, blame, and hate.

One of the ironies of child abuse victims is that when they grow up to sometimes offend themselves, they tend to lose all support from society - they are suddenly only a monster. Yet, from what we have heard, Spacey's father was a true "monster" - he raped Spacey's brother, and beat them and abused them both, and forced pornography into their lives, as well as a far-right politics that is shocking. If Spacey was damaged by such a childhood, which is likely, none of that seems to matter to those who have immediately bayed for his blood.

If I was Spacey and had lost everything, I might consider suicide. He is being treated, and even that is being laughed at. Far from being an apologist for the defeated, wounded humans that often commit such sexual crimes, I come, as a Catholic, with merely the sense that I too am a human, a sinner, and capable of failings and imperfections. Most people, if they were worth £60 million pounds, and world famous, might, when drunk, make some awkward passes. In time, such celebrity behaviour can spiral downwards, as in this case. A society that prostrates itself before celebrity certainly can tempt even the strongest will, I suspect. What Spacey needs is a good priest, as much as a doctor.

If Spacey has done all he has been alleged to have done, it may be right he stop acting for a time, to face his demons, to face trial, and to heal and make amends. Still, it is unclear how cancelling a TV series loved by millions, that employs hundreds, will help anyone. Cancelling the movies he had already filmed or signed on to do also seems overkill. I suppose the view is, it will send a clear message that no longer will behaviour of this kind be tolerated. Maybe that is why it is being done. It looks and smells a lot more like a cynical ploy to cover some assess, and whitewash a bigger problem.

Spacey is not the worst person in Hollywood... more revelations are spilling out daily. Whatever the merits of this immediate turn against Spacey - and who since Wilde has fallen so far so fast from the stages of London and beyond? - I will not entirely abandon my acting hero. He will always remain a great actor, on stage and screen. I know now he is not a "good person" and he may have acted badly in his private and professional life. But, so did Kennedy, Picasso and almost every Jazz musician I adore.

If that is cultural compartmentalisation, so be it.

I refuse to turn my back on every person who is found out to have acted wrongly, even terribly.  Just as families of criminals do not always disown their own, even while condemning the crimes, I will seek to hate the sins of Spacey, but love the sinner.

GUEST REVIEW: PAUL S. ROWE ON BEN MAZER'S SELECTED POEMS

Possibility Glimpsed Through Windows: A Review of Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems Ben Mazer.  Selected Poems . (Ashville, NC: MadHat Press,...