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Thousands of Grids

By (December 1, 2013) No Comment

New Poems

By Ben Mazer
Pen & Anvil 2013MazerNewpoems

At first blush, readers of Ben Mazer’s New Poems might see it as expanding on the devices and themes Mazer develops in his previous collection, 2010’s Poems. Both works are rich with political and literary history and present them in an acutely personal way; both are obsessed with the landscape of the past as well as the dreamscape of the mind. New Poems, however, deviates from Mazer’s earlier work in significant ways. The speaker in New Poems attempts to conspire with the reader and to make sense of the world. Whereas Poems often reads as an uncensored chain of thoughts and events, New Poems is more deliberate, framing things in a way that both comforts and demystifies.

In Poems, Mazer does not tailor language to create a narrative experience; in fact, to say these poems have a “speaker” would not do them justice. One does not have the feeling of being spoken to but of having the rare opportunity to peer into another’s mind. A simile from “The Long Wharf” reads: “I pulled back from the wind as from a nail.” This line functions not, as similes often do, to facilitate the reader’s understanding by drawing a comparison to something familiar; instead, it pulls the reader further into the dark. Is the nail being used as a tool or a weapon? When and why would someone pull back from it? This simile does not make a comparison to a shared experience of the world but requires the reader to imagine what pulling back from a nail looks like. There are as many ways of imagining this as there are readers.

By contrast, the personality behind the work in New Poems is more defined. The speaker seems to be in a state of perpetual astonishment at the way things are, at how vast and malleable the rules that govern the world. As in Poems, phrases, themes, and images often recur, with variation, both within individual poems and throughout the book. The opening piece in Poems, “The Double,” likens such repetition to a soup:

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.

New Poems, similarly, is more than the sum of its parts. When tracking the progression and transformation of recurring elements in Mazer’s poems, a reader encounters completely new ingredients as well as those with which they are familiar. For example, “The Double” is in some ways parallel to New Poems’s “The King,” a multi-part poem of fluidity and boundedness, solidity and ambiguity. In part IV, the speaker implores:

Think of it. Thousands of grids
that have their double not even in existence—
as if one steamy cloud of alphabet soup
hid not only birth and the father that is working
but the immemorial repeatable
vortex and mantle of the possible image

The many grids immediately impose boundaries on the poem. So do “birth and the father that is working,” both necessary constraints on humanity—life must begin with birth, and we must work in order to survive, to preserve and produce new life. These constraints, however, are obscured by a “steamy cloud of alphabet soup” more threatening than that in “The Double.” Is Mazer trying to be funny here? It’s hard to see how a writer wouldn’t recognize the humor in a threatening soup-cloud, but Mazer isn’t obvious on this. If it’s a joke, it’s an ambiguous one, in which the poems as a whole play along.

In “The Double,” soup is a vehicle for learning rather than concealment, providing the security of repetition along with the excitement of new discovery. In “The King,” however, soup obscures the things we take for granted from view and denies repetition. It is aligned with danger: the whirling vortex of water and the mantle that envelops all possible images. Crucially, this is not merely “soup” but “alphabet soup,” linked with literacy, writing, and by implication poetry, which is in turn linked with disaster. While “The Double” carries no such implications, in Section XXXII of “The King,” Mazer expresses something like frustration:

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence[…]

It would be a mistake to interpret these recurring themes as mere symbols, or a code for the reader to decipher. The question is not “What meaning should we make of them?” but “What should we do with them?” Mazer’s answer, often, is to frame them in various ways so they take on new functions and associations both within and among the poems. This framing occurs in every sense of the word. To frame is to border, to enclose, to give shape to: To frame a picture. To frame is also to compose: To frame a new constitution. Finally, to frame is to conceive or imagine: To frame it as a question. The idea of framing persists in all three senses—bordering, composition, imagination—in New Poems.

“The King” deals with framing in the sense of space and boundaries. Boundaries are twisted to enclose only what is necessary and leave out what is not being showcased or pointed out. In part XXXIV:

Branches grow in all directions at once.
Their black silhouettes enclose
the opposite of the city that surrounds them—

the winds whip
their thousand frames and borders (enticing as lace),
in cross purposes, symphonies of erasure,
expansions of dimension and perspective
extending outwards down every road and lane,
groaning and growing inward, cross hatched by the rain
(whose sudden abundance even now overflows).

At first, the silhouettes of the branches, arbitrary and scattered, serve as the enclosure for a sort of anti-city—presumably the city governed by the poem’s eponymous King. However, the King cannot impose borderlines that override nature; the true boundaries change with the wind’s every stroke. The new borders are in conflict with the old, erasing Mazerpoemsthem to create an expanded kingdom inclusive of “every road and lane,” a hint at the actual presence of people rather than the abstract “city that surrounds.” At the same time, the new and less bounded space is “cross-hatched by the rain/(whose sudden abundance even now overflows).” Part XXXIV ends on a sinister note, a warning of the dangers that coincide with an absence of boundaries: flooding, unpredictability, lack of protection.

The speaker in New Poems shows an obsession with architecture, landscaping, and the overall use of space. In “Manifesto,” ideas compete for space with physical structures:

pages closed, unread,
compete with walls and gardens, curbs, a gate,
a slant of light, massed shadows disparate

In the space of less than three lines, we have man-made structures, shadows, light, and ideas—or rather the idea of ideas: the contents of the closed and unread pages are unknown. Isn’t there room for all of these simultaneously? Or do we crowd out ideas by imposing structures upon them? The word “compete” suggests the speaker’s anxiety of having to choose.

Likewise, in “The King” (XXVII), the speaker again finds that abstractions and physical structures coexist uneasily:

Just where the east with central west aligns
I found myself alone. The cell phone lines
broke through the silence of obscuring brick
and blocks of limestone where the decades pass
unnoticed. Time’s grand central coordinates!

Barriers of brick and limestone provide silence, but these barriers prove to be artificial and temporary: the chatter of cell phones eventually manages to break through. It is a revelation to the speaker that time can also pass through this barrier, as if time and architecture cannot coexist. Physical structures, he finds, cannot provide a buffer against the passage of time and its implications (new technologies, the speaker’s loneliness). These pass into and out of the frame of the poem as subtly as the passage of time itself.

Ultimately, the speaker seems to come to terms with the fact that borders are not as fixed as they sometimes seem. Mazer’s speaker has mastered the art of maneuvering boundaries, maintaining structure while allowing his frame of reference to change freely. At the end of “The King,” in part XXXXI, he observes:

These inner courtyards frame at least as well
the towering cognizances like a sea of soup
that hem in all that you can never tell.

The courtyards are presented in contrast to the speaker’s overwhelming cognizance and the even more abstract “all that you can never tell.” As the images progress in sequence from the very concrete to the ambiguous, they become more and more bounded, with the palace architecture framing awareness framing the unknown. The unknown still exists, but it is no longer something to fear; rather, it is a protected space. Meanwhile, the “sea of soup” has reappeared. In this instance the speaker compares it to knowledge and awareness, much as he linked it with literacy earlier in the poem. However, the image has now transformed from a steamy and obscuring threat to something more controlled. New Poems shows us that, finally, a balance can be achieved between structure and fluidity, and that neither warrants our fear.

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Liza Katz‘s poems and critical essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Critical Flame, The Quarterly Conversation, Poet Lore, Omniverse, Literary Matters, and elsewhere. She is an ESL teacher in Boston.