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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Mark Weiss

Zefiro Torna

for Paul Blackburn


The rain comes and leaves the wind behind.
A renaissance poet.
In Brooklyn the sidewalks are steaming.
I jay-walk across Union Street
gun-metal clouds    warm rain
young blades in shades and sneakers running for cover.

In the Cuban-Chinese a canny waiter
offers the anglo chicken soup.
I drink mango nectar with my egg foo yong. The spicy food
overcomes the smell of roach spray.
I stop to write
and my stomach turns. The rain
comes back, the storm swirling 10,000 feet up    and I remember
the open windows. Too late now.
Something invaluable may be lost     although
the effects of the ghost I live with
are across the room.


You were rarely serious    your poems
are songs in the morning to the frying eggs. I hardly read you,
the silent pages
somehow infusing my work through the covers.
I sleep with your wife
I raise your child. A bum
walks into the restaurant
wet, small steps,
swaying, but fat and healthy.
He begs in two languages    and leaves
hardly disturbing me. My egg foo yong gets colder.


The clean rain continues to hit the filthy streets
as if everything
were divided
into yes and no. A renaissance
poet. I too
ride the subways    unlike you
a native, longing,
at times, for the fields you were raised in. Carlos
your son    wears your features, and Joan cries
when she thinks of you sometimes,
hard as you were to live with,
a renaissance poet, an aristocrat
singing in the morning as if there were servants    and I think
when you took sick you were still a child,
your whole adulthood a matter of months.
Everything is god’s time in the church at whose altar you served,
everything happens at once.
I am a Jew
and involved with history.
All of the garbage washes downhill in the rain.
Given time, it collects in the ocean.
Fish eat it--nothing lost
but consciousness.


But I square off with you
not only because of the intrusion you make in my life, that functions
as a kind of exotic element    a presence    the almost known past
of the woman and child that I live with.
What I’m fighting
is the cop-out    the cosmetic
perfection. Dawn
doesn’t happen as the occasion for aubades. You don’t chew stones
to make you eloquent, but to break
the teeth of eloquence. I am driving
on Atlantic Avenue. An old woman
crosses in front of me dragging a cart full of rags. On the radio
it’s Spring again in Italy: the wind
returns and returns in the round of voices.


This poem is beginning to be about politics    how
the dead stare of habitual pain    and the beautiful toys we make
the pearls    the desire
to be clean and free of contagion
though we walk between junkies and syphilitics
on every corner and the mind
trips out into arcady for avoidance. What I mean is
my body    deformed in ways that I only am aware of
which attack the relative symmetry I was born with    when I dance
a deformed man dances    the scars
on the given chance of perfection.
I would rather not grieve if I had the choice. As it is
my grief is my pleasure,
and tempted by grace,
that symmetry
mapped in my genes as surely as its failure--
when I love    I sweat.

Phyllis and Chloris are forever making garlands on the lawn. In their world
only a ritual sadness is allowed    the lover
mourning for the temporary setback of his courtship.
She always comes around. What I’m saying
I’m trying to say clearly why I have to defend myself
against this fiction. Like you
I have tried to live there,
but there were always dead animals.
John Milton, whom you hated, becomes my guide
for a moment    at a similar moment
throwing his cloak around him in the unaccustomed wind
that, even as he left it, was destroying the garden.
It was not the west wind, which is only one
of the four winds we are stuck with.
I would have it otherwise.
I mourn    certainly    and bitterly
for that lost world that a few songs and poems
are the entrance to. At a point
it becomes a lie, a narcotic,
which is more than I am willing to pay for the music.

You can read another poem by Mark Weiss
in this issue of Jacket.

Afterword — a Note on Paul Blackburn
and a Few Words about a Very Old Poem

THIS POEM from 1975, directed not entirely fairly at Paul four years after his death, is an artifact of a long struggle with what I found most seductive but had begun to distrust. It comes from the strange place succinctly defined in part 2: ‘I sleep with your wife, I raise your child.’ And I could have added, your friends have been my friends for a long time now, and across the room I share with your wife are several large cartons filled with the voices of your dead mother and your father whom I also know and your own questing voice at 18 cut loose for the first time from one or another home and trying to make some sense of a broken childhood, and your other voice twenty years later after the debacle of your second marriage (I know that woman, too). It was a lot for a young poet to deal with.

Hard as it is for me to imagine now, I was unaware of how competitive I felt towards Paul — it’s written all over the poem. How could it have been otherwise? For the first of the six years I lived with Carlos and Joan, Carlos would ask every male who came into the house ‘did you know my father?’ which, since Paul’s friends were also mine, they mostly had — Carlos’ own memories restricted to one instance of playing catch in the stairwell of the house in Cortland. It was for a long time a great mystery that Carlos pursued as if it were the key to whatever he found mysterious in himself.

And the New York poetry world I lived in was largely Paul’s invention — he was the founder of — had invented the concept of — most of the reading series that had sprung up in the casual environments of bars around Manhattan, and it was his crowd that had invented the St. Marks Poetry Center which still endures.

But my development as a poet was independent of Paul. Unlike most of my poet-friends (some intimate friends, others less so) — Paul’s contemporaries Armand Schwerner, Jerry Rothenberg, Toby Olson, Jackson Mac Low, George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Robert Vas Dias, Clayton Eshleman, Robert Kelly, Joel Oppenheimer — and contemporaries of mine whom it would be fair to call his disciples — Paul Pines, Brad Stark, Harry Lewis, Susan Sherman, Chuck Wachtel, and poets less directly influenced like Chuck Stein and Harvey Bialey — I had never met Paul — he had always been away from New York when I was there and vice versa, our peripatæas, curiously, never overlapping. By the time I became aware of his work he had already died.

And Joan too was still in shock — when Paul had died four years earlier after a year and a half of increasing disability during which time she had been in daily and constant attendance, her grief and resentment eating at her but rarely expressed, he had left her a sheltered 24-year-old with a 2-year-old child and no experience of the world, certainly nothing that could point towards a way to support them. It was in fact Sara, the second of Paul’s three wives, who had found Joan the job that she still held when I met her, answering letters to the editor at Sports Illustrated, the letters that didn’t make their way into the magazine, which she did rather well despite a complete lack of interest in sports. Sara, one can presume, knew what Joan and almost no one else could have, that even healthy he was a problematic husband.

So ‘Zefiro Torna’ came out of competition but also out of angry protectiveness towards my new loved-ones, whose great hurt and grief, which I was powerless to assuage, had become a mysterious place in my own life. As Paul himself had. It was then and remains a strange experience reading his work, and since then until this last few weeks I’ve read only the occasional poem. But preparing to write this little note I’ve reread The Cities, Against the Silences, and The Journals and big chunks of the rest, and I’ve found myself looking through his eyes, if not his sensibility: I know intimately all the places, got drunk in the same bars, and almost all the people, even one of the cats — almost everyone, in fact, but the protagonist. And I know what a lot of them thought at the moments recorded in the poems, things that Paul himself never knew, secrets confided that will never be told because the people he loved I also love and would not betray. And of course I know the end of a lot of stories that Paul didn’t live long enough to see. I’m thinking of Joel Oppenheimer and Armand Schwerner, dead themselves by cancer now.

So my reading was and is conditioned by all this. I’m an interested party here.

Many of Paul’s companions experience The Journals as a falling-off, a sort of betrayal — Paul the voyeur, the flâneur, is the figure they want to remember, infinitely charming, infinitely sexual. And, because of his death, eternally youthful. Although there are wonderful poems among them I found, and find, many of the poems collected in The Cities slight, their charm dependent on their music alone, and often disturbing in their relentless leering. But rereading The Cities now, in one long sitting, I began to see a repeated pattern, a strange geometricity. The poet wherever he stands records simple vectors of sound or motion, occurring simultaneously, building into a sort of frenetic polyphony — lines defined by glances, the flight of birds, a woman walking, a pacing priest, workers, a line of trees or cars, a cat crossing a roof. In ‘The Watchers’ he actually creates a typographic map, but schematics of this kind pervade the book. So, in ‘The First Two Days,’ sun, clouds, shadow, ‘sounds of roller skates, bicycle bells, children’s/ voices in the street/ A telephone rings somewhere,’ and ‘the birds sail singly or in pairs, their/ shadows move against the brick and disappear.../ The shadow of a flock swings down ...’ There’s a series of snap-shots or tape-loops of the New York of the 50s and early 60s that I recognize from my childhood and adolescence, as vivid as the other New York that O’Hara was sketching in his very different way — Paul invites us to see through his eyes, to stand in for him, O’Hara is always there with us. And in Paul’s city we never know where the trajectories have begun and where they’re going to end. What we get are the trajectories themselves.

This is very different from the New York presented by Charles Reznikoff or Joel Oppenheimer, as committed to the moment as Paul was but with the native’s easy comfort in a known environment. They have the knack, which I think Paul never learned, of focusing totally on the one thing and participating in it, to the exclusion of all of the other intrusive phenomena, perhaps because they knew from birth how to keep the periphery at once at bay and within quick recall. Paul’s, for all the years he lived there, remains an outsider’s experience, the 11-year-old thrust into the world of the streets that he had to make sense of pretty fast, but who also never lost his sense of the wonder of it, the exhilaration of overload. He’s constantly positioning himself, reducing complex textures to discrete, comprehensible detail, then rebuilding complexity by combining the different lines of movement occurring simultaneously. A vertically-structured moment, a great chord. But also the newcomer’s need to triangulate, to situate, to check the exits, because the environment threatens to swallow one up, there’s no obvious organization, the tracing of the vectors the only information available.

In most of these poems there’s little sense of the people on the streets as independent beings. Everyone is seen, of course, from the outside, as we do see them, but what Paul selects to show excludes any guess at an inner life beyond the mechanical gestures of mating. Building, tree, pigeon, cat, woman, insect, are given the same value. A way of looking that I think was in the air — this is also Camus’ time — but that no one, I think, in North America was doing as well. This is certainly illuminating, and it was an antidote to the mawkish confessionalism that dominated and still does our poetry. But it has its obvious limitations. We gather our individual worlds from the raw data of the senses, but our internal landscapes, which we people with what and who we’ve seen on the street, are equally a part of the world, and it’s where our guesses about the other worlds housed in those exteriors live. We navigate an external world in which others act independently upon us by means of those guesses, which means that the world and our actions within it are both compromised and more complex even than Paul’s grand chords.

These are the poems of a young poet. Paul was forty when The Cities was published, and some of the poems were already over ten years old. In our culture we tend to mature late, as people and as poets. The Yale Younger Poets series tacitly recognizes this by extending its definition of youth to age 40. For many of us maturation seems to proceed according to what evolutionary theorists call ‘punctuated equilibrium’ — a fancy way of saying that there’s usually a crisis involved. To borrow from a couple of other sciences, major change seems to require an utter collapse of defenses, which means that the internal preconceptions and strategies that we’ve developed no longer serve as guides or protection. One is alone — even the reflected face in the mirror no longer appears familiar. One has entered a liminal state with no sense that there’s another stage to be reached or how to reach it. The ordeal lasts as long as it lasts, and one emerges in a different place than one entered.

For Paul the crisis was occasioned by the catastrophic end of his marriage to Sara. He seems to have been very close to a breakdown. Among Paul’s papers (this is based on a 25 year old memory) are letters he wrote about a visit with his father shortly after the breakup — what he portrays of himself is total despair. He failed to get whatever he expected from the visit, and the poems from this period in Against the Silences don’t seem to have helped much, either. They tend towards the mawkish confessionalism that he had opposed for so many years.

Joan was a canny reader, but she once confessed to me that she liked best of my and Paul’s poems the ones with her and Carlos in them. And I have a similar confession to make. The Journals hold for me the child’s sense of its parents’ lives before its own — the matter of purest myth. Or for that matter any lover’s fascination with his beloved’s childhood. I also think that it contains, and consistently, the best of Paul’s work. In some cultures rebirth after the crisis is accompanied by a new name or title. Paul, it seems to me, had earned the title of Master.

One feels it from the first poems, Paul’s declaration of ‘complexities/ of the very simple’ in ‘Journal 5.XI.67,’ the lightheartedness he discovers in returning to old European haunts, the expansiveness and inclusiveness growing from his discovery of the journal as form for poetry, a processual form, growing, I think, from his sense that there’s a process going on, and that he can trust the flow to bring him safely to landing: ‘I left my heart in the 7th arrondissement/ a good bit South of here, apparently.// Forget it. I’ve left my heart everywhere,/ walk around collecting bits and shards’ (‘Gin’), ‘Okay, I’m home but not safe yet, whole/ stretches of rapids.’ (‘Paris-Toulouse Train’), ‘Once again, I am looking at it/ ...O/ sweet christ, go down, go/ down there, man,/ into the real plaza, the/ Plaza Real itself, either/ enter your life, enter its life,/ or make yr/ own’ (‘Plaza Real with Palm Trees: second take’). But he fully achieves his mastery in the poems written after he and Joan had returned to the United States and settled into Cortland, a small city in rural upstate New York where Paul was to teach until his death.

Here’s an odd thought with which many will disagree: I’m guessing that the progressively more expansive pace of The Journals has a lot to do with his leaving New York City and returning to the familiarity of the rural — as if he had returned to the environment of his childhood, familiar to him in the way that New York was familiar to Joel or Rezzie, but without the terrors that his childhood had actually held and continued to hold for him (there’s ample testimony to this in his letters) until the crisis. And it had a lot to do with the deepening of his relationship with Joan.

The matrix of simultaneous movement remains, but the frenetic quality is gone. In ‘Tanks,’ one of the poems written in France, a moment in a traditional society is deftly sketched, its communality defined, in a series of images of stasis and movement: houses, fish sharing a river, cabbages and other produce sharing a garden, an old man resting outdoors, the dead sharing the earth of a cemetery, fish sharing the river with fishermen and a passing barge, and the one image of the outer world, the train that whips by at the pace of the outer world. All this in 21 short lines.

Paul stands apart in ‘Tanks,’ but in most of the rest of the series he is in the midst of it:

Summer seen thru browned glasses
is a richness  .  I
watch her
              haircurlers & slacks
                   ironing my slacks, shirts

                                                          My sister
also in curlers
makes deviled eggs

              (‘Journal.   August 1968   Saignon-par-Apt’)

As throughout the cycle there’s a new sense of relatedness to what’s observed, a slower pace, allowing more reflection, and finally, for almost the first time, the people of the poems, Joan and Carlos especially, become in fact people — still the object of impulse but with their own consciousness and impulses, as well. The assembled details are no longer as mysterious as they had been — actions have goals, and we can see their goals, we know how they fit and where the poet fits.

In a poem written not long after his cancer was diagnosed, and I think one of his very best, ‘Journals: November/December 1970: Hibernation,’ Paul writes:

Our sense of strangeness
                                      uneasiness     is soothed
(by the way) by the way
our bodies curl into each other

and later, ‘He talks/ wanting a refill on the applejuice/...Carlos lifts the cereal bowl to finish the milk// He talks to me   .   His own words   .’ Relatedness and autonomy. ‘All our friends make love possible,’ Paul tells us a few months before his death, in ‘April Journal 1971.’

As the end approaches The Journals become painful to read. It’s a journey on which I’m not always happy to have been invited — more than a little like confronting my own death, for the special reasons I’ve outlined above, but I think the same must be true for any reader, although Paul himself faces it without ego, sentimentality, mystification or self-pity. And hardly a false note — an incredible act of sustained concentration, even for a man with his energy intact. There are moments when he shows us the cost, but also the determination:

How it turns
in again, the pain
         across my shoulders these mornings   .

                 Possession of the mind
                 a fragile thing   /   when the pain
then’s the time to use it   .   what’s left of it .

              (‘Journal: June 1971’)

‘Don’t never/ go away   .   Not/ even in yr / head,’ Paul had written in ‘Against the Silences of Staircases.’ He refused painkillers until the last day because he wanted his senses clear. An extraordinary nobility, and a pretty fine legacy.

I want to end this note with a mysterious image from one of the only dreams that Paul tells us. It’s in one of the earlier poems in The Journals, ‘From the November Journal : F i r e.’

...I’m dreaming of an absolutely natural hair, a
single, intricately curled, long, brown hair in a tiny plastic
container you can see thru like a fuse, loose at both ends, beautiful-
ly involuted and fine. This is an absolutely indispensable item
in a list of objects which must be collected, this wild hair in its
artificial little glass tomb, carefully random, carefully natural.
An absolute fake essential to the collection, essential for a
correct life.

Like Paul I have no idea what this means — my guesses would be only guesses. It’s the practice that I understand.

‘Zefiro Torna’ is the name of the madrigal by Monteverdi that came to me on the car radio at the end of part 4, near the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Boerum Place in Brooklyn as Joan and I approached the Arab restaurant where we would dine, and it supplied the pastoral elements in part 5. One of the great products of the human spirit, despite the clichéd text. Monteverdi composed it at the very beginning of the Baroque. Not Renaissance, but close enough.

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