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Raewyn Alexander reviews
Sundays on the Phone
by Mark Rudman
152pp $US22.95 Wesleyan University Press 0-8195-6785-X jacketed cloth

This review is about 5 printed pages long.

Poetry showing conversations is an excellent device for engaging a reader, when the dialogue is intriguing yet believable like this work Rudman presents. Dialogue-inspired free verse as well produced as this real and imagined talk, brings a reader nearer to knowing the heart of things. Discussion springs from the page, life unfolds, we may believe we hear tone of voice or see the people.

Lovely to hold, this book with smooth pages and the cover a clever montage photo also lovely, but a telling crease sits in the corner. Usually, I wouldn’t comment on book design so early on in a review but in this age of e-books and online zines, holding this volume of free verse I realised again the importance of print.

Instantly I held the book, I loved it. It felt good. Obviously, the writing then needed to measure up to my first impression, but those first few moments did matter. The intriguing reworking on the cover of a black and white photo from around the 1950s also got my interest.

The choice of fine paper gives a tangible mood to colour the intimate discussions within, and the pale sepia colour is reminiscent of days gone by. Time changes things. Likened to phone conversations, these poems also benefit from their free form lending so much personality, and a casual elegance in the variety and shape of the work.

The complex nature of a mother and son’s relationship is evident in how much ground this writing covers. The work begins in childhood and follows along through time to Rudman’s mother’s recent death. What’s hidden between the lines counts too, and many times I read delightedly phrases like this -

Your immersion in attacking the canvas brought a fresh
gust of wind into the apartment. Along with your portable forest.

I also read in wonder when he says his mother’s ‘bottle letter’ is beautiful, but she says she doesn’t know about that. Then she asserts she married two bottles, and slowly the mystery is unlocked as the poem moves along through mother and son talking about the past.

Rudman states clearly what conversations sounded like in his childhood or on the phone with his mother, so we may enter their world as if it is a play. Now and then, an observer comments on their relationship, and the reader could feel some empathy with those people. For instance, when his stepson says he has never seen anybody treat somebody else like that, after seeing mother and son together. A series of exchanges and musings, these poems raise questions and paint scenarios that many of us could imagine when we wonder what our mothers meant by something, or how a parent could get so close yet seem so disconnected.

A pleasing sense of permission to share private moments also adds to the delight and tenderness of this work, along with upsets and shocks. Outsiders do not usually hear what a family discusses when members are cloistered together, unless by accident or some devious means. Rudman allows us in, we are invited and made welcome. This feels like a special occasion, but may be uncomfortable.

I took some time to get used to the wide spacing of mainly quotes, but gradually this device made it clear that distance is a factor in these conversations. The format also gave me a sense of expansiveness, or generosity. Now and again, I also felt like things were falling apart and the way the poems are formatted added to that feeling.

The poet uses straightforward language in a flowing manner, strewn with references to American Jewishness, giving a definite ethnic flavour. The collection begins decades before in childhood, and moves in linear time to his mother’s recent demise. Perhaps, as many of us may do, he recreated or invented these talks with his mother in his writing, to keep her near since she had gone.

In some ways, anyone could have more leeway when a parent or relative is no longer with them too, and openly discuss some mystery, annoyances or scandal. The setting is Sundays on a telephone, so I believed the writer felt relaxed and I could enjoy a sense of repose. The circumstances then around these poems, and the setting, all make for a promising session that could easily lead to revelations.

I kept yearning to read more, even when I felt shocked. Then Rudman laid bare things his mother or he apparently said, so I felt like my own house rang with their misunderstandings or accusations, their subtle shifts of tone from innocuous remarks, then mild debate to needle sharp digs or banter.

The juxtaposition of soft and hard, or easy and difficult evoked an atmosphere of realism because people are a mixture of opposites so often, especially when we have a bond with them. Close to someone, we may see them at every extreme as well as the scale in between.

These poems show people flawed, struggling, in pain at times or deliberately annoying and obtuse, yet always loving behind it, somewhere. Rudman looks at what a person may choose and what circumstances may appear to make them do. But he recognises limitations, too.

‘The Albuquerque Interventions’ begins with a phone conversation, quotes from two people in turn -

“Why Switzerland? What’s all this sudden interest
in skiing?”

“I’ve no burning desire to go.
I was charmed by an email.”

This somehow leads to talk of family, and fathers, then to his mother’s life as a girl and the repression she endured. Glimpses of neighbourhood or routine are mentioned throughout. Here’s a glimpse the mother’s opinion of her writer son, never earning enough:

“Of course if you want a fancy car it helps
to have a real job, do you know how much the doctors
around here pull in now, they have separate cars
for all different kinds of driving,
town cars, jeeps, and two seaters for when
they can leave the kids at home.”

Sharp and direct though some lines are, the verses also take side-steps. Rudman provides sound effects or awkward moments, as when his mother asks if he is fiddling with the tape recorder. So real and at times uneasy, vivid yet subtle, writing with many facets.

The poem ends with talk of holidays, just as it began with the mention of skiing somewhere far away. Throughout, without explicitly saying so, Rudman gives a sense of wanting to escape or leave but not wishing to say so obviously. He captures how we may dodge some topics or ease out of difficult moods to save someone else or ourselves pain. Perhaps he is also saying that with people we know well, we may also openly show our more curious or peculiar aspects. In starting and ending with mention of a change, he wraps it all up in a mood of restlessness.

Poems dance and hum the way a phone conversation may, then snap or fall flat, only to change tack and catch some air again. Perhaps this collection shows how the point is the talking together and not what we think nor do afterwards. The poems celebrate conversation mainly, no matter what is said.

The effort of guiding his thoughts into producing such a fine book speaks to the writer’s regard for his mother, while the words also speak of his bewilderment and some wounds still hurt. His examinings and revelations bring his life into focus — but then maybe that is not what is needed?

Not that there is no secret to the universe,
but the secret may not be one
we want to hear.

Mistakes feature, over again and again. Free verse points up how random life may be. The form emphasises a sense of pain, confusion and fretting about what has gone, while also by arranging memories in this apparently fresh manner, the people appear so alive that hope gleams on every page. Life answers itself, that is all.

I know from my own family phone conversations that much of what is said is not overly important nor ground-shaking. Then again, when family do discuss something that really matters, few words are wasted on niceties. One of the best and worst things, these poems appear to say, is how we may be honest with those who share our blood.

I read quickly, and prefer writing that allows me to do so. I like to race through words and let them flow, the way breath and blood also generate energy. These poems let me dance and sprint, circle and leap. I enjoyed their simplicity and depth. It may appear easy to write such verse, but I know it is not.

Every piece of writing about any aspect of family inevitably draws the reader to consider their own situation. One thing everyone has in common is they are shaped by their family, or lack of one, and how that is noticed. Many people appear to wish they had another family at times.

This collection, ‘Sundays on the Phone’, evokes a mixed set of emotions, which could be likened to jewellery. If the poet displays life a little shinier, or a touch more dramatically or somewhat idiosyncratically, polishing words, then they could be said to design moods and ideas. Poetry exists for consideration like a necklace, brooch or ring and brings with it all the wonder and puzzlement that admiring artistry attracts.

The elements shown as vital for mother and son to get along are love (of course), distance and individual control, (the latter like a pin is needed for a brooch to work). But another reader could gather a different message.

Perhaps, Rudman says it is simply inescapable where you came from, and you must make something good where possible, with for instance any bond between son and mother. It is up to you what you display to the world.

Many times in these poems, Rudman mixes up the sense of whether his mother is really there or already gone. He also digresses, as when the action moves away to a place in the woods or on the internet, and he finds himself in a cinema muddling actors’ names.

His mother never curtailed his life or stopped the choices he made from bearing fruit, but she diminished the satisfaction he took from it. She explains her own days and nights, and it appears his mother dwelt on disappointment as being inevitable. At least, she seems to say, ruin and error are definitely there even if she imagined so much more, so much better.

Rudman for his part seems to accept his mother, while also knowing he spent a lot of time overcoming and adjusting, trying to find a way to live outside her influence or far from it. He wonders how his life would work if his mother had not said one thing or another. Then too, he ponders how her life could have held more personal satisfaction.

The poems often end on an actual view, a concrete image, a person saying something or a wish for the future, so fact always seems to conquer the ‘what if’ game about the past. Hope manifests then, and a kind of confidence.

Rudman explores his insights with consideration, flair and wit, along with a clarity that’s impressive.

but I was tempted to come back with her
Nikon, take some black and white
photos of the site and interview
the unkempt yet handsome black man who’d sat
motionless underneath the fabulous
display of hubcaps strung along the wall
until a kid appeared with a damaged bicycle;
it was just the kind of thing I would have done with her

             — from ‘Photographs not taken of Hubcaps, Florence, South Carolina’

A touching collection, well written with a generous scope considering the poems are about two people talking on the phone, and thoughts arising from memories of their conversations. Sundays on the Phone is the last book in the ‘Rider Quintet,’ including the award winning Rider (about his rabbi stepfather), also The Millennium Hotel, Provoked in Venice, and The Couple. The poetry in this collection celebrates how a man may be with his mother, and yet also well apart.