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Ben Mazer
«Poems», The Pen and Anvil Press. USD$13.95. 780982162941 76 pp. paper
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«January 2008», Dark Sky Books. USD$17. 978061534305 148 pp. paper
reviewed by Christopher Bock

Ben Mazer

Ben Mazer

“The old feeling underground”: Ben Mazer’s «Poems» and «January, 2008»


Hugh Kenner wrote of Samuel Beckett, “Art is the perfect non-doing of that which cannot be done” [1] (76). Ben Mazer’s poems find aesthetic unity by arranging their emotional resonances in the themes and variations of the musical phrase, giving both voice and silence to the personal experiences that evade language. What is fascinating about Mazer’s books Poems and January 2008, both released within the same month of April 2010 (alongside The Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman which Mazer edited for Harvard University Press) is not merely the range of the poems therein, but the evidence of the labor intensiveness of the poet’s process. These poems are, in fact, like daguerreotype. There is a complex process at work in which the images are exposed against a flat plane, and through a series of reactions of forms, sounds, images, and meanings, a surface on which that process is left behind becomes both visible and audible. The poet’s hand is always revealing and concealing, marking and erasing. In “The Double,” Mazer Writes:


The tragic view of ice skating frightens us
at night in winter. 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.


These ‘ingredients’ are the poetic elements and traditions that haunt the work of any writer, but Mazer’s poems incorporate them in ways we have never seen before. No meanings are forced. The poet makes few, if any, revisions, which produces a more pure work of art. Mazer’s layering of details, coupled with a tautness of form that is carefully governed by an exceptional musical ear places him among the most dynamic and original poets of his generation.


Poems is a selection of elegant lyrics that eke out their own meanings using the necessary forms and melodies of the English lyric tradition. Often, Mazer’s poems simultaneously borrow from and throw a wrench in the works of the tradition. As Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” [2] It is impossible not to hear the echoes of these dead poets in Mazer’s work, but the poems are completely original in their meanings.


In “Rhapsody on a Winter Night” for instance, we are confronted with an interior space that becomes the locus for both the creative act and the anxiety of selfhood: “The closed world adumbrates the snow. / Midnight deciphers pillows at the window.” The sense of ‘adumbration’ is crucial to these poems, which in their repetitions and transpositions reveals the poetic process at work. Like a daguerreotype, these poems feel like boiling mercury, and through a chemical reaction, these images and musical gestures reveal themselves. The poem is like a symphony of objects. The emotional resonances contained within the objects serve to build musical phrases via the poem’s syntax. These objects fail to capture the truth of what is inexpressible through language: “The couches crouch in feeble poses, / incognizant of roses.” Yet, as the images appear, they carry the necessity of making their meaning known. The poet must render meaning via the tools of poetry.


Mazer takes risks with slight orthographic variations, Beckettian word games and embedded close rhymes, as in “Second Rhapsody on a Winter Night [Variations on a Winter Night]”:


Tangled prospects of the trees.
Perspective’s difficulties.

Scenery that no one sees.
Perpetual vacuities.

Amid it all an ancient roar,
a disciplinary whisper.

A confidence of alcoves,
a confidence of loves.

And the disconnected spires
and the disembodied towers.


The poem’s objects are wedded to abstraction; thus the poem is repeatedly elucidated and obscured, at once obtuse and painstakingly precise. The poem, composed for the ear, hides something within itself. As often as a garage may contain a car, these poems suggest that a garage may well contain another garage. This book is rife with forms within forms and phonemes within phonemes. “Second Rhapsody on a Winter Night” reads like an incantation, with heavy repetition on rhyming “-ees” sounds in the suffixes of words. For Mazer, musical phrases, repetitions and variations become a kind of code that allows the poet to move from experience to experience, whether dissonant or melodious.


At the heart of Mazer’s book is a selection of sonnets that echo the muscularity and obsessiveness of Robert Lowell’s Notebook. “Blackbirds” is roughly governed by the iambic pentametrical line, yet catches itself in stutters and stumbles:


the oldest infancy surrounds the tower
and the homecoming ocean at that hour
flies with the blackbirds, languishing to pay
the majestic masticating jaws
of memory, all that the war allows.


The syntax of these poems seems wound tight, at times too tight, which leads to a kinetic énouement that allows the personal and the specific to permeate the poems. The poems are intensely felt. The poet strives for authenticity and organic meanings rather than an art that is made, heightened from life, and removed from experience. Controlling sonorities and silences, for Mazer, the stuff of poetry then, becomes the stuff of memory.


Perhaps the finest movement of Poems is its last poem, “Epilogue.” It is a deep meditation on aging and the grief of loss. Engaging the tropes of a pastoral elegy, we find that nature itself is in mourning:


I’ve seen the fall come in and think I shall
follow each leaf that winds about the house
to where you stutter, the end of the tether
where grace walks through the bridal foliage
and no one could mistake you for another.
After that, they are only leaves to burn.


The poem is intensely personal and intimate, yet the pronouns vary from personal to impersonal. It is as if the poem’s speaker, having allowed the experience to come to close, must push it back to a safe distance:


What if I filled my notebook with his words
sketched suddenly with no least hesitation
would she return to him when it came full
or would she sink into a bitter winter
not even counting the blossoms that are gone


The self finds stable ground only in the making of the poem. As the mind turns to thoughts of ex-lovers and others, each question becomes embedded in a larger question. There is an obsessive circularity to this poem, and many of the poems in this collection. As the musical phrases sound their meanings, as one meaning begets the next, and as each experience leads to another, we begin to realize the closed system of Mazer’s poetry. The poet must ultimately reject subject in favor of the music of memory:


No matter, he has had enough of her
and leaves his youth in hope of finding something better.
A drop expresses all the flooding water,
the wind instills the trees with sentiment,
and no one, no one can reverse the patter
of the darkness that’s enclosed within.
It stares across the city in the dawn
and cannot wake the shrouds of memory.


This is not only an authentic statement of grief and the mediation of memory, but also an authentic expression of selfhood. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who are interested in the analysis of the structure of feeling, Mazer is more interested in the process of synthesis. As one object, image, sound or experience cedes to another unexpected object, image, sound or experience, something new is created. In this way, Mazer’s mind is more like that of the major Modernist poets (i.e. Eliot, Pound, Loy). For Mazer, poems do not rotate around the thing, but become the thing itself. They are necessarily abstract and enact the full range of human emotions.


And this necessary abstraction certainly leads to what appears, at times, to be impermeable objects: locked safes, uncrackable codes. These are dense poems, and it is startling how much they contain. “Even As We Speak,” positioned centrally in the book, is a frantic destruction of narrative typed completely in capitals. All of the threads of Poems overlap in this piece, but, once again, it offers as much clarification as obfuscation in its themes and variations:




The poem engages the tropes of autobiography, but the self is deferred onto the world of memory and imagination. There are marvelous turns of phrase in this poem; the language is playful. However, Mazer never allows the poem to be simple or non-rigorous. The poet writes in a simultaneously more lucid and more obfuscated section:




To say that Mazer’s poems have a dream-like quality is too easy. They warp perceptions, dull and sharpen memory and train the ear to hear what may or may not be there. The self is obfuscated by the compression of meanings. Here, he hammer drops on the reader. We are confronted with an iron-tight composition that seems governed by a mathematical formula. If we consider the shift of meaning in this passage from ‘THE SEA’S HIGH POSTING OVER NUMBERS OVER THE CRITIQUED CONQUESTS OF IDENTITY’ to ‘NUMBERS ARE POSTED OVER THE OCEAN,’ we realize that a supposition that has begun under the control of the sea has now become a state where the control is taken away from the sea and then imposed over it. This is not a mere game, but the result of an astounding mind.


One can’t help but think of Wittgenstein: “What is the proof that I know something? Most certainly not my saying that I know it.” [3] That statement of the possession of knowledge and the containment and embodiment of knowledge are not contiguous. As Mazer wrote himself in The Foundations of Poetry Mathematics, “The face of things. Do we want to define it when it provides us with a clearer picture of reality? I have decided that you cannot understand me. Therefore I am free to say what I mean.” [4] It is crucial to understand that the poet is not defying meaning. However, those meanings, for Mazer, are not easily prescribed or able to be contained by a critical analysis. The true artist must always be rendering new meanings out of what was there before, allowing “the clearer picture of reality” to exist in disconnects, narrative gaps and musical silences.


The poems comprising this collection are potent with meanings, both deliberate and found within the process of writing. The sense of lyrical elegance coupled with a truly original sense of the complex ways in which we exist, experience and mean in this world is quite moving. If we wade through the density of composition, and listen fully with our ears and our hearts, we find a rich and complex network of the fantastic possibilities contained within the imagination as the world impresses itself upon it.


That being said, January 2008 is in many ways an even more complex and frustrating book to break through. The poems in January 2008 sputter like severed electrical wires firing and trying to find a place to reconnect their currency. Handling these poems is like handling live electricity. As in Poems, the poet is composing a symphony of objects for the ear and mind. Yet these poems feel more desperate, more exhausted, more alive, and less apparently wedded to the English lyric tradition.


It seems extremely difficult to talk about a book that contains 135 poems, the bulk of which are without titles, which enact such a broad range of verse as:


Ice kindled trees to life in passive fog.
The shadows settle on the wires log
too absent early. Then he heard eavesdrop
the marching others hush and the wind stop.




Snaggly waggly went to fair,
saw the natty raccoon there.
When the raccoon went to play,
Snaggly waggly ran away.


These two isolated examples speak to the range of the poems contained within January 2008. There are moments of grace in which the self confronts the self in the shadow of nature and the echo of the sublime. At the same time, the more playful poems risk forays into absurdity. Often the latter are more satisfying. The attenuation of the musical ear to the emotional resonances of experience is heightened by the immense grief in this collection. Simultaneously, that grief, though producing for frenetic energy and strain to the poetic line, reveals an important truth about writing. We must write through pain, and agony, as we must through the heights of joy or sexual ecstasy. In Mazer’s book, these heightened emotions are on display at their most acute, as they weave and un-weave their presence in the lens of art.


The poet begins with an explanation of the poems: “These poems, written in a short period of time after the death of Landis Everson, were never published because they were never sent to any magazines. I forgot I wrote them, but the poems were saved because I sent them to [Fulcrum editor] Stephen Sturgeon.” Indeed the grief over the suicide of Landis Everson, who was one of Mazer’s close friends (Mazer also edited Everson’s Everything Preserved: Poems 1955–2005 for Greywolf Press) seeps through the pores of these poems. At the same time, these poems are also wrapped up in the pursuit of several different women. These absence left from death and the loss of lovers intersect and build through the themes and variations in the book. I would like to consider the poems in January 2008 as a catalogue of the poetic mind under strain, as it tries to make sense out of the complicated process of coming to terms with loss. After all, if we take the poet’s claims as truth (I have no reason not to), then what does it mean to have forgotten writing these poems which are stripped to the barest bones of form and meaning?


Loss and grief overlap throughout the course of January 2008, and resonate, like musical notes. Everson’s suicide causes a constriction of form that echoes the lamentations of heroic elegy. The tremendous strain of his death forces subject to be addressed in a direct and brutal epigram:


My poem is a huge poem shooting through my head
because my fiend, a poet, shot himself dead.


The sense of repetition and the obsessiveness of Everson’s action are enacted in this terse poem as it becomes present in the poet’s mind. As potential energy enters into the realm of kinetic, the poem, too, must contain that energy. The effect is quite jarring. In another poem, Mazer is swift and direct in describing the events of Everson’s death:


The strokes were what first killed him instantly
He couldn’t understand the poems he’d written
then his second collection was rejected
he destroyed his poems, and blew his brains out.
Always this hatred for the self would rise
to blacken an eye. He gave away his money
and fed the birds in a ratty sweater.


The effect of success and the disappointment of rejection in this poem increase emotional intensity. There is something frail yet beautiful about the last image. We see the dead poet in life, not making art, but finding connection in nature itself, free of the constraints of monetary consumption. Earlier in the book, a dream-like sequence sets up this echo:


He saw the birdwatcher in the distance
raised the gun to his head, the woman yelled
“oh lord” the animals scattered and he fired.
A sameness of birds flew off in his direction.
A smart sheep learned to see a human dying.

Then he was headlines, a bullet’s report.
Quotes of friends who’d seen his rise to fame.


Beginning the poem with the impersonal ‘He’ again puts the events at a safe emotional distance. Further, we see the effect of the trauma on nature and its inhabitants before the event becomes a newsworthy human-interest story. This depersonalization can only hold for so longer before it becomes personal to the poet:


His poems stirred the old feeling underground
where love still made its signal word for love
and silent with their truth they passed around
declaratives like cheaper currency.


Language itself feels cheap in the face of this kind of death. Further, the meaning of a poet’s words finds new resonances and brings forth new emotions after death, especially following a traumatic death such as suicide. Not only does the action haunt the poem; the poet’s poetry, like a ghost, inhabits Mazer’s poem.


Everson’s death and the personal loss felt by Mazer intersect with the loss of past loves. It is not unreasonable to consider January 20008 as an extended meditation on love and the nature of loss that makes love feel more intense in the memory. One poem in particular chronicles the women who have been objects of love and desire:


His interludes with girls had all gone wrong.
First Liz, the ingénue: “Don’t look at me!”
who threw herself down across his bed
or asked to take a shower in his flat.
Then Cristine, the queen of goth morbidity,
hallucinating stalkers in the end.
Lisa, who he had each year in spring,
never believing that he loved her
Then wanting him to call inexplicably.


Exploring the complications of past love, the meanings of actions come into question. The poem then interrogates the break between intention and action as it affects the emotional memory of the speaker. Because each relationship has ‘gone wrong,’ the poet attempts to trace the roots of these losses and failures. The poem then turns, “Annabel Lee”-like towards an interaction in early childhood:


I was three when the little girl in Gloucester
gave me a silver Buddha, first gift of love
in all my ancient years. Those shadow these.
The urgency of knowing that when kindled
the hottest love is like an urgent sister
who tells your own heart to you, makes you stronger


The trigger of loss, as it is traced back to its place of origin formulates itself into verse in a way that emotionality is rendered by the tools of poetry. Considering the tautness and control of the line, Mazer harrows the depths of memory in such a way that feels movingly human, not merely affected. Mazer’s exploration of lost love arranges itself into another terse two-line epigram:


How I wish I could go back
to Emily at seventeen.


The wish to return to the objects of love is haunting in these poems. At their best, Mazer’s poems are felt so deeply and emotionally that we can’t help but find them to be psychological relevant. Who has never experienced lost love or the death of a loved one? At the same time, it is the peculiarities in the specificities of these loves that resonate as a work of art. Mazer’s poems are unafraid to enter into raw or provocative territory:


I didn’t tell you how much I
thought about or imagined your pussy
because of all the times you said
we’d never ever go to bed.


Desire is pinioned upon desire, and that which has not been experienced raises the intensity. This circularity of desire, as it is expressed in the language of the body, provides a counterpoint to the lost loves elsewhere in the poem. That desire is deferred into frustration; it then expresses itself in the language of the vulgar:


The academy awards of my boners
line up and take their place
where I never wanted to address
someone who could hold me
what never really happened
and who I could caress


Some readers may immediately write off the poem due to the base nature and the tone of bathos in the first line. However, the poem turns towards the fragility of the psyche as desire surges into the need for emotional connection or is disallowed. Desires interconnect, as do the emotions of lost love and death in these poems. We find that these intersections splinter and fragment into a web of fragments that become its own narrative.


While all the poems in January 2008 can be taken as individual works, they should also be considered within the scope of a longer sequence. The poems form a kind of gestalt; therein lies the narrative complexity. Each poem reads as a perfected and refined fragment that reveals a piece of the whole meaning. There is a sense of tonal unity that renders complex patterns whereby meaning comes to rest in the intersections of form, repetition and musical variation. Therefore, the narrative does not exist merely as a composite meaning, but is hinted at, introduced, and increased in intensity. One of the most fascinating sequences of theme and variation occurs in what I will dub the ‘red satin monkeys’ poems. Curiously, one of these poems appears in a more fleshed out way in Poems. In this case, it takes the form of a sonnet titled “Crushed Rains,” and begins with an epigram from Eliot’s “Entretien dans un Parc” from Inventions of the March Hare: “I wonder if it is too late or too soon / For the resolution our lives demand.” This epigram seems to justify both the dream-like quality of the poem and the sense of longing inherent in it as memory focuses the past into present:


When all red satin monkeys sleep on trains,
emotions recollecting absent rains,
and sapphire blue eyes streaked with the rains,
whose absence I am left with for my pains


The poet is negotiating the abstract and the specific. There is something jarring about the idea of red satin monkeys that becomes inflamed by the absence in the poem. There is a trace of a ‘you’ in the poem, but the specificity of the personal address is never resolved. Therefore, it seems like a general condition of memory that stirs up such sharp emotionality in the speaker as the past is reflected on the present. Therefore, the poem finds its logical concession (echoing again the epigraph): “no winking or affirming circumstances, / will yet too late too suddenly emerge / signs of regret vicissitudes discourage.” As the past emerges in the present mind, the tonalities and meanings become mutable, yet never without logic.


In January 2008, there are five poems that offer a repetition of slight variation on the line “When all satin monkeys sleep on trains.” This offers a kind of key for unlocking the narrative strategy of Mazer’s book. We find an obsessiveness of sound and variation building across these poems. Although we can never fully know the full story of the love affairs that seem to be addressed in these poems, we do gain insight to the annals of memory. Oddly, the first case where this appears in January 2008 is what appears at first to be a typo:


When all red stain moneys sleep on trains
reversed in image where the raindrops bleat
while you are somewhere far off from the route I took
I think of you too staring at the rains
and wish that I was there to take the weight
of all your living


‘Red stain moneys’ is a clear orthographic variant on ‘red satin monkeys,’ and it creates a complex meaning as it coupled with the heartbreaking preciseness of the personal address to the poem’s ‘you.’ Again we are faced with the sense of absence, but the regret here is not having loved, but having been unable to shoulder the burden of the ‘you’s’ grief. This stands in sharp juxtaposition to the next case, which appears on the facing page:


When all red satin monkeys sleep on trains
and porcelain donkeys of the slow parade
weap tears like cows of clouds is our romance
slated to renew this time of year


This passage possesses a greater unity of image and tone. Retroactively, the ‘red stain moneys’ of the last poem could be seen as a smudge or imperfection that, creating one particular meaning, brings the poet’s mind to a new set of meanings which follow. Again, the daguerreotype comparison seems apt. At first it seems as if the light hasn’t properly exposed the plate, but that ‘accident’ makes a form visible which would have been impossible otherwise. When compared with ‘red satin monkeys,’ the latter offers a greater fluidity of rhythm that brings the poet through a different kind of composition. Although both examples reveal the impact of loss, it is crucial to see the process of loss in memory. As each unique loss builds upon and intersects all others, the tonal resonances also intersect. Yet each meaning remains distinct though amalgams of each other.


As these poems continue, the musical sonorities become more frantic and more complex. We get the sense of moving through the history of listening, from counterpoint to noise. In another variation, Mazer writes:


When all red satin monkeys sleep on trains
and time turns sloward to the left behind
not even sleeping mirrored on the shelves
of rain that shed the town, shall we their sleeves
bear upward fellows fruit in argument
with the love goddess, with her elusive shake,
to deftly esymplate the thunder and take
of all of her forward bloward toward floored.


The mastery of sound is astounding here. If we chart the morphology of sound, specifically from ‘sloward’ to ‘bloward,’ we can hear the minutia of phonemes that work together and create friction in the movement toward meaning. This is held against the counterpoint of the sounds in ‘shelves,’ ‘shed,’ ‘sleeves,’ and ‘esymplate.’ Further, we see the deepening of process. Each image is exposed, and in its exposure, creates new resonances and meanings. Articulated together, these poems bring to light the multifarious nature of grief and lost love as in enters into the dream-like corridors of memory.


In memory, grief is imbued with intensity because of the present absence of a once-loved thing. This absence is the thrust for two poems in the collection that address the 1990 St. Patrick’s Day art theft in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum. Two men dressed as Boston police officers knocked on the security door late into the night, and when one guard made the mistake of opening the door, the guards were tied up and separated whilst the thieves made their score. Thirteen objects, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Degas disappeared. Mazer’s employment as a guard at the museum had ended just previous to the theft. Mazer writes in one of the titled poems, “for ss”:


Hashish in Mrs. Gardener’s private boudoir
a private concert on Paderewski’s piano
champagne flowing downstairs at the Christmas party
the cameras rolling and a guard was fired

Two nights later on the shift he missed
his friends were tied up in the radio room
by elderly, elite white Boston gangsters
who had a predilection for Vermeer


It is curious here that the poem is set up during the Christmas party, and then ‘two days later’ the thefts occurred. In fact, the thefts occurred on March 18, 1990. Even this speaks to the way that narrative is constructed. Dreams operate in flexible time. The poem then turns back to the language of elegy, marking the absence of the works of art that are no longer there:


Take me there to stare at the blank spaces
of empty albums on the salon doors
and I will swear there were once art and culture
in the little rooms of Mrs. Gardener’s salon


The blank spaces and empty frames become elegy to the object it once held, as memory becomes elegy for dead friends and lost lovers in January 2008. It is also important to pay attention to the musical line in the poem and how the tone shifts from the jauntiness of “Hashish in Mrs. Gardener’s boudoir’ to the dampening of the minor tone of “Take me there to stare at the blank spaces.” Mazer masterfully manipulates tone, and thus engages multiple emotional registers in the poem. Later in the book, the poet offers a variant:


In Mrs. Gardener’s boudoir
we smoked hashish and drank champagne
on Christmas eve. Below, the choir
of off-guard duties rendered pain
among the Singers, while we played
a Chopin prelude, improvised
manic, on Paderewski’s frayed
piano, which was ill-advised.


The poet is in full control of sound here. There is a manic quality to the line that is both playful and filled with regret. It is less mournful than the previous poem, and goes further to engage in the joy of improvisation. It is hard not to be seduced by the intoxicating celebration. Though the action may be ‘ill-advised,’ it becomes, through art, a necessity to relive that experience.


Ultimately, Mazer’s art is one full of experience linked to experience via a rich musical line. They find chaos in order and order in chaos. They are a work of a complex mind attenuated to a fine poetic ear. We can see his process at work, both inside and outside the English lyric tradition. Mazer’s poems engage loss in the realms of memory, marking the absence of what is no longer there. Both Poems and January 2008 are exceptionally rich and dense collections of American poetry.

[1] Kenner, Hugh. Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962. Print.

[2] Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methune, 1920. Print.

[3] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. G.E.M. Ansombe and G.H. von Wright (eds.). New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969. Print.

[4] Mazer, Ben. The Foundation of Poetry Mathematics. New York: Cannibal Books, 2008. Print.

Christopher Bock

Christopher Bock

Christopher Bock is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His writing has previously appeared in Harvard Review, Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics, Tuesday; An Art Project, Death Metal Poetry and Frigid Ember.

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