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M. G. Stephens
Mark Weiss was an important figure in the New York alternative or underground poetry scene in the late Sixties and early Seventies, especially uptown in Morningside Heights where he ran the reading series at the legendary West End Bar and edited the magazine Broadway Boogie. Besides poetry, Weiss had other interests, which eventually took him away from the Upper West Side into art dealing, filmmaking, psychotherapy, social work, and teaching. Like the wandering Basho, who he writes about so briefly and tellingly in his new book of poems, As Landscape, Weiss wandered from New York to Baltimore, Paris, Tucson, San Diego, and rural Massachusetts and, again like Basho in his own circular journeys in Japan, Weiss wound up back in New York, even the Upper West Side, only this time way uptown in Inwood.
In the very recent past, besides publishing this new book of poems, Mark Weiss compiled, translated, and edited a massive anthology of Cuban poetry for the University of California Press (2009), and it has deservedly won him praises, in the Americas and abroad. In London, where I have been based for the past decade, the Cuban anthology takes pride of place in most literary bookshops’ poetry sections. Recently Weiss was in London to promote the anthology, and I caught up with him at Birkbeck College, University of London, in Bloomsbury. Though in his mid- to late-sixties, Weiss is still youthful and energetic, a kind of leprechaun with a ginger-gray ponytail and a Buddha belly. His stature comes from his intelligence, his goodly presence, and his animated glee at being where he is at the moment he is there, i.e., he is very present and centered.
I hadn’t seen him since a brief encounter in Cambridge, Massachusetts more than ten years earlier, but he still seemed the same Mark Weiss, affable, worldly, alert, engaged with the literary as well as the social world. It was good to be in his company again. We had known each other since the early 1970s, mostly from the Upper West Side, when I enjoyed running into him regularly. Mark has always struck me as an open-minded person, with a great sense of humor, and a slightly bohemian take on most things, irreverent about cultural cant and deeply appreciative of the honest and true, particularly in poetry. I liked his poetry back in the day, but truth be told, it did not really distinguish itself from the dozens of other New York poets his age. At any rate, I had lost contact with his work more than thirty years ago, at the start of the 1980s, and those dreadful Reagan years in America.
When we picked up where we last left off, it was at that London reading for the Cuban poets. Those poems are excellent, and it reminded me that American poetry — indeed, world poetry — would be enriched by these poems finding new audiences. But what really surprised me was Mark Weiss’ own poems, which he also read from during the course of the evening. When you have not read or heard someone’s poetry in three decades, you have an advantage that even the poet lacks, which is the startling revelation of where the poet has traveled since that earlier time. I don’t just mean the physical journeys one takes. Weiss has been to deserts and oceans, if his new poems are any indication of his voice inhabiting geographical places. The kind of travel absence reveals is the one concerning inner journey, really the soul work of all good writing, but particularly poetry. Mark Weiss has done the soul work, and thus his travels are deep journeys to places the reader did not necessarily know before.
The voice may seem familiar, but it suggests to me that voice is only one part of style, not its synonym. Weiss’ voice is similar, and yet his writing style bears no resemblance to his earlier work of three and four decades ago. Now his style is spare, even gnomic, a fragmentation that actually creates a fuller portrait of the poet’s world. One can hear echoes from all the various ancestors, from W. B. Yeats to Joel Oppenheimer, the Cubans Weiss translated, French and German poetry, George Oppen, Armand Schwerner, Jerome Rothenberg, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg — the list is really endless, and the voice, at its center, its core, is pure Mark Weiss. His use of the fragment is both elegant and bafflingly clear, a pure musical threnody. His poems do not confuse or obscure with their fragmentary design; the fragment opens a window, not only into a mind, but a person, a personality, this human figure at the emotional center of the poem.
The book, As Landscape, consists of five parts, the shortest twelve or so pages, the longest more than forty-five, each consisting of individual poems, most brief fragments, their phrases sometimes repeated halfway through the book. The first line of Part One, “Numbers: 16 Poems,” begins: “He sees her urgent face.” Thirty-seven pages later, in Part Two, “Figures: 32 Poems,” Weiss repeats the opening fragment. In the first instance, the image is inchoate, only one part of a word collage that follows. In Part Two, though, it is no longer gnomic and obscure. Now it is fully formed as poetry.
He sees her urgent face.
It must be late.
made a mess, kibbles
all over the place.
Now it is a beautiful, little Blakelike poem, a song unto itself. As Weiss self-reflexively notes in section four of Part One: “Each piece / builds the edifice.” But each piece is not necessarily whole, needing other parts to build its emotional structure. In the next section of Part One, a man spits on subway tracks. Weiss writes, “Anyway, something to be proud of.” We go from the fragmentation of mind to the less fragmentary, though no less nonlinear, instance of the urban world. By section six, the landscape returns to the subjective world of the poet, where sound is everything.
Frost on the road
eye on the goal.
In forty short lines, this poem moves everywhere, from the frost on the road to “language impoverished by forethought,” sea-creatures, the silence at the heart of traffic, a bull, spring casting blossoms on a pear as “she spilled her music / into every cup.” (That pear tree will appear again much later in the book with an old man standing underneath it.) There is the plant of sorrow, and then the solitary figure of the human, up at 4 a.m., writing, painting. A bird improbably (that Obama word!) prepares for dawn. The poem ends with the poet declaring:
I had set out to make stars
and made a snarl.
What a beautiful set of circumstances! What a lovely concatenation of particulars. Here is the poet alive in every sense of the word, and through very one of his senses. Instead of missing a beat or a part, Weiss’ fragments are like Chekhov’s short stories — the more that gets left out, the more they seem to contain. Even the more traditional photographic image so popular — really so common — in postwar alternative poetries, gets a recasting. Section seven is only three lines, and it reads:
leans back against the wall
and points her toes like a dancer.
This reminds me less of other photographic imagery in poetry from Pound’s Imagism outward than it does the photographic collages of Robert Frank whose later work seems to owe more to Kurt Schwitters than to Walker Evans. In fact, Mark Weiss’ book, besides its jazzy riffs and symphonic structure, often reminds me of Schwitters’ merz art, the great collagist making art from the detritus of the world around him in northern, industrial England during the Second World War.
At the end of As Landscape, the last part of the book which is entitled “A Provisional Poetics,” Mark Weiss includes a short essay on his method. The essay is a kind of mosaic of prose figurations on prosody and one’s life. Earlier in the collection, Weiss wrote about le mot juste falling into place like broken glass, and that is exactly how this essay reads, revealing his method. Poems possess him, then the moment ends “by the loss of urgency.” He further observes: “I suspect that all poetry is a form of possession.” Halfway through the essay, Weiss abandons the ideas about poetics and gets personal, telling us about his seizures — literal seizures — between 1981 to 1983, sometimes four times a week, as many as four in one day. These were partial seizures which distorted language followed by a half hour of aphasia. This condition led to his writing in fragments in his notebook. “I thought my life as a poet was over,” he writes. Then he realizes something magical. The fragments were forming their own coherencies.
Fragmentary, yes, the poems offer only glimpses, and they are more complete than the thoroughness of the prose end-piece, good as that essay is, and it is very good. Even the completed images seem less than the incomplete ones. Besides mirroring the insights of Weiss’ own physical suffering from seizures, he explains it intellectually too. “Jerry Rothenberg likes to say that collage is the dominant art form of the twentieth century.” As it was, and still in the twenty-first century, collage still dominates the arts, making it the discourse of the Modern age and beyond. In fact, as the years go by, Kurt Schwitters, with his tiny collages, seems as important as Marcel Duchamp, with his ideas, in the history of art. Like Kurt Schwitters, Mark Weiss is a collector of detritus, which he writes about so humorously and charmingly in his essay, and which he illustrates so well in his poems.
Weiss could almost be considered a Language poet — their influence is another echo in his poems — except that he is so intensely lyrical, and the language poets have been almost programmatically antilyrical, as witness Charles Bernstein’s work. In Weiss’ poetic world, song is just at surface level, begging to be sung through the cadence of the poems. The jagged, formless beauty of the real pokes through everywhere in Mark Weiss’ work.
old fish-guts an island
a cloud an island
“Figures: 32 Poems,” the second part of the book’s sequences, begins with both snapshot realism and a fragment, again, very Robert Franklike in the collage’s methodologies. A woman declares that she wanted to write a paper on German Expressionists. “Have you ever been really stoned?” It is such a clever moment both in the life of the short poem, but also in the overall strategy of the book. Here is an instance — an actual one — of fragmentation in the world, another human being detached from linearity in her speech, and yet as a portrait it is so straight a line, it is mathematically simple, linear as prose. But then once this poem sequence commences, Weiss’ art of the fragmentary resumes its ineluctable march. “A white gull shakes a pizza crust / from a paper bag.” The discontinuous can mirror our own uncertainties and even our anxieties or, in this instance, it may illuminate what is fractured or free-floating, anchoring it to the poem. Such is the latter case here. In fact, at this point in the journey of reading Weiss’ book, landscape provides the certainty in an otherwise anxious universe. If we are not in a city, with its joys and problems, we are in the desert or, in this case, at the sea.
By section eight of the sequence, the lyrical joy takes hold, even as it elucidates the tragic and ordinary.
My father prowls the house.
No hope for the fearful animals.
By section 10, we are back to the familiar territory of New York poetry, and even a Jewish grandmother delightfully uttering Yiddish phrases. I say familiar, and yet nothing here is commonplace, nothing is hackneyed. Weiss is not so much a neutral, dispassionate observer, as he is ecstatic and enthusiastic, still filled with wonder at the world around him, which he then chooses to honor with poetry. Here is that pear tree from much earlier in the book. Now an old man stands under it. Weiss’ portrait of the old man is as clear as a Rembrandt portrait, only Weiss’ pensioner goes from spring to winter in the blink of an eye. It is too long to quote, particularly out of context — it I comprises about half of section 18 — but these fifteen lines of poetry are gorgeous, maybe the finest and most sustained in the book.
A few poems later, and Mark Weiss observes that “less and less reveals the life I know.” I don’t think he means that life offers him less and less, quite the contrary. I think he means that he needs less and less to reveal that life, the fragment being enough. By section 25, the lone figure of a woman — one could almost call her the poet’s muse, if the concept were not so offensive to most people today — stands on a beach, watching waves break. From time to time, she kneels, “harvests something.” In section 27, Weiss repeats the feat of the first poem in the sequence, presenting a linear portrait of another human being’s fragmented self, as witnessed in their speech. A Romanian speaks in broken English about the powers-that-be cutting off people’s fingers.
Very hard ruler
two, three hundred years.
The sequence ends with a two-line poem in honor of Basho. “Frog jumps in,” the poet writes. “You hadda be there.” It is so simple and clean, very zenlike, but also full of other New York echoes, including Brooklyn (“hadda”), Joel Oppenheimer (the cadence), stand-up comics from the Borscht belt (the shtik), even Gary Snyder (that zenlike frog).
Part three, “Elegies: 12 Poems,” continues Weiss’ musical shuttle, using fragments and snapshots to convey the elegiac world of the older poet. I recently heard a writer say that so much contemporary American poetry is elegiac, and how depressing it is. Weiss is not so predictable or copycat or, for that matter, depressing. Instead, as he writes, “Let us now / vilify the dead / for being dead.” Here is a poet still too much alive with wonder at the living to get too upset by the dead, which is not to say Weiss is indifferent or glib about them. He is, after all, a New York Jewish poet at heart, and he knows about Kaddish. Where this grieving for the dead comes out, though, is in the penultimate part of the book, “From Darkest Europe.” This is where the poet confronts those haunting graves in middle Europe where Jews are born and then don’t so much die as disappear. “What else can you do but move inwards, don’t we all,” a person says, a disembodied person says.
Here, the poetry turns to prose, as if the lyrical were a profane utterance. But the prose also foreshadows the prose of the last part of the book, the essay on poetics. In this second to last part, when the lyrical impulse arrives, it is deadened by the harsh reality of darkest Europe (a wonderful Conradian reversal or inversion in that title, “From Darkest Europe”).
The poetry part of Weiss’ book ends with a question, albeit so tellingly bereft of a question mark. “How do you live with the weight of compassion.” I think that one answer is to say, You write poems like Mark Weiss.
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novels The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and Season at Coole, as well as such nonfiction works as Lost in Seoul and Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the Notable Nonfiction Book of the Century in Best American Essays of the Century (2001). He lives in London.