A new inclusiveness, a heady freedom, grounded in the facts of mortality, inform Gail Mazur’s recent poems, as if making them has served as both a bunker and a promontory, a way to survive, and to be exposed to, the profound underlying subject of this book: a husband’s approaching death. The intimate particulars of a shared life are seen from a great height—and then there’s the underlife of the bunker: endurance, holding on, life as uncompromising reality. This new work, possessed by the unique devil-may-care intensity of someone writing at the end of her nerves, makes Figures in a Landscape feel radiant, visionary, and exhilarating, rather than elegiac. Mazur’s masterly fusion of abstraction with the facts of a life creates a coming to terms with what Yeats called “the aboriginal ice.”
About the Author
Gail Mazur is the founding director of the Blacksmith House Poetry series and the author of six previous books of poems, including They Can’t Take That Away from Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Insitute of Radcliffe College as well as the St. Botolph Club Foundation Distinguished Artist Award.
Read an Excerpt
Figures in a Landscape
By GAIL MAZUR
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
In ancient Greece, a man could withdraw into the desert
to praise his gods in solitude—
he'd live out his days by himself in a cave of sand.
Eremos, Greek for desert—you could look it up.
Hermit crabs live mostly alone
in their self-chosen hermitages, they learn young
to muscle their soft asymmetrical bodies
into abandoned mollusk shells.
Without shells, those inadequate bodies
wouldn't have survived the centuries,
so they tuck their abdomens and weak back legs inside
the burden they'll carry on their backs.
It was Aristotle who first observed
they could move from one shell to another.
But sometimes a hermit crab is social—
sometimes a sandworm, a ragworm,
will live with it inside a snail shell.
And sometimes when the crab outgrows its shell
it will remove its odd companion
and bring it along to a new larger shell.
(The Greeks who taught the Western world
what could be achieved by living together
were also the first in that world to work out
a philosophical justification for living alone.)
If the home it chooses isn't vacant
it will use its large pincer claw to extract
the old inhabitant—usually a dead, or dying,
or less aggressive hermit crab.
Then it drags its spiral shell, its adopted history,
sideways, scrabbling across the wet sand.
That's where you see them,
when the tide is out, on the flats.
At high tide, the weight of the shell
is lessened by the upward pressure of water,
so he can forage for plankton, algae,
sea morsels on the ocean floor.
Actually, he neither "chooses," nor "inherits,"
the mollusk's shell, he has no choice
but to live in it, to lug it with him
everywhere until it's his time to move again.
No shell he inhabits will be his home forever.
Restless, driven, Darwinian,
where he lives today might not please
or fit him tomorrow. I could tell you more,
the flats are seething with unlikely creatures
and remnants of life where life's been unfastened.
According to Tarot, the hermit has internalized
life's lesson to the point where he is the lesson.
And you, Gail, though you seem almost frozen,
are you sure you won't abandon
the crowded, calcified armor of your story,
of what was given, what freely chosen—
They said the mind is an ocean,
but sometimes my mind is a pond
obscure and surrounding the pond,
scrub oak, poison ivy, inedible
low hanging berries,
and twined with the berries, catbrier;
pond where I once swam to a raft
and climbed on, sun drying,
warming my young skin, boys—
They said the mind or they said something else—
another metaphor: metaphor,
the very liquid glue that helped the worlds—
tangible, solid and, oh, metaphysical—make sense;
and now, fearsome beings in the thick dark water,
but what?—snapping turtles, leeches,
creatures that sting ...
Who were they to say such a thing?
—Or do I have that wrong?
The mind an ocean glorious infinite salty
teeming with syllables,
their tendrils filtered by greeny light?
They don't always get it right, do they?
No, it is an unenchanting thing,
the mind: unmusical, small
a dangerous hole, and stagnant,
murk and leaf-muck at the bottom,
mind an idea of idea-making,
idea of place, place to swim home to—
No, to swim away from, to drown, no, to float—
For what seemed an infinite time there were nights
that were too long. We knew a little science, not enough,
some cosmology. We'd heard of dark matter, we'd been assured
although it's everywhere, it doesn't collide, it will never slam
into our planet, it somehow obeys a gentler law of gravity,
its particles move through each other. We'd begun to understand
it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back.
It was hard to like what we knew. We wanted to live
in the present, but it was dark. Ignorance
was one of our consolations. The universe was expanding
at an accelerating rate, we'd been told we were not at its center,
that it had no center. And how look forward with hope,
if not by looking up? I told the others we ought to study
history again, history teaches us more than erasures,
more than diminutions, there'd be something for us there.
I also dared to say we could begin to work at things again,
to make things, that I thought the hours of light would lengthen,
that nature still works that way. We would have a future.
Up to then we'd been observing anniversaries only
of mistakes and catastrophes, the darkness seemed to
blanket, to contain our terrible shame. I don't know
if anyone listened to me, it doesn't matter. Gradually,
afternoons began seeping back. As I'd promised, the children
could walk home from school in the freshening light,
they seemed more playful, singing nonsensical songs
so marvelous catbirds wanted to mimic them. Why say anything,
why tell them the endless nights would return? Listen to them,
the name of a new leader they trust on their lips, O O O they chant,
and I hear like one struggling to wake from a mournful dream.
Was I the last one waiting? Epochs passed,
tides tossed the island twice each day, sometimes
a lazy shushing, sometimes violent—then
tides would frighten me, count-down clocks striking
off the muzzy days and nights. Mosses grew
around me—pin cushion, pale shield, old man's
beard. One gray day, walking on the sand,
I found a wooden shoe last, size 4, stamped
1903, the cobbler who'd worked with it
long gone—yet why only now had it washed
ashore? And one night, I saw six peonies
tossed on the rocks—Sarah Bernhardts, I thought—
fringed yellow hearts, their palest pink petals
tinged vermilion, strewn, shipwrecked children,
lonely drowned bodies white in the moon's glow.
Where does anything come from?
I picked my way over granite to gather them,
then brought them back to the damp old cabin
where their frail heads drooped from a Chinese vase,
nodding feelingly at the dead child's shoe.
Then, a little interlude of pure joy, amnesiac,
so human—then hail, rain, wind, the flailing trees.
TO THE MAKERS
You were like famous cities with rivers and traffic,
with architecture from ingenious eras,
with protest marches and festivals, museums and pharmacies
and criminal pleasures—
all the essentials needed to endure. Reading you,
I re-visit your structures of grids and avenues, your alleys,
I follow overgrown paths,
I re-visit the terror and joy of being lost,
the ways to court discomfort, to dare chaos,
the knowledge of drowning in a pitch-dark harbor.
Tyranny and wars advanced in your histories,
also infirmities of soul and body
were your portion, yet you were not yearning only,
not heartbreak only,
you were not the loneliest people alive.
There was your work, and then, you had one another,
you spoke with gods and heroes,
you cherished your conversations in many languages.
It is true, you were secretive, observers—spies—
but that was as it has to be,
it was only your work you were given to serve.
You weren't mere investigators of useless things,
the pragmatic seemed no more or less
suggestive to you than articles of turbulence
or rapture—strands of hair in a basin,
light in a dusty stairwell
a pitcher of sangria, woe and laughter,
the feel in the hand of a broken thing.
Day by day, your lives were a tumult of beginnings.
When you began, you couldn't know—
this you keep showing me—
where your constructions would lead,
what you made you made from the inchoate,
muscled and shaped not toward the monumental
but toward a form of truth that would matter,
the inaccessible become necessary.
Though I am speaking to you, I'm not alone
nurtured by your art,
even today you animate the minutiae
of the vast, unsigned cosmos,
and though the twentieth century ended without you,
now, decades after your precipitate departures,
your pages are still touched by many,
still touch many,
and the lit screens you never used sing your lines.
—Winter, Wellfleet, 2008
Sweet carcass of an ark, the past's oaken belly—
what the sands had buried a storm uncovered
high on Newcomb Hollow beach; a hull,
round wooden pegs, tool marks that tell
its serious age, ribs like the bony cage
of a Great White whale, washed up
on the shoals a decade after the Civil War, a schooner,
archaeologists say, converted to a barge—
they think she carried coal up the Atlantic coast
from an impoverished post-War South,
coal that washed ashore on the outer Cape
to the hardscrabble townspeople's shivering relief.
In a few weeks, they're sure the tides will resettle her,
she'll be washed back out to sea or she'll merge again,
fill with the coarse sands shifting beneath your feet.
Homely, heavy, sea-scoured, why should she seem
a venerable thing, spiritual, why should you long
to touch her, to stretch out under the March sun
in the long smooth silvery frame of a cradle
or curl like an orphaned animal on the hand-cut planks
and caress the marks, the trunnels, with your mittened paws?
Is it that she hints much yet tells little of the souls lost
with her, the mystery of survival, the depths she's traveled?
Has she heard the music on the ocean floor, instrumentation
of Mantis Shrimp, the bong bong of Humming Fish?
Why does the day, all blues and greys, feel transcendental?
She's a remnant, a being almost completely effaced, yet to you
still resonant—can anything this gone be consecrated? Experts
have examined the braille of her hull, weighed the evidence
and they declare, It's another secret the ocean burped up,
nothing but a blip, a brief reappearance, once rowdy,
rough with purpose, now not even a container, holding
nothing, revealing nothing.... But aren't you also a singular secret
Nature burped up, hurled flailing into the air from the start,
hungry for light, holding onto whatever buoys you,
alive, kicking, even when you know you're going down?
WHILE YOU WERE OUT
The schooner Hindu dropped its sails, the bay was calm.
An unflappable egret posed alone on your studio rail.
The telephone rang. If this were a pink slip torn
from a memo pad, I couldn't say who'd called, or when
or why we'd fought so bitterly last night. Two small boys
called out, high chords of hilarity, tossing dead horseshoe crabs
as far as they could, not far at all. Mailer traipsed along the flats
in his yellow bikini, his gray curls wild, pugnacious masculine
overhang of belly, his arthritic little bulldog panting to keep up,
a slender girl beside him jotting nattered oddments of his prose.
For a minute, our era's brute injustices felt almost settled,
its perpetual wars the memoir of a battle-scarred contrarian
enlightening his disciple. I wanted to be sun-drunk, asleep to everything.
Where had you gone? A slow August day and you were out,
and this is my memo to you. I walked on the wet sand
as the incoming tide insinuated contradictions,
I collected beach glass, not questioning the pleasure
I took combing for sand-washed fragments metamorphosed
from bottles sailors tossed long ago into a suffering sea.
Purposeless day, reading random pages of old books—astronomy,
elegies, a Venetian mystery, greedy for good information. Greedy,
I went to the garden and clipped pink blooms from my Butterfly Bush
and deep crimson blooms from the Love Lies Bleeding. The perfume
of our one life permeated the rooms, contrition's delicate bouquet.
All along the shore, in wooden houses vulnerable as ours
to fire and wind and time, others may have been fuming
or weeping, too, their human despairs let loose on one another,
little microcosmic wars, everyone standing in the breach.
Tonight, Mars will be nearer the moon than it's been in 60,000 years,
and though the radio claims it's bright red to the naked eye,
all week we've raked the night skies and only seen something flashier
and slightly pinker than all the blushing stars we can't identify:
timeless celestial chart, imperishable astral chart that terrifies.
Why quarrel now? Why tap deadly cracks in our little eggshell house?
Now, from the sweet fragrance of roses,
bitterness stings our nostrils. The bay's
withdrawn from us, the beach is littered
with broken things—splintered oars, bits
of old clay pipe from a long ago shipwreck,
fragments of china plates. Enchanting, those days
my townspeople scavenged rare cargo,
furnishing their long winters with random wares.
Now, the wind from two directions turns
soft dubious summer to a hard estate. Now,
when we know death is near, we walk
with more courage, but slowly, alongside
cavorting dogs. And soon he and I will wade
together into the cold homecoming wave.
Days of Awe.
Month of our parents' deaths.
Reddening dogwood and sugar maple,
deep dark dramatic red of sumac
along a Cape road, and in the city,
jackets donned, then at mid-day, shed.
Nature's refrain, the return of losses,
piercing glory of the leaves' palette
before the tossing windy rains,
slop and decay, the burial under snow.
And yet, a new year, new breath:
repetition of stories that once wounded
or bewildered and now delight—
actual stories, after all
this time: Funny. Sad. Slight.
Days of reflection, of reconciliation.
Their faults now only foibles
and all the meannesses and pathos,
hoarding and generosities,
the stoniness and warmth,
part of their allure,
part of the layered shapeliness.
Enduring, granitic characters
at last achieved.
With acceptance of them,
some also perhaps of yourself.
It is not your job to finish the task,
but neither are you free to abandon it.
NOTES IN CHALK ON A RUINED BRIDGE
When I first read the phrase man's inhumanity
to man in the other world I found it elegant
but inadequate though I was moved by it
In the beginning the five of us were angry
then frightened—those sooty days still
days of hope and imagination
Hope and imagination
each one necessary to the other
that is what I thought
Then we had a sheepish sense someone would come
to feed us to organize our group
to herd us to a city with parks and fountains
For a time I would repeat my favorite words
and my mother's choice unprintable ones
and my uncle's forbidden ones
my children's exuberant babble of wonder
none of the others shared my interest
but I would recite alphabetically for instance
my favorite adjectives all the birds
I could name authors from seven continents
for Antarctica I invented the author Per Mission
just to live in my mind in the gone world
Still most mornings
or what I estimated inside our noxious cloud
we'd wait together we were very hungry
small starving animals voles and mice with round ears
feared us as we feared them
because we'd lost confidence in ourselves
and shared no vocabulary to discuss
what we'd been severed from or where we were
I lost one then two then more Latinate
or Indian-rooted words I remember liking
and slowly the names of invisible constellations
If there'd been wind they'd have been words
in the wind after some time the acidic air
ate them all then I spoke no more
because there was no one left no one to listen
no one but me to care and I don't know if I care
every stone here at the bridge is coated
with the salt of my people's unshed tears
what is caring anyway but clinging to hope
which also clung to me so under the broken stones
I could find this package of white chalk
each cylinder perfect whole and my dream
became not that we'd talk again
but that you would arrive and you would know
how to read my dead mongrel language
and you would read it my message before
the great rain erased it
before the trestle disintegrated
after I was no longer hungry or waiting—
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE
We were two figures in a landscape,
in the middle distance, in summer.
In the foreground, twisty olive trees,
a mild wind made the little dry leaves tremble.
Then, of course, the horizon,
the radiant blue sky.
(The maker was hungry for light,
light silvered the leaves, a stream.)
I liked to think, for your sake,
the scene was Italian, 17th century....
Viewed from here, we resembled one another
though in truth we were unalike—
and we were tiny, he'd kept us small
so the painting would be landscape, not anecdote.
We were made things, deftly assembled
but beginning to show wear&mdash
you, muscular, sculptural,
and I was I, we were different, we had a story.
On good days we found comedy in that,
pratfalls and also great sadness.
Sun moved across the sky and lowered
until you, then I, were in shadow, bereft.
The Renaissance had ended—
we'd long known we were mortal.
In shadow, I held the wild daisies and cosmos
we'd been gathering for the table.
Then the sky behind us pinked and enflamed
the landscape where we were left
to our own reinvention, two silhouettes
who still had places they meant to travel,
who were not abstractions—had you pricked them
they'd have bled, alizarin crimson.
I wanted to walk by myself awhile
but I'd always been afraid to lose you
and the naked olive groves were hovering
as if to surround you.
That was the problem:
I craved loneliness; I needed the warmth of love.
If no one looks at us, do we or don't we disappear?
The landscape would survive without us.
When you're in it, it's not landscape
any more than the horizon's a line you can stand on.
Excerpted from Figures in a Landscape by GAIL MAZUR Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
To the Makers
While You Were Out
Notes in Chalk on a Ruined Bridge
Figures in a Landscape
History of My Timidity
Asymmetrical Millay November
To the Women of My Family
In Another Country
Borges in Cambridge, 1967
American Scene, 1935
F & the Interpretation of Dreams
Concordance to a Life’s Work
Poem at the End of August