Voila, another installment of Poetry? I just don’t get it. A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work. Today’s poem is by Mark Pawlak.
Mark is the author of six poetry collections, including Official Versions, Buffalo Sequence, and Special Handling: Newspaper Poems. His work has been included in Best American Poetry (2006), and he is also one of the editors of one of the longest running literary magazines and small presses on earth – Hanging Loose Magazine and Hanging Loose Press.
Here’s my first encounter with reading Mark’s work: 2006, I’m sitting in the cafeteria in the hospital where I work, eating some grim sandwich, feeling hopeless - about my job, about the horrors happening every second across the planet (especially because many of those horrors were perpetrated by my own government) - and I began to read Official Versions. Halfway through the book, there was catharsis. Relief. A purging. Someone was actually addressing the double-speak and lies that we all endure (and accept) on a daily basis. And, even better, it sometimes made me laugh!
There is also in his work a fascination for detail. A couple years ago I bought Go to the Pine: Quoddy Journals 2005-2010. I have a fondness for books of poems where each poem can only be truly understood in relation to the whole. These are poems/journal entries related in sequence to the others - and the detail is absolutely gorgeous, evocative. The title is taken from haiku master Basho’s advice to his students: ‘If you want to write about the pine, go to the pine.’
Below is Mark’s poem “Among the Colleagues”, followed by his explanation. (In the explanation he manages to get in another poem. Nice! I admire that.)
Among the Colleagues
Before descending into the subway’s maw,
before facing the mess on my desk:
Shop grates drawn, sleepers stretched out on benches,
in doorways, just beginning to stir,
but already someone with a broom has gathered
fallen buds into neat piles on the square’s red bricks:
heaps of fairy goblets on long green stems
left over from yesterday’s celebration—
Morris dancers in knickers,
jangling ankle bells, clacking sticks.
Already this early, at his coffee shop station,
the self-appointed doorman:
straggly hair, beard, gray, flecked with white;
paper cup in one hand:
patrons drop in their coins, no words exchanged;
his vest and trench coat, bulging with rolled newspapers,
slips of paper crumpled in shirt pocket— is he,
bum, bard, or bodhisattva?
Yesterday: I saw red-eyed Sappho, stumble along the sidewalk
oblivious to the crush— office workers headed home—,
her gaze downcast, mumbling verses as she passed shops
with pansies in window boxes and recessed doorways:
from their shadows satyrs and sirens, her familiars,
leaned forward, greeted her. This morning,
leather-skinned Li Po, staggers past, scattering pigeons,
ending a night filled no doubt with wine and song.
Strands of hair peeking from under knit cap,
he lurches from this lamp post to the next,
embraces one as a long lost friend,
as at a sworn enemy, “Motherfucker.”
Early “patrons” at tables of the not-yet-open outdoor café, my confrères:
ruddy-faced men in hand-me-down work boots,
coats half-buttoned, sweatshirts showing beneath:
White-bearded Walt Whitman shares a cigarette
with someone who could be his twin.
Nearby, Basho, tonsured, in need of a shave,
scans yesterday’s headlines,
at his feet, two plastic bags stuffed with only he knows what.
And, just back from the west, Po Chü-i
sits under a shade tree in new leaf,
his one crutch propped against the trunk,
scribbling poems on scraps of paper,
which he neatly folds, sticks into his pocket.
Finally, here is portly Marx!
parked beside cardboard boxes of books in a shopping cart, his movable library,
signature beard splayed on chest,
eyes fixed on a book propped open on his belly,
deep in conversation with himself—something just audible
about “oil prices . . . simpler times . . . bosses . . . ;”
one moment serious, holding up both sides of the argument,
the next chuckling to himself, amused.
Before descending into the subway’s maw,
before facing the mess on my desk,
such, these May mornings, such is the company I keep.
The physical act of writing and the implements used can influence what you produce. Think William Carlos Williams' early modernist poems, written on prescription pads while he was making house calls in his car: short with short lines. Even longer poems, such as "January Morning Suite," are made of linked fragments that he jotted down in passing. Think Kerouac's On the Road stream of consciousness rush typed on a continuous scroll of newsprint. Contrast that with his haiku and sketches, jotted down in little pocket notebooks while he walking the streets of San Francisco. Robert Creeley once said that "...the qualification of the size of the paper… will often have an effect on what you're writing, or whether or not you're using pencil or pen. Habits of this kind," he noted, "are almost always considered immaterial or secondary. And yet, for my own reality, there is obviously a great connection between what I physically do as a writer in this sense, and what comes then out of it." (Vancouver Poetry Conference, 1963)
What I physically do is steal moments from my job to make notes for poems in either a 4 in. x 6 in. Mt. Tom or in a pocket Moleskin notebook that I always carry. Each workday morning I travel by bus from my home to Harvard Square; there I stop at one of several cafe's to sip an espresso, before descending the escalator to the Red Line subway that transports me across the Charles River and Boston to the UMass harbor campus where I work a 9-5 administrative job. Pausing in the early morning when my mind is uncluttered, I take in the sights and sounds and record them in my notebook. It's usually the hour when the homeless are just waking and beginning to move about, the hour when shopkeepers are arriving, unlocking their storefront grates. I also take note of people and things observed while riding the subway: flaneuries.
Fragments juxtaposed is the modus operandi for most of the poems in my forthcoming collection, In Transit. Meaning constructed by parataxis. The length of "Among the Colleagues” is not typical of the rest, but the observed fragments include in it derive from the same practice of notebook jottings: the Morris Dancers that perform in Holyoke Square each year on May Day, the tiny, fluted green stamen that litter the pavement after the trees have leafed-out; the ancient panhandler stationed outside the door of the coffee shop I frequent, the homeless drunk I see stumbling down an alleyway most mornings, etc. Most of the other poems in the forthcoming collection are snapshots of things observed, conversations overheard, written literally while I’m in transit between home and work, work and home.
These poems—I call them poetic journals—are in a tradition of observational poetics that originates in Williams' dictum "No ideas but in things;" and was elaborated in the Objectivists practice of "thinking with things as they exist." George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, and to a lesser extent Louis Zukovsky are my models. It's a tradition that was taken up and further elaborated by many poets among the post-WW II generation. In Transit pays homage to city poets like Harvey Shapiro, who wrote in his poem tribute to Reznikoff, "I put these [observations] down in my ledger,/Charles, walking and watching,/which is the way we serve.” My poetic journals have an affinity with the “I do this, I do that” poetics of Frank O’Hara, too—although my approach would more be accurately described as “I saw this, I heard that.”
Reznikoff, who daily walked the streets of Manhattan, and who made exquisite haiku-like poems out of the things he observed and recorded, offered this prescription: "the poet presents the Thing in order to convey the Feeling. He should be Precise about the thing, and Reticent about the feeling." I try in my poems to follow this dictum. In most of my journal poems the "I" is inferred rather than explicit, discernible only from the poem's point-of-view. "Among the Colleagues" is also atypical in this regard. More characteristic of the entire collection are the linked fragments of "Four/Square" below.
Slant early morning light
on empty city square,
empty but for pigeons,
inspecting paving stones
for flawed workmanship
under the watchful,
of the woman
who sleeps in an alcove,
rat’s nest of hair for her pillow.
Outside the coffee shop, a man is changing out of bedclothes, as if in the privacy of his own dressing room, his wardrobe spread out on two benches and a chair. He pulls tee-shirt on over Union Suit, then hooded sweatshirt over that, followed by a sweater, then another, then a checkered wool shirt on top that he meticulously buttons all the way up, oblivious all the while to pedestrians hurrying toward the T stop, shopkeepers turning keys in locks, storefront grates noisily going up behind him.
Man hunched over
outdoor café table,
but not scrofulous,
wearing a straw hat
frayed at the brim,
while perusing his newspaper
that’s folded neatly beside:
CHESS LESSONS $2
Nervous sparrows at his feet
to drop from his beard—
the Master and his Disciples.
Three ruddy-faced, boon companions, two men and a woman, sit together on a bench, outside the coffee shop, beside improvised cardboard bedcovers, conversing while rubbing sleep from their eyes. (One asks me for the time as if he had an appointment to keep.) They exchange greetings with the cop nearby on hard-hat duty where new paving is being laid; then offer comments on the passersby hurrying to work or subway, men and women in suits, in pressed shirts and slacks or blouses and skirts, most with cell phones raised to ears. Roving gangs of sparrows scavenging for muffin crumbs hop excitedly on grass patches bordering the path that cuts diagonally through. (One, at my feet, cocks its chestnut head, begging a handout.) Their shrill cheeping is drowned by the rumble and thrum of delivery trucks shifting gears, accelerating, one of which has three foot high green lettering stenciled on its side:
Not from concentrate
Where Mark can be found online:
From 'Glover Circle Notebooks'
(about Denise Levertov)
(about Denise Levertov)
Sections from Go to the Pine online (Shampoo Magazine)