Friday, January 18, 2008

Epistles: Poems by Mark Jarman

I've been a fan of Mark Jarman for many years. He has managed to make formal poetry fresh and modern in a way few poets have been able. A new book from him is always a time for gratitude, and this one, which explores the prose poem form, is no exception. The following review is from Bookslut.

Jason B. Jones

Epistles: Poems by Mark Jarman

Mark Jarman's new book of poems, his ninth, is a collection of prose poems modeled loosely on Paul's epistles. This is a rather remarkable challenge, for a variety of reasons: Pauline letters are addressed to specific Christian churches and communities -- indeed, their universality arises from this deeply-felt sense of community (see Badiou). But Jarman isn't really addressing a community of believers, or any other community save "the assembly of the lost."

The other challenge Jarman faces is a formal one: The prominent New Formalist has set himself the task of writing in prose poems. Not for the first time in his career, but certainly this is the most sustained exploration of the form.

Epistles faces these twin challenges about as well as can be expected. On the one hand, the work constantly threatens to devolve into a sort of collection of aphoristic essays in the mode that people call "spiritual," rather than religious. They almost have to, in order to preserve what Jarman has called their "heterodox inclusiveness." At such moments, Jarman risks -- but mercifully never succumbs to -- writing Chicken Soup for the Literate Soul. On the other hand, his ear and the precision of his language, as well as the range of human experience he can bring into focus, continually quicken one's interest in the poems.

One of my favorite moments in Epistles comes when Jarman tries to imagine eternity, which will apparently start out a little slowly:

Still, try this. Think of blank times with other people's habits, when you had to eat with strangers and strange hosts, and follow their customs and rituals at table. A glassy patience took over. Through its panels even watching was a kind of starvation, a sort of drought. The portions lay stranded on large plates. The grace was minimal but stiflingly pious. There was nothing to drink. And the time ahead filled a football stadium.

Then you discovered their peculiar passions -- genre fiction, dog racing. Suddenly you were an umbrella stand of questions. Time, almost like the drink you were denied, turned almost sexy. When you left, sated with information, and even a little drunk with a fizzy affection for the plain, stolid family of doorstops, they invited you back.

There's a charm to this image, held together lightly by charged words such as hosts and passions, by repetition and alliteration, and by Jarman's good humor. But this poem, which opens in so folksy and down-to-earth a fashion, pivots suddenly, becoming a reflection on the mutual misrecognition between the living and the dead, despite, or rather because of the universal tendency of the former to become the latter.

Read the rest.

No comments: