Rudman, as we have already seen, can toss off a savory line when it suits. As with the opening poem, “Nowhere Water,” the closing poem of his recent Sundays On The Phone, “Conversion in Scafa” p. 125, holds sequences as stunning as any self-respecting Romantic’s. The final sequences leave the reader feeling as drained yet exhilarated – as stunned – as is the asthmatic author:
The dry, ravaged air that molds
every rock and shrub and crevice and grotto,
every white house chiseled into the Appenine range,
Not that there is no secret to the universe,
but that the secret may not be one
we want to hear.
Mutinous, destitute, monotonous
squeaking in the fields.
Every night, a reenactment.
Some pernicious scent.
It must have come this way to the others.
This emptying. This knowing
that nothing after today will ever
be that way again, calling
for a new metamorphosis.
Hour after hour, duration, blankness, ashen distances,
once in a while a cloud crossing the trees
in the emptiness like a visionary haze.
Silence. Dogbark. The occasional tractor.
That afternoon in Chieti, whiteness.
As every night I pray for deluge.
How wonderful to accomplish the transforming effect, the coming alive, without sacrificing authenticity, without betraying the plain language with which this poet constructs his reality. To notate that experience with anything but colloquial usage, to have imposed an elevated diction would not only have been pompous, it would have been self-defeating. Nonetheless he points us towards highly stylized works from the poetic canon: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” haunt the piece.
Beginning with Rider and through all the tangled tale that brings us to Sundays On The Phone, Rudman tells us his life story – but it’s the very inverse of the tale full of sound and fury, because it signifies a great deal more than it denotates. Rudman is well known for the poems, now integral portions of all the books of his poetry since Rider, that show ongoing internal thoughts, and especially for the conversations in the mind some pieces capture. When the poems range into myth and history, or transpose the works of classic poets into his own worlds, his colloquialism shines, illuminating how those fabled figures and ideas, so enlarged by legend, time, and a legacy of reverent artistic treatment, fit in with us and our times.
After all, what is myth for?
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
… this book, half fiction
-- Robert Lowell, “Dolphin”
Mark Rudman’s personal Pentateuch, which began with Rider (1994), and took the wandering teller through Millennium Hotel (1996), Provoked In Venice (1999), and The Couple (2002), closes with Sundays On The Phone. As with the Hebrew, this quintet is at once a myth of origin and a depiction of the human condition – while yet a demarcation of an identity apart; and though Rudman does not give himself a Leviticus of laws, he is always an alien for whom the desert, here the American West, shows as an ongoing, originary part of his experience: he’s in a kind of perpetual Exodus.
As also with the Hebrew, the collection offers a world in which the father still speaks. Only here, the real father is not the real father: “Don’t be dumbfounded. My feelings about the two men are always in dialogue.” (Millennium Hotel, “Birthday Blues” p. 5) The real father is not even real: “Your father’s mask was his face [. . .]Preening for posterity in a void of his own invention.” (“Birthday Blues” pp. 7 & 8) “This shadow, this spectre,” (Rider, part 6, p. 29) is the silent father, absent but ever present, casting the shadow of thought: who is that he is. “He was never, or always and only himself.” (Birthday Blues,” p. 8) The father who is father of the man is “the little rabbi,” the stepfather, Sidney, also called “The Brain.” It’s in afterlife, thanks to his resemblance to a painting reproduced at the end of the volume of the same name, that he gains the sobriquet “The Rider.” In these books, it is he who is the father who speaks – not just from the other side, but from heaven.
At the same time, all of the voices are Rudman’s own. That’s true when the conversations are in his mind with the dead, and it’s true when they might be posing as transcriptions of conversations with his living mother, as do some in the latest book, because, of course, they are all written by Rudman. He does not make a metracritical game out of this, but the structure is laid bare. The invention has become a hallmark of the poet’s work; still, by no means are all the poems in these books some form of dialogue.
These works can’t even be said to fixate exclusively on the poet’s own life. Mark Rudman aspires beyond what Wordsworth was attempting in “The Prelude,” where that progenitor announces,
the story of my life
[. . .] tis a theme
Single and of determined bounds; and hence
I choose it rather at this time, than work
Of ampler or more varied argument
Where I might be discomfited and lost
Rudman has precisely “made mental preparations for being lost,” (Provoked In Venice, “Venice, the Return in Winter II” 9, p. 187) as one must in order to accept the challenge Goethe urged on the poet – as one must, say, to discover the magic of “Venice, a labyrinth of alleys” (Provoked In Venice, “Evening of the Zatterre”, p. 66). And, though he likes “being adrift. / And to move freely in the mist,” (p.187) “There are paths in the fog, even the dark” (Provoked In Venice, “Not Normalissimo: Close to the Ground” 3, p. 181). He may have risked the discomfiting, but he does not flounder.
Mixing memoir and desire, he takes on myth, history, ecstasy, art, reality, representation and reproduction, exile and alienation, the “normalissimo,” love, intimacy, disappointment, his fathers, his mother, his son, his lovers, masks, the past, recurrence, fate, metamorphosis, self…. Let’s see, did I leave anything out? Oh yes, death.
Sound ambitious? It sounds ridiculous; it sounds like a mess: it sounds like life.
He’d never pull it off with any but work-a-day words. His humility is as authentic as his audacity.
At times the poet could almost be said to be at work on what Whitman exhorted in “Repondez!”
Let books take the place of trees, animals, clouds!
[. . .]
Let a man seek pleasure everywhere except in himself!
(Let a woman see happiness everywhere but in herself!)
(What real happiness have you had one single hour through your whole life?)
Let the limited years of life do nothing for the limitless years of death! (What
do you suppose death will do then?)
What will death do then? It won’t gloat – not if Mark Rudman comes to town: “I will wipe the smirk off death’s face,” he swaggers, cowboy hat showing a mile away. (The Couple “Two Horatian Palimpsests” 1. “Hidden Clauses in the Lottery You Can Enter for Free,” p. 134).
As for which scenes he shows us are memories and which imaginings, it’s not always possible to guess. And why bother? When the Rider accuses, (Provoked In Venice, “Stealth” p. 152) “These fictions of yours are mere gambits,” Rudman makes clear, “That’s all I’m ever after. As they used to say to double-agents setting out on impossible missions, ‘stealth and secrecy are our only hope.’”
But what does one mean by ‘oneself’? Not the self that Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley have described – not the self that loves a woman, or that hates a tyrant, or that broods over the mystery of the world. No, the self that you are engaged in describing is shut out from all that.
-- Virginia Woolf, “Letter to a Young Poet”
The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our
thought and our consciousness in general? [. . .]
My hypotheses: The subject as multiplicity.
-- Friederich Nietzsche, The Will to Power 490
Emotion recollected in tranquility? Hardly.
Mark Rudman is doing something radical with the lyric voice. He’s catching it in the act: the self in the perpetual process of constructing itself.
Rider, the first book, is the most single-minded, devoting its content to Rudman’s personal history. The focus on memoir notwithstanding, the book is also a contemplation of the very idea of lyric poetry, an exploration of self-consciousness, and of voice. Even before the Rider himself breaks in with “An Interpretation,” an unspecified interlocutor is in Rudman’s head “with” him, helping him tell himself the stories of his life. Emotional energy is being generated in the present, not just described remotely.
With the next book, Millennium Hotel, Rudman sets his hands to the world beyond his own story, and, after establishing with “Birthday Blues” that the central referents are the same as for Rider, offers poems in the third person. The first of these are about “a boy,” but not only about him. “Screen Image: (Royal Emerald Hotel, Nassau),” for instance, second in the book, tugs on critical threads that knot through the entire collection: the idea of the actual and the representational, of art and reality, actors and roles, people and masks, movies and life, the real and the fake, (p.11)
[. . . ]the uncanny resemblance
between the “special effect” on celluloid
And his own flesh and blood.
Here is one of those cases where we can’t know: did Mark’s “father” actually bring him into a bar where Lee Marvin, then famous for playing a cop on “M-Squad,” bought him a “Roy Rogers”?
Notes to another poem about “the boy” reveal how meticulously Rudman uses imaginary scenes and constructs his ideas:
“Rain of Arrows at the Dawn of Memory”: Most of the “adaptations” in this book stay fairly close to the original, but in this case I have adapted an idea or cluster of ideas so that “after Goethe” refers not to any poem of his, but to a fascinating and controversial early memory: that of emptying the cabinets of his house and throwing all the crockery into the street. Freud, in his intriguing essay on Goethe’s childhood, suggested that this might be a screen memory, disguising familial tensions, and having to do with sibling rivalry. In transforming this layered text to a poem of an only child, despairing of the possibility of attention, who at four lives along with his mother in a high-rise in Manhattan, I substitute toy arrows for crockery, and turn Freud’s idea of screen memories once again into actual screens.
(Millennium Hotel, in Notes, p. 185)
A peripatetic childhood made the speaker – or subject – of these autobiographical books an exile everywhere. Illinois, Utah, California, and ever and anon, New York: being from everywhere, he is from nowhere. Or, it might be said, he is from the highway-in-the-sky, in virtue of the endless cross-country flights he made alone while shuttling between parents. All of America was his, laid out below for him to see, to know, yet he with roots in none of it.
Isn’t rootlessness itself a kind of regionalism – a peculiarly American one? Once we had settlers; now we have the endlessly un-settling, some chasing rainbows, some fleeing, some being shuffled among military bases or congregations, some moving because of dividing families or corporations, and some moving because of the taste for keeping going. Rudman is an alien wherever he is. The estrangement extends so that his is the voice of a person in exile not just from place, but from his family, his religious group, the “normmalissimo” world, and especially of his self—the moving target of the present I, from himself—the ever receding construction of memory.
Your condition is yours.
But it does not belong to you.
Exile: blessed contagion.
(The Millennium Hotel, 18 “(Pause),” p.76)
His condition does, however, belong to history. The poems abound with facts and circumstances–from the price of ski tickets to the presence of the R.O.T.C. in high school–that place his developing years in early Cold War America – a time haunted, for Jews by “Night Thoughts” (Millennium Hotel), p. 67):
When I brood on Germany [. . .]
[. . .] the unbreathing
Impinge too much upon my sympathy.
Numbering the dead does me in.
And yet I feel compelled to count and each
Body added to the tally has a say
In how my mourning grows: hordes of corpses
Crush my chest.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas