The little Rabbi cautions, “History can catch up with you.” (The Couple “The Shallowness of the Lake,” p.49); but the poet already knows that he has been caught.
Thus, telling his autobiography through these poems is not primarily a way of inscribing the events of his life, or of dedicating his thoughts to difficult relationships with his parents; it is a way of exploring the way a subject, a self, a particular person, a narrating mind, emerges from the contexts through which it passes–from “The Mist That Separates Us From Things Themselves,” as, with a nod to Kant, Rudman titles a section of “FRAGILE CRAFT” in The Couple (p. 100). And yet consciousness yearns to reach into the pure present, to discard its own subjectivity in a bliss of erasure. (“Verweile, doch…”)
“In Venice there is metamorphosis
Boundaries are erased. Stone becomes porous.”
And like a blossom in the throw of foam,
and like a rabid foaming at the lips,
A chord sounded in the shadowy vague.
The who and where and why didn’t matter.
(Provoked In Venice, “The Last Night of a First Trip to Venice,” p. 158-9)
For a writer, especially, the voices of poets he reads become prominent in his personal context; he integrates them into his condition, his multiplicity. One of Rudman’s most interesting and successful ventures is to have incorporated adaptations of other, famous poets’ work into some of these books. The hazards of staking his own claim in such lofty territory as Ovid, Horace, Heine, Rilke, and Pasternak, among others, of being accused of defacing, debasing or simply mistaking the originals make the endeavor a high-wire act.
Taking Rilke’s, “Before Summer Rain,” it is possible to see just how closely Rudman hews to the original while stretching the edges to serve his own concerns. Here is his “after Rilke” version (Millennium Hotel p.84), followed by a strictly literal translation of my own.
Before Summer Rain
All at once something
from the green world’s gone;
something…the park comes right up
to the window – without a sound.
A plover whistles in the wood,
grave and urgent, like Jerome,
desert saint poised to translate
out of whiteness, skulls and bones,
whose effort the rain will echo.
The chateau walls, as if oppressed
by the brooding in their frames,
recede; reluctant to hear our words betray us.
And the worn tapestries are strewn
with the off light of childhood
afternoons you feared would never end.
“Before Summer Rain” All at once there is from all the green in the park/ one doesn’t know what, a something taken away;’ one feels it (the rain) coming closer to the window/ and being silent. Beseeching only,and vigorously,
The plover (rainwhistler) resounds from the wood, / one thinks of a Jerome:/ so much does some kind of loneliness and longing rise/from this single voice to which the downpour
will assent. The room’s walls have/ with their pictures receded from us, / as if they didn’t dare hear what we are saying.
The faded tapestries mirror/the ambiguous light of
afternoons,/ in which one was frightened as a child.
It’s interesting to see how Rudman becomes ever more daring with these “after X” pieces, so that by his next book, Provoked In Venice, when he is working with, among others, “Eheu fugace,” that most famous of the Horatian Odes (Book II xiv), he turns it into something altogether his own. The original ode is seven stanzas, concentrating on the idea that no matter who you are or what you do, death will get you. Rudman’s version, “Against Odds Against,” includes every line of Horace’— and then some. He elaborates on classical references such as Geryon, the Danae and Sisyphus, making them contemporary, and adds modern counterparts. Rudman’s poem then expands to become a positively Ecclesiastic sixteen stanza riff on death, disappointment and futility but with a faintly Nietzschetian twist at the end: when he assents to the future.
Rest content. You were an experiment.
To what end “man is only beginning
to glean a direction.
Rudman isn’t doing the dance of Dionysian joy here yet, just a sort of sighing in the soul’s ongoing battle against nihilism. Is “Against Odds Against” his final outlook, frustrated, gloomy and reluctantly resigned? No, it’s one of his moods, one of his masks–(“I love to wear the Jeckyll and Hyde tee shirt I bought” [Sundays On The Phone, “Conversion in Scafa,” p. 127]) and one of his voices.
How can we this, our own quietus make?
[. . .]
And die the death, the long and painful death
That lies between the old self and the new?
-- D.H. Lawrence “The Shape of Death”
Would you agree that finishing something
Is a kind of dying?
-- Mark Rudman, Provoked In Venice “Stealth”
The past, when all is said and done, rules as potentate in the present, except (“Who invented ecstasy?/ What man or woman/ first walked around/ with its burden?” [The Couple, “The Couple” 6, p.140]) at times of crisis, of transformation, of conversion.
By remembering itself, the conscious self-identity connects itself to itself in the Sisyphian labor of generating a sense of its own existence, its continuity. This is that very unreliable narrator that must be depended upon to experience, to remember, to ruminate all those knotty things to do with living and loving . . .
And so, Mark Rudman collects and recollects all the incidents, the injuries, the rhapsodies, all the episodes that have formed the current geography of who he is, and tells us his story: or tells us the story of himself telling himself the story of himself. Ironically, yet sincerely, in the very midst of this endeavor, the deracinated writer contends (The Couple, “The Shallowness of the Lake,” p. 45),
I don’t understand collectors.
I dream so much of living
without a past in a hotel
it becomes my reality.
Be that as it may, Sundays On The Phone gathers markers which complete the map of his life: the first volume having charted the role and the voice of the father, this last one does the same for his mother. The emotional power of the book, which all the while insists on headier themes developed in earlier volumes, proceeds from the prelapsarian world glimpsed in the prologue, “The Nowhere Water.”
These were the best moments of my life,
alone in Vegas for six weeks
keeping a beautiful woman company
while she obtained her divorce.
This is the woman who knows her son well enough to feed him “buffalo meat.” We don’t need to be told: we know that she has given him a cowboy hat, and so, with the aid of two photographs of this startlingly lovely woman, we can envision the united couple, mother and child, and be moved by their innocence – and by their impending fall:
Everywhere we went men were after her.
[. . .]
a white Caddy convertible
and offered us a ride.
She gripped my hand, panic
coursed through us, our spines rigid.
“Don’t look, just keep walking.”
Soon she would be married again.
What a waste of beauty – and all on my account.
There is no love like the love
of son for mothers.
How did they get from such visceral intimacy to incessant mutual irritation; from the mother who fed him buffalo meat to one who knows–or cares–so little about what is nearest his heart that she will only refer to his own beloved son as “the kid”; from the mother who sings, “Cool water, clear water,” to the one who shrieks,
“Oh why don’t you just go fuck yourself.
Why don’t you just get the fuck out of here and go back to New York
City you shit, you little shit.”
(“Late Lunch” p.86)
How did we get from the son who drank in her voice like water “that was not from the well” to the one whose reaction to her is to “look to the ceiling as if God of Moses or Sidney will come to her / rescue before I end her life - ?” (Sundays On The Phone, “Late Lunch,” pp.86-88). Inventories of unhappiness accumulate like weapons.
It’s a story that both have rehearsed to themselves and each other many times, but have they heard one another? Rudman often asks if people ever truly hear one another. “Insensitivity knows no boundaries,” he remarks during one of his conversations with the Rider (Provoked In Venice, “DYING AND FLARING” “Joan and Jean” 5: p.145); at the same time he asked, “What do people want from other people?” His answer with his mother, paradigm for a lifetime of relationships, seems to be that she not listen but hear; not just hear, but understand: that she know him. To be known, he implies, is to be loved.
This is a story that makes Sundays On The Phone a natural extension of The Couple, where we encounter pairs like Perseus and Andromeda, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, the movie stars of Sons and Lovers, and Mark and his early love, Laura. Mark’s
relationship with his mother Marjorie trumps them all. The telephone conversations between them, both “remembered” and imagined ones, show all the elements tied up in those other couples’ bonds: comic, tragic, play-acted, authentic, tender, fierce, insupportable, necessary. Especially when Rudman writes about Laura, his mother could be substituted, as when he disputes his behavior toward the young woman with the Rider, who probes his conscience (The Couple “Long-Stemmed Rose, 1 : Regrets Only,” p. 5):
You didn’t have to go.
She pressed me.
You didn’t have to go.
She had a way of regressing,
of randomly becoming very needy.
And you wanted her to need you.
Like a hook in the jaw.
They could be disputing Mark’s flight from home as a teenager. In The Couple, “Long-Stemmed Rose, (Someone Must Have Done Something),” p. 13, Rudman has the spectral stepfather say about Laura that
There was a history to all this.
Had she given you what you wanted,
were you not still burning from her refusals,
reeling from supernumerous unnecessary hurts
you might have given her this. Been more
companionable. Had she not kept her distance
while you entered the mystic waterfall at Jalapa
alone, had she not chosen to be sick [. . .].
Here he could equally be speaking of Marjorie, with her ailments and her emotional solipsism, and Mark himself been entering “the mystic waterfall” of work, instead of giving his mother the devotion she craves.
Here again, recurrence and reenactment, the eternal return returns — as, in certain ways, Sundays On The Phone is itself a reenactment of Rider, above all in again addressing the question Rudman asks himself near the beginning of that earlier volume: “Is there ever an end to mourning work?” (Rider, 1: p. 10) To Sundays On The Phone Rudman brings the wider scope and skill tested through the intervening volumes, Millennium Hotel, Provoked In Venice, and The Couple.
There’s more to the conversations than the things they say. There’s more to the story than the story. There’s more to the book than the sum of its parts.
Du horst was spricht. Vernimmst du auch was fühlt?
(You hear what’s being said. Do you also grasp what’s being felt?)
-- Gertrude Kolmar, “Die Dichterin” (The Woman Poet)
Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose,
or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently.
-- Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?”
When even Mark Rudman’s publisher touts his new book, Sundays On The Phone, as an “intimate account of the fierce, unsettling connection between son and mother,” when, while it is certainly this, it is this only in part, and partly as what T.S. Eliot might call the “objective correlative” for a world of experience, then I have every reason to fear that Rudman will be read lightly—listened to, but not heard.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas