At the heart of Sundays On The Phone is the mother who is on the other end of the receiver listening, but failing to hear. She latches onto a word or phrase, turns them toward her own concerns, and fails to understand him.
Rudman risks recreating this relationship with the person on the other side of the page.
The very reason the books are poetry, their layered, intermingled, tangled-up meaning, is the very reason Rudman may create mother-readers. Most people naturally latch onto the “story.” O dono fatale: his gift for narrative and the deceptive facility yielded by the vernacular could keep attention from the gnarly underlying matter.
To my mind, it’s the greatest gamble this risk-taking author hazards throughout the five books. How many readers will mistake content for concept, self-reference for self-obsession, colloquialism for carelessness?
The emotional story of the troubled woman and the wounded son is a compelling story, well told. Read as a memoir, Sundays On The Phone makes a good enough book. And yet, if it were really “about” Rudman’s relationship to his mother, what is all that other stuff doing there? Why does it begin, after a single, affecting love poem to a long-ago mother lost, with an entire section of poems that seem to go in other directions? Read as a complete work, even better, read as the completion of a set of works that began with Rider (1994), Sundays On The Phone becomes not just a good book, but a significant one.
Rudman is never coy or cryptic about what he’s saying. He wants the poems to be understood ― as far as anything can be. In the new book, every piece preceding the conversations with his mother offers a climactic moment that gives an organic reason for its presence. In “Back Stairwell” we catch him seeing
a real window like a painting on a wall.
[. . .]
[. . .] it leaves
an opening, a shudder, a frisson
like a rustle of eternity
[. . .]
and I think we are not far from ecstasy
even in the interior.
“Cutting Edge Production: Medea” works
to confirm the Euripidean
assertion that no one’s ever happy
anyway – that this diabolical life
treatise is continually shifting and recasting the terms.
“Starved Rock,” constructed around the poet’s conviction that betrayal of Native Americans was the nation’s seminal sin, builds towards the moment one which frequently erupts in his poems after which nothing will be the same:
And I won’t be the same until one of the tribes is called: Black Hawk.
And I won’t be the same.
“Lionel Trains,” a prose poem, gives us a memory in which are jumbled his preoccupations with the real and the representational, with possibility, with disappointment, with Phaeton, and with his childhood. All are encapsulated in the young Mark’s wish the trains didn’t just chug around, but had the speed to bank around curves, to give: “the maximum exhilaration as you push against the limits of physical reality”; even so, “It wasn’t fantasy, but reality that I craved.”
And so it goes through each poem in the first section, “(KID(S)TUFF).” The conversations with his mother have to be read in light of these flags and sign posts. In the memories and the personal history, their first designs can be discerned. Often as well, these are the matters that divide but bind mother and son: nothing will ever be the same (as in Las Vegas) … no one ever gets to be happy anyway (so don’t blame me) … so many lines cross, so many emotions and ideas are snarled together in these conversations.
Then when we reach the postlude, “Conversion in Scafa,” because we have recognized the density, the intensity of what came before, we can accompany the poet through the night and the enlightenment.
In exhaustion, it all comes clear.
The stars so close to the ground.
The way, the way they appear, one by one.
No vasty, vertiginous blur.
Mark Rudman is a challenging poet – which is why reading him should be enlivening: in literature as in life, challenges create the “Erlebtes,” Goethe’s moment truly lived. Rudman is also a writer who is always challenging himself – and, as Goethe famously assures us, whoever keeps striving will be redeemed.
So, if some simple readers are inspired to imitate, well, of readers and writers, the poor we have with us always. Rudman’s work is enough; it will serve itself, and deserves to be read not just deeply and completely, but widely as well.
Look for him tomorrow.
1.In part I of Goethe’s Faust, the bargain with Mephistopheles is that should Faust ever reach the supreme moment of which he can say, “Stay, thou art so fair,” at that very moment his soul would belong to the ancient one. Goethe’s Sämtliche Werke in funfundvierzigbänden. Leipzig: Philipp Reklam. xi, p.39.
2.“Zu meinen Freunden, den jungen Dichtern, spreche ich hierüber folgendermaßen: Ihr habt jetzt eigentlich keine Norm, and die müßt ihern selbst geben: fragt euch nur bei jedem Gedicht, ob es ein Erlebtes enthalte, und ob dies Erlebte euch gefördert habe? Ihr seid nicht gefördert, wenn irh eine Geliebte, die irh durch Enrfernun, Untreue, Tod verloren habt, immerfort betrauert. Das ist gar Nichts werth, und wenn ihr noch so viel Geschick und Talent dabei aufopfert
Man halte sich an’s fortschreitende Leben, un prüfe sich bei Gelegenheiten; denn da beweist sich’s im Augenblick, ob wir lebendig sind, und bei späterer Betrachtung, ob wir lebendig waren.”
(My translation: Goethe’s Sämlitchliche Werke, op. cit. xxxvii, pp.226-227.)
3. Quotations from Nietzsche’s Will to Power are taken from the edition by Walter Kaufmann, translated by the editor with R.J. Hollingdale (Vintage: New York, 1968). The word “hypotheses” is there in the plural.
4. “An meine Mutter B. Heine” from Buch der Lieder (1817-1821): Sonnette.
5. “Vor Dem Sommerregen” “Auf einmal ist aus allem Grün im Park/ man weiß nicht was, ein Etwas, fortgenommen;/ man fühlt ihn näher an die Fenster kommen/ und schweigsam sein. Inständig nur und stark ertönt aus dem Gehölz der Regenpfeifer, man denkt an einen Hieronymus:/ so sehr steigt irgend Einsamkeit und Eifer/ aus dieser einen Stimme, die der Guss erhören wird. Des Saales Wände sind/ mit ihren Bildern von uns forgetreten,/ als dürften sie nicht hören was wir sagen. Es spiegln die verblichenen Tapeten/ das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen,/ in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind” (Rainer Maria Rilke Werke Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1982; Band 1-2: Neue Gedichte 1907, p.276.
6. To follow threads of Rudman’s thoughts on this topic, see the article on Lawrence from the APR referred to above. The idea that slavery – the shameful legacy of which is ubiquitous in blighting our cities and is thus more visible – is our originalin, the great mistake which continues to destroy us, is more common. Surely the writer’s alternate idea originates in Rudman’s attachment to the American desert –
“I didn’t know it affected you so deeply”
“I told you.
I knew if I could go
Further than I could go I would know
What lies on
Solitude’s other side.”
Sundays on the Phone, “(PROTECTED) BY A SILVER SPOON): The
Albuquerque Interventions 12,” p. 119.
7. In the last scene of Faust II, as the angels lift Faust’s immortal soul heavenward, they exult, “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,/ den können wir erlösen.” These lines are used as the epigraph to the novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, and are quoted as such by Rudman as the epigraph for his own “Conversion in Scafa.”
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas