Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Laying it on the line: Mark Rudman's Sundays on the Phone

Few contemporary poets can be said to “contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman did. Mark Rudman is one of them, as evidenced by his Rider quintet, which culminates in Sundays on the Phone. The winner of numerous prizes (The National Book Critics Circle Award, the Max Hayward Award for a translation of Boris Pasternak, and numerous fellowships), Rudman has been widely praised for his work, which manages to be ambitious and intimate, harrowing and funny. When his last book, The Couple, was published, Harold Pinter commented that Rudman had “woven an extraordinarily rich and highly original tapestry. It’s an impressive achievement.” Thom Gunn wrote of Rider (1994), the quintet’s first volume, that it was “The most believable book I have ever read about love.” An exceptionally well-read writer, and as much a cultural commentator as a writer of poems, Rudman has won some of the highest awards. His work, written in a seamless blend of verse and prose, the traditional and colloquial, documentary and personal, combines elements of biography, lyric, conversation, essay, and asides. Yet he remains, in the best sense, a poet’s poet, and it may well be the wide-ranging, discursive element of his poetic – which requires more than the brief investment of time allotted by so many readers – that has so far precluded his work from gaining the wider audience that it so richly deserves. This seems particularly true now, since Rudman’s control of the demotic and of the multiple themes of class, race, poverty, and privilege, has reinvigorated an art that often appears remote from public concerns and the polis. Here is a poet who confronts suffering, and is himself engaged in a poetic salvage operation through which he is able to transform anger (that which embittered his mother and caused his father to commit suicide) into energy. Rudman has evolved an autobiographical epic of surprising emotional and intellectual power. Surveying his output over the last decade, one gets the feeling that his achievement will soon garner wider recognition.

Rudman’s method has diverse antecedents. Denis Diderot and Edmond Jabès have been mentioned by reviewers before (and there is a short piece on Jabès in Diverse Voices, Rudman’s 1993 book of essays). Rudman’s mercurial, colloquial verse dialogue that crosses metaphysical boundaries recalls James Merrill; and the cinematic touches – voice over, concise director’s notes, asides, digressions – bring to mind the Pasolini of “A Desperate Vitality.” Dialogic verse that ranges from high diction to low dates from Dante, Shakespeare, and Whitman, but Rudman has also translated Euripides, and written adaptations (‘palimpsests’) of Horace and Ovid. He is acutely aware that to work in language is to work with freighted material, and has remarked that “the American poet is often deluded by the fantasy of not being weighed down with antiquity, of having an opportunity to encounter history anew without an overlay.” The classics are the model par excellence for reimagining the family and individual as the striated site of civic morality, and Rudman shares a talent for translation – and for the transposition of classical examples – with Frank Bidart and C.K. Williams, two elder contemporaries. The classics have also been formally rejuvenating for Rudman: “I found that modernism was implicit in Horace, with his sudden leaps, allusions, reversals, turnings, and complex use of form and sound based on Greek models [...] Horace’s sudden leaps to another plane were prophetic of catastrophe theory.” In an essay entitled “Catastrophe Practice” in his 1995 book of essays, Realm of Unknowing, Rudman appraises Nicholas Mosley’s writing as a strategy of fragments, intuitively sequential and capable of acknowledging the simultaneity and transhistoricity of subjective time. Rudman’s point is that Mosley’s style allows for a closer representation of how the mind works – sometimes stimulated to move ahead by the sudden shocks of catastrophe, other times immobilized by known limits, half-measures, the conditioning past. “Stammerers stammer because they can’t render what is in the mind – the larger picture, lost unity – in sequential speech. The stammerer has not repressed the awareness of how little of what comes out ‘for all its lovely cadences (perhaps because of them?)’ has to do with ‘what is going on in one’s head.’” Rudman’s writing similarly implodes chronological narrative; it is the record of an obsessive recapitulation of the past alongside attempts to live in the present. In “The Night,” an essay on Antonioni in Realm of Unknowing, Rudman defines the concept of duration as “moments of perception which take consciousness a long time to detail, to populate. Consciousness can never unravel all that it perceives happening in an instant.” The Rider quintet responds to such moments of limitless duration, which rise to consciousness in the poetry through fragmentary and elliptical narratives.

In Sundays on the Phone, the voices of the poems range from Anita O’Day to the local dentist to the members of Rudman’s immediate family; the voices of the departed mix with those still among us, to comic and harrowing effect. The speakers we hear most often are the poet’s stepfather, the poet himself, and the poet’s mother – whose complexity, and complexes, dominate the volume. Poems refer to one another, threads of conversation are taken up again, and dialogues don’t seem closed at book’s end – which is fitting, since Rudman’s project is to lay bare the subject’s self-fashioning. One could say that his subjects are the testing-ground for the health of the American body politic. And Rudman’s is a body politic saturated in the language of jazz and film. An epigraph to “Fragile Craft” in the quintet’s previous book, The Couple, quotes Michael Powell: “Cinema is the mythology of the twentieth century.” Rudman is an avowed ‘burrower’ – an obsessive collector of popular culture – and he has a knack for juxtaposing the armature of daily life with the mythological stories that typically pass for the ephemera of our imagination. For example, when Rudman leaves a notebook behind on a plane, it is salvaged from the deep by Aesacus the Diver (from Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI, and reworked in the trio of Aesacus poems in the quintet’s second book, The Millennium Hotel), who then passes it on to Andromeda (Metamorphoses, Book IV, and “Perseus and Andromeda” in The Couple) – who in turn restores something of its contents to the author. The voices of this poem, “Sons and Lovers Recovered!,” which report what is retrieved from the notebook, belong to the notebook itself; to the ‘rider’ of the quintet’s first book – alternately prickly, empathetic, and discursive; and to Andromeda, who concludes the discussion by apprising Rudman of the multiple delusions attending his youthful obsession with Mary Ure. The notebook spoke of the poet’s mother taking him, at age 11, to see 'Sons and Lovers' – “a real / adult film, no one else’s mother in town like that would have taken their child to see...” – and, having completed the transmission of the notebook’s meditation with these lines:

I know it saddens you Mark to think how companionable
your mother had been and could be in light of
how she became and even though I am only
antimatter now—not even graph

it saddens me too!

You—who wrote on me in such a way that I felt wanted… …

Yours Truly,

Lost (Moleskin) Graph Paper Notebook

Andromeda writes:


Dear Mark,

Let me clarify a few points. It was Ure’s strength you liked; it was only her blond hair and pale complexion that made you remember her as ethereal. It is not she who is fragile but the actor’s craft. It’s the same subliminal mistake Perseus made when he saw me chained to the rock and he watched the wind lash my hair across my face. But he was just a boy, like Paul Morel.

Do you know that the parts you like best in the film weren’t even in Lawrence’s novel?

Yours truly,


The finer memories the poet has of his childhood are just as suspect – and indelible – as his experience, as an eleven-year-old in 1960, of the film rendition of Sons and Lovers. As in the example above, Rudman’s poems often juxtapose the ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’; voices and time frames recur over the course of the quintet, creating a vortex through which the reader follows the poet toward an eventual understanding, if not reconciliation. And despite the inclusive method of the quintet, Sundays on the Phone is akin to Rider, its bookend partner, in that it is paradoxically a work of remarkable focus and economy – the battle lines are sharply drawn, the speakers are precise, lines are brief and sentences pointed, and even poems of several pages’ length are works of concision.

Rudman’s probing of the relationship between mother and son is at the center of the book. Marjorie Louise Levy Leeds Harris Rudman Strome – one person – died in 1999. By the end of Sundays on the Phone, the reader can almost construct her biography, particularly as it is lived under the oppressive influence of male figures: her father, who scorned Marjorie’s artistic ambitions while cultivating those of her brother (the filmmaker Herbert Leeds); and her husbands, both alcoholics. Some of Rudman’s most powerful work has addressed his father – “rebarbative, even in death” (“Dreams of Cities,” in Realm of Unknowing) – and his stepfather, interlocutor from beyond, uncommon voice of sanity amidst family chaos, and the ‘rider’ of Rider. In Sundays on the Phone, we learn about Marjorie’s life in her own words or through overheard dialogues between mother and son. Rudman’s own son, Samuel, figures in these poems from the beginning; as Samuel matures into his teenage years, the poet’s empathy grows for his late father, mother, and stepfather, though his anguish does not diminish. On closing the book, we understand why “Back Stairwell” describes the poet, “the last of the parents / who don’t send a stand-in […] propelled by a kind of demon” as he runs up the synagogue stairs to pick up his son from day care; shortly thereafter, Samuel responds with “a look of sheer defiance” when his father tries to get him to hold onto the banister:

the same boy who, the other night
I watched shuffle and backpedal and nearly fall,

down the escalator, over
the rapids of the raw-toothed

edges of the blades;
his hands, his attention, occupied

by a rabbit samurai Ninja turtle
and Krang, the bodiless brain.

I gauged the dive I would need
to catch him if he fell:

a flat out floating horizontal grab
I couldn’t even have managed in my youth.

The daily terror of being a parent – of endlessly striving to give one’s own child the best of oneself – is all the more poignant for this poem’s position at the volume’s outset, as a deceptively casual sign of what follows.

At times – as announced in the frontispiece, “The Nowhere Water,” originally published in The Nowhere Steps (1990) – the relationship between mother and son is blissful and effortless; at others it is painful for everybody involved – mother, son, and then grandson. At the time of Sundays on the Phone, fifteen years after The Nowhere Steps, all of Rudman’s parent-figures are deceased. The struggle of living with (or on the phone with) his mother has ended, and it is as though he can see “Marjy, Left to Her Own Devices,” the title of one of the book’s prose pieces. An abruptly direct passage from that poem glosses the entire volume:

My point: she was younger than her years and, as every word written in this book attests, she was born too early (as well as in the wrong family) to have the choice to live a life in which she would have flourished, even if her temperament and sense of unwantedness was the same as it was. There are a lot of functioning, successful people who are not happy in their personal lives but they take satisfaction from their work. My mother “could have been” (for instance), to use a modest example, an art historian, transforming her encyclopedic knowledge into a vocation. She could have spent her days in a wish-come-true factory, surrounded by and immersed in images and objects from another time.

Following his mother’s death, there is clarity: Rudman is witness to the fall of a family, his mother’s brother dead by his own hand, and his mother consumed, eaten alive by anger because trapped in an unrewarding existence light years from how she envisioned life with a ‘Rabbi.’ Yet this clarity delivers the poet into an impasse, dark as those he has observed in others who have written of spiritual conversion; the volume’s final poem, “Conversion in Scafa,” finds him stuck deep in a wordless melancholy, unable to express himself without pain and collapse. But Rudman is heir to the skeptical pragmatism of the American diaspora; what redemption might be on offer, the poem implies, is here and within us, if we have the courage to observe carefully:

But this July in the rugged Abruzzo something stole my sleep.

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.

The dry, ravaged air that molds
every rock and shrub and crevice and grotto,
every white house chiseled into the Apennine range.

Not that there is no secret to the universe,
but that the secret may not be one
we want to hear.

At the conclusion of Rider, the poet was “set free” by the empathy of a preacher and hospice worker, who came to love Rudman’s stepfather Sidney, ‘the little Rabbi,’ during their time together. At the end of Sundays on the Phone, equilibrium is restored in a renewed quest for metaphysical knowledge. The poems resist closure – and the quintet likewise – because they are the embodiment of a life lived according to the dictates of a persistently dialectical mind. For years, mother and son had spoken by phone on Sunday morning. Sunday no longer threatens with phone calls – but it wouldn’t be correct to say there’s no one on the other end of the line.

Review of Mark Rudman, Sundays on the Phone (Wesleyan UP, 2005), by Nick Benson, in Prairie Schooner 82:1 (Spring 2008).

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