Ren Char, in The Formal Share, wrote: "Every poem is married
to someone." The six poems here are from Mark Conway's series of sixteen
Sixteeners, which use as their primary navigational saint the work,
of course, of John Berryman. And Whitman, and Celan, and Lorca's duende,
and James Wright--autumnal, midwestern. And James Brown, the hardest
working man in showbiz, of course.
The original provocation of Mark Conway's Minnesotan Sixteen began
as an address to an elder brother, born in 1950, who lived for only
a few hours. Conway didn't know about this boy until years later, the
dark mark of the Other, the someone Else. Octavio Paz said that poetry
is a search for the you. Conway's poems continue in their prowl
for that ever-shifting thou--the inevitable and elusive: lover, liar,
diaphane. . . .
He is subversive; he does not address his reader artlessly. In "Before
Alexandria," Conway writes: "By this I mean / memory . . . / When what
I meant was, When will it end?/ Troy burns endlessly in the library
/ therefore the pictures stay the same . . . / Bracken burns in Turkey
/ boats are lowered for new books. The elders / look for me." When what
he meant was: How I've missed you--all this time, whoever or whatever
you may be. When what he meant was: even now, because it is written
down, a city is on fire and will always be that way. That once a thing
is written down, it will go on being true, in perpetuity.
Mark Conway's poems are lean, bullying, worshipful, muscular, tender,
armored. Armed and a little dangerous. And disarming, fathomable.
There is always the river and then a rise
from a white bed. Trees turn to elders
limping at night, singing through cleansed
streets, the night-scent of needles. Out-
riders play as shadows on the parapet
to punctuate the rain. By this I mean
memory. I asked, Will I remember this?
When what I meant was, When will it end?
Troy burns endlessly in the library
therefore the pictures stay the same, always
burning. Nothing else stays the same. God
and all his firemen, red-faced, resume
playing cards. Bracken burns in Turkey,
boats are lowered for new books. The elders
look for me. I'm hidden in the bedroom,
pages like smoke in my hands.
The Way Back
I'd be more guarded if I knew you were
watching, leering, nearly naked,
stylishly at rest.
You're wrong if you think I want to be known
utterly, you in your angelic homberg
fogged in reticence.
I talk to myself in our own special voice.
You hear I know by the quality
of your indifference.
I rave about others, halted on the road,
insist you and I were never an item.
You ride alone
I know what you like by the way that you
leave me. We're never going
back, are we. Whisper to me
one more time about home.
Numbering the Thunder
Sitting in a single canto of torchlit
May, earlier than insects, almost spring,
I'm not sleepy. I'm not anything
but outside, vaguely alert to pleasure,
inside of a day that will soon be forgot.
And then the rains come, the air green
in a pre-tornado stupor, the baby crying
at the calm, the pressured hiss. The eye
of the storm stalls around us, bringing
sulphur to the surface of the skin.
All the windows are shuttered, the chores
finished earlier in a premonitory fit.
I look into the distant city, patient
beside my wife. We watch the wind boil,
waiting for the unavoidable: a broken
barn. Then the cold. Then the gathering in.
Any Holy City
What will I call you, brother, before
I send you off forever? I call you
mine but not yet me. Stripped cord,
odd lot, you fake hunger, mumming
for the widows. I know you want
nothing, are nothing, suffer a fallacy
of pain. Put my envy aside; you'll always
need my yearnng. You need me pleading
to be peeled from my wet suit, hovering
close to those I love. No wonder you're
distant--my clinging is so crude. No wonder
you're dead. I'll ride with you through
the market of Tyre, oh, any holy city just
until I press my face against the children's
sticky shoulders. Until I know that you won't
lift me. Until what you lack is all I need.
At the end of the evening famous for never
ending, where we stand together, unable
to remember, I saw her, here, at the very
end of darkness, where it turns tawdry,
shrunken at the seams. Who was she then
or now, my overweight teacher is furious
to know, how dare she be mysterious, elusive
in the way she loves, liar, diaphane, weisenheimer.
The eyes live only in their lying. And so
they see. How rude not to deceive me, refusing
to rearrange her face into another burst
of Russian, a feint, her notorious grin. It's time
she put me on, naively, in her native tongue.
The liar's diary lies empty. I'm certain she
and I go way back in the dark. I move to close
the book, her face. We open it instead.
How I've Missed You
I clamored for you, drunk
on Jesus' glamorous wounds
and made myself cry, praying
to the lip-shaped gashes.
"Strip us, Oh Lord," the neighbors
prayed, "Of all our sins."
"Strip us and take us, Oh Lord,"
I whispered because I knew
the gods visited from time to
time and we killed them
or they changed into barnyard
animals and slid into bed
because now their wives wouldn't
recognize them and who knows
maybe I too could wash their feet
with my hair, afterwards.
Originally published in the December 1997/
January 1998 issue of Boston Review