To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mark Weiss: 3 Poems & an Excerpt from “A Provisional Poetics”


He sees her urgent face.
Lakes folded into the palm of the hills.
Large twolegged passersby.
Sky gods
earth gods
gods of the air
legions of angels.
In the land
where everyone does everything backwards.


Imagine the moon between its arms
like the sky, or
the down on a woman’s legs. There’s
a cactus here, a kind of
prickly pear with down where the spines should be.
full of tiny spines.


The black spot on the dove’s neck.
The ill-favored son of the loveliest of men.
The tough lyricist
the desert dancer
barefoot among the cactus.
Quiet. Slow.
Serpent-knowledge in the hollows of rocks.


I never set out to write a poem. I will jot things down in my notebook, sometimes ideational, sometimes not, sometimes from the environment, or misheard, or from a dream, and occasionally a phrase will have a rhythmic urgency that compels me to jot something further, and then I'm lost in process and have no idea where I or the poem is going. This is a liminal state fraught with both joy and terror, and it is processual. The process may extend over few or many lines and take a few moments or days and months. It lasts until one emerges at the other end, back into the everyday, arrival signaled by the loss of urgency.

And then one cleans up the mess of blind alleys, dishonesties and false starts. What’s left is the record of the process. in which the poet is reinvented and the poem discovered.

What I’m describing is a particular form of possession. I think of poor Yeats in “Among School Children,” realizing that, despite the watchful eyes of the nuns and his desperate desire to behave properly, he is falling into a sexual revery about a little girl. And suddenly he gives into the revery and finds himself transported to a brutal figuration of generativity and destructiveness, of the erotic refusing to be tamed to the appropriate. The life built by the public man can be torn apart in a second, and the whole world with it. It's Red Hanrahan, the hero of his early stories, being carried off by the fairies all over again, the victim of their purity of impulse. And where does that leave you?

I suspect that all poetry is a form of possession. There's the sense that no matter how we try to train ourselves we can become at best receptive--the poem seems to come when it wants to and to leave when it wants to, unless we try to constrain it to our preconceptions, in which case we certainly lose it. And it's no respecter of occasions, so that those who have the dubious fortune of being on the receiving end often find themselves less than well-fitted to the world of time-constraints.

I’m not talking about a loss of choice. For one thing, the field in which our possessed selves operates is the field we bring to the experience. And the momentary changes and impulses are directed by what comes before, but also by the changes in a bodily chemistry whose stability is always fragile. We learn, we enlarge the field, but it's still the field, and the physiology, we brought to the game.
Even in sleep we make choices. On the crudest level, it's no accident that Freudians have Freudian dreams, Jungians have Jungian dreams, and Pharaohs dream about sheaves of wheat. What we relinquish is the conscious awareness and direction of choice.

Rituals, whether parlor-game tarot readings or the I Ching or the more serious commitment of the otherwise decorous old woman in a New York or Havana barrio who becomes the horse of Shango and insists on throwing up her skirts to show the crowd how much bigger her cock is than theirs, are about choices faced in what Van Gennep called a liminal or marginal state--between statuses, in transit from known to knowable, a place without rules. The known and the knowable are always under siege, because it's not so much that we're on occasion in a stable place as that the rate of change on occasion slows down. Change is the constant. The poem is situated in that awareness, and to the extent that we have the courage to stay there it inhabits the liminal, which is by its nature formless. And the poem grounds itself in the particular because that's all there is to hold onto, and the only clues offered.

It's the willful relinquishing of resistance to liminality. And it differs from the ritual practice of possession because, unlike the ritual, which, if done properly, always brings the participant out the other end (imagery of rebirth is inevitable here), it has no preordained pattern, no life-rope, no social structures surrounding it that announce when the participant has
reached the new place and what place that is.

This may sound like the fugue state of psychosis, but in fact the crazy rarely will themselves to relinquish the inhibitions to behaviors seen as crazy and to the internal states that drive those behaviors. They really know that they may not be able to come back. I once asked a group of for-the-moment stable schizophrenics about a fantasy. They exchanged a few panicky glances and then assured me, one after the other, in the manner of well-behaved school-children, that they didn't have fantasies.

Somewhere the poet has the sense that there's an internal structure to escape to, and it's that faith that gives him the courage to dive in when he's able. Yeats, for instance, knows that he's not about to throw himself on that little girl, although he may allow himself to court the danger. The internalized self-definition as Poet, which contains within it the privilege to depart from the everyday to bring back news from the margins, is a part of that structure.

Here’s how I’ve been making poems these last 15 years.

For a period of three years, from 1981 thru July 1983, I experienced seizures, on average four days a week, as many as four in one day. They were what is called partial seizures--a kind of petit mal--which in my case took the form of bizarre internal language events followed by a half hour of aphasia. Although they were no fun they had their comic side: in the first phase if anyone spoke to me I would hear his speech as ironic use of psychobabble. At first this seemed appropriate, if unusual--the first several occurrences happened while talking to my students, all psychology majors, in office hours after a psychology course I was teaching. When Carlos, my step-son, then 13, did the psychobabble routine I thought, my, he's become sophisticated. Then a Chinese waiter did it while taking my order, and then a singer on a salsa jukebox in a Puerto Rican greasy spoon.

The effect, more from the antispasmodics than the seizures, was that whereas previously I had written mostly self-contained work with something like a beginning, middle and end I could no longer sustain the linguistic energy--the best that I could do was fragments in my notebook. I thought my life as a poet was over. Then, on a drive across country, I began to realize that there was something magical happening--the fragments across time were not only forming their own fragile coherence, but they were more fully expressing all of my concerns and something like a shadow-sketch of the world as I experienced it. Parts of my way of being and seeing, notably irony, found themselves included in ways they hadn't been before, along with ideas, shopping lists, linguistic and cultural detritus. When I got to Tucson I spent an afternoon reading to a friend from my notebook. In the act I realized that I was involved in the process of a long poem occasioned by the crossing.

I think I'm engaged in what I understand as composition by field. Or perhaps composition of field. The field defines the observer, much as the light space around a darker mass creates the sense of depth in painting. The observer--the poet--becomes he who saw/selected these things and not others from the limitless world, and chaos becomes information. In this way of writing it’s rarely necessary to announce one’s emotional states or even one’s politics. The posited field and the data it contains comment in themselves, much like the data in dreams. A psychologized "no ideas but in things?"

Subsequently I have realized that much of what I had done for the previous 20 years had been moving in this direction.

. . . . . . .

[The preceding is from Mark Weiss’s collection, As Landscape, published earlier this year by Chax Press. A substantive review by M.G. Stephens appeared in Jacket 40, available on-line at]


Glenn Buttkus said...

Thank you for including these poems, and some of his essay here on your site. Many of us ersatz boomer poet wannabes only get led to some one new and exciting by a guide like you. I really responded to the form, or lack of it, a place where "chaos becomes information"--yes, and yes, edgy, existential, part e.e.cummings, part Ginsberg, with a dash of Dylan Thomas, illustrated by a Dali painting. Inspires me to follow the lead, and let my imagination go to some quiet meditative meadow, and let it out of its conventional straight jacket.

Art Durkee said...

I respond directly to Mr. Weiss' comments about process, since they closely mirror my own process and ideas about process. Thank you presenting them here. I spent part of today responding to Mr. Weiss' thoughts on my own blog, because they struck so close to home.

Andrew Burke said...

Thank you so much for these examples of his work and thought. As another commentator said, you're a good guide.