January 2008

Jason B. Jones


Epistles: Poems by Mark Jarman

Mark Jarman's new book of poems, his ninth, is a collection of prose poems modeled loosely on Paul's epistles. This is a rather remarkable challenge, for a variety of reasons: Pauline letters are addressed to specific Christian churches and communities -- indeed, their universality arises from this deeply-felt sense of community (see Badiou). But Jarman isn't really addressing a community of believers, or any other community save "the assembly of the lost."

The other challenge Jarman faces is a formal one: The prominent New Formalist has set himself the task of writing in prose poems. Not for the first time in his career, but certainly this is the most sustained exploration of the form.

Epistles faces these twin challenges about as well as can be expected. On the one hand, the work constantly threatens to devolve into a sort of collection of aphoristic essays in the mode that people call "spiritual," rather than religious. They almost have to, in order to preserve what Jarman has called their "heterodox inclusiveness." At such moments, Jarman risks -- but mercifully never succumbs to -- writing Chicken Soup for the Literate Soul. On the other hand, his ear and the precision of his language, as well as the range of human experience he can bring into focus, continually quicken one's interest in the poems.

One of my favorite moments in Epistles comes when Jarman tries to imagine eternity, which will apparently start out a little slowly:

Still, try this. Think of blank times with other people's habits, when you had to eat with strangers and strange hosts, and follow their customs and rituals at table. A glassy patience took over. Through its panels even watching was a kind of starvation, a sort of drought. The portions lay stranded on large plates. The grace was minimal but stiflingly pious. There was nothing to drink. And the time ahead filled a football stadium.

Then you discovered their peculiar passions -- genre fiction, dog racing. Suddenly you were an umbrella stand of questions. Time, almost like the drink you were denied, turned almost sexy. When you left, sated with information, and even a little drunk with a fizzy affection for the plain, stolid family of doorstops, they invited you back.

There's a charm to this image, held together lightly by charged words such as hosts and passions, by repetition and alliteration, and by Jarman's good humor. But this poem, which opens in so folksy and down-to-earth a fashion, pivots suddenly, becoming a reflection on the mutual misrecognition between the living and the dead, despite, or rather because of the universal tendency of the former to become the latter.

It would be almost unthinkable for Jarman to write a book about life, mortality, and belief without discussing rhythm and form, and Epistles doesn't disappoint. In "Through the Waves," survival after death is likened to the rhythm of the tides: "Where do you go? You repeat in other waves, repeat and repeat. Each bears a message. Each has a meaning." And elsewhere, Jarman ponders, "What are we are living for? Isn't it finally to make a rhythm we can live with daily, that will stress pleasures like bars of melody, strike and hold the note of our contentment as claims about the real and the unreal pass through it, thick thread through the eye of the whole truth?" The ability of rhythm and form to defy logic in the name of happiness, contentment, or bliss recurs across different poems -- at one point, Jarman asks, "There is no formula for bliss, yet why not pretend there is?" It's not that Jarman advocates denial; rather, he is attuned to the way the rhythms of a life can bring about their own pleasures, which can feel something like grace.

Jarman has a flair for scientific diction, ranging from the names of birds to nanotechnology and the flocculence of clouds. And if he is capable of writing about complex theological positions such as soteriology, he begins this spiritual reflection in the physical world: "Easier to think about the body of the comet than the human body. Easier to see its white hair stretch out in the solar wind than to visualize a synapse of the brain." The "crocheting of DNA," the intensity and scattering of light -- all of these concretize the feeling of beauty in "design without intent," and the feeling that our physical lives cannot be only an obstacle to grace, but a vehicle for it.

Epistles works, not to justify the ways of God to man, but at least to remind us of the possibility for hope. Part of what saves Epistles from becoming merely sentimental or saccharine is Jarman's the specificity of his empathy. Here's an example, in a city after a devastating storm: "And churches knocked down ecumenically. And homes leveled according to the most random plan. And schools. And stores. One loss. One death." His poems convey a real need for consolation, and are honest about the reasons one might have to doubt such consolation exists.

Because it is a book of letters, one's reaction to Epistles will be governed to a large extent by questions of address. When Jarman invokes "us," or speaks to "you," the extent to which readers feel implicated by those pronouns correlates to their response to the poem. While I often admire Jarman's metaphors, especially ones that speak to the psychology of belief or that unfold the beauty of scientific detail, I also often felt myself standing slightly outside them. (By contrast, the more elaborately metaphysical address of a book like Joshua Kryah's Glean seemed more accessible.) Nevertheless, these reflections on mortality, faith, belief, and love can make for lively, provoking reading.

Epistles: Poems by Mark Jarman
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 978-1-932511-53-6
95 Pages