Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mark Halperin's Falling Through the Music

Poet Mark Halperin's recent book, Falling Through the Music, brought me back in touch with a kind of subtle music that so much contemporary poetry and poet readers no longer have the ear for; it is something like listening to bees after hearing Fugazi--you sense some ringing in your ear, but you're not sure if it's in your head or out there in the field. Halperin has that sort of vocal touch. I felt similarly about his Russia poems, which have the generosity and grace of a man who could witness to lives that are often tragic, but without the hysteria and depression that I felt I would constantly careen toward as a result of such encounters.

These are two poems that didn't make the cut, about his encounters with Russia.

I sit where the guest sits when language turns suddenly
opaque. It’s me in the uncoupled car left
in the station as the train fades, me adrift
on voluble liquids, hushes—me at sea.

When distractions like meaning vanish, maybe you hear
murmurs the way doctors hear valves
rattle in the rush of heart’s blood, the octaves
masked off or lying below speech and tears:

Tanya’s unhappiness with Sergei, the extended complaint
that's replaced a life, places to dream about
and the despair that wears through then wears out
feeling. Without a segue, I’m in role, in accent.

Back on track, I’m in the harboring circle
of friends, pulling shoes on, doing a button,
ready for the long walk to the metro. When
will you be back? they ask. Don’t forget to call.


In Chekhov, everyone’s unhappy—
this one loves that one who loves
someone else. The doctor, a fixture
of the plays, is always old as Chekhov,
who died young, must have felt himself
to be. And the aging writer, who also
resembles Chekhov, chases a girl

he will abandon soon and is stuck
with the habit of drawing out small
note-books every so often, wanting
the youth he traded for fame. Moscow,
say the sisters, is where we could be
happy, knowing they will never
get there, too beautiful for happiness,

with feelings too keen, dreams,
like their upswept hair, too outdated—
their long dresses part of history.
Work, says one hero, love says another.
No one can tell you if happiness
is anything but the opposite of
irony or being unprotected.

In his final poem to Falling Through the Music, we feel Halperin's equanimity as a kind of bracing grace:

Isn't reading like sleep, another place
to leave yourself? The way air bears you--it's
as if you'd thrown the blankets back for a taste
of bracing cold. Put the book down,
your secret life, each sober calculation.
The wind's alive. Air's erasing the horizon.

In his foreword to his Greatest Hits (2001), Halperin writes:
If you don't write the poems you're given, you wouldn't be given any poems--I don't remember who deserves credit for that, but I agree. I try to write my poems and not someone else's, those I struggle over as much as those that fall to me. I continue to be amazed when they arrive.
It's typical of Halperin's modesty and goodwill that he immediately asserts that such words are not his own; whoever authored them, Halperin midwifes them again, and offers us that simplest of the grand permissions of art: that all that is asked of us is to write the poems that we are meant to write.

I've been thinking about how, perhaps, I am just part of the humus of poetry--that great organic layer of literary soil that may feed some future poet. My books will go out of print, my poems will slip from the anthologies (if indeed they ever make it), my name will be lost to all but my descendants. But maybe I've nurtured some writers, and fed some readers, who will do their own poems and continue this strange, gratifying, and maybe utterly useless art.


Chaerephon said...

my name will be lost to all but my descendants.

Nope, sorry

maybe utterly useless art.

Nope, sorry

Chaerephon said...

Hearing Bees After Fugazi: A Play in One Scene

The scene: backstage at the 9:30 Club, 1991. A bee crawls idly along the edge of a table, then begins to fly around the room.

Guy Picciotto: Do you hear something?
Ian MacKaye: What-- are those kids from the pit fighting again? I swear to god-- [gets up to go lecture kids from the pit]
Picciotto: No, no, I mean something else. Like a buzzing noise.
MacKaye: Oh. Um, I don't know.
[both sit still, listening]
MacKaye: Is that the amps?
Picciotto: No, we took those down.
MacKaye: Oh yeah.
[both sit still, listening]
MacKaye: Are they playing Wire out there maybe? Like something from 154?
[both sit still, listening]
Picciotto: Nah, it was nothing.

The bee flies toward another room backstage.

Daniel Higgs: Do you hear something?
Asa Osborne: What?


Philip Metres said...


loved your play, though I had to find out that Asa and Daniel were of "Lungfish." "A ten-year-old moshpit must grow cold," indeed.

By the way, I was just in NYC and I went to visit my grandparents old house in Brooklyn Heights. I had a memory of waking one morning many years ago, to the sound of the opening feedback notes to "Turnover"--and discovered it was a ship's horn coming across the harbor. How's that for ambient sound?