Learning Your Letters

Epistles, Mark Jarman (95pp, $13.95, Sarabande Books)

This is an interesting and challenging collection to review, as is its genre. Prose poems have an established niche in poetry, albeit one with porous borders. The rather formal connotations of the 'epistolary poem' I tend to associate with eighteenth century verse rather than contemporary lyric, though it certainly has its place and potential. I confess I did struggle with the combination in these poems, and also with their intermittent third strand of spiritual didacticism. The Epistles of Paul the Apostle (a named influence in a recent interview) are not the easiest of Biblical templates from which to spin poetry -  and it is to Mark Jarman's credit that he is able to inject at times such poetic insight into an unlikely format.

My main sticking point with these 'epistles' concerns the narrator(s) present or absent in the texts. Who is writing to me, the reader, and by what authority, if any, do they claim to speak? Answers here are variable, sometimes surprising and fresh, but sometimes non-forthcoming, which is when I have the discomforting suspicion I am being preached at. I liked the occasional persona narrator, in for example, 'Listening to You', who identifies himself by the end of the poem as a travelling salesman: 'The middleaged man they [various pastors] see, opening his sample cases, displaying a new book of Advent meditations for youngsters, is not all that I am. I believe that, even though it is hidden from me.' This provided the element of focus and specificity which gave the preceding meditation, on human potential, a memorable edge. Elsewhere I found that an unnamed speaker, inclined to use the first person plural, sailing rather close to the didactic (though still having its meditative moments). For example in 'Life is at an End':

     And when we do escape, life pursues us. Or rather, the place we
     have escaped comes after us. We look back and see the things we
     desire, which we thought lay ahead of us, calling from behind. Home.
     Success and sex. Peace. All of them call. And we end up where we
     started, unable to tell why we ever wished to escape.'

Contemporary poetry telling the reader what he or she does and desires risks generating a resistance - or it does in me, anyway. It might offer a valuable perspective, but I'd still rather work out spiritual maxims for myself, informed by that shiver of understanding which linguistic or metaphorical skill in a poem can induce. A lot of my reluctance to go with the flow of these poems came from here. I was a little wary, also, with the many metaphors that came along with their own explicatory tag - 'we enter the feast days of anxiety, the high holidays of suspicion' ('When the Thief Comes'); elsewhere 'the onion skin of everyday life'. Go in fear of abstractions, as Pound would say. These metaphor-plus-abstract formulas made some texts read flatly.

However, there were other aspects of this collection which kept me reading. Where I felt that Jarman's poems became much more lively were in the fragments of mystery which stayed fragmented, the images that didn't leak their mystery away. I was hooked by the short epistle 'On the island of the pure in heart' for this reason. It begins with a mysterious image: 'On the island of the pure in heart, we did not see God. But an influx of pink scallop shells, each the size of a fingertip, covered the sand.' And ends with an unexplained paradox: 'Even as they urged us to depart, on the island of the persecuted, they begged us to stay.'

Perhaps no coincidence that this particular poem is echoing, not the didactic cadences of Pauline prose, but the enigma of the Gospels. Pithy rather than politely philosophical; tending towards parable rather than letter of instruction. The shorter piece 'God said your name' buttonholes you from the start: 'God said your name today. He said, "Tell me about X." And everybody had a lie you'd like. The solutions for X were all X + 1.' This epistle ends with the disturbing consequence: 'And so God, boasting to the devil, said, "Consider my servant X".'

It also uses what is a recurring interest of Jarman's: the mathematical algorithm as theological insight: 'We are added to zero, then multiplied by it' ('All My Concern'); other poems explore numerical infinity to the right of the decimal point. These are the more surprising figurative excursions of the collection, and succeed for me where the longer meditations don't. But there are swift poetic elements thoughout: prayer, Jarman suggests, is instinctive and intimate, 'as the couple turn toward each other in the dark'. 'For the Birds' addresses the pre-emergent state, another state of dark: 'the cramped translucent dark before the break out'. And sometimes (to finish with another quotation from 'All my concern') these prose poems really do seem to shed the skin of ordinary language and soar: the narrator is problematized; the 'you' is not categorized. Then Jarman's voice sings rather than sermonises, and makes the whole collection worth contemplating.

     If you can think of me as that part you cannot part with, no matter
     how hard you try, then the surface tension of the word, the skin of
     sound and form, would split like a beetle's wing casings and the
     secret take flight into the known.

      Sarah Law 2008