9781885266415 / 1885266413

The Messenger


Publisher:Farrar Straus & Giroux



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About the book:

The soul of Questions for Ecclesiastes, winner of the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, lies in a sequence of poems whose title, "Unholy Sonnets," immediately recalls the "Holy Sonnets" of John Donne. Instead of adopting Donne's tone of vulnerable desperation, however, Jarman questions the concept of divinity with a voice familiar to readers of contemporary poetry: sincere, restrained, and polite, yet not unaware of the winding rhetoric of irony. Jarman adds a willingness to engage in abstract thought at the risk of losing emotional edge, an important risk that few poets take. The "Unholy Sonnets" weave stories in the short, sharp narrative style of Edward Arlington Robinson, who provides a clear model for much of Jarman's work--which is no insult to Jarman. The achievements of Robinson, overshadowed in this century by more Continental-leaning modernists, are being increasingly recognized and admired, thanks in part to Jarman's championing of "new formalism" in his anthology Rebel Angels. Jarman echoes Robinson's "Eros Turranos" in the intense compression of syntax and story in Jarman's seven-chambered poem "The Past from the Air," which relates the decades-long decay of a family in a variety of classical rhyme schemes:

She has no reason to remember this
Declining beachtown where she was not young
With any sort of love or happiness
Or now, to see it renovated, sprung
To a new level of well-being, grow
Nostalgic as her son does. Home
Is nothing to be sick for, when you know
It is an idea sculpted out of foam.
This poem showcases the pleasures of Mark Jarman's clear lines and metaphors, his workmanlike meter, his calm reasonings, the slow unfolding of a longish poem. These are old-fashioned pleasures; he is not an old-fashioned poet, but one who has considered at length Ecclesiastes's saw about there being nothing new under the sun. The title poem tells the story, in questions, of the narrator's minister father visiting a teenage suicide's family. The questioning acts like a centrifuge that spins a disturbing gravity around the central story, building to one paraphrase of the book's central query: "And what if one with only a casual connection to the tragedy remembers a man, younger than I am today, going out after dinner and returning, then sitting in the living room, drinking a cup of tea, slowly finding the strength to say he had visited these grieving strangers and spent some time with them?" Poetry is, for Jarman, more an act of questioning than an act of answering, though there is room for a few speculative answers. In the parable of "Unholy Sonnet 12," a farmer more pious than Job cries, "Why?" to God when a flood sweeps his farm away: "And God grumped from his rain cloud, 'I can't say. / Just something about you pisses me off.'" With Questions for Ecclesiastes, Jarman joins the small congregation of poets, with George Herbert at the pulpit, who perceive a relationship between poetic form and the spiritual form of being. --Edward Skoog

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