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Ben Mazer may best be considered a poet for poets; his work a fortress against the common reader. The Glass Piano, his most recent compilation of poems, is decidedly non-simplistic in its themes, objects, images, and ideas; the poems are often cryptic, inconclusive, carried off in visions of epic proportion where the reader — if not well-versed in poetics — is bound to lose her way.
This is not a criticism. That his verses escape ease of comprehension is in part a testimony to the fact that they present not flashes of life to be passed through, but perceptions, forms, concepts which he compels the reader to dwell on. The satisfaction of immediate interpretation is hard to come by, but shouldn’t the poet transcend the mere tangibility of prose, to enchant the reader? Mazer’s work thus may be a lesson in the nonanalyzable aspects of reality; it may be that he eludes explanation while magnifying instead the emotional-intuitive vibration of sound patterns, the intrinsic beauty of words somehow organically falling together in metrical grace. His more lucid pieces play with the journey of an image—from precise object to poetic abstraction. Here is an example from an untitled poem which begins “When it hails in the morning I remember”:
Why is it the striking hail,
rattling up by the perpetual wind
in the groaning echo of the showering years,
should fix a fine point of conversation
between two conspirators on the wasted plane,
into a pattern, a brocaded tapestry,
of obsolescence, trailing about the heart.
Mazer’s work is hard to classify, appearing instead to be a hybrid of many different chapters in the evolution of poetry — the product, no doubt, of years of laborious study. His passion for Rimbaud (which he alludes to in the Afterword) and Symbolism is clear, as is a gravitation toward the discipline and definability of New Formalism. He has been compared to Eliot, likely due to the fragmented nature of his verse, but perhaps also because he represents what Eliot called the “traditional” writer — a commingling of the eternal poet with the spirit and experience of the individual voice. I find that there is likewise something resonantly Keatsian about Ben Mazer: not only his blazing desire to be among the greats of his generation, but in the allegiance to poetry for poetry’s sake, in the loyalty to certain classical conventions, in the love for beauty, truth, and tragedy, and in the existential playfulness that lives in negative capability.
The Glass Piano is a multi-layered work, the core radiating a meta-discourse on poetry, the journey of the poetic mind, and the continuous nature of the poet in the world. Mazer uses recurring references to “Hamilcars” as figurative signifiers of the poet as warrior, champion, and defender of the world; and these characters — the dynasty of poets — play a leading role in his work. They make up the axis of the universe, upon which the collective mind revolves: “[…] the warriors carve out / a new aesthetic, a distinct attitude, / changes in the spirit which are arbitrary,” he writes. What are these warriors fighting for, and against? For one, his poems—rife with epic conceits and forceful symbolism—express a yearning to revivify the power of the imagination. Mazer’s work stands for the poetic ability which, to use Blake’s words, allows the mind to “to see a world in a grain of sand […] hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” And his themes, verging on the metaphysical, the eternal, and the sublime, are distinctly Romantic; just take this glimpse from “Skiing After Nazis in Ottawa”:
When we two, one another’s best,
cast out upon the ocean’s brilliant breast
confirming in sensation what is real,
the realized form surpassing the ideal
eternity stopped to hear the things we say,
and crowded all the hours with verity.
But the role of the poet-warrior is also to exemplify and promote the innate beauty of language and its lyrical pattern, and above all, Mazer’s poetry is defined by his own brand of musicality. An affinity for sound devices (assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, cacophony, and of course meter) electrifies The Glass Piano with a rich, rhythmic pulse which, according to Mazer, comes to his inner ear automatically and unbidden. With this, his poetry achieves another level of symbolism composed by the intuitive meaning and/or suggestiveness of sound; and this is really what makes Mazer’s work burn brightly. The sonorous quality and flow of phrases like “A windy springing, germinal, germane, / to monstrous waves washed on the wasted plain” excites an instinctive, visceral satisfaction in the reader. There is much joy to be found in following the cadence of his verses.
Throughout the meta-discourse of The Glass Piano, Mazer also suggests that poetry is something not only handed down from writer to reader, but that it is a channel connecting past, present, and future minds and thus creating a sort of unified ego. His subject is “the providential reader,” a title with a twofold meaning — (1) the reader who happens upon the seemingly perfect book at the seemingly perfect moment, and (2) the ordained reader of the future acting as the medium connecting past and present. Contained in the afterword of the book is an interview conducted by Robert Archambeau, wherein Mazer recounts his first experience as the providential reader one afternoon when he was 16 and playing hooky, stumbling across a book of Rimbaud in an old bookstore. He describes the moment as a rapturous linking of psyches between him and the writer. Mazer proclaims that “[…] the poet is really writing for the providential reader, that strange young person of the far distant future, who […] will stumble across the stuff and say to himself: this is me.” It is yet another role of the poet as champion and defender; and Mazer writes poetry not only because it comes to him as naturally as leaves to a tree, but because he cares about keeping alive this connection between poetic minds, which in turn keeps firm the string of influence.
At other times, he speaks directly to the poets of future generations — the providential writers — about their divine task:
[…] I shall not witness from the grave
the world you make, the culture that you save.
[…] and all the world resound with your find words,
amidst new generations of spring birds.
Then I’ll die proud, at what you have become,
who of divinity’s whole holy sum
shall make the world inspired, who shall come
to fabulous wisdom after I am gone.
This verse is relatively unequivocal, but any reader of The Glass Piano will find regular mention of ‘you,’ ‘I,’ and ‘we,’ without being given definite identification as to who the poet is referring to. It hardly feels that the sense of self manifested within these pages is a singular individual, and not some universally inspired voice. But poetry for poetry’s sake is rarely clear and simple, and Mazer has put the complexity in the readers’ hands to do with it as they please.
In his titular poem “The Glass Piano,” he draws reference to Frost’s belief that poetry should sustain “a momentary stay against confusion” that makes the reader, sensing the irony, smile. It is clearly not a belief Mazer favors. His work deals with big ideas and a highly conceptual vision. But it is also inherently difficult to penetrate because it’s all composed in a rather undeliberate way, as inspirations flaring up without resistance or conscious interference on his part. His work follows more from Rimbaud and the surrealists than from Frost’s modernism. But as perplexing as his poems often are, there lies a constant beauty throughout: in the synthesis of the spiritual, temporal, concrete, and abstract; in the wonderful irreverence he demonstrates toward fixating on one image rather than allowing different, often contrasting, images to absorb into each other and wed.
For those (rare) poetic minds out there, The Glass Piano is a book written for you and possibly about you. It is only a matter of time before one of us incidentally stumbles upon Mazer’s work and says, in awe, “This is me.”