Aptly titled, Forbidden City is Gail Mazur’s seventh book of poetry. Before getting the book — which she sent me — I knew that Gail had written the poems in the years after her husband, Michael Mazur (1935–2009), had died of congestive heart failure. I met Gail and Michael in 1972, shortly after I graduated from Bard College and moved to Allston, Massachusetts, a city I was familiar with, having grown up in the Brookline, the next town. In 1975, I moved to New York City, glad to leave this world behind.
Although I met Gail and Michael while I was living in and around Boston for those few years — and Gail gave me my first reading at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, as I have recounted elsewhere — I did not become friends with them until years later. The beginning of our friendship happened in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the summer of 2001, a few months after my daughter, Cerise, was born, and a few months before 9/11. I believe by then that Michael already had problems with his heart, and that one of our mutual friends, most likely Catherine Murphy, had told me.
I remember meeting Michael for lunch at a well-known Provincetown eatery that has since gone out-of-business. These and other mundane memories surfaced during the two days that Forbidden City sat on the dining room table, still in the brown mailer. At this point in my life — I am about to turn 66 — death seems more palpable than ever before. Said to me when I turned 50, Robert Creeley’s words have started to sound different these past couple of years: “Now you’re one of the old guys.”
All I am trying to say is that part of me did not want to read Forbidden City. I wanted to peruse the other books gathered on my desk, and I did. Contrary to what has been said in any number of ways, it is not difficult to get the news from poems: it is difficult to be open to what they have to tell you about living, about what daily life is like after the person you have been married to for your entire adult life has died. Maybe the reason less people are reading poetry than ever before — as the New York Times and other mainstream publications periodically and predictably announce — is because they cannot face the news, preferring to be distracted.
What strikes me about the poems in Forbidden City — many of them memories recollected — is their reticence. In “Minnesota,” Mazur writes: “I am very tired of the dreamer sharing her bad tidings.” Mazur never steps away from her poems, never stops to analyze them. In the title poem, “Forbidden City,” which opens the book, she begins:
Asleep until noon, I’m dreaming
we’ve been granted another year.
The tone is relaxed, warm. She moves back and forward in time:
This is our last day. Life’s leaking
away again, and this time we know it.
She drifts to another moment in time and remembers her and Michael in China, approaching the “Forbidden City/ looking for the Hall/ Of Fulfilling Original Wishes.” At any point in this poem Mazur could have stepped out and commented on, or analyzed, her feelings. She never does, and this is what makes the book so powerful. To my mind, Forbidden City belongs next to Robert Creeley’s Life and Death (New Directions, 1998) and Thomas Meyer’s Kintsugi (Flood Editions 2011), books in which imagination (writing) becomes a way of paying attention to the details of loss.
Mazur remembers a world that no longer exists and isn’t nostalgic for it. As one might expect, painters and poets populate many of the poems, from friends to historical figures whose work was important to her husband and to her. There is a poem that remembers something that Philip Guston said, after “walking away/from class.” In “Shade,” she remembers being part of a group of older poets that met to discuss manuscript submissions:
Eight writers in a sort of circle arguing, ardent–
a committee living on argument, fierce, dismissive–
overeager youthful manuscripts, on fire
with the possibilities for poetry, as if we knew
the stakes, as if we could determine the future
of American literature in that sunny room.
One of the writers was Alan Dugan (“grumbly Dugan”). Mazur is prompted to remember these meetings and things that Dugan said when she discovers, “more than a decade after his death…some of Dugan’s notes,/written on the back of a beat-up manila folder, lines/that stop me…” One of the lines reads:
“Only 85 – a long way to 100,”
What this means is anybody’s guess since Dugan did not live until he was 85. Eventually, Dugan’s lines (“his handwriting illegible chicken–or rooster—“) — there are more — stop “above a list I’ve written/ of sandwiches for the committee’s take-out lunch.”
Forbidden City is full of collisions of one kind or another. The poems are full of — as she titles one poem — “Things,” evidence of a life lived, much of it meaningless to someone else: “mugs with jokes or slogans holding inkless pens, wood rulers,/random screws and nails.” We all have something like this in our lives, something that we cannot let go of, don’t we? A fading dream, a faint memory, seeing snow falling and recognizing it is not like “the snow of yesteryear.” Mazur’s poems register the constant tug between holding on and letting go that is an inescapable condition of her life: she is always bumping up against a glimmer from the past or the future, even as she goes through each day.