How to Celebrate One of Our Better Poets
by Robert Mueller
(This essay focuses on the title
poem from the collection
To the Cognoscenti by Tom Mandel
P.O. Box 5814, Berkeley, CA 94705-0814
ISBN 1-891190-27-X, 165 pp.)
The first question to ask, perhaps, of poets today has to do with what sort of philosophy they practice. What measure of attention they bring to this practice appears in any event to be of decisive consideration. Picture for instance the kind of inquiry that is Tom Mandel’s “To the Cognescenti” (the title poem of a 2007 collection from Atelos) as of what it is like to have a long and impersonal poem full of observations. Take, in other words, the pace of an impersonal flow that nevertheless requires a main character and finds him treading the tentative roundabouts that run the thin mills of hope. Such are the tasks that trace out the very contradictions of the poet’s glossing. Thus a life becomes formal, and impossibly lived, when “I” express a “wish to circle / outside, and every color, no no, many / times, instructs and informs …” (from section V. of the poem, titled “by way of explanation”). Of an inquiry that is “white and mixed” there is a semblance of tonal order, a coordinated imprint that is not even, despite its sometimes froward claims, rich in variegated experience or in personality as such.
The previous section IV. of “To the Cognescenti” (“persepolis… and other spots”) frames the unexciting because of a place, say a capitol in Washington D.C. that falls short in its primary objectives, and is not comparable to the capitols of fame and yore in a ready-made history fashioned for this writer’s accounting, a place that recedes to the lowest point of focal, or foecal, intensity. Any estimation of displaced primacy, however, is “by way of explanation” (to return to section V. and its recoveries) and thus a figure for philosophical temptation. A setting forth of provisos discovers how a poetry of philosophy may frame the unhidden “contemplations” that alone prove serviceable in a parched landscape by realizing “a conception / hidden and in hiddenness [that] … circles / the rim of an awkward rupture.”. The sounding of definition, on the other hand, should it help to secure some measure of emotional regard and estimation, could be the refreshing starting block of explanatory motives. Instead, the force of a person talking while “unable / to get along with those he loves” transmits a flow of gravitation bending ever downward. An orderliness not personally enjoyed supports what are indeed many points of inquiry in the inspired (and conspiratorial) quest to demonstrate the limits which are of the nature of the poem’s transforming, liminal and (yes) impersonal appeal. In the feeling of these properties all hinted at by sometimes curtailed propositions lies a certain distinct and well-groomed pleasure. Pleasure is where it always is in its most deeply saddened state, in its arrival:
Mind and language march; logic and laughter
toughen. In precipitate clarity
awkward words or work conceive
Among mirrors, water is green
sky is blue. To arrive, a spokesman
condenses in light. Rupture of voice circles.
A synonym for identity is the lack thereof.
Let all this talk of identity and non-identity be a snapshot of how Mandel records his success as poet, which is of course his identity. Themes like the theme of essentiality, repeated in many ways but in, apparently, the eschewing of brilliance as such, overlay the personal concerns. Moreover, since metaphysical philosophy as well as discussions of natural forms (and even of the soul) deal in opposites, and terms are fully held at least in their opposition, it is not unnatural for the flow of the writing to find limits in the contradictions that keep coming as if having been sought. Thus to call Mandel’s writing, the chosenness of it, impersonal is to introduce a contrary-to-fact condition. Encountering facts is likened to fulfilling a mission of careful delineation that while not flashy achieves the unexpected results without which the inquiry would come to a halt.
One result of how the self in following a track that seeks impersonality, even when in a contrarian manner, is the univocity that proceeds easily or uneasily along the contours of this long poem. In full accord with tensions that only seem to mount, the poem furnishes its own robust accounting of diverse and (yes) difficult matters. Mandel seems forever to be on the watch for the logistical burdens that would secure the crucial connecting determinations, though not so forcefully as to seize upon them. Thus he construes his likes and dislikes in constructions that are effectively like matching and coordinating, in their differences, the right and left hands of a musical composition of Chopin’s, like no other’s (from section III. (“what he wrote on the black keys”)). The turbulence as of a flourishing into a unity overseen by the contradictory blank, the abundantly bounded frankness of an all-white sky, sets a precedent for the poet’s later exuberance in explaining beyond the frame. His contemplative action and reaction are as if sworn to a purpose to “bind the streams from flowing” and to be “able to exist outside / without scrutiny or limit” (back to section V.). Restrictions and conditions apply, and from their freedoms comes, unbeheld, a matchless continuity. Or it is that everydayness coordinated to become all directions, left, right and middle, and to portend the substance and conjoined parameter of completeness, that is held fully one amid the play of change, of multiple properties and aspects conformed so as to rest with an essential given, recognized and attained “in every direction / standing on it / stretched out like a curtain set aflow / by wind”. The singularity as of moving and guided extension meets the commonality of all colors, all those distinctively human properties, in the “white sky” that the poet’s consistently circuitous renderings thematize, as it were “filming them with rain” (quotations in this sentence from section III.). The stirred attentions meet professional gleam in their byways and their alighted ways. Such intensity as is not lacking, the distinguishing gift of a risky parabolizing tangential to the circle of abstractions, is restored in a whole and absorbing tendency towards white as the complete gathering of colors, and hence towards all human standing and what is held thereto.
In one sense, to be sure, the poem is genuinely personal, though to sustain its unique texture Mandel does not let it become deeply so. Like many poems, “To the Cognescenti” records a person’s occupations with the run of human activities. It is not the sort of poem, however, that appeals by humor laid upon day-to-day experiences. Rather, the attention paid to what are lived events, or, better, pictures of integral circumstance and the recurring burdens on the individual’s need for happiness, seeks to go beyond the ordinary and to effect, even if vicariously, “the strange fit of what lasts / to what does not” (further along from section VI.a. (“his past and future appear in another’s words”)). Harmonies of the “[g]eometrical / constrained” (from section I. (“how it all began…”)), as of an unfolding search for true grounding, offer proof that the poem’s chief merit lies in the way of philosophy and in the evident clarity of its shared promise.
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Continued... How to Celebrate One of Our Better Poets by Robert Mueller
The flowing sheet of existence rendered as one in the impersonality of observation, itself impersonal as in a flow not in flux, is analogous to the shroud, again to be imagined as in the consistency of a covered and fully demonstrable whiteness, that for the poet in confrontation with mortality names the univocal identity and thereby circumscribes and reclaims an identity that had heretofore seemed “the lack thereof”. Thus there are times when life’s directions and its logical consummation come set to close in. So the questions add up and do indeed consume the bearer of petty and not so petty grievances. Yet a viable response impresses its shape on reckonings now more observant than ever amidst life’s “cerulean” worries and when “kingly words darken”:
Why must unspoken words be clear
be light? Why be white?
The remains of his eyes gaze
closed over chin, the white garment
that swathes his chest. & onto the rest
that disappears within a satin lining
through to all that a garment
worn to the grave will clothe,
the body’s lost insurrection, in its
new world of shrouds – changed
as clay stamps the seal by that
whose stamp is like life’s stamp
but more univocal.
(from section VIII., which is untitled)
In thusly becoming more univocal, the meaning comes fully and truly around to all that is shared from some sort of beginning. Quoted at length, this commiseration over the lost body exemplifies that persistent vision and concentrated flow so characteristic of Mandel’s writing in “To the Cognescenti”. Again and again, indeed, Mandel’s inquiry discloses the very order of writing that in its affirmative predications, if not always of the happiest sort, implicates the reach of pressing expectations that are so much the mystery and the matter of longer poems.
In this poem that begins, with a purpose, where it began, the poem’s “Introduction” (section XII.) comes suitably at the end, in fact following an occasional practice in ancient manuscripts from the Christian era, as it follows too, as such, their everlastingness. Thus a final pattern is achieved consistent with completeness. From the scraps of existence or from higher moments, a painstaking if easily going pursuit finds its recovery in an essential territory that asks to be “the univocal place of a pronoun or soul, and this space occupied in turn by an unending sequence of sovereign powers each of which gives itself up to the task of…”. The point of the ellipsis is to leave the task, the essential made peculiarly practical, open-ended, much in the way answers may be constrained as well as their questions. The task is continuing and it relates to univocal undertakings as a lived life to philosophy expressed impersonally as the foam upon those existential dins, waves and leafy and leaving flourishes that make up, again, the “white sky” of their always underlying currents.
The pleasure of Mandel’s long poem lies in how it entertains qualities that are inherent in the scope of a person’s awareness and respective actions. The search for the means to obtain what the qualities are in and of themselves, insofar as it becomes an inquiry after eternal values in whatever available forms they may be expressed, introduces a relation of disruption to wholeness that by its suggestive terms encompasses the voice of impersonality. The aim again and again is to find how the characteristics that people express, if only by nature of this searching, become one. The task for a philosophical poet whose concern here is not to mock the elements begins with a univocal and thus general objective and ends without meeting its end in the univocal image of its apparent means and its productive, perfective being. A spiritual code that unites followers in a purposive expression of an essence that would somehow serve as the image of divine presence is not far from poetry at its simplified best. One way offered, as opposed to others, for uncovering persuasive poetic tonalities is to allow the search to continue for an expressive one.
One way, moreover, for pursuing the effects of revelation in their simplicity is to trust in the word made flesh. True, the contingencies of the flesh, and its undoing, go against the word’s univocal calling. Something in the way of the word, however, accords with a foundational relief that in the long poem may prove to be a resource for living at one and unbidden in the wholeness and affirmation of the heart.