Preparations Gave Him Pleasure


REVIEW by Jeffrey Carson


by Martin Tucker, While There is Time: Penultimate Poems, Confrontation Press, $14.95.

Ours is a literary age of relentless psychobiographical curiosity about authors. We read T.S. Eliot not to escape personality, as he thought we should, but to ferret out his secrets. Now poets tell us themselves.

In the last eighty years, since Delmore Schwartz wrote verse nakedly about himself, prose has been thought suitable for fiction - made-up characters and situations - and poetry for the naked truth. Phony opposites, obviously. But if a poet were to contrive plausible characters and situations - and why not? - wouldn't his readers feel cheated? Elizabeth Bishop really threw back the fish, Robert Lowell really didn't respect his father, and Berryman really suffered steadily from dyspepsia. The Modernists - Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams, Stevens - were assumed, for the sake of symbolic order, to have suffered but to have concealed sources, to avoid sounding like babies in a playpen bawling for attention. Lowell sounds like such a baby, so does Plath, so does Frank O'Connor. New Criticism doesn't work as well on them; their strengths are elsewhere, and lesser.

Poets can escape lugubrious egotism by writing with past modes in mind, like Wilbur and Hecht; by being incomprehensible, like Ashberry and Graham; by imitating the Modernists, like Olsen and Duncan who are content to be epigones, or by writing with an "attitude" towards poetry and not with rapture. Another way of escape from the Freudian self is to keep the attention on oneself, but to lessen the tension with genial wit, self-irony, and the occasional look around. This is how Martin Tucker does it. And it works for him. If you are not seeking radical form from flux, ideas pressured into rhythm, or song, you can enjoy this volume, which is genuine poetry.

While There Is Time: Penultimate Poems acquires immediate urgency from its title: ultimate poems will be written where we cannot receive them. An older man properly is hunted by time; we all are aware of it, but he feels the hunter closing in. So he must be valedictory, and this gives daily experience poignancy. And neither does Tucker avoid the valetudinarian - he is clearly worried about what awaits him in his last years. Well, who isn't?

The volume's very first poem, "Alzheimer Man in a New Fishing Jacket", makes you anxious: you don't want to read about this. The poem is a projection, an attempt to prepare for death, and makes you sweat with anxiety. He will catch the ultimate fish, id est write the ultimate poem, soon: the last line is "To be naked again." This is followed by "A Man with Aphasia Reads to a Blind Man", which also worries over the failures of age and the fear of dissolution. The third poem, "An Old Man and a Cracked Bed", offers the traditional hope: a grandson, who keeps grandpa fighting. "The Undertaker's New Clothes", which follows, shows us clearly what Tucker is up to. The second of its five stanzas is:

Preparations gave him pleasure -

Issuing arrangements equal to sorrow,

He pleasured grieving visitors.

His was a triumph issued over death.

Like all the poems, this is in unmetred verse, with end-stopped lines, unfussy and slightly abstract in diction, rhythm based on meaning and not intensified. "His was a triumph issued over death" could be considered the book's theme. There are also several bits of prose, dangerously not much different in rhythm from the verse.

In the next poem, "The $225 Beach Day", in which he goes to the beach and loses his key and has to buy a new one, the jokiness sounds sour, and the irony does not deflect the egotism. It is a little story, and it is obvious. By the first section's final poem, "The Ultimate Penultimate", you don't need to reread; you get it all too easily.

This first section is appropriately called "Closing Calls". The next section, almost three times as long, is called "The Journeys". These often read like worked up notebook verse, and show daily life taking its toll. The journey, of course, is to "closing" - that other venue - as well as to places and situations. The theme is the same. It concludes with a fifteen-page account, "Ten Days in Cuba, August 2001: A Sequence", that only through skill and wit rises above the journal, which it obviously is. It concludes with some Emily Dickinson-like lines, with echoes of Yeats, about the threshold:

I am still waiting though I have arrived.

* * *

It is the first step must be taken.

But when one knows this,

A question remains.

How does one know the step to begin the dance?

And only a few hours before he was doing salsa dancing around the hotel pool. Salsa is a New York dance, and Tucker is a New York poet.

The third section, called "Steps to the Journeys", tries some footwork to begin the ultimate dance. We go to a party given by Gloria Vanderbilt, compare poetry writing to murder-for-money, consider aging in a Roman villa, mull over the development of Kokoschka, which calls him back to his own threshold: "Atop a conversation of dawning." (Tucker is clearly a good art critic; I wish there were more of this.) Three love poems follows: in the first he compares a woman to Maud Gonne (when she got old Yeats preferred her pretty daughter), deplores his inability to write love poems on command, and visits Malta with "her", in iambic metre and traditional poetic diction. Two more party poems follow - Tucker seems to be very social, as befits a renowned editor and literary ambassador - one recounting religious chitchat and one a meditation on it, and closes in New York again, where

a gray man walks by, dreaming of a time

where like the youth he dreamt slowly.

But there is no more time.

And so the next section, "Long Ago and Revisionary", recounts more charged anecdotes, takes us on more trips, goes back to the museum (mostly in rhyme but not metre), and sets us up for the four concluding "Ultimate Poems".

The first of these, "A Writer's Voice", a macabre fantasy of committing suicide in a restaurant, mocks - but does not renounce - the writer's bid for attention: "A performer knows he can't please a whole audience." The second, the seven-line "First Love", addresses the abandoning of this world, "substance of shadow", for the next, "glare of afternoon. In the third, "A Pound of Ezras", the mad poet's mastery of light effects suggests the mystical passage to "the wonder." The volume's ultimate poem, "How Far Does a Poem Have to Go?" rightly ends on a question. Here is the whole poem:

I could be sullen and rust like an old pipe.

I could be angry and say things I mean.

Or I could be wise

And wait for your train of ache to pass.

It is a matter of depots.

How far do I want to go? How deep?

A depot is a railroad or bus station. But he won't be wise. He'll go all the way.

These are poems of sensibility, urbanity, and clarity, which are eighteenth century values, and also of self exposure, rhythmical speed, and ease of diction, which are of our time. The skillfulness, mortal confrontation, bitterness overcome, and even unresisted puns, are of all time. And the desperation dealt with by music, irony, anecdote, curiosity, philosophical geniality, and decency, are pure Tucker.