This is an interesting and challenging collection to
review, as is its genre. Prose poems have an established niche in poetry,
albeit one with porous borders. The rather formal connotations of the
'epistolary poem' I tend to associate with eighteenth century verse rather
than contemporary lyric, though it certainly has its place and potential. I
confess I did struggle with the combination in these poems, and also with
their intermittent third strand of spiritual didacticism. The Epistles of
Paul the Apostle (a named influence in a recent interview) are not the
easiest of Biblical templates from which to spin poetry - and it is to Mark Jarman's credit
that he is able to inject at times such poetic insight into an unlikely
My main sticking point with these 'epistles' concerns the narrator(s) present
or absent in the texts. Who is writing to me, the reader, and by what
authority, if any, do they claim to speak? Answers here are variable,
sometimes surprising and fresh, but sometimes non-forthcoming, which is when
I have the discomforting suspicion I am being preached at. I liked the
occasional persona narrator, in for example, 'Listening to You', who
identifies himself by the end of the poem as a travelling salesman: 'The
middleaged man they [various pastors] see, opening his sample cases,
displaying a new book of Advent meditations for youngsters, is not all that I
am. I believe that, even though it is hidden from me.' This provided the
element of focus and specificity which gave the preceding meditation, on
human potential, a memorable edge. Elsewhere I found that an unnamed speaker,
inclined to use the first person plural, sailing rather close to the didactic
(though still having its meditative moments). For example in 'Life is at an
And when we
do escape, life pursues us. Or rather, the place we
comes after us. We look back and see the things we
we thought lay ahead of us, calling from behind. Home.
sex. Peace. All of them call. And we end up where we
unable to tell why we ever wished to escape.'
Contemporary poetry telling the reader what he or she does and desires risks
generating a resistance - or it does in me, anyway. It might offer a valuable
perspective, but I'd still rather work out spiritual maxims for myself,
informed by that shiver of understanding which linguistic or metaphorical
skill in a poem can induce. A lot of my reluctance to go with the flow of
these poems came from here. I was a little wary, also, with the many
metaphors that came along with their own explicatory tag - 'we enter the
feast days of anxiety, the high holidays of suspicion' ('When the Thief
Comes'); elsewhere 'the onion skin of everyday life'. Go in fear of
abstractions, as Pound would say. These metaphor-plus-abstract formulas made
some texts read flatly.
However, there were other aspects of this collection which kept me reading.
Where I felt that Jarman's poems became much more lively were in the
fragments of mystery which stayed fragmented, the images that didn't leak
their mystery away. I was hooked by the short epistle 'On the island of the
pure in heart' for this reason. It begins with a mysterious image: 'On the
island of the pure in heart, we did not see God. But an influx of pink
scallop shells, each the size of a fingertip, covered the sand.' And ends
with an unexplained paradox: 'Even as they urged us to depart, on the island
of the persecuted, they begged us to stay.'
Perhaps no coincidence that this particular poem is echoing, not the didactic
cadences of Pauline prose, but the enigma of the Gospels. Pithy rather than
politely philosophical; tending towards parable rather than letter of instruction.
The shorter piece 'God said your name' buttonholes you from the start: 'God
said your name today. He said, "Tell me about X." And everybody had a
lie you'd like. The solutions for X were all X + 1.' This epistle ends with
disturbing consequence: 'And so God, boasting to the devil, said, "Consider
my servant X".'
It also uses what is a recurring interest of Jarman's: the mathematical
algorithm as theological insight: 'We are added to zero, then multiplied by
it' ('All My Concern'); other poems explore numerical infinity to the right
of the decimal point. These are the more surprising figurative excursions of
the collection, and succeed for me where the longer meditations don't. But
there are swift poetic elements thoughout: prayer, Jarman suggests, is
instinctive and intimate, 'as the couple turn toward each other in the dark'.
'For the Birds' addresses the pre-emergent state, another state of dark: 'the
cramped translucent dark before the break out'. And sometimes (to finish with
another quotation from 'All my concern') these prose poems really do seem to
shed the skin of ordinary language and soar: the narrator is problematized;
the 'you' is not categorized. Then Jarman's voice sings rather than
sermonises, and makes the whole collection worth contemplating.
If you can
think of me as that part you cannot part with, no matter
how hard you
try, then the surface tension of the word, the skin of
form, would split like a beetle's wing casings and the
flight into the known.