V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Mark Conway's Book of Poetry



Conway’s book is entirely rooted in modernity, imbued
with the twenty-first century. It is the here and now
which the poet maps italicizing the fragility
of human life. We internalize loss. We are blessed
 to the extent that we keep, and err to the extent
which we neglect the covenant. What this covenant
is Mark Conway does not explicitly state; it is implied.


“I came back”

Poet Brother Antoninus (William Everson) has written two books of poetry which came to my mind upon finding Mark Conway’s Any Holy City. Antoninus' two books  are titled The Hazards of Holiness and The Crooked Lines of God. The title Any Holy City clued me to look for the spiritual in the work. I found it. I also  thought that the holy city would be one which a person could look ahead to, euphorically in an afterlife, or else which a person could look back upon the radiant nostalgic Eden of childhood.
    I was wrong.
    Conway’s book is entirely rooted in modernity, imbued with the twenty-first century. It is the here and now which the poet maps italicizing the fragility of human life. We internalize loss. We are blessed to the extent that we keep, and err to the extent which we neglect the covenant. What this covenant is Mark Conway does not explicitly state; it is implied. (It involves the hazards of holiness, is written in God’s crooked lines.) The hardest silence is broken when we are able to reach one another at the deepest level it is possible for one to know another. These poems are religious in my reading, both in the Latin roots of he word re-ligio (to tie together) and in their concern, to the point of obsession, with the life of the spirit against a backdrop where good and evil clash, the Biblical and the profane vie. His background is North America where the “Software is incredible,” at the Midway “while the light / dissolves behind our heads.” “The darkness / deepens as we travel the electric divine.” Opposites are yoked, making a certain burnished irony a signpost of the poet. Idiosyncratically, one turns back and gazes ahead in order to re-find the inner Holy Land.
    Riddled as life is by broken promises, or at other times exalted by hard-won ones, how can we keep track of what we sacrifice? (A child demands of us that we keep our promises. An adult knows better.) Wrought, like finely tooled silver, or leather,  these darks and lights create a chiaroscuro holy city. The myth of the eternal return braids the poems in the first section. In “When You Come Back,” the speaker comes back “Not as the dead / return in dreams or a sick child in a miracle,” but in an ordinary moment as his beloved walks across the field. Yet this moment perceived sharply enough confers miracle.
    In “Before Alexandria”  Conway speaks of what will always be: “the river and then a rise / from a white bed.” The trees here become members of a tribe “elders / limping at night, singing through cleansed // secrets, the night-scent of needles.” Are these needles an addict’s needles? Addiction is one of the things which must be sacrificed. Addiction is seen in terms of a city, “the Forbidden City.” With distinct Biblical overtones, Conway writes, “Now that you have eyes, / now that you’ve seen, / you’re certain,” mirroring Christ’s admonition: you that have neither eyes to see, nor ears to hear.”
    What do those who become addicted rebel against? “The endless jobs” may be one target, jobs that are “mindless.”  We are shown the “you” to whom the poem is addressed as faithless. Relapse, it is implied, occurs: “because you will leave again, wrecked / and filled by a breeze, / a rush igniting the upsweep / of your neck.” Suddenly, the addicted one, the ill person, the sufferer turns and sees “the trees / just finished moving.” But he is powerless to speak. If he could it “would be for everything / to be as it was.” “Snow / geese ride / their white road south." This is the world where, cured, the one punishing himself can come home. If only. . .. The onlookers gather and whisper “and wonder what it’s like, the burning,” but the addict knows. The one that got away, the ineffable longing for early times pierces one. There is no way to get thru but to get thru. At the end of Wretchedness Lane, perhaps, shines salvation.
    Salvation is as problematic as the Holy City. In “The Past Described, As a Figure,” Conway asks, “What were those days like? Remembering / is like remembering // white, or water.” The words white and water recur, white as concept as in Henry Vaughan’s “I Saw eternity the other night like a great ring of pure and endless light.” What are those days? Biblically titled, this section, “The Days of Isaac Burning,” portrays ominous hours and whole seasons. Alexandria took fire and libraries burned like candles (reminiscent of the Holocaust), or like suet. "As for the manuscripts and their similes, / nothing was lost — it was like a fire.” Evil, destruction, is pitted against salvation. The third section of the book begins with a dark quote from Jeremiah: “Who . . . indeed, would risk his life by coming close to me?”
    Then comes one of Conway’s metaphysical time warps: “Before this life, / there was another.” Desolate, this time was dank:  it was ignorant, “rain and lowlands / we might. . . might / go on forever.” In a complex vision, the poet states that we were in error, in fact we were “forgiven, you see, in that life / we were young.”
    Taken consecutively, the poems move from “Addiction” to “Marginalia on Our Bodies” with its drug language,  “retro-rockets” progressing in graduated steps toward “vespers, / singed / by a slight twist / of vodka,” clearly hair of the dog. Earmarks of drugs, the ashen scars' "scrawled marginalia” are “left fading.” Words sink back into the vellum of a purer time. Finally, is there not redemption hovering near?  In that night, “When workers come to gather us” they see  “Sanskrit praising the gods” going back to ancient times “scars used to mark / where we’d been hurt.”
    “Numbering the Thunder” is one of my favorites. “Sitting in a single canto of torchlit May,” the poem reads to me like a hiatus in an emotional storm. (The crooked lines of God begin to straighten. The hazards of the holy city to be made safe, healed.) The poet and his beloved count numbers between volts of flash lightning: Seconds between bolts of lightning akin to jolts between bouts with the drug. The magnetism of this poem is its mystery. The final three lines remind me of Emily Dickinson’s poem on what dying is like: “First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” Listen to the rhythm: “First the broken barn. / Then the cold. Then the gathering in.” In “Before I Begin,” which I read as a love poem, Conway asks in his ultimate line which he wants more: To be burned or to be burning? This question threads Any Holy City, charting  the solitary individual’s struggle of passage.

• • •

    “Divinity is contagious, / some sticks to me, / like dust, or / drugs.”  Here, personification is used, since it is a word that speaks. “I pain / not. Nor shall I pant, / or want.” There are washed up days.  “I’m not Vishnu”  (for me, not a best poem), and there are days in which the poet and his family marvel at the “scarcity of ocean.” [“Life on the Prairie, Continued”] Astounded by “an aroused sense of lilacs,” the poet loses track of what he sacrifices, for this is the poem in which that key line occurs. By a leap of imagination, plains become mountains, “mainsails” can be seen “rising in the wheat.” There is something visionary, miraculous about this. In such flat country you can “find your body where you left it,” but the main prairie message that goes along with a level horizon, with flatness, is: “it’s customary to wait.”
    And wait the poet does.  What connects the dots are epiphany moments. I find the opening of “The Midway” haunting:

        The software’s incredible, while the light
        dissolves behind our heads—the midway.
        We coast on an unlimited sequence
            of yes and not-yes. . .
                    The darkness
        deepens as we travel, the electric divine. . . .

This electric divine is what the poet seeks and what lights the sky like a thin line of lightning.
    Like coal miners,  “We do our best work in the dark.”
    After all, what is that work?
    Escape has a dome of sugar, “a portable sky.”  Escape is not labor, akin to prayer.
Escape beats “sleeping on the knife.” Maybe our work is sleeping on the silver knife.



“Inside the end of the walkway”


    “The Book of Isaac, Burning” locates us in one of those God-forsaken twenty-first century mind-scapes, land-scapes depicted often by painter Edward Hopper in the last century — “Inside the end / of the walkway, entering dusk,” like standing inside a cracked geode. This poem portrays children “to be born” who “sit outside the evening, one / already there in the cold air.” It is about being outside versus being inside. As parents begat the child, they also “spoke / of other things / separate in the dark,” and there is a piercing loneliness to this.
    A poem with religious diction and imagery “Anonymous Annunciation, Circa 1450" begins:

        In scrolled aves
        and erect
        seraphic wings,       
        no one notices, her eyes.

Look far enough into her eye and find fear. For one is now “On the Outskirts of the Lost Cities.”  Who is anointed? An anonymous holy woman? We do not know, but are made to see down that violet tunnel, lapis lazuli, her eye.
    “On the Outskirts of the Lost Cities” we perceive “that the wandering / would be the more-favored” role  because it is “unexpected, exceptional.” Even its pain is exalted, “Even the gnaw of the names, // faces shawled / against the dust.”  Interestingly, the poem is set in the unusual subjunctive: “That the wandering." Again the temporal plays a key role: “later the trees bent / like wind stopped in mid-breath” which would “make him miss the wandering," circling us back to the opening line, “That the children and their children” thrive, sicken, die “very near here.” Place is sacred. The very hunger is cherished. Lastly, “Like the hymn he sang / praising the road that took him,” — the poet is exalted to praise his journey and the amazing end “where a son finds himself // staring out from his father’s face.” The inescapable loneliness of the journey, wanderer through life, is eased for a time as he is separated from his father, “only years and anger.”
    Anger is a strength in this volume expressed with a cover painting in violent red which depicts  the great San Francisco earthquake throughout the poems. “There's joy for the well-turned / shin-bone, praise for the wrought / torso," which joy I find, as well, ironic. Shin-bones are not usually well turned, nor torso “wrought” (which suggests iron, steel, metal, something hard, not pliable as human flesh, or marble in its translucence mirroring human flesh).
    I find Any Holy City travels deeper and deeper into a dark night of the soul.  We were virtuous, but was it not, after all, for reward, “A white stone castle / to teach . . . courage, small guns / to set the blood”?  We know on which side our bread is buttered. We are students of war, “close, hard / against the fire.” The keeping close is love’s, but the world at large is war.  Bitterly, with overtones of Plath, the poem winds up: "After- / math, blood puppet, my salvation, / dream has come to dream.” This is to say tenderness is close to a blood support and everything self begetting.

• • •

    If one looks to see the past as a figure it’s like writing in water: water and white are
recurrent words. The tone of Any Holy City becomes bleaker until “White Echo,” where intense loss is echoed in the father’s unnatural loss of a son. Other characters come in, in Biblical fashion. These are “The Daughter” who “Tells of her Dream” in which, out of the smoke, she gets a sister. The two sisters are “threshed / and laid straight in the furrows, / this was before the harrowing.” Reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch, “Birds with kind faces examined / our bellies, we laughed / at the tiny bites.” “The nursemaid descended / from her patch in the desert, / slapping the stones from our hands.” There is no comfort in this nursemaid who has stolen the bread from the children.  If the daughter’s dream is foreboding, “What Isaac Knew of Forgiveness” (number 8 in these Biblical portraits) is even more sombre:

        He counts on me
        like he counts the corn,
        worrying down to Harvest.

The moon fattens on cheese while the father sleeps, the child’s “little head on fire.” When father leaves, he will forget cigarettes, The amazing lines punctuate the darkness with sharp bright:

        In the morning I still like
        to see the thorn riding
        its rose.

I am struck by the image in these poems of holiness, based upon Biblical models and oratory, the thorn is indeed riding its impaler, its crucifier.
    This reminds me of Medieval ballads in rhythm and image. “The mare blooded / on the flanks” will return and Isaac will clear “her eyes with water.” Love creates anger, it is so intense: “he said I am forgiven. / I only have to ask like the bid / for seed.”  But the speaker of the poem slams the bird’s beak shut, saying cruelly, “Sing.” Remember, this is Isaac speaking.
    “The First Temptation” deals with evil, also. Gods are “soiled, mindless / as children, // bandaged” who come to “parley, at / the ransom.” Only the old ones, who are relieved, nod when a priest claims knowledge of their language and says: “Give up / what you love most.”  This is the highest sacrifice of whom we love most. Ironically, “The gods are always with us / as strangers, // as birds.” Full of venom, visible from high on the hill the gods leave “as geese, / braid into the clouds / with their cry.” This is a desolate view of human life. It is the first temptation: that one give up whom one loves. The sacrifice by Abraham of Isaac makes the stark claim, “There may be justice / in retribution, but it isn’t // human.” The knife confirms the wound in our short life. In the wake of murder “gulls circle / crying like misers for the seed.” Again there is the cry after the seed. The ultimate six lines of this poem are some of the bleaker lines I know in contemporary poetry.

        A father will drive his son
        into the burned ground

        like a post where he leaves him
        to learn patience, he leaves him

        the opened field,
        the laughter of the birds.

This is a post-fall world, or worse, one which has no God.       


"The end of sacrifice"

    “The boy is curled / at my side, as though sleeping.” The boy is the close of life and its summation. I perceive no hint of a Messiah in Any Holy City.  But I do glean Conway’s belief that we can be granted more complex and luminous perspectives on our daily life akin to climbing a hill or mountain and pausing to look back on the towns in the valleys we have passed so far along the way.
    If Any Holy City doesn’t end in darkness, it does end in disillusionment. Postcards come from the “Holyland." Cypresses turn before “the hooded gaze,” suggestive of the hangman. We glean postcard-like portraits of W.H. Auden "slouched / in a New York daze of snowflakes.” Then there’s pictured the “funereal bar, Dublin,” where Joyce strums a guitar, and Salvador Dali is present, the Florida years. None of these years or portraits is celebrant. In fact, “At last, a haloed old woman.” Those the poet embraces include “The cast-off, / the disregarded,” saved but “somewhere else, not / in the Portrait Hall / of nostalgia." He climbs like Judas to have “sold / our teacher to the guards” an astonishing claim, but not “for the purse of gold.” All that the poet wanted was the recognition. “And the kiss....”  This is deeply disturbing for is it not the Judas kiss?
    “Where Is It Written” is about the ghostliness, the eeriness of family life. Arguments are waged against tomorrow, children who discuss plans to be enjoyed without parents. The poet marks “the spot beneath the graphs / of stars where we built the small houses.” How strange a montage of trees, paths before our houses. Stars give out in morning: the world looks sprung, “the white, / connected room where we live” implies a disjunction. We do not know the beds in which we have slept, made love, the kitchens in which we have broken bread, and nourished each other.

• • •

    Then come three poems which, as I read them, deal with death: “Out of Nowhere,” "Before We Are Raised,” and “With All We Have,” my favorite lyric composed of four quatrains:

        When I’m nothing beneath the tree,
        skin burned in memory of the sun,
        lasting the greater part of Tuesday
        in relaxed and ample ignorance

        When I have done enough to lay
        my glasses down. . .

    Before the end, when all is done, looked at before he leaves, he promises he will “watch / the white air work its damage in the trees.” Beyond clock hours, he will look back at luminous time working its paradoxical labor. Here the skin “burned in memory of the sun” differs form the skin of the addict, the tattooed skin, “Marginalia”  of the opening poems of Any Holy City.
    If the early poems in this volume are about relapse, the final ones are about resolution, however paradoxical.

        I expect the
        garden to gleam
        more and to yield
        redder flowers

    A lake glistens “where foreign friends glide / laughing about // perfections of / summers.” The poet’s life is more humble, ordinary. Silence will be here, like a child or stone; one will be alone “with nothing else” for help. But the ears of the ears will hear, the eyes of the eyes will see. “We'll hear / bees whirring in / armor.” And this to me is the unfolding of the holy city he has been seeking.


    Escape does come “by sea.” “Ulterior Summer” arrives in which the poet swims back to the raft, surfacing to see wife and son “remember what it was like / not to be there.” 
    Not being there can be both a good and a fearsome thing: “Eternity may not be too long to be gone,” says Conway in “Hearing of the Astronomer’s Death on the Road Home from Moorhead.” For Conway there is, however,  more than one eternity: there’s “a third eternity slipped / between the two others.” In this third eternity the poet is driving “through Manitoba / while late static clogs the radio.” The static of daily life is beyond him. This is lonesome land, radio land.
    But the word is the poet’s “imperial tool.” The word is powerless to “relate wonders”  until the poet breathes life into the syllables, thus takes the inanimate diphthongs, vowels, consonants, to impart wisdom. “First Body,” singles out how we came to love this life — “by wanting / the next.” Like hill overlapping hill, there are the three eternities for Mark Conway.  In a strange way, could one be eternity-present; the middle one, eternity past; and the third the sweet hereafter, or eternity to come?

• • •

    A child demands of us that we keep our promise. An adult learns that promises are often broken. Neither romantic nor stark realist, Mark Conway comes to me as a romantic realist inspiring one to dwell upon forgotten ecstasies of childhood, and to experience the luminous, particular bliss in the present moment.
    An eidetic image hangs in the filmic air, white, ethereal (after the projector’s motor is cut.) The Midway floats in the mind’s eye, perhaps a rollercoaster at night, “The software’s incredible, while the light / dissolved behind our heads.” We travel “the electric divine,” the darkness deepening into which we are moving at the speed of thought. Conway’s is a deeply problematic, ironic vision of human life on earth. But as he would have it in “Miners on the Prairie,” “we do our best work in the dark,” a noble dark of our own making who dwell in a world of bee boxes and "A whirring spiral / rising like the mayflies / by the lake.” “It is no mercy to have lived your life,” it has been an adventure, an advent.  Mark will travel with his dead brother whom he never knew in a journey as symbolic as any in the book. He will ride “through / the market of Tyre, oh, any holy city” until he realizes what the stillborn lacks is something that he, living, still requires.
    This is a first book, but not one launched by a young man. It is set forth with assurance and conviction. The poet is way beyond nonage.
    Here we have language enshrined the way a handsome silver beaker, a gold chalice tooled by Benvenuto Cellini  enshrines artistry, enchants the eye. Conway portrays the uneasy, fragile human condition, the clutter and dailiness of our lives.  Deeply involved with time (that dust and body which comprise history), we see the wings form, “trying to fly away / from the body.” It is the inevitability of this attempt and the ultimate impossibility of its realization which make “the robins scream / over scattered barley” and make the poet sing.

Conway, Mark. Any Holy City. Eugene, OR: Silverfish Review Press, 2005. ISBN: 1878851225  $14.95


© by Lynn Strongin

Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]