Epistles, poems by Mark Jarman, (Sarabande): Prized for his achievements in metrical verse and his deft deployment of English prosody, Mark Jarman turns, in Epistles, to the prose poem for this series of thirty dramatic monologues. Jarman's explicit titular reference to the Apostolic letters of Paul lays the groundwork for an exhilarating experiment in this humble form. Paul's statement "For we walk by faith not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7) catalyzes Jarman's narrators—elevated and plainspoken—to investigate religious belief and skepticism, body and spirit.
Lest loftiness prevail, Jarman brings great wit and good humor to his serious subjects, leavening gravity with self-mockery ("Recently I learned that God no longer delighted in my existence") and popular culture. Echoing Leviticus, the narrator of "Each of us at the community service center" declares: "In the community service center, razor wire, TV, the smoke of cigarettes joined in a single hovering body—these unite us. We have learned to love one another as ourselves. We have learned cookery, cosmetology, creative writing, accounting." The narrator of a related poem, "If we drive to the meeting with the speakers blasting," again satirizes our efforts to rehabilitate ourselves. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker makes a discovery. "It's like those group things in the '60s. And knowing my partner is old enough to remember, I open my mouth. But she is praying. Her eyes tell me. They are open and focused in the act of prayer. And I can see what she is praying to, and stop. She is praying to the God in me." Here, Jarman yokes east and west by conjuring the traditional Nepalese word of greeting and parting, "Namaste," which translates to "the god in me salutes the god in you."
Jarman makes excellent use of the parallelism familiar in Biblical expression and thought. The book opens with "If I were Paul," a monologue in which five single-sentence paragraphs begin with the anaphoric command, "Consider." A marvelous catalogue of human desire, "One wants, the other wants" showcases Jarman's witty and compassionate take on human nature. "One wants to describe the plots of novels, the other wants to eat dinner. One wants to list the steps for assembly, the other shouts at the racket outside. One wants to pray, the other plans the week's menu. One says just a minute. One says you haven't heard a thing I've said." Characterized by potent anaphora, the poem "On the island of the pure in heart" references the Beatitudes and the promises made in the Old Testament to the chosen people. To the modern-day spiritual seeker, island after island disappoints with the exception of one: "On the island of the merciful, we obtained mercy." The poem ends with the following: "On the island of the peacemakers, we depleted our numbers by hand-to-hand combat, until there were only two of us—a soul and a body. // Even as they urged us to depart, on the island of the persecuted, they begged us to stay." The kingdom of heaven, an archipelago of contentious islands, offers little in the way of conventional consolations save "mercy."
Towards the end of the collection, one speaker argues that we must reconcile ourselves to a "promiscuous" God, an especially compelling metaphor. "There is nothing to be done but to enjoy vicariously the fact that, at every moment, God is with a lover, throwing his head back, wailing like a woman giving birth." The simile that commingles male and female, giving birth and making love, locates God in the "bodies" of all animate creatures. Mark Jarman's narrators offer canny, erudite, provocative tableaux that "speak to our condition." In this book a gifted poet reinvigorates his most urgent concerns. —Robin Becker
Robin Becker's most recent book of poems is Domain of Perfect Affection. Poetry Editor and columnist for The Women's Review of Books, she is Professor of English and Women's Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.
Poetry & Fiction