Friday, February 08, 2008

Rob Halpern's Introduction for Mark Linenthal
(reading with John Sakkis at Last Laugh Cafe on January 12, 2008).

Over the years, Mark Linenthal has nourished a number of identities, all of which find elaboration in his writing: poet, teacher, activist, musician, hunter, WWII navigator, and prisoner of war, among others.

Mark taught English at San Francisco State University from 1954-1992: during which time he married Frances Jaffer, who went on to become a remarkable poet in her own right. During that time, Mark directed the Poetry Center (1966-1972). He was also instrumental in organizing the Green Party of California. Mark is a saxophone player, and while he stopped playing in his combo a year or two ago, he continues to find in jazz a set of living metaphors and models for poetry and its sociality. He is also passionate about hunting, as well as fly fishing, and he’s written persuasively about hunting as an ecological and ethical practice within a Green political vision. From this practice, Mark derives an equally compelling set of figures for being “in the field” of poetic composition.

From the serial poem, “Hunting” (from The Man I am Watching), for example, Mark writes:

In this overgrown field words
falter as they rise

under it
all a steady breathing

And then there’s “Spring Melt,” a poem about both fishing and poetry (from Growing Light):

All winter waters
gushed under the ice

The fish slept
they grew thin

Now as spring comes on
we keep turning away

to those rich rivers
like language

to enter the rivers
to dance fine lies

through the foam
to drift over real fish

They are there
terse serious in the riffles

They flicker naked
at their ease

in the green pools

Mark’s poetry is, to my mind, an eco-poetry of encounter, one that locates itself consequentially in the space between “fine lies”— or the lures of language — and “real fish,” without drawing too much attention to itself.

In a more recent poem called “Out Here,” Mark maps the topology of his poetics like this:

Where words rule
things keep their dry distance
and may not meet without shame or struggle

Out here anything
can happen you hear them
old cypresses

Like the space between “real fish” and the “fine lies” that occasionally catch them, the space between “out here” and “where words rule” opens on a scene of wonder and surprise, where in a moment “anything can happen,” just as the world can come suddenly into stark focus, and a word make tenuous contact with it. Like his good friend George Oppen, Mark courts such moments of astonishing contact, which in Mark’s poems often yield moments of acute awareness that the world is really here, and that one is in and of it.

Mark delivered the Oppen Memorial Lecture in 1992. It was a great talk that considered Oppen’s “abstemiousness”—as opposed to “abstinence”—his humility and pride, his insistence on an imposing reality, as well as the importance of Oppen’s reading of Heidegger. It was a deeply personal talk—as well as interpretive—on the work of someone who was for Mark “a fundamental poet.” It’s hard for me to situate Mark Linenthal’s poetry without referring directly to Oppen, especially insofar as it is to Oppen’s poetry that my first memories of Mark’s conversation consistently return. And he continues to cite Oppen with remarkable freshness on “the heartlessness of words”—how they always say too little or too much—and how “it’s possible to use words provided one treat them as enemies,” as if these ideas had only just yesterday made their consequential impact on him. “The thing only seems to exist because the word does,” Mark might quote Oppen as saying, insisting on the way language seduces belief that something is there, when in fact there may well be nothing.

But Mark is not an abstemious poet; his writing doesn’t reduce to bare materials. In the space between nothing and something—again, between the fine lies and the real fish—his poems rather open and expand. Following Stevens—that other “fundamental poet” for Mark—his poems are much less resistant to an affirmation of one’s being in the world and in language simultaneously, despite all the skepticism words inspire. Mark has often averred that Oppen’s and Stevens’s ontological concerns were more or less of the same Heideggerian sort: how do we know there is something rather than nothing? But whereas the space between something and nothing inspired in Oppen a kind of metaphysical vertigo (with real social implications), like Stevens, Mark can suspend his anxiety in that space, observing the “isolation of the sky,” and affirm that “deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries” (from Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”).

Actually, in the space between something and nothing, Mark would probably rather hang-out and tell jokes, or laugh at limericks. Indeed, his sense of humor underscores a key difference between his poetic sensibility and that of George Oppen. It’s a difference Mark often refers to while juxtaposing himself to his friend. Mark might point to Oppen’s ontological insecurity, an insecurity that arguably necessitated Oppen’s writing insofar as the poetry was needed to testify to the world’s material being, or “this-ness”. By contrast, Mark will confess to his own grounded stability: “I’m not like George,” he’ll say, “I’m too ontologically secure to write poetry.” And yet, Mark’s two books of poems, Growing Light (Black Thumb Press, 1979, whose title refers to the phenomenon of literally “growing light” when fly fishing, that is, approaching a river depth where the body is lifted and carried by the current) and The Man I am Watching (e.g. Books, 1987), belie the comforts of any such security.

At a time when the idea of experience has come under siege, Mark’s poems score, with uncompromised lucidity, the movement of their own attention making contact with a world where experience is still possible. In this sense, the poems are instructive: they prepare, in language, the presencing of an “experience” that remains outside language. Small acts of attention become consequential for locating one’s place in a world where “place” goes on eroding. Rather than giving into the force of that erosion and the rule of words, the poems bear witness to the fragility of location where a concern with “what can be said” becomes the most serious of all concerns. “What can be said”—as both direct question and relative statement—conditions the poems’ formal possibility while delimiting their content. It’s in their faithfulness to “what can be said” that Mark’s poems enact the values of clarity and precision, against injudicious obscurity and vague impressionism. But to measure one’s sense of measure—honestly and accurately—by “what can be said” requires a certain lightness of touch, and like Lester Young, after whom he wrote a great poem called “Listening to Lester,” we can hear Mark in his poems, and I quote, “learning to play so lightly / he could believe it.”

Listening to Lester

I give myself such good

I think of how in the yard branches
rest on air

how Bix and Tram were
telling some stories that I like to hear and
Lester carried that record around —

it was Singing the Blues —
learning to play so lightly
he could believe it

how we are so frequently not so

how we are not wrong

that hunger heals


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