About the Author
The many places in which MARK JARMAN has lived have become settings for his poetry—from Santa Maria and Redondo Beach, California to Kirkcaldy, Scotland, where his minister father served parishes, to the American Midwest and Italy, where he has studied and worked.
Jarman is associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and has directed Vanderilt’s program at the University of Leeds in England. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz (B.A. 1974) and the University of Iowa (M.F.A. 1976), he is the author of five other books of poetry, North Sea, The Rote Walker, Far and Away, Iris, and Tonight is the Night of the Prom. Jarman is also coeditor of the literary journal The Reaper. He has received a Joseph Henry Jackson award, an academy of American Poets prize, the Poets’ Prize, a Guggenheim, and three NEA grants, including one in 1983 in support of the poems written for this book.
Read an Excerpt
The children are hiding among the raspberry canes.
They look big to one another, the garden small.
Already in their mouths this soft fruit That lasts so briefly in the supermarket Tastes like the past. The gritty wall,
Behind the veil of leaves, is hollow.
There are yellow wasps inside it. The children know.
They know the wall is hard, although it hums.
They know a lot and will not forget it soon.
When did we forget? But we were never Children, never found where they were hiding And hid with them, never followed The wasp down into its nest With a fingertip that still tingles.
We lie in bed at night, thinking about The future, always the future, always forgetting That it will be the past, hard and hollow,
Veiled and humming, soon enough.
The Black Riviera
For Garrett Hongo
There they are again. It's after dark.
The rain begins its sober comedy,
Slicking down their hair as they wait Under a pepper tree or eucalyptus,
Larry Dietz, Luis Gonzalez, the Fitzgerald brothers,
And Jarman, hidden from the cop car Sleeking innocently past. Stoned,
They giggle a little, with money ready To pay for more, waiting in the rain.
They buy from the black Riviera That silently appears, as if risen,
The apotheosis of wet asphalt And smeary-silvery glare And plush inner untouchability.
A hand takes money and withdraws,
Another extends a sack of plastic —
Short, too dramatic to be questioned.
What they buy is light rolled in a wave.
They send the money off in a long car A god himself could steal a girl in,
Clothing its metal sheen in the spectrum Of bars and discos and restaurants.
And they are left, dripping rain Under their melancholy tree, and see time Knocked akilter, sort of funny,
But slowing down strangely, too.
So, what do they dream?
They might dream that they are in love And wake to find they are,
That outside their own pumping arteries,
Which they can cargo with happiness As they sink in their little bathyspheres,
Somebody else's body pressures theirs With kisses, like bursts of bloody oxygen,
Until, stunned, they're dragged up,
Drawn from drowning, saved.
In fact, some of us woke up that way.
It has to do with how desire takes shape.
Tapered, encapsulated, engineered To navigate an illusion of deep water,
Its beauty has the dark roots Of a girl skipping down a high-school corridor Selling Seconal from a bag,
Or a black car gliding close to the roadtop,
So insular, so quiet, it enters the earth.
Sometimes I feel the whole coast in my body.
At night, homesick, this helps me get to sleep.
Sand lies along my arm. Along the sand lies The outer pressure of all otherness,
The twinning, twining ocean, gray or blue As the sky, black or green as depths and shallows.
The rows of houses salted by its break,
The roads peppered with sand, the thick shells crushed By riptides, tangle like limbs and weeds and water.
But honestly, this wholeness is a segment.
At most a draft sets off a memory.
Skin prickling, eye flickering, a taste of brine,
And I detect the heat of a summer sidewalk That dips and rises with the coastal hills Where wild oat, chaparral, and live oak now Are stucco houses scraping the fog's body,
That vapor that burns to vapor by afternoon.
The heat comes up, the hills descend and rise.
A friend grimaces as a bit of glass Pierces his heel, grinding toward the bone.
He sits down on a lawn, just like a tailor,
Pinching the heel. It pouts a bead of blood.
And I go up to someone's door for a needle.
She stares at me out of a massive brightness,
On such a hot day, blazing inside her house,
Where glaring lamps and reflectors lean toward Something stretched out behind her. The borrowed needle Feels itself like a burning line of glass.
And when I turn away, the day seems dark,
Darker as her door clicks. She calls, "Keep it!"
About the needle. Out, the spike of glass Is now invisible. The sequence, too —
My age, my friend's identity, the woman —
Invisible. Here's when the stucco town Grates like a shell to powder vague as fog And turns so smooth, the flanges, hinges, spurs,
The spicules and ridges sanded off,
Hushing itself to sleep without a name,
Softening, sieving fact and leaving fiction.
And that is when I nearly fall asleep.
But this can happen anytime. Awake,
I drive all roads at once, wired with passion.
It's always a surprise. I can never think,
"Now I will feel the town where I grew up And brand it to myself here, far away."
A gift — the feeling that flesh itself is a place And not, banal reliance, just the body,
Working as always — but another thing.
Then, I can drive back into a story,
Any I choose, and pick it out again.
My friend, heel in his hands, picks at the wound,
A short, compact, fierce boy, fighting his pain.
I am afraid to bother anyone.
But he demands I go to the front door And beg a needle. No, it needs no fire.
The glass is just below the heel's callus.
We're 12 years old this summer. At the beach,
The offshore winds of afternoon have raised Those rare, scooped-out, fast-running, light Breakers for body surfing that we like.
I go to the door, knock, and it's jerked open.
The body in it's just a silhouette Of shade and heat, a sunspot on the sun.
Then black distinctions, crisp, cut-out, appear,
Her curls of hair, the knots of bathing suit,
Then cloth lines, pale flesh crescents, thigh and breast.
She answers with a question, cutting quickly,
And disappears. And I can't help but see it,
Stretched out like a bed or body, what the lamps And the reflectors and the camera point at:
A city done in miniature, a model,
No one, nothing, else. The needle in my palm,
She says, "I'm a photographer."
I tell my friend, as he forgets the pain Long past the house and nearly to the beach,
That in that house, hidden under the lights,
I've seen what neither of us has ever seen,
Even where flesh is sand, down at the beach,
Exposed and everywhere, and yet and yet —
I saw her and the camera set to take her.
And so the story grows, as he colludes With me, encircled by our friends. It adds Whole tracts and housing projects, as her body Grows vast, its clarity as painful as The needle in the heel, which she herself,
As we recount it, worked with surgeon's care.
Friends beg to know the address — just the block! —
But know those stucco houses shunting down The low hills to the sea. Parched, salty lawns.
Those pastel boxes turning one shell-white.
Besides, we've both been sworn to secrecy.
The story, relaxed, elaborate, runs on.
Now she is dressed, now only in bathing suit.
She is a man, or man and woman. There is A bed of nails, then just a bed. We both Were brought inside, then only one. We fled.
We stayed. The story tumbles on through tides,
Cadenzas, raveling, unraveling.
Awake, I can recall what happened to it.
Awake, the Pacific urges me to sleep.
And I must squeeze the wheel, if I am driving,
Or wince with pain, as if I have been lying On a beach of broken shells.
Awakened by Sea Lions
They crowd their rookery, the dilapidated outcrop The ocean gives a bubble-top of glass to at high tide.
Among them two or three of the four-ton elephant seals Loll pathetically, like queen bees without hives.
The lions call out. Insomniac, late, the fog a loose curtain Of moonshot aquatic light, restless and static,
But not to us. Nor to the ocean. I have heard One daughter wake on her top bunk sobbing And her younger sister below ask her what's wrong.
Deep in the night, all of us waking to her cry.
"What's wrong?" And then, "I can't sleep."
Just the two of them. Silence again. Slumber.
The call comes
Out of the vast peaceful mere rimmed by new worlds.
And those who hear it are soothed, even though It might rise from throats that gulp pale fish Torn out of the wave, from inelegant chimeras
With limbs like dolphins',
Dog-eared, whiskered like cats, mouths set With human teeth. The call travels its distance.
Once heard, it travels further.
For Chris Buckley
It just doesn't occur to you where there are only skinny palms And sunburn-pink houses and wide avenues and the aluminum plane Of the Pacific that anything is secret. Where are the vaulted elms, the brick Aged like wine, the dreary weather to plaster elm leaves on aged brick?
Yet, I knew a mystic there. He worked out of the sun, his one black suit Showing a stitch of dandruff white as his face, and turned his gaze Obliquely to words as true as he could say them. He worked —
But it didn't matter. Standing in the lobby of his movie house, beside the little harbor,
He lived, as he would say, outside the flesh. Up in his office At the top of the double staircase, he crept through texts, gathering Evidence like a seine net, odd fish mixed with phosphor.
He believed there were men whose offered palms produced, at a shrug,
Bread or even gold. That all light in the universe, all that we see,
Begins in the self. There is no outer light. And, believing, he lived another life.
Believe it, he said, there is more. What is extraordinary knowledge But fingers adhering to a talisman essential as their own charm Or what a gaze fixes on in a corner of the ceiling?
Take the TV set he owned, its gray-green bulging face that,
When the picture filled it like a speechless, readable expression,
Dangled a sooty web over the heads of the colorless actors.
You saw it, it was part of the picture, just over their heads, calligraphy Of another world encroaching and sending its messages.
After World War II, he said he walked past houses wondering how The people in them woke and went to bed and in between went on with life.
That was the beginning. Now he knew the hidden was like a parent, thinking She must this second turn off the light in her child's room,
Late, the TV telling its sick jokes, and when she entered, finding The two-year-old ill on her pillow. The occult greets its initiates.
That's how I think of him in this world, where the engine block Cracks on the snowy interstate, and the life it held — searing,
True — escapes with a hiss. He stands to the side, letting me Ask him questions as the light brooms in, straw gold, tinged With all it's touched in the harbor, the tourist boats and chum tanks And the breakwater's combs of seaweed. We stand in the movie-house lobby,
Anteroom to the dark, the muttering auditorium where, on a sun-stroked afternoon,
Only a few sit, harmless. I ask about Jacob's ladder, the language dolphins exchange.
He knows. And, here is the secret, he knows it is a secret pursuit, the questioning and answering.
Under the chains biting the ice and the tow truck delivering the day And the bill, there is another road. A former day fumes Outside, and inside its light lies at our feet. The ocean seeps Under the building, and the pier rats throw their shadows against the screen,
And one patron, furious from the darkness, won't believe our disbelief.
The Shrine and the Burning Wheel
On the way to the evening reading,
Stopped at a Quick Stop for cigarettes,
I saw, as did everyone else parked there Or passing, a gang of boys,
Local boys probably,
Burning the front wheel of a ten-speed.
The bicycle, turned upside down,
Stood on the dumpster side of the store,
And one boy glanced from the corner
Through the front window.
Transcendence, that's what It means to want to be gone As, turning the eye's corner To the sudden glare of fire,
The local terror stares in your face.
I got the hell out of there,
And kept the spidery intaglio Of the one, their lookout, peeping Into the store window at — it must have been —
The boy who owned the bicycle
In his clerk smock Making change from the safe.
At the evening reading, as the poet was Introduced at length, she rested her head
On the heel of her left hand,
Full hair falling to the propped elbow,
And, as the prologue ran on,
Shook a little dandruff from her hair.
And what I saw was no longer her gesture But the memory of Nora and Bo Dee Foster
And the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium
In Los Angeles, long ago, listening To "Renascence" and "A Few Figs from Thistles"
And one that rhymed "striped pants" and "Paris, France."
Bo Dee remembers how
As Huxley went on And on introducing her,
Edna Millay shook the dandruff from her hair.
Transcendence is not
Going back To feel the texture of the past Like the velvet nap of the loges In the Shrine. It is wanting to be
Clearly, I don't understand.
The wheel spins. It is not hard to ignite The hard lean tire with lighter fluid.
It flashes and a round of smiles Breaks in the dismal circle
Of the boy pack
From the apartment complexes.
In their striped pants they open doors Of sedans to men in maroon fezzes.
But they are men themselves, Nobles,
And wear ruby rings set with diamonds
Searchlights mortar the clear night.
"Thank you, Noble," says one man Helping his wife to the curb.
She, white as a fez's tassel,
And the grandchildren Will see a Chinese girl prodigy at the piano,
Jugglers on unicycles,
And, the reason they've come,
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy,
Aging and never to age.
Here at the Shrine, with its swag tent ceiling And Arabic signs, hands of the crowd
Grip in ways
That cannot be revealed.
But now the amps are on.
Big Brother and the Holding Company are on.
The rapid fire of strobes cuts, cuts.
But that's too much, too soon.
Instead, it's the Boy Scout Expo.
Let it be calm for a while As it would be at a state fair Inside a great pavilion.
Here are the Scouts displaying
Their skill at fly casting.
The arc ends in a splash.
Fly-blue or fly-green, it hits the pool Among the crowd, under the roof Of the Shrine Hall. There is quiet.
Then a cheer. Now the speakers start up.
Janis Joplin, shapeless and small In the loose madras fabric of her dress,
Flares and thrashes in the wind
Her body makes to the music,
Cut and cut and cut
By the strobe lights across her hair.
Transcendence is what she wants Or not what she wants, to live In the world or out of it,
To be anywhere else
Or here, as a studied voice Says its poetry of heaven and earth,
And meshed with it, hidden,
A wheel of history turns,
And the boys burn the wheel.
You won't need to make a story up about us.
If you have overheard us, then you know The one we're telling each other will do.
It's about an everyday catastrophe That makes us wonder if our childhood Was all we thought it was, a place We have left but that remains intact.
I have a layover and my sister has brought Her baby with her to chat for my two hours.
She drove out through the flat tangled miles Of lunchtime traffic. Luckily, the baby Is happy and sang to her, screeching his joy And throwing his body in its fits of pleasure Against the car-seat straps. He's freer now To lunge out of his high chair at our coffee.
We can't change our lives to bring them closer.
The plate-glass window by our table Turns a kind of photographic gray When the clouds baffle the sun, then blue again.
I can't keep from noticing, below us,
The space outdoors filled with patterned traffic Coming and going in the terminal Over and under causeways, and, above us, the sky,
What's visible, with the same geometry.
She's worried that her baby's eczema Will stay with him for life, but already,
Using a different diet and way of washing him,
She's erased the itchy-looking scales Around his neck — there's just a ring of dryness Circling his mouth. Joy works him like A spring, popping him up, and people's heads turn.
That's how we've gotten attention. But our talk Is only an old story, one you know.
We live so far apart, we're now the ages Our parents were, etc. Except, last year,
It ended — their life together stopped.
The worst part is now we talk about them As if they both were dead and not going on Separately. Our conversation stops The moment the baby sweeps my plate To the floor. But that makes us smile Ruefully, pick up the pieces, try To calm him with a muffin he can gnaw on And let him scatter crumbs instead.
Consider this, listeners around us.
We protect within ourselves the secrecy That is the code to our happiness, the black box Recorded with the last message of childhood.
My sister and I could play it back for you But it would make no sense. I even wonder If it would sound like gibberish to us.
Doesn't it describe another country,
And in that country a coastal town,
And in that town, set in a gray row With others like it, an oblong garden Where summer hangs like a pane of glass Slanting toward its fall? A hailstone Or meteor, so high it seems to drift,
Aims at it, then rushes suddenly, and Suddenly, it's gone. A tiny missile,
No bigger than a key that scalds the hand,
Shatters summer, garden, childhood.
How commonplace, that we cannot explain Ourselves, that all we can give you is Our brisk completion now it's time to leave,
Our kisses, our regards, and our good-byes.
Days of '74
What was the future then but affirmation,
The first yes between us Followed by the first lingering dawn?
Waking below a window shaded by redwoods
(Waking? We hadn't slept — ),
We found time saved, like sunlight in a tree.
Still, the house was cold, and there were shadows.
The couple in the next room Rapped the wall to quiet us, like them,
Condescending from a bitter knowledge That, young as we all were,
Love didn't last, but receded into silence.
Wedging our pillows back of the headboard That clapped in time with us,
We let them think we agreed. Then, holding on,
We closed each other's mouths and felt that slowness That the best days begin with Turn into the speed with which they fly.
Flight was that year's theme, all around us —
Flight of hunter and hunted,
The President turning inward on one wing,
And, on the patio, the emigration Of termites, a glittering fleet,
Leaving that shadowed house a little lighter.
Within it all, above it, or beyond,
We thought we were the fixed point,
And held still as the quail lit down beside us And waited for her plump mate to appear,
His crest a quivering hook.
The valley's reach of sunshine reeled them in.
There was wilderness around us, don't forget.
Behind the nets of fragrance Thrown across our path by the acacia Lurked the green man or the kidnapper.
And there was the Pacific With its own passions taking place as rain.
The sorrow of the couple in the next room Was a deep muteness nightly.
That loneliness could come of loving was Like news of time cored out of the redwood.
The house that we made shake,
Or thought we did, was taking wing already.
After we left, still it took us years Before we stopped comparing Every morning together to that first one And every place we lived to that first place And everything we said To that first word repeated all night long.
Excerpted from "The Black Riviera"
Copyright © 1990 Mark Jarman.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Black Riviera,
Awakened by Sea Lions,
The Shrine and the Burning Wheel,
Days of '74,
The Death of God,
Testimony and Postscript,
Miss Urquhart's Tiara,
What People are Saying About This
“Mark Jarman’s tales have always been told with resonance, authority, lyric grace, and an almost-Chevokian sympathy for their characters. The Black Riviera is his finest book yet, the sort of volume that can win back for poetry many of the readers it has lost in recent years. Jarman is, simply, one of our best.”
"The poems both tell fascinating stories and meditate passionately on the nature of storytelling. The range of these poems-geographically, emotionally, poetically-is astonishing"
Andrew Hudgins, winner of Poets' Prize.