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Book Review: Lives in Words

PUBLISHED: May 18, 2006

Sundays on the Phone, by Mark Rudman. Wesleyan, November 2005. $22.95

Since 1994 when he published Rider, Mark Rudman has been writing poems that have become something like one long poem, a meditation on an American life, his own. These poems do not constitute a memoir much less an autobiography; they are not a connected narrative, they do not seek to recapture the past. They are meditations on what can be neither resolved nor forgotten; reading them is like watching Jacob wrestle with the angel.

In the recently published Sundays on the Phone, the angel with whom the poet wrestles is the love of a son for his mother. The mother is seen at distinct moments of an unhappy life—as an attractive woman waiting out a divorce in Las Vegas, as a frustrated elderly woman living alone where she doesn’t want to be, bitter about her lack of a college education, bewildered by her unhappy marriages, puzzled by her son. “She had no one with whom to share her experience. No friends who loved the things she loved …”

There are surprises: this unhappy and embittered woman listens carefully to her “small but fine” record collection. Among the best times she spends with her son are those they spend “listening to music in silence.” “She didn’t play these records as background: when she played, she listened; and once in a while we listened together.”

Richard Howard has said that no one in the future will read all of Proust, just the beginning and the end of his long novel. Rudman’s five volumes of meditation on his life are not very much like Proust’s novel in most respects, they do not have the density of detail, the large cast of characters, the representation of incessant societal and personal change; taken together they are not as long as any one of the seven major parts of Proust’s research into lost time, and they make no gesture at being “research.” What Rudman offers are isolated fragments of experience that sometimes have a proustian intensity, an emotional power that reverberates through a life—without a detailed or consecutive narrative of the life through which they reverberate. And just as all the eccentricities of Proust’s characters and all the lovingly observed details of time and place do not obscure a core of experience that every reader recognizes as immediate and pertinent to his own, so none of the particularities of Rudman’s poems prevent his readers’ from recognizing in these isolated fragments of love, resentment, bitterness, need, failed conversations, bewilderment a familiar emotional landscape.

The poet’s mother is a naïve reader of the best kind. In one of the telephone conversations, the poet reminds her of a letter she wrote after reading Madame Bovary; this section of Sundays on the Phone is called “The ‘Emma’ Letters” because the poet’s mother calls Flaubert’s novel “Emma.” She read the book “because the subject—female trouble—interests her.” She does not read this book because it is a classic work of literature; she reads it as a kind of conversation with its author, whom she thinks shares her interest in her troubled life. She thinks of her troubles as being specifically female: “if my father had done a fraction for me / what he did for ‘the boy,’ Bert, / my life would have been substantially different.” And she believes that Flaubert can speak to them because she thinks of Flaubert as a man with a strong female side. Flaubert, I think, would have been flattered to know he would have such a reader. She has never had this feeling about the poems her son writes: “I think you should write a grand adventure. / Something people want to read.” But she asks him why he has bothered to keep her “Emma letter” along with another one about her husbands’ drinking. The answer takes her by surprise: “They were beautiful.”

So the lives reflected here include the lives of the written word and their intersection with the lives of their readers. These meditations have a deep appreciation for the strange intimacy of readers and writers, real intimacy without the distraction of seeing the writer who speaks—like telephone conversations. Very few poets find large numbers of readers today. This poetry is not esoteric either in form or in subject; often as banal on the surface as those obligatory phone calls to distant parents; often as powerful too. They ask for readers who want to read about subjects that are part of themselves—obligatory memories, obligatory losses—without even noticing that they are reading “poetry.”

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