Mark Weiss, As Luck Would Have It (Shearsman 2015)
I’m not as politically engaged as some of my friends. I no longer sign petitions. What I do helps to keep my brain alive, though why I’m unsure. My hips and shoulders seem shredded by the usual wear and tear. I’ve just read Mark Weiss’s As Luck Would Have It (Shearsman 2015). It’s a memorable, melancholy, gloom-haunted tome. Of no help to one struggling with the detritus left in his yard by the worst historical winter of record, “To be alone / is salt itself,” writes Mark (11). His garden is haunted by death or the near edge of death. Only in a world of past prismatic colors do tomatoes fully ripen and sustain a remembered life, “they made a sauce / to last the winter,” a consolation in a period of death, father and friends, “strangled on their own fluids” (12). So was the case of my brother, drowning on his own saliva, his breath confined within the ventilator mask. The mortal agony of the poet’s memories mixes melancholy and hope for his own release from the weight of necessary, unavoidable recognitions. The question motivating the collection is “how did I get here?” from the title poem, “As Luck Would Have It,” where the landscape is irrevocably polluted and horses die from ingesting the clover (16).
Nonetheless a quiet brilliance is at work in parts I, II, and III of As Luck Would Have It, “we call it luck to die by increments” from the gem-like, “Horse Sense” (29). This collection is built with a purpose and deliberately avoids consolation. The most sustained element, Part IV, Different Birds, is organized by location, following an itinerary that begins in San Diego and catalogs by location the bird-life encountered by the poet during an extensive Australian expedition. In this we have a descendant text that resembles those of naturalists: Darwin, Thoreau’ or Roger Tory Peterson, supplemented with unrelenting macabre observations. At the outset in San Diego, “the rain a hammer-blow / to a hummingbird” (51). Undeniable lyricism here, and elsewhere in the collection, rendered with jeweler’s precision. Among observations of cockatoos, magpies, gallahs, ravens, minahs, and junkies, the poet displays a tonal range that blends ephemeral joy and withering darkness. “Like a white rag / cockatoo flutters down the canyon. … the merest lint in the shape of a bird” (52). More macabre or surrealist in tone, “Eucharist / of humiliation? Delicious and tender, / with an avocado chutney” (54). This observation follows a dinner of Jew-fish, not the first of troubling observations in a world where death has tipped the scales of life irrevocably, with no apparent justice. From an airplane between Alice and Darwin, “vegetation in the lee of red dunes / marks the pattern of ancient sea beds. … Mountains like mud pies / brown amidst the red” (75). This a detailed rendering of a post-apocalyptic world, I’ve begun to treasure such moments, bleak as they are. Death on an unimaginable scale inhabits a text that reads like an aboriginal creation myth:
What the dog told him. Marrawati,the eagle,
the transport of souls.
And here on the rock at the edge of the flood plain, the girl
had eaten flesh of barramundi at her time of the month,
and the people of that place had beaten her, and her
own people came with spears and a world
ended in conflict. A rock
that could be Ilion, how an argument over a woman
ruined everything. In the river
endless bodies for the sisters who had learned,
for their unbridled hunger, to transform themselves
to crocodiles.” (80)
The text fades to reverie evoking the poet’s fondness for “a girl from Guantanamo.” Section IV ends “Sometimes the ship has truly sailed” (81). These final lines speak to the condition of a poet adjusting to his own old age and the ferocity of the world in which he finds himself. There is a misogynistic vein when Weiss recounts the transformation of women into crocodiles, as in much folklore haunted by the powers of women over both life-giving and death. I see myself thrashing and gasping for air in a blood reddened pool. There is also a nostalgia for gentler passions, emotions not unknown to me either. It is what it is. Forces and passions, expressed in Part V, Dark Season, impel the poet to his conclusion. As Luck would Have It is a thoughtfully constructed collection leading us to the poet’s most enigmatic vision.
One suggested strategy for finding a resolution is to “sow the ground with salt, / leave nothing for longing, / no stone on stone” (85). Through the means of radical destruction, self-sorrow as registered in the first section of the book, “to be alone / is salt itself” (11) becomes a renewed competence. The poet has found a measure of peace by choosing to inhabit “the end of time, when cattle become aurochs” (87). Viewed from Chaucer’s cloud, violence becomes “harmonious” and “small beings / reduced to consequence … leave no footprint” (88). The poet’s moral message, if there is one, “from a set of gestures / one constructs a life” (106). John Frum (a cargo cult figure) is summoned from the astral plane by an aircraft, “as if / the god could be tricked / by the appearance of things” (106). Mark is teasing us. Did I not say that earlier? He is also trenchant: history “has teeth,” “has teeth,” repeated, are among the last words of As Luck Would Have it.