NIGHT SEASON by MARK LAMOREAUXNICHOLAS MANNING Reviews
Night Season by Mark Lamoureux
(Available online at Dusie, 2006)
This is a mixed review. Let’s begin near the beginning:
Parthenogenesis lives in the red steps
that were paining,
each night the wanted body
eats the tail of the wasp.
(An orange heart pinned
to a map, emitting
grace.) No cause for doubt, what
appears in a hill of ash
or on the underpass—a veil who
manifests & vanishes, a name
burned in granite. Chromium
swaddle & lyre, a poultice
to loose that voice, to wade
in the blood-colored, the tepid.
I could go on, but this is clearly glorious: waverings of colour, movement, with hints of Jack Spicer or the Spanish surreal. In contemporary terms I thought of MTC Cronin -- though Mark Lamoureux is somewhat more disquieting -- who has herself used these offset couplets to good effect. Here, the form gives pull and energy to Lamoureux’s otherwise delicate phrasing, acting as a necessary visual and aural stimulus.
So much for a first point: many of Lamoureux’s poems in Night Season are, I think, largely unfaultable. It will be important to bear this in mind over the course of my following remarks, which will take a more explicitly critical bent. Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier for a critic to speak of the faultable; it is also true, however, that what works less well can often act as a sort of window into a poetic, allowing us to better see -- precisely by means of this “gap” -- the internal functionings of the mechanism.
For me, then, the problem is this: Mark Lamoureux’s supple, modal writing is precisely not a poetics of excess. For this reason, any slippage into excess stands out, appearing remarkably stark. My hypothesis is that the effect of this deeply evocative poetry is here and there lessened by a tendency towards what might be called a type of poetic “overstatement”.
Now, this is a jeopardous thing for a critic to say. Firstly, the notion of “overwriting” is so atrociously common as to have become a dreaded workshop cliché. It is a criticism that all poets have heard, myself included, and yet it is usually not very clear what one means by it. So, I will attempt to explain what I mean.
Let us take the following extract from Night Season, which for me is perhaps the weakest moment in the book:
We sleep even
as figures march
or dust to enact
Now, I may be wrong, but this seems to me quite a known poetic cliché. I seem to remember its presence in Alexandr Blök, Georg Trakl, even Wilfred Owen. The sentiment perhaps strives for Audenesque oratorical proclamation -- “we sit in peace while the dogs of Europe . . .” etc. -- but it is nothing we have not seen. Of course, cliché is fine if it serves a purpose; but the apparent general idea -- that “passivity may lead to violence” -- while perhaps formulaically true, is here flatly and unremarkably presented.
My point is that what I identify here, for want of a better word, as overstatement, impacts badly on Lamoureux’s delicate verse by disclosing to us more than we need to know. Why not figures “walking”? Because we must be explicitly told, by “marching”, that we are dealing with an “army”?
But then, we come across Lamoureux at his astonishing best, the way I always want him to be:
The new grass
hammers at topsoil.
The world doubles
over in the pain
of its own birth,
long face beset
that tumbles from
This is gorgeous: supple, yet with the tensile strength of thin metal, the writing’s formal concision contributing to the impression of fragile strands weaved somehow into a strong fabric.
I am delighted. I read on:
a crown of wrens
around the mind.
May my death
Still—I am just
a plant like all the rest.
In this deftly wrought opening, the apogee of poetic sentiment is for me situated in lines 4 and 5, at the Berriganesque avowal of desired immortality -- for Berrigan, the more direct “I will never die”. This is also, I think, the strophe’s rhythmic and melodic high-point: the sonic tension built up in the three first lines is released by this shorter, condensed affirmation.
But then, in the last couplet, what has happened! “Still -- I am just/ a plant like all the rest.” Why this dissipation, this watering down? So sadly for me, the acme of sentiment -- “May my death/ never come” -- is immediately followed by deep bathos: “Still -- I am just . . .” What does this concluding remark do save remove the tension so willfully accrued in the preceding lines? What is this but the covering of deep emotion in the daily vernacular of self-comfort?
This final couplet seems to me to pull the poem down out of its highest spheres of evocation and image into those of reductive explanations, of the type: “I do not wish to die, but this is after all what happens to all those who make up part of the organic community.” I do not want to leave the poem in this way. The poem is more complex than this summation leads us to believe. I want to leave it with the wondrous impression of an “anxiety” forged around my mind in a crown of wrens! This ultimate couplet leaves me empty, and I cannot help thinking that what is at play here is a form of poetic self-protection, the suspicion that the direct statement concerning death had somehow “gone too far”. This protection concerns me: I don’t see its evident necessity, certainly not as “explanation” of the luscious suite of tone and imagery established in this strophe’s first lines.
Lamoureux’s poetry can be so delicate, almost insubstantial, and yet it is still often able to approach the “grand statement.” This is its strength. But by subsequently -- or consequently -- covering such grand statement by the reflex of the quotidian . . . Doesn’t this lack a degree of poetic nerve?
Well, that is a big thing to say, all the more so for the fact that Lamoureux is elsewhere, in the more “faultless” poems, so daring, and so aesthetically successful in his risk-taking:
Our noble star
emits the colors of the zodiac,
speaking to the ground,
where the carriage horses go
at night, divorced
at last from their nameless
“Aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus”, perhaps. Except, then we are presented once more with a moment where there is a little too much: too much given, explicited, formulated or framed:
for the dumb arms that pull the bag
over our heads & seal the rift
with the blue wax without mass
or shape. Praise, for the mouth
that ends words, each curse I hurl
at ether as the clasp of days closes
end to end.
Or here, in a case of syntactic, rather than lexic, surfeit:
Follow the faint arrow etched on each
dark wall, into a ring that laps the arc
of our one bitter sun, into a sunless shade.
The syntax escapes and runs quickly beyond the sentiment, tripping itself up and requiring the insertion of the rather stilted comma: “, into a sunless shade”. Is it a desired effect? Perhaps. But I’m not convinced of its effectiveness. For, precisely where there is less, Lamoureux is so intensely beautiful:
like the Cyrillic at Brighton
the quiet sea, humped
by freighters & on the street
all is twitching stillness
There are not less words, necessarily, but there is less support. There is an autonomy to this language, robbed largely of its meanderings, of its own explanations of itself.
I hope it is clear what I mean. This is sometimes a difficult impression to describe, and though I have talked a good deal about it, I do not want these critiques to detract too greatly from what is, in all senses, a resolutely achieved book. I would simply have liked to see these mostly wonderful poems be allowed to stand on their own, always: with no bathos, with no post-facto validation. To quote Mark Lamoureux -- ironically, in this context -- I would have liked to have seen them “divorced/ at last from their nameless/ burden.” Allowed to thrive thus in the splendor of their textured sounds and forms: “under no moon/ with no floor below.”
Nicholas Manning is Assistant Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Strasbourg, France, currently writing his doctoral thesis on rhetoric and sincerity in post-war European and American poetry. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in such places as Verse, Fascicle, Free Verse, Dusie, The Argotist, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Eratio, Cipher Journal, CrossXConnect, Shampoo, among others. This year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.