Tuesday, December 13, 2005

To The Green Man. By Mark Jarman. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2004. $20.95 (cl) $13.95 (pa)

Jarman's eighth collection reads much like a collection of epistolary poems, in this case addressed mainly to powers higher than himself. Jarman acts as a monk, meditating on various aspects of religion, mythology, and humanity with a quiet tone of questioning. "I've told you this so you can know this man/ my grandfather, a little, as I tell my story/ the only real ghost story I know/ a Holy Ghost story," he says in "The Excitement." He isn't parroting scripture, though; he's searching for the questions that will lead him to meaning, and looking wherever he can.

He isn't always answered. In "Five Psalms" he responds to this idea playfully, "Let us think of God as a lover/ who never calls...Forgive God/ for being only a word." He is on the one hand admonishing this absentee deity, but he is also forgiving.

But for Jarman, the asking of the questions, the examination itself can be enough. In "As Close as Breathing," he states, "Everything answers/ everything says back, 'I am present, too.'" There are answers all around, if one bothers to look.

Jarman also explores the questioning itself. In his poem "Fox Night," he describes a fox staring at him during an accidental encounter. "What had I done/ so that I thought the world, at least my family/ should know a fox was looking back at me?" "What have I done to merit that regard?" He asks. Have I examined myself enough so that I can now move on to examining others? Am I up to this endeavor?

Jarman struggles over and over with spiritual ideals. "Is this a fallen world," he asks in "Coyotes," "How could it be?" He finds sanctity in nature and in relationships with others. He moves beyond the abstract and applies spirituality to everyday lives, by examining his relationships with others and with nature.

In the title poem, "To the Green Man," Jarman expresses empathy for the pagan deity the Green Man, "Lord of the returning leaves," whom Jarman equates with being a nature deity. But Jarman is also mourning a lost culture. "...the entry in the reference book that lists you/ as forester, pub sign, keeper of golf courses/ King for a day, or week, then sacrificed," Jarman says, referring to the ancient practice of religious sacrifice, whereas one member of the community was chosen and treated to luxury for a short time, then sacrificed. Jarman expresses joy in discovering the likeness of this god of nature. "Pray, vestige-secret of the trees, for us/ surprised and pleased to find you any place." Jarman respects spirituality wherever he finds it. His is not an exclusionary belief.

In "Roland," he bridges the gap between mythology and history, by creating a contrast between the figure of Roland, the paladin of Charlemagne, and Jarman's mother's cousin, also named Roland, who took her to the fair one summer. Instead of dying nobly, and "Blowing his horn," this Roland instead convinces Jarman's mother to open a box of face powder on the Ferris wheel, so that the carnie thinks there's been an explosion and smoke. This humanizing of mythical characters by showing real world counterparts and putting these characters in real-world situations, exemplifies Jarman's approach in this collection. He meditates on the abstract, making it concrete.

In mining his history, Jarman begins to find solace. "I looked around, wanting to be changed," he says in "The Wind." But can one be changed from without? In "Canticle," he states, "Death of the father, the mother, absolute/ no way to bring them back, except to become them." In much the same way, Jarman seems to be saying that there is no way to find the ideals one hopes to see in the world without following them oneself. Higher powers or no, we are still accountable ourselves.

-Originally Published in The Hollins Critic
* Shortly after this was published, I received a very nice card form Sarabande books' marketing person thanking me for the review. This was not something they had to do. It was very nice of them and made me glad I'd put the work into the review.

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