Forbidden City

by Gail Mazur
reviewed by Chard deNiord
July 21, 2017

Gail Mazur writes with a spare grace in her new book Forbidden City, combining elegies for her late husband, the eminent artist Michael Mazur, with moving reminiscences of friends and colleagues. Her task as elegist is formidable: how to transform the ordinary details of grief (what Mazur calls “things,” in an eponymous poem) into universal images that transcend their mere everyday nature? Mazur accepts her muse’s challenge by connecting things, objects she actually takes stock of in a poem titled “Inventory,” (“our TV, / our pills and lotions and clippers") to the memories these objects evoke.

The hard-won grace in these poems emanates from Mazur’s lack of “irritable reaching” as she recounts memorable conversations, anecdotes, and shining particulars in poem after poem. Like the lines of Hokusai, which Michael Mazur strove to emulate throughout his career as a visual artist “where every dot, every mark I make will be alive,” Mazur attempts a similar economy in her poems. Her title poem, “Forbidden City,” a famous historical city in China which she and Michael visited in their youth, works as a central conceit for the book in its duel significance as a mystical metropolis in both Mazur’s oneiric and real worlds. “But now you’ve taken me back,” she says to the ghost of her late husband at the conclusion of the poem, “to Luoyang, to the Garden of Solitary Joy, / over a thousand years old—” Immersed in the throes of mourning, Mazur wanders with Michael in a cathectic state through the underworld of her memory before waking to the alarm of Michael’s absence: “I wake, I hold your hand, you let me go.”

Mazur addresses both the realities and ironies of coping with loss, which focus on negotiating the irretrievable past in the midst of present grief. It is an emotional no-woman’s-land, where the heart’s pathetic survival in the wake of profound loss seems almost miraculous, but also “stupid,” as she opines in her poem “Amarin”:

                  I could see a campfire,
the vibrations of its heat—and shorebird

with burning feathers, blinded, whose heart,
poor stupid muscle, still endured its beat.

In another reference to the heart, Mazur asks in this same poem, “What could I say, / I who have lost my heart’s answer?” Almost all the poems in Forbidden City attempt a response to this question. Mazur’s answers echo the classic response of the chorus to Gilgamesh following the death of his beloved Enkidu:

[Grief] is that inner atmosphere that has
an unfamiliar gravity or none at all
where words are flung out in the air but stay
motionless without an answer,
hovering about one’s lips
or arguing back to haunt
the memory with what one failed to say
until one learns acceptance of the silence
amidst the new debris
or turns again to grief as the only source
of privacy, alone with someone loved.

                            (translation by Herbert Mason)

In Mazur’s poem titled “Grief,” the last poem in the book, she proposes that poetry itself provides an essential means for learning this “acceptance of the silence / amidst the new debris.” In an ingenious strategy of embedding threnody with homage, Mazur grieves and celebrates her husband at the same time, defining her mourning as an admonition against heartbreak:

Don’t speak to me of heartbreak, I have an argument
with habits of metaphor—it’s not the heart

In April I brought tulips white
pale green and orange in from the garden

you mean but the ineffable—character soul
locus of feeling—don’t treat that muscle

and with his fine pen he drew page after
page of delicate ravishing tulips

is made whole for breaking—the thread beat
made stronger if ravaged, then repaired

This antiphonal argument and love poem continues for a few more lines before Mazur poses her final question, amidst the italicized lyric commemorating Michael’s precise rendering of the flowers she has picked for him “from the garden”:

Where could it be written

to a garden-room various edenic alive
why would anyone say, why would

a rabbi teach, the heart survives by breaking?
August now and great maples tall oaks darken

and cool the garden so flowers know not to thrive
that in black ink my love may still shine bright

“I’ll make a broken music or I’ll die,” wrote Theodore Roethke in his poem “In Evening Air.” Mazur makes a broken music that provides a contrapuntal beat to that of her heart’s steady rhythm.

In addition to the numerous elegies in Forbidden City, there are also several risible poems that recount memorable scenes with Alan Dugan, Stanley Kunitz, and Philip Guston. In a poem titled “Philip Guston,” she recalls Guston’s pedagogy that serves as an essential lesson for her own perspicacity as a poet: “Everything, he said, / has a form, / even doubt has form.” And then in a conclusion reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, she witnesses Guston’s indefatigable amazement with mere materiality and color:

On Comm Ave
a blue parked truck
with bright red lettering—

Look at that,
he said, Look
at that.

Forbidden City is a vital book for its daring, deeply private approach to the universal unsayable. In a postmodern age when indeterminacy so often militates against coherence, Mazur maintains her faith in poetry’s ancient capacity to memorialize. Her success in capturing the fleeting passage of her marriage in a few lines—“Our lives passed like a morning mist, / or a night flame whose candle’s burned away”—betrays the incalculable verbal efficiency of the lyric as open code for apprehending the emotional life of another. With courageous disinterestedness, Mazur turns private particulars into universal images with a light poetic touch. We feel what she feels in the most ordinary objects and images that shine as human touchstones for our common longings and laments.