The Kingdom of Possibilities by Tim Mayo
Reviewed by Martin Abramson
The Kingdom of Possibilities
Paperback, 70 pages
Such plain short poems (most only one page) and such simple titles (“The Beautiful Woman,” “The Last Gift”) … and so complex! Each poem is a Zen puzzle: dense, elliptical: often presenting the ambiguity of a crossword clue: verb? noun? adjective? We know there’s something happening here, and we want desperately to grasp it; but it keeps moving just out of sight like shelves in the sheep’s shop in Looking Glass world. Eventually, we begin to suspect that imparting complete understanding is not the author’s purpose; that he has deliberately left out the trail blazes because, in offering a only a partial image, he compels us to supply the missing portions ourselves, from the only place they can be found … our own experience.
We cannot say of any of these poems, “Been there, done that”, and dismiss it. Because the poem has changed the experience … if only by virtue of a unique clutch of words. Talking to himself in Mot Juste, Mr. Mayo wishes he could snip the narrative at the place where the “spirit of what you have struggled to articulate/ hardens/ like consonants around the illusive vowels/ of your life---”. “The Fisherman on the Screen” subtly explains:
The trick is in the line. How you cast back, letting
it unfurl behind you---then forward, rolling its
bight and loop so it alights on target, invisible,
kissing the surface right above your fish.
Mayo wants the “line’s back and forth… to always/ balance all that’s ever been behind you---with all that will ever be…” In “A Reflective Voice” Mayo adds:
Now I write in a visual way
showing the clear words
all at once, not as words
but forms upon a surface…
The first poem “How It Comes to You” displays Mr. Mayo’s style immediately. Like “The Road Not Taken”, it presents baffling choices that scholars could debate for years. Only instead of roads in a wood, we have trains in a subway station.
“The Beautiful Woman” tells us “beauty is an emotion from which desire splurges/ like a prodigal” and shows how the effects of that emotion can leave a woman scarred for life.
“The Story You Never Read” is the one about:
… the poet
who died from pushing a pencil, piercing
the drum of his ear to touch, indelibly
that small, delicate place in the brain
where perception and living converged…
Mayo’s incredibly tactile filmstrip of a snake slowly swallowing a frog in “The Frog and the Snake” brings death to his mind and particularly the death of the narrator’s mother by her own hand (perhaps with the pearl-handled pistol of “Waltzing Through”). And like Camus’ Stranger, he feels nothing. This is our first clue to circumstances of the narrator’s life as repeated in several poems: raised by adoptive parents; never knowing the real ones. The first realization of this, described in “Name” tells of a “ripping apart” when told the truth about his origins, causing a dislocation that defamiliarized the face in the mirror “to whom each day/ I offered my razored hand”.
Lacking a past, the narrator lives in the ‘eternal present’ of “The Last Gift”. He inhabits a ‘kingdom of possibilities’ imagining all the scenarios of what his life could have been. He speculates on the imagined duality of motherhood in “Two Mothers”. In “Honey” he stands before his mother’s grave where she rests “as if waiting for some sweet yes I never/ said” while “A few plots over, a mower buzzes in the heat/ like a bee working the flowers for its queen”. In “Father Poem” he meditates on the futility of searching for a father whom, even if found, could only turn out to be a shallow bumpkin. In “Nineteen Forty-Five” the narrator imagines his parents, “the strangers I have wanted to know my whole life”, conceiving him in an automatic physical act--- and he tosses them “once again, from my mind/ never asking that which is too late to answer”.
In several hunting poems, Mayo eschews the sentimentality one might attach to the death of animals and concentrates on the precise mechanics of killing and the banality of death.
In Flamants Roses, he describes flamingoes frozen in ice like ‘Rose Flames’ that could not “melt nor dance themselves free, their gawky beaks/ clacking, scratching the ice like useless castanets”. In “The Counterfeit Seal”, the speaker reads the dissolution of his own marriage in the carved medallion of a warrior saying farewell to his wife: leaving “for something he deemed more important than love”. And this loss is epitomized in “The Confessional Poet’s Confession” where, in the agony of remorseful desire, the distraught husband stipulates exactly how he drove his wife away.
In “I, Lazarus”, the eponymous hero tells people all the fictional malarkey about the afterlife they yearn to hear while whispering the truth they don’t want to hear: that “the blessing of life/ was the body”.
“The Word in the Story” is a compelling contrast of the narrator’s eventual understanding of the past---after having squeezed its throat “until you felt/ a gasp coughing up through its craw” --- with the incomprehensibility of the present “that escapes like the air/ in the palm of your hand as your fist/ tightens…”
In “At a Walmart in Southern New Hampshire”, Mayo both pays his respects to Whitman and updates Ginsberg. It’s a worthy addition. And, continuing the Americana theme, “Bright Yellow Stab” paints a vivid image of a summer day’s cookout:
…all the backyard sprinklers spritz us with rainbows…
Soon the foosh
and belch of the barbecue will swell into the air,
Then comes hot-dog time, the mustard of it all,
while the burgers sweat it out on the grill,
and you and I lie hunky-dory in the long chairs
just fine…until we hear that twitch of cubes rattling
like a cold music we will never know how to sing
Hey folks, this is really good stuff! There are intriguing poems about women: girlfriends, lovers, wives… and a good deal of moving confessional biography…all up to the very high standards Mr. Mayo has set himself and maintained, poem after poem, with memorable success.
Reviewed by Martin Abramson.
Poets’ Quarterly | Winter 2011.