With permission of Book/Mark a Quarterly Small Press Review.
Review by Martin Abramson
MASTER OF LEAVES: By Murray Silverstein
Sixteen Rivers Press
San Francisco, CA
$16.00, 91 pp, Paper
Murray Silverstein's style is a breezy, casual, off- the-cuff affair that gets quite chummy with the reader. Of course, a chum is a friend with whom one can speak his mind without fear of criticism. But alas, the reviewer, hard hearted cynics that he is, may assume no such intimacy. If a line like
hummingbird at the fuchsia---suck away, pal.
offends him to the soul, what can he do but hold it up and hope the reader agrees.
Not that Mr. Silverstein's collection is replete with such examples, but the style would seem to encourage them, and not always felicitously. The same poem, “The Constant”, refers to the speed of light and asks, "why, in the famous equation, must it be squared) it's already the speed of light?" The question is disingenuous as the poet shows later that he's perfectly aware that mass figures in the equation. The poem is a conceit which describes the body of a woman as a physical constant, tossing Einstein in for corroboration. To be sure, the poem contains some lovely descriptive lines: "but there's the heat, that feral almost- chocolate smell/ and twigs of cedar—twiglets---tangled in your hair." But there's also simplistic philosophy: "We're hit/ with a double whammy in this life: sex and other people." Maybe a single whammy. Doesn't "other people," certain ones, include the subject of sex?
Mother is "Mother Goose" in which a mother's despair at the loss of her daughter to sudden elopement is nicely set
against the indifference of the geese: "...my mother sat
down/ in a chair she never sat in, and wouldn't speak..." While the geese, ". . .steadfastly fly- floating across the sky.. ." are unheedful.
The poet's world has changed, but
...what is that to the geese?
... Tell me, if you know, I say we can never know, but we can ask...
the lyric mind
was made to ask. But what is that mind to the geese?
Two poems that are similar in theme are "Here Went the Egret" and "Song of the Field." The latter recalls "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in lines like: "The song of the field is the buzz of the mind..." and "To enter the mind, enter the field." In "Here Went the Egret," the speaker digs a pond and stocks it with fish only to watch his aquarium emptied by an egret. But, forgetting pond and fish, the poet is awed by the power of the egret (as was Hopkins at a windhover) "...stroking the morning, erotics of air, as up/ and over me she glides..."
Both poems suggest that the closest we can come to reality is by an apotheosis of, or even by entering into the consciousness of a bird. This one ends with the poet who:
... dug the pond, bought the fish,
Thought there was me, the egret, the fish, but no,
there is only the egret.
"Song of the Field," after descending from the mind to the man, to the field, to the edge of the field, to the woods and to the caw of the crow, concludes: "...to enter the woods, you must enter the crow."
Mr. Silverstein often pays homage to authors and artists he admires. In "Lunch with Saul Bellow," he quizzes the novelist as Dante did Virgil. "...how is love lavished?" "why is it lavished?" "...love itself is spun! From what?" The poet gets reasonably straight answers thus far, but the remainder of the poem dissolves into forest sounds; "hoo-hoo-coo:" literary advice: "build a house/ of stories, tangled with other stories" and cryptic pronouncements: "sadness the marrow of the want bone."
The poem, "In Scarlet Town" invokes Bob Dylan's song, Vermeer's Young Woman at a Window with a Pitcher, Moby Dick, and Beethoven. It's a kind of culturally comprehensive comment on guilt, betrayal, escape and remorse summed up by the penultimate line," Mistakes were made and all is lost," but things are partially redeemed in the final image of the Vermeer: "Let me call your attention to her lips."
In "Self-Portrait," Mr. Silverstein once again plays physics off against art, referencing the discovery of the God particle with Rembrandt's painting. The trillionth of a second glow of the Higgs boson is mirrored in "...the tiny drop of white in the black pools" of the artist's eyes; and in "'...the glowing speck of silver I on the head of his cane..."
In two lengthy poems, "The Poison, The Cure" and "What is Man? " Mr. Silverstein brings Joyce and Dostoyevsky into the mix in the persons of Prince Myshkin and Molly Bloom. The first poem is more or less sexually oriented. The second is considerably darker involving dogs, leashes, pain and Ulysses.
"The Wheeled Blade" is probably the most overtly erotic poem in the book. The poet and a friend, baking pizzas, remember Judy Sharfman from years past, whose father ran the Hebrew school; who would ...open her legs on her back on the grass and then snap them shut." It was his initiation to the female body. And the grown boys, marveling that she'd subsequently become a rabbi, comingle her with the Bible: "wordstream from the cuntspring" and "Torah within the Torah."
The title poem, is probably the best in this collection. The first of twelve sections describes insects on a late summer evening. "...a gnat storm is rising, a-jitter/ like a worried thought..." Water Walkers or Jesus bugs, don't walk so much as "dimple, and drift' on water.. .or they hump the water... sparks of manic desiring..."
In the second section, the October sun blasts the plum "turning its jam-dark leaves/ to pale-green moons." The third section centers on the autumn leaves. As the writer gathers them and crushes them underfoot, the leaves speak of their perceptions:
Great master, our alphabet's an agony
of spine, a crazed ecstatic branching after light.-
The heliotropic leaves turn to the red south but wonder about Northern darkness and why lovers are impatient for the night.
The fourth section is commentary on the third in conference with "the Interior Gal." They parse the aspects of light in a manner reminiscent of Jackson Mac Low's Light Poems: “There's light and the endless craving of light to see itself and, ...light itself is made/ she said, of light-eviscerated plums.”
Section 5 is a meditation on death occasioned by the funeral of a friendly neighbor. The fall mirrors her death: "...taking its toll. Golden a moment, then blown, rainy/ taking until the turn, the turn the tolling turns..."
Section 6 recalls lovers "on the lawn that sophomore spring: " "Just out of jail and all over each other." But the episode ends in emptiness: "The leaves falling, and then the rain."
Section 7, December Light, is fashioned in free verse as is most of these poems, but not without meter, variations within meter and internal rhyme. I will leave close analysis of Mr. Silverstein's complex scansion to those more erudite, and suffice myself with a long quote from this beautiful piece:
...what is, December 1, is light
through the fog and slowly gaining on the neighbor's red- tipped maple as if a cloud were an ember.
Inside the window, the same light gathers
in the hour-shaped glass centered on the sill, its bouquet
of red tulips and pale, feathered grass—whose stems
he can see are becoming translucent
the one light
Skipping to section 10, the January departure of the sun eviscerates the landscape
And words, those tokens of joy the world offered once,
are beginning to disappear
into the things they've named'
becoming the tears in things...
And the penultimate section, 1 1, February Sky, takes the poet back to the dreary, typical city landscape in February, with the bearded religious loony, the couple on the steps of the middle school and the rain.
But with late March in Section 12, we feel "the fragrant breeze, so undeserved/ everything budding early." And we hear:
...a children 's song! Sung by the living
to all that are gone, with verses, refrain—the silence
under the plum, blossoming, everything showered in light.
I'm constrained to admit a grudging admiration for Mr. Silverstein's work. He goes his own way, devising his own rules along it; but if uniqueness and honest path finding are exemplars of important poetry, these efforts surely fit the bill.
Martin Abramson is a poet, critic, author of four books, and a regular contributor to Book/Mark