Mark Weiss. As Luck Would Have It. Shearsman Books 2015.
As both translator & traveler, Mark Weiss (who runs his own small press from New York, & has edited & translated The Whole island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry from University of California Press, among many others) tends to look carefully & find a way to turn what he sees into clear (& clear-eyed) poetry. As Luck Would Have It, his fourth major collection is a lively collection of various kinds of poems, most of them little serials.
Weiss ranges widely in As Luck Would Have It, moving from terse little discursive poems through witty & punning commentaries to carefully considered responses to other lands & landscapes. ‘Focus,’ from the 2nd section, ‘Glass Palace,’ is a good example of the first: ‘Whose greatest worry was to paint the petal / just so. // A decent restraint, / when the moon seems the largest thing.’ Here the balance in the lines repeats the balance the subject of the poem seeks; but we can also hear the poet’s delicate sensitivity to sound, which can be found throughout. A sense of humour, too, flitting in & out of all the poems, but sometimes on direct display, as in the 3 ‘Wheelbarrow, For Williams’ poems, in, of course, ‘Riffs,’ the 3rd section. After playing off a number of possibilities for that red wheelbarrow, he rightly ends with ‘There was a gaiety / to those shiny red things.
Weiss likes to construct collages, putting various fragments, both remembered & invented, side by side to allow his readers to make connections as they will. Often, as in ‘Riffs’ itself, he will let the punning possibilities lead the verse on: ‘Oration. / A golden prayer or ate / or shun or ate / the sun / the tongue / become golden.’ Yet in that same poem, following a bit on rubble & the claims of ownership, he can directly state the argument: ‘The deadman’s hand / proclaims the land.’ The connections carried in the obvious & undercover rhymes.
The longest poem, the complete 4th section, ‘Different Birds,’ emerges from his travels through Australia, where he sees most sharply both the specific landscape of that country & the ways its people(s) inhabit it. As he says at one point, ‘Poetry first and foremost / a tool for knowing.’ Even if there is, as he must admit, ‘No time to note / everything.’ But he does note a lot, & offers a finely tuned series of observations of some of Australia’s cities & its inner desert, the latter both a place for ‘wild camels, which’ ‘Like me, the first of them, transported / from Arabia, might have thought, “Not so bad, a lot like home,’ & now the land where ‘drought’s / the only news, flocks trimmed / by two-thirds.’ There are close-ups of people alongside views from the air, all inscribed with clarity & charity of eye, even as this viewer, fully aware of their beauty, recognizes the damage done to both.
In the 5th section, ‘Dark Season,’ the poems turn more quizzical & philosophical, turning both inward & out, yet even at their darkest, full of a yearning wit willing to follow the twists of language & sudden insight: ‘Mist / and mystery / in the English / idiom, math / and mastery / in the physics of war.’ As the final sequence, ‘Dark Season, slowly unfolds its scattered observations, the rest of As Luck Would Have It falls into place behind it. In the ‘troubled dialogue with the concepts / home family death’ perhaps all we have is what’s ‘Lost and saved. // Plash of stones across water.’
The various & varied parts of As Luck Would Have It cohere into a complex whole delivering a complicated pleasure to its lucky readers.