This is a poem from the sequence “Bargain Basement Sonnets” from Springtime in the Rockies by Brian Marley.
With steam striking his jug-handle ears, our
new luggage, smell of old newspapers in
the hall – surely something vivid must happen
without a slump in torpedoing the twentieth century
'Courage, Morris, courage...’ I neither neglect
to brush my teeth nor prune a handful of stars in
the early evening – as such, I know one true
particle in the mystery of bone-setting old
ceramics; the motionless dark, occultist
theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining
and I am (in my soupy way) blocking the nerves
from their coffee-veined stimulus – droning cellos!
The known-to-be-positive by reason, adjusting
a small knob – will frenzied faces appear on
our scanner? Duplicity, when peering up the
gun barrel, fingering the trigger: memories
are made of this!
It occurred to me to explain this poem. First, although it appears in a series it does not seem that the earlier poems in the sequence supply a context for it. A first approach might be that the poem offers discrete moments: a film of snippets which are not meant to explain each other. They are also not complete in themselves, so we could try to restore them to a fuller context. This is also what the unconscious impact of the parts is: they are extremely rich in implication, and evidently they have been selected for this quality. So the start has a house, evoked in three senses. The old newspapers suggest banality. That is why the speaker wants something vivid to happen. The “courage” line is evidently a quote from something, probably a film; we don’t find out who Morris is but the meaning is simply “keep your spirits up”. It’s like “Sparkle, Neeley, sparkle!” The perspective widens out into a whole historical era – still dealing with banality, both a slump in fortunes and torpedoing, i.e. sinking the prospects of, the time the speaker is living through. I neither neglect to brush my teeth – this is a symptom of depression, perhaps, the pruning is less clear but the stars have to do with wishes and with personal fortune, again. Pruning them means aiming for order rather than exaltation. “Bone-setting” old ceramics must mean mending breaks in them; somehow the teeth evolve into the stars and the stars evolve into particles of porcelain (or whatever). Sensing “one true particle” gives you the ability to make super-accurate mends. The occultist theorem remains to be guessed at, the crumbs are left over after you have mended the ceramic, apparently without flaw. “occultist/ theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining” could describe the idea that “nothing is perfect (or) nothing can ever be restored to its original perfection” and this could be an “occultist theorem”, depending on how it is worded. The pruning stars could be negligent perception – a glance which only registers 90% of the stars. The speaker does not so prune – this is why he can detect a single particle when gluing broken ceramics back together. Soupy means lacking firm structure and this is why the poet is blocking nerves (probably his own) from clear signal, despite the stimulant coffee. The droning cellos are a woody and indeterminate signal. The reasoning that something (a day, a city?) is positive is still part of the theme of wondering why we feel groggy, and the rational override is perceived as a knob affecting the image on a screen. Mood affects perception in the way that the tuning of a TV set affects the image. One also peers down rifle sights, and the duplicity is either ambiguity of experience or a trick by which we try to distract fate from imposing its wishes. The composite of these cognitive operations is stored experience, memory. But, after trying to reason himself into positivity, the speaker is contemplating suicide by gunshot.
The poem rushes through constant shifts of perspective. It does not settle down to a single one – we are knocked off our feet and never get to recover them. The film is as if taken from a camera which is rapidly rotating. The whole is an account of subjective feelings, as well as sliding through subjective transitions. It is dizzying. We also have to ask if the style has a social coding as a marker of belonging to a group of people united by stylistic values. This is elusive at this interval of time, but the composition is reminiscent of poems by Asa Benveniste, Tom Raworth, or John James, for example. There is a unity of sense, the discontinuity is in moving between different figures of speech, each of which feels like a leap of sense. The tempo has strong affective associations for me – it’s like the sound of some very swift-footed musician. The emotional timbre is clear but its melancholy is in contrast with the emotional feel – the style gives out blasts of insouciance, buoyancy, light-heartedness. I don’t find that analysing the explicit content of the poem helps very much.
Marley is a byword among the fans of Seventies poetry for writing that extraordinary book, Springtime in the Rockies, in 1978, and for vanishing from the scene shortly afterwards. The book Resurgam. Six Poems lists Springtime so may be later – although also dated 1978. Poetry Review (vol. 69, no.2) included an amazingly stupid review of Springtime so this may be connected to Marley’s exit. The review header lists six titles but the review only covers four– it looks as if the text was cut but someone forgot to cut the header block as well. It takes on four titles in under 500 words, this too was stupid. The message was that “the poetry scene is staffed by stupid and insensitive people and we are in charge and are going to make sure that anyone else gets driven away”. Marley was born in 1953 so must have been 25 at this time. I suspect he took this message on even if it wasn’t the idiocy of Poetry Review, specifically, which depressed him. Here is a poem from Resurgam:
This certainly brings us back to
the short sharp anguish of silks
blood dripping from the eyeballs
fire raiding the tranquil states
an obelisk erected before moon
peeps itself as a romantic image
in the calm waters of the Pacific
dedicated to the first words
of beauty rampant
a lust for the ceremonial inherent in catheter
clumsy perspiration rising at
I dive into canyons
drawing the snapping sail of knowledge
that length of gold tassel pulled
through the curve of both nostrils
colouring gently at her immodesty
this is what is meant
by artful dodges
open to the parp of honked horns
when the first archangel passes over
The booklet has two poems called “Rubble”. I wish he would come back. Sparkle, Marley, sparkle!