Poet Mark Dow, from Houston, Texas, has an ear for tricky syntax, making his sentences read with what seems a unique logic. His poems abound in embedded rhymes and echoes, creating a dense texture of effects that becomes more fascinating with each reading. And as collections of sentences, each poem—some are verse, some prose—plays with expectations, creating an individualized, highly concentrated language that can be quite beautiful, as well as philosophical, funny and, at times, baffling. As one poem states, “One man’s surface is out of another man’s depth” (p 33).
What’s going on here?, you might find yourself asking as you dip into this slim volume. It begins with a poem invoking a mother’s consoling presence and “the pity of one / who could see in another what / the other had yet to discover or forget” (“With,” p 13), then moves onto a father beating his son (“One Fell Swoop”) that contains a glimpse, by the child, of the parents having sex. It would seem we’re deep into Freudian family romance territory, a view born out late in the collection by a long prose poem—partially a narrative—called “Water and Light.” There, Mama and Daddy are joined by Handyman, a lover figure who may be an archetypal stranger, contributing an estrangement that gets taken up by the son—“He and I and she and I were a perfect mishpack until I was born” (p 46). Both mother and father tell tales of their encounter with an other—an angel, a hobo—stories that arrive as “The overheard version was handed down in a spiral of tell-and-no-telling” (p 52).
Indeed, the genius and the genesis of the tale, as we hear it, is in the telling and not telling. Dow has arrived at an elliptical manner of storytelling that compels us to receive the story as we might a dream, but a dream borne by the way sound and sense never quite mirror each other, but act more like light on a stream: “I had a story to tell but the edges were blurred. Instead was a song which your ears might have heard. The hard horizon stops short of the sky and what slipped into that gap was the I” (p 54). What’s clear is that Dow is contemplating origins—of the person of the speaker, of his poetics, and of the creation itself. This is not so tendentious as it may seem because Dow’s poetics, a combination of craft and vision, make us feel presence as a certain kind of being-in-the-world, and that world is itself a linguistic conception. In the beginning was the word, and “Water and Light” ends with the Hebrew characters for “one term for / the one considered One, / big O, a.k.a. the creator” (p 56). The story resonates as foundational myths do, as the kind of tale, metamorphosing as we read it, that one finds Joyce mining so richly in Finnegans Wake.
The key poem for Dow’s poetics in Plain Talk Rising, it seems to me, is “Between the Lines and Above the Gaze, Which is a Phrase of Mallarmé’s,” its title a good example of the way Dow plays with rhymes and patterns throughout the collection. Early in this eight and a half page poem, we encounter what struck me as a key statement: “It may be that you’re the window and the / being seen through it at once and between” (p 33). The notion that language is a mirror, able to render reality with always a degree of distortion, is almost commonplace. Language—where the eye and the I combine, fortuitously, in English—lets us contemplate a window we see through that is also us being seen through. It’s our only means of consciously “seeing” the world, “at once and between” because we know that, even if we want to believe our perceptions are nothing but a window on the world, there is something “between” us and the world—consciousness itself, or, as some philosophers and poets would prefer to say, language. Mallarmé, of course, is the supreme poet of language as game, a kind of hide-and-seek of meaning where the slightest departures from the norms of syntax create gaps and slippages that almost suggest an alternative way of seeing and saying. That too is the province of Dow’s best poems.
This is not to say that Dow is never simply a poet talking about the prosaic world we generally, or generically, live in. He can be marvelously apt at converting something real into grist for his word-mill: “In the pool in the crownshaft fifty-some-odd hard candies with tiny tongues attached are snails. Mouth is filled with teeth the tongue touches” (p 31). That short prose poem—“Double Lull”—is little more than a tone poem creating an analogue for “Middle-night rain with two voices.” The next poem, titled “Partial Inventory of Immediate Surroundings Omitted from the Preceding Poem,” gives a litany of mundane objects to let us know that, yes, Dow is aware he’s not often using language to take pictures, but then, when he does, watch out: “Wall calendar from last year / with photographs of national parks, / six or seven toilet seats, a sombrero. / Cigar boxes covered with glitter and glue. / A Wiffle ball, sunglasses, / the Los Angeles County / Driver’s Education Handbook, / mouse droppings, mouse traps, / signed pictures of ex-presidents, / pinball machine, crucifix, / small bronze Buddha, / and about a thousand cheap spoons / of every conceivable size” (p 32). Detritus, random junk? Specificity, we’re often told, is the mark of the true writer, able to banish abstractions to the void and give us “no ideas but in things.” And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, its box “covered with glitter and glue.”
Dow’s playfulness is often the point. His mind, it seems, tends to be alert to the kinds of linguistic conundrums that need a sharp eye to divine, but he lets that challenge buoy up his imagination rather than drive him into doldrums about meaninglessness. The poet is the one who gets to define things, after his own fashion: “For years one mind, or so I thought, it part of me, but recently, / that world complete in terms with which we’ve yet to come to terms, / secession starts, autonomy yet wholly me” (“Interim Agreement, p 17). Coming to terms with the terms one’s mind—in its autonomy which is also the “me” of the speaker (perhaps his defining characteristic)—invents? arrives at? while witnessing its “secession.” This could be something like a dissociative personality, or it could be a creative crux, a moment when one is aware that the writing has its own logic, its own way of getting at the world, creating a world with which the writer must “come to terms,” in every sense of the phrase.
And that phrase—“every sense of the phrase”—is something Dow is ever alert to. There are more senses in most statements than the speaker ever senses, and a poet like Dow is apt to find that that’s where, as Emily Dickinson might say, “the meanings are.” Perhaps the best place to end, giving you a sense of the self-consciousness that Dow mines so effectively, is “A Poem by Mark Dow.” Here, the poet looks askance at himself, not in a mea culpa way, but rather in the way we might contemplate a photo of ourselves, recognizing things we dislike and things we must admit, all the while asking “is that really me?”
Before he’s lost or bored you through the door you’re
headed for and Mark Dow looped around to head
you off at so that he could open it in time if he can
find the handle, he’ll try to make up for that fact
he’s always been unable to make things up
and turns, in fact, to find my breath leads back to
back to him and then the outside’s renewed as if
windows had been washed in Mark Dow’s absence.
His poems are nothing but I enjoy saying them to
you or reading them to myself to see if I’m here. (p 27)
The pleasures of following this corkscrew syntax are great, letting us feel “looped around” indeed, even as we can sort of glimpse “Mark Dow” trying to get us to the door, as he gestures to the “outside” we can see through those newly washed windows whose presence recalls his absence. An absence that is present whenever he reads his own poems to “see if I’m here”—he and his own breath somehow “back to back.” The feints and bobs aren’t distractions to throw us off the scent but are instead the main game, keeping in play a way of being in the world of language like “involutions in the corner of some empty warehouse / elaborating as they aspire to their own proud demise” (p 27).
Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising is a vivid performance of a self-aware poetics, able to make us feel our lived-in time and a kind of eternal time, addressing the world as a state of mind and a land of language to be mined for what value we can find. Dow’s brilliant wordplay is equal to the stringent—and playful—task he sets himself. His themes, of creation, identity, and the mystery of our sex-engendered existence, reference a possible mythos while always keeping poesis as the wildcard up the sleeve of meaning.
Plain Talk Rising
By Mark Dow
Before being "self-published," Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions; it was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press.
Dow's work (poems and nonfiction) has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Fascicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Paris Review, Pequod, PN Review, SLAM! Wrestling, Threepenny Review and New Haven Review.
Plain Talk Rising can be found for purchase here: IndieBound