We speak with National Book Award finalist Gail Mazur. Her latest collection of poems "Figures In A Landscape" was written as her husband, the artist Michael Mazur was dying. Gail Mazur tells us that though her work didn't always directly reflect that fact, it was shaped by his worsening health.
Book Excerpt: Figures In A Landscape
By: Gail Mazur
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE
We were two figures in a landscape,
in the middle distance, in summer.
In the foreground, twisty olive trees,
a mild wind made the little dry leaves tremble.
Then, of course, the horizon,
the radiant blue sky.
(The maker was hungry for light,
light silvered the leaves, a stream.)
I liked to think, for your sake,
the scene was Italian, 17th century. . . .
Viewed from here, we resembled one another
though in truth we were unalike—
and we were tiny, he’d kept us small
so the painting would be landscape, not anecdote.
We were made things, deftly assembled
but beginning to show wear—
you, muscular, sculptural,
and I was I, we were different, we had a story.
On good days we found comedy in that,
pratfalls and also great sadness.
Sun moved across the sky and lowered
until you, then I, were in shadow, bereft.
The Renaissance had ended—
we’d long known we were mortal.
In shadow, I held the wild daisies and cosmos
we’d been gathering for the table.
Then the sky behind us pinked and enflamed
the landscape where we were left
to our own reinvention, two silhouettes
who still had places they meant to travel,
who were not abstractions—had you pricked them
they’d have bled, alizarin crimson.
I wanted to walk by myself awhile
but I’d always been afraid to lose you
and the naked olive groves were hovering
as if to surround you.
That was the problem:
I craved loneliness; I needed the warmth of love.
If no one looks at us, do we or don’t we disappear?
The landscape would survive without us.
When you’re in it, it’s not landscape
any more than the horizon’s a line you can stand on.
TO THE WOMEN OF MY FAMILY
Fierce, frightened, fragmented,
for the flower of hope for years
to apologize, that it bloomed in me
or nourishment was the silvered mirage
in the mirror
greeting me one morning when I was young—
and foreign: hope. Whose sunstruck face
but my own? Why did only the men
in our family? One sang, off-key
but all the time,
the other played piano, the clarinet,
then the many beautiful instruments
songs, like optimism, that couldn’t really
What I wanted, what I wanted to want then,
was for hope
to be divisible, multiplicable,
like the lilies
and the irises, and I’d have divided
delivered some to you and then planted
to wave for a week in the breezes
The tall blue iris in my Victorian yard—
that plant for myself and let it blossom
its gorgeous unfurled petals, a flower
itself, then is rained on, breaks,
dies, and yet
returns, tough and unkillable.
my desire for you to have this, too,
was ungrateful, insulting to you,
I was presumptuous to claim I could
your wounds born when you were born,
as I thought, to your century’s contusions.
you would interpret powerful injuries
in the blind
careless glances of women and men, strangers
abstracted, benign or malignant but
in their conspicuous indifference.
the foot was in the aisle to trip us,
Who feared more, you, or I?
We weren’t, were we, Darwin’s worms,
working and digesting,
useful to the earth and its cultivars,
our own deaths always the only goal?
If I thought
that was the way you lived, pain
where you’d prepared the soil, the soul,
I apologize, I was wrong the way a child
for half my life, blind not to see in your
courage, the great distances you negotiated,
all of you,
not to see the ground you covered. Wrong
not to know
without hope there would be no courage,
no purpose. I was mistaken but lucky,
though it took,
I am sorry, half my life to admit
my wishes, my expectations. Lucky
my own blessed wanting so much,
here it is—so wanton, so extravagant!—
and here I am
in this minute, almost free to express it.
You’re the shadow shadow lurking in me
and the lunatic light waiting in that shadow.
Ghostwriter of my half-life, intention’s ambush
I can’t prepare for, ruthless whammy
you have me ogling a blinding sun,
my right eye naked even with both lids closed—
glowering sun, unerring navigator
around this darkened room, you’re my laser probe,
I’m your unwilling wavelength,
I can never transcend your modus operandi,
I’ve given up trying to outsmart you,
and the new thinking says I didn’t invent you—
whatever you were to me I’ve outgrown,
I don’t need you, but you’re tenacity embodied,
tightening my skull, my temple, like plastic wrap.
Many times, I’ve traveled to a dry climate
that wouldn’t pander to you, as if the great map
of America’s deserts held the key to a pain-free future,
but you were an encroaching line in the sand,
then you were the sand. We’ve spent the best years
of my life intertwined: wherever I land
you entrap me in the unraveled faces
of panhandlers, their features my features—
you, little death I won’t stop for, little death
luring me across your footbridge to the other side,
oblivion’s anodyne. Soon—I can’t know where or when—
we’ll dance ache to ache again on my life’s fragments,
one part abandoned, the other abundance—
Reprinted with permission from Figures in a Landscape by Gail Mazur, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2011 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on May 11, 2011.