The King was first published in The Battersea Review No. 1, and subsequently in: Ben Mazer. New Poems. Boston: The Pen & Anvil Press, 2013.
Images: details from illustrations by Vanessa Barnard for the stand-alone print edition of The King.
As we might expect from Ben Mazer, The King is a rich canvas of cultural imagery, highly fragmented, and beautifully crafted. It is also the most ambitious modern work which I have read by this author to-date, bringing together many diverse strands of Western culture—biblical, mythological, literary, artistic and musical. Behind the initial assault on the senses which this fragmented diversity enables, there is a note of absolute integrity, of his complete faith in the writing and in the role of the artist which demands trust and confidence in the poem.
The King takes as its subject the birth and arrival of the boy king and of many recurring kings, the birth of the word, and also of the poet. Mazer includes references to contemporaries such as Joe Green, Philip Nikolayev, and Isabel Biderman, but the poem is also clear in insisting upon its own existence as a construct of the imagination, rather than being straightforwardly biographical. Criticism which Mazer shared on the publication of his poem ‘The Double’ seems pertinent here when he writes that:
The world enters the individual to exist entirely, though interactively, in the sphere of the imagination .... Nothing escapes the unifying thread of the individual imagination or personality.
This unifying thread of the individual imagination is the world of the poem, and the individual its creator. The subject matter begins to reveal the theme therefore which deals with the role of the artist as both product of the world and as giving significant expression and cultural shape to the world. It raises questions therefore about the value of the one and the many, of the individual and of community which I will explore in greater detail later in the essay.
The poem takes the shape of the dramatic monologue, hinting at the early influence of TS Eliot, who revived the form in the early twentieth century. In Section I and IX Mazer seems to draw attention to this early influence when he asks:
Why do the lovers speak
if not to disturb and unsettle eternal darkness?
the peach trees repeating
... even then a legend of loss
These echo Prufrock's desperation and in particular his questions ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?’ and ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ However, as important as Eliot is to the early development of Mazer, it soon becomes clear that he is only one of the many cultural allusions in the poem and that these allusions become the medium through which Mazer defines the present moment, and points toward the future development of his work. The preeminence of poets such as Eliot and of his images as cultural symbols define their time frame as existing in the past, while the tropes which Mazer brings to the references highlight the contemporary significance of his own work. Such allusions therefore enact the poet's words when he writes in Section X:
And yet you called my name and I was there,
pinnacled at the same height of the city,
at times perfection: ...
and see all myths surveyed and intertwined
and point out toward what the new year will find.
Multiple timescapes exist simultaneously throughout the poem, from the chronological to the eternal and to all the possible existences which might have been between these. He tells us that:
No calendars erase
each different corner that they signify,
though each is drenched in darkness!
Calling upon the deliberate confusion of timescapes adds greatly to the allusions. When he writes that ‘British, French, Turkish, German, Arabic, / mean nothing to the eclipsing god’ he seems to be pointing equally back to a pre-Babellian desire for divine significance and forward to the world wide web of global culture and the lingua franca of the internet. The birth of this poet, this king, allows him:
past ancient sleep to crawl out on the window
and see the city spread like landing gear
The poet's city is his cultural heritage and he will express it as only he can.
That all the city should drain down to this—
vast and remembered, throbbing without pain,
pivoting on one stranger.
He has reassembled the significant vantage point of the tower of Babel, and proclaims himself king, and yet at the same time, recognises the temporary nature and recurring instances of kingship. He is a temporal expression of the word and can refer to the same ‘image [which] comes and comes again—although the boy King's mother be in Spain or husbandless’ or he himself be ‘buried alive’ at Karnak. The assumption of individual greatness is audacious and may be an obstacle until seen in the light of the many great ones who have been before and who, it is implied, will arrive in the future. As such The King becomes a natural expression of complete confidence and belief in individuality, of Nietzsche's Ubermensch, of modern man and the enormous psychic stress of the poem hinges upon this point.
Prufrock's cultural allusions generally served to highlight the triviality of the values of the early twentieth century and of the world which had abandoned an externally imposed, spiritual unity and value system. In The King, Mazer imposes an internal spiritual significance and reinvests his world with an artistic unity which demands recognition. In an age which pays lip service to the importance of the individual, Mazer's poem demands that we face the full implications of this. The assumption of significance, or greatness of character found in The King, and natural to writers such as Byron and Nietzsche is rarely so openly proclaimed, although it is called upon in modern tragedy, which still dares to demand that ‘attention, attention must be paid to such a person.’ Mazer's poem demand's that attention be paid to the poet, the individual aware of its inherited language and culture but also protective and unapologetic for its own unique point of view and experience. The King insists that the lasting expressions of cultural significance of the many are always channeled through the individual.
Mazer's style has been described as ‘heroic’ and this certainly describes the simultaneous formality and irregularity of The King. It may also explain the distance which Mazer seems to maintain between his person and the biographical similarities which pepper the text. In Section XXXII for example, the narrator expresses and exemplifies the mission of the poet, his desire to express the secret chord, a mission which is necessarily impossible to complete:
Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!
The work of the poet is invested with absolute significance and yet seems both to keep us at a distance and to call to mind Mazer's own dedication to his art. It also reveals the role which poetry plays for this poet as a bulwark against the chaos. Amid a proliferation of modern theisms and denials, The King attempts one ‘stabilizing possibility’, ‘one sound of thesis and antithesis, one word for everything, all words in one’. The word which recurs most often in this poem is in fact that much sought after word—‘one’—and recalls the wonder of Aristotle that there should be something rather than nothing, and the ability of the great contributors to our cultural charter texts to reawaken that wonder again and again, despite the deadening effects of habitual thinking and the demands of survival. The 'one' which is attempted in The King is existence itself, unified by the mere fact of its existence, but also the singular, fractal, expression of this unity by the poet.
Mazer's poem is radical and audacious but ends on an elegiac note:
Retired on night busses these secrets doff
their caps, and settling their feet up
look westward upon each immaculate roof
as if it might be home. Drink from this cup.
This tone seems to affirm the self-conscious nature of consciousness, the awareness of mortality and of the likelihood of misinterpretation, of conflict and of torment. Despite such awareness The King is offered as an unsafe and challenging poem. It will impress you with its craftsmanship and its allusions and will interrogate your assumptions about the importance of the individual, and the impossible desire of expressing the ineffable. It fulfills the challenge which Charles Bernstein lays for poetry in that it offers ‘turbulent thought [and]... leaves things unsettled, unresolved—leaves you knowing less than you did when you started’. (Bernstein, 1992, ‘What's Art Go To Do With It?’) It is a pleasure therefore to recommend The King as a significant work from a unique poet.
ANN FALLON is currently completing a PhD in English Literature with Dublin City University in Ireland. She is co-editor of the Anna Livia Review, reviewing new poetry from around the world, including work by Ben Mazer, Philip Nikolayev, George Szirtes, Katia Kapovich,and Jeet Thayil. Her primary interests are philosophy, Ovid, Joyce and Beckett.