Friday, January 20, 2012

Mark Jarman’s “Black Riviera”

Mark Jarman’s poetry has always had a strong religious influence, partly a consequence of growing up the son of a preacher, for his work wrestles with larger questions of belief and illumination. I’m thinking especially of his books Unholy Sonnets and Questions for Ecclesiastes, which mine the fertile territory of devotional poetry without parroting any particular faith. The overwhelming feeling one finds in those books is a reverential view of our all too frail human existence, where the question posed is not whether God exists, but why has so much of our humanity been shaped by a religious impulse to seek some higher power in the first place?

I believe Jarman answers this question in a thoughtful essay “Poetry and Religion” from his book The Secret of Poetry when he says: “the religious impulse in poetry endures; many poems being written today show that urge to be tied to or united with or at one with a supernatural power that exists before, after, and throughout creation” (13).

If you look past that word religious, Jarman is simply saying the impulse toward the sublime or the transformative or the transcendent – whatever you wish to call that sudden release from the ego – manifests in many different guises as it does in one of his earlier poems "Black Riviera": a stirringly beautiful narrative poem ostensibly about a teenage Jarman and his friends buying hallucinogens from a street-level drug dealer in a slick black car, but the poem marks the site of a powerful spiritual awakening too.

Black Riviera

for Garrett Hongo

There they are again. It’s after dark.

The rain begins its sober comedy,

Slicking down their hair as they wait

Under a pepper tree or eucalyptus,

Larry Dietz, Luis Gonzalez, the Fitzgerald brothers,

And Jarman, hidden from the cop car

Sleeking innocently past. Stoned,

They giggle a little, with money ready

To pay for more, waiting in the rain.


They buy from the black Riviera

That silently appears, as if risen,

The apotheosis of wet asphalt

And smeary-silvery glare

And plush inner untouchability.

A hand takes money and withdraws,

Another extends a sack of plastic—

Short, too dramatic to be questioned.

What they buy is light rolled in a wave.


They send the money off in a long car

A god himself could steal a girl in,

Clothing its metal sheen in the spectrum

Of bars and discos and restaurants.

And they are left, dripping rain

Under their melancholy tree, and see time

Knocked akilter, sort of funny,

But slowing down strangely, too.

So, what do they dream?


They might dream that they are in love

And wake to find they are,

That outside their own pumping arteries,

Which they can cargo with happiness

As they sink in their little bathyspheres,

Somebody else’s body pressures theirs

With kisses, like bursts of bloody oxygen,

Until, stunned, they’re dragged up,

Drawn from drowning, saved.


In fact, some of us woke up that way.

It has to do with how desire takes shape.

Tapered, encapsulated, engineered

To navigate an illusion of deep water,

Its beauty has the dark roots

Of a girl skipping down a high-school corridor

Selling Seconal from a bag,

Or a black car gliding close to the roadtop,

So insular, so quiet, it enters the earth.

The poem begins with the rain’s “sober comedy” and a small knot of teenagers, the young Jarman among them, waiting anxiously to buy “light rolled in a wave” from “a long car / A god himself could steal a girl in.” The black Riviera itself is a mystery cloaked in “smeary-silvery glare and plush inner untouchability”, whose enigmatic qualities make it an appropriate substitute for God.

In the second stanza, the car appears silently out of nowhere to bestow a fleeting sense of grace – a plastic sack of drugs in lieu of holy communion – upon these young men, but the ritual is more than enough to enlarge how they see the world.

This is where the poem reveals itself to be a secular non-Christian parable but one profoundly concerned with spiritual yearning. The poem moves deeper into this metaphysical realm as the young men take the drugs which allow them to see ”time / Knocked akilter” or when dreaming of love inside the “little bathyspheres” of their bodies, to imagine :

Somebody else’s body pressures theirs

With kisses, like bursts of bloody oxygen,

Until, stunned, they’re dragged up,

Drawn from drowning, saved.


In fact some of us woke up that way.

These last two lines are interesting because of the double entendre hinging on that word saved which clearly implies a spiritual experience and extraordinary change, but the young men are saved from what exactly? The quotidian? Mere boredom? Self-centeredness? More drug-use?

I think what I like most about this poem is Jarman does not explain what that salvation looks like and lets readers come to their own understanding. What is clear, however, is the boys are now left with a vision of a transcendent reality, one which questions their finite selves and view of a temporal world. This is the great beauty of this poem: it is charged with religious feeling while remaining profane. If you enjoyed “Black Riviera”, please seek out Mark Jarman’s latest collection Epistles published by Sarabande books at your local bookstore.


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