Circumference, Poetic Measurement, Mark Ward




Circumference usually relates to a part of the anatomy in gay poetry. Thankfully, Mark Ward’s Circumference has higher aspirations. His chapbook’s title conjures Donne’s famous image of a circle that is drawn as two souls, like the legs of a compass, yearn for one another. What evolves from the title is a fine collection of poems that map the boundaries of human life.

The plot of Circumference is simple and that is one of the book’s strengths. Tommy’s father is dying and that requires Tommy (the narrator) to return to Pepperell, a small town in Massachusetts. Inevitably, this results in a confrontation with his mother who has never coped with his sexual orientation, and memories of Mike, his first, traumatic love. The plot reads like the distillation of a larger work: only the bones are left. And this works wonderfully because it allows Ward, as the author, to concentrate on emotions: the reader is freed from narrative demands and allowed to follow every nuance of conflict and heartache. Ward creates the local flavour of Pepperell well, but just enough to allow the setting to generalise. It could be any small town anywhere, a place not unlike the many towns where young gay men have struggled to find themselves and stretch out their hands, like Blake’s God, but in defiance of Old Nobodaddy, to break the circle of their mental and bodily imprisonment. There is a sense in which Circumference is a modern morality play… it speaks to the gay Everyman as he wanders the world.

The poems are split into two time periods, 1939-42, when Tommy is in his teens and 1959, when he has reached the age of thirty-five. This sets Ward a novelist’s problem: he must create Tommy at 35 and Tommy’s recreation of himself at fourteen to eighteen— without becoming over sentimental and childish. The child-voice must exist with the man-voice. Ward spans this problem by writing poetry that selects a variety of fitting forms. The opening two poems illustrate this transition well.

       The intermittent man in my bed decides 
          tonight to talk, says Pepperell, 
       that can’t be a real place, and whatever little we had
       dies.

Stark, detached, casual, Tommy is depicted precisely. Then the tightly controlled verse opens lyrically as Mike is remembered: 

      I don't sleep                        the night
                     stretches out like
      days retreat                         into twilight
                     my missing Mike
      my soul to keep                   in line of sight
                     a lengthy hike
      haunting me                         so I decide

Rhyme stratifies adult feeling, the ee in sleep/retreat/keep, the like/Mike/hike progression, the night/light/sight final rhymes, and in the midst, a childish, Christian prayer: "Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” There is sophistication, but with Tommy at 14, a simpler list, as the poem switches between experience and innocence:

      Everyone knows what a homo is 
                                                               eyes locked to similar skin...
      his only interest, destroying innocence                                                      
                                                              he swaddles himself, trying [.]

Circumference is a slight book in length, but it is one that has taken a considerable amount of crafting and leaves an impression much deeper than its twenty-eight pages. This impact comes from the cohesion created by Ward. A sequence is a difficult object to create, too much flow and it melts away, poems only have meaning within a whole, too static and it is just a collection of loose poems without relationship. The four in-the-present poems that are titled Circumference are fluid creations whereas the in-the-past poems are discrete pieces— some, like the heartfelt “Resisting Existence”, could be stand alone poems. The result is that of a mind in full flow as it faces a crisis in the present and a mind that perceives the past in terms of key, self-contained events. Such is a true reflection on how memory develops with age. If we look back through time, to a moment of real emotion, Sterne’s sentimental absurd, points at which time’s narrative deepens around some small event, we can feel ourselves re-writing that event until we have a story that makes intimate sense. There are poems in Circumference that do this sublimely, poems such as “A School Photograph” and “Monsters in the Closet.”

                  Saturdays are spent in the dark;
                  a creature double feature, Mike’s hand
                  clasped in mine, or trailing tickles
                  down forearms. In almost darkness
                  heads can find shoulders, heartbeats
                  slow to satiated symmetry.
                 
A childish event, going to the cinema, a treat, yet over it arcs a child’s recognition of a psychological darkness and a worrying awareness of how reality and the unreal mime one another.

In a world where size falsely matters, novels are about blockbusters and trilogies and poetry is about the volume of around seventy poems (usually stuffed with a lot of dross that detracts from the fine poems) it is good to see a small press back a piece of short, quality writing that is well worth reading and well worth buying.

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