Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Mark Pawlak's Go To the Pine


It is extremely rare for me to review anyone’s work on this blog. I’ve only done it once before, when the stars aligned in a bizarre yet catalytic syzygy. The ‘poet’ I reviewed was Kenny Cole, who probably doesn’t even consider himself a poet. He is widely known and self-described as an artist, one who happens to use phrases and quotes in many of his canvases and drawings. That is one of the reasons I reviewed him, the challenge of explaining why he could be seen as a poet, an alchemist of symbol who transforms words into groundbreaking, permeable states.

I also know Cole personally, in the face-to-face kind of way, not through the aether. We don’t just kibitz as avatars in a web. Also, I greatly--and I would like to underscore the adverb many times--admire his ethos and its manifestation: his all-out, courageous and incessant criticism of our addiction to war, including the financial double-dealings, mendacious rhetoric and weaponized consumerism that goes along.

Today I am reviewing Mark Pawlak’s poetry book, Go to the Pine: Quoddy Journals 2005-2010, published by Bootstrap Productions. Why? Pawlak has a formidable presence in the history of modern poetry. He studied with Denise Levertov in the late 60’s (more on this later), and has edited the venerable journal Hanging Loose for thirty-two years. Hanging Loose has been around for forty-six years, an incredible tenure, and recently celebrated its 100th issue at the Brooklyn Public Library. Harvey Shapiro, past editor of New York Times Book Review, started off the panegyrics, followed by many more personages.

Secondly, Pawlak’s interactions with Levertov were the opposite of superficial. Her morality, her passion, her motivations, moved the young lad vastly, opening his heart to social justice with an impetus that proved enduring-- a lifelong momentum of questioning authority, especially its twisted relationship with mass violence. Think Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex.”

(Don’t make the mistake of mothballing Einsenhower’s warning. See Aaron B. O’Connell’s recent and chilling op-ed in the New York Times, “The Permanent Militarization of America”).

Think of advancing technology for one primary purpose: to create bigger and stronger weapons to inflict wider and greater damage. This is the political vista that Pawlak surveyed in 1970 as he contemplated a full-paid scholarship to graduate school at MIT. The awakening poet and humanist ended up rejecting that scholarship (part of me wants to say “refuting”), unable to reconcile with what had come to be known as the “Pentagon on the Charles.”

Pawlak dared to face what Walter Cronkite’s evening news could not: the Vietnam War as a monstrous evil. Not in a Biblical sense but rather in the secular logic of inducing mass murder and nightmarish denial. In the middle class suburbs of America, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” played on, even as Nixon dropped more bombs on Laos than all the bombs we dropped during WWII.

Pawlak dared crack his eyes, propelled by Levertov, and became permanently stung. Psychically transformed. His memoir is forthcoming and I look forward to purchasing it. How do I know so much about Pawlak? We sat down to lunch in my hometown of Lubec, Maine. Face to face. The awakening of the late 60’s still burns in his heart. Fervent.

And why, you might ask, was Pawlak, a professor of math in Boston, having lunch with an Owl in the remote town of Lubec?

Well, Go To the Pine punctuates six years of visits in and around Lubec. In sum, I am reviewing Pawlak’s book because: (a) I greatly admire his Levertov-inspired ethic, (b) he is a tremendous leader and legendary figure in realms poetic, (c) we met face to face, (d) the book focuses on the region around my home, which is pretty amazing given that I live 50 miles from the nearest traffic light.

You might be thinking: Is that darned Owl ever going to talk about the book itself? I am indeed. But my philosophy is that an artist’s ethic affects the aesthetic of his or her work. This is no doubt so controversial a premise that many would call it laughable. But this is my blog, my review, and I think it is important to spell out the ethos of Pawlak. Without hale ethos, the quality of a poet’s work, in my thoughts, is lesser. I know you disagree. Let’s move on, happily because Pawlak satisfies one of my chief criteria.

Given all my hullabaloo about justice, you might be surprised that Go To the Pine is not at all a work of protest. At least not overtly. As a full-time resident of Lubec and previous denizen of Los Angeles, I can say that simply being Down East is a relief from the hundreds of insidious weights that can laden the shoulders of the urban dweller, unnoticed until the cement landscape is traded for the green, granite and brine of streetlight-less space.

I don’t think you will find a single phrase or reference in Pawlak’s book to anything industrial, machine-like or military. And yet he isn’t taking a naive bucolic approach to the Quoddy region. I hate to say it--because it is going to draw attention to Lubec, invite more visitors, which could well lead to philistine fence-posts and yuppification--but Pawlak has, in these poems, crafted the sort of apt spell that comes from (a) dedication to a demanding midsummer muse, and (b) the application of a poetic brilliance, cultivated painstakingly over decades.

This book could well crack the damn of anonymity that has partially protected Quoddy from a horde of tourista attention. It is a trenchant masterwork, superbly honed, and very accessible. The works appear in the chronological format of a diary, and yet might as well be a capricious assemblage of emotion-rich tinctures for tattooing the adventurous soul. There is a feel of optimal aphorism. And a dash of the economy of haiku. But also much more, none of it reducing to the methods it subsumes. The basic foundation of the oeuvre, as I read it, is free verse that somehow siphons into itself some of the magic of structured tradition. Once in a while, Pawlak will label a piece “Sarabande,” “Passacaille,” “Chaconne” or some such thing; but the playfulness and creativity far exceed any implied constraint.

Don’t think that Pawlak is painting Quoddy as some ideal Arcadian oasis. He can wax kind, and rightly so; but he also bares the gruff, harsh underbelly of this angular, frangible region, sometimes, I think, without even knowing it. The title, for instance, Go To the Pine, has special and personal meaning for me. One of my favorite backpacking trips in Lubec involves a 300 acre stretch that has only a single white pine left. Pine trees were largely logged out, leaving mostly spruce, which is true of the whole region. Pawlak’s use of “Pine” instead of “Pines” has captured, in a subtle way, that rarity.

Pawlak also reveals that he embraces almost secret things, Lubecker kind of things, that most all city-rushers don’t know or hold special. We have around here a mammal called a fisher that eats our local porcupines, leaving only the spiky skin. On a recent backpack, I saw four such gutted quill-shells. Not redolent with the glory of nature, is it? But Pawlak isn’t afraid:


The fisher is a fearless predator ... will face off with a porcupine, snapping at the animal’s snout until it goes into shock; then it will roll the body over to get at its soft underbelly. Evidence: the empty sack of quills in roadside ditch.

You can find raw variegated vignettes like this all through the book, from the grim to the chucklish to the honorific. The Down East culture gets its share of notice, too. I was tickled that the talented bard from Boston found interest in local flavor that had long ago settled below my conscious:


... violation of scallop rule, $250
... hand fishing sea urchin without license, $500
... negotiating worthless instrument, $150
... violation of marine worm rule, $250
... failing to kindle in prudent manner, $100

Machias District Court Cases, Bangor Daily News

The serene, the beautiful, the sensuous and the colossal are fully represented in this book. Here are a couple of the “Six Acts,” which wonderfully engage coast, horizon, sky and sun (20:VII:07):

Mist peels away
slowly in bands
to reveal the crown
bristling with firs.

Fog thins
while sun climbs,
hand over hand, up
a ladder of branches.

Maybe my favorite Pawlak theme--maybe--emerges in those entries where fringes of nature serve as both seeress and gorgon, a font of unstable magic and bittersweet bliss. Such places are always perilous yet rewarding for the human touch:


Today, my preoccupation
is this cracked, seamed,
frost-heaved, tarmac road
along whose crumbling
shoulders, edged with gravel
squadrons of bees patrol
the hydra-headed chamomile
just coming into flower.

Go To the Pine reminds me of that one isolated white pine near Porcupine Mountain where I have more than once pitched my tent, and found myself able to observe ranks of eagles in smooth, bark-shucked grandmother trees, and passels of frogs, half turned into waterlogged leaves, in a beaver-created pondlet. Go to the Pine reminds me of the jokes, jingles, jabs and a bit of drunken jabberwocky at my favorite eating holes and local stores. Go To the Pine, which is ultimately tinged with nostalgia (a ghost from a different kind of existence, in an unpresent world, is channeling through Pawlak) reminds me of what we have lost in the cities, in the bowels of capitalism, and the advance of its isolative cubic egoism; and yet Go To the Pine is not offering answers or solving dilemmas. It challenges you, with a disarmingly simple eloquence, to find your own path, to make the Down East region your guide not only to Maine but also your way.

You must say how, though. Pawlak will not do it for you.

My fear is that this book will open the floodgates of capital and cottage. It is that good. Its pages swim, lope and soar with meanings that you, the person who has money and the will to travel, are missing in the city--and yet that lack will accompany you to Quoddy if you are not careful. In this sense, like all great works, Go to the Pine offers healing and yet, paradoxically, it is a dangerous tome.

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