Thursday, May 31, 2007


To the Cognescenti is Tom Mandel’s twelfth book¹ in just under 30 years. But it’s also his first in ten, eleven if you disallow his collaboration with the late Dan Davidson, Absence Sensorium, as a special project. Another way of saying this would be that Tom Mandel published ten books from the ages of 36 through the age of 54, and one solo edition since. That’s not an unusual pattern for a mature poet – Mandel hasn’t resorted to the Quietist dodge of tacking a half dozen pieces to an evolving “New & Selected” that gets reissued under different titles every few years. As I once heard Anselm Hollo express this same progression, the older you get the more reasons you can think of not to put some certain set of words down on paper, especially if you feel you’ve written that before. From the outside, this might look like increasing caution setting in with one’s second half century. My own sense is that it’s really more a phenomenon of sharpening one’s focus.

Focus is the story of the poet Tom Mandel. As peripatetic as his vocational career has proven – he’s worked everywhere including the California Arts Council, Macmillan Books (where he worked on the novels of Harry Matthews but also published Jonathan Livingston Seagull), SuperCuts (where he was in charge of marketing), ComputerLand back when it was the largest single employer of poets in the 1980s, some venture involving golf shoes from Pakistan, directing the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, plus positions with a half dozen or more software startup firms – Mandel tuned in fairly early on to the fact that he was, or was going to be, a fundamentally spiritual poet. I first noticed this in Realism, published by Burning Deck in 1991, but reading through his books in reverse order now, I think it really starts to become obvious much earlier, no later than his fourth volume, Central Europe. He is, alongside Fanny Howe & Norman Fischer, one of the relatively few post-avants of the past half century for whom the axis of poetry is precisely the spiritual plane.

This may seem surprising, given that Mandel is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the language poets, a product (like David Melnick) of a Straussian education at the University of Chicago, a one-time student of Hannah Arendt’s & protégé of sorts of Saul Bellow (which led to the job at Macmillan & certainly didn’t hurt getting the position with the Poetry Center), a serious reader of philosophy & theory (not just the usual suspects, either), a one-time member of the famed (and self-named) “Jew Group” of San Francisco alongside the likes of Melnick & Ben Friedlander who brought their critical and close reading skills to the Old Testament², and nowadays a familiar site at any number of social technology conferences³ (indeed, the photo of Tom I posted for our reading in Baltimore was taken by digerati maven Esther Dyson).

This I think Tom would tell me is a both/and rather than an either/or situation. Not dissimilarly, one notices similarities & affinities in his poetry that are themselves unique among the langpos – the impact of Edmond Jabès, for one, and of Harry Matthews’, the lone individual to hold membership both in the NY School & Oulipo. Mandel’s stanzas have an elegance & efficiency – qualities that don’t always go together – that reminds me at times of Michael Gottlieb or John Yau or maybe what the gorgeous vehicles Michael Palmer constructs might look like if they were given eight- or twelve-cylinder engines. The result is that the poems of Tom Mandel’s are at once quite familiar & yet unlike those of any other writer in my generation. Viz the tenth section of his Cognescenti’s title poem (one of two long works that bracket a suite of recent short pieces entitled “First Poems”), which has itself something akin to a section title, in italics, “later the narrator finds himself where…

The sun rises even when there is
little to say, and goes down
behind it in darkness.

Winds come full tilt over the crest
of a hill bathing the house.
Smoke rising in a profound

column of nightfulness; wind
drinks inside the cloud.
The moon rises next.

Now comes Porky Pig in her
professorial gown sounding
like Donald Duck and ready to consent

or consume whatever avidity draws.
”There are no shells in your shotgun,”
she spits. “Just stick a finger

in your mouth as if to vomit
down the barrel.”
I’ve found
one like her in every such place.

Perhaps she was driven from
to rule the world, or from
Jerusalem to wander it. Either way

she is in my path. “You who hold
words in your hand, be sure
to read them in their state of production.

One enough, alone enough
at home enough we are together
you and I when I write them.”

I suspect that the cartoon allusions will call to mind the likes of John Ashbery & Kenneth Koch, but there is a sharpness to Mandel’s tone you won’t find in either. There is more Thomas Nast than Looney Tunes in that portrayal. Similarly, it’s interesting – and ultimately undecidable, I think – to try to figure out just whose words those are captured by the section’s final quotes. If they belong to Professor Pig, then here is an instant of true reconciliation. But if to the author, then a wave of regret floods the language (and the reader). Which is it? And how best parse that sequence: One, alone, at home, we are together? The asymmetry of the relationship wobbles dramatically. Yet the poem functions precisely by maintaining its balance.

Mandel is at his strongest in these longer forms. My own version of his selected poems would be nothing but. They deepen as they build, yet Mandel seems adamant in his refusal to provide any sort of (easy) closure. Mandel concludes one section of “Cheshbon ha-nefesh,” the book’s other long sequence, named for the process of personal accounting – literally taking inventory of the soul – first articulated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin in 1812, with the question “where shall I look for an answer?” This to a question asked, not for the first time, two sections later, again with its final words: “What makes me happy?”

That is the kind of question that will drive a restless imagination, and Mandel’s clearly driven to pursue this vertical quest – vertigo is not an atypical response at different moments along the way – across the horizontal dimensions of the real. I feel fortunate to have been able to accompany Tom through his books on this journey for three decades now. I’d love to feel that we have another three yet to travel.


¹ They’re listed, albeit not exactly in chronological order, on the rear cover of Cognescenti and with Mandel’s Gaz Press production, Four Strange Books, rendered stranger still by a new title: Three Strange Books.

² This was, as I understand it, a follow-on to Robert Duncan’s “Homer Club” that read the Greek author in his native tongue.

³ Not, however, to be confused with professional futurist Thomas F. Mandel who died in 1995.


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