You Bet Your Life
Poet Gail Mazur on Robert Lowell, "the textural richness of the ordinary," and the value of artistic community
"Sometimes a shift in tone is all you'd need to make you happy," writes Gail Mazur in "American Ghazal," a poem in her new book, Zeppo's First Wife. This sizable volume showcases new poems and gathers selections from her four previous books—including They Can't Take That Away From Me (a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001). In the course of its 264 pages, its tone shifts many times. The opening poem, titled "Enormously Sad," explores the smallness of personal grief in the world, while the concluding poem, "Baseball," is a three-page ode to the game's "firm structure with the mystery / of accidents always contained."
The poetry in between is restless and canny, penned in the voice of a tough-minded, comic speaker who names the minute disconsolations of daily life and then urges herself to engage this named world more wholly or more deeply. "Gail, you can't choose to run away—so, be alive to the work / in this room," she writes at the end of "American Ghazal." Some poems ask but don't answer extended questions, others grapple with fraught concerns like suffering parents, while still others explore dreams, railway stations, war, and—more than once—the Red Sox. Throughout, Mazur accepts happenstance with intermingled gravity and wit, as in the memorable opening line of "In Houston": "I'd dislocated my life, so I went to the zoo."
Poems by Gail Mazur [with audio]:
"They Can't Take That Away From Me" (March 1998)
"Young Apple Tree, Decmeber" (December 1999)
"Bluebonnets" (March 1995)
Mazur, who is married to the painter Michael Mazur, works from a 1910 gabled, crenellated brick apartment complex a few blocks from Harvard. Her studio is sparsely furnished, with a daybed, a couch, two desks, a computer without Internet, and bookshelves that hold what she describes as a somewhat unrepresentative selection of what she is reading these days: Robert Lowell's notebooks, Chekov's letters, a book about the mysterious lost Russian "Amber Room," and The Marx Brothers' Encyclopedia. A longtime Cambridge resident, Mazur studied with Lowell in the 1970s and for more than twenty years directed a celebrated reading series she founded at the Blacksmith House Poetry Center in Harvard Square. She is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence in Emerson College's graduate writing program and teaches in the summer session of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
We spoke late last fall in person and via e-mail.