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Reviewed by:
  • Sundays on the Phone
  • Nicholas Benson (bio)
Mark Rudman. Sundays on the Phone. Wesleyan University Press.

Few contemporary poets can be said to “contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman did. Mark Rudman is one of them, as evidenced by his Rider quintet, which culminates in Sundays on the Phone. The winner of numerous prizes (The National Book Critics Circle Award, the Max Hayward Award for a translation of Boris Pasternak, and numerous fellowships), Rudman has been widely praised for his work, which manages to be ambitious and intimate, harrowing and funny. When his last book, The Couple, was published, Harold Pinter commented that Rudman had “woven an extraordinarily rich and highly original tapestry. It’s an impressive achievement.” Thom Gunn wrote of Rider (1994), the quintet’s first volume, that it was “[t]he most believable book I have ever read about love.” An exceptionally well-read writer, and as much a cultural commentator as a writer of poems, Rudman has won some of the highest awards. His work, written in a seamless blend of verse and prose, the traditional and colloquial, documentary and personal, combines elements of biography, lyric, conversation, essay, and asides. Yet he remains, in the best sense, a poet’s poet, and it may well be the wide-ranging, discursive element of his poetic—which requires more than the brief investment of time allotted by so many readers—that has so far precluded his work from gaining the wider audience that it so richly deserves. This seems particularly true now, since Rudman’s control of the demotic and of the multiple themes of class, race, poverty, and privilege has reinvigorated an art that often appears remote from public concerns and the polis. Here is a poet who confronts suffering, and is himself engaged in a poetic salvage operation through which he is able to transform anger (that which embittered his mother and caused his father to commit suicide) into energy. Rudman has evolved an autobiographical epic of surprising emotional and intellectual power. Surveying his output over the last decade, one gets the feeling that his achievement will soon garner wider recognition.

Rudman’s method has diverse antecedents. Denis Diderot and Edmond Jabès have been mentioned by reviewers before (and there is a short piece on Jabès in Diverse Voices, Rudman’s 1993 book of essays). Rudman’s mercurial, colloquial verse dialogue that crosses metaphysical boundaries recalls James Merrill; and the cinematic touches—voice over, concise director’s notes, asides, digressions—bring to mind the Pasolini of “A Desperate Vitality.” Dialogic verse that ranges from high diction to low dates from Dante, Shakespeare, and Whitman, but Rudman also has [End Page 181] translated Euripides, and written adaptations (“palimpsests”) of Horace and Ovid. He is acutely aware that to work in language is to work with freighted material, and he has remarked that “the American poet is often deluded by the fantasy of not being weighed down with antiquity, of having an opportunity to encounter history anew without an overlay.” The classics are the model par excellence for reimagining the family and individual as the striated site of civic morality, and Rudman shares a talent for translation—and for the transposition of classical examples— with Frank Bidart and C. K. Williams, two elder contemporaries. The classics also have been formally rejuvenating for Rudman: “I found that modernism was implicit in Horace, with his sudden leaps, allusions, reversals, turnings, and complex use of form and sound based on Greek models [. . .] Horace’s sudden leaps to another plane were prophetic of catastrophe theory.” In a piece titled “Catastrophe Practice” in his 1995 book of essays, Realm of Unknowing, Rudman appraises Nicholas Mosley’s writing as a strategy of fragments, intuitively sequential and capable of acknowledging the simultaneity and transhistoricity of subjective time. Rudman’s point is that Mosley’s style allows for a closer representation of how the mind works—sometimes stimulated to move ahead by the sudden shocks of catastrophe, other times immobilized by known limits, halfmeasures, the conditioning past. “Stammerers stammer because they can’t render what is in the mind—the larger picture, lost unity—in sequential speech. The stammerer has not repressed the...


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pp. 181-186
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