Field Notes: Poetry News and Commentary

Robin Becker


When poets and editors choose work for a volume of new and selected poems, they seek, out of the poet's previous work, those poems that will endure. In such collections, readers can rediscover favorite poems that made the cut and re-experience them alongside new work. The 22 new meditations and lyrics that open Gail Mazur's Zeppo's First Wife: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press, 2005) clearly have their prosodic and thematic roots in Mazur's earlier poems. To honor those roots, I reprint below the title poem of Mazur's 1995 collection, "The Common," a poem that investigates citizenship, nation, power. The speaker recalls negotiating the "cobbled plaza" of public space with her two small children. Cultural markers ("folk songs, rock concerts, Sunday demonstrations") situate us in time. Contrasting to the "granite" and "concrete" for the Revolutionary and Civil War presidents is the "wood plaque, already rotting" for the transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Finally, the speaker's "take on faith" at poem's close centers our attention on the philosophical. How precarious, tenacious, and vulnerable are those who, yoked together in this poem, partake of "The Common."

The Common

Iron cannons from the Revolution. Ghost music---

folk songs, rock concerts, Sunday demonstrations.

A granite slab for the elm where Washington

took command. A new wood plaque, already rotting,

for Margaret Fuller Ossoli---the city fathers'

minimal nod to the life of her mind.

The black trunks of old maples brushed with snow,

their strong lines rephrases by snow's finery.

From a concrete gazebo, Abraham Lincoln

gazes down at the cobbled plaza where raffish

bands plugged in, and stoned crowds gathered;

my small son and daughter skipped ahead

of me, hand in hand, to the swings, the jungle

gym, the roundabout, and at home, pre-season

jonquils dazzled in a white crockery jug.

Stringed beads---necklaces, earrings---for sale

by a woman who's sat cross-legged on folded blankets

since those days, those days.

The season's worst cold brewing this early morning.

Two men huddled in damp sleeping bags spread out

on newspapers; convulsive dreams of their war.

The oaks. The maples. In the near-zero day

I take on faith, faith in Nature, that life's

machinery groans and strains in the frozen limbs.

Robin Becker's sixth collection of poems, Domain of Perfect Affection, will appear in the University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series in October 2006. Becker teaches poetry writing and arts reviewing in the English department and MFA Program at the Pennsylvania State University.


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