Sundays on the Phone by Mark Rudman. Wesleyan.
Reviewed by Daniel Sofaer
Readers expecting a mood of ease and hominess, of a quiet Sunday chat on the phone, will soon encounter something more intense. We learn early in the book that Rudman mostly dreaded his mother’s phone calls, which rang shrilly on a green phone at exactly 10:47 AM. In fact, most of the mother-son conversations in the book are face-to-face conversations, and this is all to the good, since Rudman is a kind of lyric dramatist, and his mother’s character impresses us most in person.
Though this book is the last volume in a quintet, it stands on its own quite well. Some of the poems present Marjorie directly, in some we catch glimpses of her, while others are still more remote, but linked to the story of Mark and Marjorie by themes like shock, displacement, the sense of violent attack: “In my mental world, someone is always attacking me.” Rudman also intersperses the poem with lighter pieces about his childhood and youth.
Hovering over the characters of mother and son are the tragic figures and sublime unsteady language of Medea and Hamlet. Rudman spins a metadramatic megafantasy, in which these two greats face off without bothering too much about Gertrude and Jason. Rudman lets in Medea by including a poem inspired by the Abbey Theatre fall 2002 production starring Fiona Shawe, at the climax of which Rudman heard what he renders as a “horripilating electronic screech.” Hamlet comes in a little later, once mother and son get to talking.
What most moves me in the book is a courageous and sometimes desperate effort to find common terms, common ground. Mother and son have come to live in different worlds. They speak very different English. Rudman isn’t afraid to represent himself, the character in the book I’m calling Mark, in a somewhat unattractive light, as a bit of an aesthetic snob. For instance, one feels while reading it matters a little too much to Mark whether his mother has read Jane Austen or the poems of Blake, whether she knows Latin. This self-representation amounts to a self-reckoning, even an atonement. For his mother wins out in the end, and the poet Rudman wins too by rescuing her words from oblivion. Also, in the end, he does find common ground, common language, and proves to all concerned that his mother did authorize him to be a poet, despite never having conferred on him the official title.
One artistic thing Mark learned from his mother was concentration, trance: “When she played [a record], she listened.” And as she later remarks, “I know about trances, why do you think / I did all that painting, gardening, swimming.” When she finds him listening to her copy of Ella in Berlin, she tells him that what he is hearing is called scat. “I adored the name like a key to an earthly heaven.” And Rudman is careful to transcribe: “da da da da dee dee dee deed um dad um dad um da da da da . . .” They could discuss “Walker Evans’ Depression period,” go to museums, and in her letters his mother presented him a calmer, more verbally masterful self. They also share a psychological incisiveness, a hatred of phoniness, and a sort of feminist protest at the stupidity of the men around them, their unfair advantages in life.
When Marjorie gets older, this side of her gradually disappears, and Mark experiences more of her rage and compulsiveness. He is also disappointed by the fact that she takes no interest in his son Sam. It is grim but funny that the only question she ever asks Sam, and only when told to ask him directly, is “Do you eat anything other than steak and noodles?” But the way his mother speaks in her rages is also close to poetry, closer, perhaps, than Mark’s proper diction. There is something ludicrous about Mark’s “She must have intuited that because I was little I would like the diminutive fowl.” Compare the bluntness but also the playful metonymy of one of Marjorie’s mantras: “I married one bottle and then I married another bottle . . . I didn’t know that Rabbis came with bottles.” Elsewhere, Rudman manages to juxtapose the voices of son and mother in a single line: “you unsheathed your spite and penned / a vicious missive about ‘two skuzzballs, human slime . . .’” But my favorite of Marjorie’s dicta has to do with her brother-in-law, Mark’s uncle: “Mark, Jack wasn’t a fake. He didn’t have to play mind games or lay on the charm like Sidney. He wasn’t a talker, he was a doer. It was he who introduced the idea of aptitude testing as a business.” That’s the beautiful humorous note that goes back to Delmore Schwartz’s “America, America.” It doesn’t matter that aptitude testing is now soberly questioned by readers of the Times. Marjorie is talking about the life she has seen and lived. As Schwartz’s story puts it: “She spoke always of her own life or of the lives of her friends; of what had been; what might have been; of fate, character and accident; and especially of the mystery of the family life, as she had known it and reflected upon it.”