Awkward Grace by Mark Tulin, 43pp Kelsay Books. Review by Sarah Law
There is absolutely a tangible sense of grace in the twenty-seven poems in this latest pamphlet (or chapbook) by regular Amethyst Review contributor Mark Tulin. While reading them, I found many sensitively presented scenes, images, voices and details, all given the sort of luminous resonance that poetic attention can provide. At the same time, I’ve been puzzling over the ‘awkward’ designation in this pamphlet’s thought-provoking title. How can grace be awkward? At first glance, the term seems something of an oxymoron. Grace more generally implies a sort of blessed ease, a moment of gift and insight rather than one of mismatched clumsiness or social embarrassment. But reading on, I started to gain further insights into Tulin’s choice of title. Tulin’s professional background is as a therapist, and he admits in ‘Therapist’s Disease’ that he is inclined to ‘diagnose/ everyone I meet’. But his diagnostic ability is overlaid with a poet’s sensibilities, and this collection allows Tulin to sense the obscure beauty of people struggling with circumscribed lives. Many of the characters in the poems – sometimes described in the third person and at other times given a first-person voice of their own – are homeless, despairing, addicted, or otherwise mentally or physically disadvantaged. Tulin can find poetry in the abandoned and bereaved, and indeed in the simply unappreciated, such as the worker ‘in ‘Ancient Pyramid’ who dies as he lived, from ‘years of bagging potatoes and drinking whiskey’.
By contrast to this some poems offer a sort of absurdist delight amid imagined chaos, such as the survivors at the end of ‘Tsunami Morning’ (previously published in Amethyst Review)
‘a Hatha yoga instructor named Laura,
a canonized Saint from Walla Walla,
and an investment broker from Kalamazoo.’
I enjoyed the sense of fun amid this poetic narrative of fragmentation and contingency. And haphazard findings form something of a thread in other poems, as impoverished characters search for, and occasionally find, a serendipitous wealth in items discarded as trash by our throwaway culture. For this reason, I particularly liked ‘Bountiful Treasures’ which observes a down-and-out searching for something – of interest, of distraction, of lost innocence perhaps – inside a bin.
He smiles when he opens the dumpster lid.
He admires all of its bountiful treasures,
rich with hidden secrets,
tokens and trinkets from childhood.
He pulls out a pen,
a child’s toy, an old wooden flute.
He places them in his cart,
a vehicle, a conduit for hope. …
I couldn’t help thinking that the protagonist of this poem metaphorically has something of the poet about him: searching through abandoned scraps for images and inspiration. I was reminded of the famous imagery in Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’ when the mother skunk searches for food among rubbish – Lowell’s analogy for the new (in the 1950s) sort of confessional poet, willing to search through life’s trash rather than life’s triumphs for the authentic poetic spark. Not that Tulin is primarily a confessional poet; rather his sensitivity towards the downcast and outcast make him an empathetic conduit for their experiences. I was reminded of another famous confessional poet, Anne Sexton, too, in poems such as ‘In the Asylum’ although Sexton’s poems on a similar subject were lived, and her own madness was, arguably, her all-consuming theme.
Tulin’s settings are not confined to extremity or dereliction: several pieces here are set in coffee shops, others in the refuge of libraries and bookshelves and consider the refuge such ordinary venues can provide (damaged veterans can ‘dress their gashes in prose or verse’ in ‘Behind Bookcases’). ‘Quiet of the Park’ offers an accumulation of quite beautiful, if plangent images, ‘ I drift off in the quiet of the park where the rustling leaves keep me company…’ : this one reminded me of James Wright’s famous hammock at William Duffy’s farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. Whatever the situation of a poem’s speaker, they are frequently able to say: ‘I still have my words to read./ I still have my poetry.’ (from the title poem, ‘Awkward Grace’). Even in utter despair there is a blessing and a poetic image to perceive: ‘I bathe in the water, / feeling blessed/ by the abandoned angels/ above the dark red sky,’ says the lost soul in ‘Last Cigarette’.
There is plenty of unforced poetry here, then, and a profound engagement in the experience of those perceived to be less fortunate. Does this make the grace depicted awkward? I’m still puzzled by the term. There is certainly no awkwardness in the language and shaping used in the poems: lines are notably calm and reflective throughout, with accessible syntax and easily read end-stopped lines. Perhaps, however, there is an awkwardness in the poet’s use of these discarded lives to create poetry that the subjects may not appreciate themselves – is Tulin the ‘artful voyeur’ that Seamus Heaney once famously accused himself of being? I actually don’t think so, partly because the poems are so humbly accessible, and partly because of Tulin’s obvious empathy with his subjects – he presents what could be his own experiences in some of the poems too. Ultimately, I wonder whether the awkwardness is intended for me, the reader to experience: after my attention has been drawn to the poignancy of life’s brief respites for those on the margins, what is my subsequent responsibility? In what ways have I facilitated unnecessary suffering and how far should I find beauty in, or help redeem such suffering – and are these two approaches directly conflicting, or part of the same humanitarian project? Awkward grace indeed, or perhaps, necessarily thought-provoking. My thanks to Mark Tulin, who in this pamphlet has given me a window onto the poetry that occurs after ‘the street lights go dim and the shops close / and only a few souls are left walking alone.’ (‘The Community Piano’).