Mark Halliday

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Mark Halliday
July 2011

Hello Aaron, I have a Michigan poet for you, today, sort of. Mark Halliday was born in Ann Arbor. He and my nephew Kevin were in Rome together a few years ago when they had both won the Prix de Rome. Kevin wrote to me, “Do you know Mark Halliday?” He’s a really terrific poet.” I had to admit, “Well, barely,” and I started reading more of Halliday’s work. I’m glad to have the chance to feature him on our show.

Halliday went to Brown University, and got his PhD from Brandeis. You may notice, Aaron, that many of the poets I bring to the show have advanced degrees of some sort. Not all. There are some brilliant poets who don’t. But many of our best poets do. I have to say I think it’s true that deep and prolonged study, under the kind of pressure a curriculum puts on us, tends to make for some of our best poetry. By best, I mean rich, allusive, taking in a large sense of the world and seeing it in a new light. A good poem always stands on the back of its many predecessors. We can be aware even without consciously knowing it of the richness of the tradition that’s embedded in the contemporary poem.

Mark Halliday’s collections of poetry are Little Star (1987), which was selected for the National Poetry Series; Tasker Street (1992), which won the Juniper Prize; Jab (2002); and Keep This Forever (2008). He’s won the Rome Fellowship, which I mentioned, in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation Writer’s Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He’s taught at Indiana University, Western Michigan University, and Ohio University.

Listen to this poem, first published in a journal called ABZ.

THE FLOWER SHOW

Dot, when life seems a great opportunity mostly wasted
in stupidities of role-playing on a humid thronged planet

one image I see is you and me that day
inching through the hordes of strangely unbored gardeners
past somebody’s champion pretty yet merely botanical petunias.

Dorothy – Dot – what mattered to you
even more than reading a good book was talking
in a thoughtful and generous way with someone
who wanted to understand and be understood.
I know that now, eleven years after your death;
I knew it then too, on the day we went to the Flower Show
but without clear access to what I knew.
I was your affectionate but very distractable nephew,
glancing constantly at a movie in my head called My Amazing Career

and our trip that day to the Flower Show was a mistake, Dot,
a misuse of life, the three hours of getting to the Flower Show
and shuffling there amid thousands of flower-lovers
and finally getting out of there in time
only for a hurried late snack before your train
from Philadelphia back to New York.

Neither of us cared about prizewinning perfect flowers!
Not at all! But in spiritual laziness
I treated you like a cliché, someone’s widowed aunt,
like someone in a tedious novel, and I said
(maybe unconsciously wanting to avoid your gentle serious
questions about my work and my marriage)
“Shall we go to the International Flower Show?”

If there were an afterlife, Dot, like a patio in a quiet garden
we could meet at a white table there
and consider what was and wasn’t squandered
in our human lives, glancing occasionally at the colorful backdrop
of eternity’s nodding flowers.

I love “afterlife like a patio in a quiet garden.” and I love the gentleness of this poem. David Graham describes Halliday’s work as “ultra-talk.” It’s that sense you have as you listen of just talk, but heightened so that you pay a new kind of attention. The New Yorker called Halliday, “a Whitman in a supermarket.” That seems like a good thing to me.
Here’s a short little poem called “First Wife.” He gets, to my mind, perfectly that sense of loss that comes back in a second, when it’s summoned by some trigger from the past.

FIRST WIFE

Each of us carries secret scars in spirit always ready
to be wakened into wounds, ready as if waiting
as if to be wakened into wounds is a debt forever unpaid;
a song suddenly brings the invoice again
and finds the screen door forever unlatched –

as when I hear “Save the Last Dance for Me”
and think immediately of Annie
and how I always said I would.

And one last poem, called

PATHOS OF THE MOMENTARY SMILE

(it has appeared online at the webzine Poemeleon) There’s a long stanza of this poem that’s in italics. it’s the part that begins, “though many men are dangerous.” I’ll try to read in italics.

Like nearly all women under fifty she would have deftly
avoided meeting the eyes of an unknown man –

but occasionally an exception happens by chance
and her unconscious skill at avoidance gets instantly
replaced by a human generosity which is either
inherently feminine or gender-trained, as you please;

she glanced at me exactly when I glanced at her
in the store at the mall and so she gave me
that momentary slight smile which implies

Though many men are dangerous, and I do not intend
to suggest the slightest likelihood that you and I will
meet or talk, much less make love and
much less together conceive a sweet helpless child,
still our eyes have just met and in this there is
an undeniable contact between your humanity and mine
and you are probably coping with some difficulties
of masculine humanity while I cope with those
of feminine humanity; and so I wish you well.

Her smile said this
but I did not smile back because –
because guys don’t do that – because
we are strong and separate and firm and without softness!

So then the next moment had come and we had walked apart
in our two differently inflected kinds of routine loneliness.

Carl Shapiro said “poetry is a way of seeing things, not a way of saying things.” It may actually be both, but of the two, the seeing seems to me the most crucial. In Halliday’s poems, it’s the angle his mind takes on the events, the way he sees his trip to the flower show with his aunt, the way he sees, that brief eye contact with a woman in a mall, that makes the poetry. This is Mark Halliday.