City-of-the-Broad-Shoulders Bard: James Reiss on Mark Perlberg’s Waiting for the Alchemist

waiting for the alchemist

Waiting for the Alchemist, Mark Perlberg, Louisiana State University Press

June 23, 2009 marked the first anniversary of Mark Perlberg’s death. I missed his memorial service last September, but as a newcomer to the Windy City I’ve been aware how keenly Perlberg has been missed. It’s been more than forty years since he helped found Chicago’s Poetry Center, together with Paul Carroll, Paul Hoover, Lisel Mueller, and others. For years he was its president and spiritual CEO. Ever since Ruth Lilly willed what finally totaled two hundred million dollars to her own pet charity nearly seven years ago, Chi Town’s—and perhaps the entire nation’s—major sugar daddy, as far as verse is concerned, has been the Poetry Foundation with its magazine, “Poetry.” Still, the impact of Perlberg’s brainchild is felt in every program sponsored by Chicago’s comparatively minuscule Poetry Center. Moreover, Perlberg appears to have long been a benevolent presence when it came to supporting local poets. He and his wife Anna’s house on Stratford Place was one of the safest havens for City-of-the-Broad-Shoulders bards of all stripes.

It may be no surprise, then, that his fourth book is as generous and unpretentious as he must have personally been. I never met Perlberg in the flesh, but, on the basis of this book, I’m betting he was as nice a guy as the poet who was once described as a Boy Scout, William Stafford. If many of our most renowned poets have been self-absorbed jerks—to use a polite term—not every renowned poet conforms to this stereotype. I don’t want to make exorbitant claims for Perlberg’s work here, only to point out that his short, self-effacing poems are pretty damned sweet and worthy of your $17.95. Appropriately, reviewing for “Gently Read Literature,” I’ve read Perlberg’s final book with what Chaucer and medieval writers called gentilesse; my essay is more of a tribute or appreciation—surely moreso than a review by, say, William Logan.

The first poem here, “Orchids and Eagles,” is a pared-down free-verse sixteen-liner about a power outage on Perlberg’s summer vacation haunt, Vinalhaven, Maine. While he’s playing cribbage by candlelight, he recalls a hotel dining room in Morelia, Mexico—which happens to be the home city of Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón. A déjà-vu moment takes him back thirty years and leads him to his fourth quatrain:

What is memory? Praise it. Praise its strings and loops
of orchids floating in the night above the old Mexican town—
and yesterday—that pair of eagles, drifting,
floating above the island, dallying with the wind.

This upbeat finale, given the down-in-the-mouth, even nightmarish, ways the poem might have unfolded, is characteristic of Perlberg’s unflappable good cheer. Readers yearning for Larkinesque sarcasm may not rest easy with the nostalgia infusing this poem, along with others here. The image of eagles “drifting” brings to mind our south-of-the-border neighbor’s flag emblazoned with its coat of arms, an eagle devouring a snake. Rather than following its initial rhetorical question by defining “memory,” the stanza turns into an incantatory psalm of praise for “la recherche du temps perdu”—or, if you prefer Mexico’s lingo, “la busca del tiempo perdido”!

This is not to say that Perlberg is Panglossian, but that he is one of those rare birds who, to paraphrase W. S. Gilbert, takes life as it comes. Face to face with terminal leukemia, the septuagenarian Perlberg’s longest poem here, “Song of the Platelets,” steadfastly refuses to rage against the dying of the light. Instead, “Song” dramatizes conversations Perlberg has, principally with an African-American nurse, Benina, and with an unnamed volunteer, a retired rabbi who has come to comfort him at the hospital. Like her poet patient, Benina is a diehard looker-on-the-bright-side when she tells Perlberg, “‘Now come platelets—be nice. / We need to get this young man / outta this place for New Years. / Talk to your platelets / Mr. Mark. Talk to them!’” Later when the rabbi advises Perlberg about “‘Hashem, / God the merciful,’” the poet grouses, “‘I hate to say this to you Rabbi. . . . / Even the sublime 23rd is a cop-out, a pipedream. / I ask myself, do I want it read at my funeral? / It’s poetry, not promise.’” (As urgent and moving as John Updike’s final hospital poems are, they steer clear of dealing with life-and-death Biblical textual issues.) To top things off, Mr. Mark throws us a tidbit of déjà vu, like the one in “Orchids and Eagles”: insomniac and alone in the wee hours, all at once he remembers

a long ago attic in the big brick house
my father built above the river and died in soon after.
Somehow, the house is ours again. I am ten.
I open an attic door and walk out under the eaves.
They are there: trunks, dismantled beds, pictures
turned to the wall, toys, games, my lead soldiers.
No one is home.

Just shy of eighty years old, with six more months to live, Perlberg is borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whether this is “great” poetry is, as I’ve suggested, not my concern. For that matter, my image of boats “borne back ceaselessly into the past” echoes the famous ending of “The Great Gatsby,” the title of which uses the term “great” ironically. I’m far from ironic in declaring that I admire certain of Perlberg’s painterly details—after all, this is a man who interviewed Chagall for “Time” magazine. I’m happy to see that he’s mighty fond of such visual effects as the way light bounces off water, or orchards lend color to mountains, or lawns give off their green effulgence. In all three cases, on pages 17, 37, and 53 he employs forms of the verb “stipple” to evoke his ocular excitement. The speaker of the book’s title poem, “Waiting for the Alchemist,” hopes to “discover the philosopher’s stone,” but in his everyday glimpses of Nature, he’s already struck gold.

Please note that I’m using the present tense of the verb. Timely as they may be, Perlberg’s best poems, like all good art, burn with a hard, gem-like flame. We’ll be able to read them years from now, and I predict that their dirt-simple plain style will weather well. It’s true, Mr. Mark’s unadorned prosiness has been described as the period style of late twentieth-century mainstream American poetry. This style has been associated with such 1960s white male practitioners as Robert Bly, James Wright, and, yes, William Stafford, But Perlberg mines its monosyllables to give us the following unique haiku-like nuggets of imagery and insight in “More,” a mini-triumph that ends up poignantly recalling Frost’s “The Oven Bird”:

I pin a yellow cottonwood leaf
on my brown cork board
and that’s the fall.

I keep a chunk of an old oak lobster pot
with rusty nail holes
and that’s the sea.

I have it from a cardinal, the Roman kind,
diminishment, too,
is a form of growth.


James Reiss won two Zeitfunk awards, in 2007 and 2008, from the Public Radio Exchange for his 169 reviews of independent producers’ programs for public radio.