TALL IF by Mark Irwin

Review by Andrew Allport

by Mark Irwin

New Issues Press
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5463
ISBN: 139781930974784
2008, 73 pp., $14.00

Tall If, Irwin’s sixth full-length collection of poetry, begins with a quote from Moby Dick, where Melville describes the ability of the mature mind to cast back into its experience: “Once gone through, we trace the round again: and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.” It is from here that the title of the collection springs: to be an “If,” it seems, is to be endowed with the power of imagining both past and future.

Coincidentally, this is the capability of the author as well, and this author in particular. Irwin’s poems often reach into storehouse of childhood imagery, as well as the symbols of the afterlife, as in one of the collection’s most beautiful poems, “When I Died,” whose single sentence winds its way through the shifting perceptions of both life and afterlife:

I saw a man tearing down a blue house

but inside the blue house a green house

slowly appeared as the man motioned

toward me, suggesting I enter, opening

a white door where the man became

a woman in a yellow field with snow falling

upon so many people walking toward

a blue house, and they were telling each other

they had never seen anything so green,

not even the grass under the red sky of their names.

Though the poem is about death, that tallest of Ifs, its fable-like series of events mitigates the seriousness of its theme. Irwin is master of the spatial dislocation—are we inside or outside, in the house or the field?—and here our uncertainty serves to remind us of our own subjectivity, even in death.

The best poems of this collection, like “When I Died,” are small, continuous reversals of perception, akin to Emily Dickinson, to whom the title of “When I Died” is indebted. Like Dickinson, Irwin’s voice has a strange power of conjoining disparate images. “The Field,” for example, begins “I like the field best in winter when it’s a giant bug / lying on its back, when its leg / are trees, walking through the sky.” Some poets might stop here, having used the metaphor for effect, but Irwin pursues it until, in a moment resembling either apocalypse or rapture, the bug rights itself and carries the bodies buried in the field “like eggs to another earth.” Like Dickinson, Irwin doesn’t seem to mind if his associational voyage has gone to an odd place; it’s a mark of a poet unconcerned with fashion to be so true to his own strangeness.

There are no long sequences or even long poems in this collection. For the most part, its watchwords are quickness, lightness, and strangeness, like a Bach cantata played backwards. It is refreshing in a way to be relieved of the long, self-consciously important poem that so often weighs down an otherwise perfectly readable volume; I might add humility as one of the book’s hallmarks as well.

That is not to say that this book is without important poems. In fact, “American Urn” is destined, I believe, to be a classic. Here, Mark Irwin imagines an artifact of our civilization, emblazoned with mysterious images: “A machine on a long track moving west: People in feathered / costumes. —Flags, a slaughter.” The processional continues into the twentieth century: “Now a metropolis and an airport, a radio tower, / then a dead tree that resembles a cross as the images become / more cluttered—an ad for soap that will make you younger.” Like the object of address in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Irwin’s urn is fundamentally alien, unknowable. But where Keats’s urn is engraved with a scene of a community ritual—a wedding—its American equivalent illustrates how little community we have left, despite the progress of our cities and technologies. Tellingly, instead of Keats’s lovers, the only human figure of “American Urn” is “a tiny action figure staring into the distance.” In this image are condensed the qualities of modern America: solitary, mass-made, childish. Though it is specific in its imagery, Irwin’s poem ends ambiguously, so that instead of leaping to judgment, we experience a sense of confusion and disjunction about this culture and these images. With a subtlety that has all but disappeared from the “political poem,” Irwin hit hits us where we live, wherever that is.


Andrew Allport lives in Los Angeles. His chapbook, The Ice Ship & Other Vessels, is available from Proem Press (www.proempress.com).

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