Arts & Culture

Gail Mazur reads at Radcliffe

3 min read

Mazur’s stirring poems show wit and canniness in face of despair

After removing her soaked red sneakers, Radcliffe Fellow Gail Mazur read aloud from new poems Monday (April 6) in dry black socks. The poet was undeterred by the onslaught of gray rain that thrashed Radcliffe Gymnasium’s windows — a fitting backdrop for Mazur’s charged, emotional poems.

With her supple voice and old-school New England accent, Mazur navigated through a clutch of poems, some composed during her tenure at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and others from her formidable career’s oeuvre, which has garnered widespread praise.

A die-hard Red Sox fan, Mazur lamented the inclement weather and the cancellation of Opening Day at Fenway Park, joking, “I was hoping Papi and Papelbon would come over,” before delving into the appropriately themed “Baseball,” her most-requested poem:

The game of baseball is not a metaphor
and I know it’s not really life.

“I feel as though my whole nature was formed by those 80 years of the Red Sox never winning,” said Mazur, who went on to say that baseball really is a metaphor, “full of tragedies that you can almost bear.”

“Almost bearing” seems to be the thin line Mazur’s work straddles with wit and canniness, even on the cusp of despair. In five books of poetry, most recently “Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Collected Poems,” Mazur has cataloged the personal, profound disconsolations of life in its several stages and complexities — motherhood, being a wife, a writer, a woman — with savvy, darkly comic perceptions and penetrating revelations.

The poems from her latest work, called “The Age,” make their home in history, and as the title suggests, deal largely with aging.

Mazur’s is a life full of history: She studied with eminent poet Robert Lowell in the ’70s, establishing a place for herself among the “boys’ club” of Boston poetry. For half her life, she has been a centerpiece of Cambridge’s literary scene — as the founding director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series, and now as distinguished writer-in-residence at Emerson College. Her husband is the artist Michael Mazur, himself a fixture in the Massachusetts art world and beyond; both are active in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.

Mazur has said she raised two children before she could give writing her full attention, publishing her first book in 1978 at the age of 40. “I really thought poets were like something in a tale of magic,” she said. As a young woman, she thought of herself as an English major who “liked to write.” After a chance trip with a friend to Harvard Square’s Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Mazur was spurred to write her first poem. She was 26.

In her new poem “The Makers,” Mazur addresses deceased poets of the past — “poets I’ve loved” — though she leaves their identities a mystery. “The Makers” talks about the weight their words still carry: “Your pages are still touched by many … and the lit screens you never used sing your lines.”

In “Borges in Cambridge, 1967,” Mazur recalls the distinguished author Jorge Luis Borges — then a visiting professor at Harvard — lecturing at Memorial Hall on “The Riddle of Poetry,” while outside the Yard was filled with students protesting the Vietnam War.

In “Inward Conversation,” a poem about aging and death, Mazur writes, “I’m beginning to understand myself … I’m tough, that’s what I know.”

Mazur’s reflective poems are steely balls of light, and she is always distinctly herself, telling it like it is. “In an incognito world,” she writes in the same poem, “it’s not myself I won’t know.”