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The Chinaman

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1999 • Volume 6 • ISSN 1095-9629




The Chinaman. New York: Overlook Press, 1999. 73 pp. Cloth $19.95.


Throughout the 1990s David Mamet has systematically extended his range of literary accomplishments. He has fashioned himself into a wry and provocative essayist and forayed twice, impressively, into the novel. The Chinaman, Mamet’s recent collection of poems, falls a bit short of his high standard. Even after reading the slim volume several times, I still have mixed opinions. The poems in the book owe much in tone and approach to the author’s The Hero Pony (1990). This second collection is edgier and, in its riskier moments, more satisfying. Still, it is hard to imagine anyone outside the sphere of Mamet enthusiasts finding the book fully satisfying.

The poems in The Chinaman are relentlessly earnest. Many also strike one as intensely personal, and this tendency exposes the book’s curious flaw. The fact that the 40 poems in the collection were mostly unpublished in journals may signal Mamet’s distance from the workings and accomplishments of contemporary poetry. Most pieces in the book are brief tone poems, stolen moments, fragmentary and private. Sometimes, the result is compact and forceful, as in the lyric tableau "April 1990": "There was a gun in the shed / And a man envied / Two ducks on the pond / Their innocent, abbreviated life" (39). The language is succinct, resisting the elevated diction marring many of the poems. The situation resonates from the poem itself. More commonly, however, the lyrics in the book are abbreviated and obscure, untested by editors and strangely oblique. The reader needs merely to look across the page from "April 1990" to the companion poem "April" for a typical example: "A contrarian sweetness / When we both went ‘round-- / Back to the house for a suede jacket on / The cold High Street, / And April would not be an apricot" (38). Too many moments in the book are abstruse--intriguing, apparently heartfelt, but finally of use only to the poet and his immediate subject. These poems have the feel of either occasional verse or of journal reflections before the notebook is closed for the night.

The fragmentation in the poems is, with a few powerful exceptions, less effective stylistically than in Mamet’s novels, particularly The Village, where hesitancy so subtly and fully creates the fictional landscape. In its most frustrating moments, The Chinaman recognizes and seems even to enjoy its exclusivity. As far as one can tell, tantalizing lack of clarity is itself the subject of "A Charade," a poem which very successfully checks our ability to identify its meaning: "Upon the paper which had come to fade / We strain to see / An ancient charade. / Can you decipher me?" (24). The poems resulting from such an approach feel undeveloped. The volume’s unevenness doesn’t help. "The Triumph of Gravity," the longest and most ambitious poem we’ve seen from Mamet, and one full of dazzling potential, is followed by "Billy the Weazel," an enigmatic throwaway that results in more forehead scratching by the reader. It simply shouldn’t be in a collection by a writer of this calibre. Meanwhile, the book’s polemical moments--epitomized by "Ten Plagues" and the ponderous "Song of the Jew"--tend toward the prosaic, the obvious, erring in the other direction from private rumination and returning to subjects the author has considered more compellingly in the more appropriate form of the essay.

After struggling to decipher some of The Chinaman’s indecipherable moments, the reader begins to more fully appreciate another type of poem that recurs in the collection, a sort of fanciful uncle to the children’s lyric. In the title poem, for example, the narrator identifies himself as "a Mandarin Chinee. / My fingernail is long, I drink gunpowder tea; / And the wild monkey’s song / Delights me in its pain / As his skull is made hot / That I may eat his brain" (15). We needn’t overly concern ourselves with themes of isolation and displacement. Sound over meaning is most important here, and the poem, with its repetitions and exotic details, sounds good. In such instances the influences of Shel Silverstein and even Lewis Carroll are happily apparent, and in "Boulder Purey" Rudyard Kipling seems to echo across the briny horizon: "Cinched to the mast, though deaf, / we sift through memory like heathen Chinee / combing their excrement for rice" (53). As the latter poem is an homage to Chicago, one can only conclude that the masculine, adventuring point of view is intended ironically. While Mamet is obviously adept at light verse, such moments in The Chinaman are curiously lacking in delight. Possibly their juxtaposition to darker poems vitiates their joy. Overall, the tone of the book is somber, poem after poem striving to "summon up / Wisdom from memory, / Steam from a cold cup" (32), and recognizing failed attempts.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge David Mamet’s poems against his most remarkable work. The book has its successes. "For Rebecca" is a touching, even sweet, tribute, the unguarded directness of its language quietly affecting: "I thought I knew / What love was / Before I met you / But I did not know" (34). Here, the erudition is less abrasive, softened by wonder: "That time with you / Instructed me / To bless the vision / Into which you have consigned us-- / That more-than-suspicion of eternity / In preparation for which / You instructed me" (34). The use of the past tense contributes to the poem’s unsettling conclusion, complicating its celebration with melancholy. Similarly, the subject of Mamet’s children seems to conjure less mediated insights. Death has a similar effect. "In Memoriam Michael Merritt" ends with an unblinking recognition of "Just the business of the world / Some beauty, and the coldest reason / Shaking the dross from itself" (52). There are also glimpses of Mamet as meditative nature poet, and lines and phrases throughout distinguish themselves and make us crave the complete poems of which we know the author capable.

Thematically, passage or transition is central in The Chinaman. Also crucial is the importance of place: the places of memory, the places of home and family, and the places of physical and psychological transience. These locations conflate in the triptych "The Triumph of Gravity," where the fragmentation does work, illuminating in flashes its splintered and barely connected lives. "The Plague year. / The hotel. / The suicide" (40), the poem begins, and we know just enough about the nightmare we’ve checked into. In section two, familiar concerns return: fathers and sons, the devious nature of language, the sad result of dependency and trust: "Daddy, are we home, I said, No. / No, we aren’t home" (43). "The Triumph of Gravity" is a gritty urban love song of abandonment and self-preservation. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s damned good. If Mamet would write more poems like this, transforming cathartic reflection into the full flesh and bone of our human experience, he could become a poet with the power to change not only his life, but ours.

Middle Tennessee State University