Essay

Reading Guide: Gail Mazur

Gail Mazur’s pop culture catalogue of 1940s.

by Samantha Myers
Network newscasts aren’t poetry, even when they have alliteration in their leads (“Soggy Situation!” “Pumped-up Prices!”). The job of a newscast is to remind us that the empire is crumbling: these days, the three Is (Iraq, Immigration, and I can’t afford gas anymore) prevail. It’s all enough to make people of a certain age (and by “certain age” I mean anyone not busy with prom season) wish for a simpler time. Yup, I can see it now: 1987, bike rides and penny candy, and Bangles tunes on the Walkman; those were the days. But how can there really be a simpler time? The eighties must have been complex and disturbing for some. I mean, The Cold War! Reaganomics! Were things ever easy and sweet in this land of ours?

Here is where the job of poetry comes in: in uncertain times, bits of recognizable lore can be grounding and cheering. Poet Gail Mazur’s gift to all of us who long for a simpler time is the reminder that there are small, satisfying simplicities in every era. In her poem “At the Ear Nose and Throat Clinic,” she overflows with nostalgia: she misses the cafeteria her grandfather frequented even though he never actually took her there. She misses “the whole idea of cafeterias”; she calls them the “free-fire zones” of the 1940s and ’50s. If you lived in that era, you know why: they were the inexpensive, democratic hubs of small cities where diners often spent their lunch hours chatting with strangers. Mazur can’t be bothered to report on the big stories of her time; she is more concerned with the little things that make up our day-to-day experience and contentment. “At the Ear Nose and Throat Clinic” lends mystique to an American popular-culture catalog that in Mazur’s childhood included five-and-dime stores and vanishing cream, and she invokes these items and places to acknowledge their semimagical permanence in her generation’s consciousness.

“At the Ear Nose and Throat Clinic,” from Mazur’s latest book (Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems), begins with Mazur in the modern purgatory of a doctor’s office waiting room. She is sitting next to a nonagenarian who, like the cafeteria-goers, believes that if you’re in the same room with someone, you should talk to that person. The man offers anecdotes from a life spent in the small city of Waltham, Massachusetts, including forty years as a worker at the famous and now-defunct Waltham watch factory. Because he reminds her of her grandfather, and because she could use some karma (“I want to be treated well myself someday”), she encourages his storytelling. She then shifts the focus from the old man to herself:
Coiled in his wheelchair, he’s mad
for company, probably scared he’s dying

*

and so am I. I don’t remember Watch City […]
She connects her own experience to the old man’s to prepare us for the idea that this poem won’t settle down in one generation: she has the whole 20th century to pick apart for its beads and baubles. She also chooses this moment to mention her fear of death, a quiet but pervasive theme underneath her intricate highlighting of small but significant moments. The thematic undercurrent appears again when she mentions the “soon-to-be-widowed wives” of the cafeteria patrons and their “prescient black dresses.” Mazur uses this fear of death as a black background on which to display her gems, as jewelers do, and to trigger forays into her youth.

Mazur shares her own recollections of Waltham, and in particular, her memory of taking a bus with a friend from tree-lined Auburndale to more urban Waltham in order to anonymously “shoplift haircurlers and Pond’s vanishing cream.” What is charming about this story is that neither 11-year-old knows what vanishing cream is for; the speaker wonders to this day “what could have vanished when we rubbed/the mystery elixir on our silky cheeks.” If I’ve done the math right here, this shoplifting scene takes place in 1948 or 1949 in a raw postwar America whose adolescents (and all those born between 1925 and1942) would come to be called the “silent generation” by sociologists. Having suffered the stresses of the Great Depression and World War II, the “silents” were considered hesitant, timid, and if not altogether unimaginative, as having imaginations stunted from a lack of exposure to grandeur or daring beyond the insular and pressurized circumstances. As if to display these qualities, Mazur recalls that
Merle and I did everything subversive

we could imagine—which wasn’t much.
I’m sure I cruised Sin City in my mind,
decayed old town—nowhere—but to me
forbidden fruit […]
Her silent-generation status is made clear by her inability to define or describe “Sin City” (“everything…/we could imagine—which wasn’t much”); she and her friend long to be rebellious, but can’t quite figure out how to go about it.

To demonstrate that her nostalgia isn’t limited to her own past, Mazur recalls her grandfather’s cafeteria rituals. Of these she conjures
      […t]he black-and-white

tiled floor, the nearly empty tables,
the Perfection salad, Welsh rarebit,
the “bloomberry pie.” […]
Mazur doesn’t define these items; instead, she allows their presence to call up a sense memory the way a whiff of a mother’s perfume can (stylish silent-generation moms might have worn Joy perfume, whose maker is rumored to have created the fragrance during the Depression to lift people’s spirits). Mazur also discusses the cafeteria patrons’ “long American marriages” without offering an explanation of what makes these marriages “American” beyond the
      […] memories
they’d had of courtships long since passed on
to grandchildren, and half false anyway,
like studio photographs, mythic stories
that they could live with. […]
This portrayal of American marriage isn’t all roses, but we shouldn’t be offended. Her description of a long marriage’s evolving arc perhaps shows the same revision that the Brothers Grimm fairy tales underwent at the hands of Mother Goose: while we may alter the surface of a story or a life lived with another, the characters remain the same, and there is an appeal and comfort in that permanence.

A return to Mazur’s own memories allows us to discover that America’s tendency toward retail therapy didn’t begin with Sex and the City. As an adolescent, she ponders the “esoteric, glamorous puzzle” of products that became famous through the advertising juggernaut of the prosperous years after the war. During these years, working people began to have enough disposable income for “eyelash curlers,” “Tangee lipsticks,” and “pink girdles”: delightfully odd objects that Mazur “smuggle[s] home” and “eye[s] furtively.” These details, like the details of the cafeteria, are quaint and comforting, although the glutted commercial culture of then and now seems to have led Mazur to appreciate the judicious attitude toward possessions that pervaded her parents’ youth, when the idea was to have just “a bit of luxury.” It was, she says,
a different time, when the things
a person held or owned weren’t many
but were permanent, a part of who you were.
The longing for a return to an uncluttered time comes forth through her identification of an entire era by only a few of its objects: a cosmetic, a watch factory, a Woolworth’s.

There’s a reason why the memories Mazur offers in this poem come from childhood: unburdened by our larger troubles, children have to appreciate the little things. (I’m reminded of the movie City of Angels, where Nicholas Cage, playing an angel, asks the spirit of a recently deceased child what her favorite part of life was, and she says “pajamas.”) Mazur herself can’t help but display some hard-won wisdom; as an adult, she, like the rest of us, has to watch the news at 6:30 and hear about the latest disasters and threats. Thankfully, with her poem, she manages to distract us with her sleight of hand and to substitute, for a little while, the dangers with a charm.
Originally Published: June 5, 2006

COMMENTS (1)

On April 11, 2009 at 10:05pm Ben Beckwith wrote:
Thanks for the lovely review of my aunt's poem. I thoroughly enjoyed the care you took to "get" it. Your analysis rang true to me.

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Biography

Samantha Mineo Myers is a poet and a reader for the Poetry Foundation’s archive. She teaches at Boston University.

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