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Keep This Forever

From the beginning epigraphs to the last grasping on the final page, the sanity-bending, necessarily inadequate search for permanence is clearly foremost in Mark Halliday’s mind. With its nuanced, multi-faceted meditations on those things that matter most, Keep This Forever moves naturally through three sections from the question of mortality, brought on by turning over the death of his father in his mind; to the primary solace for most people, love and passion; until we are finally left with what the blessed few cling to in the end: their art.

From the beginning epigraphs to the last grasping on the final page, the sanity-bending, necessarily inadequate search for permanence is clearly foremost in Mark Halliday’s mind. With its nuanced, multi-faceted meditations on those things that matter most, Keep This Forever moves naturally through three sections from the question of mortality, brought on by turning over the death of his father in his mind; to the primary solace for most people, love and passion; until we are finally left with what the blessed few cling to in the end: their art.

The first section actually starts off a bit rocky, with poems displaying many interesting and technical accomplishments marred by some sentimental overreaching. For example, in “Chicken Salad” we reach an emotional climax with:

the solitary dignity of
the totality of his knowing
how far beyond the pleasure of chicken salad
he had gone already and would go.

Already begging our indulgence, we are hurtled off the edge with, “Everybody’s father dies; but / when my father died, it was my father.”

However, we certainly feel his earnestness, and by “Walking the Ashes” Halliday has settled into a consistent performance, drawing us in to his creative approaches with remarkable intimacy. He even makes a very honest list that gets beyond the pretention most fall prey to:

· To be serious is very tiring

· But it can also be rather calming, and makes me kind of noble…

· Instead of being so damned serious I want thirty more years
to worry about what it means and doesn’t mean

The second section of the book explores not only love but attention seeking and the hilarious situations and thoughts that Halliday encounters along the way. A question the reader may want to ponder is whether he knows he should be beyond this, or if the point is that we never get beyond it. The very first poem, “Google me soon” lets us know that he is very much in this century, and introduces us to the neurotic, hyper-kinetic thoughts spinning him through these scenes with lines such as, “I do a Cockney accent and martial arts, / I have walked out on the pier straight into the Devil’s Throat.”

The self-deprecating mock-epic often finds expression in this collection and Halliday also uses archaic words and grammar to generate the impression of a forlorn amateur poet, just barely pulling up in time, winking like an acrobatic pilot. Consider the whimsical, searching, half-serious conversations of the up-all-nighters in “Shmedlo Talk”:

More can happen in certain moments of eye contact
than in a whole night of shmedlo.
Wow, you must have had some bad shmedlo;
or some great eye contact.

This second section is the strongest of the collection, and drives us forward to the eclectic third one that features meditations on art and why he does it. It is appropriate that in the final section on art itself, he opens up to more experimentation, with third-person narratives, epistles, ekphrasis, and poems with apparent self-edits left in; these also serve as a subtle gesture mimicking the last flailing for notice and recognition.

The wry mood is maintained, as when he contemplates the possibility of being a major, “my letters, my notebooks – every letter; every notebook / all preserved, all kept – hence not absurd – / my boxes and files not absurd!”

Halliday’s ear is deceptively precise – how else could he pull off those interjections with such comedy? Even better evidence is the constructed blurt, where the speaker accidentally gets on a train of thought that runs on and on, taking him to unexpected places and ending either with a witty aphorism or burst of surprise. Take for example, “Guidebook Embarrassment,” where he details looking at paintings while on the wrong page of his guide:

Standing in the sweaty piazza I just hated that whole Italian circus
for being nothing but a cornucopia of gaudy noise
without a good guidebook, and hated myself for believing
the guidebook could make it all Marvelous and Inspiring
if you just found the correct page –

This technique is used throughout the book, keeping things fresh and allowing him to be thoughtful, distracted, and most of all, funny. Not only admitting, but flaunting the fact that a 60-year old poet still thinks in untidy, self-absorbed blocks rather than the steady, dignified elegies we may hope for is perhaps the key point of this book: that after all our futile searching for immortality and meaning, it’s often only our honest, self-aware blunders that are worth keeping forever.

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