Selected Blurbs/Review Excerpts
On Readiness (2018):
Behind surfaces that can sometimes be wryly comic, Mark Cox is unafraid to risk adult tenderness ("brutal tenderness" he says in one poem) and great empathy for this world's sufferers: "The shy girl on the far left had a taxing life. She lost her husband and infant daughter to a car wreck and never remarried."
Behind surfaces that at first fool you into thinking they're exercises in the nostalgia of childhood, there are suddenly turns so psychologically shrewd, and portraits so familiar, that they leave you nodding admiringly in recognition.
Which is to say that beneath a rich variety of occasions (from an ancient Egyptian mummifier doing up a fifteen-foot crocodile, to a current-day housewife doing up an angel food cake), Cox's bedrock concern is that impossible thing of endless grief and joy that we call the human condition.
These poetic meditations and monologues are some of the least prosaic prose you'll ever read. —Albert Goldbarth
On Sorrow Bread (2017):
"In the final stanza of “Joyland,” a poem teeming with amusement park ephemera, Mark Cox’s playful account of a mini-golf outing unexpectedly morphs into an ars poetica: “Let the warning lights of the water tower/blink off and on all night, let the planes traverse the sky,/there are these holes you have dug for yourselves,/this emptiness that need be aimed at, filled.” Wistful yet resolved, these lines are fittingly emblematic of Sorrow Bread, which culls the best work from Cox’s four earlier collections and also includes two dozen new poems since the publication of his previous book, Natural Causes, in 2004. Cox rarely strays from the concerns of daily life—home, family, love, work, and nature endure as his chief subjects. And yet, even as he holds his gaze on domestic concerns, the tonal versatility, emotional complexity, and unflinching honesty with which he confronts our deepest yearnings for fulfillment honor the resonance of those everyday experiences many poets overlook. Whether he’s examining dreamy remembrances of family history (“Pail of Eggs,” “Alcohol”), the requisite pangs of romance (“Geese,” “Rubbing Dirt from My Dog’s Nose, I Realize”), the relished burdens of fatherhood (“Get Me Again,” “Want”), or the omnipresent specter of our own small deaths (“Grain,” “Finish This”), Cox’s imagery, clarity, and directness embody the lyric narrative mode at its best. Other poems showcase Cox’s sinister wit (“Better Homes and Gardens,” “Like a Simile”) and lithe lyricism (“Lemon Icing,” “Poem for the Name Mary”). While some of the collection’s earliest inclusions from the 1980s suffer from discursive looseness (“Donald,” “Running My Fingers through My Beard on Bolton Road”), they nonetheless allow readers to trace the steady emergence of Cox’s mature voice. Somber and soulful, Sorrow Bread is a testament to life’s endless heartaches and how we weather them, and should reaffirm Mark Cox’s stature as a poet worthy of a national audience."
Mark Cox, who teaches in the creative writing program at UNC Wilmington and is the recipient of a 2018 North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship, shapes a career milestone with his verse collection Sorrow Bread, which is his first “Selected and New” volume of poems, rearranging and reapportioning four previous publications, the most recent of which appeared in 2004. Sorrow Bread offers eighty-seven poems, twenty-three of them new, arranged in eight thematic sections such as “Inner Rooms,” “Fatherhood,” and “After Rain,” each of which mixes earlier and more recent work. This thematic method of selection trails clouds of Wordsworth, who launched it in 1815 with categories such as “Poems of the Imagination” and “Poems Referring to the Period of Old Age” – and who then spent the rest of his career fussily rearranging, deleting, and adding poems to each category, making much busywork for English professors. The alternative collective method is chronological (either of composition or publication), the method followed, for example, by A. R. Ammons in his first Selected Poems volume in 1968, also after four initial publications; the poems, Ammons announced, are “arranged in chronological order of composition.”* Cox glances over his shoulder at this method by supplying dates of composition for each poem in his table of contents. But the governing order is prominently thematic, and the chronologically random mix of old and new in each thematic section stakes a larger claim: the through-line of Cox’s themes and styles, earlier and later, is more important than a developmental narrative.
The through-line of themes is largely domestic (and Midwestern), and the through-line of styles is chiefly the thirty- to forty-verse first-person lyric, wherein the speaker is often overheard speaking to himself as an apostrophized “you,” in sometimes regular but generally irregular free-verse stanzas. To sample such through-lines of theme and style, a lyric from 1985, “Linda’s House of Beauty,” recalls a chance encounter at a store entrance between the poet’s adolescent self going in and a woman with a bottle of wine going out:
That day, my fourteen-year-old saliva, the water that broke
the moment I was ready to be born, rearranged itself
in an astonishing sky. And I was guessing
she’d just come from Linda’s.
The focus is the fleeting moment of the couple: “Because I think that woman loved me for that moment.” Twenty years later, in “Morning Blend,” from 2015, the longer moment for another couple is morning coffee: “The two of you are comfortable for the moment, // being a man and being a woman, being alive together.” But are such moments, then or now, sufficient?
one defining moment of either sorrow or happiness,
one indelible shared experience could have been enough
to bond you two for life.
But Cox is far from writing the same poem over and over. There are interesting stylistic variations here and there; in at least one poem, the speaker is a woman (“Geese,” from 1986; she speaks mostly of her husband); “Emergen(ce) of Feeling” from 2015 is a cascade of aphorisms: “Lightning is God / taking pictures of the victims. The present, like your elbow/ bends just one direction.” There are, unsurprisingly, later poems that wrestle with aging and other passages such as divorce, family deaths, parenthood, and remarriage. One such poem is “Patina,” from 2013: “What once called for passionate pyrotechnics,/ requires, now, quietude and simplicity.” An early lyric, “White Tornado,” from 1987, speaks of the self in the third person in accents from Wallace Stevens: “And though there’ll be nothing he can’t see then, / he’ll be all that is.” In the later “Being Here,” from 2005, the early Stevens of “Snow Man” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream” leans toward the late Stevens of “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”: “how simple our journey really is, / how the gift of just being here / is worth any risk.”
The title poem of the book, “Sorrow Bread,” from 1988, is by that privilege and by the raw measure of length the most ambitious poem in the volume, twice as long as any other lyric. Its narrative method is a good example of Cox’s technique: the poem weaves together the second-hand report of a grim accident befalling a minister and his partner; the speaker’s own witness of an accident suffered by a co-worker painting bridges; the memory of a torn rope of no immediate grim consequence; and an account of his attempt to put these materials together in a poem before domestic routines wipe the screen. These episodes are simultaneously discrete and “sorrow bred” by one another. Because the poem lends its title shape to the entire book (which was not the case when it was published in a previous volume), I’m struck by the eucharistic shadow it casts over the whole: a crucified body now the “bread” of “a man of sorrows” (see Isaiah 53:3, or Handel). Lest you think this is too fleeting a shadow, Cox picks up this image in at least one other place in the book, in the poem “Ashes, Ashes,” from 2002, which opens “Snow. A nit’s weight / on the hair of one’s neck, / the blessed host of the past, / right there, just so” and which moves to admonition: “Open your mouth and take / the dissolution / on your tongue.” The line “the blessed host of the past” is a fair take on the way an entire collection titled Sorrow Bread works, in often powerful ways.
And what of North Carolina? Unlike the nativist strains of James Applewhite, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Fred Chappell, Shelby Stephenson, and many others, the sense of place in these poems is chiefly Midwestern and occasionally of New England (Cox also teaches in the low-residence MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts). Like Dorianne Laux, Alan Shapiro, and many others, Cox’s work to date is chiefly the landscape of an exile from elsewhere. But Cox has been dwelling by-the-UNC-sea for nigh on twenty years now, and the book offers a handful of beach lyrics. Whereas “Sonata,” from 1993, uses “a man by the sea” as an extended metaphor, “Heart on Stilts,” from 2005, takes us to the shore at a moment of “middle age,” “wading here in this cove of bent grasses / and cell towers.” The “grown man” at last turns from “the sustaining sea’s ancient threat” toward “home,” “his beach towel held like a child to his chest, / toward all that need him / and thus all he really needs.”
The book’s author biography announces a forthcoming volume of prose poems, two of which are previewed (I’m guessing) in Sorrow Bread: “The Pole” (2013) and “Lazaruses of the Links” (2014). They mark a new stylistic venture, but the voice remains unmistakably the voice of Mark Cox, a voice of substantial range: one is a tragic take on the necessary sacrifices of the writing life (the controlling metaphor is the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole) and the other is an Updike-like comic take on male confusions expressed randomly on the golf course. This range and this achievement, now on helpfully longer view in the form of the “Selected and New Poems” that populate Sorrow Bread, enrich poetry in the language and in North Carolina.
--Eric C. Walker North Carolina Literary Quarterly
On Sorrow Bread (2017):
"In Sorrow Bread, Mark Cox is subtle--but never so much as to turn obscure; he is outspoken--but never so much as to turn didactic. His keen intellect shines all through the volume; but more important by my lights is the great heart that nourishes its every poem. Though nothing here feels redundant, the collection’s well-advised mixing of old with new in almost every section reveals the poet’s longstanding preoccupations: memory, relation, emotional thirst, and not least the importance of modesty and gratitude: “the comfort, finally,” as Cox says in a late entry, 'of tenderness and humility and weakness.' " --Sydney Lea
"In "How to Live, What to Do," a Wallace Stevens poem that poses questions but omits the question marks, he almost gives in to the despair his title suggests. The poem seems impersonally personal. In reading Mark Cox's finely rendered Sorrow Bread, I was struck how often the poems live up, unambiguously, even relentlessly, to its title. They offer us sorrow and regret, and in the title poem pose a central question, "What do you do when there's nothing you can do, but/you can't do nothing?" The book is a Selected & New, and spans some thirty years of musings on that question, its music dirge-like, the question mark at its end suggesting that great questions might be seriously unanswerable." --Stephen Dunn
On Natural Causes (2004):
“…Vivid memory intertwines with a rigorously envisioned present and future. Cox has touched on these matters in earlier books, but not so consistently or with such uncanny thematic force. He speaks across a huge range of subject and feeling, from layered fury to a stringent violence to lamentation, from guarded hopefulness to affirmations at once quiet and stirring. It is, altogether, an astonishing and moving tour de force.” --Tar River Poetry
"Some of these poems are nothing short of amazing. I knew you were a real poet, but not this real. Nor did I have any idea you were a love poet: 'On the Way to See You' is a classic." --Philip Levine
"One of the best books I've read in years. In a style that's brash, offbeat, tough minded and big hearted, these poems explore the fundamental mysteries of love between parent and child, self and other, self and world. Beyond the inventive language and formal range, what makes this work so memorable is Cox's refusal to look away from even the hardest facts of 'unadulterated sorrow.'" --Alan Shapiro
"Wonder and grief--even amid the junk of American culture, even while being buried alive in time, the deep self has never stopped feeling in Mark Cox's poems. He is a wise, wry, lyrical veteran of the deep water; there is no one like him." --Tony Hoagland
"There's a gravity and a sorrowful wisdom in Mark Cox's new poems that make the work of most of the other poets of his generation seem frivolous. . . . He knows that the principal business of the lyric is heartbreak and understands that our stories are personal and communal atonce." --David Wojahn
"[Cox] is in a sense, an archaeologist digging at what's right before our eyes to reveal the 'dark black' underpinnings--the rage, the longings, the self-delusion that betray our on-again-off-again relationship with mortality. Unflinching and beautifully made, these poems seem cynical only at first glance-then perplexed and tender." --Leslie Ullman
On Thirty-Seven Years from the Stone (1998):
“Cox proves particularly adept at evoking pathos through everyday objects. . . His sense of humor is sly, insinuating and always at the ready. . . .Poems like “Grain,” a moving protest against mortality . . . will always be scarce commodities.” --Publishers Weekly
“Mark Cox’s “latest work... showcase[s] a broad range of poetic talents--from narrative to didactic musings to a sure-handed facility with familiar conceits. Yet the amid the book’s embarrassment of riches, the lyric clearly stands out as Cox’s forte--incisive poems laced with quirky energy and vivid imagery. . . .The tension in Cox’s perceptions is beautifully relieved by the understated music of his verse--its supple urgency and pace, its winsome wordplay and wit.” --The Wichita Eagle
"Ever since Smoulder I have been looking forward to a new book by Mark Cox. Thirty-Seven Years from the Stone is a splendid book, a book so rich and human and original it will help you remember why you love poetry. Mark Cox has written his way into being one of the finest poets of his generation." -- Thomas Lux
"These poems are alive with people getting by, loving, failing, making the gestures which define them. In this confident, large-hearted and enormously readable book, Cox demonstrates what might seem to be impossible: how a voice can be at once tender and tough-minded, passionate and casually down-to-earth, disillusioned and thoroughly glad to be alive. Here's a surprising, unmistakable poet offering some of the most generous and compassionate of contemporary lyrics." -- Mark Doty
"Mark Cox has a wry, deadpan humor, a piercing wit, and a keen knowledge of the contradictions of the human heart, His words sift deep into life, into unconscious motivations, into the elusive countries of sadness and happiness. These poems transcend their own ironies… to sing with a moving simplicity, with an open and vulnerable voice. Thirty-Seven Years from the Stone confirms Mark Cox's promise and further fulfills his talent." -- Edward Hirsch
"Mark Cox writes with daring, humor, skill, and a gnarled, empathetic heart from which he has drawn these clear, shapely poems." -- William Matthews
On Smoulder (1989):
“Great range and hunger haunt these poems….He meditates, describes, narrates the impossible path between what is in us and what is around us--that is the heroism of his work….['Poem for the Name Mary’s'] masterful handling of a fragile theme announces, as so much of Smoulder does, a major new speaker of The Real….” --Stephen Berg