Saturday, June 30, 2007

Insomnia





Just watched the DVD of Insomnia, and it is terrific. Chris Nolan, director, has a crucial knack for getting at the character at the margins of his wits, the fractured personality who is just barely able to keep his psychic equilibrium and move forward. He did this with an especially graceful touch in Memento, expertly telling the story through jagged shards of memory that constantly reformed a narrative structure and tortured our assumptions, until there was only a complexity that was a true and achieved irony, and he does the same here with Pacino's character Dormer, the insomniac detective who is wrestling with a hideous issue of professional ethics.


Suffice to say, Dormer's ability to squelch the recent events of his life, his ability to keep them out of mind, decays as sleeplessness makes his hard-boiled demeanor sufficiently crack. Nolan, wisely, thankfully, does not tell the story in the same indie-video-film school fashion that he masterfully parlayed into the riveting Memento (even he must have sensed that it was a grand sleight of hand of a device that he could sell once to an audience). Rather, he luxuriates in the Alaskan scenery, capturing the sheer rugged and brutal beauty with a big lens, composing his shots as the characters seem like tawdry and desperate creatures scrambling across the terrain with their petty intrigues while the vastness of the North suggests something greater, more lasting.


Pacino gives a splendid performance, nuanced, not chewing up the scenery nor raising his voice arbitrarily as can be his habit; he has the saddest eyes of any American screen actor, and the lines of his face are a road map of every hard and compromised choice his character has had to make. Robin Williams is fine as well, a credible foil to Pacino as the smug, smarty pants mystery writer who relishes the chance to hoist Dormer by his own ethical petard. Smart script, with a number of reversals that are credible and smartly played. The pacing is re mindful of Clint Eastwood in his best moments as a director. The story is allowed to develop over days, weeks. The slow build in the tension comes as a relief. Rent it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bound and determined to be cliche free!!



What irks me without fail are people who ought to know better saying "uncomfortability" when they mean "discomfort". It seems that some folks think that an excess of syllables, even to the extent of using words that don't exist in nature, makes an expression of commonplace ideas and feelings sound more subtle, nuanced, educated.These are words for people who don't know what they want to say, let alone how to talk about it.

Likewise, the use of the world "potentiality" needs to be banned by law, punishable by cruel mocking in the public square. There is no advantage of using that ungainly pile-up that the shorter, unambiguous and more efficient "potential" can't get across clearer and faster. The same goes for those who , when addressing the concerns that place ill at ease, will refer to their "uncomfortability" instead the plainer, faster, clear "discomfort". I suspect these folks prefer to make their concerns sound more elaborate and will use this awkward coinage in order to give their subject more gravitas. It only strikes me as odd;the term would seem to describe someone's particular ability to be uncomfortable. Ambiguity is fine for literature,poetry, even philosophy, but every speech needs to get to the unmistaken point. This term describes someone who isn't sure what it is they want to say.

A couple of co workers are found of announcing that they're going "on lunch", a phrase that sounds as phony baloney as it gets. I realize it may be a regionalism , but here in San Diego the term grates the ear. It has the slimy resonance of an obvious poser over enunciating his words to appear hipper than sweet Jesus with an eyepatch.Dude.

Sorry to say, but there are still fields of self-help/recovery/New Age grope speak here in San Diego, and it's not unusual in the course of a day to hear someone describe a bad mood or other psychic malaise they have as being "being in a bad space." For me, a "bad space" is standing in front of moving traffic as it rushes towards you. Related to this are folks who say that they need to take care of their own needs or else they "get to that place " where they become The Hulk. Funny , but I've never seen these "bad spaces" or dreaded "places" that make people become awful. Is there a map I can buy?

"Lilacs", where the narrator goes into his brain's attic to visit his problems

Peter Campion is a fine poet, a very good one, and "Lilacs" is a fine bit of elliptical heartache from him. He has a wonderful way, if that's the phrase, at getting nestled between the long deep sighs and low toned moans erupting mid throat. There is so much imaginary agony the narrator suffers here while he inhabits a life that seems to be working, one wonders what goes on behind those eyes. We've all seen those eyes, on buses, in banks, at parties, when someone is in the middle of a throng of people, in the midst of mad activity, eyes on someone who still strikes you as being alone, lost in thoughts, their eyes cast at some translucent thing in a corner, high or low, rummaging through imaginary boxes filled with their life, looking for a clue as to how they came to be standing among others of whom he or she wants no part of.
It used to burn, especially in spring:
the sense that life was happening elsewhere.

Smudged afternoons when lilacs leaked their smell
past schoolyard brick, whole plotlines seemed to twist

just out of reach. Inside the facing houses
chamber on networked chamber rose … to what?

Some angel chorus flowing around the sun?
Some lurid fuck? ... For years that huge desire

simmered, then somehow ... didn't dissipate
so much as fuse itself to thought and touch.


Not an attractive state to be in, this perpetual state of regret and unexamined expectations, but it is a state of mind nearly epidemic among those for whom poverty isn't a source of their despondency, and for whom scents, sounds, tints of light or billboard slogans are triggers , launching points for them to go asea rudderless amid the ebbs and flows of unconstrained memory. This poem is a small gem, a perfect lyric of a mind trying to reconcile actual choices he's made in partners and occupation and location, with other he might have made, thinks,perhaps, should have made.


Though one would usually be compelled to elaborate too much, too long, too often in exploring this situation--what defies being named encourages the exhaustion of even the best writer efforts to tease a sense of exactness from such a state of perpetual , nebulous limbo--Campion sticks to poetic principle and gives us language that creates a sense of the interior argument. The external world is not banished entirely from his thoughts;rather, they intrude on his reverie, they bring back to his current obligations, duties, his willingness to pretend to be happy inspite of persistent regret.

You stand in purple shade beside your dresser.
And filtering off the park the breeze returns it:

lilac: its astringent sweetness, circling us
as if it were fulfillment of desire.

But not fulfillment. Just the distance here
between us, petaled, stippling to the touch.


Campion, again, writes well about what happens in the cracks between life's cushioning assurances, but he reads dreadfully, and the recording provided us reveals him to sound whiny, sniveling, limp wristed, a reticent and rattled drone of gutless pessimism. The poem is too good to merely be known for a wimpish rendition; even the most self indulgent of regrets should have a residue of rage smouldering, a flame of anger still consuming the last unspent piece of lumber. I offer here my version of "Lilacs". It's not definitive , of course, but I think it's interesting to hear it again with a different voice intoning the secret meanings and blurry subtexts.

Poetry As a Kick in the Nuts

Hearts and flowers and poetry about poetry are matters that give a bad case of the grabs; it makes my underwear bunch up in the crouch and my hair coil like rusty Brillo pads. A poet of precious sensibility recently posted such a poem on a forum I won't name. It ignited nearly all my jets. Here's a sample stanza:


The poet, you see, is a murderer
Killing living things for the pleasure of others
Perhaps it would be better, if
We gave more thought to those things
Which ere already dead, like



First, one ought not eschew their principle obligation as a writer to write poems that are somehow engaged in living and instead make poetry even less important and trivial to the general public's concern by indulgent stanzas reaffirming a tattered mythos and hype about the craft. It makes the image of poetry even more club-housy than it already is, at a more provincial level. It really needs to be a standard bit of the discipline for poets to keep the business of poetry, even it's mention, out of their lines. Poetry about poetry is dead on arrival, and it reinforces the larger population's attitude that it's elitist and profoundly irrelevant. Stop embalming the art.

In any case, one should avoid as well writing anything that declares or implies that poetry and poets are anyone thing, or exist to perform any one purpose; there are general rules, yes, that define what poetry is , and there is a critical vocabulary as well, but within those limits , poetry can be pretty much anything a poetry chooses it to be; the limits are the talents of the writer in question. Some poets might be compared to murderers, but uttered here the way it is, sweepingly, full of misty eyed bathos and crawling diction, it sounds unconvincing, it sounds phony, and whatever point you wanted to make is lost because it sounds pretentious and will piss off more people than it will ever convince

Saturday, June 23, 2007

DeLillo's "Falling Man": All Played Out

Falling Man
by Don DeLillo (Scribner)


A week ago, after work, on a crosstown bus, and all I wanted for the half hour ride was to read the galley of the new Don DeLillo novel, Falling Man,a ruminative narrative highlighting the lives of New Yorkers on the day of the attacks, 9/11. Finally, a novel about the attack that matters; not to give too much away, but this is prime DeLillo, exploring the sober side of what was White Noise's premise for post modern comedy, the disruption of fixed and certain lives by the intrusion of an event beyond imagination.

In White Noise, the effect was comic, funny, and all ironies laid in the day were comedies of the clueless trying to make peace with the nagging changes that cause everyone to avoid the void as they try to retool old habits with new explanations, theories, contrived proofs that the world will return to normal. Now it's tragedy, and the quality of irony finds itself made ironical.The attack on the World Trade Center puts us beyond abstractions like comedy or tragedy , on which one can grasp onto something fixed in their minds as a normality they can get back to. All is muted, rendered mute.Rationalization is deferred. And our expectations of what DeLillo would make of the penultimate attack on America's symbolic sense of being the world's best asset mounted to levels that were nearly toxic with glee.

DeLillo , however, is a writer who might have played out his themes and investigations of a hyper-technologized democracy whose inhabitants are searching for a useful past as a way to make the fractured, reshuffled and decentered present to at least seem to have thematic continuity. "Falling Man", the 9/11 novel, strikes me as a book of riffs from a musician who can barely muster the energy to run through his songbook one more time. In the odd sense, in the cruelly ironic sense, it's a tragedy that the attack on the World Trade Center attack happened after DeLillo hit his peak with "Underworld", as masterful of novel of America our propensity for distracting ourselves in ritual, obsessions, insane hobbies and esoteric systems of knowledge--performance art, baseball history, high finances, unrepentant consumerism, ceaseless works of charity--to keep the suspicion that all our material gains and assumptions are based on no fixed moral platform.

There are some fine sentences here, some splendid descriptions, but there is listlessness as well. "Falling Man" is finally dull,and even DeLillo's prose mastery can't make this alternating saga of survivor despair and terrorist preparation rise above the merely serviceable. DeLillo is overwhelmed by the topic, not so much for the impossibility of writing a brilliant novel in the post-attack atmosphere, but because all the themes he has relevant to the present condition are expressed more powerfully, poetically, with larger and surer measures of canon-making genius than the comparatively provincial exercise the author has issued here. It’s also a matter of whether beautiful writing is appropriate for a novel specifically concerning itself with the physical and psychic costs of 9-11; folks like Laura Miller, Meghan O’Rourke and Frank Rich have wrestled with the issue of whether drawing metaphors and similes for larger contemplation is somehow immoral when addressing the events so catastrophic and fatal. Art, in the uppercase, means framing the materials and objectifying them, taking them from their contexts and positioning them in ways that will force a deliberation over their existence; this is the aesthetic distance, beauty removed from our hands and set aside so we can contemplate some feelings in absence of real world distraction. 9-11, though , is thought by many to be above such contemplation, that this date cannot be abstracted as material for art making, literary reflection.


Brat Pack novelist, Manhattanite extraordinaire and famed party goer, got the urge to step up to the plate and write a Great American Novel, a work that would raise him finally from the middle rungs of the literary ladder and allow him to reach the top shelf where only the best scribes--Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Thomas Wolfe!-- sit and cast their long collective shadow over the fields of aspiring geniuses, furious scribblers all. McInerney has selected a large subject with which to make his reputation, the catastrophe that was and remains 9/11. Acutely aware that the minor league satires and soft coming of age stories that made his name were less commanding than they had been because "9/11 changed everything" (a phrase destined to be the characterizing cliche of this age) he offers us The Good Life, a mixed bag of satiric thrusts, acute social observation, two dimensional characterizations and wooden generalizations about the sagging state of society, of culture, of our ability to understand one another, locally and globally.

I agree that Jay McInerney is a better writer than he's been credit, but history will judge his novels as minor efforts at best. Witty and observant, yes he is, but the manner in which he conveys his best lines, his choicest bon mots have the thumbed-through feeling of a style borrowed. Fitzgerald, Capote and John Cheever are his heroes, true, but there's nothing in McInerney's writing that honors his influences with the achievement of a tone and personality that is entirely his own, an original knack of phrase making that makes a reader wonder aloud how such wonderful combinations of words are possible. His influences, alas, are visible and seem to be peering over his shoulder. Even what one would praise as sharp and elegant observations from his keyboard creaks not a little. The style sounds borrowed, and our author sounds much, much too dainty to make it really cling to the memory:"The hairstylist was aiming a huge blow-dryer at his wife's skull, which was somewhat disconcertingly exposed and pink--memento mori--in the jet of hot air ... "

McInerney is compared to Fitzgerald relentlessly since his career as a professional writer began, in so much he, like F.Scott, was bearing witness to a generation of conspicuous consumption and waste, but one notices that any random paragraph from The Great Gatsby contains more melody by far. The writing genius of Fitzgerald, when he was writing at his absolute best,was his ability to make you forget the fact that you're reading elegant prose and have you become entranced by it. It was a means to put you in a different world altogether. It's this simple, really; you didn't see him writing, you didn't see him sweat. Able craftsman as well as peerless stylist when he was performing best, Fitzgerald's prose seemed natural, buoyant, unstrained. McInerney's writing reveals that strain, that slaving over phrase and clever remark,and often times the effect seems calculated.In his best moments, he rarely sheds the sophomore flash; after all these years our Manhattan golden boy still writes like the most gifted student in a Kansas City composition class. After all these years he is still trying to outrace the long shadows of those who brought him reading pleasure.

"Windows on the World", a poem written by Alfred Corn and published in Slate on September 11, 2003,is an ill conceived poem commerating the attack on the World Trade Center that would seem to confirm the skeptic's view that poets are willfully suffering narcissts who think everything in the world is in play in order to disturb their peace. In other words, to fuck with them. It's strange, odd, perverse, and somewhat immoral to write a poem using the 9/11 attack as a pretext to write another self-infatuated poem that really is more about how much the writer thinks about himself and his assignation as a "poet"; whatever the goddamned what Corn puts on his tax return as "occupation" has to do with the still barely speakable horror this day has come to mean is beyond any sense I can find, and worse, it is beyond anything useful to others.

This is a wandering and traipsing along the subject matter like a drunk tourist gawking at the bizarre ways of the big city, a laughable and loathsome tour of Corn's intellectual baggage. Connecting the ruin of the WTC with the crashing of Windows operating system is a ploy him to remain a thousand miles from any connection with real emotion; it is relentlessly ironic and snobby in its form as a poem. The subject matter, the real horror is aestheticized out of mind the way a narcotic lulls one into a stupor and then a nod against a world that still must be faced and made sene of. Corn does none of that at all, but what he does do is give us a long, wavering and arrogantly ambivalent stretch of muddled semiotics where everything is a straining reach, a forced association, a willful perversion of real imagistic reach. Had the subject not been so grim and disheartening, this would seem more parody than anything else. This poem angers me to no end. If Corn was paid for this piece, he should feel honor bound to donate the sum to a cause that actually gives hope to others in the human community. Following that, he might quit whatever teaching job he as in the instruction of writing and get a job in the receiving area of a Salvation Army Thrift store.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Rise of the Silver Potato Head


Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer is nearly as unimpressive as the first installment in this comic book inspired franchise, with little to be said in it's favor other than Jessica Alba, as Invisible Girl, looks hot in form fitting clothes, and that the CGI employed to bring the Surfer to life are mighty fine indeed. That leaves an awful lot of time to suffer through,with all the windup zooming, running around, the crashing smashing animation, the mechanically rendered humor following suit in a hurry, a big hurry.You think they're trying to keep you winded, too pooped to look at your watch and leave early. It gets to be as predictable and formulaic as any super hero feature you'd find on Cartoon Network. Andre Braugher, impressive as Detective Pembleton on the sorely missed tv drama Homicide:Life on the Street, is on hand to play a high ranking general with a personal dislike of Reed Richards, alias Mr.Fantastic, who must soldier on with a government orders to enlist his aid in discovering and resolving a mysterious cosmic force that is affecting the earth's weather in unbelievable ways. Braugher, a good actor when given the chance, just looks stern and grumpy here, having little in the way of character to work with. In all this fumbling around, Dr.Doom , supposedly foiled and done for in the first film, is back again, to no one's surprise, but under the guise of cooperating with Richards and the Army to vanquish the problematic Surfer. By now you stop carrying, and wonder how much Lawrence Fishburn, the voice of the animated Surfer, got paid to read what seemed no more than eight lines of dialogue.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Yet more old music from my CD collection

Yes, more old music-tb
______________________________


The Sign of 4-- Derek Bailey, Pat Metheny, Greg Bendian, Paul Wertico
A three disc proverbial wet dream for lovers of skronky, abrupt, clicking, feedback leavened non-jazz electric guitar improvisation. Granted, I don't listen to it that often, but it's a bonus shot of energy when I'm done with my occasional, though lengthy dose. This morning was in dedication to the recently passed Derek Bailey.

Expresso
--Gong
This about the only Gong album I cottoned to , and it's the only one of their albums I didn't sell off when I was moving between apartments. With this disc they had evolved from a space-rock unit and into a tight, percussion driven jazz-fusion unit. The music, for the style, still has a kick, and guitarist Allen Holdsworth, in a period of doing short stints with several name bands, does some of his best work here. Solid, melodic, fleet and moody improvisations and material that gives the players intriguing twists to play off of.

Earth Walk--Jack DeJohnette and Special Edition
A 1991 session on ECM, it's an engaging if conceptually diffuse collection; DeJohnette as a composer/arranger can be irritating at times with his habit of inserting style changes with hardly a thought of a natural sounding segue. The charts tend to drift into the kind of "space chords" vamping where there's nothing to suggest a melodic underpinning, a lack of an idea, leaving worthy soloists like reedmen Greg Osby and Gary Thompson to play more frantically than otherwise would be called for. It gets the customary ECM Afro/Euro groove going about a third of the way through, which leads us to much rhythm interplay, spiraling, head-whacking flights from Osby and Thompson and, to be sure, DeJohnette's sure stick work.
Walkin'-Miles Davis
A live recording from 1960, interesting for the inclusion of saxist Sonny Stitt , replacing for the time being John Coltrane. It is a fine, fine, fine performance; Davis takes some of the coolest solos you might wish to hear him play, and Stitt's ebullient, fluid sense of rhythm and melody does amazing things in the generous spaces he has to fill.


The Pious Bird of Good Omen- Fleetwood Mac
With Peter Green on vocals and guitar, and Jeremy Spencer, slide guitar and vocals. Green is the attraction here, with a voice that sounds as if it's bubbling from the bottom of a river of black water, and a guitar style that remains a model of economy and emotion, an uncommon virtue in an era given over to conspicuous displays of chops. Particularly beautiful is his version of Little Willie John's "Need Your Love So Bad", a gorgeous blues pleading for love, unadorned. Green's singing is transforming.
Spy vs Spy.—John Zorn
From the svelte skronk of Zorn's Ornette tribute to the minimal meditations of Glass's impressions of a man trying to find out if a horse's feet all leave the ground at one time. Good stuff, on a re-listen. I had a girl friend in college who was given to sudden and intense love affairs with many a hip trend and avant garde mannerism, much of which has aged badly and is either in cold storage or ready for the next garage sale; The Photographer, though, has it's repetitive pleasures; it's not especially gripping at an emotional level, but the sheer rigor of Glass's pared formalism is compelling in the way that an idea , a concept, finds its situation and flourishes under the circumstances.

Port of Call-- Cecil Taylor
Repackaged sessions from 1960-1961 released in the States on an economy label called Past Perfect, this is a bit more comprehensible and, say, conservative than what Taylor and his bands are known for. An abstract heat still burns away , though, and there are great moments here; the ten minute piano deconstruction of "This Nearly Was Mine" keeps you guessing and anticipating where Taylor and his trio would take the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut, and "Things Aint What They Used to Be” is rethought a dozen different ways by Archie Shepp and Steve Lacy.

Flowers of Evil--Mountain
I play this once a year, and this morning was the time to do it; the studio sides have a repetitive pomposity you can get behind after a couple of stiff drinks, but the combination of Felix Papalardi's whiney voice singing his wife's bullshit lyrics can ruin any buzz you have going for you. It's the live material that kicks it, with lots of fat, snarling Leslie West guitar work getting twisted around a punchy set of slow, grinding , distorted hard rock. Yes, arrangements do count, even in rock and roll.” Roll Over Beethoven" and "Dreams of Milk and Honey" are on my best live rock tracks ever. I might be the only one who likes this, but fuck it, it makes me happy.

Live at Bradley's --Kevin Eubanks
If you can forget the fact that guitarist Eubanks is Jay Leno's band leader and default second-banana, you gather that he's a classy jazz player; rhythmic, melodic, swift on the solos, but with emphasis on phrasing , pauses between passages. This is a pleasant respite from the copious amounts of the ever-busy Mike Stern I've listened to lately. Stern seems unable to leave a quite moment alone and fills it with frantic riffing, not so much as technique gone berserk, a jazz version of wank guitar, but rather an accelerated directionlessness. An agile Jerry Garcia would be a better comparison. Eubanks, meantime, swings powerfully, with a light touch, a spry tone. James Williams (P) and Robert Hurst (b) do lithe work here. Good stuff for a drummer-less trio.

Unity--Larry Young
Wonderful , simply wonder expanded organ improvisation by the late Larry Young. I appreciated his work with the first Tony Williams Lifetime, but hadn't looked into his own releases until recently. A solid bandleader. Trumpeter Woody Shaw, an undervalued player, soars nicely with saxist Joe Henderson. Elvin Jones gives a demonstration of drum techniques from another planet.

Free Jazz Dance-Phil Woods
Recorded live in Rome, 1969, Phil Woods blows a very swift and elegant alto with a game trio of French sidemen who can play it any speed they want to. The eleven minute Eddie Harris title tune is a fine clustering of rhythms and crashing sensibilities. Nice swing and drive, and pianist Daniel Humair has the right chord voicings for Woods' galloping lines. Takes a sweet, Teddy Wilsonesque solo too.

Friday, June 15, 2007

"THE MEANING OF LIFE" by Terry Eagleton


The Meaning of Life
By Terry Eagleton (Oxford)

Terry Eagleton , a long time literary critic of Marxist training (Marxist Literary Criticsm, Literary Theory, Illusions of Post Moderism) and Catholic church moral rigor and one of the best explicators of the dually condensed and convoluted intersections of literature, philosophy and political action, has give us all a small, witty, tersely choice gift with his new book, more correctly an essay, called The Meaning of Life. Eagleton's intent, despite what one might assume, isn't to cast a disparaging glare at what has to be simultaneously the most over- asked and least answerable question issued forth, continually, but the swelling ranks of the Middle Brow readership. Eagleton is one of the few truly fine stylists in Leftist literary criticism, an intellectual who is able to translate the most involuted and deferring theoretical quagmires in elegant, comprehensible English, and who is likewise able, and blessedly inclined to make the murky suppositions of other academics sweat by insisting that notions of reading deal , finally, with a book's perceptible idea, and that analysis of the workings have something to do with a reader's experience of the text they've finished and seek to fruitfully ponder. He steers clear of the stalling abstractions of Frederick Jameson, and more clearly addresses the same idea advanced by the increasingly oracular Harold Bloom--the investigation into how Literature helps us think about ourselves and our deeds in the world.

The author does not sneer, deride, nor deride the question, although more than a little of his prickly wit bubbles up from under the surface of his elegantly poised writing. It's a question he takes seriously--it must be important,since queries into grander, greater (or lesser) significance in our existence have been debated for as long as humans could write and record their knowledge and history-- but he is one who is rather tired of the various sophistries that have absorbed the question and tried to force it into submission. He is short fused with the New Agers, who's dreamy capitulation of personal responsibility to whispering drives are useless to most of us who find ourselves denied celestial epiphanies in ruthless material plain, and Eagleton is equally contemptuous of post-modernist theorizers who would argue, abstrusely, thickly, blockheadly, that the Meaning of Life is a merely a social construction and that one is finely better off, by implication, attempting nothing to change one's state and purpose and instead enjoy the spectacle of observing the culture collapse upon itself. 

An attractive aspect of Eagleton's progressive dissections of concepts and the language that gives them form is a tangible humanity; he refuses to slide into pessimism with the false assurance that the population is too stupid or deluded to do better by themselves and their fellows, or that the quest for meaning of our deeds is delusional. There is a series of skewerings , interrogations and elucidations of the basic elements of the need to define the life worth living-- the rise of the need for metaphysical certainty as expressed in religion, philosophy and political thought, and the latter day "eclipse of meaning" as modernism and postmodernism seem to fragment phenomena into a incoherent multi-verse that could be be authoritatively unified under banner of general noble purpose. 

The thrust of the book, we find, is that seeking the answer to what The Meaning of Life is is less an attempt to find that patch of wise and fertile soil on which one may advance their lives with a given purpose, but that that it is a way of life. Far from being static, the genuine quest for coherence, meaning, a means by which to measure one's best intentions and making them effectively congruent with their actions, is in itself the purpose of being alive and productive, above and beyond the biological imperative. The species is quite capable of much nastiness and unmistakable evil, but we are likewise capable of great works of art , compassion, charity. That capacity, after the pseudo systems of philosophical side streets have been blocked off, the sweetness of new age thought turns into a fouling stench, and the apocalyptic ravings of religious extremes reveal themselves as useless to the question to what one does in this life that's useful, Eagleton considers the open mind interested in the ongoing need for the good to be the thing which we must prize over all.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" by Jeff Skinner


Prose poems are those strange paragraphs that makes one think of what Henry James once called the long novel, "loose baggy monsters", and as such it's a risk for the reader to enter a piece that tries to contain the associative leaps of the free verse poem with the rhetorical drive of a working paragraph. The results are often unsatisfactory, containing the merits of neither form.Jeff Skinner's "I've Been Working on the Railroad" impressed me less for its poetic acumen and more for his seeming knack to tell a shaggy dog story; when the mind is idle, there is nothing between to between tasks (either assigned by the boss or off a self-designed agenda) and there is nothing you either need to or want to discuss with your fellows, you retire into the recesses of the mind, mulling the gathered archive of collected impressions and stored obsessions, talking to oneself as if there was an other at arms length to soak in the ramble.It is the mind in the act of automatic writing, images and aromas and bits of old jokes and city scenes brought together with an alarming fluidity; there is less in this poem in terms of associative leaps and more in the general style of untrammeled, unfettered conscious spew; this is the mind producing it's own white noise to keep the mind sharp and fully aware of what it's habit of mind has accumulated over a few decades of one's senses bringing in the bother and bustle of a cantankerous existence.

I've always had trouble with the boss, even when I was self-employed.

Why do I have to sit there for eight hours when I can finish the day's

work in fifty-seven minutes? And there was a flaw on the face

of the office clock, a flyspeck or mole between five and six

where the eye went naturally, as if to the corner of an otherwise

impeccable woman's lips. I kissed that flaw in my mind, over and over,

because I had nothing else to do. The idea of work is fine, but

must we put every idea into practice? The trees, which I sometimes

catch waving to me, seem content in every weather, as if they

were continuously employed actors, and when the script calls for caress

the willow bends and draws its leaves delicately across the grass;


More than anything else, Skinner's poem hints at word salad, the talk of schizophrenics form whom the order of past, present and future has collapsed upon themselves and all incidents and all concerns , in their respective tenses, are merged, expressed at the same time. This lack of discretion, the failure to make distinctions or abide by circumscribed hierarchy gives this poem an explosive charge; this is stammering with all cylinders firing. The speaker tries to talk about everything at once.There's a resemblance to the bulging rampages favored by Albert Goldbarth, for whom the weight accumulation and each detailed dent and ding of experiential discomfort and annoyance sometimes results in an inspired rant, but Skinner pares his unanchored, rudderless ramble to the minimum. Goldbarth at least has script he sticks to, while Skinner's poem goes off the rails and becomes a suspended bit of verbal strangeness.What is appeals to me here is the way this piece approximates the stammering velocity of someone who is usually quiet and perceived as nerdy (or just plain old weird ) by his community, who, when given the chance to speak, or rather taking the chance to speak, cannot focus on what he wants to talk about, cannot organize his thoughts, cannot sound at ease with the ideas he's trying to express.

What gets to me is the way the poem suddenly stops. This is someone who hears himself talking too loudly at work, at a party, in a bar, in line for a movie, and just falls into a desperate quiet, hoping no one was paying attention.. The final line, which might be taken as poetic in the conventional sense, a metaphor intended to make the reader's heart rise or sink with the imagined rhythms of the poet's intention, strikes me rather as some mysterious sounding bit of pseudo profundity that is intended by the speaker to toss a blanket of bewilderment over the words that had just come out of his mouth.


Perhaps in the end all work

is equally forgotten, and the transmission of knowledge a long train crossing

Kansas at 3 a.m., a glowing tube full of dreaming passengers.



Dazzle ‘em with genius, or baffle ‘em with bullshit, as the T-shirt says. One over hears or indulges in the speaker's diatribe, expecting it to land somewhere, and is then handed this as a parting shot, a summation. I think Skinner has captured the style of the awkward orator, who's habit is tie up adrifting stream of conscious with a cryptic summation. And one is left standing there as they walk away, scratching their head , wondering what it was they were trying to talk about in the first place. I think this is a good poem.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Black Out in New Jersey: The Sopranos Finale.


Bobby, Tony Soprano's brother in law, commented about the fabled bullet coming at you that maybe a guy wouldn't even here it coming. And now here we are, at the end of the Sopranos final episode, seeing Tony look up from a restaurant table where his entire family is seated, eating onion rings, and we're suddenly dumbfounded when the screen goes black and the credits roll after long seconds have ticked by. Did Tony see his daughter Meadow coming through the door, or was it something truly awful? Whatever you think, this is a finale we'll be debating for years.One of the things David Chase and his writers were good at was doing something that went against anyone's expectations; I like the cat too, and I loved the fact that the kitty was staring at Christopher's picture and later showed up outside the pork shop while Paulie sunned himself. I don't know if it could have ended any other way, since anything they did would have pissed fans off. How can you end a show that's been this amazing? So we're left in the lurch, wondering if Tony looked up to see his daughter coming through the door or if he saw a glimpse of a hood with a gun aiming straight to the middle of the head. Either way, it's an amazing send off of a fictional family into the netherland of endless reruns.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Legacy and Anti Legacy of Sgt.Pepper's


Like it or love it, Sgt.Pepper is among the most important rock albums ever made, one of the most important albums period, and forty years after it's release, it is time to assess the album free of the globalizing hype and mythology it's biggest supporters have honored it with, and to veer away from the chronically negative reaction those less in love with the Beatles and the disc have made a religion out of. It is, in my view, important for any number of reasons, production and songwriting among them, and for me it's not just that Lennon and McCartney have set the standard on which such things would be judged against from now on, but that they've also given us the examples with which rock critics, paid and unpaid, by which we can tell who is being pretentious, phony, unfocused, incoherent, just plain bad.
Sure enough, the best songs have survived--"A Day In the Life, "Getting Better", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "Mr.Kite", but sure enough the less accomplished songs, all manner, pose, nervy and naive pseudo mysticism and intellectuality as in "Within You Without You" and "She's Leaving Home", are hardly played anywhere, by anyone, unless one tunes in an XM satellite station where the play list is all things Beatles, without discrimination.
What the Beatles did with the song craft, the central genius and downfall of much of Pepper's legacy, is that they've introduced thousands of forthcoming arty rockers to new levels of sophistication and fantastically dull pompousness. I love the Beatles, of course, that's the standard qualifier among us all, but this is the album with which rock criticism was finally created. Lovers and Haters of the disc finally had a rock and roll record that might sustain their liberal arts training. Sgt. Pepper also gave us brilliant and much less brilliant rock commentary. Here you may pick your own examples.

The reasons Beatle fans in general (rather than only) "hipsters" prefer Revolver to Sgt.Pepper is for the only reason that really matters when one is alone with their CD player or iPOD; the songwriter is consistently better, the production crisper, the lyrics succeed in being intriguingly poetic without the florid excess that capsized about half of Sgt.Pepper's songs, and one still perceived the Beatles as a band, guitar bass and drums, performing tunes with a signature sound that comes only after of years of the same musicians performing together.

It might be compared to Miles Davis when he was performing with his classic bands--John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock,Tony Williams, Ron Carter, et al-- with a long string of releases like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue (name your favorite here) and when he turned to the jazz rock fusion of Bitches Brew and On the Corner, which featured the endeavors of Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin . The first mentioned releases are conspicuous examples of bands sensitive to each members nuances, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and signatures, combing with the material to offer adventurous improvisations as part of an ensemble effort, while with Bitches Brew Davis and his producers culled performances from hours of taped jam sessions where ideas and motifs were explored to produce albums that are, in effect, mosaics. a The general tone of the later releases was less the sparks that occur between musicians confronting each other in performance but rather something more theatrical; thought the musicianship is rather magnificent and often times bracing on the later electric releases, they seem more in service to Davis' cantankerous muse , performing as directed. As much as I admire and respect the accomplishment of both the Beatles and Davis in their late work, studio craft and all, a larger part of me would have preferred if the musicians had found a way to expand their horizons without abandoning their identities as bands. The Rolling Stones sought to produce their own version of Sgt.Pepper with the releases of the bloated and wasted Satanic Requests, and it's a fine thing to appreciate the Stones self critical response to bad notices (and perhaps some sober listening to the record, after the fact); they abandoned their attempts to compete with the Beatles on their new turf and returned , brilliantly, to riffy, rhythm and blues tinged rock and roll.

What hasn't been mentioned here is that Frank Zappa released his first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out on June 27, 1966, a full month before the Beatles released Revolver in August of that year. Zappa was an erratic, quizzical, quarrelsome presence, but he achieved things with that album that neither the Beatles nor the Stones came close to; both those bands were more influential in the pop music sphere, where their separate approaches to including cross genre and avant gard gestures made for pleasant and easily appreciated (and imitated)music for a large record buying public. Zappa, though, with his solid chops as composer, producer, guitarist, satirist and multi media maven, was miles further up the road and around the bend with respect to advancing the primitive ways of rock and roll into an art form. A good amount of Zappa's early music remains challenging to this day, which is another way of saying that it's hard to sit through and that it's downright ugly. The ugliness, though, wasn't merely my limited aesthetic; Zappa cultivated it, advanced it, and gloried in it. Now that's integrity.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Tilted Arc


There's a fine slideshow/essay available on Slate about the MOMA retrospective of the career of sculptor Richard Serra. Serra, a former literature major taken with the writings of Herman Melville and Charles Olson who has made his famed , site specific buffed steel formations take on and suggest the movement of waves, ships and motion, is an intriguing subject whose progression from minimalist (one whose ideas and materials scorn ornamentation and leave the problematics of "meaning" at the side road) to maximalist (sizes matters as means of forcing viewers to renegotiate their familiar public areas) is one of the more interesting transformations in contemporary art. The article deals mostly with his successes (which are many and considerable), and talks about his most notable disaster, Tilted Arc.


Those I'd spoke to who had a chance to take a long gander at the Tilted Arc installation before it was dismantled, most of whom instinctually desired to protect artist's rights, in control of content and how it's handled after the work is completed and delivered, found themselves sympathetic with the grousing over the monolithic presence. A large conceit on the part of site-specific artists and architects is to act as philosopher-teachers and ersatz gods of a kind in their percieved need to force people to relate to their landscape or cityscape in different ways; bolstered by soggy progressive notions that the mass of us are encased and buffeted by material objects and the desire to garner more material things before they die, Serra, at turns brilliant and magnificently literate, falls in line with an elitist notion that we need to shaken up and made to see things as they actually are, according to his script.

Often times this succeeds, and a community experiences the marvelous, if somewhat puzzling experience of seeing familiar spaces transformed into something else altogether; hardly so with Tilted Arc, which transforms it's original space for sure, but at the sacrifice of wonder or the desired revolutionizing of the senses.It was an intrusion, an obstacle of arrogant mass, impeding rather than improving the city space it sat upon. Immensity alone, sheer volume of scale, seemed enough for Serra to deliver his metaphor with. It actually diminished one's capacity , whether they be worker or visitor, to enjoy the city scape, as winds got sharper, colder, shadows were longer, the work rested in became darker longer, sooner.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Snowed In

John Hodgen's poem ,"Driving Back From Crotched Mountain, Winter Storm, New Year's Eve" is itself snowed in by all those subordinate clauses, all those asides, all those artful digressions from the image of the angry man waving his arms in the snow storm. The trick with this kind of poem is to begin with an image and then riff upon it at some length, seizing anything from language to memory that would elaborate on the initial image and provide the appearance of a thesis, and then return to the same image at the end of it all, that image being in tact save for the accumulated associations we now associate with it. In this instance, the man in front of his own driveway is supposed to be resonating with a gathered meloncholy that comes out as mute rage.

All sorts of associations are supposed to rear their heads in the collective memory of the reader and we're supposed to feel the slight tug of sadness the image suggests to our under attended sentimentality. Everything is here except the craft, as it reads as if we'd gotten our hands on Hodgen's notebook instead of the finished poem.

The man in front of me—what's he doing?—pulls over, no signal,
********to the side of the road,

gets out, begins sloughing his way, stooped and bent against the wind,
********to what I presume

is his driveway winding up and around the small box of a cabin
********that is his home.

He is waving me around, annoyed somehow, his left arm swooping low
********above the snow

in a way no man younger than himself would wave someone around,
********as if he'd been a soldier

or farmer all his life, as if he lived a little closer to the ground, his arm
********a sweeping scythe,

as if it were his holy job to wave the world to go around, as if he were
********my father, consigned

instead of hell to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where it turns out
********it always snows


These are notes, sketches, single sentence epiphanies that would work effectively had they been given an architecture ; the poem , rather than being a work where Hodgen's sparks speak, is more like a blathering . The subordinating clauses usurp Hodgen's intent and add only bloat, not momentum. The tone of it all reminded me of Russell Bank's thoroughly dispiriting novel "Affliction", where sons and alkie Dad muddle up their mottled affairs the more they try to talk about them. I thought the initial image, a man waving his arms angrily in the snow, was wonderfully suggestive, but what dilutes it and and finally kills it were the parade of similes attached to it. This suggests strongly that Hodgen thought the image, in itself, was inadequate. The effect of the digressions, linked so obviously to the defining trope, is explication rather than poetry. I don't mind drift in poems if what's being included can stand alone as poetic material and not didactic buttressing.None of the items in the above stream really have linkage; the effect is that these are the rattlings of meth head sweating out an ugly detox. The "as if's" are arbitrary and tyrannical. It would be interesting to have this piece work shopped and handed back to Hodgen for revision, with specific instructions (well, suggestions) that the diversions be given the gravity of experienced context, items drawn from memory. The aim would be to have the differences between what's been forced together in the same sentence provide a tone, a clue to what is perceived and how it's assimilated into larger, deeper memory. Overall, though, I think it's one of the many lost chances we see here when there's a good idea for a poem that is instead writ by a writer who has an eye on the clock and another on the exit.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sgt.Pepper and the Terminal Ennui of Gina Arnold

June 1st marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album , and not missing a beat to raise the hackles of both baby boomers and subsequent generations of rock and pop music fans, Salon has decided to spark a debate whether the epochal album is The Most Important Album Ever Made or not. Or even if the disc was all that epochal. It's a cheap and easy way to get readers to focus for the few minutes it takes to scan the column, and I can't say I wouldn't have the same had I been the editor; the relative worth of Sgt. Pepper's forty years hence, and it might well be time for the album to go through a reappraisal. This, however, is not what Salon has set out to do, and goes the route of the cranky and formulaically contrarian anthology of anti-canon rock reviews Kill Your Idols
, a snotty collection of reviews where younger critics eviscerate many of what many older reviewers consider the core discs of rock and pop music history. For the book,
it's a blown opportunity for genuine revisionism, and one suspects the writers misunderstood editor Jim DeRogatis' instructions to write an alternative version of rock and roll critical thinking. The writers busied themselves with being young, loud and snotty and leveled the typical charges against the Beatles, The Beach Boys, the MC5, Joni Mitchell; they're boring, they're lame, they are over rated, they are old. Not much more elevated a dissent than what members of the typical Bakersfield Greyhound station might offer if so queried about what tunes they'd like to never hear again.

Salon brings in Gina Arnold , a nitwit hypothesizer and unfocused rambler who's idea of evaluating the worth of a band or its albums is by how often they slammed dope, how many band members died stupidly, and what were the cut of designer rags they wore when either playing in concert/discovered by a maid, dead in the bathroom, wrapped around the toiler, a needle or an empty vial shattered or spilled on the tile. "Sgt.Pepper" doesn't rate because it lacked all topical references and wasn't hug-gable enough, blistering enough, "real" enough. These are vague particulars, and Arnold, who writes as airily about music as Greil Marcus minus Marcus's elegance or occasional genius for making the far flung connections across historical periods and art movements, has little to say about those remarks should matter to us. She seems unable to talk about the music, the performances, the quality of the songwriting, elements that any music discussion comes down to, regardless of one's variety of nonconformist opinionating.

For me and most I know, the album is good if over rated, about half good to great, the rest arch and pretentious; some of the songs and lyrics are among the best in the Beatles body of work while the rest is as pretentious as anything the Vanilla Fudge or Moody Blues would contrive. It;s an album whose importance is both musical and one of style blazing and it's obvious with time that the better songs have survived because their substance is solid as craft and imagination, while all the fashionable studio tricks come across as several shades of hokey; nothing ages worse than yesterday's avant gard.One could go along this line, taking songs apart and putting back together through any number of filters, and much would , I wager, be worth reading. It depends on who is doing the talking. Meghan O'Rourke and Louis Menand , both first rate culture critics, would have have understood the disconnection in the Beatles' work and parsed the mixed blessing the album unleashed upon the audience and other musicians. Arnold isn't able to make distinctions and speaks in moldy generalizations, and mulls over Beatles v Stones and opines that God is a creep because most of the Ramones are dead while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are still alive. Does one wonder if Arnold is even interested in the subject she's made a career writing about?

Arnold doesn't like the Sixties, she doesn't like rockers in their Sixties, she doesn't like to discuss music. But the obituaries. She's all over that with a ghoulish relish, and from what I'm able to determine from reading her in The San Diego Reader and Spin Magazines over the years is that she herself is that she's waiting for her own demise, perhaps a fantasy in which every album and CD she owns is cut up, snapped in two, smashed with a hammer into tiny pieces, all her books are in a pile, smoldering in a flame, and she sits there under a Kurt Cobain poster , waiting to at last to achieve what has yet to be done; to be bored to death.