Monday, February 4, 2008
The Poems of Ron Slate
The Incentive of the Maggot
poems by Ron Slate
I've been reading through Ron Slate's first collection, The Incentive of the Maggot, and what's striking besides the overwrought awfulness of the title, is that Slate hits the ball about half the time. Pinsky regards him as a second coming of Frank O'Hara, and I suppose he would be to someone who can't live without that good poet's name being invoked every other instance, but Slate is way too tense to pick up where O'Hara left off. O'Hara was relaxed, crazed, ecstatic, full of the mess and grace his enthusiasms brought to his verse. He never seemed as if he slaved over a foreign word or academic term, or strained to make the mundane world seem a mere disguise cast over a backlog of history. O'Hara's poems were full of the stuff in the world he lived, actually lived, and he addressed history, irony or political justice in ways that came to him in flashes, stolen moments.His poems , long and short, are records of intense feelings, recorded in whatever direction they might happen to fly.
O'Hara had a natural ear, tuned to music and melodic formation, and the lilt and swing and swagger of the musical phrase never left his lines; there is musicality even in the lesser work.Slate I think is a good poet who had not yet a full collection of finished poems by the time Maggot was published, and what ruins the book are so many poems that divert into mere knowingness, fancy asides where irony is used ham handedly and the larger associations , the flights of metaphor , are angry tirades against eternal injustice and the continuing triumph of the corporately mediocre. Slate is drawn between two schools of American poetry, The New York School with it's vernacular cityscape, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, who cannot discuss a poem without indicting a whole generation of poets that came before them. There is a goodly amount of confessional poetry too, and sometimes it works, but more often than not Slate's writing loses it's pitch and goes off key, plays atonal, goes too quickly from Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor.
The Demise of Camembert in particular because there is a lot of gear-shifting between what seems like his poetic allegiances. The trick, of course, is to start with something as inane as a type of French food, and to extrapolate from there, but there is something of Cliff the mailman from Cheers in the way we leap from lunch to space transmissions
This message comes to us
on a tray with quick-serve cheddar puffs
passed across the cocktail party,
across news networks via satellite.
Also it lands thudding with the flat bread,
bean salad, raisins, fruit bar,
seedless jam and plastic cutler
in the humanitarian airdrop.
This was fast enough to twist your head off like a bottle cap, and it's a symptom of the auto didactic that will insert such arcane purpose is to create clutter , clarity, and this makes you think that the personality that writes lines that jump around rapidly between references prefers it that way. From this arbitrarily applied springboard of rhetoric, Slate can muse, worry, deconstruct and reshape the discourse to absorb and dissolve the manufacture of bombs, the mass production of food and the erasure of the sensuous life, the mysterious superiority of meals prepared by hand. These side streets don't come to anything, though, which makes me think that Slate loves the sound of his own voice.
That is not a bad quality in a writer, since one must more or less love putting words together to produce certain subtle meanings and effects, but what helps that love is a point that one is able to make or a feeling is able to create, an empathy. This poem seems increasingly like it were of no more use than a sneezing jag, a physical reaction to a nasty bit of dust that needed to be expelled. Think of it, epiphany as virus:
Man, that was wicked.
I just sat down to eat my baloney sandwich when
I got hit with an epiphany...
Shit, I hate it when that happens...
No kidding. I was hungry as a motherfucker and the sandwich looked good and all of a sudden I start thinking and musing uncontrollably about classical music, Umbrian villas, old girl friends, mad jazz piano playing, drinking too much and a solitary bed in the morning as soft, earth tone light comes through a half shaded window. By the time I came out of that revelry, it was time to go back to work..
Gee, that's rough, buddy,
Damn straight. I'm gonna get myself inoculated, man, epiphanies suck. I'd rather have a cold...
I hear ya, bro..
Slate fares just as badly with another poem, "Warm Canto", a piece speaking about what it's like to watch a friend waste away.I like the way Slate gets across a feeling of dissociated sensibility here, but the poem creaks with awkward phrases that are unappealing--strained, top heavy, graceless--which makes the issue of how the narrator is dealing with the death of a friend become more a cerebral mumble than an intensified ode to his mixed feelings. The response may be a muddle, which is fine, but the poem shouldn't be. Lines like
The drugged body of a dying man
drinks its own urine.
do not help the cause.
Genius is that rare ability that makes a seeming muddle interesting, exciting, and worth the effort to read and wrestle with. Having an "ear" for how language helps immeasurably to separate Faulkner and Joyce from arty lessers; their individual innovations in how language can tell a story through various psychological and personality filters--stream of conscious, if you will--changed the way we think "good writing" ought to be, and what kind of narrative structure and content a fiction should have.
Above all, the best work these masters did seemed natural; the music does not seemed forced. Slate's writing does, I'm afraid, and I think he fails to get at any number of coincidental grace notes and ironies as relates to death and grieving due to an urge to be difficult, "special". This makes the poem a muddle, and incomprehensible. "Not "difficult", just incomprehensible. Yes, one can say that he's sad and grieving and witnessing any number of things in his world he would otherwise not have noticed nor thought about, but the failure here is basically that he doesn't make us believe that any of it is important. Frankly, I am not moved in a time when being moved is a large part of what makes me respond to a poem.
Slate has an interesting voice once he gets the self-proclaiming abstraction out of his system; the difference here is the one between someone with a mouth full of marbles and another fully prepared, sans obstacles, to speak clearly and evocatively on what his mind has been up to.Musing indeed, because the narrator is at an ever-so-slight remove from the situations he's passing through, feeling alienated as the result of a shrugging resentment of having to be in work areas instead of luxuriating in more pastoral, poetic surroundings.
I miss things that meant nothing to me
and so much was nothing.
The world begins returning
like a sailor climbing the hill
to his house, lugging a duffle
bulging with what really happened.
As if the leaves aren't falling
in your mind. As if your memories
aren't like bright leaves falling,
so that the sidewalks are there
only because they are remembered
under the leaves, and things not remembered
are reshaped and unsaved.
This is a sudden attack of laziness laced with something that suggests recalled memories, vivid images emerging from the past that most likely wasn't nearly as ideal or the idyll the narrator thinks it was. Smells of burning leaves, tints and psychologies of how fading light plays against the shape of a neighborhood, the senses are overloaded with snippets of that make for an imperfect mosaic of words, a nest of suggestions to a time before stress, mortgages. It's all he can do to shuffle papers, sort his paper clips, deal with intrusive technology:
I labor to defend myself
against the tedium of the telephone
and its cries of uncaring delight.
The burden of having to be available to those emphatically before you, talking to you, requiring responses from you gets heavier as the seconds pass, and this I recognize from my own attacks of anxiety and vivid wishful thinking when I'm overwhelmed by the gruesome routine of the daily cycle. I , as well, defend myself against the tedium of the telephone and resent the fact that the world, a paranoid would of "they", "them", and "those bastards", must be able to get a hold of me anytime they need to. Slate takes it a little further, anytime they want to. Slate's narrator is the Little Man in Cogs of the System whose torments feel as if they've been engineered for the amusement of invisible powers. God's private gag reel, to cite Al Pacino's character in The Devil's Advocate.
Yet the reverie of an escape to a perfect past, Rod Serling's eternal Willoughby, plays against itself, and the alienated distraction undermines the solace one might secure there. Everything seems arranged, pat , secured prior to your arrival, with their meanings and back stories in place. What Slate has done is written a poem not about a daydream, but about a man who catches himself daydreaming the face of drudgery, someone wakened from his state with a jolt --a squeak of the chair, the blast of the phone--to which his natural reaction is shame. One might have thought that he'd been caught naked in the office waiting room, but naked it is in a way; his mind, a finely tooled device for the hard work of business and regulation, had run off the road, so to speak, drifted from the proscribed path. The cloak of professionalism had fallen, and what was exposed to the office around him was a face he has only when he's asleep or when no else can see him. It comes down to a joke as he regains his poise,
My co-worker says, the nice thing
about all this is you can't miss
what you can't remember.
Suppose you had Alzheimer's.
You'd stare at the phone
and it would mean less than nothing.
And he laughs, we assume, casting a big , tight smile that bears all his teeth and which makes the corners of his eyes crinkle, and he feels ashamed again for a slight dishonor of a memory that he finds something of his resilient self in,
Shame of the insensate rushed hour.
Immobilized in spurts on the way home,
I miss my knitted sweater,
I miss my grandmother.
Then I climb the hill
with leaves layering the driveway
and the structure of maples candidly clear.
What works with great power here is the clarity of
Slate's voice, a unifying personality that, though changing mood and tone with the shifts between past and present, could keep the pieces neatly aligned, having one situation contrast effectively against the other. There is no sleight-of-hand here, no allusions to literature or science, no pretense of illustrating a philosophical conundrum. The interplay between the life of the drifting mind and the unmerciful fact of real life is splendidly done. The crucial element here is that Slate creates a sense of a man who senses that he's been so mechanized in his daily behaviors that even his memories of happy past fail to rise him from a funk, that the memories , to, seemed to have been handed to him like it were a script he was to refer to. More so, Slate lets the contradictions speak for themselves, to gather their own power as the language of displacement works on the reader's own associations; he gives no prescription for the winter time blues, and the lack of a proposed cure to a psychic malaise is exactly the thing that makes a poem powerful and meaningful on a unique terms.