Friday, May 30, 2008

A bitter sweet comedy from Philip Schultz

This was originally posted a year ago, I believe, and just today found some additional thoughts on Philip Schultz's fine poem; vanity , perhaps, but not without purpose. Enjoy.--tb
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The last Tuesday poem in Slate caught my eye, made me laugh, and made me sigh (just a little). "Failure" by Philip Schultz is that kind of poem, a potentially maudlin and morose subject matter that draws you in with some unexpected punch lines and left turns. This is as fine a lament for the Walter Mitty type as Tragic Figure as I've ever read. I thought this was a piece of comic writing, a funny monologue that gathers each tense muscle and clustered ganglia in a man's set-upon shoulders and releases the collected negativity as a Woody Allen digression where one defends the unsupportable with unexpected distinctions. It opens up with an opening line worthy of an early Philip Roth novel:

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.

Poet Philip Schultz has a perfect set up with which to riff with variations of the punch line, and that he does, admitting the farcical nature of a father who's plans for success seemed from the outset unworkable to everyone but him

An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand.

What makes the poem moving is the particular reserve Schultz shows here ; there is, to be sure, plenty of material in family recollecting where each stain , wrinkle and idiosyncratic whiff of dysfunction upon the family name can be a suitable launching pad for confessions, first person melodramas, compulsively unfunny comedies of baroque proportions, but Schultz keeps his ground. He admits his father's faults, enumerates documented failures, gives details of things that were bothersome, nettlesome, annoying--watches that pinch the wrist, snoring during movies--and yet embraces him all the more. Admitting his father's flaws he admits his own--the fuck ups of the father are visited upon the son? -- and in doing so finds a clue to what comes to the bare fact of existence, a constant seeking to create a context in which can exist on their own terms , not what's dictated by religion and financial institutions:

He didn't believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.
If the dead father's strivings had been successful, the same said "cause" of his perceived failures would have been viewed as the source of his good fortune. I don't think this poem has any real religious underpinnings other than the rabbi's closed-system dismissal of a deceased's refusal to invest in dogma. He is, rather, more a model of what we view the truly existential man, someone (to paraphrase Sartre) "condemned to freedom" who defined himself by his resolute decisions and actions, and by his acceptance for what the results, good or bad, turned out to be. This implies is that the son assumes his father preferred to live a life of his own defining, in good faith, instead of swearing alliance to a belief systems he had no use for. The son, who left town but never escaped, realizes that there is more of his father's temperament within himself than he might have first realized.

His father wasn't a nobody, Schultz insists, he was a man of distinction: he was one who tried and failed repeatedly to create meaning his life, and that is something to be understood, not belittled. Unsaid and yet implied, Schultz finds himself channeling his father's unrest and sees for himself a variation on his father's life in his own attempts to accommodate a life that seems like a suit that's 5 sizes too big. He left town but he failed to get away. There religious element is important in the poem because it characterizes what cultural institutions the deceased father placed himself outside of while he was alive, making up his own mind about what he wanted to do with his life. It's my feeling that Schultz intends (and succeeds, I think) in conveying the specific tone of the belated criticism. The poem, though, doesn't involve a critique of a man who turned his back on the faith that might have a line on a One True God; that would make it dogma, not poetry, however skillful the language. What's involved here, in a more general (and more purposeful) sense is the judgment of groups casting judgments on members of their faith, their group, who they feel have strayed, be they agnostic Jews, lapsed Catholics. The situation is universal, if we dare use the word, but the texture is culturally specific.