Saturday, October 31, 2009

NORTON BUFFALO, RIP

1951-October 30, 2009
Norton Buffalo was one of the best harmonica players on the planet, a skillful, fluid and fleet player at home with blues, folk and country idioms, and was a monster chromatic harmonica player above it all. He made a lasting impression on my own playing since the early Seventies, and it saddens me and countless other harmonica players and fans that one of the modern masters has gone. Rest in peace, Norton

Note on a bad poem

Someone with whom I've argued with for years on Slate's Poems Fray forum some months ago posted an "original" "poem" , requesting , without qualification, any and all crtical comments. The poem was a cryptic attempt to merge science and math into a presentable metaphorical system, the result being, I thought, muddled, lecturing and undermined by the author's determination to make a sweeping generalization about the imprecise nature of existence and our limited capacity to know it precisely. Not a bad premise for a life's writing, of course, but execution is everything; the poetry still has to be good. The poem is here. My response is below. What follows in the thread is the author tripping over himself with backsliding and quease-inducing equivication.

The idea of imagining what machines might dream about , if they were sentient, has been done before, and the punch line as to whether they "dream of electronic sheep" is itself rather well known and branded by a specific writer, Philip K.Dick. His novel is "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep", which was the book on which Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner was based. Dick's title is an ironic reference to the plot, about self-aware androids violently considering the nature of their existence. Your use, I'm afraid, lacks irony and does not advance on the original idea, which is what an inspired borrowing should do.
The problem with taking a phrase or title so closely identified with a famous writer is that you are obliged to use the borrowing as a springboard to an entirely original work of your own, inspired by but very different from the inspirational source. Hemingway borrowed the phrase "for whom the bell tolls" John Donne for his book on the Spanish Civil War, and didn't merely insert it into a work at face value, for decorative purposes. The title made a suitable counterpoint for his succinct, gripping narrative of men trying to maintain "grace under pressure".

What you have here is not a poem, but a series of questions that are flat and rather ordinary bits of poesy one finds in many poetry workshops blue penciled off the page. You don't seem to be writing about anything; your passive tone is something you perhaps think provides your writing with a lyric sway and a spiritual lilt, but poetry , by the sorts of poets we discuss here, even the ones some of us don't particularly enjoy, have a tougher language. They are interesting to read at least in so far as they , for the most part, appear to be attempting to crystallize the best language for their experience, and the ideas that follow suit.

No ideas but in things.--William Carlos Williams wrote that and it's excellent advice to anyone trying to write poems . Your problem is that you want to write about abstract things, metaphysical things, mystical things, and desire to join the farther reaches of scientific hypothesising with dreamier theological daydreaming but you ignore the world of things, which is our senses can measure and experience with certainty. You rarely begin with the material, you rarely convey a theme that might be based on actual experience, you are hardly ever convincing in any emotion you suggest chiefly, I believe, because you start with a skewed idea of what a poem should be and tailor your writing to suit the template you've adopted.

I think you should junk the poem and try to write a poem about something that is solid, has density, is something a reader would recognize, and try not to insert an editorializing cliche or a vacuous "summing up" that turns you efforts into post cards and photo captions. You seem unable to get away from the tired phrase, the dog eared adage, the trite truism; you need to try very, very hard to transcend your worst habits as someone attempting to write poems. At present , they seem intractable.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Oliver Douglas gets a clue


Great writing provokes arguments decades after it first appeared, which we can see in David Roderick's poem "Thoreau's Beans". We witness someone realizing that work is, after all, merely work.The way this poem proceeds is rapid and sharp, like the shovel or the hoe digging at a hard earth, and I do like the manner in which the clauses are stacked on one another, like so many books or dishes neatly arranged but still askew by seismic shifts or human vanity. The shifts here are vanity, it seem. David Roderick ‘s character, taken with a literary explication on the rural life and the time a communing with the earth allows one to think, contemplate, regard the larger things in life, i.e. , to think, allows him , though , to think about how hard this life is. You can sense the assumptions crumbling as the real facts of farm life take root. Please forgive the obvious word play.


--in a notebook this is his thrift
and estate: the stems
weakened until he finds them

cow chips, which he must
have felt for in the dark
but never wrote about stealing

from his neighbors' fields,
and now he sees himself,
without the pond's reflection,
for what he is, a failed guide


A television analogy might seem appropriate, but I think there’s a place for it here, in the sublimely subversive situation comedy Green Acres, wherein a park avenue lawyer named Oliver Douglas abandons the skyscrapers and big money for a rural life on a run down farm. Everyone around him realizes that the farm he bought is an arid , dilapidated mess, and who are, in fact, more aware of the world as it is than the would be gentleman farmer, who , tilling the field and repairing machinery in pleated pants, Brooks Brothers shirt tie and vest, refuses to, or cannot realize that he’s deluded . The source of the comedy is obvious, and effective.


Roderick’s character, though, seems like an Oliver Douglas who gets it, that is, gets the moment of clarity that he is neither engaged in an applied philosophical inquiry nor ascending to a higher intellectual/spiritual rigor, but rather in an occupation that is a living, not a lifestyle. Fine, subtle and resonant as Thoreau’s writings are, as central to the American Canon as they have been, they are rather useless as guides to being an effective farmer. Perseverance is the quality city folk forget to talk about when waxing about the connection between the earth and a man who gets his hands deep into the dirt to bring life into the light. What registers with our protagonist, I read, is the meaning of this activity isn’t about having an active in the seasonal life cycle, but rather bear survival. One does this because they have to, not because they are intrigued by the exotica of other ways of life outside a cozy urban context.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The modernist divide

Ben Friedlander thinks that Marianne Moore is the center of American poetry's modernist resurgence, not Eliot or the storied Ezra Pound. He has no problem ignoring the names text books , lecturers and earnest undergraduates insist as being embedded, in place, in order. He responds to what he likes, not brand names. Or so he seems to be saying; I think it a reasonable thing to do when one seeks what speaks beyond reputation and an theory that speaks louder than the work it's supposed to examine. This got Ron Silliman's attention, who argues for a need the relationships between the artists over the decades, one period to the next, one century to the next. The kinds of poems we prefer are not written in an historical vacuum. Both make their points.

The problem seems to be that modernism is a slippery thing to define so far as getting all the moving parts perfectly described and catalogued. It's a general style and approach, one could say, and that Friedlander's preference for Moore being at the center of this concentration of forces seems personal instead of subjective; he's chosen those that work for him and has banished those that intrigue him the least to the hinterland, a matter that doesn't bother me so long as we intend our declarations as subjective rather than historical.

Moore was a hit or miss proposition in my reading of her, lacking the set of masterpieces that fuse one to the gravity center of a period, and Eliot, though a conservative and unpleasant old coot even his younger days, did write a set of stanzas that still take my breath away; one can argue the point, of course, but Eliot's best work, in the Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, still pokes a sharp stick in the side of one's personal complacency.

Pound, I think, is indigestible, arrogant, and possessed of genius only with respect for being an idea man, a critic, a talent scout. As a poet he was more an overstuffed trashcan than a filter for the larger culture he was trying to effect. His work matters the less in our current time, but his life does provide us with an idea that we ought not trust the artist's political thinking solely because they're an artist. An imagination capable of taking the forms of the world apart and reconfiguring them in interesting ways may make for good art or not. We can always ignore bad art with no effect to the social good; bad politics are impossible to ignore.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Default kneejerkism

Ben Mathis-Lilly, a New Yorker editor and an apparent hip hop fan, wrote a 2008 column in Slate pondering what happens When Good Rappers Collaborate with Lame Rock Bands.Admittedly the subject interests me hardly at all, but I was taken aback at what seems to be a default knee-jerk position; black musicians are cool regardless of the quality of their current product, and rock bands are vapid and mediocre.Period.Something is wrong when the article assumes that the rappers entering into a collaboration are first rate from the get-go and that the rockers are, to a guitar fret, lame. Whatever the relative merits of individual rappers, I haven't heard these guys and gals subjected to the kind of criticism rock musicians have taken over the last four decades, and I suspect much of this is a failure of nerve on the part of the critics. Rock bands are judged against a consensus as to what constitutes a good tune; the emphasis changes, of course, but there is a tangible standard that's applied when these guys come up for review. Most rock and roll bands are crap , pretentious and fake, but there is a tradition of arguing over the music in order to separate and distinguish the worthwhile from the dreck; there is even a subspecies of rock criticism where participants exchange views on the marginal, the commercial, the insipid aspects of the music. Reviewers of rap, though, seem victims of group think and extol their rhyme droppin' heros sans judgement regarding the material. No one seems willing to dissect the raps beyond the sociology ;art seems the last thing on anyone's mind here. Rap is a younger form, but in the thirty years plus that it and it's antecedents have been around there has been enough time for an aesthetic to developed and articulated. Eric Dyson is a brilliant commentator on hip hop, but will focus on artists he likes and defends. Stanley Crouch, though a critic I find much to admire in, is a curmudgeon on the matter and considers the lot of rappers to be fakes and opportunists. The judgement isn't reliable , say, to tell us what is actually in the music under review.That's fine, but there is a lack of on the part of daily reviewers to yell tripe when tripe is served. Thirty years of hip hop ought to give the writers an idea as to what is bogus and the vocabulary to tell their readers. The coterie of critics who began rock criticism--Jan Wenner, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Paul Williams, Ellen Willis, Robert Christgau--were in large measure Humanities undergraduates in the Sixties who started their own zines, ala Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem, in order to cover a music they loved. Their audience was small at first, but grew, and the influence of the critics grew as well. I don't doubt this small number of African American young men with backgrounds in literature and art and music theory couldn't start their own upstart vehicles to counter the hype and cant that protects hip hop releases from a rigorous , on going analysis, and I've no doubt that there are fans of the music who'd like to read something that wasn't apologetic hype who relish the opportunity to read critics who can step beyond the record company rhetoric and , to coin a phrase, speak truth to power.

Rap is massive, pervasive, and influential, and it's time it gets interrogated in ways novels, plays, poems, films and all the v visual arts do.Rock and roll spent a good twenty years being regarded by mainstream media as low brow and unsophisticated and completely lacking in any kind of merit; the music, as we know, changed as did the cultural currents that influenced younger musicians that began picking up guitars, and a bright and energetic writers wrote about the new music in terms that changed the way the larger culture addressed it.

Hip hop has evolved to no less a degree, and it is interesting that there hasn't developed a tradition of reviewers establishing a variety of criteria with which to judge how respective bodies of work measure up in terms of aesthetic worth; in all, there is a lack of discussion as to how rappers measure up, exceed, or lag in what they're trying to do. It seems like a form of protectionism to me, an institutionalized blind eye to real criticism that will cause the music to die of its own excess. The lack of discriminating taste in the hip hop press makes this scene seem more cluster-fuck than creative.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

a poem about the fog along the San Diego coast line


Fog along the coast

It's been fog for days
seeping up the canyons
and billowing over the hills,

limbs of trees stricken
with ghost whispers
singing of old frayed lace
on the ocean air,

the paths to work
are crossed with tire chains
and smashed milk cartons
glistening on the shoe prints
that cross over from a busy street
to an adjoining garage,

at the top of the hill
the coast line is gone
with the view filled with
teeming clouds and a solid blue horizon
that makes it seem
all the houses and university parking
will fly off into a void
uncharted by math

or bad novels
about people who
look like friends
who you've never seen
in fog banks
that hang on the air like damp, thin linens,

we don't live up to our letters of introduction
when the morning air
unlocks our hair
from position and
the crease in our slacks vanishes
along with the hard edge of
familiar buildings ,

we smile, we put away the lunch we brought,
we straighten our ties,
we do the best we can.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Auteur Theory: Filmmakers Beware

There was an interesting piece at Slate in 2006 about the auteur theory in film criticism
with regard as to whether film directors and screenwriters can both be given credit
for being the central creators of an especially great movie. Read that piece here and be prepared for a cogent lesson in the history of movie reviewing. I think the theory is useful, but that it ought to be considered sparingly: it'Sis useful as a particular aspect of film criticism and reviewing, but it is a notion that we are better off retiring altogether. The problem with the idea is that a generation of film critics spent their time generating convolutions about directors and their reputations , using the auteur-ism as the main filter, rather than actually assessing the films that were being made. What we wound up with was little about individual films and much about puffed up reputations.The theory , I suspect, has helped ruin a few film maker's product, as in the case of Martin Scorsese. Fascinating as his films are, they are marred by an arty( as opposed to artful)virtuosity that steps out of the frame and instructs the viewer that there's genius and vision being unveiled in front of them. Scorsesee might as well be screaming through a bullhorn about his auteur status. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, has an easy claim on the term, although he wears his ascendancy to Great Directorhood like it were a loose suit. It shows in the movies he makes, I think. There is great talent here as opposed to self-declared genius, which is to say that Eastwood uses his filmmaker skills to serve a story, not pad his resume.

I've thought for years that the auteur theory was useful mostly to fan boys who wanted a means to turn their film hero obsessions into matters of serious study, thereby providing them with a reason to discourse as matter of professional dispatch about their teenage enthusiasm. The same has happened to rock criticism, and continues as popular arts chatter mimics the tonier rhetoric of literary and theater criticism.Everyone, given a theory to match their preferred diversion, gets to be a know it all. It beats learning a trade, I suppose.

A pesky item in the concept is the advance of reputation over the quality of specific work. Dozens of second, third and fourth rate directors whose films exhibit the tendencies a nominal auteur must have, such as a readily identifiable camera style that accents and enhances a director's personalized view of the world. Jack Webb, creator and star of Dragnet, wrote and directed films that transported the cue-card realism of the television show to the wider screen, "30", "The DA", "Pete Kelly's Blues" among them. The style is very distinct, the writing stands out from anything else in the field, the world view, basically post-Hemingway misery about loners abiding by a code without which the planet descends into slow chaos, bespeaks the traits the auteur critics consider as graces.

Yet there's a reason Webb's films only see an infrequent screening on AMC or one of the Turner stations while Howard Hawks or John Ford are shown repeatedly; Webb's films are fascinating for their stiff professionalism, but are in plain fact dull and dulling.Just imagine Dragnet's basic flat line style transposed to newspaper offices, a Marine base, or a jazz band, with the storyline stretched to feature film length, and you can imagine something so trudging and
cement shod that you might mistake it for Brecht . Hawks and Ford, or others one can name, easily break out of the specialized auteur ghetto and aren't afraid to entertain the senses. Auteurism's particular limit is the failure of the proponents that not all film makers are worth the same amount of enthusiastic ink.

Soupy Sales, RIP



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I can't actually say to what degree a television comedian like Soupy Sales had on me as I grew up, but it's enough to say that he was a large part of my viewing life while otherwise growing up in Detroit in the early sixties. His wackiness has remained a family reference point for years. When my father passed away in 1995, the five of us kids--Julia, Owen, Hollis, Reed and myself --went to the LaJolla Comedy a month later where Sales was scheduled to perform. Well, perform he did, delivering what seemed to be an endless stream of jokes, drink in hand, his face still rubbery and begging for a fabled pie in the face. The jokes were blue, the memories were grand, and it seemed an appropriate way to remember our lives with our father and our eventual destination, California. Some have mentioned his influence on Saturday Night Live and Pee Wee Herman. You can read some more on Sales here and here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Horses as they are

Small poem, a slight quiet annoyance for some, perhaps, but simple enough for me, and not presenting it's point in terms of sighing regret or grating contemplation--Rachel Richardson's poem "The Horses" .A pleasant enough commemoration of the strange elegance of horses ; there is something in the regal, streamlined, artful symmetry of these creatures that compel us to stare at them and compose the reams of association placing them in grander contexts and greater purposes. Rachel Richardson goes through some paces edifying us with the grace and dignity horses have regardless of their situation and seems about to announce a greater revelation with equine metaphors, but she steps off the usual path. The horses, over conceptualized as creatures gifted with a naturally inextricable freedom, are seen here not as animals with a will to power, a creative striving, a need to express themselves in action. They are at the river under the low trees and in the flower bed at the edge of town for simply this:

Not because
they are parched or starving. They walk

because night stretches out, and there is a road,
and someone has opened the gate.


This is a neat collapsing of assumptions when you come on the last clarifying realization after wondering about the possible causes of something strange you've just witnessed. The more complex scenarios involving agency are moot points entirely, inapplicable, uttered for their own sake. Someone simply forgot to close the gate and horses wandered off because that's what they do when their is no obstruction. Not with purpose, necessarily, but just wander off until they tire. That's what we all do, after all.

"Freedom" is the slippery slope Richardson wisely skips.Being "free" is, to a degree, a matter of definition and how a culture collectively projects that onto the world it lives in; men are free (or not) , as far as the political and legal systems he finds himself under. Freedom is merely those things and activities that are not prohibited by the State. Horses, quite outside the concerns of human dignity, rights and wandering concepts like freedom, just are , as far we know, a species no less restricted than man is. Freedom , in any sense that's meaningful, requires a contrary concept and an attending philosophy--slavery, dictatorship, charismatic rule, indentured servitude, prison life. One chooses to live freely and one chooses, as well, an ethical system through which voluntary actions confirm the value of being relatively unhindered in one's pursuit of happiness. Man may well decide to wander to the river because he enjoys the water flowing by or because he prefers the taste of non-tapped water; these are aesthetic considerations, subjective, difficult to assess, perfect for a layering of justifying metaphor to explain the quaint preference.

Horses, however, go to the river and wind up in flowerbeds because that's what they do; there is an imperative I'd say that has more to do with genetically generated behavior than with any dreamy concept of unfettered existence. Horses are free? To do what, be a horse? Horses haven't the means to become anything else other than horses and, for all we know, lack the facility to imagine themselves as another species. They are stuck being horses, with no choice in the matter.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

THE LANGUAGE OF JOY

Speaking of times in twangs and tongues
of alien regions which share memories
of months and distant smells of dust and oil
rising from the black asphalt hours before the rains came.

California an alloy where grandchildren
Meet each other in jobs that make no sense and
compare notes over hot, tasteless coffee about
what it was their grandparents were saying,
something in code that firmed up their backbone
and brought a mist to their eyes.

We are too close to the expiration dates of our lives
to think of parachutes when its Autumn by the Pacific Ocean
in a city whose best exports are sand and gunboats,

warm air and cool breezes turns us into
a generation of rasping sighs in lawn chairs nursing drinks
under tourist umbrellas in the neighborhoods we moved into
three decades ago in expectation of making a mark
on a locale that was as unknown
as anything we wanted to do with our lives.


Its about gloom and rain and love of defeated weather
that has me speaking for a generation that exists only
as that we that goes only by one name, mine, still typing,
hot as a riot when the music gets loud and someone else is being clever.
Its about being sorry for rich people for being so pathetically well-oil when integrity is the only thing Ive been eating

In coffee houses in motels
near the fair grounds dealing in degrees of English
and slants of the camera eye,
it's about the loneliness of standing
in the same place with the sinking feeling
that gunboats are riot enough
Wondering what in the universe makes sense
when youre bored for no good reason,
and philosophy has been retired until everyone gets back from the beach ,
from the water of laughter comes in many streams, the language of joy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hit them back


Fox News has its collective under garment creeping into the their puckered private area because the Obama White House, from the man himself and higher staff members, have opined that the Murdoch channel isn't a news organization, but rather a propaganda arm for the Republican National Committee. Three cheers for the good guys; it's about times Democrats, be they liberals, progressives, moderates or blue dogs, talk back to the noise machine.

The American Left certainly wasn't afraid of offending political sensibilities while there was a Viet Nam war through which the ultimately unprovability of historical determinism could be obscured by a conflict whose obscenity over rode local matters. But with the end of the war, the left here abouts receded to theory, unwilling, I think , to realize something fundamentally decent about Americans and their sense of fairness to the right cause, and it seemed to matter little to the intellectual elite to deal with practical matters of policy , county, state and federal.

The left became generalized in theory and law, and reduced everything to an eviscerated discourse of euphemistic speech that was not allowed to defile a sense of neutrality: things ceased to have names, only vague descriptions , and in this atmosphere any talk about identifying problems about what sickens the Nation became impossible . Rather than take action to change social relations, real practice, a fight for change was reduced to a ideologically perplexed course in etiquette, the practice of which made humans confront each other in ways that were nervous, nervous, ultimately insane. The progressives were more interested in shoring up their tenuous gains since the start of the Civil Rights Movement, which suited Republicans just fine.

"Guts" comes to mind, courage, old fashioned and romantic virtues , but still ways to talk about the world, the city where we might live, and within in, a way to imagine and realize the ways to make it maybe make it more workable than it was then when we entered into it, knowing only hunger and the feeling of cold earth. The courage we speak has been demonstrated with the winning of both houses of Congress and the White House; what remains to be done , in a fair fight, is to pursue the cause and smacking down the grimy dogs who would bring us down.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Art and history

One advances into a their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgement of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit compeition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere. The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarified medium. History is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Dickie Peterson, RIP

Dickie Peterson, bassist and lead singer for the proto heavy metal band BLUE CHEER, has ascended to the giant E CHORD in the sky. His bandsaw -on-steel vocals, joined with guitarist Leigh Stephens' PULVERIZING ATONAL GUITAR SOLOS and drummer Paul Whaley's trash can demolition, Peterson and crew lay the ground work for a generation of metal and punk bands to come: MC5, STOOGES, MOUNTAIN, LED ZEP, RAMONES, MOTORHEAD, DEAD BOYS. Even the Velvet Underground, with their feedback skronk , couldn't match Blue Cheer's steel-belted forays into electricfied abandon; the Velvets merely taunted the strongs of their guitar, Blue Cheer sounded like they punched holes in oil tankers. And Peterson's vocalizations where the perfect match, screech, rasp and banshee wail all rolled into one bag of verbal outrage, maintaining a punk's slouch . He was the white blues belter who deserved the praise. Sorry Janis.
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It's appropriate to remember that their early manager, a fellow named Abe "Voco" Kesh , bragged that Blue Cheer played so loud that they killed a dog at an outdoor concert. It is true that they played so loud that they recorded parts of their second album on piers in San Francisco, amps and speakers faced toward the bay, because they kept blowing out the studio soundboard.

Edward Field laughs it off

Poets cry the blues as often as anyone does, the difference being, I suppose, that a poet attempts to turn their sorrows into a world view, a tale of a fall from grace. You can sense that not just art is being being attempted, inspired by sadness and regret, but an entire philosophy. And , if not a philosophy, then the formation f a cosmology that puts an uglifying cosmetic on the face of a poet's existence.Their tales are, individually and collectively, is the retelling of being expelled from Eden; tragic , catastrophic, crushing the quaking events are, they are are accounts of the precise moments when Things Started to Go Wrong. It gets to be a crushing matter with some writers who cannot seem to move on , who seem either stuck or milking the muse, as it were. There is a need to lighten up, and stop taking one’s less joyful moments too seriously. I would look to Edward Field for a cure, in his poem “Unwanted”.


What I like about the poem is the lack of a consuming pretentiousness and its address of bad-self image in a direct, off hand way.This has an irony that doesn't overwhelm the tone nor capsize the demeanor. Some other poets we could have name would have turned this thing into a dissertation or a distended confession of uninteresting sins. Field's style here is not to defend him, to offer a defense of himself, or construct a tortured example of Metaphor Creep in an attempt to make the abuse and attending defeatism a valorous state to be in. Field, in my view, knowingly avoids the confessional poet’s sin of inverted hubris and refuses to wear his psychic scars like medals from a bad war. His manner here is fast, direct, unexpected. His view is reflexive, not reflective, and has learned his lesson well from Cyrano that one can best regain their autonomy, their sense of empowerment, by being able to insult himself than those who would oppress him manage, or fathom. This man has an interesting way of talking about his inability to attract attention or friends, from the first line onward--

The poster with my picture on it
Is hanging on the bulletin board in the Post Office.
I stand by it hoping to be recognized
Posing first full face and then profile
But everybody passes by and I have to admit
The photograph was taken some years ago.
I was unwanted then and I'm unwanted now
Ah guess ah'll go up echo mountain and crah.
I wish someone would find my fingerprints somewhere
Maybe on a corpse and say, You're it.


This is an enticing introduction to the narrator, an elaborate but succinctly presented deconstruction of the cliché of someone being so unpopular they couldn't get arrested. The whole idea that a man would stand next to his own wanted poster in the wan hope of being recognized by strangers that would be attracted to him for purpose of cash reward introduces a host of complexities of mirroring and the seeking of validation in negative dimensions that one might well get lost in, but Field handles it lightly, with a fast , dismissive verve, a tone of a man who cannot take his sorrow too seriously. A few of us would object to the use of poetry as a therapy, something I agree with in principle, but what I like with the Field poem is how he turns his woes--or at least the character's woes--into a plot , or a sort. I can't say this poem is attached to an agenda--Field wrote from many moods, in a variety of tonalities--but I would say the spirit is a satiric of the kind of person who cannot see beyond what annoys them. I rather like the idea that the poem could well be a form of disguised bragging; the even keeled don't nearly get enough credit, let alone take any credit for their ability to bounce back.


This is wit, with perfect comic timing; too many writers (and comedians) who try to riff on a theme mistake volume for quality, but Field here is intensely aware of the value of the sound, pacing and sequence of words. He has a fine sense of how to develop his idea, expand it, change it, and then bring it back down long before the tedium barrier is breached. It made me laugh, I liked the writing, and it was a fresh take on an insoluble problem. Field did well. He seems to have announced his anxieties, owned them, and commanded to return to the basement. The poem suggests we do the same and simply get on with living in the world , not in our heads.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hunter Thompson, again



Some time ago I was trolling the cable channels in search of a distraction from chores when I chanced to land on HBO on Demand . As nothing else was intervening in my choices, I scrolled through the movies that were available, the usual assortment of titles I didn't see in theatres because they looked overinflated and underfed in the trailers, or the movies I had indeed seen and had little interest in viewing yet again. The usual cable dilemma, 5oo channels and there's nothing to watch.
Still, I clicked just a couple of movies further and came upon something I missed, Terry Gilliam's film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp as the late Hunter Thompson and Benicio Del Torro as his companion, the drug addled Dr.Gonzo. "Addled" is the perfect term for the film; Thompson's book of the same title is an hysterical little masterpiece of drug use and paranoia where all of the writer's bullhorning, arm waving prose came to effective use. One did feel the paranoia and intensity and drew a manic laugh from the insanity. Gilliam, though, is the bluntest of directors and attempts to recapture the mania of Thompson's prose with a jumpy, fidgety, quarrelsome visual style , terms that describe Depp's portrayal of Thompson. The film tanked in an attempt to recapture an old thrill, and so it goes for Thompson's body of work, many years of diminishing returns on the old reputation. Now and again I'll pick up a book I'd read and enjoyed years before just to see if the thrill of a writer's prose is still possible to experience after my taste and expectations have been shaped, that is to say whittled down by experience, whether bitter, joyous or indifferent. Some writers still have that knock out punch in their old books--Mailer in An American Dream and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, , Hemingway with In Our Time , among many-- and other heroes have fared less well in passing time, like Lester Bangs, Charles Bukowski. No surprise; in my mid fifties, I'm drawn to the deeper lyric in the words that cross a page, the tone that transcends the moment of excitement and which continues to ring clearly as an example of writing that gets its moment exactly right. A recent re-read of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson was this sort of book, from its famous hellhole-on-wheels opening through its arch-paranoid escapades at a Las Vegas Narcotics officers convention; for all his death wishing and self-absorbed daredevil-ism--a revolutionary without a program--Thompson wrote the last word that need be composed on the matter of living off the edge. One wondered, even while young first confronting Thompson and his extreme manner, whether he would fall off that edge,or if someone would push him. It can't be that much of surprise that Hunter Thompson cashed it in the way he did; the only question to ask is why it hadn't happened sooner. He was a case of Hemingwayism affectation gone mad on crack cocaine, that one's challenges were one's character, and that the unwritten essence of a personal code was formed by how well one surmounted one crisis after the next.

It was always about struggle with Thompson, the struggle to meet deadlines before his drugs kicked in, the clock running out before a deadline would look again and he hadn't written anything but a paragraph of zonked gibberish; like Kerouac, who he admired greatly, he came to document less the event he'd been assigned than it was his own chronicles of using his body as a testing ground for new and improved abuses. You might say that he regarded his mind as like a car he'd continually try to ratchet up, jack up, juice up in the hopes of getting the engine and suspension to take a sharp corner faster, meaner, noisier, with the thought of eventual disintegration for the moment blocked out by the sheer mania and exhilaration that such speeds and near misses give you. But his mind fried, he wrote less, he mumbled more in public utterances and talks, he broke bones, his manner was a text book illustration of the word "fried".

Hells Angels It was as if the synapses that had fired and given the world and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" had fused the ends of his nerve endings and made it an impossible operation to change style, outlook, and interest. Other writers of similar aesthetic, ala Mailer, Wolfe, found new voices, bigger subjects, subtler means to put forth their arguments with existence. Thompson was frozen in time, attempting to sustain himself on sparking fits of rage and guile, coming up with little that was new, as it must be for an artist to keep a pulse worth beating.The real pisser is that he lived all these years knowing that he hadn't another good book in him. This might have been his biggest pain to endure, and it might have the one he meant to stop once and for all.

I agree that Thompson is an easy target, but then again he rarely missed an opportunity to make himself one. The curse of being a celebrity writer is that one risks becoming a brand name and finds them self encountering audience expectation more than their muse. Thompson became Hunter S.Thompson, Gonzo Journalist , and became something of a buffoon making faces for a paying crowd. The pity of it all is that he had great talent when he put it to work, the result being a small but strong core of books from his body of work, Hells Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

But the act got old and the body wouldn't sustain the paces anymore, and his writing became erratic, cruel, angry, he became a writer eternally dissatisfied without recourse to wit or irony. There was something sadly drastic about Better than Sex, a strange assemblage full of loud declarations and not much coherence; Thompson in his prime could emerge from his comic paranoia and invective and land on an illuminating point. This was all hollow gesturing. The problem, I suppose, was that Thompson never took the time to change his act, his style, to consider a project that would reshape his notion of what constitutes writing. Mailer dropped the third person persona and wrote The Executioner's Song, a fugue -paced saga made of terse sentences, and went on to a later career that still provoked controversy. Tom Wolfe, in turn, became a novelist, a good thing for him, as they mitigate his later essays, a string of missives from a sourpuss. In both cases, to varying degrees, the changes of stylistic venue kept both writers fresh in their old age. Thompson didn't avail himself of the chance.

I don't dismiss him as a drunk and a drug addict, I simply won't discount those things that ruined his talent. We do need to consider him seriously as a representative author of his time, but this needs to be done with it in mind that his biography is a cautionary tale for those who read him, like him, and decide they want to write crazy paragraphs like he did. One would need to emphasise the distinction between trying to write like Hunter Thompson and trying to be Hunter Thompson.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conflating the punchlines


New Journalism was a style of cultural journalism that favored using fictional techniques to tell fact-based stories, with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Peter Matthisen each becoming the omniscient narrator observing, cataloguing and characterizing each telling detail of the events under review. The approach faded as something one claims as current, but the flashy prose style and application of novel-like strategies remains influential. The method has left a trace that seeps upward through the soil and is absorbed, as an influence, by a generation of journalists nee bloggers, historians and social loud mouths who may well be unaware that loud mouthed application of fictional narrative structure to actual events isn’t something that was always with us.

The New Journalist were post modern in their coverage of events-- whether the writers themselves were modernists in sensibility is irrelevant to work they did. The style defined, in the usual quarters, as the eclectic jumbling of categories and styles, the blurring of distinctions of generic distinctions, and transgressive of boundaries that were formerly considered sacrosanct, immutable, unyielding. Some years ago that sounded revolutionary and seemed a lethal theoretical blow to the constructs of the vaguely described ruling class controlling the conversation and the terms. There are masterpieces in the genre, yes, but a good amount of it reads agitated and shrill, written by writers drunk on adjectives and cheesy effects who tried mightily to goose a number of ordinary stories.

The work evident in Armies of the Night, The White Album, In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, and other sublime and less-sublime examples of the approach fulfill what's come to be the givens, and even clichés of post-modern writing. It's not unreasonable to think that writers normally considered Modernists would take what's thought to be a post modern strategy in order to achieve perspective that normally form would make more difficult. Carrying about the matters involved in a story hardly disqualifies a work, or a writer, from being a post modernists. The cool, ironic stance that is supposed to problematize the conditions of narrative formation seems more as a pose critics who have a curious aversion for writing that is meant to illicit a galvanizing reader response: it sounds more like a good rap than good reasoning. The conflation of the irrational of fictional dynamics and the reasonable presentation of vetted facts is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Being neither philosophy, nor science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished. New Journalism seemed, for many, not just history in a hurry but Philosophy on the fly.

The attack on modernism's' assumption that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

New Journalists never never referred to themselves as "post modernists", and the style, now faded some what, has been absorbed by the culture as an accepted style for very mainstream consumption. The news story-literary-narrative scarcely raises an eyebrow today. But the judgment of history has these writers, nominal modernists perhaps, performing the post modern gesture, interrogating the margins of genre definitions, and making impossible to regard news reporting quite the same again.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Smart's Cat, My Mantis

I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat.

Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with a some qualitative non sequitur; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroquely-phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished , perhaps exasperated note.

The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, personal friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one...


The litany went on another sixty lines , until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing huge potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could , by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force , one mere mortals should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliche portrayal of hip and bad ass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who is so in tune with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is with held because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling.Smart , it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be effected by.


For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.


There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe , that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is , to greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.

Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his own self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings.He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking , just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, fur ball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.

Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and , I think , unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through a fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks, so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.

Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation.Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps , have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart . He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows , that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Give them hell, Keith Olberman


Keith Olberman, host of the political news and commentary program Countdown with Keith Olberman on MSNBC, dedicated the entire hour of his show last night to a Special Commentary--read "editorial"--on the need and the requirement for major health care reform. It's about death, he proclaimed, his voice firm , with just a tinge of an outraged tremble characterize his impeccable syntax. The issue is about death and how we, as a country, as a culture, represented and served by a government ostensibly by and for The People, do what we can to humanely for-stall death, extend life, and improve the quality of life that we have. Death wins out every time, Olberman admitted, but the inevitability of the Grim Reaper's visit wasn't the issue. It came down, rather, to the battle between those who want to aid the sick, help the infirm, and make it possible for citizens to avoid illness and catastrophic circumstances when they can, and those who would rather the infirm just go away. It was a potent forty minutes or so , a well phrased, acutely articulated, wide ranging polemic that was in part personal testimonial--Olberman detailed his father's declining health as well as his frustration and dismay with the health system he witnessed in place-- and historical survey of the corporate bottom line at it's most mendacious. You can view the entire commentary here.

Someone said else that Olberman is a windbag, but he's our windbag, and I say God bless for being the one to bellow the truth about Republican greed and dishonesty and to dedicate a full program to discuss at length about Health Care. Olberman is a good writer--his prose assumes that viewers are able to follow compound sentences that contain more than one idea--and he is , contrary to those on the other side of this issue, sufficiently buttressed by the truth. Not a set of ideologically framed truisms and unvetted talking points, but facts. I thought his comment was forceful, powerful stuff, and the use of his father's illness and his own frustration with the systemic incompetence of our health professionals put a human face on the sort of corporate neglect which denies care to millions of sick Americans.
He was right to go straight to the unsaid bottom of the issue, that the whole shooting match centers around death, on the forstalling of it's onset and the improvement of life before it's arrival, and to deal at length at those entrenched interests who's priorities are for an increased number of subscribers paying monthly premiums and for paying less in payouts on an increasing number of claims. The comment veered here and there, of course, but this was purposeful, deliberate, perfectly illustrative of the calcified corporate culture that has no grasp of the human dimension of their business, the lives of the clients they nominally exist to aid in time of need.

Olberman is right to assert that the companies do not care for the well being of their clients and that only a ground swell from the public, tired of being duped into supporting policies contrary to their interests, is what's needed to change a medical system that will collapse upon itself. Olberman speaks truth to power. Go Keith!

The Death of the Critic

A buddy had just finished a book I'd lent him, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald, and was convinced that the theorists needed a severe pounding. His language was such that I had to put the phone down and answer the door for the pizza delivery man. When I got back and picked the phone up again, he was still ranting, unaware, it seems, that I was gone for a couple of minutes. He's a high school pal, someone who like no matter the contrasts in cultural preference, and he likes a critic to perform the service of being a consumer guide. He likes mysteries, Clive Cussler and true crime books, and all he wants is a synopsis and brief evaluations on whether he'll get his money's worth. I have no idea why he wanted to read the book, but he was fired up enough to be convinced that the Usual Suspects McDonald lays out for literary criticism's demise--French theorists, multi-culturists, feminism, variations on the postmodernist riff--had conspired to irritate him .One might understand the response, as in any of those times one volunteers a statement, heartfelt but visceral, not cerebral, about a book they read and enjoyed that might have happened to be the subject of conversation. Once you make your remarks, add your few pennies worth, some smart ass chimes in with caterpillar-length words and odd ideas from two or three different disciplines and leaves you there, lost and humiliated.
That happened to me when I was younger , much younger, mouthing off my platitudes about arts and politics, but rather than getting angry and nurturing a resentment, I was determined to become one of those smart asses, or at least sound as though I belonged to the club. My friend, though, craved his resentments and continued variations of his anti-intellectual beef over the last forty-some years. I assume most of us have friends like that. It was an exasperating conversation. Finally I got him off the phone and made a mental note to not lend him any more books having to do with literary theory or the history of ideas. Rather, I'll offer him some Elmore Leonard. There is a writer we can probably talk about.
On the topic of the book ,it's not that the literary critics are dying as much as people have pretty much ignoring them, preferring the pseudo science of theory, which prefers to wallow in a choking , jargon-clogged solipsism to writing that actually engages a book and it's style, the author's intentions, and the successes or failures contained therein. At some point a generation of young academics hitched their fortunes on the diffusing forces of continental philosophy because they found a method through which they could abnegate their charge to aid readers to sharpen their skills.Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex story telling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single  supposition.
Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that is resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ulitimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. The goal of literary criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness, but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeed or fail in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written
Some of us who toyed with deconstruction and the like , when we found that language in general and literary writing in particular couldn't address the world as is,remember the sweetly slippery issue of inter-textuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other texts, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are were in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering it's fidelity to your experience.
A futile concern, we find, since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of gobbledygook that made the unanchored theory before even more impassable.Interestingly enough, the entrenched theoreticians, reticent to use the metaphorical techniques they had interrogated and attempted to render inert, weren't able to have their ideas stand outside the limits of their terminology and secure a comprehending response from the interested nonspecialist.
A pity, since science writers and even literary researchers themselves were able to explain in easier parlance the purpose, technique and consequence of the minute and verifiable data science was accruing. But no matter, because at the time one had discovered a nice hedge against having to read a book; I am being grossly unfair to the good critics taking their cues from Continental thought, but deconstruction and intertextuality were choice methods of not dealing with what a writer was saying, instead giving a jargonized accord of how all writing and discourse cannot get beyond itself and actually touch something that terms try to signify.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Robert Polito and Patricia Patterson






D.G.WILLS BOOKS
7461 Girard Avenue, La Jolla CA. (858)454-1800
dgwillsbooks.com

Sunday, October 4, 2009

from Netflix: CRIMES and MISDEMEANORS

Crimes and Misdemeanors is a seriously underrated Woody Allen film, and one of his most even handed. With the seamy elements of unbridled careerism, adultry, murder, and dead-end spiritualism laced through it's deftly constructed narrative, it is a precursor of Allen's 2005 critical success Matchpoint, a good variation on the film maker's themes. But it is C and M that is the more potent film; the characters are complex and unlikeable and their respective fates embodies as Clint Eastwood's slogan at the end of Unforgiven ; "Deserves got nothing to do with it". Moral and ethical structures are fictions that work for us sometime; at other times they have no effect at all, with the consequences being incomprehensible to a psychology that prefers closure and a "just" conclusion to events and situations.

The comedic and dramatic are finely twined around each other here, and one realizes finally that each is what makes the other possible. While there is an ongoing reference to a God who is blind as well as silent--the idea that the Deity has perished before his finest creation, Man, has is fascinating--there's a the perfect irony at film's end, the distinction between being in the world, committing acts and taking responsibility for them. The doctor who has his wife murdered by a contract killer suffers suffocating guilt for what he had put into motion, and feels himself twisting in the breeze coming off the abyss. The documentary film maker, dreaming of starting an adulterous affair with a woman he works with, does not act on his impulse and feels guilty for the lust in his heart. At movie's end, both meet by accident at a party and begin to talk , in a general way, about their state of being. The film maker is still burdened by guilt for his impure thoughts and regret for his failure to act on his attraction to his work mate; he is not happy.

The doctor in turn, the man who entered into a successful conspiracy to kill his wife, offers up that sometimes it seems that life is one long catastrophe you're waiting for to end with some horrible , calamitous consequence, that the world you know will crash and you will be condemned, but that after awhile you notice the sun still comes up, household and work are still waiting for you to attend to them, the guilt and shame fades, you start to feel okay, and then, after a period, you have to admit to yourself that your life is actually pretty damn good. It's a choice and, I think, iconic scene from Allen's work, with the man who sinned in fact (Martin Landau) giving a big , smug grin while the film maker (Allen) , who sinned in his imagination alone, slumps in a pose of freighted self-loathing, punished without reserve for refusing to take the risk.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A rowdy nap

This poem from Dean Young's collection Private Mentor took be aback. It was a jolt, a tingle, a shooting pain above the eye. It was as if someone had just walked across where someone was already buried, someone I knew.


The first time I saw my father after he died,
he kept knocking against the window
even though I was afraid
that the cat would kill him. At least crash-

landing on the sill and then knocking more
was an improvement over the mechanical
bed, no glasses, no teeth, only Holy
shit I’m dying on repeat in his mind,

his three terrified, disgusted, bored offspring
in the ozone waiting room politely ignoring
the bilge from the grief counselor.

They’d had bad dreams before but weren’t sure
they too were cinders shooting through the cosmos
from one oblivion to another.
One thought of his convertible in the parking lot,
was it locked? One discarded baby names on her list.

One became an anvil but if you asked,
No he’d say, he wasn’t hurting anyone.

Something green hustled by whose only job
was swabbing surgery floors so it was good

Dad’s spirit didn’t cling to him, it needed
some air. How can I remember a voice
so clearly but not a thing it said?

The shrinking was immediate. Once

I thought a frog in a puddle in North
Carolina, easy to hold in my hand,
possible to protect. I was wrong.
Then after the fawn coming pickpocket close,

he gave up for years until yesterday’s
black stone on the beach with his gentle eye
for which I’m grateful still, and cherish
then heave back into the sea’s honeysuckle.






A bit surreal, and well done, definitely Kafkaesque with the blend of bewilderment and institutional sterility. It's a comic poem, I would guess, close to a comic book logic, perhaps with a bit of prime Woody Allen thrown into the mix. The image of the spirit of the dead father hovering and drifting through the site of his death strikes me as something a family survivor would come up with as a buffer against the coming shock of a parent's death; let's imagined Dad as a spirit as new spirit ambling about just as he did when he was still alive. There is a desire, primitive and grossly selfish, to let everything fall apart and drop one's pants to moon the portrait of the dead patriarch, but it's hard to muster up the courage,the brio, when the spectral father is roaming around his old places of love and work, tending to things he hadn't finished . And the moral and economic center of the family shifts and we realize, at last, that we are fully adult. It's difficult to act like a child , even when the Old Man is gone, when you know you're acting.

When my family discovered my younger brother dead in his apartment in January of 2000 , we stood numbly in the parking lot while the police did their work. After a half hour of managing only tears and half sentences, I made a joke, referring to the time when my brother, bottoming out on drugs at the time, used to sneak into our late parent's garage located below their condominium."Well, now he can move back into Mom and Dad's basement" I said. There was silence for a second, and then laughter, deep, grating guffaws from four shell-shocked siblings. And then more tears came between the laughs and we ceased being numb and recognized the meaning our loud tears; grief and relief, mixed in gasping intervals. We would mourn the loss of our brother forever, and it was likely we were glad that wasn't yet our turn to be staring straight up at the ceiling or open sky, seeing absolutely nothing.

Used Books: paragraphs for slow Saturday morning


Underworld -- Don DeLillo


Yes, the novel sprawls over the years and the characters in sideways fashion, but DeLillo has managed sprawl to good effect before, and here he does not slacken in skill. The search for the baseball, about which not much is known is except rumor purporting to be History, big H, lays the ground beautifully for a series of stories linked by the search for a usable , recent past through the ruins of a society that flies in the face and faith of the search. Great satire, great prose--DeLillo is among the best living writers in English, I believe: there's not an ounce of fat. This is savvy and skill and sheer know-how that eludes our faux wonder child, David Foster Wallace, prematurely praised for too little work. DeLillo is our best living novelist.


House on Mango Street --Sandra Cisneros


A little jewel, from the point of view, in large part, of a small girl growing up in the slums. I don't know how other the author's work reads, and her poetry, from what I've read, is ordinary and quietly competent, but House is heart breaking, where you witness the hardening of a world view before the young girl had any larger experience. A gem.


The Hours --Michael Cunningham


The intertwined narratives, connected through time and each related in some marginal way with the issue of Virginia Woolfe and her novel Mrs. Dollaway, is lovely, being about lose, desire, the great inability to frame an ideal and then live in it in a universe that is busy, intrusive, insensitive to inner life. Cunningham commands the Woolfe style : the stream of conscious that is amid thought in the ebb and flow of existence: we have , again and again, real images, concrete in detail and form, become, through character musing and more musing, become abstract, fluid, merged with the fleeting psychology of each passing moment. A good work.


A Frolic of One's Own --William Gaddis

I love the fact that the late Gaddis simplified his style not a wit since the 1958 publication of his first novel, The Recognitions. Brilliant dialogue, which drives the novel, sans character attribution. The lawyer trade should duck under the table if they see a judge with this book poking from his robe.


Birds of America --Lorrie Moore An amazing prose writer, this is a terrific set of short stories. It is a cruel error to regard her as a women's author, as her stories have a dimensionality that have the travails and emotions of her women characters' resonate with a congruent male readership.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The sourpuss returns


I stopped going to open readings about twelve years ago for a combination of reasons, lack of time foremost among them, but coming up near second was the weariness of being subjected to a continuous stream of encrypted banality.

Not to grind this axe too long nor too loudly, what What is most striking about the assembled grossness of over-reaching testaments is it no one seems to have had an interesting take on what muse-inspiring incident happened to them. Too often , too often indeed, the epiphanic moment seems to drive the earnest amateurs deep into the Archive of the Already Said Too Often , which dampens my enthusiasm for the notion that an introduction to good poets and their work will, by default, improve and hone the attributes of a readership who would likewise enjoy contemplating existence in unique combinations of metaphor and simile. Rather than broadening the perspective, as had been hoped, many become entrenched in bad ideas. It's like a cold one can't quite rid themselves of, I guess, doing so at last after rest and a vacation from taking one's seriousness too seriously, but the bad taste also acts like a virus, incubating for quite a while and effecting the senses in ways that seem to lay an irreversible tendency to grandiloquence, truism, bathos, rugged individualism. Some of this is invetiable in the course of being human with the conceit of being sensitive creatures with something to say--God knows I am an insufferable jerk when it comes to the sanctity of my own poetry which is, let us say, looking increasingly hokey as I get older.If that were the case, the reader and the listener would have the sense that some fact, independent of the narrator's expectations, has been acknowledged and that the speaker is ready to change their thinking. Yet another reason I gave up doing public readings as a matter of habit: my good poems are few, really, and repeating them bores the fuck out of me.The sort of tract many readers come across in airports and the shelves of bookstore self-help sections , though, resemble a poems less than they do knotted strings of re-fitted clichés that lacking value of irony or circumstantial variation .

These are more things one would say after an accompanying string of disasters and disappointments that work not to comprehend experience and, perhaps, gain a perspective on why things don't go according to plan, but rather to rationalize and reinforce one's attitude and manner of moving through the world.

When all is said and done, Frank Sinatra said the same thing, but with more style and less pop-psyche cant: I did it my way... Not that Sinatra's croaking croon makes this a desirable way to go through life.

We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. We do, more often than not, influence the results.

We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, which this poem attempts to present to us, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. In doing so, we can, more often than not, influence the results one gets. Such poets come across as defeatists in a Hemingway ammo belt.

Poetry is fun when it is good. This was not good.

Those who write poems , I think, are obliged to write the poems they are able to, whatever their style, and that they ought not be surprised when they are criticized for using clichés and glittering generalities in place of real craft or inspiration.

One's inner most thoughts, of themselves, are often not interesting as poetry. Whether the young poet admits it or not, they have a responsibility to express their inner lives in a fresh way that it's interesting to readers in the outer world.

Small thoughts are perfectly fine, and one need only inspect Emily Dickinson, or the imagist poems of Pound or WC Williams for examples.

Even the "less than earth shaking" poem has a bar to reach; it should none the less be exquisitely expressed. Those who participate in their lives are not passive, they are engaged with it.

Even the shy, weak, infirm, modest and laconic among us take pro-active roles in the directions we take, and take responsibility.

Most of all, there is the capacity to remain teachable, to learn from experience and change behavior and mindset; this is what keeps people interesting and useful to their fellows.

Those who refuse to change their ways, to use experience merely as rationale to reinforce ineffective methods to coping with existence, are jerks much of the time, or just irredeemably clueless. One stays away from these people, and their poems.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rather have rhinoplasty than read poems this boring

The_Constructor
John Koethe

In another life I might have the time and inclination to stand up to Koethe's daunting allusions, but after attempting , more than once, to overcome the skim, the glance and the cursory read and engage the poems, I became listless and depressed; it was like one of those odd moments of hackneyed existential literature where the hero, me, is alone in some government office waiting my turn to speak to an official about something and discovering that I couldn't understand a word that was being said. Worse yet, though, was the fact that didn't care what anyone was talking about. A book of poems that creates torpor and apathy, the urge to crawl back into bed with pretend flu symptoms, does not encourage a recommendation. Maybe I'm just stupid. Or maybe that these poems really are that dull and dulling. I maybe be wrong. It's likely I have suffered a failure of the imagination. Or is it just as likely that John Koethe failed to convince me that his prosaic ruminations are interesting?