Friday, January 27, 2012

Defending John Updike

Writer Katie Roiphe does a wonderful job of defending the  late novelist John Updike against the onslaught of posthumous nay saying  regarding his reputation in her current piece in Slate. Cheap shots , she essentially declares, quoting the more notable snipers like  David Foster Wallace and James Wood. The biggest complaint isn’t that Updike wrote badly; in fact he is pilloried for writing too well, too often. Roiphe puts the lie to the accusations.  Another  charge is that the departed novelist wrote the same novel over and over, for decades, decorating his  narrowness in ornate  language; the sheer perfume around the prose was meant to distract us from the paucity of ideas, the lack of variety. One wonders how much Updike these critics have read. There are advantages to reading deeply, and slowly.

 Updike has written novels that resemble one another in many respects over the years, but this not issuing the same novel "over and over". I would say that he is thematically less repetitive than Philip Roth, who is often cited as the American writer most likely to be our next Nobel Laureate in literature. Updike has themes and ideas that he works in his many novels and short story collections, but there are usually new variations, nuance, new ironies to experience. Most good novelists you can name do this, Updike, though, was especially keen at setting his ideas--spiritual aridity, infidelity, the denial of death through manic activity and material acquisition , the eventual irony as Life trudges forward unmindful of character pride or expectations--in settings one would associate with him.
The astonishing thing about Updike is how much and how often he experimented with form and subject, purposefully and with success straying from the nice little container his critics try to place him in. We can also had "Gertrude and Claudius", his lively prequel to "Hamlet", "Terrorist", an especially intense character study of an American-born jingoistic, and "Brazil", a favorite of mine, an inspired turn at Magic Realism. These novels, as well the novels “The Coup”, “Witches of Eastwick”, and “Seek My Face” , demonstrate an impressive range for any novelists, regardless of how high their current literary stock might happen to be.  An especially irksome , which is to say knee-jerk charge leveled against the novelist is that he is an egotist and an unreconstructed narcissist , someone who fashioned a high literary style to glide through a narrow range of matters that reflects a self absorption bordering on psychological defect. That charge essentially consists that Updike failed at a supposed grand responsibility to connect with a community of readers who expect the characters to be sufficiently sympathetic who retain the possibility for redemption. 

 This is patent nonsense, since the principle duty of the novelist, the poet, the artist isn't to second guess their talent and attempt a version of accomplishment and truth find as someone else might imagine it, but to explore their own perceptions in some detail against and within a variety of different situations and to see precisely where their ideas, concepts, fears take them. Calling this narcissism is a convenient way of avoid the task of understanding Updike's fictional world. I would also substitute the word egotism with confidence--the artist worth paying attention is the one who commits themselves fully to a style that allows them to attempt many different things to the fullest degree; to the degree that Updike wrote a considerable number of novels that are not your typical mainstream inventions--he dared to experiment with his famous style--and in doing kept his persistent themes viable and capable of yielding more nuances to his tales of the frailty of the human will, he is a master. No less than Henry James, no less than Faulkner, no less than Nabokov.   Updike's stock should be much, much higher than it is, and Roiphe's article makes a persuasive argument in Updike's defense. Updike was the best American novelist while he lived, I think, and it sticks in the craw of his detractors that there are not others who demonstrated such a brilliant consistency over many decades of writing.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2 poems by Charles Harper Webb

 I suspect we all know something about  trying to convince someone we'd just harmed that not your aggression but rather their erring behavior that brought on your abuse. As it goes in this culture and through the great tales told in the best surviving literature and histories, humanity has developed many an artful ways of allowing the powerful and the belligerent various rationalizations, elegant and crude, to absolve them from blame. It's tantamount to making the person you just gave a black eye to apologize to you because his face got in the way of your fist. Charles  Harper Webb's poem "Weapon Salve" is an alluring and yet insidious investigation to how this form of mind-fucking works.
I am inclined to think that the poem plays on the theme of blaming the victim for the injury they sustained and giving pity to the one who inflicted the harm by way of extending the over used trope that medieval medicine was , in our modern view, arcane, insane and deadly to the patient. As in the notion that various ailments, diseases, fevers and other varieties of cootie problematics could be relieved or cured outright by the application of blood sucking leeches to the patients' body in an effort to balance out the "humours" that it was thought to flow and swirl through an individual's body at the time. 
The over riding theme I read is that a firm application of a cosmology wherein conditions, causes and relationships between all things, human and otherwise, are firmly in place, intractable and factual is liable to warp our perspective and approach the unexpected, the unplanned for , the catastrophic with precisely the wrong sort of action needed. We treat the victim as if they had been asking for the punishment they had received and give our salve and our sentiment to the weapon and the person who wielded it; what was the trauma that forced the attacker to resort to such harsh resort, what blunt force did the sword suffer as it was deployed, issuing the unspeakable? 

What I find implied is that the victim blames them self as well, wondering what they had done to merit the punishment. This is a land Foucault wrote about with such clarity vigor, that punishment isn't just written on the body, it is inscribed; it becomes part of our genetic material as populations, sensing no right to grace, feel ashamed and expect punishment as a something designed by divine agencies. The weapon that God had given masters the genius to harm has been damaged during the infliction of punishment ; the damage to the sword must itself be avenged.

Web does an interesting thing at the end, after taking us through a tour of a world where weapons and the wounds they create exist, past the ritual healing and hobbling in the crippled aftermath, by extending the metaphor to language itself; every criticism and insult and carping complaint at your expense was uttered for your own good; one anticipates the lash and dreams of God in heaven and his endless bounty, one looses a limb and thinks they are reclaiming their soul, one minds themselves abused in horrible, humiliating and convinces themselves that they are ascending toward a superior state of being rather than being degraded. Pain is treated with more pain, the technology is repaired and burnished, the victim is killed by the cure. Charles Harper Webb's poems is a grisly, if elegant tour of seduction and submission. Potent poem.

_________________
There was a suggestion by one of the posters responding to the poem "Mummies to Burn"that poet Charles Harper Webb seemed to be on a creaky anti-West riff, using the anecdote
as reason enough to rehash a favorite harangue. There was a further suggestion that since the poem is a critique of Western technology strip-mining a culture for the sake of economic expansion, Webb wouldn't be inclined to criticize Egyptian history. Their record, it was asserted, wasn't Edenic and absent of cruel events. Had I came across the sentence that he had, I too would have been struck, surely, but the irony of the fact--white people converting human corpses into fossil fuel--and would have been motivated to write my own mediation on the severely negative side of Imperialism. His concern wasn't whether Egyptian history was noble or ignoble, but that European exploration into the area was intended not to learn but to discover exploitable resources.

What he gets at, his intent and success, I think,is that the mentality is a pervasive attitude in the invading culture, and that the psychology extends to a narrowly set pragmatism; short of coal and timber, need to save money. Blimey, burn these bandaged cadavers, there not doing any good just laying around as they are. The fault with Cameron's visually magnificent Avatar , is that it relies on tropes that are too obvious, especially on the Pocahontas / John Smith tale. Webb, on the other hand, is riffing on an historical fact, and provides a provocative argument that it's not an isolated instance. I don't think he's anymore anti-West than , say, Jonathan Swift or , say, H.L.Mencken, two writers we praise for their critical eye and caustic wit, as well as their willingness to speak an unruly version of Truth to whatever gathered assemblage of thugs happen, at the moment, to constitute Power.

You could say that Webb is a satirist in someway, a wiseacre, but whatever he is in spirit, he still notices how things that are said clash with things that are done, and that, like George Carlin, he has a willingness to push codified interpretations to the point where they become absurd. He is a poet, I think, who is keen on exposing contradictions and revealing the lies and embedded evasions we use to ease ourselves through the daily dose of cognitive dissonance.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chet Baker and Archie Shepp


This track is attractive because the famously relaxed trumpeter Chet Baker is performing with Archie Shepp, who is an outstanding example of the experimental improvisation termed "free jazz". We have here a fascinating and exciting jam highlighting a brilliant practioner of a what we'd call a mellow, melodic style with an Avant Gard genius of the period. Shepp, of course, is fiery and unpredictable with what his solos will contain even in a context this comparatively conservative; I find it amazing to here him in a chart-driven, swinging context and realizing he can more than cut the mustard. He brings his own thing to it, his solos are his alone. Baker, to be sure, appears energized by Shepp's presence--his phrase remains hushed and frayed around the edges--there are few perfectly round notes in Baker's playing--but it is something else again when he double and triple times his riffs against the rhythm section. Baker's playing gets an unfair rap, I think. At his best he could do much more than many give him credit for and , when alert and prepared, was in perfect control of all his gifts.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tree of Life with Shallow Roots


There's much one can say about a movie's beautiful , lush photography when it works with a structure--a good script, a graspable plot and ideas an audience can take interest in, credible, complex characters--but pretty pictures by themselves cannot save a film like Terrence Mallick's "Tree of Life" from coming across as a bloated, pretentious attempt to evoke a sense of human existence and beyond what the director seemingly considers the petty concerns of individual characters.
It is a mess, with a whispering, hushed narration that cannot seem to rise above a mumbling buzz, and sequencing of story lines between a family tragedy set in a 1950's American suburb, the pensive rumination of a soul sick business man in current day Dallas, and images of dinosaurs hunkering, squirming, swimming, wandering through their various versions of flora and fauna in search of food and , we could assume, significance beyond their appetites and survival instincts.
This would all be interesting in the right proportions, but this film is not the tone poem Mallick wanted it to be; it is is not mesmerizing, poetic or suggestive of the sort of secret-of-life conceit the film hints at. What is infuriating , beyond the rhythm-less, shambling length of the film ( two hours and 44 minutes) is that for all the wonderful images Mallick and his crew manage to bring us, very little of it is effectively mounted or framed; we are not allowed to become engaged with any seen nor permitted any sense of continuity . It seems to have been edited with a lawn mower on a foggy day.he constant riff of showing us various trees, in various stages, topographically believable for conceptually baffling, with light coming through the branches was irritating, as was the constant visual cues of running water from rivers, lakes, streams and shorelines. These are meant to function as a leitmotif, no doubt, but repetition does not equal effective emphasis. This results in symbolism without an actual "thing", an idea, under the metaphorical disguise. It does seduce into thinking about one thing only to discover that something else was being arrived at just under our perceptual radar.

There is, I'm sure, a metaphysical aspect that I've missed through this ,but closer to the truth, I think, is that I merely noticed what's missing from the film. I don't know quite what those elements were as to what was intended, but it seems clear enough that no one thought to bring them to this project.

Friday, January 20, 2012

a fine poem by Joshua Rivkin

More than a few of us, I wager, have sat with friends in cafes and bistros stealing occasional glances at the people seated at the table just across the room and wondered what it was like to be them, to be with them, to live in their skins, in their world. Sudden bouts of sagging self esteem are not unfamiliar nor uncommon among a good many of us, who we are and what we have done with our lives suddenly seem so trivial and irrelevant in the presence of someone we think is the cooler variety of human. There is no logical, sensible reason for this to take place among normal, successful people who have interesting lives and accomplishments; the downward spiral of degenerating self regard hits us all in a culture that treats even personality as a material asset to be built upon, used as barter, currency, the cause for bragging. What wouldn't we give, what wouldn't we trade for just a small slice of that karma those we momentarily see as obscenely blessed have far too much of. Poet Joshua Rivkin considers this in his poem, "New Economy", a savvy and sleek lyric, expressed in self contained sections, that present a variety of situations where seekers are beseeching the people , places and things they covet with a variety of propositions that attempt to coax a bit of better luck from the flesh or the mortar of a superior Other:
NEW ECONOMY / Joshua Rivkin

A man offers to trade his guitar for a city bus. 
My pick for your passengers. Six strings for sixteen wheels. 

A bride on her wedding day exchanges her love
for bright weather, a groom exchanges his hands for hers. 

A father offers to trade his family for a hotel’s worth of sleep. 
A sailor offers the Pacific for a hotel’s worth of sex.

Tonight, the shirt from my back, my singing mouth,
my endless praise, for your skin or company.

I’ll give you my stethoscope for a red barn: a doctor. 
I’ll give you my right arm for your left: his patient. 
It’s the inequality of pain a sleepless woman wants
to give away. Here, take mine, she offers to freight trains

whistling their replies through Houston’s poorest wards:
Jealousy gets you jealousy. Rage gets you rage.

"What wouldn’t you offer?" a man asks the pawn shop window.
"What wouldn’t you take?" replies the glass. 

There is a nicely surreal tone through this poem, a series of odd remarks and offers that end up in unexpected resolutions. A man is willing to surrender his gift of music in exchange for a city bus with it's human cargo and considerable tonnage, a bride prefers a sunny day to a wedding night, doctor and patient negotiate for things they cannot have in exchange for the things they do not want to do; Rivkin's transitions, his eventualities are not jarring but make sense in a manner suggestive of how dreams work against expectation and interrupt a narrative line regarding the pursuit of lust, escape or pleasure with a complication of some sort, an element a dreamer has perhaps forgotten about but which reappears as an issue that needs to be resolved before any fanciful living can be had.

This does, indeed, sound not a little like dime store Freud, but Rivkin isn't here to analyze or instruct or even critique; the task of the poem is to put the reader in the center of all the mood, with their bittersweet undertone of regret. Interestingly enough each section reads like it were the start of a short story or a joke, something lightly suggestive of the way Rod Serling introduced his episodes of his old "Twilight Zone" television series--this prevents the poem from becoming ponderous, from succumbing to the temptation to describe poetry's limitations on describing emotional states that are fleeting and otherwise described in terse cliches or psychiatric jargon. Rivkin defies this and displays a superb craft, a sense of balance between the proposals he highlights here; this is the state of mind where some of us find ourselves so critically bored with the people, places and things of our daily existence that cause  absurd and  dangerous change appear briefly desireable . This is an evocation of a delusional on the most dream like and banal level, the bored sigh or the frustrated "oh hum" translated in an exhilarating rush of chaotic abandonment, not even concerned with trading up for a better kind of life but instead obsessed on an instinctual level only with escape from what tethers toward a future containing either possibility or oblivion.

JOHNNY OTIS

Band leader, songwriter, singer and producer Johnny Otis  has passed away. was an American Master, a truly great man who helped bring a fantastic number of brilliant rhythm and blues artists to greater fame and acclaim. I had the pleasure to meet and interview him back in the Seventies, when he had just become a minister and opened up his home in Los Angeles as his church. He was gracious, sane, civilized, believing that the spirit of God blesses all of us and our best talents; he though it was his calling to help his fellow humans become their better selves.

 The service that my associate Barry Alfonso and I attended in his South Los Angeles home back in the Seventies was a long one, with a choir of splendidly tuned vocalists revving up the already considerable spiritual energy in the room while Reverend Otis, citing Gospel, citing the Jesus of his understanding, gently but firmly exhorted his congregation to be more Christ like, that is, to be kind, helpful, loving of others. In attendance was famed jazz organist Jimmy Smith and singer/actress Della Reese, both of whom performed musical numbers at the Reverend's request. Later in the service, Otis asked us to turn to the person on our left and the person on our right and say "God loves you and I love you to."  On my right was Barry, whose hand I shook. We exchanged nods, trying, I suppose, to sustain a veneer of journalistic cool, but on my left was Miss Reese, who took my hand and said with a wide smile that God loved me and that she loved me to. On instinct I return the greeting, feeling that I had just shaken hands with someone who was genuinely connected to the message of love that Otis carried and preached. In some circles, in certain cliques, in specific venues, this view of God and his purpose for us on this planet seems naive, but it occurred to me decades later that Johnny Otis had tapped into a theological proposition more profound than one would at first think. 

It was so subtle that the majority of the religious celebrities miss it, that life on earth matters a great deal most of all; we are not here merely to perform perfunctory good deeds as if  existence were merely a test to get  into a celestial graduate school. Rather, we were here to love , nurture and help one another, to create joy and happiness through creative acts and the practice of a kind of selflessness that brings us a new freedom. During our talk with Johnny Otis in his office before the service, the musician spoke at length about the gift of music and the connection it gives him to the lives of others. about how he could feel the real pain, joy and struggles in the voice of Esther Phillips, the searing saxophone of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. It was art as a spiritual calling, a manifest destiny to  let people know that a surrender to the God and Jesus that Johnny Otis and his brethren spoke of could not only make life on in this existence bearable, but better, tangible better. That is the power of love Johnny Otis spoke of and that is the glory of the music Johnny Otis made. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Muscle poetry


The poem "Richard Noel" is Harry Thomas' slap at obscurantist modernism in all its forms, resisting the lure of diffuse and the oblique for the clipped, staccato version of Rudyard Kipling, although Kipling himself would have furnished the fife and brass to accentuate and enliven the rattatatat of the military drums. Thomas' poem is a rhythmic straight jacket, the confined emotionalism of someone trying to keep their bleeding heart to a steady, unexcited beat. If only if he'd actually let it all go to provide us with something fiercer, more explosive than this soggy parody of Hemingway's succinct, staccato  effusions about a Personal Code.
To finish the long profile

**his grade depended on,
the afternoon before
**the surgery, alone,
he worked late in the library.
**I saw him typing away.
On my desk were his ten pages
**the first thing the next day.
Over the years I, too,
**have had hard things to face.
But when did I once summon
**such fortitude and grace?
It is admirable, one supposes, that a student gets their homework turned in on time despite an affliction, but this tribute, with its hushed bathos, seems very, very silly indeed. There is something remarkable in the attempt to overstate a point using such a crabbed rhetoric; the clichés and the conventional wisdom toward the sick and the afflicted area boiled , chipped and chiseled to their irreducible essences, leaving only a salty residue of uninteresting thinking. There is ossification here, there is poet tasting, but there is no poetry, such as we understand it. So what does one do to mend this tendency of amateurs to compose and distribute this stanza'd insult to the eyes? Exactly nothing. Nothing can be done to cure the lagging tastes of the naive.

There is that large faction of the otherwise diminutive poetry audience that likes its verse rhyming, rocking in a cadence that suggests a three-legged clogging competition, stanzas that are morally coherent and as comprehensible as a stack of pancakes, and the seldom discussed aspect among the rest of us self-declared elites fighting back gag reflexes is that this more or less a permanent state of affairs in this odd and contentious corner of the literary world. For all the chatter some of us offer up about being ecumenical. inclusive and appreciative of the broadness contemporary contains with regards to style, aesthetics, and the subtly differentiated concerns each of the coexisting schools collectively undertake to have their respective poems achieve their results, many of us choke with contempt and despair over the obvious if unacknowledged truth that doggerel, poesy, poet tasting and all the loutish rest are permanent fixtures in the literary culture that thrives beyond the ramparts.
There are no mass conversions forthcoming when it comes to convincing the rest of the poetry world that they’d be better off reading the stronger stuff. Consumers know what they want to read, and the amateur poet, not beholden to particular school of poetics or allegiances formed while they were a graduate student, will write exactly how they see fit, daring, strange enough, to write poems that make sense.

I don't think there is anything subtle or understated about "Richard Noël”. This set up is basically the plot line of the old ABC-TV disease-themed "Movies of the Week", where the usual tragedy was introduced in the first act, the resolve of the afflicted is tested as he or she struggles to get on with their life is shown in the second, and the third act concludes with the victim teaching a doubting observer a lesson amounting to the life can be lived fully even with a hindering, perhaps fatal ailment. These soapy melodramas were churned out week after week, and what their popularity attests to is that this sort of by-the-numbers approach to conflict and resolution is what the public accepts as the height of dramatic action.

What's off putting to me is the patronizing tone Thomas takes toward his subject --the whole Kipling "Gunga Din" tone of Imperialist paternalism (where there is the narrator's surprise that what he regards as "civilized" virtues emerge from a heathen subject) weighs this down with a sure paving of the narrative line to a limited series of genre constrained conclusions.
It might be interesting for a writer to use this situation as a reason for soul searching and critical self-examination, but that is a tricky balance to achieve, the getting the details of the afflicted's situation right with a delicately deployed tone , and having the narrator's introspection not overwhelm the poem and make the poem a bottomless confession. And what ought to be achieved by the third act, that final part of the dialectic, would need to be an insight, an image, a phrase that is somewhat apart from the previous two elements, something unique and not facile, as Thomas' finishing stanza was in "Richard Noel".

The execution is competent enough, although there isn’t an interesting rhythm anywhere in the poem. It’s hemmed in by its lack of distinction or character. While I don’t the poet’s sincerity, this rhymes of the sing-song variety; each time a line alights upon a previous line’s phonic twin, there’s a perceptible crash, or a thud. It’s not that I’m opposed to rhyme, but it is certain that in these days following the post modernist insurrection a poet who rhymes should be exceptional. Thom Gunn gets the craft write with his verse, bringing in associations that surprise the reader expecting a vague gloss of the subject matter due to the presence of rhyme. His work is wonderfully controlled, musical, artfully constructed without indicating the labor it takes to compose with such a tuned ear:
The Man with Night Sweats
By Thom Gunn

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.
I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,
A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
There are other poets who write a fine poem in more traditional modes who haven’t sacrificed their wit; one may argue on ideological grounds that the formalism one comes across is a reactionary movement linked in spirit and practice to a more rigid culturally conservative impulse, but for my part I prefer to judge the poet by the work. Eliot, Pound and others where profoundly nasty people who did work that with stood their propensities toward bigotry and general “A”-holism. It’s a simple matter of judging what works in the poem, and what doesn’t.

Monday, January 16, 2012

There is little else but ill will circulating through the tubes of the internet


There is little else but ill will circulating through the tubes of the internet this morning, general grousing, gripes and jeremiads about little of consequence, although I would have to lend credence to the notion that a lot of anger is generated by site specific fears of losing one's financial security. This means that a good number of us in the work force, from upper management, mid management and the guys who wash out the trash dumpsters in the back of the stores we can't afford to walk into are worried that they might be invited into the boss's office and asked to close the door behind them. Not a fun way to start the morning, so I force myself to think only happy thoughts. La la la la la la is what I sing to myself, and I imagine pink ponies with ribbons and rainbows and smiley faces all over the landscape. Next I turn to my Facebook page where one of my friends posted a video of Brit punk band The Exploited doing the least ambiguous song I will hear all month: FUCK THE USA.
The rainbows evaporate, the pink ponies eat some toxic ragweed and fall over and die. Red robins drop from the sky. The smiley faces are now flipping me off.
Great.
Later this morning there is a mood of subdued insanity as each of us smile tightl
y, the corners of our mouths jagged like upended hangers, boomer rang creases pushing the eyes and eyebrows into the leering slant of a deranged carnival clown. Everything is fine and all of are going to heaven in a white boat with Black sails, that seems to be what we are dreaming while awake, a promise of deliverance tempered with an omen for perpetual disaster. Free floating anxiety that wakes up ten minutes before you do and starts pressing the proverbial buttons on the control center that constitutes your dreaming self. Oh dear, oh my, the worst has already happened, although neither the West nor the East coasts have slithered into an angry, boiling ocean. That boiling sound is more of a gurgle, the coffee maker that has stopped working, producing scratchy gurgling noises; it gave me half a cup this morning and did nothing else other than engage that death rattle. Another fine day to begin the day, especially on a Sunday. And now here I am, wondering, what? What am I wondering?
I was reading a piece by Peter Whitmer about Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro” while on the bus coming to work this morning and noticed that the day so far had the hue of a dingy wash rag. I lifted my eyes from the twitching pages I was trying to read to see someone standing at the bus stop where the bus had paused to pick up new passengers, spying a guy in a grey hoodie standing on the side walk looking into the bus, straight at me where I was seated.
Alien twelve tone gangster movie theme songs emerged from my pocket just then, my cell phone was ringing. I answered, staring into nothing but an interface crowded with blurred icons. "This is me" I answered, "Who are you?"
The voice didn't bother with an explanation or an introduction or a confession of any kind, rather, he issued a command,
"Let me talk to the other guy" he said. There was a burst of static, a high whistling shriek. And then the phone became very hot in my hand.
After lunch I turned off the computer and noticed that there was a tickle in the back of my throat, the sort of irritation that makes you think of wet sandpaper being the universal standard for raw flesh and blues hysteria. My throat felt the way Tom Waits sounds, amplified aggravation in the center of the soft tissue, red and familiar like a bully's smirk before he knees in the nuts and bitch slaps you more time when you try to sneak out of school via the custodian's entrance. There was nothing I could do about the damn condition at the moment, but I did have a half bottle of Tustin, some generic syrup for the alleviation of sore throat, cough and yet manly enough to expel the grubbily greased mucus from the deepest of chest resonating chambers. I drank it one gulp, a semi sweetened version of the cruel cures your grandmother used to force down your throat with a funnel and the business end of a high heel shoe. It was awful, and all at once the store room started doing jumping jacks, my stomach declared itself a sovereign nation, my eyes saw through the thickest walls of the building and could the lips of cops writing crime novels behind billboards when they weren't getting hummers from bums who need one more dime for some Blue Nun. I was stoned on something, and suddenly the phone rang, or I thought I did. All I remember, really, was that I answered something.
"Gewekeekek" I said into the receiver.
"Hi, I need a red rubber octopus..."
I paused.
"Don't we all" I answered.
And then the sun exploded.

Robert Coover

Robert Coover is one of the most interesting writers from that generation of metafictionists--he is what I think of when I think of a writer taking apart a narrative strategy and making the parts fit in new and maddening ways.Spanking the Maid was deliciously skewed where Coover retells, reshapes, reformulates a hackneyed seduction scenario which adheres, in all the twistings and colorations, to the classic line of erotic writing; the excitement isn't in the getting , but in the anticipation of getting, in the suspense between subjects. Coover makes the suspension that space where the senses are no aid to one's idea of self-empowerment.The Universal Baseball Association is a book I consider to be as close to a Great American Novel as anything of worth that's been published in the last fifty years. That I've read anyway. Origin of the Brunists is especially potent, and I think his writing on end-of-the-world cults is as potent as DeLillo's or Pynchon's, maybe even more so."

'via Blog this'

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Marianne Moore


Marianne Moore's "Poetry" is widely anthologized and often cited, and it shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: it's a poem about poetry. She rather handily summarizes an array of clichés, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion. This is not a subject I warm up to in most circumstances--poets, of their accord, have demonstrated the sort of self-infatuation that many of them, left to their means-to-an-end, would remove themselves from the human scale and assume the ranks of the divine, the oracular, the life giving, IE, develop themselves into a priesthood, the guardians of perception. Moore's poem, though, presents itself as a contracting string of epigrams that seem to quarrel, a disagreement between head and mind, body and spirit, and a larger part of her lines, as they seemingly across the page away from the statements preceding the line before it, is that no really knows what to make of poetry as a form, as a means of communication, as a way of identifying oneself in the world. It frustrates the fast answer, it squelches the obvious point, and poetry adds ambiguity that would rile many because of lines that start off making obvious sense but which leave the reader in a space that isn't so cocksure. Little of the world seems definite anymore once a poem has passed through it, and the reconfiguring of imagination , the retrenching, the retooling of perception a required of the reader to understand a bit of the verse (the alternative being merely to quit and admit defeat) is bound to give a resentment.

Moore's poem seems to be a response to Dorothy Parker's ironic declaration "I hate writing. I love having written". The reader may hate not understanding what they've read, but love the rewards of sussing through a poem's blind alleys and distracting side streets.

POETRY
Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, 
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, 
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The agony, the contradictions, the dishonest sleights of hand that deceive you in the service of delivering a surprise, an irony, an unexpected image, all of this is worth resentments a reader suffers through. One is, after all, made better, made stronger by the exercise of the will to read and confront the poem on its own terms. Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet. Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without its application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.

I wouldn't regard this as a polemic of any sort, nor a manifesto as to what the writer ought to do or what the reader should demand. Reading it over again and again after that makes me think that Moore was addressing her own ambivalence toward the form. After one finishes some stanzas and feels contented that they've done justice to their object of concentration, some lines appear contrived, other words are dull and dead sounding aligned with more colorful, more chiming ones,
 Poetry that however grand , beautiful and insightful the resulting poems are in a host of poetic attempts to resolve the problem the distance between the thing perceived and the thing itself, we still have only poems, words arranged to produce effects that would appeal to our senses that are aligned with this world and not the invisible republic just beyond our senses. Poetry is a frustrating and irritating process because it no matter how close one thinks they've come to a breakthrough, there is the eventual realization of far one remains from it. Poetry as Sisyphean task; one is compelled to repeat the effort, and not without the feeling that they've done this before.



The commotion of the animals, the pushing elephants, the rolling horses, the tireless yet immobile Wolf, seem like analogues to restless mind Moore at one time might have desired to have calmed by the writing of poetry. There is the prevailing myth, still fixed in a good number of people who go through various self help groups, that the writing of things down--poetry, journaling, blogging, writing plays or memoirs--is a process that, in itself , will reveal truthful things one needs to know and thereby settle the issues. Writing, though, doesn't "settle", finalize or cement anything in place, it does to set the world straight , nor does it resolve anything it was addressing once the writing is done with. It is, though, a useful process, a tool, one may use as a means to get one out of the chair, away from the keyboard, and become proactive in some positive way.
The expectations of what poetry was supposed to do--create something about the world that is permanent, everlasting, reveal a truth who's veracity does not pale with time, whether a century or hour-- are crushed and a resentment when realizes that the world they're attempting to conquer, in a manner of speaking , will not bow to one's perception, one's carefully constructed stage set where the material things of this earth are props to be arranged on a whim, and that the mind that creates the metaphors, the similes, the skilled couplets and ingenious rhyme strategies is not calmed, soothed, serene.
The world continues to move and change, language itself changes the meaning of the words it contains, the mind continues to tick away, untrammeled. Moore's animals, in the restless paradise, are themselves restless, non contemplative, instinct driven toward species behavior that is about propagation and survival, creatures distinct from the contemplative conceit of the poet who thinks he or she is able to sift through the underbrush for secret significance. I've always heard a weary tone in Moore's poem; a mind that in turn wrestles with matters where poetry doesn't reveal what's disguised but only what the poet can never get to. Her poem echoes Macbeth's famous speech rather nicely
She should have died hereafter; 
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

She seems not a little dismayed that poetry is only part of our restless species behavior and that the language we write and expound to bring coherence to the waking life are only more sounds being made in an already noisy existence.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

TR HUMMER


This is a piece from 2009 about one of T.R.Hummer's poems that was published in Slate. I run again here because I am still making sense of the current  poem that Slate has on display,and because Hummer is a superb poet more of us should know about and read.--tb
______


There are those I know, friends and former friends alike, who know it's well within my personality to become a fire-breathing jerk; though I prefer to regard myself as having an even temperament most of my awake time, there are those moments when something gets to me that will not let up. An annoyance, a complaint, the site of something ugly or something said that was offensive to my closely held (and improvised) standards as to how reality and it's subjects should arrange their affairs. Bear in mind, please , that I am seldom right when I go off on a toot, and my universal declarations about the exact nature of the world's wrongs are inappropriate, over stated, bigoted, unfair, the rantings of a salivating asshole. Even at my age, with the wisdom I've garnered from decades of mistakes I've learned from, I still have to make amends, apologize, repair the damage I've done during my lashing out. That said, bear in mind as well that these moments of rage binging are much scarcer than they were , say, twenty years ago. The point, I suppose , that knowing better is not enough.

But anger, being in a state of pique is seductive; quite suddenly, as the adrenaline flows and what had been a passing social glitch becomes a World View, the world gets smaller, I get larger, and all matters at hand and hidden, all business , entertainment, love and remorse become intertwined, connected, the world suddenly makes sense. The small irritations that had been collecting in the recesses of compartmentalized personality show their full fester at last and everything that one knows becomes a chain of related failures, betrayals, breakdowns, recriminations, all of which seem to be headed to one end, a single source for the source of the world's (nee my) discontents. It's much the same as being on a drug, and there is something awesome as one calms down and realizes the stress they'd just put themselves through--one wishes they could rage more and sustain the fleeting unity, but it is illusory. It's proof , for me a least, that my brain isn't my best friend when I've exhausted my wit.

What I've marveled at, though, is the associations that come to you when you've revved up your mind to function at the sharpest point of a perfect snit. Seamlessly, effortlessly, without resistance and without contradiction , you find yourself being like Hamlet equivocating brilliantly as he ponders a conspiratorial heaven that draws an ill map for him, or Lear, for that matter, going insane as he strips himself in the rain of the vestments of his power, real and symbolic, because the actual relationships so revealed to him are too much. It's poetry, the power to begin with the instance and utilize language to extend a psychology that places human worth below the philosophical certainty we might have been raised with.

Poet T.R.Hummer gets at this beautifully with his poem "Bad Infinity", a ram-rodding crash course of sensory overload that begins with a colonsocopy as a starting point and soon compresses the raw cycle the narrator speeds along:



During the colonoscopy, orbiting through twilight sleep,
***she felt, light-years distant in the interior darkness, a thump
And a dull but definite pain—as if someone were dragging,
***at the end of a rusty chain, a transistor radio through her body,
A small beige box with a gold grill, assembled by a child in southeast Asia
***in 1964—and she woke in groggy panic till the nurse made soothing noises
For her to sleep by, like a song in an alien language heard through static
***beamed from the far side of Arcturus: The Dave Clark Five's
"Glad All Over," maybe, tuned in by a boy in Thailand. Such a drug,
***the doctor said. Everything you feel you will forget.
Amen to that. Amen to plastic and silicon, amen to a living wage,
***amen to our tinny music, to the shrapnel in the IV drip,
Amen to the template of genes that keeps the body twitching
***and the wormhole in the gut of Orion I will slip through
When the chain breaks and the corroded battery bursts, its acids eating
***all the delicate circuitry that binds the speaker to the song.


Wonderfully done, powerfully done, this gets that state of helplessness as the subject, a woman under examination, feels the effects of the drug and the invasion o of her body, attempting to balance between a giving in to the process she's volunteered for and an attempt to maintain control, dignity, a small measure of power that couldn't robbed for her. Hummer has an ear for interesting coinages and odd juxtapositions , and understands the irrational references an addled thought process can take.




The probes feel like a cheap transistor radio playing a Dave Clark 5 song ironically called "Glad All Over" as the probes search for cancer cells,
and concludes, violently, hauntingly, with the tale of the imagined radio become personified and wearing out, the battery leaking acid, corroding the sheath that contains it. This language stream, equal parts brutal fact and drug enhanced delusion, combines what I hear is fear and anger meeting head on in equally forceful bursts, the result being something between acceptance and the last act of defiance . The beauty of it, of course, is that Hummer conveys this as a state one is currently in, with little in the way of set up, nor a clue as to what the post-examination results might be; this is not unlike walking into a room you thought was empty and finding someone in there alone, confessing secrets from some isolated area of their being to the shadows. Hummer makes us feel ill-at-ease and maybe a little as if someone had just walked over the spot where we'll eventually be buried. Or scattered. Not many writers do that for me.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Walking Backwards


The construction of this poem, consisting of so many dependent clauses revealing previous events and perceptions after the poet commences to speak of his walk, makes me think of someone attempting to conduct a tour of a neighborhood while walking backwards, spicing up his odd stride with a monologue that is unfocused at best. 


Song of the Unseen Bird / HL Spelman
To walk so long with her in so much quiet
Then hear that unseen bird, whose name
I don’t know, wouldn’t know where to find,
Singing somewhere among the leaf sheen,
Was to realize why, when his beloved hero-killer
Resolves at last to die, Homer gives us
Not the laments the sea nymphs wail
But the nonsense song of their limpid names
He makes up: Limnoreia and Doto and Proto
And sometimes there are no words
And Kallianassa and Kymodoke and Maera
And sometimes no words could be sad enough.
Ashwing, Seedquit, Spotted Larmer:
Tee-way tee-wee tee-wooo you sang to us.


The walking companions , he hopes, continue to be interested in the bits and pieces of facts and mythical factoids even as he falls backwards, tripping over a rake, a tree root upending a chuck of sidewalk, a rake left by a homeowner gone to the backyard to fetch a basket for the leaves he's raked up. This poem stumbles greatly and does easily blend the informative, the mythic and the incidental and the   mythic, say literary, into the sort of casual, seamless streamlined elegance we praise Billy Collins or, even better, Thomas Lux. There are too many grace notes for this poet to include, I think. 

This is less about what the poet found out during a walk or what they saw that they hadn't seen before than it is about the poet's education; this is a world where everything he sees reminds him of something he's read , a tendency that seems like a condition rather than a bad habit. This poem is another bulging, overstuffed suitcase of intelligent chit chat, not a matching sock in the lot.

A writer making use of other writer's work is not a tragedy in itself, but it is something that is fraught with risk. It's a delicate operation, as it goes, and it seems to work best when used with only the lightest, glancing touch, and the effect that works best, that is, seems the less preposterously over-thought, is when it produces an irony that might reveal how idealized and fallible our initial takes on people, places and things happen to be. Ideally, it achieves some insight about one's place in the world that does not bend obediently at the altar of art. Too often, though, the mentioning of other poems, poets, philosophies, spiritual precepts, traps the writer in an large, sealed container; he or she tends to mistake the sound of their voice echoing a stream of heady names and quotes to the the task at hand.

Spelman uses only one allusion, to Homer, in the work, and one can the problematic and brilliant TS Eliot as a poet who courted toxic levels of literary reference in is masterpiece "The Waste Land".One allusion this manhandled is too many, and I think the Homeric turn is a decisive move to force readers to consult old Penguin editions or Wikipedia. A poet as tin-eared as Spelman , as least tone deaf to euphony in this piece, seems to have a reflexive action that compels the writing to become about what he has read before, not about he is ostensibly trying to address . Harold Bloom has the idea of the anxiety of influence, a life long theory of his that states, simply expressed, that all writers are writing in the shadow of Great Writers before them, and that every poet, bar none, is writing in the shadow of Shakespeare. What makes the difference, though, is to what extent does one stop using literary allusions like badly planted foot notes along the stream of assoication and instead use the ideas as tools to tangibly pierce the veneer that cloisters our responses to events and circumstance. I would imagine greatness as being those writings that aid readers in imagining reality, life-in-itself, outside Plato's fabled cave. TS Eliot, with all his allusions criss crossing each other in his non-linear lyrics, was obsessed with seeing the world as no one else had seen it;l he had a vision of it being arid, sexless, full of the dessicated ruins of religious , political and aesthetic dogmas that failed to keep the world vital , full of purpose, meaning and order. Antisemitic and racist though he was, his poetry is a beautiful expanse of mood and dour music. Unlike so many others, including Pound and the majority of his American and English contemporaries, he had grit, he had gumption, he had an ear for a world he heard spinning off it's gears.