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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Flightless Poem

It shouldn't shock anyone to say that David Tucker's "No Flights Until Morning" is an overwritten attempt to cram as much pathos into a relatively small setting where there is no convenient dynamic to move quicken the pace or make the more extreme poetic applications seem less glaring. This poem is a matter of trying to fit a size ten foot into a size seven shoe, and reading it was nothing less than watching the pained waddle of a customer denying the shortcomings of their high-heeled prize. There are choice details, yes, if one is inclined to excuse any sort of snap shot description of unhappy people in crowded places as examples of the author's generous heart.


The runways were covered by late afternoon,
nothing moved out there but the occasional noble
snow plow carrying on with a yellow grimace,
the big jets were barely visible like whale herds
sleeping off the blast. The concourses, so frantic
a few hours ago, were almost still, a few meanderers chatted on their cell phones and looked at watches.


There is nothing in these "humanizing" images that novelists John Cheever or John Updike haven't given us with more grace, sympathy, and with sense that the observed imperfections were leading to some greater effect.

Rhythm and musicality are especially strong in these prose writers as they achieve a graceful ribbon of circumstance and happenstance which brings character tic, facial expressions, commercial products into a focus as being telling elements of a whole world and gestalt from which a sadness or great comedy is about to unfold. In Cheever's masterful "Wapshot Chronicle" and "Wapshot Schandal" and Updike's wonderful quartet of "Rabbit" novels the wealth of details forms a world, a fictional space where tangible emotion and poetic effects
are achieved through equal amounts of economy and a tuned ear.

Tucker has the eye but not the ear, and like his glacially paced reading --did anyone else find themselves leaning into their speakers only to find themselves about to tip over anticipating his next laggardly utterance?-- and his poem turns into a drone. He had a scene that was worth a poem, but rather than find where the poem was among all those strange , private interactions he may or may not have seen from the corner of his eye, rather than select particular evocative scenes and link them somehow with some small, hidden yet quietly profound fact within themselves, he tries to contain the entire airport ,
and creates dead weight. We get the typical effect of someone who has written themselves into a corner and is forced to over reach to distinguish himself from the other scenes of nameless being:

I stayed quiet and thought of you;
checked my passport, read my ticket again, then again
like a spy with only a name to get me out,
a thousand miles from my life.


I find it incredible that in a moment when he is supposedly feeling vulnerable and less than dynamic because of his separation from his beloved "you" that he addresses his situation as analogous to that of a spy. Tucker here is valorizing his current despair and ennui and makes himself seem heroic because others are accepting and playing video games or raging at bemused counter help, he has the deeper wound of true loneliness. The poet as serial sufferer is loosed upon us, and you wonder what Tucker was going for other than to prove that he could out-mope a room full of the earnestly self-conscious

Sunday, January 15, 2006

James Frey: The Ring of Truth Sounds Like a Cash Register

So "A Million Little Pieces", the out standing memoir of the year, is a steaming pile of sub-Bukowski fiction? A fanciful re imagination of an ordinary drug and alcohol tale of woe and recovery? All sizzle, no steak? Sweet.It's been some nasty fun of late to see James Frey twist in the wind as his supposedly non-fiction account of his experience of a drug addict and his eventual recovery is revealed by the Smokinggun.com as being in large part not true. The usual hand wringing about ethics has commenced, but what is notably freaky in this case is the publisher and the book's number one promoter, Oprah, standing by his side, citing something greater and more important than Frey's lazy relationship to the truth. I don't see how anyone who has been caught passing off falsehoods as actual fact can be an inspiration to anyone. He is a fraud, in plain fact, and it's very weaselly of he, Random House and Oprah to stand by the book by claiming that the "essential truths" about the possibility of redemption mitigate the fiction Frey try to pass off as a true story.

Redemption is possible, I believe, but not in the case of an author who just outright lies about his unpleasant experience and how he persevered through grit and gumption a man has to self-mythologize to get across the idea that a person can rise above their problems and be restored to good character and
virtue, one needs to question the sincerity of the storyteller by simply asking why such a basically decent person would need to lie in the first place. One reason, of course, that his melodramatic accounts make for a better story, to which his supporters like Random House and the embarrassed Oprah would assert makes the message more powerful. More likely James Frey needed a sexier tale in order to get published by a major publisher and make A Million Little Pieces easier to hype, and easier to sell to Hollywood producers who need a property for some emerging pretty boy actor can do scene chewing Oscar turn in. It's about the money, and the message of struggle, despair, pain and the bald determination to rise above it all with superhuman amounts of will power no doubt inspire millions of readers who in turn might be like inspired to spend millions of dollars seeing a film.

Frey, Random House, Oprah and whoever might produce the film version of Frey's book can't afford to admit that the book is a fraud, a bit of slick huckertism no less odious than snake oil cures and bloodless surgery. One can imagine the conference calls that went on between all the concerned when maximum Damage Control was demanded. Like those who believe they see the Virgin Mary in a Baltimore Laundromat, or Elvis gorging himself on pancakes and sausage patties in a turnpike Howard Johnson, we have here the formation of a fervent belief system in a book's "essential truths" about the redemption of the self when, in fact, the only true thing that rings true in this matter is the cash register.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

the marriage of heaven and hell




gravity gives me wings
to soar over streets
where rumors are afoot,

my collars are white , starched,
worn backwards like
politics that say feed the rich,

virtue , morality, fair play
cannot be read from
the heights i soar,

although i see you
again on the phone
laughing like nothing was serious,

down the broad slope
of my nose you take a drink,
slight a cigarette,

turn on Mad TV
and slap a knee while
an ash falls on otherwise spotless carpets,

behold me, damn you, i am truth
in black robes and hard soles,
there is nothing to laugh at,

look at me, i am all virtue,
and i can wave my arms
like wings that bring me freedom

and a thirst you wouldn't believe.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

TED BURKE, like it or not

Slate's first poem for 2006 , "Indwelling" by Teresa Cader, is in keeping with poetry editor Robert Pinsky's preference for offering up spikier, less concentrated poems for the readers. Even though I'm often critical of his selections, I hand it to him for forcing the interested readers to think a little harder when coping with what a poet is trying to say. It keeps the mold off. There is a bit of the Bible and not a little of Ginsberg's Howl [www.pangloss.com] in these long lines, as in the way each stanza offers us a repetitive though effectively rhythmic with the way each new thought begins with "In the..." The shroud of Whitman lingers as well. The technique can be powerful and it's very seductive, too say the least, but there the pitfall is that you lose sight of what you're trying to say as you try to top yourself with a fiery image that is more striking than the one you wrote before it.In the wind hissing beneath the door sweep,A tribe of mice squeezing through pocket doors,In the pants pockets where the evidence remains,Those filaments of wool in the moth-eaten rug,In the masquerade of motion that sets off the alarm,The alarm that arrives via airwaves at dinnertime,In the worm that opens e-mail, eats the address book,The virus propagating on the unsuspecting screen,The images are well rendered, and Cader has done a rather interesting job of juxtaposing the varied items in the household, the sublime and the inane, the old-fashioned and the new fangled, in what would be called a postmodern comedy of objects, but there is something missing in all this detail. The images are disconnected from one another, isolated seemingly in the stanzas they occupy, without a personality to unite this miscellany of things-that-break-or-wear out . Objects , of course, are things are human invention , and their meanings(separate from their assigned purpose) will vary from owner to owner, and their eventual failures as either utilities or even as mementos , it might be assumed, as an effect in how a subject regards their dwelling and, in larger aspects, their changed relationship with the world as they've aged. It really isn't enough to list the things in the domicile with an attending remark of collapse or erosion, all this must build to a satisfying conclusion. The one Cader offers us--In the funneling, the grating, the sagging, the gravitating—O icon of muck and filch; there is nothing you won'tDivide, opening trap doors we forget to close.--simply won't do precisely because it reads as if she were seduced by the temptation to write one snappy set of images after another and, tired of her task , wrote a hurried "wrapping up" stanza to end the poem. This is a poem that could stand some work shopping, although the advice is simple enough. She needs to decide who it is that is doing the talking here, who it is this narrator would be speaking to, and then select what images in this first draft would work effectively in a re-imagining of the poem where the felt by delicately presented presence of a narrator would avail her, perhaps, of an ending that seem like a desperation move once the initial inspiration and interest began to flag. Cader writes well enough--I admire the economy and her reticence to either pontificate , engage in bad versions of Language philosophy, or pretend she is continuing what John Ashbery started when he commenced pondering the accumulation of things in his life; the language is sure and distinct. It will take the application of craft, that quality that should remain when inspiration fades, to make this more than an idea for a poem and into something I want to read and discuss.

Indwelling with Teresa Cader

Slate's first poem for 2006 , "Indwelling" by Teresa Cader, is in keeping with poetry editor Robert Pinsky's preference for offering up spikier, less concentrated poems for the readers. Even though I'm often critical of his selections, I hand it to him for forcing the interested readers to think a little harder when coping with what a poet is trying to say. It keeps the mold off. There is a bit of the Bible and not a little of Ginsberg's Howl [www.pangloss.com] in these long lines, as in the way each stanza offers us a repetitive though effectively rhythmic with the way each new thought begins with "In the..." The shroud of Whitman lingers as well.
The technique can be powerful and it's very seductive, too say the least, but there the pitfall is that you lose sight of what you're trying to say as you try to top yourself with a fiery image that is more striking than the one you wrote before it.

In the wind hissing beneath the door sweep,
A tribe of mice squeezing through pocket doors,
In the pants pockets where the evidence remains,
Those filaments of wool in the moth-eaten rug,
In the masquerade of motion that sets off the alarm,
The alarm that arrives via airwaves at dinnertime,
In the worm that opens e-mail, eats the address book,
The virus propagating on the unsuspecting screen,

The images are well rendered, and Cader has done a rather interesting job of juxtaposing the varied items in the household, the sublime and the inane, the old-fashioned and the new fangled, in what would be called a postmodern comedy of objects, but there is something missing in all this detail. The images are disconnected from one another, isolated seemingly in the stanzas they occupy, without a personality to unite this miscellany of things-that-break-or-wear out . Objects , of course, are things are human invention , and their meanings(separate from their assigned purpose) will vary from owner to owner, and their eventual failures as either utilities or even as mementos , it might be assumed, as an effect in how a subject regards their dwelling and, in larger aspects, their changed relationship with the world as they've aged. It really isn't enough to list the things in the domicile with an attending remark of collapse or erosion, all this must build to a satisfying conclusion. The one Cader offers us--

In the funneling, the grating, the sagging, the gravitating
—O icon of muck and filch; there is nothing you won't
Divide, opening trap doors we forget to close.--

simply won't do precisely because it reads as if she were seduced by the temptation to write one snappy set of images after another and, tired of her task , wrote a hurried "wrapping up" stanza to end the poem. This is a poem that could stand some work shopping, although the advice is simple enough. She needs to decide who it is that is doing the talking here, who it is this narrator would be speaking to, and then select what images in this first draft would work effectively in a re-imagining of the poem where the felt by delicately presented presence of a narrator would avail her, perhaps, of an ending that seem like a desperation move once the initial inspiration and interest began to flag. Cader writes well enough--I admire the economy and her reticence to either pontificate , engage in bad versions of Language philosophy, or pretend she is continuing what John Ashbery started when he commenced pondering the accumulation of things in his life; the language is sure and distinct. It will take the application of craft, that quality that should remain when inspiration fades, to make this more than an idea for a poem and into something I want to read and discuss.