Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The envy of the dead

In one of his essays, Edgar Allen Poe summarizes one the essential elements of his philosophical musings by asserting that we are cursed with "the memory from before birth", a slight and wavering recall of a time when calm and serenity were in place and there was nothing of the distortions or crass money, family, or religion to make us nervous, devious, only half alive (if "alive" at all). The upshot of his baroque hypothesizing was, to be sure , our constant and at times overwhelming desire to return to such a nocturnal, darkened, stressless state, a return to the womb, perhaps; in any event, his pinings were a desire for sleep from which one needn't wake up from, death in other words.

Following suit are Poe's peculiar interest in things decadent and decaying, those thin , reedy and tubercular characters of diseased gentry and errant aristocratic stock who hang on to the waking life by a mere thread, effete and defeated and gracefully blended into the material realm, waiting for gravity to take its toll and to become themselves receivers of the dirt nap, freed of the binds that only punish you for having nerve endings.

There was, among the decadent writers and artists following Poe, a literal worship of an aesthetic principal that the greatest beauty was in a person or a thing in it's decline, when it was letting go of the struggle and was reduced to it's basic, most true and frailest form. An aspect of this, I suspect, was envy of the declining aesthetic object, be it a human or a diseased elm; a deep and permanent rest awaited them, and death would be that thing that gives the lie to the certitude of philosophy or economic determinism that insist that life must forever be thus, a certain way, without change. Those who die have escaped, and there are no arms to bring them back to suffer more with the rest of us pining over a grave.

Poet Patricia Traxler gets all this wonderfully in her poem The Dead Are Not in this week's Slate, succinctly in her poem The Dead Are Not; as rob and others have already remarked, the poem is brief and each finessed line conveys the complicated, conflicting and confused set of emotions one
journeys through as yet another death comes closer to one's inner circle of confidants and family. Indeed, the dead are not dead yet,

Always they take
their time, and we wait
politely, dreading
how real it will
have to be, sooner
or later, and at the
same time longing
to know that reality.

There are arguments one has with the departed, negotiations still in session, curses and protests of undying love are uttered, self-recrimination and blaming goes on for days and nights until one tires of the their tears and breathes easier because sunrises still come inspite the weight of grief. We mutter to ourselves that the dead are
"in a better place", that they "felt no pain" or that
"...at least they died quick..." all so we get on with our lives and our responsibilities, and yet an echo of our accepting rhetoric stays with us as we shoulder our daily responsibilities, that "better place" doesn't sound so bad, and we become envious and petty all over again, we blame the dead for being cowards and laggards who would do anything to shirk their duty, and we come to envy them and that place they've gone. Gravity takes its toll, our bones ache, the mailbox is filled with bills, someone else you know has told you they have a fatal disease, your back hurts like shit:

Nights, as we reach
to switch off our bed lamps
and close our eyes,
we dare it to take us
into its mouth
that smells of tar,
saltwater, sludge,
take us up then let us
tumble endlessly,
blameless again
and helpless as any new life
forced out for the first time
into the terrible light.

Traxler gets to the center of that guilty little secret
at the core of grieving, the scourge of envy and the many faces and tones of voice it takes. Without metaphysical baloney, faux piety, or even a tone of anger, she writes in the cool, reflective calm of someone who has investigated their feelings and discovered an unknown fact about their thinking. This poem has the remarkable clarity of genuine self-sight, unnerving in its tone, beautifully expressed. Her skill gives us the chance to see something very private, unobscured by clouds of delusion. A very fine poem.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Recent DVD Sighting: Lord of War Is a Sack of Soggy Pretensions

I saw Lord of War last night from among a number of unviewed DVDs that've recently come across my desk, and all I can say, if I were one to say only one thing, is what was thinking? That lead actor Nicholas Cage finally become a good actor in a film that made narrative sense? Please schedule me for a padded room and straight jacket.What I found it to be pretentious and shallow, preachy in very obvious ways, with a "surprise" ending that was telegraphed from several city blocks away. The bits of dialogue between Orloff and his pursuer (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) about the relative merits of each other's chosen roles in life was half-baked and unfelt, lacking any real conviction in or twist upon middle brow cliches. The movie attempts in several ways to be a morality play , oozing with irony,but the pitch here is so determinedly at the bottom end of an emotional range that it's nearly flat lined. No one seemed to know how to direct the actors with a cheaply sanctimonious script, and the actors themselves appear to lack interest to do any free lance scene chewing.

Paddy Chayefsky, prolix screenwriter behind Network and Hospital, set an as yet unsurpassed standard on making socially-conscious movies that want to force the audience to dwell a little on the invisible undertakings involved in keeping them safe and secure. It comes down to a frank exchange of cliches and alarmist platitudes, but Chayefsky had a genius for infusing them with new phrases, coinages, and could contrive a flaming morass of cynicism that was particularly compelling despite what depth he failed to achieve. The movies were quoted, the issues made the op ed pages and the chat around the coffee maker.

Lord of War lacks all that, and depends on a slick video-game surface while Nicolas Cage's sad puppy dog eyes gaze upon his gunning character's fatal transactions with a detachment that is supposed to make us think of a man straddling both heaven and hell, pondering which is worse. It doesn't work, though, and it's really another excuse for another movie gallery of Cage's set-mannerisms. At least he wasn't pretending to be Elvis this time out. He is has his suffering saint visage on, the look of smacked dog lounging on the grave of his beloved , late master. Cage might as well be laying on this film.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Mission Impossible 3

There was that momentary urge after leaving the theater to rush home and write a long, filbustering deconstruction of the new Tom Cruise movie Mission Impossible Three (MI:3), but luckily for the reader a gross weariness overcame and I wound up spending the allotted time doing laundry and paying bills. As an action film, it has its moments of proverbial chills and thrills, although you notice that the set ups are suspiciously similiara to what you've already seen in director JJ Abrams'
tv show Alias. Plagiarism yourself , I guess, is not exactly immoral, especially if the gloss is tony and shiny enough, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh off an Oscar win for Capote, relishes a nice pay day with his quirksome villian--he's the only one who seems to have any fun in this project. Cruise, of course, is getting worse as an actor with each film, and with this souped-up vehicle seems no more than bad computer animation in the presence of real flesh and blood. Verdict, if you need one: wait for the video.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A short snorter from Tom Robbins

Just finished Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito, and it's a hoot and a half, about an animal spirit who parachutes to earth in an odd manner as he outruns a posse of angry gods, and spends his time here drinking sake and bedding farm girls. The creature learns to assume human form, and in his time and travels winds up in the 20th century, where he, through odd coincidence and circumstance, is upsetting a drug trafficking operation devised by Viet Nam vets who remained MIA.

This isn't all the animal spirit upsets, and Robbins, true to form, includes a goodly amount of other tangents and bits for us to chew on, including his own authorial intrusions. Not his best work, I don't think, it seems rushed, but it's very funny for the most part. I do like the way Robbins is able to mix and max genres, from detective thrillers, folk tales, and what not, weave them with bits of amiable philosophical asides, and not come off as so precious and smart and depressingly self-serious as other post-modernists seem to. It's about the story, and it's about pleasure the story give. A quick, fun read.

I used to find stashes of recently tossed porn

I used to find stashes of recently tossed porn books in a trash can when I walked to school during the mid sixties; crude art, coarse language, grubby cover art featuring innocent men and older, salacious babes in permanent states of undress. Nothing I've read or seen in the porn industry has equaled the thrill of this gamy paperbacks, mostly due, I think, to my not knowing what to do with my growing obsession with women. This is was a particular kind of private world a young man walked around in, something so far removed from his daily references of parents, teachers and comic books that there was literally no coherent way to deal with the drive save dirty jokes and whatever sticky paperbacks or back issues of Stag you could get your hands on. It was as exciting as it was secret. The thrill was increased by the aspect of seeming to get away with something that is not allowed, and made more intense by the prospect of getting caught

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Fake Poetry Manifesto for No Good Reason

The poets I like have to be good writers, first and foremost, no matter what their work looks like on the page. There are many writers whose works are stunning to look at as a kind of typographical art, but reading them winds up being an insufferable experience, unpleasant not so much because the poems are difficult but  because the writing is just plain awful, being either willfully obscure to disguise a lack of  real feeling toward their experience, or, most typically , for exhibiting an inane, unoriginal and cliché choked sensibility that would never have gotten out of a junior college poetry workshop.In either case, the visual look of a poem is a distraction from the mediocrity of the piece being read. Good writing always matters, and there are many, many wonderful poets whose works have an originality achieved through a mastery of language that fortunately leads us away from the nagging dread that a tactless and unschooled savant garde has completely overtaken the conversation.Good poets must be concerned with language,I think, since that is the stock and trade of the art. Language made fresh, reinvigorated, reinvented-- I have no arguments with anyone who earnestly attempts to make language convey experience, ideas, emotion, or even the lack of emotion, in ways and with techniques that keeps poetry and poetic language relevant to the contemporary world, the one that's currently lived in, but there is a tendency for a good many young poets , fresh from writing programs, to repeat the least interesting ideas and execution of their professors and to make their work obsess about language itself, as a subject.The concern, boiled down crudely, is that language is exhausted in its ability to express something fresh from a imperialist/patriarchal/racist/individualist perspective, and the only thing that earnest writers can do is to foreground language as their subject matter and investigate the ways in which proscribed rhetoric has seduced us and made our work only reinforce the machinery that enslaves us. This kind of stuff appeals to the idealist who hasn't had enough living, not enough bad luck, not enough frustration or joy to really have anything to write about, in large part (an grotesque generalization, I know), and it's easy for someone to eschew the work of absorbing good poetry -- Shakespeare, Stevens, Whitman, Milton, Blake, O'Hara-- or learning something of the craft and instead poise their work in non sequiters , fragments, clichés, sparsely buttressed inanities, framed , usually, in typographical eccentricities that are supposed to make us aware of the horrific truth of language's ability to enslave us to perceptions that serve capitalist and like minded pigs.More often, this sort of meta-poetry, this experimental notion that makes a grinding self-reflexivity the point of the work, reveals laziness and sloth and basic ignorance of the notion of inspiration-- the moment when one's perceptions and one's techniques merge and result in some lines, some honest work that cuts through the static thinking and makes us see the world in way we hadn't before.I speak, of course, of only a certain kind of avant garde; one I endured in college and have since survived when I found my own voice and began to write what I think is an honest poetry. With any luck, some of these writers will stop insisting on trying to be smarter and more sensitive than their readership and begin to write something that comes to resemble a real poetry that's fresh and alluring for its lack of airs. Others might do us a favor and get real jobs. Others, I think, will continue to be professional poets as long as there  is grant money to be had, and will continue in their own destruction of forest land.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Rockism: another trivial wrinkle on an unmade bed

It's a bit of good fun a few years ago in a wacky article at  Slate whose author insisted that "rockism" is the hot fire currently sweeping that otherwise dry prairie known as rock criticism, and those arguments about what constitutes "authentic" music versus that which is corporately constructed rages on among the younger writers. Such was the case when I was an active music reviewer between the 70s through the early 90s, and from the vantage point of advancing geezer-hood I have to say presenting rock and roll as the model of "authenticity", an epicenter of real music made by individuals from unincorporated communities of the soul, is ironic; rock music is turned into an institution, its essence is codified, its purpose for being and what it's supposed to instill and inspire made into canonical law. 

It is no longer rock versus the mainstream, but rather the perplexing fact that rock and roll is the mainstream and has been for decades. Being unpredictable, free of cant and received insight, blending styles and fashioning new ways of getting folks to the dance floor is no longer possible on the scale our Utopian scribes desire. The rock revolution happened. Notice the tense. While I like a great many rock and roll bands and will insist in any debate that rock and roll remains vital and moving in much less global ways, the attempts to set a criteria for what’s honest and credible, as well as the ongoing debate about the possibility of music commentary being afflicted with a limitless set of water-fouling isms is naval gazing at best. No, really. All this intellection and meta-critical self-diagnosing is pushing rock criticism into the realm of sheer irrelevance, since guys have gotten so smart that they've become remarkably obtuse in their task. In all the talk, they (we) neglect the less glamorous task of determining whether something is any good. What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as it's always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands, and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music intact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone's' guess. 

Meanwhile, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the graveyard. Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased, as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurism, Spin gave itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary, and much of it has vanished behind the faux post-structuralist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artist's work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything and much of what goes on in the columns intended to weigh the qualities of music and make an educated recommendation whether a CD or download is worth the iPod memory is now a clash of jargon and deep arcana. Critics have been so busy buttressing the convolutions of their obsession that it ceases to be an item of joy and becomes only a fetishized object and rhetorical construction through which a writer's ability to obfuscate the obvious can be displayed with all the bells, whistles, and cell tones whizzing away like carnival rides. Somewhere, the life force and vitality were sucked out; it was no longer about what you felt from a drum beat or a pounded chord on an electric guitar; rock and roll was not a catechism you had to learn. 

What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging with this tenuous thesis, weren't rock critics, but rather fans that bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listener's retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience whose tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other manner of writing which interrogates a medium, makes the unknown explainable or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers, though, for the murder of the music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone, ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make the album go double platinum. 

But let's forget that everyone gets old, the brain is rearranged in endless ways since the time of youthful impulse, and the world requires a more pragmatic approach to changing it. Living within the world becomes more important. It could also be as simple that our tastes change. Talent in any form will trump attitude day of the week with me, but first I have to ask what the talent is for. "Bad attitude" can be a talent by way of a trait some might think cool and alluring from afar, "chronic depression" seems to go a long way for other listeners to ignore the calculable merits of melodies, vocals, and lyrics and wallow in the sepia-toned aura of guitarist cave dwellers whose talent inhabits a dampened set of neurons. Likewise, a punk with a torn black t-shirt, crud-encrusted jeans and a spoke through an upper lip doesn't require a discourse in harmony or theory to justify the inherent value of his or her choice of belligerent tone warping. 

What it represents is the value, the noisy symbolism of rage, which means the niceties of song construction don't even enter the discussion. Attitude and persona only get you so far, though, and many are left scratching whatever body part that itches, wondering what the hell? So, I go back to the songs themselves and weigh their characteristics--no mystery here, it's melody, vocal, lyrics again, along with musicianship, production, and a host of other niggling details--and make a judgment based on a floating scale as to how the ingredients succeed or fail in doing what songs are supposed to do, which is to kick ass, make me sad, make me rage, rant, pant, behave or go crazy in the head, or, in worst-case scenario, turn off the damn noise off. 

Standards and demands on good songwriting are in constant flux, of course, and you need to have the proverbial big ears to assess material's worth against not just the history of pop music in general, but also within the genre the artist writes within. Standards within standards can make this a no-win proposition for someone trying to create objective criteria, but we're all aware of the most rigorous test: does the music catch your attention and does it keep your interest to the end of the last side? Better still, does it give you pause when staring at the CD jewel case as you cogitate over the riffs, lyrics, and yelping vocals you've sat through for 45 or so minutes? Do you want to write a long critical appreciation? Does it make you feel like starting a fight you know you can't win? Does it make you want to dance, pound a beer, take a deep drag of a doobie to get that momentary rush up the spine as the guitar and drums climax on some major-minor chord combat before you crash, depleted of spirit, despair washing over you like the foul fluids pouring from a drainage pipe?

The primary reaction is one that can't be faked with faux theory and revisionist contextualization along sociological rather than musical lines. You are either moved in a visceral, immediate way, or you are left there formulating a more intellectualized response. Considered, thoughtful, critical responses are legitimate too, in their place, but there's a lot of fakery going about the net and print media. But that riff, that drum beat, that whoop of aggression that gets your legs moving, fist pumping, jaw jutting? Priceless commentary on the music coming forth, without the vocabulary to obscure cloud and confuse the experience. It's not a necessarily accurate gauge of a song's value and worth in the scheme of recorded music, but its value lies elsewhere, in a rare moment in the week when you're responding to something that needn't, for the moment, be classified, cataloged and critiqued like it were a virus that science is trying to destroy But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Driving to a protest

Driving to a protest march in Washington DC
especially for Jack_Dallas

there are throngs of
singers with songs
about guitars
unstrung and
love gone wrong
worse than wrong turns
on New Jersey turnpikes
on your way to Virginia,
you raise your sign
because it's time
to dine at the table
of the fat cats who
malign our honor
and are able
to make us all goners
'cuz cops and Crusaders
don't give a starvation
wage over our rights
or in what language
they're in
nor read them
on the precise page,
i am tired
is all i say
and take the turn
into the gas station
while a rain
hits the windshield
and garish clouds
hang over the fields,
TV antennas
are bent
on pitched roofs,
bolted to crumbling
life is unfair
and these rhymes
suck significant
lengths of bad tasting
flesh is what i say
fuckin' A,
right now
the Bozo cartoons must
be filled with lines
and fluttering pictures,
that is so unfair...

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The genius of Dan Bogen

Don Bogen writes with a cracked, dry Prairie voice and suggests to some that he’s a latter day Carl Sandburg. Perhaps, but the comparison deals an unfair hand to a good poet, since the late poet’s name evokes certain qualities that are carved in the soft clay of consciousness; should the contrast stick, Bogen will never get fair reading for his own work. He’s obviously influenced by Sandburg, but like any writer with a style he or she can rightly claims is theirs, he's developed a voice wholly his own. He has a particular mastery of negative capability, assuming a guise hardly his own and not of human form at all and manages without winking irony or obnoxious purple passages to describe the construction of a house from the house's point of view . We see this in his poem “House”, recently posted by poetry editor Robert Pinsky at Slate.com.A neat trick, a hard one to pull off, since it requires keeping so many things in balance and a great many potential bad writing habits in check. Interestingly, it is a poem about something being built, an architecture that is coming into being rather than the easier ploy of composing a poem to mark the degradation of a landscape, a house, a whole town; writers write so much about things in decline simply because the worse and gamiest things of existence are the easiest to imagine. The final effect of this, we know, is reader weariness over reading yet another poem writ in fits of routine despair or template-constructed ennui. All the polarized words , the sad similes, the morose metaphors about aging, decline, failing eyesight, death blur into one another not unlike one Bill O'Reilly self-deconstruction after another, a sheer babble of grief , and despondency that moves the reader only to turn the page, or close the book they thought might give them a spark. Bogen achieves his problematic task with an efficient set of divisions that has the house quite literally describing the progress of his construction by declaring what it was he was at each stage , with the addition of planks, floor boards, the whirl and grind of band saws and slamming of nails with appropriate hammers,I was plaster, I was rubber and glassMy joists, my iron ligaments grew invisibleI took on angles, gable and dormer and plumb back doorI blocked the wind, I was rooms each linked to anotherDucts and vents gave me unityWomen came, their hands on my wallsI was whitewash and would be paint and would wear clothEqual parts pain and anticipation, the silent yet aware intelligence of the house narrates its own becoming, speaking of said Schmidt only as his builder, his principle designer, assigning him, it might be suggested, the position of an archetypal God , suggesting a culture of houses, created among themselves, a shared cosmology this house shares with "my brothers" who all "stood up in the field". Sandburg wrote the haunted "I Am The Grass" where the obvious message was that all things that come from the earth will, in time, return to the dust from which they symbiotically sprang, and Bogen's poem is a response to this famous ode, giving the reader the message that death is always eternal is and unforgiving, then creation and construction and the embrace of life with all imaginative force is constant and unstoppable. Bogen masterfully embeds that passion to live and create community within the houses we build for ourselves to live in. I am envious of his language, with its sparing use of adjective and overactive metaphor, and I quite admirable at the poetic resonance he provides--the suggestions of qualities and significances that fall just outside the sentence content--using this sweetly idealized plain speak. One of the best poems I've read in this series in a long while.Sandburg is the crisp realist that rob says, but the style, evoking curling paint, eternal autumn and hills full of leafless trees and occasional farm ho uses very often lends itself to greeting card sentiment. The dark side is there, yes, and therein lays his genius, but often times his scenes of Americana reduce themselves to Norman Rockwell paintings. Technical mastery, a huge popularity, an undeniable brilliance, and a conspicuous streak of the corny.

The interesting thing about good stage set design is that the two- dimensionality of the props, when done well, make the theater attending to consider the context deeper than had the scenery been ruthlessly "realistic". The abstracted, simplified and stylized look of the scenery, the props works with the text and brings about a theatrical result. Bogen does this rather well; giving the house human speech and having it tell us of its construction, its "birth". All consideration of this being a "real" house go out the window, and we suspend our disbelief long enough to gather some impressions about houses and what we call homes in another way, a perspective not previously available.
The Williams is good, great in fact, and he's one of those who can discourse at length about something and not allow himself to get weighed down with the sheer bulk of his details or to get stalled in a tangential cul-de-sac. There is a discourse going on here, the work of a noticing eye that can bring description to a more discerning level; the relations of the things in the world man has created them for are revealed and surprise us.

The difference between this poem and Bogen's, though, is that "House" is not merely a detailing of how comes to stand on a particular hillside alongside other homes. The house, in fact, is the narrating persona, a consciousness of a sort that Bogen presents, subtly, as recounting its "birth" and, perhaps, retelling a creation myth. What is implied here--a community of buildings with shared purpose, culture, familial bonding, mythology--are large but smartly kept off stage, conspicuous by their absence.
The description of the house in the various states of creation all give indication that there is a fulfilling of a fate here, a sense of predestination the house, in this imagining, is aware of and both accepts and looks forward to.

Let's not generalize too much about the difference in tastes between men and women. The language contains those references that could handily appeal to both sexes, touching lightly on gender stereotypes; the talk of materials, tools, techniques for the men, and the declaration of what kind of home it would be for women. A house, a home more specifically, is made of many elements, and the house's persona speaks to those distinctions.