Thursday, July 13, 2006

Philip Schultz punches you in the chest

Sometimes the ever quizzical Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will publish a weekly poem that hits you like, well, a fist in the chest. Read the poem The One Truth and see the aptness of the image.What The One Truth gets across without hesitation or ambiguity is that life for the lot of us is a pulverizing grind of bad luck, heartache, debt and daily tragedy. A much too general view, one might protest, but poet Philip Schultz is one of those few poets who can align the sordid details and give you a jolt, a shock of recognition that is neither sensational nor sentimental.

This is the sort of poem the over rated Charles Bukowski couldn't write precisely because he gloried in his tales of awful jobs, alcoholism and loserhood; poverty and despair were chic badges of honor and proof of some corporate-defined notion of "street cred" where the hero, Bukowski, sticks it to the Man regardless of consequence. There's no honor in Schultz's narration, though. The life he writes of here, one that has ended, reveals that
all the matters the poem outlines hurt, they crush you, they break your heart and that there is nothing ennobling about the pain. These are conditions Hemingway would wither under, and that's the power of the poem, that rare thing Schultz has accomplished; he's moved discreetly beyond the writer's vanity to write about working people and instead shows you what it is, an ongoing tragedy that ceases only when breathing ceases.What works is the clicking, clacking, drumming rat-a-tat-tat of the cadence, each illustration of the biography giving a sharp backward glance at each infamy the poor man has gone through and tried to rise above:

After dreaming of radiant thrones
for sixty years, praying to a god
he never loved for strength, for mercy,
after cocking his thumbs
in the pockets of his immigrant schemes,
while he parked cars during the day
and drove a taxi all night,
after one baby was born dead,
and he carved the living one's name
in windshield snow in the blizzard of 1945,
after scrubbing piss, blood
and vomit off factory floors
from midnight to dawn,
then filling trays with peanuts,
candy and cigarettes
in his vending machines all day,
his breath a wheezing suck
and bellowing gasp
in the fist of his chest,
after washing his face, armpits
and balls in cold back rooms,
hurrying between his hunger
for glory and his fear
of leaving nothing but debt

A man in pursuit of the great promise of being reward for hard work and sacrifice, dreams of glowing golden thrones and the transcendent power they represent being slammed up against one disaster after another, one demeaning job after another, one failing limb and sense after another. This is the immigrant tale that is not often told nor talked about in our collective folk wisdom about American opportunity.

To paraphrase Al Pacino's lawyer/Devil character John Milton in the
under rated film The Devil's Advocate
life on earth is "God's private gag reel", an aspect underscored by Schultz's conclusion,

is this what failure is,
to end where he began,
no one but a deaf dumb God
to welcome him back,

a punched up version of the Higher Power being
neither wise nor all powerful but rather closer to being a big, dumb kid with a stick torturing a harried menagerie of small creatures he's captured in shoe boxes of varying size. Schultz poses an argument with God and challenges an assortment of religious as to our assignations on the planet, about what is we're supposed to do
while we wait for revelation, signs, symbols of some sort of the meaning of our time on earth while we await death and eventual fulfillment.

his fists pounding at the gate,
is this the one truth,
to lie in a black pit
at the bottom of himself,
without enough breath
to say goodbye
or ask for forgiveness?

The final insult, the punchline, the cruelest stroke is that the man is not allowed even a glimpse of the radiant thrones he imagined his entire life, the one notion that empowered him through his pains and gather woe. The lights are out, the gates are locked, the occupants are asleep, dead, or have moved elsewhere, and he expires, spent, too late to make amends or make his peace. One needs to thank Schultz for his restraint in bringing this tragedy to light; the impulse to lard up a subject like this with witless abstraction, dripping self-pitying and metaphors that don't match either mood or subject matter--jazz musicians without sheet music, one could say--was a great temptation to resist. I am very glad he did and stuck to his craft as an effective writer.