Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tiger, Tiger

I am a fair weather baseball fan, and a bad one at that, but I did pay attention to the World Series, my hometown Detroit Tigers up against the St Louis Cardinals in a rematch from the 1968 Series. It was the Cardinals turn to win. Here's a poem dealing with the depth of my fair weather pain:

D- Town after the '06 Series

No one saws that we must
stay here , grasping at empty, reedy straws
for something to talk about
when another ball hits the glove's webbing
and hops defeated to the trampled,red grass.

We should move to the exits
and back to the hotel
and go back to the arenas
where we don't wave blankets
but do toss octopus filets on the ice
we hope will gum up the blades
of visitors to our berg
and tell them that
all we do is puck around.

The last Taurus
rolls off the line
and into the street
in hopes a buyer
will drive it into the sunset,
flipping the bird in the rear view
as wheels come off each parked car
under the shadows of these
tall, empty buildings,

We say yeah, we lost,
and we can't afford
to give a flat tire
about it,
we make sure it gets shouted
that that's all
in the game
as we measure our pain
and relish plain facts
that bad news and broken bones
are as constant
as the weather,
our newspaper is printed on leather
and we'll huddle
in old Cork Town Taverns
over Strohs and
black and white photos
of dead Irish mayors
when it was ever good
as they say it used to be.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kathy Fagan's Split Level Gleam

Dispite loud grousings about the quality of poems Slate's poetry editor has posted over the last year, Robert Pinsky has lately been selecting writers who've managed to
get the synapses firing again. A nice balance, poems out the ordinary that are still
readable as parse-able literature. I tip my hat.

In all, I like Kathy Fagan's "There's just one little thing: a ring. I don't mean on the phone.' "—Eartha Kitt" quite a bit, 'though I do understand why it wouldn't popular with some other readers. Insular, private, full of jokes that are not sympathetic to the sorts of mental laugh tracks we carry around in our unspoken narration of our lives, Fagan's poem is a deliciously dicing up of several strands of cliches and , archetypes and popularly embraced bodies about conventional thinking.It's not that Fagan performs the vacuous tasks one witnesses in second and third strand writers who give us large slices and gigantic wedges of non-sequiturs and mashed up syntax in an erring conviction that they are extending what Language Poets started in the Seventies and finished some years ago, no, Fagan's constructionist welding of diamonds, movie stars, eleganza, fashion, eroticism all have their purpose, which is to reveal how matters of desire, lust, power are undercurrents in our affairs. We are locked into a matrix of sensual drives and concomitant needs to posess to posess and dominate, however rational our philosophies about selflessness and abstractions of love explain our actions. Fagan crams these combating together, and uses unexpected rhymes to link what at first appears as unbridgeable topics, areas of concern

...the figgy pudding slash
kwanzaa stew,
the yuletide blogging,
the tinsel, the garland,
and eight maids eggnogging,
allow me to mince
neither word nor pie
and provide advice
and a list forthwith:
Do not buy and regret,
dear. A diamond
is what to get,
dear. Its extra weight
I'm built to carry.
The starboard lilt,
the opiate
drag on one knuckle,
I'm willing to accommodate
and promise not to buckle

The speaker, the narrator as it were, is the personality at the core of a personality that wants to use any means needed to satisfy a craving,
a yen, and all this is done in the spirit of pure playfulness, an infantile base that regards others as mere resources and means to gather and exhaust each momentarily engrossing object of desire. Whatever tongue it takes, whatever rhetoric needs to mustered and sustained, whatever verbal mask needs to be worn, this personality, given voice and presented as an unvarnished result of a consumer culture that has undermined institutions like Politics, Arts and Religion that were thought of as means to keep our drives and selfishness in check, trips lightly over the meanings of each area she mentions as she (or he) associates freely, each sudden rhyme sufficient for a shallow logic that uses any excuse and reference to reinforce the hard, cold need to get ones way, by whatever seductions one must use:

It's my time to
plunder, and have a little lovely
something, a nothing-too-modest
something, to set off
all this black
and dazzle the crosshatch
right out of my skin.
O halogen track,
O twinkling lights,
O shining star
upon the highest bough:
you'll soon learn how
to be the ladies in waiting,
stable pony to the thoroughbred,
Martin to a Lewis,
Cathy to a Patty,
mere vein to the carotid—
i.e., to be outwatted.
O Christmas
tree, dear dreidl,
could it be more plainly said?
Some demand the head
upon a platter, others lick
the silver off their spoon.
This childless mother
desires neither moon
nor man but the carat
dangled all this time.
So snare it,
Santa, from that other
sorry cow.
The Baby Jesus phoned,
says I should wear it now.

Someone remarked in passing that Fagan's poem seems too much of a mashing together of Madonna's songs, especially "Material Girl" and the song "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", implying that Fagan's subversion is in fact generic, ie, it's been done before. Not quite, I'd say.Madonna's songs and the archetypal "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" are achievements of a kind in that they go along way in valorizing and making heroic the crass materialism that Good Society would consider rude, vulgar and tacky.

Madonna was particularly smooth in her post-modern gestures by assuming the fashionable stereotypes of women, the caricatures of whore, mother, lover, saint, and mixing them up in ways that manage to exhaust all irony from the poses. "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" is comic in intent, and is the material of a situation comedy, and , alas, it is a conventional
trope that remains with us, dressed up in the guise of "Sex In the City". One is about style and it's
disreputable partner, fashion, and in fact encourages liberation of young women through even more slavish consumption, by which one means bearing the costs of products to support the voguish poses. It's a wallowing in sheer emptiness.

"Diamonds", and the film from which it's drawn "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", is mounted as if it were a polemic of women against male hegemony, but in the end it is a cartoon depiction of the struggle, as it were, and in both instances one realizes women are typified as witless, trivial creatures engaged in nothing constructive other than schemes for their own temporary pleasure and advancement, powerless to change their way of their own accord. Fagan's poem collapses many archetypes, tropes and bastions of conventional wisdom upon each other and gives us a personification of the core personality the core ideologies and popular artifacts keep alive and hungry for more consumer insanity.

It's a high minded and artful exposure of the slippery sets of rationalizations and justifications that are built into our lingua franca. Fagan warns us, albeit playfully, that for all our philosophies and stated principles of moderation, fairness, and service to one another, we are able, very able to outsmart ourselves and make life on this planet miserable for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

Fagan's writing is interesting for other reasons, specifically her ability to interogate the rhetoric and tropes of received thinking--assumptions and rationalizations we garner from institutional powers rather than our own critical powers-- and yet retains an ear and musical sensibility that delivers a real poem with a discern able subject. She does this with a light touch and cogent phrasing, and her results are striking, unexpected. And poetic. She does not reinforce deep seated nostalgias for a world one imagines is gone or displaced, rather she shows how the language we use to describe our lives is a mechanism that keeps us in our place, compliant and consuming.
It should be said that the recording of Kathy Fagan reading this poem helps tremendously, as she reads it as a poem with words and phrases that have interesting sounds. She enunciates, she pauses, she places her stressed accent points in points that that does justice to the resonance I imagined this having when I gave the poem an initial read. She is a poet who knows the sound and in terms of different specialized jargons and sources of slang, and she can switch gears between them, sometimes having them inhabit the same phrase, with a rare mastery. This is the art of collage, by way of John Heartsfield.All the cheap rhymes, the facile comparisons
justifying the use of another for self gratification
as only natural attraction ("...Martin to a Lewis...") concludes, finally, with the ceaseless punning and the tinny music of the slant rhymes and conceits with the Baby Jesus saying that it's a-okay to wear the shine and gleam of the ring, to literally own the stars and the flow of the moon upon the earth that is , finally, only there for one's amusement and solipsistic play. Fagan, giving us something that resembles a talk Gordon Gecko would have fancied had he the imagination of a cubist, gives us a noisy, clattering music that rises from the bit of howling, yammering need, and hers is a poem that points to how the language and beliefs that are supposed to liberate us from the burden of self can and in fact us does compel us to debase each bit of the sublime we possess and instead consume, spend and eviscerate the world while wearing the tanned skins of our formerly held virtues.Fine poem, and a tip of the hat to Pinsky for choosing it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Barry Goldensohn: everyday is April Fool's Day

Barry Goldensohn can write with a snap and twist in his lines with the first part of "April 26,2006"his poem that prevent this from being merely a speedy itemization of habits he's had on his life 'til now. He has the sense to ease on the breaks, slow down, offer a side comment, an aside on the passing banalities he's bothering to tell us about.
It's a fast list, and it is not without the slight shock of recognition:

...the century in which I've lived most of my years
on an orderly, ritual-loving continent,
with well-regulated trash collection,
public gardens, smooth lawns, milk
delivered at dawn in cold bottles, clinking and sweating—

At age sixty nine and he's ready to burn all his old clothes, move out of the shabby house, develop interests and rituals that are seemingly irrational and ill mannered for a man who is supposed to have more dignity as he ascends to deep senior citizenship. Not so, the narrator implies, I've behaved and have been dutiful and dull all my life; why should I be more of the same as I realize there are more days behind me than ahead of me?

It's a question worth asking, and Goldensohn does a good job of setting us for a rant about living a fuller life full of rage and ecstatic abandon as the days get shorter, but here he does a hard left turn and turns what 'til now was a minor key bit of longing into something angry, outraged, morally offended:

screaming and glistening with blood
at the hour of my birth Guernica was carpet bombed
as practice for the time of saturation—
the horrified face through the window that sees
the broken bodies by the light of a bare bulb—
devastating cities thick with targets, human
and other items of civil life: school,
public sculpture in parks, music pavilion, musician,
library, literary life, the writer.

There are ways to present startling contrasts in differing views of the world , and there are ways where irony can emerge in the presentation and reveal the tenuous foothold any paradigm has on
defining the all of everything. But this isn't the poem, and for all his skill as a phrase maker--there isn't a badly written line in this poem--there's a cut and paste feeling to this piece; it's as though Goldensohn were rummaging through a shoebox full of parts, unfinished stanzas, templates of recurring poetic themes and slapped them together, a jarring wedding of two poetic styles, the wistful and vaguely nostalgic, the other hectoring, moralizing, humorless and grave. It is one thing to segue from the hour of his birth to horrible battle scenes, but Goldensohn's horror is just as aestheticized, abstracted and at several layers of remove as was his previously addressed assumptions about a lifetime of being a banal, dutiful citizen.

He relapses obviously and
conveniently into the seductive habit of writers using art and art making as subjects through which they tackle the confusing, the contradictory.
Here he winds up describing , plainly, Picasso's
iconic "Guernica" painting as a means to deliver the moral of his story, which is that artist ultimately fails to say anything fixed about existence in their work. This is material that thousands of poets, good, great, mediocre, have covered to the far flung best of their abilities, and as such all wind up saying the say thing, that the senses are fallible and that the best an artist can leave behind after they pass on is interesting evidence of their failure to uncover the big truth.

Goldensohn's big truth with this poem seems something written out of boredom, or typing practice, being the kind of self-inquisition that poses a hard question and then dodges the bullet of making something interesting from their set with a cheesy sleight of hand. It was a typical trick in high school debate class for someone to invoke Hitler or the Holocaust when the subject concerned matters of life and death, whether the death penalty, birth control, the draft. It was a ploy to stun and stall and defer, and a attempt to get the opposing debate team to cede points that hadn't , in fact, been clearly argued.

Goldensohn, stuck for an exit out of what was turning into yet another flyweight screed of casual irony, slammed us with Heavy Subjects and Grave Issues, and dares us to ask him for a better linking between the two voices, or to ask what it was he was trying to talk about in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Over Cooked

Discussing how unfunny Dane Cook's rubber-limbed stage pacing and artless mugging is to belabor the obvious after a paragraph. What he has is that callow yet bottomless self confidence of a Drama Club President who convey every character with the same mannerisms , ticks and gestures without giving off any sense that they've bothered with their presentation beyond the creation of a shtick. I watched his HBO special and kept waiting for his monologues to connect with an idea , a perception that hadn't occurred to me, a laugh to smack me upside the head. All that I got was his voice rising and falling, accelerating and slowing down crazily to instill some sense of comedy momentum and urgency, and that face of his, smirking stupidly,
oblivious. Perhaps he'll do better with a film career. Cook's freakish presentation of self --all mugging, no set up, no timing, no payoff or punchline in the slightest-- makes it clear that the only thing funny is his apparent conviction that he can get a laugh that isn't a nervous reflex.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Frank Bidart;Homeless on the Range

Frank Bidart is a poet of intangibles, someone who can creep on the edge of the inexpressible and make it a felt presence. Reading Poem Ending With Three Lines from Home on the Range was gave more than one instance of having a slight chill and tremor course up my spine, as if I touched the hem of a stray ghost's ethereal vestment, or someone having walked over the place where I would eventually raise a family, bury a parent, or be buried myself. It's a poem that deals with the expansive, miasmic core of getting older, when one has more experience and fewer years to live, and what there is in one's community and the larger world outside it seems more like a series of triggers, cues for the barely dormant unconscious to give forth a rush of intense, abrupt, rapidly faded remembering.

It's as overwhelming, for those scant seconds, as any drug I've taken, and it's after effects are a permanent condition. The veils separating past deeds and pleasures and inane bits of sordidness are continually lifted , and one's concentration is diminished. Sometimes it's nothing less than a sucker punch against expectation.

Barred from the pool twenty-three years ago, still I dove
straight in. You loved to swim, but saw no water.

Whenever Ray Charles sings "I Can't Stop Loving You"

I can't stop loving you. Whenever the unstained-by-guilt
cheerful chorus belts out the title, as his voice, sweet

and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied,

answers, correcting the children with "It's useless to say,"
the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.

The red man was pressed from this part of the West—

'tis unlikely he'll ever return to the banks of Red River, where
seldom, if ever, their flickering campfires burn.

Clipped, epigrammatic, crystal clear, Bidart's recollection is less a stream of conscious than a fast, pulsing rill,
accenting the power of the memory with the concomitant knowledge that the past cannot be regained. You loved to swim, but saw no water centers the opposing the strands, the desire set against the cold awareness of unsentimental fact. The conflation of these elements--the pool, the Ray Charles song, the lines from a campfire chestnut-- are a skillfully arranged collage, remindful of the work of pop artist Robert Rauschenberg. Bidart, like Rauschenberg, seems fascinated by how a world of contrived , manufactured things ,designed for our use, entertainment and diversion, become a litter of our old selves and conceptions as we we pass over them, reflect upon them, as we consider our progress from relative youth to deepening middle age.

The poem suggest all these things without pretense, without tangential ramble; this is the way John Ashbery, a poet I admire, would write if he were more discriminating with what he wanted to bring into his writing. Besides brevity, though, what makes Bidart distinct from Ashbery is an engagement with the events of his life. Although not explicitly stated, there is something beyond mere resignation here; he can live fully if he stops trying to rekindle the campfire at the Red River and instead transform his present condition.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Overload on a brainwashing

Does reality sometimes gang up on you
when you sleep too long and finally walk outside on a bright sunny day? This is a poem about that feeling.-tb


Overload on a brain washing

You enter an idea of light
just beyond crass ivy walls
and find a room full of coats
tossed on the bed, rising and falling
again as if breathing deep
for snows, blizzards, a stream
of convertibles whose drivers
wear party hats, cell phones in one hand,
driving with a light wrist on the wheel.

At noon a bell sounds
and then the streets
are flooded with the sound
of hands rustling through paper sacks
digging past sandwiches wrapped in
cellophane and the apple or banana ,
proceeding until the fingers, holding pencils
or phones or typing orders, under orders,
just moments before wrap themselves around
a candy wrapped in foil that clings against
the rough textured chocolate like taut, tanned skin.

You put your hands over your ears
because the birds sing too loud
when the riot of color occurring in
the flower beds that stand guard
in front of each and every home
on the block reaches a pitch
which makes you feel to swoon
and brace yourself against
a brick wall in a side alley
tagged and pasted with graffiti
and torn concert posters,
these seems so much like a movie,
you think, and squinting just so imagine
you can see the edge of the film,
edge of the Earth
Columbus couldn't find
if you drew him a map
with arrows telling him where
he was and where he was going.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Threading the Space Needle

Space Needle by Kristin Fogdall is one of the finer poems that Robert Pinsky has presented for Slate readers, and it wouldn't be fair to him to not say that his choices have been more interesting of late, better conceived, less pretentious. Not everyone would agree, but I thought last week's poem Fourteen Final Lines by J.Allyn Rosser was a subtly drawn parody of "well made poems" and their last lines of neon-lit irony, the last words that encapsulate the insolubility of knotted circumstances with phrases that operate more as puns than as summations or
truth delivered.

Rosser, like myself and no doubt a generation of other readers have tired of these facile , clever, gutless conclusions, considering them as escape pods rather than fit conclusions, and have considered doing much as Rosser had done; string a series of 14 snappy last lines (or at least sentences that resemble parting remarks)together with nary an addition of connecting tissue
and then let it set there , impenetrable, a sonnet that makes an archaic and problematic form made even stranger by its refusal to let you in, to offer up a clue.

It's an inside joke, yes, and a poem about poetry, a habitual gripe of mine, but it's a joke I get and appreciate for the way it stands as both parody and protest against the ceaseless stream of shallow, gimmick prone verses that try to justify their vacuity with an entirely mechanical cleverness. Meaning is a useless thing to sift through this poems nooks and folds for; the meaning is locked in the sound of this thing, the rhetoric of adroit phrase making that attempts only to sound crystal clear. I consider "Fourteen Final Lines" to be like a gratuitous musical flourish, a sustained cadenza when none was required, a virtuoso bit of business. A fine send up.Kristin Fogdall's Space Needle is one of those rare instances where an author gives vent to a personal bit of vanity and succeeds in writing in a vivid, image rich language that retains clarity and succeeds as well in breaking beyond the suffocating solipsism of their own perspective and
taking into account an audience that would find empathy with his wondering.

If each foot took us back a year,
the dark below would be
immaculate, like a hole

in space, instead of stars,
or a jar of colored glass
someone shook

and scattered in a dream.
But from this height,
our childhood town

spreads out, a silver galaxy,
and tourists peer
into the giant metal scopes.

It's a neat trick of setting up perspectives, wondering how far one would need to step back in both time and space to see the odd connections of community and private behaviors that are the currency that binds us together. At first the vantage point is theoretical , abstract, a magic precipice one can still deny and and swiftly return to the drudgery of paying bills and wondering what secrets to reveal to one's wife,
husband, partner, but the wondering, the sheer heights make the narrator, and he or she gives themselves over something approaching rapture and imagines visions of roads looping over hills and through towns, every familiar detail of a life laid out in doll house fashion,

I scan the towers, walls
of windows, one small pane:
sofa, tiny people

face to face—a man
and woman talking,
as they may do every day,

or perhaps this is
the last time, or their first.
The lamp she crosses to

dims the room a darker gold.
It's like watching movies
on the wall at home

where we cavort across
some stretch of sand:
I want to step inside the frame

and take my own hands,
and look into my eyes,
and see what's true

and what's idealized.

It's an eternal gag, a joke of celestial origin, the human need for meaning, coherence, to be part of a narrative where events unfold and are connected and where each occurrence is part of a
meaning that is still coming into being. Fogdall connects this fantasy perspective of one's own life and the convoluted relationships and their implicit agendas with Hegel's version of the dialectic, that the secret purpose of one's life and actions is forever in flux, evolving, never static. All this can become rather ponderous, and better known poets like Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery have tilled this soil to produce some of the most brilliant verse in English written in the 20th
Century. The soil, though ,is hardly arid, and what makes Space Needle as well as it does--I think Fogdall's accomplishment here is phenomenal-- is the poem's poise, balance and symmetry. Fogdall is a writer of grace, and is well capable of navigating abstruse ideas and odd perspectives with a style quite at ease with the difficult task of rendering an alluring self-critique of one's blinkered-concept of reality with a sense of place. Fogdall is sure and precise in her images of things that she has seen and remembers vividly, if imperfectly:

The wind is off the Sound,
and makes no sound

except a ruffle
at the rail edge.
On the tiny street below,

a man is working on the road.
Alone behind his truck,
lit by a magnesium haze, he turns

a little orange wheel,
some apparatus out of sight.
He is the perfect

model of a man, which means
we love his task in ways
that he cannot, and wish

to close the shutter on
the stars, our years, with something
like his gesture of repair.

This might have been written by Carson McCullers in Ballad of a Sad Cafe, or
John Cheever at the start of The Wapshot Chronicle; the beauty of the writing is that we recognize what Fogdall's poem shares with the writing of the other two writers, which is melancholy. For all the power and ferocity of dreams, aspirations and desires to make one's
place in history, there is the ceaseless dread of loneliness that colors each word we speak and every gesture we make. The never that Fogdall touches is that for all the language we use to define and justify ourselves, we are finally inexplicable alone, separate, with only memories to console our standing.