Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No Sparks from Spacks for "On Desperate Days"

Barry Spack’s voice is assertive, booming, decidedly decisive in a poem
that glories in the nostalgic equivocation that takes place in his poem “On Desperate Days”. The protagonist roots around what we assume is the house he grew up in, sifting through layers of emotional sediment and inspecting collected objects that held significance for him. The nooks, the corners, the stairs seem to come at him faster than he can register his sensations and give his responses properly clinical names:

I'd putter in the attic above
neat rooms with books and beds, gleam
of cared-for sink and tub, stairway
down to the place with the lovely name,
the living room, and farther down
the dreaded basement roots of that house,
spider-thread and furnace-throb,
dust in the dingy corners, pipes,
oh desperate days returning the way
wipers sweep wild rain from a windshield
and new rain comes .

Even as the details reveal a snapshot accuracy in the way they are presented, there is a lack of praise for what has been inspected again, after years of absence; in contrast to what has become a subgenre among stay-at-home poets , whose usual contents have a narrator outlining the collision of past ideals and existence of rounded-off situations and a harder life’s experience where ideas are revealed to be flawed and coherent narrative becomes open-ended and without resolution, Spacks refuses to offer up the shrugging irony that winds up a sigh, both of regret and relief. The resignation signifying that one part of his life is done with and that one must walk slower into mature acceptance of what’s been done and what one will do with the next phase of their years, Spacks remains restless, discontented. This is a survey that hints at the choices he might have made instead; there is the strong smell of resentment where one suspects the narrator thinks he was living the wrong life, the wrong house, with the wrong family.

... days when I prayed
somehow my hungers might leach away
as I formed junk-sculptures, gluing a coil
of abandoned vacuum-cleaner hose
to a fractured mirror, married to woe
while seeds of changes ticked at my heart
original joy the next house over!

This might be a slap at Billy Collins, a fine poet who’s made a career writing about his home, his neighborhood, his passions, delivering one safely assimilated paradox, irony, and bittersweet one after the other. Good as he is, very few of Collins’ poems remain with you; few lines haunt you, nag you, come to you in those instances when your thinking needs another mind to reference. Good as he is, Collins lacks an edge, the urge to reveal human drive as something stupidly self-centered, egocentric. I find reading Collins like taking the same tour over and over again; what might delight after a while becomes a repeated punch line one has forgotten. In many ways, I think Collins does essentially the same thing that Charles Bukowski had done, which is to stake out of the territory of subject matter he knows well enough and continues to wrest surprise after surprise from the material for the audience they're writing for. The subject matter varies, but the method is the same, and it's worth noting that their audiences, by and large, are those who don't read great amounts of poetry. I would hope that those enamored of the easy epiphanies and predictable tragedies in either poet remain curious to the form and investigate other contemporary, much lesser known writersSpacks’ poem, in fact, sounds like Collins if he was woken up from a deep slumber and asked a series of inane questions; cogently linking phrases together wouldn’t be the strong point one would have at that moment. Cogency and coherence aren’t Spacks’ strengths either in this poem, with its pile-up of anonymously described home objects, the purpose of which is deferred until the ending, which contains the sudden admission that one wanted to move into the house next door and become part of whatever life it contained. Restless, irritable and discontent Spacks’condition with “On Desperate Days”, and there’s a missed opportunity to undermine a complacent genre of “McPoems”, that sort of verse that keeps its dynamic range under the boiling point. Even a usurper of the form must have a segue to have their revolution makes sense to those it was supposed to matter to.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is on of those writers who first earned a living writing lowly science fiction trash for the nascent paperback publishing industry in the fifties who, by dint of sheer professionalism and an unwillingness to vanish into the cellar with other pulp scribes, has achieved a middlebrow respectability. Good for him, since now there is one more teenage favorite whom I no longer have to contextualize as a being a fancy I had before I developed "taste" or 'sophistication". If your a good genre writer and you stick around long enough, you have a very good chance of having a host of recently minted book critics and biographers elevating you the higher ranks of Faulkner or Twain. It's happened a dozen or so times , particularly in the mystery/crime arena with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Sometimes the shoe actually fits, given that Chandler and Hammett were both innovators of form who had their lyric flights and coolly compressed melodramas informed by a tangible and subtle played romanticism.

Others have been less believable, as in the case of Jim Thompson, who is genuinely creepy and entertaining, but lacks music and wit, or James Ellroy, who mistakes intensity and encroaching unreadability as requirements of writerly worth. Elmore Leonard resists the temptation to let critics and upper echelon authors seduce him with praise and a general invitation to take his work more seriously;
he is the kind of professional you most admire, someone who continues the work, writing one brilliantly middlebrow entertainment after another.
Would that a few of our "serious" authors adopted the work ethic and wasted fewer pages and less of our time with their reputations.Some writers literally beg to be taken seriously; they implore us to read their novels deeply and let the philosophical conflicts resonate long and loudly. Has there been a John Le Carre novel that hasn't been compared to the world weary speculations of Graham Green's ambivalent attaches and minor couriers wrestling with the issue of Good versus Evil under a shadow of a silent Catholic God? Has there been a discussion among fans of James Lee Burke that didn't slip into a tangent about the the American Southern tradition , with Faulkner's and Flannery O'Conner's names repeatedly dropped like greasy coins? It's not such a bad thing, though. Le Carre and Burke are fine writers and do manage to provide a complex settings where the moral battles take place in their work. Their presence in the high rankings needn't make anyone squeamish.

Stephen King, try as he might, will not remain on the top shelf no matter who places him there. He is the master of premise , one great and magnificent idea after another, but then he goes soft in the head and rushes through his novels with flights of illogic that even excusing them as part of a horror novel's delirious nature cannot excuse the slip shod execution.

Bradbury? He is very good, sometimes even brilliant in all his amazing convolutions, and I think it would do everyone a great favor to not burden him with the weight of "literary importance". There are issues and morals and philosophies galore slithering through the paragraphs of his stories and novels, but Bradbury above all else is fun to read. I think it's enough that he be admired as craftsman with a slight touch of the poet. Bradbury , however sage we might wish him to be, never shed the basic rule of all professional writers go by; you need to be read by an audience that wants to be entertained.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Some short essays

A sampling of some of the smarter things I've written in various internet forums. As with this blog, it's a vanity excercise. At least it isn't a felony.-tb
Money’s Worth from The Movies

I generally don't walk out of films, not so much hoping that they'll get better and more with the stubbornness of someone who is going to get their ten dollars worth of movie not matter how badly it blows.

Naïveté and Cynicism

Rollo May asserts somewhere that pure, sheer, absolute innocence is inviolable, and that until the one that's blessed to be in it's wrap willfully samples knowledge of a grittier world, they will be protected from harm and the ill activities of others. This sounds idealistic, even optimistic to me, and is an aspect of a larger argument -- exactly when did we fall from grace? -- that drips with a nostalgia for better days, before we invented the club and the gun.

The difference between being honest and being naive, maybe. Honesty seems a state of complete awareness about the world, a state where one can peer into the eyes of others and discern real motivations behind the eyes, and in turn trust an instinct that steers them from misadventure and victimization. Honesty is a quality that is earned, a purposeful armor. Being naive, then, would be a choice for being stupid, a refusal to realize materialistic agendas of others who view others not as citizens but as resources to be harvested, stripped, denuded.

Is cynicism is but naivite in another guise? Too encompassing, I think, though it is an easy matter for someone to feign worldliness with sham cynicism: abrupt dismissals of topics with impatience and pat-rants are a handy method of avoiding conversation about things. I don't think they are the same thing, though a cynical person can be naive as well. But same said person may also have a wealth of real world experiences. Saying that someone naive is a statement about their lack of real-world experience, however it gets defined. It means, though, that some conceptions about the way life works hasn't been tested against actual events and that a learning curve has yet to commence about our subject. The cynic believes the world goes only in one direction, is motivated by the worst instincts, but more times , if we have our archetypes clear, it's a world view that's formed after a run of misfortune. At this point one may call the cynic short sighted, as in not taking other things in consideration, but not naive. Ignorant is a better word, as it becomes a willful act after one has tasted the imprecision of real events. It's a refusal to know more, as opposed to a state of not knowing at all.


Getting It, Telling it Like It Ought to Be

Pointing to the phrase or in others words directing ones attention to it is all that is necessary to ascertain its meaning. This is called "reading", a word that is still useful, and the act of reading is itself an act of interpretation. All reading is an interpretive act. The point, though, is when interpretation ceases to be useful to any advance degree and instead exists as an activity meant to amuse the Idle Clever.
In common parlance such special phrases are termed "literal". They have the meaning that is contained in them. One does not need to go outside of them to construct meaning.
Literal or not, one needs to gauge the words in a sentence against the world the words are assigned to describe. Language, being a living activity that functions with a mind and consciousness that must adapt cautiously, in some fashion, to the constantly changing state of Nature, cannot contain meaning that is self-disclosing, absent at least a superficial gauging against the world. Even at the "simplest" levels, a reader constantly goes outside the words themselves to judge their veracity, their usefulness, and hence, interprets the words to come to what sentences mean, in their contexts and their subtler permutations. Interpretation isn't always the circuitous method of the academic, or the specialist: the activity is instinctual, I think, as we use language and change language to accommodate changing requirements and conditions.

Style, Writing Devices, and the Will to Write Badly

Fiction does not need theory in order to be written. First the fiction is written, the artistic moments, and then theory, or theories, arises as a consequence of critical reading. Theory is a coherent statement of known and verified material facts, in this case works of fiction, and the formation of theory, if it's to be interesting , comes after the appearance of a the primary source. Many pomo critics and erstwhile deconstructionists seek to have theory on the same level as fiction, literature, but in terms of actual practice, theory is a secondary activity, a delayed reaction to fiction, not a simultaneous occurrence.

Changing tastes and fashions have more to do with novels falling off the radar, not an absence of theory. And a philosophy without a theory to begin with is not a philosophy at all, only the same said fashionable chatter. For real philosophies that get dropped into our dirty bin, it's most likely that their systems and suppositions have been supplanted, discredited and sufficiently critiqued into submission, which is just the happenstance of intellectual shelf life.

All bad writing comes from writers who are writing badly, even normally good writers who've undertaken bad projects. There are many tangible reasons for bad writing, not the least of which is the plain truth that the world is full of bad writers who manage to get their scams published. Modernism cannot get "less modern", I think, because the modernism seems, in itself, only a tidying up of Romantic impulses before it, as post modernism seems only a refinement, an updating of some essentially modernist tropes and stylistics. Each age takes the conventional set of dreads and sagas and makes their contours conform to the constructed world of the current moment. What counts is the individual talent that becomes the substance worth talking about.

Even in a post-modernist arena, subject to its slippery laws of equivocation and deferral, the talents that transcend the limits that constrict the names assigned art-making processes and histories are what matter for us. The inclination to have a sharp dividing line between modern / post-modern is arbitrary to the degree that it illustrates the alleged arbitrariness that POMO theorists routinely decry. The distinctions have their merit, and it's important that they are made, but it is in fact a dead end to harp on matters that are distractions and amount to filibustering. The book in question needs to be read before a nominal reader can make a judgment that's useful for discussion. There is nothing wrong with deciding to write in an older mode... so that its tensions may be reinvaded.... Unfortunately this novel fails to do this. In fact it does accomplish this fete cogently, and seamlessly traces the similarities in the matter of Bill Chalmers' nameless malaise in Alan Lightman’s deadpan comedy The Diagnosis and the churning tragedy of Socrates and the assassin Anytus, and it provides that sense of loss that is still a real and inconsolable ache in the heart across the centuries, the tropes, and the communicating technologies. At heart, this is the endeavor of either an avowedly modernist or post modernist: what lies beyond our names for things and their constructions are only the truth of our own instinctual humanity, stripped of language that makes the everyday endurable as a grand narrative we're part of.

Lightman fixes technology as part of the narrative devices that lend the hush of meaning to the daily traffic, and here, beyond high lighting the events of a day life going wrong for routine comedy, links it with habits of a supposedly usable past whose reputed 'purity' of process and perception were no less fallible than the lens of the current period.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Two poems about breasts

Jill McDonough needs a thicker skin and a perkier attitude, as she seems way too concerned with the fact that men like breasts, and worse, seem are going to remain men after all the social revolutions that have wasted our time in the last five decades. "Breasts Like Martinis", the current selection in Slate, would have us believe the girls are going along with the joke in an sexist terrain and manage to best the best efforts of the men who seek to demean them, but it all seems like a set up. A network TV drama couldn't be more black and white; someone is right, women, and someone is wrong, men. This is a fill-in-the-blanks formulation.I wonder why she and her partner were in that bar to begin with, and why didn't just leave the place which was giving them the creeps? McDonough remained and just leaned into the punch she saw coming, and goes home with her girlfriend in order to write a poem about the thin layers of her issues with men and their fascination/obsession with women's mammaries. There's nothing "tits up" about this poem.

In a discussion on Slate's Fray Poems forum,someone who was not enamored of McDonough's poem posted what she considered a "good" poem about a man's relationship to a woman's breasts, Stephen Dunn's queasy "The Routine Things Around the House":

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable.

Yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

I stared into the coffin
knowing how long she’d live,
how many lifetimes there are

in the sweet revisions of memory.
It’s hard to know exactly
how we ease ourselves back from sadness,

but I remembered when I was twelve,
1951, before the world
unbuttoned its blouse.

I had asked my mother (I was trembling)
if I could see her breasts
and she took me into her room

without embarrassment or coyness
and I stared at them,
afraid to ask for more.

Now, years later, someone tells me
Cancers who’ve never had mother love
are doomed and I, a Cancer

feel blessed again. What luck
to have had a mother
who showed me her breasts

when girls my age were developing
their separate countries,
what luck

she didn’t doom me
with too much or too little.
Had I asked to touch,

perhaps to suck them
what would she have done?
Mother, dead woman

who I think permits me
to love women easily
this poem

is dedicated to where
we stopped, to the incompleteness
that was sufficient

and to how you buttoned up,
began doing the routine things
around the house.

I'm underwhelmed.Stephen Dunn is a good poet quite a bit of the time, and it's a stretch to say he's done some writing that is quite exquisite. This is not one of them; it's not enough to assert that one must admire how unembarrassed he is to address his childhood curiosity about his mother's breasts, and hence furnish us with clues to his later ideas about women. This poem stinks , since it's written to argue a point, a rationalization of what one puts forth as an invisible truth about men and their mothers. It's an essay, a loose-limbed formulation , a dubious dialectic. It leaves what is interesting, the actual experience and the paradigm shifting potential it can give us, and turns into a lecture. It's hard, I suppose, for males to confront their mother's influence on their personality
in a voice that doesn't approach the smarmy, the smug.Dunn's poem was a queasy bit of lecturing disguised as unadorned honesty; it reeks of an odious smugness. I assume that he wrote the poem because it is impossible to attack; no one in the world really wants to talk to another about times they were in the same room with their naked mom. It's a gutsy poem, and a bad one. Maybe he wrote it on a dare.

Two poems about San Diego Wild Fires

Somewhere between the fire lanes

There's never a good time to stop smoking
or give the forest rangers a day off with pay
and there's hardly a line worth the waiting
no matter the severity of weather and black clouds
fed with memories, shingles and record collections
going back to the Sixties, Iron Butterfly and Melanie
boil, bubble and burn at the edges, taken with the
acres of all other cul de sacs and dead ends
leading to canyon ridges flames swoop up upon
as if they were waves assaulting rocks that give way
little by little to insistence of hot parched wind
blowing from the flat desert stretches, a skull and a scorpion
send their kisses from the grit of cracked earth,
roots that didn't go deep are seared, charred, embroiled in fluctuated
wraps of waves taking up each limb and wood beam
like crowns of thorns, tongues of flame raining over each
man made thing of beauty or the lack of it,
an argument between form and content is resolved,
not moot, but mute, words are shoved to the back of our
throats as we finger remote controls, thumb numbers on
pocket keypads, nothing but dead signals or voice mail that
talks to you without a stamp, no one works today,
no one works tomorrow, homes are where
the earth has turned black, an unburnt city is dressed in grey ash,
the air gives you the cigarettes you've missed these last ten years,
planes come in from over the ocean,
cutting through a sky the color of old steel,
across the cigarette burn of a sun,
looking to come home
somewhere between the fire lanes.

the cedar fire

nothing like
the sun
wrapped in
clouds the color of
rotted orange rinds,

ashes give
us a coat
an aroma
of singed death,

television news
about how
to wash
your cars,

save the paint job
as cedars
and chaparral
blind every eye
on the clock,

no one home
because there
is no home
left to be in,

all you can do
is watch
the flames
take the hills
and the houses
that were
built on a dare
over a canyon
where wind races

up and gives
life to embers
and heightens
every wagging
tongue of flame,

the tongues
of fire
are wagging over
our heads
as we wonder how
this could have happened,

the fire
threatens to
take us down to
the water line,
dances at the edge of a
coarse, blackened beach,

wood shingles
are cracked
and brittle and
ready to be converted
to energy that
finds its path of least resistance,

the sky is every color of
factory stacks
pouring out an atmosphere
of rust with the heat,

civilians in surgical masks
buying water,

more reports on what
do about the
paint jobs threatened
with ruin
every time ash
and smoke won't obey
and abate,

full of tax payers
pulling up a
piece of the turf,

third base for
a pillow,

phones that no longer ring,

a scratchy throat,
a prickly lung,

every minute of a life
in smoke
and raining
as particles over
the city you grew up in,

vigils without candles.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

No Smoking in Hooterville

Every now and again there's a lurking notion, a slight ache of desire to be something that you're not and present the known world a face that's wholly fiction. Made up. Nonexistent. A lie. But as soon as I think that, something like a sober breath gets drawn, and there I am again at the cross walk, looking to the other side of the street and the doors I have to pass until I come upon my work, all those white faced smokers under awnings or in the rain itself puffing frantically between punishing drops before they have to drop their coffin nail and return to a desk or a sales counter, reeking of the the unseemly mesh of smoke and body odor , with an under current of the oil that raised from the asphalt with the rain itself. I look to where the cars are, all those head lights going in directions only traffic lights and fish eyed lenses could translate, nothing in his day will be the same once I clock in with my own time card, with my own face, freshly shaved, smooth as a new deck of cards save a some lines around the eyes, furrows of flesh that appear when I try to stare deeper into the grain of things, deep into the eyes of a woman I'm trying to seduce. Line deep enough to hide dimes in. The neighborhood is a better place since I stopped smoking, since the time when lurking in doorways during relentless storms from over the ocean , head in smoke, not an idea of what to do if I ever quit.

Friday, October 19, 2007

"Failure":A bittersweet comedy from Philip Schultz

The last Tuesday poem in Slate caught my eye, made me laugh, made me sigh (just a little). "Failure" by Philip Schultz is that kind of poem, a potentially maudlin and morose subject matter that draws you in with some unexpected punchlines and left turns. This is as fine a lament for the Walter Mitty type as Tragic Figure as I've ever read.I thought this was a piece of comic writing, a funny monologue that gathers each tense muscle and clustered ganglia in a man's set-upon shoulders and releases the collected negativity as a Woody Allen digression where one defends the unsupportable with unexpected distinctions. It opens up with an opening line worthy of an early Philip Roth novel:

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.

Poet Philip Schultz has a perfect set up with which to riff with variations of the punchline, and that he does, admitting the farcical nature of a father who's plans for success seemed from the outset unworkable to everyone but him

An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand.

What makes the poem moving is the particular reserve Schultz shows here ; there is, to be sure, plenty of material in family recollecting where each stain , wrinkle and idiosyncratic whiff of dysfunction upon the family name can be a suitable launching pad for confessions, first person melodramas, compulsively unfunny comedies of baroque proportions, but Schultz keeps his ground. He admits his father's faults, enumerates documented failures, gives details of things that were bothersome, nettlesome, annoying--watches that pinch the wrist, snoring during movies--and yet embraces him all the more. Admitting his father's flaws he admits his own--the fuck ups of the father are visited upon the son?-- and in doing so finds a clue to what comes to the bare fact of existence, a constant seeking to create a context in which can exist on their own terms , not what's dictated by religion and financial institutions:

He didn't believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.

His father wasn't a nobody, Schultz, he was a man of distinction: he was one who tried and failed repeatedly to create meaning his life, and that is something to be understood, not belittled. Unsaid and yet implied, Schultz finds himself channeling his father's unrest and sees for himself a variation on his father's life in his own attempts to accommodate a life that seems like a suit that's 5 sizes too big. He left town but he failed to get away. Good work here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"On God" by Norman Mailer and J.Michael Lennon

On God: An Uncommon Conversation
Norman Mailer, J.Michael Lennon
(Random House)

Norman Mailer has spent a good deal of his fifty plus year career as a writer wrestling with the issue of God and the nature of His being, speculations that have helped make his books rich texts for advancing limitless sets of dualisms about the condition of America 
and the growing complexity in the issue of good vs. evil. He has now brought us his new book,"On God:An Uncommon Conversation", a series of discussions with his literary archivist, professor J.Michael Lennon. It is a fascinating discussion, intriguing quite despite Mailer's confessed lack of theological training. The lack of training works to Mailer's advantage; his God is less an all seeing General Manager of the universe than he is an artist trying to fill a page with beautiful words , or a canvas with arresting figures in sublime colors and shades.

Mailer is that rare creature, an actual American religious existentialist, a philosophy that insists that we cannot have a meaningful faith unless we face the circumstances of our life straight on, without reservation, and take a creative action to deal with them, sans the comforting catechisms priests, rabbis or monks might offer us. The point is that we advance toward a solution, create a meaningful context for ourselves in an existence where greater assurances are impossible, and that we take full responsibility for the consequences of the acts we do; we commit acts of faith that God is with us, without guarantees, and that we make mistakes along the way.

Mailer is taken with the notion that we're created in his image, and speculates that he also gave us his temperament and fallibilities as well as his best graces, all without the supernatural abilities. God is more like us, let us say, than we are like him, and it is in this area where religious existentialism finds another nuance. Far from being the silent Kierkegaardian God who is static,cold and despairing, apropos for Northern European weather conditions, Mailer is considering a God of Action, something of a Hemingway in deistic form who must prove himself with creative acts, a deity in the trenches, making mistakes, failing, succeeding, learning from his mistakes, constantly evolving.

The God that interests Mailer is one guided by intuition no less than we, His creations whom we are said to resemble.One might say that it's a pity that Mailer hadn't followed through on his spiritual notions and developed a fully argued theology, but he is a novelist and storyteller, after all, and his long held ideas about God's motive, condition and instincts have served him splendidly as a source of metaphor in his fiction, journalism and essays. Mailer and Lennon go through Mailer's ruminations at length, and there is something of great interest in how his conception of The Lord as literary figure, an artist have informed and enlarged his fiction and nonfiction writings; it is in the books, from "Presidential Papers" through his latest novel "The Castle in the Forest "where one finds the greatest and most provocative application of his religious thinking.

"On God" , always intriguing, quietly quirky, lacks the energy and , one may say, the conviction of older writings.Lacking a novel or a major essay to reinvigorate his metaphors and thus surprise himself and the reader with the limitless ambiguities involved in reconciling Higher Powers with the flux of actual experience, he sounds weary,as if he's explaining himself yet again one time too many . Mailer's spiritual thinking is best witnessed elsewhere, in his novels " An American Dream","Ancient Evenings and "Castle in the Forest", and his journalism, especially in "Armies of the Night".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

the headache

Lessons from the Seventies

for catnapping

It’s love that breaks
against the rocks

and not foam nor water of any kind,
it’s a baptism of irrigated contempt

that makes the horizon
burn in black static p1umes.

Stained cotton from
every beach front window.

We smoked joints
in the guts of the canyons,

the mired trails
to the sea kissed shale.

All the blues from
Chicago knife fights
and gunshot histories
are folklore all the kids destroy
with their breathing.

Even at dinner time,
forks are next to plates whose owners
wonder what’s eating their neighbors
with all the strange phone calls
about what’s going on the beach.

The armies of the night
couldn’t scare up a quarter
of something to decent for all
the beaches America has landed on
in search of someone to talk down to..

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shaving "Against the Grain"

The problem with private laments made public is that too often the concealed sadness and the mixed feelings remain private, the difference being that there is now an audience that needs to puzzle out the encrypted melancholy and inside jokes."Against the Grain", this week's poem in Slate, is one those pieces where the language isn't enough to empathize with. This is the experience of walking into a room you thought was empty only to find someone already inside, talking to themselves, eyes staring to a distant spot.

This irreconcilably subdivided poem spends a lot of time muddying the distinctions between things being dragged and those creatures that do the dragging, and author Genwanter adds to this patchy mess pale Latin quotes and the creased, leathery visages of Freud and Jung to confuse things all the more. Given the dedication of the poem to Joy Young, Genwanter's wife from what I understand, "Against the Grain" is an agonizingly ambivalent love letter, conveniently wrapped up with the mock-question toward the end as to whether he may address her as "Freud Jung"; there are cross currents here Genwanter isn't able to navigate; this poem quickly locates the nearest sink hole and allow the sheer weight of it's un-mortared allusions take it down into the ground, pass the gas pipes and the water mains.

This is an act T.S.Eliot has already mastered and performed to perfection, succeeding due, most of all, because Eliot was a phrase maker, a polisher of potent lines. For all the fragmented allusions and elusive centers his poems contain, the poet was quotable, memorable, which makes the task of pouring over and debating his poems a joy; there is in Eliot the instinct that informed him that while he was purposefully not making sense in his work, IE, getting to a fine honed point, he was still required to write well enough to create a sense of the psychic states and subtle desolation he felt. One walks away from Eliot's work not knowing what he meant, perhaps, but one certainly grasped the less obvious nuances of how he felt. Genwanter isn't quotable here, he isn't even clever, and he's unable to get the balance between the self-mocking and the dead earnestness that could have made this a workable pastiche; it reads as if he tossed his papers on the lawn and pieced them back together willy nilly after running over the pages several times with a lawn mower. This barely deserves the word pastiche, which implies a skilled blend of disparate elements; this is more like newspaper clippings, snapshots and shreds of pages torn from classics and diaries, bulging, frayed and clipped together with a twisted paper clip .

Sunday, October 7, 2007


I live in San Diego and I love it here, but I was back in Detroit last summer after a 28 year absence, and the truth of the matter is that I fell in love with the city all over again. I stayed with family in Royal Oak and Birmingham ( I lived at Livernois and 8 Mile Road), and the mixed feelings I had were over-whelming. The old neighborhood made the transistion from middle class white families to middle class black families, with the brick homes still in beautiful shape--not a blade of grass, limb of tree, seemed to be mussed--but the business district on Livernois was distressing, with barbed wire and check cashing markets where the clerks were behind bullet proof glass, and the whole shot. Went to a downtown jazz festival at hart plaza, and had great fun walking around the buildings--I have a love of old, tall skyscrapers,but I remember one image.

I was driving back over the Ambassador Bridge from a visit to Windsor on my way to meet family at the RenCen, when I looked to my right on the Detroit side and saw a grand old high-rise, built, I would guess, in the 1910's. it was overcast that day, the sky cloudy and blue grey, like pencil lead, and I noticed that I could see the sky right through the windows of the high-rise.EVERY WINDOW WAS OPEN AND EVERY ROOM WAS EMPTY.The building, grand, old, beautiful, was abandoned, given over to the facts of old factory towns like Detroit.



Sane by the times the wars were done,
my wings are clipped and preserved
with tar on brick walls
where scenes of a family
hang like posters from grainy home movies
that shimmer on TV screens in Interstate motel rooms,
jet planes bring me here.
I come home riding jet planes
over industrial skyline and
houses huddled at the end of blocks angled like bums
raising shoulders to the bad weather
they have become.
Wings cut through the chill
over still lakes with a
sight that whistles through the empty steel frames
of auto plants
that tires rolled from that rolled a nation through history that
came undone like a map
folded too many times,

There is only a big, empty factory that sits here
with a sign that notes what used to be current
and what was never replaced once the price tags were torn from the mattresses,
the soul of a city
chasing the sun,
leaving empty buildings,
the sun coming through the windows
that are eyes you cannot stare back into

After all feathers are trimmed
and useless
or stale air that blows through
the canyons of downtown Detroit,
there is no
going home
to a street that hasn't left you.
with the tall buildings
we can see through.

I'm in love with skyscrapers empty and towering,
seeing through windows
on the highest floors
left open for years over burning rivers, centurion smoke stacks,
across the water, cars full of tourists feeling homesick
candy bars on the Ambassador Bridge.


After work, busboys
who had bought old cars
with their tip money
discovered that
their tires had been spiked,
now flat
as a dollar
under an empty cup.
Over American cities
fly jets full of unwritten biographies,
history will not settle in,
it's a wind that turns cold
when the sleeves of
a junkies' shirt get longer,
the glass kingdom on the Detroit River
thumbs its nose,
it's rounded, gleaming turrets at Canada.
I think about flying away
looking for bricks,
the river rolls on,
roads lead to new airports
where they sell the same national magazines,
the same kinds of tires
get slashed.

Flying over the Cabrillo Bridge
or watching
the shadow
of the plane shimmer and slide over the folds
of a crowd doesn't change
the table of contents I read,
the tires
have been
spiked and are flat in any state
in any wheat field
and downtown corner
or trading room floor,
we're coming to the age where ghosts
arrive and stare over your shoulder
as you do your taxes
and fill in your crosswords,
a bony hand cannot hold you to things you've said,
it can only point
and point
and point until lights come on the towns
that is the furthest from the center,
we cry at our own funerals,
I weep at the
drone of a plane crossing a lake,

Detroit looks awesome
from across the river,
from Windsor,
all the buildings are tall
and made with stone,
but on the bridge,
eating candy,
getting closer, every window on every floor is open,
the buildings are riddled with daylight, only wind is being traded,
only ghosts shop at Hudson's,
Cars burn near Cadillac Square
and busboys swear in every language.


No one speaks for the dead
except a priest
who's so drunk
that all he talks about is how many saints

it takes to screw the poor
all the capital letters
they might have written their names with
and invested
themselves in a city where the future was more than the silver of the words it takes to blind everyone the mist of promises that evaporate before they hit the sidewalk.

But he tells the truth, slob that he is,
that language is controlled beyond requisite breathing
and everything is on loan from God.
Even my name means
"gift from God"
and someday
I'll retire to the dust fields
while another
fool prates on
on how I was only passing through this neck of the woods
and now I've
gone to the better place,
returned like a library book, or a dented two speed bike whose bell
rings in a muted, choking rattle.

Everything is taken away,
but red brick buildings
look great
after the fires and bombs
blasted them empty
of residents
and meaning, anything worth staying for,
brick and glass towers
climb over the four-wheeled remains of a rumored prosperity
where nothing but
grind and groaning has gone on for years.

Drivers along the road going through the mythic downtown
now spell

their names with no letters at all
and the hit parade from
Mexico is replaced with static,
rap and country music mix together,

Jazz from the waterfront pavilion
where the sweetness of the human voice
rises in the ruins of industry that
almost erased it.
The music rides over the water on diesel fumes,
the only sound Canada wants
to hear from us, ever,
music that drifts on
pristine mountain winds
over her lakes
and forests and rivers of teeming trout,
all is industry
where storefronts still glitter with name brands
and the orchestra plays the music of dead men,
the audience places its
collective tongue

To pencil tip and answers the essay contest question
about the future being about
ghosts in cars playing soul music in Motown
where cruising for burgers and chicks
in the grind of motorized manhood
while millions move from
suburbs where oil drives the engine of burned out futures,
You're a life story on TV, and then canceled, on Woodward, driving past big tires and gas ovens and spark plugs,
realizing every road marker is a plot against what wasn't thought up,
the future that families like mine bought into until money and hope ran dry
as the ink of the contract I signed, both of which turned invisible when any one called anyone from a pay phone at the edge of the county, I try to light the steps along the street in Fall when the sun sets earlier and maple trees threw long shadows across the streets that used to belong to all of us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What I Bought at the Used Book Store

The Gates Of Eden by Ethan Coen , of the Coen Brothers film making team, offers this collection of odd-lug short stories, collected from various magazines from where they've been published previously. Uneven, as with any collection, though there are some nice slices of dialogue, and some potent descriptive writing, but as a film maker, Coen's descriptions of things seem like film treatments at best, hurried and breathless, like the film pitches we witnessed in b The Player, and our laughs are too dependent on our knowledge, even reference, of tired genre forms. But "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator" is a Philip Marlow/ Sam Spade send up that results in some honest hoots, and 'Destiny" is a particularly vicious laugh at the boxing trade, with a Coenesque hero eating fists over and over as a direct result of his own miserably rationalized choices.

Bear V. Shark
by Chris Bachelder is another very funny novel, a real self-reflective, post-modern hoot. Don't let the tag "post modern" put you off, because Bachelder gets it exactly right as he skews his target, television and the culture of Total Media Saturation. Bear V.Shark is a great, wild read for anyone who enjoyed Pastoralia or the work of Mark Leyner. There is a vaguely described though loudly trumpeted Big Event forthcoming that's precisely what the title suggests, in a future time when TVs have no off switches and whose soft ware can sense a viewers boredom and flip the channels for them: TVs are everywhere in this world, in the kitchen, the furniture, bus stops, train stations, and in such a society, the idiom of everyday language is subverted by commercial patois and jingles. America, here, is subtly insane and in a constant state of distraction.

This is the America that Baudrillard absent mindedly ruminated about, only much funnier, edgier, and smarter in the evisceration. Bachelder writes like a master, and there's much to look forward to in his next novel.

Currently finishing A Multitude of Sins, a collection of short stories by Richard Ford. He has the strained relations between men and women falling in and out of love with one another nailed, better than anyone since John Cheever, with a prose that is flawlessly crafted and deeply felt in its economy . Richard Ford is an extraordinarily gifted prose writer whose control of his style is rare in this time of flashy virtuosos , ala Jonathan Franzen and DF Wallace or Rick Moody, whose good excesses run neck-and-neck with their considerable assets. Ford, in his The Sports Writer, Independence Day, and certainly in this collection of Multitude of Sins, understands his strengths in language and advances , seemingly, only those virtues in his work. He obviously understands the lessons of Hemingway , and wisely chooses not imitate: rather, the words are well chosen. For the more poetic language of simile and metaphor, The Cheever influence is clear; the imagery to describe the detail make those details resonate profoundly, as in the last story "Abyss", without killing the tale with a language that's too rich for the good of the writing. His writing is quite good, although the shadow of Hemingway dims the light of his own personality. Ford seems as if he’s made peace with the gloomy and morose code of honor and betrayed idealism that is said to the heterosexual male’s stock and trade. But maybe not just peace; it’s as if he’s cut a deal with the emotional sagging age brings upon his brow, and he cherishes each sour taste and resonating resentment to give his brooding prose the feeling of being more than cleverly disguised metaphors simulating the moral dissolution of a grown man’s sense of situated-nests.

Beasts, yet another new one from Joyce Carole Oates, is short novella about an impressionable young poetess surrendering to a catastrophic seduction by her amoral, decadence-spouting writing professor. Oates doing what she does best, inhabiting a mind on the verge of a breakdown, giving us a personality that translates experience who’s every instance portends disaster. She is not my favorite writer, but this one is convincingly creepy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Kevin Young: my Dad would have told me not to mumble

The poem Elegy, Father's Day by Kevin Young,is nothing less than a low-rise building under construction, bare girders and preliminary piping through which a stiff wind blows. That's the point, I suppose, a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring , the placement of windows so it can finally resemble something useful. Kevin Young's terms on on that stiff wind, bringing to mind the Hollywood cliche , the stock scene when some one's career is in the tank: a newspaper with their name on it shown being blown down the street, crumbled up, into the gutter. Kevin Young's scaled fragments seem part of a set of memories that are no longer whole:
From above, baseball diamonds look
even more beautiful, the pitcher's mound

a bright cataract.
The river wavers

its own way—see
where once it snaked.

Shine me like a light.

Ladies & Gentlemen, we are flying
just above turbulence.

The roads like centipedes,
their flailing feet.

How many, thousands,
to fall.

Below, parcels & acres blur
like family plots.

100 knots.

Cities bright
in the blinding dawn.

In Superman Returns, the Big Blue Guy tells Lois Lane at one point that he can hear everything that's being said, and from there the movie turns into a computer generated montage of swirled and confusing images and bits of conversation, the inane mixed with the desperate.One is meant to believe, apparently, that part of what makes Superman super is his ability to make sense to find what is meaningful and worth paying attention to out of the roiling , bubbling babble and so save humanity. Although I lack Superman's heightened finesse in detecting the important matters in the sediment of streaming babble, there's nothing here to catch my ear, no voice, or voices that are uttering anything of interest. The fault isn't with these things and the associations they might have for Young, it is Young's fault for not making them interesting.

This makes me think that nothing more was being done other than staring out the window for a long time waiting for something poetic to traipse by, to blow by, to drive by, that a sequence of minor events might become a narrative unity. It all does, no doubt, in Young's explanations for the poem and the guided tour he can offer us stanza by stymied stanza, but this poem, as it tries to breath and not fall apart in a the noisy terrain Young placed it in , is a species of Found Art. But where an hose fire hose nozzle , a bottle cap or a tarnished Gulf sign have visual design properties that in themselves are interesting enough and can draw associations from an audience's respective recollections of their own history, Young's phrases are not special enough, are not uniquely mysterious to make one curious to what thinking lies behind the slight writing.

All told, this piece is more gesture wherein he shows us who he's been reading but misses the point of their stylistics.