Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poems and Painting

It's an ideal situation for poets to interpret a painter's world, especially those artists who are both figurative and have content which implies a relationship between the objects and people on the campus, a suggestion of narrative complexity.The basic problem to overcome, though, is finding the equivalent tone and language that relays a strong sense of the visual style , which suggests the narrative thread. I've written of few poems after artist's work, not that any of them have been successful in any terms I'd lay out, but these efforts have been a interesting practice of jumping over the tropes you might normally rely on and instead develop a new rhetoric. Staying with a style one knows when attempting to get inside another man's art can result in a poem that reads more like product, as I noticed in a poem I came across recently, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" by Edward Hirsch.Normally I like Edward Hirsch a good deal, but this attempt to unearth the hidden essence of Edward Hopper's ideally isolated landscapes makes me think that it is a tad overwritten. The details seem entirely ready made:

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.

Artifacts from the prop department.This reads more like scene descriptions one finds in parenthesis in a film script's early draft. The camera lingers on the badly lettered sign, the camera pans the closed storefronts, the camera pulls back to a vista that reveals the town in bas relief against a mountain range, with houses
huddled in tight clusters that encircle the center of town. It is rather dramatic, visual, and effective , if one were watching a movie film made from our supposed script.

But we aren't, and Hirsch's descriptions more instructive than revealing. Hopper's advantage is that he could suggest relations between his human figures to one another and to their surroundings with his magnificently broad strokes and his blurred, subdued tones and yet maintain the essential isolation of each element on his canvas; his contexts are subverted by the existential singularity his streets, sunlight, his characters are all shown to be locked in. The effect is visceral, one gets his mood in a rush, and one garners more perception the more they study his best paintings.

The narrative, of course, is implied, and this is where Hirsch's poem becomes mannered, in the attempt to do what Hopper achieves by describing the elements, suggesting the rather obvious relations between them . and back peddling to conclude, finally, that the American malaise is totalizing estrangement.
It's a poem full of tricks and moves, and it makes one wish
for a more plain spoken, less qualified tone poem.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Poems and Comedy

The point, of course, being that everything that is entertaining or distracting from the morbid sameness of daily life cannot be said to be exclusively in the domain of the willfully dumb, conceived in a massive expression of bad faith: what is entertaining, from whatever niche in the culture you're inspecting, is that activity that holds you attention and engages you the degree that you respond to it fully. Tomas Morin has the new poem up on Slate titled "Twenty First CenturyExhibit", the storyline being that it takes place in a Natural History museum where visitors gawk at a recreation of an American business office of the previous century. It's a predictable run.The purpose was satiric, I suppose, but Tomas Morin's efforts to make light of museum patrons' rituals to confront works of art intended to confound them ,but this poem is so obvious that reading it through is re mindful of watching Saturday Night Live in the Seventies , sitting through one relentlessly loud and smugly mannered sketch after another simultaneously trying to convince myself that what was on the screen was cutting edge and good by default, and realizing under all the hip rationalization that the jerky doings of the cast were obvious and glaring. And not funny. The funniest thing about them was the idea that they thought they were amusing even accidentally.

The poem makes me less about the vanity of autodidacts who want to have an opinion on everything than it does a guy I knew who fancied himself a comedian. This fellow, not a friend and certainly a pest, would insinuate himself into conversations at social gatherings where we shared a number of acquaintances in common and would further level himself into any conversation he passed; he would , without variation, issue forth a formula sarcasm , a litany of similes and what-ifs delivered in an under-considered delivery that was rapid, flat, a tone that only emphasized the banality of his attempts at wit. He was the sort who often found himself alone in the middle of a party after his latest clutch of fellow party attendees simultaneously found reasons to walk away, talk to a bathroom, freshen drinks, go to the bathroom. The irony here is that Morin himself is another wind-pundit who essentially turns the role of poet into something the equivalent of being one of those anonymous comedians who make make strange, unattractive noises on VH1's Best Week Ever. This poem deals with stereotyping with stereotypes, and there is no clue that the poet is aware of the loop he got himself caught in. Not that it would have helped this poem. 

It's not that history is being rewritten, but that it is just another commodity that can be hacked, jerry rigged, corporateized and made the subject of uncomprehending punchlines ; it's not about learning, but about knowing the answer, which is to say that twenty first century man and woman wants the material available like an Ipod tune, and then disposed of just as easy. The pity is that the poet summarizes the situation is a way that repeats the absurdity he's criticizing.
The tragedy was that he isn't a figment of any one's imagination but rather a lurking mass of vapidity looking for another group to wrap it's tentacles around.Morin's poem wants to reveal the banter and jargon and conflicting forms of condescension that comes with a group of motor mouths who can't , for a moment, stand in front of an exhibit and consider it in situ, without a script. The poem , like a SNL sketch, is ninety percent set up, with punchlines dropped on you like 16 ton weights. This shtick that gives shtick a bad name.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Gone Baby Gone: terse Boston noir

Had a chance to see Gone Baby Gone during a break from all the turkey feasting, and it bodes well for the revival Ben Affleck film career . His comeback film, Hollywoodland, which had him starring as the late actor George Reeves who played Superman in the Fifties tv show, was merely okay, the sort of small film project other stars like Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction) and Sylvester Stallone (Copland)have used to rebound.

The effort didn't hurt Affleck's reputation , perhaps enhancing his credibility as someone who is "about the work" and therefore reliable, but his performance in that unfocused bio-pic was , I thought, stiff as a cardboard suitcase. Blame the script, perhaps, but I couldn't get beyond Affleck's jawline, lantern and making his smiles seem like smug, tight little smirks. Which is too bad, since I understand from current press that Affleck is one decent guy.

Good for him that he latched onto a good script with his directorial debut Gone BabyGone, starring his brother Casey Affleck.Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote Mystic River), this is a straight forward, dark-skied mystery set in Boston where the junior Affleck's character, a private detective specializing in missing persons working out of his apartment, is hired to "augment" the police investigation in a child kidnapping case by talking to neighborhood characters who won't talk to the police. Straight ahead, moody, paced briskly considering the film's length and the number of complications, Gone Baby Gone is a sturdy and respectable effort, unpretentious and never false to Lehaine's cut-rate prose descriptions of older Boston enclaves and foreboding weather, and he allows characters to establish their rationalizations.

And it's a pleasant surprise to see a good actor like Morgan Freeman in a good movie for once. Casey Affleck, very fine as Robert Ford in the recent western The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, where we see his character's fan boy adulation of the famed robber slowly evolve into a murdering paranoia, is equally adept here, conveying a detective still in the process of developing a personal ethics as he weighs the arguments from parents, hardened cops and a girl friend about what constitutes the right thing to do. Affleck's detective here is someone making his way through a pragmatic world where everyone argues that what they do is for the greater good, and he's a man who finds himself adhering to a moral code regardless of the consequences. This becomes a bit talky , you can imagine, but the verbal jousts between he and Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are wonderful things to observe, that rare thing, actors with dialogue exchanging practical philosophies.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's better to give a resentment than to get one

Sometimes you run into a left hook that's intended for your chin that someone else thinks you deserve. The aggravating thing is being accused of things that were the furthest from your mind. I remember eight years ago

I was working at the customer service desk of a college bookstore,helping a customer, a woman of color who seemed to me to be from India. She presented an unsigned credit card to pay, and she became upset when I asked for a photo ID, basically declaring a racist with her remark "I bet you don't check their Driver's licenses" , referring to a white customer who'd been in line ahead of her. She grabbed her purchase and her receipt and stormed off before I could say anything. What I would have said to the offended woman had I the chance was this:

1.I'm required to ask for photo ID when presented with a credit card with no signature by both the credit company and store policy.
2.That I'd standing behind that counter for four hours prior to my helping her with her purchase, and that I'd already asked three white customers for photo ID when they gave me unsigned credit cards.

I never got my chance to explain store policy/tell her off, which is a good thing, as any additional words from me would come to no good for continued employment. So instead I stewed, dwelled on it, wallowed in my irritation, my thinking inching disturbingly close to redneckish. Ironically, since the cause was being accused of racism when there was no offense purposefully given. The offense was in the customer's mind, and all I could conclude was that she had an standing issue that was just awaiting the right time for what I took was its frequent expression.

Irony is one of those textures of life that never cease casting variations on a theme. In the post 9/11 age of digital commerce, over half the customers I help have credit cards that request that a cash handler ask of an ID. Further, it's not unusual for customers to become irritated when they aren't carded. One client had written in the signature space "DEMAND ID OR REFUSE THE SALE". That day I was an odd mood and took offense by given a demand from someone I didn't know. I processed the sale without asking for indentification, handed over the bagged merchandise and her receipt.

"You didn't ask for my ID" she said, "did you see what I wrote on the card."

"Yes" I said, " and it's unlikely a thief would try to get away using a card with such a demand on the back."
She took a deep breath, rolled her eyes and grabbed her small child's hand and left the store, not to be seen again all these months later.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Idra Novey and the art of the brief lyric

Longing, nostalgia and the long view are the themes Robert Pinsky has given us the last two weeks, with Frank Bidart’s two fine and artfully jump cut melancholy in his two offerings last time with “Candidate” and “Valentine”, and this week, with Idra Novey’s sweetly indirect case study in coincidence and memory, “Definition of Stranger”. The style differences are key; Bidart’s poems were a direct address of a narrator’s thinking in reflection, something of a slide show with a clipped narration barely hanging the images and instances together, yet uniting them with a consistent tone he could build on.

Novay’s poem comes to a related theme, the connection between dissimilar things and the at times the artificial barriers one might use to maintain a distance between themselves and others outside their sphere. Surely, it begins pedantically enough, with a clear and cold definition of what a stranger is, a reading from a dictionary :” Person not a member of a group.” But there is more, and the sort of examples a dictionary provides, usually faceless and inert, comes alive with images that seem the sort of things one gets a glimpse from peripheral vision and then turns for a full view.

A dry explanation of a word we all use and whose meaning we take for granted acquires her unexpected degrees of implied ambiguity, and it is this element of surprise that underscores Novey’s assumption that we’re not separate and fully autonomous .

It is a function of personality that there are some matters that cut deeper than others,nescitating a distancing device so a person can make their way through their daily affairs and obligations without being overwhelmed and immobilized. Novey's poem, as I read it, is in one of those moments when distinctions, differences and distances are for a moment dissolved as memory is stirred. As I read it, this is needed since equilibrium is something that personalities require ; all is not finally settled and in place and all is not resolved like a story one has finished writing, but the occasional island of calm and feeling connected to things outside one's immediate embrace is a strong undercurrent I pick up from Novey's writings. Even as real life accelerates and becomes more complicated, there is a respite. She gets a moment with a skeletal accuracy. It is the effect of reading something or flipping through old photographs and having the scenarios flash by you once again, along with the attending emotions.

We are linked, and our actions have an effect in the larger community. The poem does run the risk of being viewed solely as list, but Novey is a smart enough poet to know when to end the stream of examples. List making is a vice of the poet who cannot stop writing, a setting up of odd things set up against one another that aims for the kind of Brechtian Alienation Effect , where we have an intense observation of the things in one’s material surroundings become odd and perceptually malformed and from which one can realize the layers of false consciousness they’ve coated their lifeless objects with. The sheer accumulation of quizzically poised detritus is supposed to fire up the synapses and make us realize that there’s too much spent accumulating consumer goods solely on the advertised promise that one becomes a better and more fulfilled citizen. In smaller doses, it works, as in Ginsberg’s early work, or in the genius that is A.R.Ammons ‘ to write long and inclusive while maintaining a running theme in his lines. But those were poets who could develop ideas and have them change, evolve, and finish up with resolution you didn’t expect to come seeing, not an easy task at all. Too often list making is merely a trick of the trade that just overwhelms a premise or hides the fact that there wasn’t one to begin with. The goal seems to be to fill the page, to view writing poetry as mere process.

It’s not mere process to Novey, and her poem has the grace and dignity of a small , polished gem, a bright stone of a perception set in a casing that’s elegant for it’s simplicity. The things around the narrator—I assume it is one who reads the lifeless definition of stranger and then rolls off the tight string of associations—are closer and more related than not, from the casual brush on the shoulder in a crowded city, to the fact that someone else’s trash can become another person’s comfort, in the image of the discarded becoming a napping place for a destitute man. She is also delightfully aware of the sounds of words and the rolling, accelerated sensation they can give

Person not privy or party
to a decision, edict, et cetera,
but who's eaten
from the same fork
at the pizzeria
and kissed your wilder sister
on New Year's.

The dual alliterations, with the p’s popping and the e’s easing their way to the finish, gives us city sounds, the vivid feel of conversations occurring at once, radio stations tuned to different stations, thoughts colliding with one another and reviving a memory, an image, formerly lost, now recalled:

Person assigned
to feed the tiger at the zoo
where you slipped your hand
into the palm
of somebody else's father

These are wonderful connections, minor, banal on the surface, but all the same demonstrating our inter-relations through what we buy, discard, what we touch and eat. Novey’s poems is seamless in how it brings together the associations between pizzeria forks, a person feeding a tiger and the lone hand a small girl trustingly held onto.But it’s not about any of those things, in themselves; what the poet gives us is a concise and sweetly evoked demonstration of the human need to order their existence, past , present, future. We crave continuity even in the things that drive us crazy with their randomness; Novey’s poem is a graceful example of how one can make their world at least settle into place, to become coherent for a period before the next flurry.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Frank Bidart's "Candidate"

Frank Bidart’s “Candidate” seems constructed from the rubble of what used to be a man’s life; someone who thought they’d change the world, set it on fire, inspire legions to do the same. Bidart is at that age when a man’s interior life has segued from the future they are going to mold with their plans to forge a revolution in the consciousness of their time, or at least achieve a number of goals that will confirm them as men of action and into a continual review of what one has done, what corners have been shaved from the building blocks of an unsustainable integrity. The man, the one volunteering himself for a cause , or feeling himself selected for higher purpose, has his reminders of the assumptions he started with, a gathering of incidental and banal things.

on each desk mantel refrigerator door

an array of photographs
little temple of affections

you have ironically but patiently made


Those promises that make us confront
our ambition, pathetic ambition:

confront it best when we see what it
promised die. Your dead ex-wife

you put back on the mantel
when your next wife left. With her iron

nasals, Piaf regrets NOTHING: crazed
by the past, the sweet desire to return to


Melancholy is the mood, the world is fragmented, made of shards and bits of things that used to be whole that are now in various stages of dis assembly; a double hardship, a deeper heartache of regret. One is stuck with the things that there is no use for, unable to throw them away lest more of what someone had been is gone. And the remains , the photographs, the key lines of old recordings, mock him. One of his wives is dead and there is only a mulling over of the last words they spoke to each other before she passed, a loop of words he interrogates and inspects and replays at varying imagined speeds to find a clue of what went wrong, what he should have done,picked up on. He hangs himself nightly with the snapshot.Piaf regrets nothing, of course, but this man regrets liking Piaf’s assertion because he once used it, doubtless, as a slogan for his perfectly formed future. But Edith Piaf was a singer performing someone else’s lyric, and her voice is a recording of a sentiment that will not, cannot change, fluctuate with time; it is the same strong, strident exclamations, the exact same nuances, pauses, rushes against a back beat, the same surface pops and scratches. The protagonist is in a life that had to change lest he cease to be meaningfully engaged with what matters for him. Lest he cease to be.

Undisenthralled you
regret what could not have been

otherwise and remain itself.
There, the hotel in whose bar you courted

both your wives is detonated, collapsing;
in its ballroom, you conceded the election.

There's your open mouth

A good photograph tells you everything
that's really going on is invisible.

You are embarrassed by so many
dead flowers. They lie shriveled before you.

This is a man who has feels himself vanishing, the trail of each compromise and evolution he’s had in his game plan , and the places where these changes occurred and thus construct the complicated, rueful, meditative character in this poem are being torn down. Soon there will be nothing left of him in the landscape he once had memorized and could tell personal stories about. An actual election takes place, perhaps? Confidence and easy answers worn to the nub, an agenda adjusted, modified, shaved, finally abandoned by circumstances large and lethal to a soul’s vibrancy, we have a character locked in a backwards glare. This is a man who cannot see what still stands, but only that which is ruined and ragged with time.

"Valentine", a poem by Frank Bidart

An interesting poem, bearing the name “Valentine”, I suppose, because so much failure to keep solemn promises, lies, thefts and endless manner of behavior that wind up harming those close, beloved, trusted equally rationalized with the evocation of “love”. What we come to read is an emerging realization that the most intimate term of selflessness and dedication to other people is used to keep wives, husbands, children, and generations, latched to and lashed by psychologies that do them ill and rob them of what they can become. It begins in youth, a young man experiencing duplicities in the name of love, and in the righteousness of untested conviction makes a pledge, he says , my case will be different:

How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he

would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love

Conviction gets tested in intervening years and, finding that experience won’t conform to the dictates and conditions of theoretical idealness, the protagonist discovers the need to invent new definitions for old words, that meanings are subjective and change, colored by experience and coined from reflex; he uses love in situations he thought he’d never find himself in, he uses a term he had wanted to keep personally uncorrupted.

Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest

something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right

must be love
must be love

The hardest task in the world one lives in with others is explaining oneself, of getting across the nuances and finer points in the terms they use; meanings and context get larger, less focused, the ground rules one has set for themselves for authenticity are negotiated, compromised. How one thinks of love becomes private, internal, a condition
of being that’s rare and precious and finally incommunicable in terms that are not wholly false. “Love” becomes a short hand for any impulse one has, any obsession that forms and becomes malignant, harmful.

Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate

my bereft grandmother bereft
father bereft mother their wild regret

How those now dead used love to explain
wild regret

Banged about, exhilarated, betrayed and betrayer , the protagonist shoulder’s his abused idealism, attempts to be stoic about the pragmatic choices he’s been forced to make with his idealism given a life that took it’s own course despite his plans to discover the meaning of “love” and so use the word unambiguously. But ambiguity is all there is here, and he becomes cynical, debasing and expanding and modifying his beloved term to the degree that words and actions are not coherent and congruent. It’s a sad sequence of snapshots Frank Bidart has given the reader, a compressed tale about the making of cynic who couldn’t sustain a passion for life beyond the disabusing of his optimism.

This is compression at its finest, and the sentences take odd turns and twists of implication without an overgenerous supply of biography; this is writing Don DeLillo, who writes the best sentences in American English, would enjoy. Like DeLillo, the history of a particular word is traced and its modulations are succinctly characterized. One may lack a name, one may not know anything in the way of biography, but what makes this poetic is the beauty of the revelations; it unfolds like a bright conversation you’re overhearing where you’ve pieced together the scenario although you lack the back-story. The effect is that you recognize something you’ve seen elsewhere. It is the shock of recognition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Norman Mailer's Presentation of Self

The frequent complaint against Norman Mailer’s style was that he was “boring, boring, boring” in the words of one recent poster on Slate’s Fray discussion board, as if repeating the charge three times conveyed a deeper, more profound depth of dullness. Fitting, perhaps, for Mailer, who, in what I consider his richest years as a prose stylist, rarely passed up a chance to make use of an apt qualifier. Taking pioneer feminist literary critic Kate Millett to task for what he regarded as her literal minded and agenda-included misreading of one of his favorite writers Henry Miller, Mailer dismantles her criticisms and concludes that Millett was
“…a pug nosed wit” and had “…a mind like a flat iron”. That gets across not just an opinion that a writer is not just boring in a shrugged-off generic sense, but also a pitiful state of being. Millett, though, had much in the way of criticism of male writers’ habits in the treatment of women in their work, and much of what she opined in her Sexual Politics remains an empowering motive for women writers and critics to define their traditions and styles in literature tradition, but Mailer, I think, scored in his defenses of Miller, Lawrence (less so with Jean Genet), doing so in a way that made his flat iron remark sting and linger particularly long. Unfair and cruel, well, yes, but effective and lasting.

That’s how you call someone boring. Actually, what I would reject is an all encompassing pronouncement that Mailer is an awful writer, or that the majority of his work is dreadful and merely the extensions of a massive, clueless ego. The fun in all this, though, is contrasting one's peculiar justifications for enjoying or disliking a writer (or filmmaker, poet, painter) and seeing what responses come forth that think differently. There is something to be said about Mailer being the second hand and slap dashed in his writings--I'm thinking of his foghorning pomp on the state of American theater in his introduction to his play version of The Deer Park, his glorification of juvenile delinquency and his homophobic mewling in Advertisements for Myself—but he did, for me, rise above was mere petulance and high-octane ass holism in his writing, which is to say in his thinking, that he kept me interested over the course of forty plus years of reading him. Of a Fire on the Moon, Harlot's Ghost and Why Are We in Vietnam are written in three distinct styles, with varying diction and pitches, and it would be a plus in Mailer's column that he could vary his tone as it suited different subjects. He was not the perfect writer, but from the excess of his self-promotions and cracker barrel prophecies comes a voice unlike any other, and a voice as well with sufficient mastery to have produced a handful of masterpieces as well as a selection of egocentric subject groping.

Mailer's use of the third person in referring to himself didn't bother me nearly as much as it annoyed others; "annoying others" might be a clue to why he used it, to tweak his detractors again and again in service to a narrative. I got whatever it was Mailer was after with the device, though, and considered it an ingenious way for him to blend his reporting with the occasional biographical detail and his fluid, often brilliant, often obfuscating speculations on what foul conditions were destroying the ability of his country to do better in the world. Performance is a word used more often than not regarding Mailer's writing, and it frames the quality and conditions of the books, for better and ill. For better, because the whole "factional", New Journalism ploy allowed him to create a narrator who could allow his thoughts to intrude on the intentions and thoughts of those he wrote about and to mine significance from places and things that would remain inert, unviewed. For all his amateur standing as psychologist, sociologist and philosopher, he frequently succeeded in writing the sort of heroic criticism that marked the writings of an earlier era, from Matthew Arnold, through Montaigne, Oliver Goldsmith, H.L. Mencken and George Orwell. Orwell, an author claimed by the Left and Right as one of their intellectual saint, may well have been the person who most influenced Mailer to call himself a "left conservative". Ambivalent about absolute plans for solving the world's problems, he investigated other options. A counter puncher was how Mailer described himself, and he often scored points; he also missed just as often. Mailer was inconsistent as a writer, but he had a professional career that lasted nearly sixty years; from the thirty-nine or so books he published, he has written what I consider the requisite number of work, five, that will probably insure his reputation. He, in fact, exceeds my arbitrary conditions. There is, in my view, The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Why Are We in Vietnam?, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Executioner's Song ,Harlot's Ghost, Ancient Evenings, The Castle in the Forest.

The debate over what of his reputation will be intact and which of his works last at least to the end of this century will rage, quietly or loudly, for decades to come, and it may be that Mailer’s hi jinx will be forgiven as critics seize upon a group of selected Mailer books for championing another Great American Writer. Time has a way of seeing that productive and problematically gifted authors are forgiven their sleights, errors, and all-purpose displays of self-serving as holism as the concerned reading collective no longer has a reputation to argue with and only books to contend with. Succeeding generations of readers, with no vested interest in Mailer’s ignoble follies, will perhaps bring us a new consensus. Why not? Faulkner, Steinbeck, O'Neill, and Eliot have been absolved by a critical apparatus that was wise enough to return to what he'd actually written and published. Mailer might be a tougher nut to chew, but it can be done, yes, it will be done.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I’m the fool who will pay the bill, but I think we can all agree it would cheat this collection of its true interest to present myself as more modest than I am.
--Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself

The irony of it all, I guess, is that Mailer can be said to tread on the Noble Savage sentiment, but what he asserts in both "White Negro" and "The Faith of Graffiti" is there is a need, nay, a requirement for self-definition among those who are denied the means to do so for reasons of race, gender, economics, and that the form these taggers have taken is a way of making something that resonates. What he argues , essentially, is that the impulse, inspiration and discipline of committing yourself to unsullied artistic expression is the same , whether it happens to be in European salons, Soho Art Galleries, Museum Walls, or on the side of a Brooklin water tower; he rejects art as the domain of the white culture the final aim of which is a fat commission and corporate sponsorship and college courses and brings it again to something that is human in it's dimension. As it regards black American culture, the likes of Amiri Baraka, Cornel West and Eric Michael Dyson would find quite a bit to agree with about Mailer's treatise. Urban culture is now the stuff of dissertations , has been codified as an aesthetic with it's own critical parlance, and is now a legitimate part of the larger cultural landscape of America, and Graffiti, like it or not, is an essential element of this mid 20th century development. Mailer was the first one to write seriously , on his own terms , about this. One can argue with Mailer's tone, his arch style and his interest in neo-prmitivism, but I think his interest in the young men he interviewed and spent weeks with as a writer was honest and his ideas about their work were sincere. In a forward to the book, he reveals that the title was given to him by an artist who was seriously injured from a steep fall that happened when he was tagging a structure from on high. He was talking about having faith in something, an ideal, that motivated you beyond your limits. I can only paraphrase, but it came down to him telling Mailer that the name of the book that would come out of this would be The Faith of Grafitti". Mailer recognized something amazing.

Friday, November 9, 2007

American Gangster: Epic Tedium

American Gangster promises much from the advertising, highlighting to live-wire Oscar winners in the form of Denzel Washington and Russell Crow as, respectively, a powerful Harlem based crime lord and an honest cop heading a narcotics investigation that eventually brings him to trial. Directed by Ridley Scott, this should have been a sure thing, but the lesson behind items bandied as the safe bet is that they go sour more often than we wish. Scott is, at times, a brilliant stylist who can set a mood, get the atmosphere and move action and drama along concurrently, as is the case in his masterworks Blade Runner, The Duelist, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. The balance between the oddly composed frame, the baroque design and the character-driven plots ( Black Hawk Down, though, is more about combat protocol than personal demons) made for what is now a rare thing in the industry, a well made Hollywood entertainment. He's never met a skewed color scheme or illogical edit he wasn't taken with, a fact that makes more than a few of his movies as if they're in competition with brother Tony Scott. Ridley Scott often gets as agitated and formula-glutted and offers up predigested bilge such as the blandly a-historic nonsense of Kingdom of Heaven, generic equivocations of style employing an excess of trendy edits, gauche camera filters that came to nothing at all except a noisy journey to forgone plot resolutions. American Gangster is somewhere between these virtues and vices, and it is to be commended that Scott has calmed his camera hand and offered up the wonderfully grit-textured scenery of a Seventies-era New York with a minimum of gratuitous flair.The plot, though, is something pieced together from a half-dozen crime dramas one could name, the most obvious being the face to face meeting between Washington's and Russell's crook and cop characters, where opposing worldviews are exchanged: the nod to Pacino and DeNiro in Heat is glaring, obvious as a zit. Scott also takes his time developing the storylines of the crime boss and the cop to where the eventually meet and lock horns, in between being the standard troubled marriages, drug addictions, mob hits, all proceeding at a snail's pace. Add to this drawn out build up the fact of Denzel Washington's persistent monotone and we have a collection of tics and quirks passed off as style. Russell Crow again manages to barely hide his Australian drawl and underplays his part as the dutiful and shambling cop, more cipher than character. Both characters are more stereotypes for the writers to hang their refurbished cliches on. All the same, this seems old, contrived, pieced together by the numbers, and the assurance that this film is based on a true story doesn't mask the feeling of having seen all this before, nor can it make for the lack of dramatic tension. It's a paycheck, not a testament. Slowness is not a sin, of course, but there is the occasional mistake by good directors and their scriptwriters who think slack momentum equals literary acumen, something this filmmaker obviously coveted.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hollywood Ending:Tom Sleigh's "A Wedding at Cana, Lebanon, 2007"

Tom Sleigh side steps the blind alley debate as to whether this poem is prose or poetry but maintaining a fast, jerking momentum; there is chaos hear, a tangible feeling of something gone horribly wrong during what was supposed to be a peaceful , happy affirm ton of being in a life that’s worth living. He comes across this and is filled with disbelief, horror, the crushing shock of what he hasn’t seen before. At it's most effective, this poem is about a fight against engulfing incomprehension.

He said, "It is terrible what happens."
And "So, Mr. Tom,
do not forget me"—an old-fashioned ring, pop tunes,
salsa! salsa! the techno-version of Beethoven's
Fifth, Fairouz singing how love has arrived,
that's what he heard after they dropped the bombs,
his ambulance crawling through smoke while cellphones
going off here here here kept ringing—
how the rubble-buried bodies' still living
relatives kept calling to see who had survived

The narrator, whom we presume is Sleigh, describes everything he sees manically, at the dual edges of irretrievable panic and despair, creating a narrative of shattered bits and pieces with the fueled earnestness of someone swimming madly to keep their head above water. There is the pervading sense that the narrative being given, the same sort of detailing we’ve seen given by reporters in the field who’ve witnessed an attack, captured it on film, and who must now rise above their mortality and report the details to an audience, is done with the barely tangible hope that one can maintain continuity in the midst of the carnage, a sense of the world being whole in spite of the attack, a wan hope that this ruination can be repaired.

And when he dug through concrete scree scorched black
still smoking
from the explosion, squadrons of jets droning overhead,
houses blown to rebar, he saw cellphones'
display lights flashing from incoming calls and when
he flipped the covers, saw phone camera pics,
pics of kids, wives, dads, single, grouped, some wearing
silly party hats, scenes of hilarity
compacted on the screen: it was "not good"
he said, to have to take the phone out of the body
part pocket: Hello—no, no, he's here,
right here, but not—
and then he'd have to explain ... and so he stopped

The bit with the cellphones is very well played and gives Sleigh opportunity to introduce the further complication here, strong images and clues to the immensity and desirable banality of the lives of the victims, with picture of parties, party hats, people laughing, the ringing phones of callers looking for the phone owners, confused and despairing that a stranger has answered the call. A rush of words, a hard pounding stream of restless adjectives and nervously connecting commas that barely give pause before the description of the next element of the disaster, Sleigh’s condenses time, collapses it, and conveys the sensation of past, present and future happening at once; the maddened narration , the desperate piecing together of where everything was and where it had been blown away seems a grasping for a hold on sanity. This poem is filmic, in the sense that it’s jerky, forward motion and brief, flickering lapses into bits of simultaneous scenarios reminds of Black Hawk Down , Ridley Scott’s jittery, claustrophobic war film, and it is this element that spoils the work. “Hollywood Endings”, usually derided for the habit of reconciling problematic items in a film story by the end of the tale so that everyone gets the happiness they deserve, don’t necessarily have to be pleasant . For me, it’s whether the conclusions are pat , an ending, happy or sad, allowing the piece to end quickly, wrapped up in a phrase or an image that makes you believe that there is a moral to be derived.

The show over, we 
got back into our car, our tires crunching 
over rubble. As I sat there rubbernecking 
at a burned-out tank, he shrugged: "All this—how embarrassing." 
And "I hope this is the story you are after.”

Making the writer and his craft the final and the defining subject of a poem is a temptation too great for otherwise good poets to avoid, and it is in some cases a chronic condition, an urge that can’t be resisted. Sleigh gives us a downbeat Hollywood Ending,with the last shots being the camera panning over the scattered cellphones, the decimated party scene, billows of black smoke and broken glass mixed in the gravel with shredded bits of wedding lace, coming to the feet of the Westerner, gazing with Imperial Naivety over the horror, with the driver delivering the last word in the movie “"All this—how embarrassing….I hope this is the story you are after.” The narrator nods, looks at his boots, and they head back to the car and then drive off elsewhere in the city . Roll credits. Moving stuff for a motion picture, perhaps, but contrived here, a mechanical moving of the action and what strikes me as a neurotic mention that the man telling the tale is a writer. Sleigh wants to get across the creaky and cracked idea, ala VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux and Salman Rushdie, that the writer is the perennial outsider who observes, reports and deals in depth with their own inability to improve upon the miserable lives and circumstances they voluntarily bare witness to, which is fine if one intends something book length where one’s self examination doesn’t short change the people who inspire the story. The ending is jarring for me, unsatisfying, pat, seeming more the result of a writer’s conditioned reflex than the observing and rendering of an honestly ironic element that happens quite apart from his self image. Had this been in a work shop I was conducting, I would have asked him to can the conclusion he came up with and instead give the reader something as powerful and sure as what he began with. The presence and perception of the narrator and his state of mind is strongly implied and reinforcing that at the end is redundant and distracting; something more about the bit of the world that was smashed while the bigger world, the community, struggles to go about its daily life would have been stronger, more powerful, more honest.The poem is about a specific situation he was witness to, and the larger subject, how a population tries to conduct their lives as normally as possible in the midst of this violence, was being effectively presented by Sleigh until the intrusion of his occupation, a writer.The poem works as a rush of sensation and impression, and the larger issue of genocidal policy is not part of what makes this poem work or not work. The aim is doubtlessly to get readers to think critically of the situation, but discussion of that here is, honestly, useless to a discussion as to how this poem might have been more powerful as a work of literature. Politics are fine, but political poems are foremost poems, and they need to succeed as writing if they're to have impact.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Ready-mades, Aesthetic Distance, Art as Mere Fun

I had a professor once point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be This Marcel Duchamp’s' idea, a classic dada gesture he offered with his ready-mades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedestals. The point, though, was that the object became an aesthetic object, denatured, in a manner of speaking, from its natural context and forced, suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". Among the dubious yet witty results of this sort of framing, this creating of distance between the banal thing and the person who might have a real need for it is that a perfectly fine urinal, or a snow shovel, or a pipe all becomes useless.

There design virtues, originally aimed at smooth functioning, are usurped and become instead aesthetic dimensions one appreciates in a vaguer language. This aligns itself with Oscar Wilde’s notion of art, in his small essay accompanying Portrait of Dorian Gray, that all art is quite useless; this reflects, perhaps, his attitude for most people, whom he undoubtedly didn’t care for as such, but found them amusing as manifestations of impulses conflicting with protests of moral standards, Great Theatre, in other words.

The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default. Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. Duchamp, and other Dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Paul Rodgers

It’s my view, after a weekend of rummaging through old albums , that Paul Rodgers is the best singer of his generation, and is the only singer from that era who has gotten better as a vocalist .Roger Daltry and Robert Plant and a host of other blues shouters have had their voices go south, wither, get reduced to a miserable croak, but Rodgers has only gotten better--power, control, feeling, range, the whole shot. Though it's not for everyone, his Muddy Waters Blues album, a tribute to the great blues man, is a super fine blues/rock effort, with Rodgers belting, blasting and swing blues standards in ways veeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry few Brits were ever to do . The songs, classics all, are bullet proof, made for a talent like Rodger's to grace. Rodgers is a brilliant vocalist who is also one of the worst songwriters of his generation, post-Free. Bad Company were an OK band, but not geniuses in any department, and the kind of blues-bathos that Rodgers and cohorts tossed at us made the band seem like a Foghat with a good singer. They had a run, they were popular, I saw them several times, but anyone who listens to the old Free albums, especially Tons of Sobs or Heartbreaker, and not notice the depreciation in song quality, or conviction of performance really hasn't been paying attention. Rodgers sometimes sounded like he were droning into a nod, that his last held note often sounded like they were going to transform into snores, and we might have had the sound of our singer falling to the floor , napping hard. Crash!!! Bad Company's best album was Straight Shooter. After that, it was cruise control rock and roll, hard rock MOR. Nothing especially rich or interesting, basic as bread and water. The Page/Rodgers match up didn't do much for me, not completely, but I did like their version of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". But the fact is that the Righteous Brothers version is untouchable, though others have given the songs decent readings: Bill Medley, the lead vocalist on the original version, performance that is legend. The right voice for the right song. I think Rodgers would have better luck teaming up with VanHalen, at least for one album. But only if he let Eddie write the music and David Lee Roth scribe the lyrics, provided Roth can holster his ego and content himself with being Bernie Taupin to Rodgers’ Elton John. Not likely, though, and that’s too bad.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Rita Dove's Rage Against Complacency

Context is indispensable in literary interpretation, but not every poem written requires the digging in order to grasp the larger things a poet is getting at. Rita Dove's poem "Blues in Half Tones, 3/4 Time"is a good example of this. The context is from the black experience, but she doesn't depend on every reader's knowledge of black history and it's struggle for civil rights in order for them to comprehend and respond to her more generalized theme: nay-saying and apathy are killers of the soul and ambition. Her particulars happen to be black, elements with which she creates art, but the poem is written skillfully enough for readers of different cultural origins to relate to her themes and understated assertions. Meaning, as such , is not locked up in an identity-specific criteria.

Dove sounds like she's talking about equivocation here, in the voice of someone responding to another's remarks or complaints about the wrongs that exist in life, both on the personal and global levels. The responding voice admits the unfairness of the wrongs that have been done, but offers a solution that equals the that one may as well make the best with the imperfect situation they're in.

From nothing comes nothing,
don't you know that by now?
Not a thing for you, sweet thing,
not a wing nor a prayer,
though you got half
by birthright,
itching under the skin.

Much of the troubles seem to be automatic, by the color of skin and the blood that courses through the veins; a hard fate one is born into and which one must accept as inevitable and unchangeable; only then can real decisions be made and real actions be taken to find or create some happiness.

The speaker seems a chronic, make-no-waves
placater, someone who would be considered a realist by some because of a refusal to be absorbed by the illusion and ideology of false hope (and who will not foster in others), and a defeatist by others who accepts what few comforts he or she has under the economic and political heel of a white majority. It's a voice, a constant voice in neighborly patois that encourages conformity, a studied complacency, a kind of defeatist small talk that has the unexamined sway of religious belief. There is no hope, no empowering on this earth:

I'm not for sale because I'm free.
(So they say. They say
the play's the thing, too,
but we know that don't play.)
Everyone's a ticket
or a stub, so it might as well
cost you, my dear.

It's the thinking that has it that no one gets out of this life alive, and that no one is exempt from the
dictated stations and pains of the class one is born into. There is no heaven on earth, and salvation and reward awaits in someplace other than this existence. This is the classic "slave morality" Nietzsche railed against in his tracts and rants against formalized Christianity . Dove, of course, brings this to street level, to a conversation had in market, over a backyard fence, over cigarettes and beers on the porch.It's an insidious device that keeps the powerless without means not by great machinations of determinedly evil powers (though there was and is great evil in the world)but because the victims themselves have adapted to their circumstances and made their powerlessness a virtue, a moral imperative.

Dove's poem is skillfully rendered sketch of a kind of flawed thinking that is as deep in its mal-forming tendencies as any real disease. But it's not just on the epic scale that the chatter concerns itself with. Even the smallest matters, such as finding what I take to be a wallet or purse at the end, are seen as evidence of hubris, and an invitation to the wrath of moronic, piggish gods:

But are you sure you lost it?
Did you check the back seat?
What a bitch. Gee, that sucks.
Well, you know what they say.
What's gone's gone.
No use crying.
(There's a moral somewhere.)
A self-preserving relativism transformed into a laziness that is so uncommitted to chancing anything original or self assertive that the speaker cannot (or will not) even dare to attach a cliche moral to an already hackneyed reaction to another's incidental misfortune. You understand clearly why it is a young person, writer or otherwise, would want to leave the neighborhood and all it's nay-saying constraints at the earliest opportunity.

There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same. --Norman Mailer

Rita Dove doubtlessly concurs with Mailer on this point, whatever their differences on other matters might be. A fine, delicately attack on the conformist mentality