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.

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