Wednesday, February 27, 2008

THE ROOM: no one home

There's a poster on The Fray's Poems forum who identifies himself as "angry young man" who responded to what he thought was the poetry editor's sub-par selections in Slate with a post titled provoctively "Bring me the head of Robert Pinsky". This brought a smile to my face, less for the sentiment than the paraphrase of a little known Sam Peckinpah western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

I would just assume allow Robert Pinsky to keep his head, since I have no need for it, nor have the room in my freezer to store the severed dome. I can't help but think of the cartoon show Futurama where 20th Century celebrities and politicians are kept alive as talking heads only, perfectly sane and full of their trade marked quirks despite the fact that they live in life-sustaining jars. Might we imagine if Pinsky had been one of those preserved , bodiless heads continuing his own celebrity shtick as he promotes poetry to the remaining half dozen readers in the 26th century?

Depressing to think about, I guess, even after a guilty laugh after the grissly fantasy. Better to allow the former US Poet Laureate to literally to keep his head and wonder instead why he loses it figuratively over poems that couldn't raise a belch from the most sodden of open reading attendees. Hmmm, still too grissly. Maybe a cliche is more fitting: "why does Pinsky flip his lid over poems that are duller than a pig farmer's shoe shine." Better? Good. My apologies to pig farmers, though; you are not the ones who lay these tinker toy poems at our collective doorstep.

It's interesting, I think, that Pinsky has selected poems two weeks in a row that are, by comparison, clear and easy to parse in their language, swinging from the extremes of presenting us with work that was notably for their impenetrability and compressed incoherence, swinging from the spirit of TS Eliot on the one hand to the daisy-chaining clarity that resides on the other. What I'll say is that he has an inconsistent ear when he selects from either side of the big river that divides the approaches. The Room by Michael Chitwood seems to be after the spirit of the brilliant poet Charles Wright, with a plain diction that wants to consider the nearly ineffable in this existence in a cherry-picked locution that might manage to vividly suggest the sorts of chills and rushes contemplation and recollection can give a fellow. It starts off well enough:

One way or another, we must all leave
I said to a room, a room empty of people,
save for me. There were two doors to the room,

ample avenues of departure. A small town.
A family. A faith. A marriage. A career.
The dailiness of days' work done for years.

Even though the last line of the second stanza, The dailiness of days' work done for years. is one of the most awkward alliterations I've read, one does expect the build up, to move with clear purpose to the physical details that flesh out the abstracted , cut-up quality that begins the poem. The staccato , slide show like visualization should merge and blend with the narrator's re-imagining of a scene, a series of scenes perhaps, that have formerly been sketchy, elusive, and only now, just now, come together as sensations connected finally to biographical details.

But it doesn't, and it's a shame, because what he get again is a poet who prefers the linguistic shell game in order to defer clarity rather than feel deeply and embrace the likelihood that what is now felt so keenly can not be undone,neither remembered completely nor resolved. Chitwood gets caught in a series of puns, dualisms, parallel associations suggesting preferred narratives, all of which could be intriguing if linked to the telling detail that evokes the larger view, the coincidences, the bad timing, the missed chances that seem to be the motivation of this poem, but which are absent and so useless to making this poem breathe something greater than the brief signs and whimpers that make up these lines.

We are leaving even as we speak I said to no one
in the room with me. To whom did I speak?
To ones already left, though left can mean

both to remain and to depart? Dearly departed
you remain here with me in this empty room,
room enough for you, empty in my aching thought.

Leavings are that scatter, those remaining remnants,
our language littered with what can't be gotten rid of,
our thoughts, our bodies ghosted, the leavings remaining.

Who the narrator is talking to is the reader, not the person or persons gone from the room he finds himself within, and this is the problem, I think, since I haven't been able to shake the feeling that Chitwood is rehearsing what he considers his best lines, lining them up with just enough of an arc to make these stanzas thematically consistent and leaves it all there, not so much impenetrable as it is unfinished. This is the kind of writing lesser, Language School inspired , usually undergraduate poets do, teasing a readership with the lure of autobiography and serving them a half-baked piece of post-structualist ambiguity instead. One may, if they wish, dwell on the purpose for the lack of details beyond the tactiturn murmerings Chitwood, but that, I think, would be an activity that would be more interesting and illuminating than the poem one was trying to explicate.

William F.Buckley, RIP

I am loathed to say anything nice about conservative commentators, at least the mangy generation that arose with the death of the Fairness Doctrine and who have, in turn, been anything but fair in their remarks regarding Democrats or anyone else who isn't in lockstep with RNC or Religious Right talking points. This odious crew, spearheaded by the absurd existence of Rush Limbaugh and followed, in various degrees of venomous deceit, hate mongering and the subjugation of honesty, ethics, and principles in favor of fat book contracts, political wonkery on cable television, and the well-rewarded obligation to be apologists for an unjustified war that has put America in increased peril and made our lot in the world community that much more difficult, is a sleazy bunch of propagandists. We speak of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, the clustered fools at the Weekly Standard. Not their concern are the virtues of debate, tolerance, or truth. Political discussion in this country has gotten coarser, dumber, louder, meaner in the last twenty years, and the scales have been tipped toward what we call wingnuts in terms of who was allowed to have the loudest megaphone. The networks were bullied and badgered to have more conservative pundits on their programs than those who would be off the extreme message or even the least bit left of center. As Eric Alterman asked in the title of his fine book, we ask again, "What Liberal Media"?All that said, I am saddened that conservative gadfly and National Review founder William F.Buckley has passed away at the age of 82. I've always been a liberal Democrat and have found myself on the other side of issues with the late Buckley, but I watched his show Firing Line each week and admired the man for his intellect, his wit, and his dedication to keeping his program a civil forum where actual differences in political philosophy and contrasting views on public policy could be discussed. The difference between William F.Buckley and the current spoiled crop of right-wing hacks is that Mr.Buckley was a true intellectual who listened to his guests and posed hard questions to them respectively, artfully. It was part of Mr.Buckley's style that he would skewer his opponents with their own words, or catch them in contradictions they couldn't readily respond to, but the method with which he stood his ground and defended his conservative faith was masterful, brilliant, admirably civil. It's worth noting that Buckley maintained good relations with many liberals and progressives, including long-standing friendships with John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr . He had a shrewd wit, and I always enjoyed the story that when a new collection of his essays was published, he mailed off a host of free, autographed copies to a good number of his literary friends. As Buckley told it, he didn't sign Norman Mailer's copy on the title page, as is custom, but rather in the book's index. There, written in the margins next to Mailer's name, Buckley had written "Hello Norman! Regards, William F. Buckley."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

There Will Be Blood: the cult of the over rated

Tonight it's Oscar time, and the conventional wisdom has it that Daniel Day Lewis has a lock on the Best Actor award for his oxygen-hogging performance in There Will Be Blood, a film I was not thrilled with. Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil wants to do something very epic and very different from what one expects from Hollywood, but the film's pace is glacial, nearly static, with it's visual scenes of wide open rocky terrains populated by goat farms, oil derricks and rusting tools arranged in such a way that we have the effect of the world's longest Flickr slide show.

It's obvious, to me at least, that Anderson's influence here was Terrence Malick's grand Days of Heaven, set in a similiar time and location; Malick achieved the feeling of an epic with his long takes without torturing the audience with his extended adulation of the imagery; the film was a mere 97 minutes in length, and the director still dealt with the character's within those huge vistas. The texture of the historical every day wasn't lost in gauzed recollection.Anderson settles for caricature leaving it to Lewis's overly studied performance as the Plainview character, who in Blood's disconnected scan, is losing his mind and humanity as he barks out stilted and exclaimed lines remindful of John Huston. One sees the rehearsing , not the seamlessness of performance that would have been a wonder indeed. It's almost as though he performed Plainview in this way so that he could have the line of the movie year, "I'll drink your milkshake!" If that was Lewis's intent, it is the only place where the film achieves an intended end.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

More than a voice of war

Sandra Beasley’s poem The World War Speaks is an intriguing set of broad strokes, hard details that give way to streaks and blurs at the edges as they merge and conflate with other images; this seems a matter of normally unrelated incidents, each enacted for separate reasons, find themselves united in the forming cosmology and metaphysical sensibilities of a child. Coherence of how one thing leads to another, of the logical progression of cause and effect is hardly what this poem seems to be getting at; instead it is about a child entering a world that gives it an atmosphere of fear, violence, warnings and laborious measures to acquire the daily needs that instructs one that this reality is hostile and in a state of siege one must always be on guard against and be prepared, in turn, to battle.

When I was born, two incisors
had already come through the gum.
They gave me a silver bell to chew on,
brought me home in a wicker basket,
and kept me by the stove's coal heat.

What strikes me is the connection less between the emerging teeth that causes pain in the infant’s gums with what becomes a metaphor of the uncompromising hardness defining the life the child is introduced to; the bell is not the signal of onset of joy and promise of future hope, but rather an acknowledgement of the struggle that waits. Bite down hard, do not scream, and do not cry. Even the warmth the child is exposed to, “the stove’s coal heat”, is emotionally neuter, perfunctory more than life sustaining, cold in the way that only the absence of human touch can be.

Every morning my mother boiled
a huge vat of mustard greens,
steam drifting over to my crib and
after a few hours, souring into a gas

Even the food is noxious, described with words that also give a real sense of chemical warfare, mustard….gas…sour… Beasley’s narrator isn’t describing the wonders of being young and becoming genteel and nostalgic with the fuzzy and indiscernibly cozy sensations from pre-verbal infancy; this plays against the expected route these revelations would tend to take , as in a moment of recollection where it seems the world is going to perform in some expected and friendly way, only for the reminiscing author to later realize something quite different from more blunt expense and hence garner an ironic lesson suitable for a poem. There is the strong suggestion that Beasely had been paying attention to Jerzy Kosinksi’s brutal and terribly beautiful novel The Painted Bird, concerning the plight of a dark skinned young boy living in a middle class family at the outbreak of WW2 who finds himself subjected to many degrees of abuse and harassment in the name of several blind belief systems, political and religious, who finally comes to identify with the a totalitarian force who’s strength offered him safety and purpose in an ordered life. The results between the novel and Beasley’s poem diverge, of course, as it’s not clear that her narrator finally swears allegiance to, but what does happen here is a close observation of how a world view comes to be formed. Even with more experience in later life, the early sensations remain and mark the growth of the young person.

I began to walk
so they fitted me with braces.
I began to run, so they fitted me
with books: Mars, hydrogen, Mongolia.
I learned to dig a deeper kind of ditch.
I learned to start a fire in three minutes.
I learned to sharpen a pencil into
a bayonet.

It’s not a psychology that was going to be grown out of; rather, it would be a mindset through which all forthcoming experience and their interpretation would be filtered and colored by as a result. This is a world view that places the results of one’s existence on huge and ill defined “they” who intervene at crucial points when it seems the young person might discover an independent path and follow through with some untarnished alternatives to the governing tone of existence. Intervention continues apace, and the sour paradigm this person has to contend with as he (or she) tries to conduct themselves in contiguous and congruent order, but the desire for more than what they’ve been allowed lingers still. There remains the desire to look behind the veil.

Sometimes at night
I'd sneak into the house of our neighbors,
into the hall outside their bedroom,
and watch as they moved over each
other like slow, moonlit fish.
Sometimes my mother would comb
my father's hair with her fingertips,
but that was it. They wanted an only
child: the child to end all children.

The voice in the poem sounds too personal and intimate with the things mentioned to be merely "a voice of war" in a sweeping DosPassos sense. I see how one can make a credible case for that interpretation, but what settles it for me for the speaker being an actual person sorting through their memories is the final set of lines about sneaking into to the neighbors house to,by implication, discover something that is not in his or her own home. This is a detail that though the war is outside and the home is the sanctuary one would find refuge and safety, the conflict has none the less affected the most insulated part of humanity, the very act of intimacy. Voices of war are sweeping, abstract, and given to describing the temper of the period in broad, epoch changing terms; this poem is small, intimate, and dicusses the effects of the war on smaller , though less devastated terrain, the consciousness.

Witnessing the neighbors make love, willingly touching each other inside and out, of making their bodies merge in ways suggesting a life force greater than themselves separately, and then making note of her parent’s reticence to touch one another isolates this poor child’s state. An only child who’s tactile relationship with the world she (or he) grew up in associates the sensations as evidence that life is cold and hostile and discovers that it’s not only the love of the parents he (or she) is denied, but also the love of the parents for one another. This is a cold world powerfully rendered by Beasley's poem.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Miscellany on Old Guitar Rock

:Blues --Jimi Hendrix

A typical gathering of Hendrix loose threads, centered his outstanding blues guitar work: some tracks are better than others, the band is not always in tune , and sometimes drags terribly, but this is more than archival stuff for completist. "Red House" is included, always inspiring, and "Bleeding Heart", a truly mournful show blues work out that has only surfaced once or twice on some imports, has Hendrix digging deep into the frets. A live "Hear My Train A Comin'", originally on the "Rainbow Bridge" album, is a masterpiece of pure, blazing Hendrixism: Everything Hendrix could do right on the guitar is displayed here, the sonic flurries, the screaming obstinate, the feedback waves that he turns into melodic textures with a snap of the whammy bar: this track ought to the one any Hendrix advocate plays as proof of the genius we speak about. Not a bad blues guitar disc at all, essential for this Hendrix fan.

Muddy Water Blues
--Paul Rodgers

Rodgers, ex of Free and Bad Company, is as good as blue-eyed blues/rock belting has ever gotten--he can rasp and croon, belt and banter with equal measures of savvy and snap when all cans are firing. Sadly, he sings better than he writes, as just about all his post-Free efforts show. On this album, he digs into the bullet-proof songs of Muddy Waters, and has a hoot doing them: refreshingly, this is not a purist effort. Instead, it’s a throw back to British blues rock, which was louder, faster, flashier. Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Brian Setzer and Trevor Rabin and Neal Schon all lend their fingers here, flash and feeling , and Rodgers applies the vocal chords for the best singing he'd done in easily ten years. "She Sends Me", "Born Under a Bad Sign", 'She's Alright" and "Rolling Stone" help me, for a moment, remember why I used to think he was the best singer on the planet.

Guitar player notes:

Stevie Ray Vaughn is no more a wanker on the blues than are/were Albert King, Guitar Shorty, Buddy Guy or Vernon Reid, Blood Ulmer, Michael Hill or Sonny Sharrock, nor was he any less inspired by the pitched, aggravated dynamics the style demanded. He could keep a solo going, he could extended the sheer reams of bent notes, shadings and feedback into reams of pure, sustained rapture, a pain that does not subside--he was easily continuing the work Hendrix started, by bringing the blues into something that was as emotionally relevant to the times he surveyed, and he kept his guitar heroics honest--one can listen to Gary Moore, for example, and be impressed and overwhelmed by the sheer ferocity and speed of his technique, yet not be moved by it, but with Vaughn, the heart of his feelings found their way to his finger tips and their calluses and managed a voice out of some dark night of the soul that exclaims, in high notes and low, rolling rumbles along the bass e string, that he has survived another midnight, another patch of bad luck, another bad fuck and worse drunk to see the sun of the following day again just to live the next twenty four hours on the promise of more blues, the one thing that doesn't lie, the one set of notes in any scale and key you please that renews itself endlessly as long as there remains some capacity to feel deeply and longingly in that arena that is the province of being human alone, to find another reason to live another day. Stevie found his reason, a day at a time, with his guitar

Jeff Beck is easily the best of his generation: he has made more than a few awful records, but his guitar work was always with out equal. He is the only one of the original British blues-rock pioneers who’s learned how to blend his style musical situations than strict-rock: at his best, he is riveting as no other guitarist can be. The shame of his career is his inability to keep a band together for any real length of time. Had he found the right folks, his recorded output might have been more consistent than it is.

Ritchie Blackmore: a case of great guitar talent wasted in a bad band, Deep Purple. His solos on "Smoke on the Water”, "Highway Star' and many others are classics, little gems of perfection, but you had to put with macho-posturing to get to it. Blackmore, to my knowledge, never really did the electric work that showed unencumbered by lame vocals and moronic lyrics; though I understand he has a Celtic - themed acoustic project that might be worthwhile.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Remember Eric Anderson?

"Thirsty Boots" , an old folk tune written by "new Dylan" Eric Anderson came on the radio the other day and at once I was taken back to the Sixties, the decade that born the song; flower power, bell bottoms, brave new sideburns and peach fuzz beards made my skin itch all over again.

Thirsty Boots
By Eric Andersen

You've long been on the open road,
You've been sleeping in the rain,
From dirty words and muddy cells
Your clothes are smeared and stained,
But the dirty words and muddy cells
Will soon be hid in shame
So only stop to rest yourself
Till you are off again


So take off your thirsty boots
and stay for a while,
Your feet are hot and weary,
from a dusty mile,
And maybe I can make you laugh,
maybe I can try,
I'm just looking for the evening,
the morning in your eye.

So tell me of the ones you saw
As far as you could see
Across the plain from field to town
A-marching to be free
And of the rusted prison gates
That tumbled by degree
Like laughing children, one by one,
They look like you and me


I know you are no stranger down
The crooked rainbow trails
From dancing cliff-edged shattered sills
Of slandered, shackled jails
For the voices drift up from below
As the walls they're being scaled
Yes, all of this, and more, my friend,
Your song shall not be failed.


Yes, you've long been on the open road
You've been sleeping in the rain
From dirty words and muddy cells
Your clothes are smeared and stained
But the dirty words, the muddy cells,
They'll soon be judged insane
So only stop to rest yourself
'til you are off again.

I was greatly enamored of this song when I was fifteen, when I was discovering folk music, modern poetry and the like, and it seemed at the time to be both wonderful and mysterious. It was too long to wait to be old enough to get out and ramble and jangle and experience "dues paying" in an effort to have things to commit to precious language. I still enjoy the song and have fond memories of Anderson, but this lyric seems precious after all this time, which is to say that it reads (and sounds) artfully contrived.
The affectation of dropping the g's that spoils what other wise would be a lovely (if unreal) scenario. As with Dylan and other pioneers of the singer-songwriter form, there was a compulsion for city kids to try to sound rural and unschooled, oddly combined with the need to show off the influences of the poets they've read. Sometimes the contradictions resulted in extended genius, the case with Dylan, but many other tunes have travelled much less well through the years; "Thirsty Boots" is one of those tunes that haven’t surmounted its naïveté. The gauge I use is that the lyrics no longer evoke something greater than what the mere words are getting at. What they do instead is make me nostalgic, at best.

Friday, February 15, 2008

All Heart? No Heart?

I used to insist that poems that didn't have "dirt under the fingernails" were without value, insisting that live as it's lived by working men and women in America were more interesting , more complex and more important than the dense, academic poems one was made to read in contemporary poetry anthologies. In full disclosure, I was an undergraduate at the time, in the mid to late seventies, an earnest poet trying to be relevant who, incidentally, was having problems in literature courses requiring same said anthologies. There might have been a worthwhile insight somewhere in my whining for a polemic I could write if I cared to take the time, but it suffices to say that I was lazy, too lazy to read the poems, too stoned to go to class, far, far too stoned to read the secondary sources to be prepared for class discussions or for the papers I had to write. I did what anyone genuine undergraduate poet/radical/alkie would do; I blamed the system. So there.

It took a bit of doing--sobering up, bad grades, failed relationships--for me to get wise(r) and actually read the work I thought unworthy, and the remarks of critics who've done their own work considering the aesthetics at length, and I've since backed away from trying to shoe horn all poetry into a tight fitting tuxedo. What was learned was relatively small, a revelation for the truely dense; poetry works in many ways, and the task of the critical reader cannot be merely to attack and opine but to make an effort to weigh a poem's elements on their own merits , studying how effects are accomplished, and then, finally, lastly, to offer a judgement whether the poem works . Not that I adhere to this prolix method--I shoot from the hip and often miss the whole darn target--but I try. Now the issue, from Slate's Poems Frame, is whether a poem can work if it lacks the glorious thing called "heart".

Anyone seriously maintaining that a work of art, be it poem, novel or painting is doomed to failure because it lacks this vague quality called "heart" has rocks in their head. Artists are creative people, on that most of us can agree, and by definition artists of narrative arts make stuff up from the resources at hand. Whether the source is actual experience, anecdotal bits from friends or family, novels, biographies, sciences, all these are mere furniture that go into the creation of the poem. The poet's purpose in writing is to produce a text according to some loosely arranged guide lines that distinguish the form from the more discursive prose form and create a poem that arouses any number of responses, IE feelings, from the reader. "Heart", I suppose , would be one of them, but it's ill defined and too vaguely accounted for to be useful in discussing aesthetics. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry books and poetry readings as dump sites for a writer's unresolved issues with their life doesn't impress me generally, as in the ones who do the confessing never seem to acquire the healing they seek and instead stay sick and miserable and keep on confessing the same sins and complains over and over. Journaling would be one practice I would banish from a poetry workshop I might teach. We are writing poems, not an autobiography .

I would say, actually, that one should suspect that poet who claims that every word of their verse is true, based on facts of their lives. I cannot trust the poet who hasn't the willingness to fictionlize or otherwise objectify their subject matter in the service of making their poems more provocative, worth the extra digging and interpreting. Poems and poets come in all shapes and sounds, with varied rationales as to why each of them write the way they do, and it's absurd and not to say dishonest that "heart", by which I mean unfiltered emotionalism, is the determining element as to whether a poem works or not. My goal in reading poems isn't to just feel the full brunt of some one's soggy bag of grief or splendid basket of joy, but to also to think about things differently.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A good jazz poem by Stanley Moss

Sometimes you come across a knock out by rummaging around those web pages you thought you'd scoured years ago and the result in his case today gives me the sound of surprise:Whoa. The poem, A Riff for Sidney Bechet by Stanley Moss, was published in Slate in 2004, and a late reading knocks me to the floor.A seeming homage to Bechet and to the ease and perfection of his playing becomes a tale of envy, a dwelling on the ideal of form of women that reveals itself to true artistic masters, becoming, in the end, a dual edge cry of resentment against better , more masculine artists able to coax the "burnt sugar" from their metaphorically female muse, and against women in general by way of a not so subtly implied extension of his thinking.

Moss has some issues here, I guess, but there's nothing I can read that suggests he's working them out in an interesting way. It's one thing to be enthralled by Bechet's reed work as he improvises and whirls like Nijinsky over the band's rapid changes, and it's admirable that it inspires to write a poem in inspiration. It's admirable, that is, if the inspired work equals and even surpasses the wonder and awe Bechet might have stirred in Moss's observer Michelangelo.Even a nasty, power loving grouch like Pound believed that art was supposed to galvanize every creative and aspiring force in a human being and deliver him or here to a state of transcendent creativity, a higher plain of perception from which to alter the world.

One may disagree whether that goal, in itself, is a plus or a minus so far as poetic intent goes, but the point is that Moss's narrator is evidently disillusioned with the whole process of art, of creating and finding new ways of seeing the world.
It's implied that he feels his own work is inferior to those he isolates as untouchable geniuses, and then complicates his ambivalence further by casting a specious erotic edge to his musing; inspiration, lyricism, heightened perception were a sexualized essence from the feminine muse that it was their duty to attain through coaxing, seduction, or force. The implied picture with Moss's last few lines is as unattractive as the mood that seems to have motivated this poem:

The sunrise bitch was never mine.
He brought her down. In twelve bars of burnt sugar,
she was his if he wanted her.

This is not a poet sitting under a tree on a spring afternoon contemplating clouds and heavenly wonders; rather it's a guy at the end of the bar slugging away at beer as he broods and gets angrier about a universe of smarter men and unattainable women conspiring to make he feel like scum. It's an ugly creation here, and I'm convinced that Moss is being ironic or creating a character not himself. This is less a poem than an outburst you wish an associate hadn't blurted. But there it is, out in the open, a snake pit exposed.

Friday, February 8, 2008

"Losing My Hair" by Wesley McNair

Much great praise to Wesley McNair for not despoiling the English language with a screed regarding an intractable trauma, the loss of a male’s hair. There are other poets one can imagine who would have taken up this slim vessel of a topic and filled it , cracking the sides of the fragile conceit, with the sum of their learning. "Losing My Hair" is more than the lament to fallen follicles the title suggests. It goes several cuts deeper,and is a meditation, in fact. Extracting big ideas from small incidents is an art in itself, but one might well imagine the kinds of obtuse and obstructed reactions a good many of Robert Pinsky’s favorite poets might have constructed, contrived, condescended in turn; the failures , as I imagine them if such a challenge were put forth and accepted, would stem from the frequent disconnect between the professional poet’s gut and his head. There is a struggle one notices in the Slate poetry selection week to week in which the struggle to wed an emotional impulse with a voice honed with writerly language hadn’t yet been accomplished, with the division coming across in many an unsatisfying poem remarkable for a poet’s inability to decide how they want to address their experience or illustrate their ideas.

On the matter of a man losing their hair, many of those we’ve read over the previous week would likely succeed in clogging up the sink with hirsute poems that shed everything from themselves save a memorable line, a quotable refrain.The ironically named McNair gives up of bringing emotion and notion together into a focused set of succinct lines; in the guise of a tired parable about being chased by wolves across the tundra, the poem at first seems a comedy in which we see one’s hair, a former crowning glory of masculinity and power, giving itself to the wind as one flees a peril it cannot battle . But the image and the metaphor it carries enlarges soon enough, quickly,

I myself
am suddenly the aging man

who must reach inside his chest
to find some failed organ
that might appease them,
though all I have now
to throw over my shoulder

is this small offering that lifts
in the wind when I turn back,
flying apart so high above them
it has nothing to do
with the gathering dark

It’s more that this is an admission that what once were thought of as negotiations with aging and inevitable death where one offered up one feature, one youthful skill in return for a forestalling of the final darkness that waits, McNair’s narrator realizes in a flash that all that is mere fancy and delusion. Everything that goes by the wayside as one ages—hair, sex drive, agility, the strength of one’s limbs—are not things that one offers for sacrifice freely but are rather things that are removed in natural progression; how long one holds on to these measures of vitality is luck and circumstance, not a sign of how powerful one might have been.

it has nothing to do
with the gathering dark
of their bodies, and their swift
legs that barely touch the snow,
and their cold, patient eyes.

Swiftly, surely, seamlessly, McNair gives us a thought unfolding in rapid succession,one succinct and complete aspect of thought following the other, each elaborating and contradicting the notion before it, until there is only a stark, clear image left. The concluding image, where the realization that one's end is not something that cannot be bargained with or sedated with sacrifices of elan and looks,is perfectly , squarely crystalized as wolves in pursuit, an inevitability that encroaches upon and shrinks one's skill at distracting themselves. I like this poem and it’s compactness greatly, and I find it a wonder that Wesley McNair conveys a fairly complex layering of meaning in such a short space, with such direct writing.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Meghan O'Rourke's superb first poetry collection

Poems by Meghan O'Rourke (W.W.Norton)

Meghan O'Rourke,poetry editor for The Paris Review and a cultural editor for Slate,is also a poet with unique ability to get a nearly intangible notion, an inexlicapable sensation into words. Giving voice to hunch, making the half-idea a textured, tangible thing, hers is a poetry that completes sentences we cannot finish ourselves. Precision and morphological accuracy aren't the point, and the words themselves, the images they create or suggest, are more like strands of half remembered music that is heard and triggers an intense rush of association; any number of image fragments, sounds, scents, bits of sentences, suggestions of seasonal light in a certain place, race and parade through the mind as fast as memory can dredge up the shards and let them loose. Just as fast, they are gone again, the source of quick elation or profound sadness gone; one can quite nearly sense that streaming cluster of associations that make up a large part of your existence rush onward, going around a psychic bend, scattering like blown dust in the larger universes of limitless life. All one is left with is memory of the sudden rush, the flash of clarity, and the rapid loss, the denaturing of one's sense of self in a community where one might have assumed they were solid and autonomous in their style of being, that nothing can upset the steady rhythm of a realized life. O'Rourke's poem "Two Sisters" is a ghost story, or at least the attempt to write one; the narrator is struggling to find the words to describe what was lost with the passing of a sibling; 

When you left, a world Came.
Rain, A morning, a weather That wouldn't end. 
The windows closed like stitches. 
Fingernails grew; nothing to pick at. 
The tent of our mother's body went Wet around me and clung.
The wind tore through me.
I breathed with two split lungs. 
When you left I stayed, I shook! 
Like an instrument about To be played by the long, 
Liver-yellow Fingers of the sun 

One is less autonomous than the myths of hard-centered individuation has us believing; we come from a body into a world full of sensation and assault, we experience ourselves through the presence and shared skin of family, and when there loss, we have an gap in our footing that is never filled, never replaced. O'Rourke's narrator feels the intrusion of a world that had been formerly kept a requisite distance now running riot through her senses. The rain is constant, unending, driving her inside herself from an external existence that is hard, cold, chaotic. The body feels hallowed out, breathing is a chore, a burden, as if taking in breaths for two bodies with one set of lungs--The wind tore through me. I breathed with two split lungs--our narrator is shaking with a profound and only momentarily clear vision of what her relations have been and what they meant in her life. And now that is gone. 

When you left I stayed, 
I shook! Like an instrument 
about To be played by the long,
Liver-yellow Fingers of the sun 

A natural storyline emerges, and this is what we use to remember and mourn the passing of a sibling. Because the imagery is fragmented and sudden, and because the associations between them are sudden and only partially outlined, I get the feeling that these are qualities that come in a rush, triggered by some random thing--scent, sound, a phrase, a particular sight--that would cause the mind to briefly erupt with fast, overpowering emotion. It is the indefinite quality that attracts me to O'Rourke's slim poem. Elliptical as the elements are, the style does work at times, if only for a striking image or two; there are times that something affects you and you're able to isolate the reason, or even identify what internal matters a poem, a picture stirred. I don't know precisely what having to breathe with two split lungs means, or what was she was driving toward with the final stanza where she is about to be played by the "long, liver yellow fingers of the sun", but they do suggest a lot. They are perhaps lacking in information, but are rich in what they suggest. But again, it’s not as if one should linger too long over them, since this reed-thin piece is nearly non-existent as literary product. I imagine that mental flash, as if I light had been turned on and off in an otherwise dark room; what you remember are contours, suggested tones, all gone in an instant and barely registered in memory, I think it goes a little deeper than that, of course, but mostly what I like about the poem is not what it says at all but rather what it attempts. This is the art of what was almost said. O'Rourke avoids the requirement of confession to awkwardly confess grief in a long, gasping rant centering not what was revealed, but on what was merely glimpsed, for a moment. There is here a feeling that some profound knowledge had been suddenly bequeathed and just as suddenly removed, and how she gets this feeling is through the minimalism employed. She is crafty about the words used, and where they are placed on the page. In some ways this is less a poem than a totem of some kind. 

”Meditations on a Moth” is a sexy, slippery poem about New York at night spoken from the viewpoint of an insomniac dawn patroller who is the midst of an endless argument with herself. It's an interesting marriage of personalities noticeable, appropriately enough, in two poets associated with the New York School, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. It gets a sense of the mystery a city nightscape gives to us; every shadow is a primal formation, beasts and monsters and knights vying for the good of the innocent.This has that street level feel O'Hara's best work has, a the vista of a pedestrian walking across congested streets and between buildings, noticing every bit of impacted urban space and detail and the frayed sense of loneliness that permeates everything that glitters and shines and makes noise in the city. 

What goes down stays down, the street at three a.m. a fantastic absence of color. Outside the studio window the sound of a river sliding along its dulcimer bed, aquifers and accordions and Alcatraz. This has a the stark clarity of a high contrast black and white photo, and all that's needed is jazz on the background, a set of foot steps coming up the w way , loud as they tread on wet cement, O'Rourke's narrator here is someone who sounds as if they're noticing the small matters of city life against her intentions; things get noticed that would otherwise have remained under the radar. 

Here look No, look.
I am trying to rid myself of myself; 
to see past the familiar clouds. 
All evening drums rumble in the park.
The mafia reconvenes when the cops leave. 

This is a micro world where matters are changed forever because they were noticed, noted, given names and assigned places on a mental map of where more things are; they have entered our consciousness. Though far more colloquial than Ashbery has ever been, O'Rourke shares with him (in this piece, at least) an abiding obsession with the unfiltered perception of things and objects of this world, an interest in the phenomenology of the mundane. There is in Moth, as in Ashbery's central (and long) work Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror a musing on what is encountered on the journey the next day, concrete, specific and unadorned details on matters large and small in their seeming exactitude, and then an argument with the perceiving self, a string of associations drawn from personal history or other encounters, a survey of responses to place and things that are finally the meaning a specific place or people's lives can have. O'Rourke's question sounds rhetorical, since she might as well be asking why it is that she's seemingly lured to the streets in the far reaches of the late night/early morning. The activity here is no less neurotic than what a ritual-locked specter would suffer from. This wonderfully condensed musing on what over-alert senses bring to you on dark, wet nights comes from the sort of agitation of the soul that is too familiar with the terrain, and one finds themselves wrestling with ambivalence, to make the move to new climes, or to look further and harder at where one has been for years, seeking another nuance of light or angle of skyline that rewards the soul just a little more than the agony of not changing punishes it. I like the Robert Stroud reference, and my guess is that this is something going through O'Rourke's mind when she wrote this. Fortunately, she left the reference oblique and mysterious, and let the vaguely evocative syllables give the poem's musicality just a passing clang of dissonance. I see it as a color as well as tone, like it were a layer of point that one barely notices, if at all, once the other shades and hues are applied and worked in, but which gives the finished a look and allure that might otherwise be absent were it not there at all. O'Rourke's language, vivid and filled tangible things, maintains the sealed meanings of these things all the same. She resembles another poet, Elizabeth Bishop, for her skill at keeping the inner workings of mind private in a public sphere. Suffice to say that I think O'Rourke, in this poem, has composed a verse as good as the writers I've mentioned already, less because she meets their standards or thinks as they do, but more with equaling in originality, style and mastery of technique and material. 

It's a rare event when a poet can write in a surrealistic mode and not have it read like a studied classroom assignment to mimic a past master, or a stiff parody of a style whose signifiers are lost on contemporary audiences, yet O'Rourke's mastery accomplishes just that, a fresh set of images in arresting, nerve rattling stanzas. "Descent", prefaced with "After Apollinaire", gets the pulverizing velocity of a drug addict's degradation. 

after Apollinaire 

I was born a bastard in an amphetamine spree,
lit through with a mother's quickenings, 
and I burrowed into her, afraid she would not have me, 
and she would not have me, 
I dropped out down below the knees 
of a rickrack halterdress, sheeted, 
tented knees, water breaking, linoleum peeling,
and no one there to see but me, 
I woke on the floor as if meant to put her back together,
to try to hold on to her 
like a crate to a river, as if I'd been shipped down 
to stand straight while 
in the misgiving 
she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks floating down a river and a dog who couldn't swim and I could not swim, 
I slipped from her grip in a room 
where two orange cats stared like tidy strangers 
at a world of larger strangeness,
and I had no name.
I was there at her breast 
and I thought I could see her, 
the swag of her hair, the jaw, 
the fearing, but I barely saw,
I went sliding down the river from a house
in which it was sweet to sleep
and the cool of the sheets was never cool enough, 
the imprint of the bedded bodies two geese diving at once. 

"Descent " is an update of the myth of dead souls crossing the river Styx, lovingly and pun-fully alluded to ("she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks /floating down a river and a dog who couldn't swim/and I could not swim, I slipped from her grip/in a room where two orange cats stared like tidy strangers/at a world of larger strangeness,/and I had no name")This is also an expanding of the Rolling Stone's fuck-all anthem "Jumpin' Jack Flash", Mick Jagger's succinct catalog of hard knocks, fights, poverty and gleeful nihilism fleshed out into a jittery, theatricalized speech. There is the danger that some would take this poem as glorifying the speed freak's life of curbstone squalor, but there is an element of this debacle that attracts us all, users and those who would condemn it, and O’Rourke, less presenting this as romanticized diorama where each broken brick and bit of torn blue jean is studiously arranged than as a mis-en-scene that gets the feeling of the rush. There is empathy here , but no desire to join the descent.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rock Criticism, RIP

What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging with this tenuous thesis, wasn't rock critics, but rather fans who bought the records and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buy the newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than I am--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listeners retro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seems ugly to an audience who's tastes are entrenched and internalized. Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknown clear, or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers , though, for the murder of a music gives them too much power--it's doubtful that the history of long, abstract ,numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice, let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to make album go double platinum.

Given the particulars , that absence may make it more honest. Rather than attempting to appropriate musical culture to the exclusion of all other comprehension, musicians in given communities--and communities have their niches in areas even great critics, theorists, or grouchy , partisan fans can imagine-- may chose, unvindictively , non-judgmentally, to assimilate and reconfigure melodies that they find appealing to them. One plays a particular way because they want to play that way: the how and the why of that want is mysterious, but its existence cannot be attributed to racism. To say that it is racist is bone-headed. Let me rephrase that: it's ignorant and cheap. I don't follow the argument that this topic wants to make. It sounds as if some one has the feeling that they've fallen from grace, that the keys of the musical kingdom are lost to them, and that it's the critics, always the critics, who have to take the rap for making the Perfect World all wrong. What would be more useful is some harder thinking, less flame-throwing generalities, and more crisp distinctions, starting here:

My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between technique versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge : making it all into music that's expressive and new. Rock, like the blues, it's closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums,bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of LitCriticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel.

Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or other wise. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selfs may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily. I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed. I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise, as have always done.

What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.
Rather, it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions, and for the scads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind faux post- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead, again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. Rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.

Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarists of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining th force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.

Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Freida Kahlos' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible , in their view, to the errant need for self-expression.

Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.

How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with any artist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible in terms that extend our notions of what the human experience is. Parenting is part of that profound experience. Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what their sons were up to? Marylin Manson is only the messenger of what's already in place: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is , at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.

The original claim was that rock music was dead, slain by by critics, by extension Big Media, corporate America, which has turned it into a commoditized vulgarity through which it sells back a teenagers sullen notion of empowerment one CD and one Concert ticket at a time, reaping billions. But yet:
We're still out here playing, and teaching the unnoticed, the unheralded, the unfashionable kids who, inspite of everything, want to be able to play to.
So , I gather, rock and roll does live after all, it lives on because others, dedicated idealists like you from thirty years ago, continue to play and instruct younger players who want to play with an accomplished and feeling voice. I'm sure your idealism is real, Clint, and your CD collection enviable, but you've back tracked right into the oppositions camp: rock and roll is a human activity that survives and persists despite marketplace distortions, if you're inclined to lazily call it that, and in fact even thrives because the market is open and unrestricted toward content. We insist, and you affirm by clarifying your sketchy autobiography, that it is force that continues in the places where people live and practice, not in high towers, corporate or academic.


Monday, February 4, 2008

The Poems of Ron Slate

The Incentive of the Maggot
poems by Ron Slate
(Houghton Mifflin)

I've been reading through Ron Slate's first collection, The Incentive of the Maggot, and what's striking besides the overwrought awfulness of the title, is that Slate hits the ball about half the time. Pinsky regards him as a second coming of Frank O'Hara, and I suppose he would be to someone who can't live without that good poet's name being invoked every other instance, but Slate is way too tense to pick up where O'Hara left off. O'Hara was relaxed, crazed, ecstatic, full of the mess and grace his enthusiasms brought to his verse. He never seemed as if he slaved over a foreign word or academic term, or strained to make the mundane world seem a mere disguise cast over a backlog of history. O'Hara's poems were full of the stuff in the world he lived, actually lived, and he addressed history, irony or political justice in ways that came to him in flashes, stolen moments.His poems , long and short, are records of intense feelings, recorded in whatever direction they might happen to fly.

O'Hara had a natural ear, tuned to music and melodic formation, and the lilt and swing and swagger of the musical phrase never left his lines; there is musicality even in the lesser work.Slate I think is a good poet who had not yet a full collection of finished poems by the time Maggot was published, and what ruins the book are so many poems that divert into mere knowingness, fancy asides where irony is used ham handedly and the larger associations , the flights of metaphor , are angry tirades against eternal injustice and the continuing triumph of the corporately mediocre. Slate is drawn between two schools of American poetry, The New York School with it's vernacular cityscape, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, who cannot discuss a poem without indicting a whole generation of poets that came before them. There is a goodly amount of confessional poetry too, and sometimes it works, but more often than not Slate's writing loses it's pitch and goes off key, plays atonal, goes too quickly from Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor.

The Demise of Camembert in particular because there is a lot of gear-shifting between what seems like his poetic allegiances. The trick, of course, is to start with something as inane as a type of French food, and to extrapolate from there, but there is something of Cliff the mailman from Cheers in the way we leap from lunch to space transmissions

This message comes to us
on a tray with quick-serve cheddar puffs

passed across the cocktail party,
across news networks via satellite.

Also it lands thudding with the flat bread,
bean salad, raisins, fruit bar,

seedless jam and plastic cutler
in the humanitarian airdrop.

This was fast enough to twist your head off like a bottle cap, and it's a symptom of the auto didactic that will insert such arcane purpose is to create clutter , clarity, and this makes you think that the personality that writes lines that jump around rapidly between references prefers it that way. From this arbitrarily applied springboard of rhetoric, Slate can muse, worry, deconstruct and reshape the discourse to absorb and dissolve the manufacture of bombs, the mass production of food and the erasure of the sensuous life, the mysterious superiority of meals prepared by hand. These side streets don't come to anything, though, which makes me think that Slate loves the sound of his own voice.
That is not a bad quality in a writer, since one must more or less love putting words together to produce certain subtle meanings and effects, but what helps that love is a point that one is able to make or a feeling is able to create, an empathy. This poem seems increasingly like it were of no more use than a sneezing jag, a physical reaction to a nasty bit of dust that needed to be expelled. Think of it, epiphany as virus:

Man, that was wicked.
What happened?

I just sat down to eat my baloney sandwich when
I got hit with an epiphany...

Shit, I hate it when that happens...

No kidding. I was hungry as a motherfucker and the sandwich looked good and all of a sudden I start thinking and musing uncontrollably about classical music, Umbrian villas, old girl friends, mad jazz piano playing, drinking too much and a solitary bed in the morning as soft, earth tone light comes through a half shaded window. By the time I came out of that revelry, it was time to go back to work..

Gee, that's rough, buddy,

Damn straight. I'm gonna get myself inoculated, man, epiphanies suck. I'd rather have a cold...

I hear ya, bro..

Slate fares just as badly with another poem, "Warm Canto", a piece speaking about what it's like to watch a friend waste away.I like the way Slate gets across a feeling of dissociated sensibility here, but the poem creaks with awkward phrases that are unappealing--strained, top heavy, graceless--which makes the issue of how the narrator is dealing with the death of a friend become more a cerebral mumble than an intensified ode to his mixed feelings. The response may be a muddle, which is fine, but the poem shouldn't be. Lines like

The drugged body of a dying man
drinks its own urine.

do not help the cause.

Genius is that rare ability that makes a seeming muddle interesting, exciting, and worth the effort to read and wrestle with. Having an "ear" for how language helps immeasurably to separate Faulkner and Joyce from arty lessers; their individual innovations in how language can tell a story through various psychological and personality filters--stream of conscious, if you will--changed the way we think "good writing" ought to be, and what kind of narrative structure and content a fiction should have.

Above all, the best work these masters did seemed natural; the music does not seemed forced. Slate's writing does, I'm afraid, and I think he fails to get at any number of coincidental grace notes and ironies as relates to death and grieving due to an urge to be difficult, "special". This makes the poem a muddle, and incomprehensible. "Not "difficult", just incomprehensible. Yes, one can say that he's sad and grieving and witnessing any number of things in his world he would otherwise not have noticed nor thought about, but the failure here is basically that he doesn't make us believe that any of it is important. Frankly, I am not moved in a time when being moved is a large part of what makes me respond to a poem.

Slate has an interesting voice once he gets the self-proclaiming abstraction out of his system; the difference here is the one between someone with a mouth full of marbles and another fully prepared, sans obstacles, to speak clearly and evocatively on what his mind has been up to.Musing indeed, because the narrator is at an ever-so-slight remove from the situations he's passing through, feeling alienated as the result of a shrugging resentment of having to be in work areas instead of luxuriating in more pastoral, poetic surroundings.

I miss things that meant nothing to me
and so much was nothing.
The world begins returning
like a sailor climbing the hill
to his house, lugging a duffle
bulging with what really happened.

As if the leaves aren't falling
in your mind. As if your memories
aren't like bright leaves falling,
so that the sidewalks are there
only because they are remembered
under the leaves, and things not remembered
are reshaped and unsaved.

This is a sudden attack of laziness laced with something that suggests recalled memories, vivid images emerging from the past that most likely wasn't nearly as ideal or the idyll the narrator thinks it was. Smells of burning leaves, tints and psychologies of how fading light plays against the shape of a neighborhood, the senses are overloaded with snippets of that make for an imperfect mosaic of words, a nest of suggestions to a time before stress, mortgages. It's all he can do to shuffle papers, sort his paper clips, deal with intrusive technology:

I labor to defend myself
against the tedium of the telephone
and its cries of uncaring delight.

The burden of having to be available to those emphatically before you, talking to you, requiring responses from you gets heavier as the seconds pass, and this I recognize from my own attacks of anxiety and vivid wishful thinking when I'm overwhelmed by the gruesome routine of the daily cycle. I , as well, defend myself against the tedium of the telephone and resent the fact that the world, a paranoid would of "they", "them", and "those bastards", must be able to get a hold of me anytime they need to. Slate takes it a little further, anytime they want to. Slate's narrator is the Little Man in Cogs of the System whose torments feel as if they've been engineered for the amusement of invisible powers. God's private gag reel, to cite Al Pacino's character in The Devil's Advocate.

Yet the reverie of an escape to a perfect past, Rod Serling's eternal Willoughby, plays against itself, and the alienated distraction undermines the solace one might secure there. Everything seems arranged, pat , secured prior to your arrival, with their meanings and back stories in place. What Slate has done is written a poem not about a daydream, but about a man who catches himself daydreaming the face of drudgery, someone wakened from his state with a jolt --a squeak of the chair, the blast of the phone--to which his natural reaction is shame. One might have thought that he'd been caught naked in the office waiting room, but naked it is in a way; his mind, a finely tooled device for the hard work of business and regulation, had run off the road, so to speak, drifted from the proscribed path. The cloak of professionalism had fallen, and what was exposed to the office around him was a face he has only when he's asleep or when no else can see him. It comes down to a joke as he regains his poise,

My co-worker says, the nice thing
about all this is you can't miss
what you can't remember.
Suppose you had Alzheimer's.
You'd stare at the phone
and it would mean less than nothing.

And he laughs, we assume, casting a big , tight smile that bears all his teeth and which makes the corners of his eyes crinkle, and he feels ashamed again for a slight dishonor of a memory that he finds something of his resilient self in,

Shame of the insensate rushed hour.
Immobilized in spurts on the way home,
I miss my knitted sweater,
I miss my grandmother.
Then I climb the hill
with leaves layering the driveway
and the structure of maples candidly clear.

What works with great power here is the clarity of
Slate's voice, a unifying personality that, though changing mood and tone with the shifts between past and present, could keep the pieces neatly aligned, having one situation contrast effectively against the other. There is no sleight-of-hand here, no allusions to literature or science, no pretense of illustrating a philosophical conundrum. The interplay between the life of the drifting mind and the unmerciful fact of real life is splendidly done. The crucial element here is that Slate creates a sense of a man who senses that he's been so mechanized in his daily behaviors that even his memories of happy past fail to rise him from a funk, that the memories , to, seemed to have been handed to him like it were a script he was to refer to. More so, Slate lets the contradictions speak for themselves, to gather their own power as the language of displacement works on the reader's own associations; he gives no prescription for the winter time blues, and the lack of a proposed cure to a psychic malaise is exactly the thing that makes a poem powerful and meaningful on a unique terms.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Rachel Hadas: bad poems happen to good poets

Rachel Hadas is usually an interesting poet who combines a supreme literacy with a sensual style that makes ruminations on memory , identity and the shifting ground of one’s world view a matter that compels interest. Her lines deal with the tactile, the graspable, the kind of recollection that is at once vivid as snap shots and yet vague and ultimately implacable in the narrator or the reader’s life. At her best, the poems she writes are the lyrics one finds in the post modern world, a tuneful , resonate set of songs that fall apart when their signifiers are unhinged from the things they signify. What little sense the poems make in the conventional sense, for the conventional reader is compensated for in terms of the working creating a sense of a mind un-moored by a dictating focus and the images are allowed to link with what association seems like a good fit at the moment. Hadas, one supposes, is a succinct John Ashbery. That, is when the poems work. One should check out her 2006 collection
River of Forgetfulness for her mastery of theme, tone, language.

“Body of Book”, though, does not work, and is, in fact, a flat tire, a structure that will not move. Her particular riffs on memory and the fluctuating consequences they have on our present life is a rich terrain to explore , but she succumbs to the worst habit a professional poet, an academic poet can assume, writing a poem about the curse of being literate, well read; it’s not enough that one has read a great many books and had their consciousness expanded, so to speak, but now one must now write a straining verse wherein one contrives the psychic pain of trying to categorize one’s library, but parse, as well , what of oneself is truly original and what has been formed by the tongues of authors and poets one has consumed. I trust that I’m not the only one who gagged when reading melodramatic and throat-clearing clunkers like I woke into the locus of my body or Cherished, it writes itself upon your skin. This sounds like a strained paraphrase of the anomalies Foucault was unearthing in his books Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality , where it’s suggested, that repressive rhetoric is internalized and become an operating part of the nervous system. Whatever one thinks of his ideas, they result in a pointlessly arcane poem.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Memoirs of an Amnesiac

Cultural Amnesia
by Clive James

The estimable James, novelist, poet, and critic, has an opinion on everything having to do with culture and the arts, and with Cultural Amnesia , an alphabetized collection of essays on the artists, poets, musicians, writers and film makers he feels we should be conversant in, lest we forget, get lazy, or simply stop giving a good goddamn of what brilliant men and women are trying to do. James does give a damn, fortunate for us, and sallies forth with learned and nuanced barbs, jibes, praise, and digressions that evince a mind that will not stay in one place long. His range is impressive, though some of his views are questionable, given to subjectively defined absolutes, such as his long essay on jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington; James does an insightful reading of the master's body of work, but goes beyond his kiln expressing his dislike of the modernism that caught up with jazz improvisation, claiming, in effect, that the faster, more bracing innovations of Charlie Parker, Coltrane and Miles Davis destroyed the form. Rather than admit that any vibrant art changes with the younger stalwarts who take up it's practice, James would rather that his beloved idea of jazz, rhythmic, melodic, and danceable, was "dead". This is rather typical of the book, where one enters what they think is a discussion of an intriguing personality only to find that James has a grievance he wants to address, a score to settle. He goes off topic with the topic he selects.

A mind as expansive as James' seems to be wouldn't make such closed-source claim, and one gets the feeling as they progress through his pieces on painting, film, literature and the like that rather than attempt synthesis with his tastes, he's formed a template on each of his subjects, a prepared statement that he can repeat time and again, on command. Elsewhere, he shows a knack for leaving his ostensible subject altogether to consider a tangent that makes for a mystifying transition; his essay on film director Michael Mann turns into a muddied meditation on terrorism and relative morality of fighting the scourge with clandestine means. It's something worth discussing, I suppose, but one feels cheated at these times in not getting what James promised he'd discuss. There are other subjects one puzzles over, such as his inclusion and other wise bright essay on talk show host Dick Cavett; the issues he takes up in Cultural Amnesia’s alphabetized format is to have readers be confronted with cultural figure who are truly crucial in the advancing (or retardation) in the 20th century, but one wonders whether Cavett, despite his wit and skill as an interviewer, is among those who contributions mattered to the degree that James immortalizes him further. Cavett himself might well be embarrassed by the critic’s lavishing.

A particular annoyance is his habit of showing his rather narrow take on some of the arts he covers, especially in his remarks concerning the respective bodies of work from jazz composer and band leader Duke Ellington and saxophonist John Coltrane.

Typically British and marvelously intelligent, James' goal is not just to inform the uninitiated to new persons and their ideas, but also to provoke a conversation, perhaps controversy among the cognoscenti. He does this effectively on a recent excerpt on Duke Ellington; the essay reads well and describes the composer's particular genius for writing three minute swing masterpieces, not a point of contention. He then takes the dimmer view of Ellington's later work, when he was composing and performing longer concert pieces, a denser, less swinging arrangements of colors and moods. James is not happy with The Duke's efforts:

The ­art form he had done so much to enrich depended, in his view, on its entertainment value. But for the next generation of musicians, the ­art form depended on sounding like art, with entertainment a secondary consideration at best, and at worst a cowardly concession to be avoided. In a few short years, the most talented of the new jazz musicians succeeded in proving that they were deadly serious. Where there had been ease and joy, now there was difficulty and desperation. Scholars of jazz who take a developmental view would like to call the hiatus a transition, but the word the bebop literati used at the time was all too accurate: It was a revolution.

This isn't an unusual position, since critic Gary Giddins has written at length about why he considers Ellington's legacy resting not on denser, mature work in later years, but instead on the sheer wealth of shorter dance tunes he brought to light; all the invention one might wish in notation and sound are found in the work Ellington performed to keep America dancing. Yet Giddins admits the originality and greatness of much of the larger work, while James is harbors a resentment against the post-swing developments of Bebop complexity and post-Bop envelope-tearing improvisation of John Coltrane. Pretty much implying that one of the greatest betrayals against art was that of a younger generation of improvisers seeking ot expand jazz's lexicon, James cites with endearing relish the great Ben Webster's magical tenor work for Ellington against the wild man arrogance of a younger John Coltrane:

There is nothing to be gained by trying to evoke the full, face-­freezing, ­gut-churning hideosity of all the things Coltrane does that Webster doesn't. But there might be some value in pointing out what Coltrane doesn't do that Webster does. Coltrane's instrument is likewise a tenor sax, but there the resemblance ends. In fact, it is only recognizable as a tenor because it can't be a bass or a soprano: It has a tenor's range but nothing of the voice that Hawkins discovered for it and Webster focused and deepened. There is not a phrase that asks to be remembered except as a lesion to the inner ear, and the only purpose of the repetitions is to prove that what might have been charitably dismissed as an accident was actually meant. Shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals. Above all, and beyond all, there is no end to it. There is no reason except imminent death for the cacophonous parade to stop. The impressiveness of the feat depends entirely on the air it conveys that the perpetrator has devoted his life to making this discovery: Supreme mastery of technique has led him to this charmless demonstration of what he can do that nobody else can. The likelihood that nobody else would want to is not considered.

Jazz ought to have stood still.

The most noticeable element of this essay is Clive James' resentment that people and things change over time. Eloquent as he is about Ellington's great early period, there is less a convincing argument for the superiority of swing over more experimental strains of jazz than it is a barely contained lament for lost, youthful elan. As has been said already, the rhythms of the world changed after WW2, and the kids were taken with rock and roll's back beat rather than what was going on with jazz. Being able to swing was besides the point; the children of the Ellington era audience wanted to rock. The jubilation at the Ellington "comeback" concert was a good and great thing--good art should always cause excitement--but it didn't translate into the fabled return of the Big Band/Swing era. It's doubtful Ellington himself would have desired a return to the Golden Days, as he was far too interested in the new music he was composing and performing with his Orchestra. For such a bright fellow, Clive James has the queer notion that art, jazz in this instance, must not progress some vague peak of expression; band leaders should keep their writing chops focused on producing limitless three minute dance tunes, and soloists have to remain sweet, lyrical, and brief.

Art is only interesting in that it evolves with successive generations of players, and it would be a strange and stale reading world if novelists adhered to perceived rules from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, or if film makers eschewed sound and color. Jazz would be a predictable shtick rather than a creative act.The truth of this is that audiences were turning away from jazz in general.Dispite whatever historicist arguements advanced pitting traditionalists against experimenters in order to explain jazz's declining audience,both Ellington and Coltrane were both playing to diminished fan bases;the record buying public had gotten younger and leaned towards a simpler rhythm and blues style. This was true among black audiences, whose generational switch to Ray Charles, and Rufus Thomas influenced white audiences, resulting in the eventual rise of rock and roll. Everything gets displaced from the center. Clive James objects to both Ellington's widening ambition with his composing, recording and performance of longer concert pieces and to Coltrane's redefining what jazz improvisation could sound like. He seeks to locate the cause and the instance when jazz ceased being the world's all purpose sound track, and for as sweetly as he writes, seeks to attach blame. He forgets a crucial fact of being alive; things change

James is at his best when he finds the clay feet of cultural icon and then wields a sure hammer to smash some other wise sensitive toes, especially in the case of German Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Supported by the government to write his plays and poetry in furtherance of the revolution, James takes delight in detailing the jarring contrast between the man’s image, that as an artist who was “of the people”, and his lifestyle” which, as he describes it, was as bourgeois as any cigar chomping capitalist he might excoriate in his art. Brecht, though, was mindful to keep up appearances; he apparently had the tailor who made his silk shirts manufacture them so that they looked like the rough textured denim that was the requisite dress of proletariat intellectuals. As for Brecht’s art, which was considerable and deserving of analysis on it’s own terms, James skirts the issue altogether with summary dismissals worthy of Paul Johnson (Intellectuals) and dwells on the gossip, the dirt. In that regard, Cultural Amnesia is deep dish indeed.