Sunday, June 29, 2008

USED BOOKS: Tough Guys Don't Dance

Tough Guys Don't Dance
Norman Mailer (Random House)

Mailer had said that he wanted to write something fast, nasty and fun after the time and energy he lavished on two of brilliant and more ambitious projects, Ancient Evenings and Executioner's Song. Tough Guys Don't Dance is that book, in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett, Ross MacDonald.

Tim Madden wakes up after a long life of wasting away as a binging alcoholic and finds his bed drenched in blood; later he finds his wife's severed head in a secret pot stash. He, however remembers none of it, and this provides Mailer ample room to ruminate about the metaphysics of hangovers and black outs and the perversions one finds themselves willing to commit when wealth and power are at stake. The cast of characters are unruly, pinched in the nerve and casting a faint whiff of what one imagines the store room where Dorian Gray's portrait was held in sick secrecy. Madden, hardly an innocent , stumbles and routs about trying to piece together the events of his last binge, terrified in the possibility that he might well be his wife's killer.

This is the most horrible of personal journeys, the saga of a man seeking evidence as to whether he's a monster or merely a hapless dupe.Mailer's prose is breathtaking and poetic, and creates a tension with the gamy undertakings of the plot. This is not one of Mailer's masterworks, not be a long shot, but it has verve and drive and a splendidly sick wit, and it reminds us that Mailer can construct an odd tale and twist it in any direction he pleases. Among the considerable graces of one of Mailer's most controversial novels An American Dream were the flights of poetry and jazz-tempo'd cadences the late writer could draw from the paranoia and psychic dissolution of an alcoholic finding himself crushed by a world he could not will into his designs, and Tough Guys has much of that desperate, tragic elan coursing through it's noir-toned narrative. Think what you may of Mailer the masculinist, Mailer the artist was an acute witness to an embattled soul accommodating powers greater than itself.

"Confinement", take 2

I'd say that the "treadmill" I refer is evidence of the confinement Hoagland is writing about; what's for certain is that at this moment, the experience recollected in the poem, he wants out of the life he no longer has empathy for. I don't think the poem is political in the way some have suggested, although it starts that way. Rather, the first stanza is set up as a situation that will be contrasted against the narrator's increasing unease, and with the final stanza, he alone in the room with a television blaring with the sound off, we find him relating not to the righteousness of the cause, but only to the gathered anger and rage itself. All these angry faces seemed ready to burst out of their confines, spill over, render their former social relationships meaningless. What appeals to me is not the sense this makes as an argument rather than the sense it gives of the sensation of being closed in and set upon, and the increasing level of the instinct of fight-or-flight.

The poem had been criticized for making use of political reference in order to make a self-centered confession, but saying that Hoagland's use of a politics situation is narcissistic is a little shallow. Hoagland's narrator is responding to the jacked-up reporting and manipulated images of the situation, an editing style designed to ratchet up the viewer's anxiety level; Marcuse discusses this when he refers to the Thanatonic desire, which is the desire to consume, engineered by marketing, to deny an impending sense of doom. The poet here is on the money and accomplishes the task of getting at a common malaise that is an obvious under current in a materialist culture.

The poem, though, is primarily about the narrator's own plight.It's an efficient dialectic the poet puts across here.Remember that his unraveling is triggered, by implication, by a media hyped reports of a coup in the Middle East, cause of the turmoil not disclosed. It sets the tone for the rest of his day, which he was obviously anticipating with dread. After he is saturated with the alienating currents of the memorial service, he returns from the local to the global, witnessing angry televised protests, feeling it as rage about to spill over or explode from the box containing it, and recognizes at once that he isn't the only one who feels like this. He indeed does relate to something larger than his own unease; he realizes the discomfort is shared, the rage is same whatever the language.
Lastly, the last stanza about the pall bearers is choice. Sometimes attending funerals seem like reruns of old tv shows, as the causes of death and the tributes and regrets expressed in grief seem interchangeable after awhile. You get the feeling that you're watching a teaser trailer of an upcoming feature, your own demise. Hoagland's wit is appreciated here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"CONFINEMENT" by Tony Hoagland: the desire to smash the box

The misery of the individual in crowds is the theme here, and death itself is the only release available to the harried sole who wants an end their unceasing trudge on what has become a grueling, repetitious treadmill.Tony Hoagland is a writer I like because of his skill at constructing what begins as conventional narrative--in this case one suspects he is about to go into a jejune broadside about power corrupting absolutely--and then changing course ever so, to go with a counter narrative from his own life. "Confinement" goes from the global to the local with a swiftness of association that's substantiated by Hoagland's attention to small but telling details, and his particular skill at drawing distinctions and then erasing them. There is what we take to be the description of televised news headlines of a coup

The dictator in the turban died and was replaced
by a dictator in a Western business suit.
Now that he looked like all the other leaders, observers

detected a certain relaxing of tensions. Something in the air
said the weather was changing,
and if you looked up at the sky and squinted, you could almost see

the faint dollar signs embossed upon the big, migrating clouds

And then the abrupt transition to the narrator's real time doings, snapped from a gaze of silent news headlines to his actual task of trying to get to a funeral on the other side of town. There is something of what-the-hell happening here , with the conventionally phrased anti-politician rhetoric of the first sequence and the WHAM! segue that comes without warning, but there is something; it's about the details, the creeping , scarcely contained dread that creeps through the body as one observes themselves in a crowd gathered to the departed, a brother in law who had large appetites and bad habits that caused his demise and forced this ritualized grieving on his family and associates. The anxiety of trying to think of nice things to say about someone you scarcely knew to people you're not especially interested in is credibly conveyed here;

And Barney was dead, big PartyBoy Barney,
famous for his appetite and lack of self-control—
—now, needing an extra-large coffin,

as if he was taking his old friends
Drinking Eating and Smoking
into the hole with him.

—So what hovered over the proceedings that afternoon
was a mixture of grief and vindication—
like a complex sauce the pallbearers and aunts

were floating in, each one thinking,
"Oh God! I told him this would happen!"

I like the way Hoagland alternates between his terse narration and the overheard remarks of the other mourners, the babbling, weeping, beseeching voices that are confounded with the death of someone in their concentric spheres of association. Escape is the theme here, a need for release from what imprisons the body , whether socially, addictively, physically, and Hoagland's observes , toward the end, he finds an empty room with a television turned on, sound off, recalling the coup presented in precis in the first stanza. A hit , a palpable hit, an undeniable aha, eureka, a small but actual moment of clarity reveals itself, in a flash of insight;

Even with the sound off,
not even knowing the name of the country,
I thought that I could understand

what they were protesting about,
what had made them so angry:

They wanted to be let out of the TV set;

This is the closest most of us will come to a zen moment where we find ourselves witnessing the thing itself and not the confines or shadows of our perceptual filters as they mold our experience into something useful for a consumer economy; this is about getting caught up in more demands on our energy than our mind or our soul can stand, those requests , entreaties, commands from outside ourselves that continue to resound even as we feel our autonomy being crowded out of consideration.It doesn't matter what killed his brother in law, it doesn't matter what style of suit a dictator wears, it matters little what mourners think they should have done or what the departed might have thought after the eulogies are read, there comes the time when one all the events and material things in the world cease to have delineated meanings and rational purposes and come to instead symbolize the crushing burden one feels in the extremity of radical self-consciousness. The reason for the televised protests wasn't what our beleaguered soul related to, it was the energy that needed release, violent release. He wants out of the box as well. Escape is the issue, and it doesn't matter to. 

Monday, June 23, 2008


It's rather too easy to exaggerate the virtues of a renegade celebrity when they finally pass on and glide into whatever ethereal after-existence one conspires to imagine, citing some usually short lived early insights into the layers of falseness and bad faith that sap us of our virtues , and turning a blind eye and a deaf ear when our late hypothetical rebel went sour, became hackneyed, and had exhausted all freshness of approach. We don't want our iconic iconoclasts to lose their reputation as relevant sayers of truth. The irony, of course, is that our collective mourning and remembrance wraps the departed with the same kind of wrap of cliche and truisms the truth teller sought to dispel; strange, wouldn't it seem, that the efforts of a Twain, a Thompson, a Richard Pryor or a Bill Hicks did nothing really to bring their generations to clarity and purpose, but only gave the old apologies a new coat of paint?

That's the dilemma when one sets themselves up as a a speaker of truth to power, as it were; in print one risks the charge of seeming shrill and paranoid, effectively marginalizing any effect one might have had on the discourse,and for the comedian, the risk is that one is charged with the worst crime of all, of not being funny. The late George Carlin, of course, never had a problem of being funny. At various times a social critic, a Menckenesque student of the innate ambiguities of language, a rather superb commentator and satirist specializing in the dialectic of unrealistic expectation meeting concrete and inevitable fact, Carlin caused laughter, nervous coughing, debates; and did, to some extent, provoke discussions after his comedy albums were played or his many HBO specials were finished, disagreements above and beyond the "funny bits" and laugh lines and landing on the subject near to Carlin's lovingly cynical heart, the collective delusions Americans rely on to buffer themselves against the stressed out and crushing banality of their (our) existence. His was the spotlight where Lenny Bruce, Mencken and Thorsten Veblen shook hands and polished the best insights into hard, fast and lacerating lines, given with a delivery which could, to steal a line from Norman Mailer, boil the fat from a cabdriver's neck.

One can maintain, no doubt, that Carlin was straining in the last ten years or so, that he was too acerbic at last, too acidic and joyless with the sharp stick he jabbed into the side of the obese culture he was attracted to as much as repulsed by. Perhaps; what I remember is that Carlin was a consistent cynic ever since he dropped his TV-friendly routines and brought some measure of refreshing independence to the shows on which he was a guest. Yes, I know, his criticism, his act, his jibes, his jeremiads were all an act, right. Yes, but that didn't make him a phony, and one had to admire Carlin's skill at remaining an effective entertainer for all the corrosive views he brought to the table. In a time when many a showbiz contrarian is soon revealed as disposable and ill-fitted for a long career, Carlin remembered what he was, at bottom, he remembered what made his skewed disposition marketable; he was an entertainer, a comedian. He could make you laugh, and that is a gift we see too little in our lives.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Notes on a poem for 2 upcoming anniversaries

I am under a month away from two special occasions, a birthday when I will be six years past the half century mark, and the day after that, on which I will have twenty one years sobriety. Thank you, thank you. The goal today is not to die or take a drink before the crucial days in July; in any event, I've already been to rehab, at the Betty Ford Center in fact, in Rancho Mirage, California, in the Palm Springs area. What I love the facts of my sobriety date is that I can honestly say that "I went to the desert to dry out in town called Rancho Mirage", amusing myself with the low irony of mashing the cliche of alkies "drying out", the desert being the driest clime one might choose to live in, and that the town name summarized what I felt July 16, 1987, the day after my thirty fifth birthday, the feeling that what was happening to me was unreal, unprecedented, consciousness expanding,in its own way. What I knew at the time was that I couldn't stop drinking nor stop the wreckage my worst habit created, and that the first night in treatment was also the first time in a decade that my head hit a pillow without having a pint of vodka to ease my into rough slumber. Anyway, all this musing over what it was like , what happened and what it's like now through the last week prompted this poem tonight; I've also been reading Berrigan, O'Hara and Padgett lately, some of each shows up here. At the near age of fifty six and with nearly twenty one years sober, I trust something of my own style seeps through the influence.

it means go, brother

as it goes
this year
this month

i am 3 sheets shy
of a coastline to
walk upon

just coasting
on old bed frames
anticipating Spring

and Summer
close behind
another year older

in every cents of the word

5 years past the half dollar mark
20 and change since
a drink or the handcuffs
that came with them

i go to work
i pay my bills
no one crosses the street
or leave their tables in diners
and cafes where
the gossip
is about celebrities
and not what i did
or didn't do
on last decade
this month

it's all money no one sees
axis that keeps the spheres on their paths
though one cannot
see a cog or gear
for all the lavish metaphors

sometimes it's enough
to lay on the mattress
and stare at the ceiling
after i tire of visiting my problems

you call me
you call me
the phone rings and it's you

talking the same old lines of how-do-you -do

did you read those
books i lent you?

it's 3 clean sheets
that hang on the line,
the same phone number
for 10 years since moving day

it rained last night
a mist wraps around the homes on the hill
beautiful traffic rushes forth
through the fog and green lights,

it means go, brother, go!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


As mentioned in a prior post, I admired the work of the recently deceased news broadcaster Tim Russert, but I am a bit leery of NBC's week-long saturation tributes to the man. Keith Olberman, someone else whom I admire for his pioneering willingness to fire back at the Right Wing Noise Machine, went over board last night during his popular Countdown segment "Worst Persons in the World" when he went to great length to excoriate California Representative Daryl Issa for segueing from a Russert tribute to a partisan pitch for lifting the ban on off shore oil drilling. Tacky, tasteless, in bad taste and all, but Olbermann was at the edge of getting shrill. It's one to project a cooley aimed anger when making special comments regarding torture and the like, but the Issa bit was small potatos, small beer, too small a catch to break a sweat over. Jack Shafer of Slate agrees that it's time to stop the excessive mourning and do what Russert did, roll up the sleeves and get back to work.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Watch" BY Eamon Grennan: only impatience grows here

Writers who become mired in thinking and finally writing about their own composing processes are , in my view, spinning their wheels in the said murk and are perhaps denying the presence of that lurking suspicion that they've written all there is for them to write. So they keep busy, fuss about with their technique, advance or contract their formula, and find themselves alone in the messy living room of a mind thinking about writing and worse, writing about writing, about how hard it is to write a poem, to get it right.
Eamon Grennan's "Watch" is that sort of poem, a prose confession disguised with line breaks, a practice run that is composed more to limber up stiff muscles and assure the poet that the world flow is still there. The flow is in this poem, as Grennan is a choice phrase maker, but the phrase making here isn't in service of what's seen in the evolving garden. Grennan writes here as though he cannot talk about the garden unless he has his stamp on it, and so load the poem with the details of his material exitence.

Watching it closely, respecting its mystery,
is the note you've pinned above this heavy Dutch table
that takes the light weight of what you work at,
coaxing the seen and any mystery it might secrete
into words that mightn't fall too far short,..

The need to establish that he's at his desk watching his garden as he tries to write his poem about his inability to distill the essence of his ephemeral perception sufficiently in words begins the enterprise on a false and throat clearing note, the sort of harrumphing we note in blustering cartoon buffoons who haven't a real thought under their verbal exteriors. The poem isn't about the garden and the changes it undergoes in just a few daylight hours, and not even about Grennan having an experience; it reads more like it's about a poet trying to have an experience. Indeed, there is a the feeling of steroidal, vein-popping strain here, and there's even a bit of what one would call Sports Babble, the talent of sports commentators to prate continuously with statistics and incidental aracana while the game is being played.

Such matters can be dealt with in interesting ways if the writer is willing to accept a new sort of rigor and retire the centering "I" .He might then avoid the boredom of trying to revitalize old tropes and instead develop a style, tone and aesthetic method that can make the confounding multifacetness of subject/object split and the limits of narrative givens to break through the third wall and be in the presence of the world known only by God; Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Leslie Scalapino, Jack Spicer, Ron Silliman and Rae Armentrout , among many others, have succeded in taming the self-conciousness that infects many a poet having difficulty with the final inadequecy of their poems to be more than figurations and writing interesting , frequently brilliant and bracing poems as a result. There goal among these poets, generalizing perhaps a yard or two too wide , has been to transcend the ego that thinks it's having an experience and and to bring to the craft some relevant rhetorical ideas that can help the writer actually accomplish what Grennan only flirts with here, to evoke, not define a world beyond the control of the speaking, writing voice.

Monday, June 16, 2008

USED BOOKS: Sartre, Italo Calvino Tim O'Brien

-Jean Paul Sartre
Invisible Cities
-Italo Calvino
Tom Cat in Love
-Tim O'Brien

Sartre's Nausea is a gripping, twitchy little novella confirming the ways one person of unpleasant station can make them self sick , nervous, an odious presence by lingering long on the ambivalent shrug .No one else could write a better tale of an intensely self-aware intellectual whose physical discomforts translate into a changed worldview. Not a lot of laughs, but Sartre does insert his descriptions of bad faith of an intellect aware of his stagnation but whose dread saps strength, and will from him, makes him powerless to do even the simplest exchange. There is, of course, transcendence of a sort, but none are comfortable with its results. The peculiar interest here is the lingering on the problem and an inspection of the illness that infects the spirit as a cumulative consequence of an individual denying their potential and getting by with a bare minimum of engagement. Sartre’s fiction and his plays are for those who have an avid interest in those who live in just one room of the many in life’s vast mansion.

Still, we mut assume that some of us like to get out of the house, let alone leave our room, and enjoy a book reflecting a similar attitude. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino appeals to Universal wanderlust, the tourist who wants to transcend the visitor status and gathers an intriguing set of tales. Marco Polo telling tales of his travels to fantastic cities to Kublai Kahn, who is stupefied and enthralled, until he queries Polo of the veracity the tales, and the veracity of language, becoming, finally, a dialogue between not which representation is real, but which one is more useful in a scheme of things that presents itself only a line at time, charts on an unfolding map.

Spinning tales of where one has been and what one did while they were there is an fine , delicately balanced craft where the plausible context and the impossible coincidence must balance each other in that strange space of gravity that keeps the reader in suspense, wondering what is real and what is of made up of whole cloth. Tom Cat In Love Tim O'Brien ‘s novel of a very smart guy who’s incapable of telling the truth the first time he tells an anecdote, is a superb comedy of manners. A college novel, a grandiloquent professor of linguistics puffs up his chest as he brags of his genius and his conquests of the ladies, until he is exposed, over time, as a liar who has comic complications that might rival Harry Crews worst southern dysfunctionals. Funny, bitter. There is not, though, a sympathetic personality in the lot. O'Brien, however, writes a very fine, faux- Nabokov prose of self-puffery.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, RIP

NBC host of Meet the Press Tim Russert died today of a heart attack. He was 58 years old, too young.

He was a firebrand interviewer, famous for making Republican and Democratic politicians squirm with this jabbing questioning style. Anyone who'd watched Meet the Press couldn't help but feel sympathy for the guest who showed up unprepared, without a plan or a consistent history of policy thinking who found themselves being expertly dissected by Russert's questions; Russert's reputation as a passionate, thorough yet fair inquisitor was legendary, and one was left to wonder why any politico, elected or otherwise, would bother showing with less than their best game.

His effectiveness had something to do that he seemed to do his homework , and his staff was very good at finding past guest statements about issues that contradicting more recent utterances where opinions and agendas were at least mollified, softened, or at least soft pedaled. No one was better in revealing politicians who desired power for its own sake rather than use for doing the people's business.Tim Russert will be missed, and one hopes NBC has the good fortune to replace him with some of similar punch.

A kiss that cannot end : a blues poem

a blues poem

Pick gripped tween thumb and index finger
a curling current loops up the steel string,

a blues in an odd key on similar Saturdays
after the lights go down

tires roll in an adhesive hiss
like a kiss that cannot end on a bad note

nothing else that gets written
at the desk equals the soft, keening

note growing larger with each breath
one takes as the moon rises higher

over the bars that are locked and
the windows are dark,

a down stroke, a pass at the frets,
cat fight feedback creeps under the garage door,

lo, the rain and the fog
rolls over the distinctions,

a drug store, a parked car,
a street besot with an ashy patina,

Muddy Waters says he's ready,
Little Walter tells us everything's gonna be alright,

Mayall tries to bring it home
but drops the bag

and now there's only broken bottles
in a wet paper sack,

while upstairs
the radio goes off
a hand closes the window
and then pulls down the shade.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Blue", a good jazz poem by Peter Balakian

I'd normally put this poem at the bottom of things to be read and evaluated, given that it is yet another poem in a long string of tributes to jazz legends; the results I've read or heard from thirty years of open readings, workshops, and editing anthologies are that most of the attempts to get to the core of the improviser’s art are ham-handed and none-to-fresh (nor particularly musical). Davis, Parker, Ellington, all have had their names evoked and their legends dragged through a white jazz critic's generalizations about music, suffering, and black folks and their innate "soulfulness" and rhythm, through which a sort of benevolent racism can be viewed, the mythical good intentions of the humane plantation owner who sought to be kind to "his children". It's not a topic category that's ever yielded much in way of revelation or poetic effect for me; the revisionist poems, ostensibly written by mostly white poets to honor a black American art form, made me think of the stale paternalism that was, after all, is said and done, merely another attempt to define non-white traditions within American history and defuse them of any quality a group might take to define their experiences in terms other than what the Caucasian canonThat said, I think Peter Balakian’s poem “Blue” almost works as the poetry equivalent of the sound of Davis’ trumpet. Void of the generalizations and ersatz sociology that have made this sub-genre in urban poetry a laughable species of verse, Balakian approaches the poem much the same as Davis might have approached his solos, focusing on the mood of the moment, the suggestive textures of a note bent against a modal piano figure and the quiet rumble of bass and drums creating a host of alluring shades, tones and coloration , a space that is about the problematic personality rising above and over defects of character and external hindrances to happiness and creating those series of moments that are sublime, pure, unaffected bits of harmony and beauty, albeit a loveliness tempered with the doings of a scornful cityscape. Balakian chooses interesting words for his impressions of listening to the Davis group; the city is transformed, it becomes something new, if briefly, for Balakian’s rhapsodic narrator and this must be the transcendence Davis himself must have felt when this music was played.

Light we pulled into a string of glass
that seeped out of the long vibration

of Miles' Blue in Green
like slow time in the empty lot

after soot and rain and rush,
the Ferry out of sight,

my bones electric with the hum
of the cable of the Bridge at 3 a.m.

and the dying lights of the Bowery.
Bill Evans making the rain thin

to a beam of haze before the
horn comes back from underwater.

New York seems lovely and quite habitable even by the timidest of us; it becomes not the most sophisticated and elegant place in the world, but rather, with the music from Miles' transubstantiating phrases, is the world where each and every crook, thief, liar, cuckold, and cheat assumes grace, finds a place, blends in with a rich backdrop of wise, somber hues that make up the thick and awe-inspiring skyline. The city with its traffic, racist cops, crowds, posers, slums, jerks, geniuses, writers and money-grubbing capitalist becomes transformed, cast in a softer light, rinsed with soft rain, tall buildings seen in water puddle reflections and blurred neon nightclub signs burning away the mist just enough for you to who is furnishing the soundtrack. This is a cityscape that exists only in black and white photographs carefully framed to produce an effect, but Balakian is writing about how Davis’ music from this period made him feel about the quality of his life in a dense urban center. That he does it with a modicum of hyperbole is a wonder, and the final lines about Bill Evans clearing away the rain and Davis’ horn resurfacing after an absence is the subtlest description of a jazz group’s interaction I’ve read in years. Of course, it makes no literal sense. It’s a poem, and a good one.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

USED BOOKS: The Gates of Eden

The Gates of Eden
stories by Ethan Coen (Delta)

A lifetime of reading means a lot of cheap paperbacks with busted spines that one must eventually take to the used book store, the idea being to clear space in both one's apartment and in one's head. One is moving out and moving on, but not without a summation of sorts of a few plot convolutions and the writers who typed them. Ethan Coen likes to take the convolutions one has left at the curb and smash to bits with a heavy, wicked hammer. His collection of short fiction,The Gates Of Eden, offers this collection of odd-lug short stories, collected from various magazines from where they've been published previously. Uneven, as with any collection, though there are some nice slices of dialogue, and some potent descriptive writing, but as a film maker, Coen's descriptions of things seem like film treatments at best, hurried and breathless, like the film pitches we witnessed in The Player, and our laughs are too dependent on our knowledge, even reference, of tired genre forms. But "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator" is a Philip Marlow/ Sam Spade send up that results in some honest hoots, and 'Destiny" is a particularly vicious laugh at the boxing trade, with a Coenesque hero eating fists over and over as a direct result of his own miserably rationalized choices.

About The Noise

A screaming comes from the balcony of the apartment next to you, some one else is drunk under the summer moon again, the armies of the night troll the residential streets looking for the cars they parked for their pub crawls on the business strip three blocks away. More screams, yelling, every clumsy curse word you ever on the play ground said this time with no relish or daring, just animal sounds an animal makes when you poke it with a stick. I'd been working late, writing away on some issue or the other, Bill Evans playing sweet and brittle piano through my head phones as I let the screen swell with paragraphs praising Mailer, DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, yet again, for raising the conciousness of the era, or at least inspiring me again to write late into the evening.But then the writing is over and the computer goes off, and when I take off the headphones, helicopters swoop over the roof, police radios crackle along a wet, dank street, drunk males are scrambling over the fences to avoid the Long, Arthritic Arm of the Law.

 Thank god for His Miracle Invention of Ear Plugs. At a younger age I would be in someone's face, making threats, chest puffed for a fight.What can you do? There's a minute of satisfaction telling some to shut up when they've woken you up more than once, late at night. But then comes the idea, the cold and sobering realization that the only thing you've done is come off like a cranky old geezer who's ready to choke on his congealing sense of comfort. There's a principle at stake, yes, but it has everything to do with my sense of what's right for me, of what I think I'm owed in small measure rather than the application of any greater good.

I just want the nights to be as quiet as the likes mom and dad enjoyed before they decided to have us kids. There is the on going irony of aging, getting older, that the original night owl alkie is now a middle aged working stiff who requires his sleep, and feels the creaks and groans of the joints and the disposition if he hasn't the fabled eight hours, give or take. That much annoys the fuck out of me, and it's not uncommon to find myself using it as a way of making the noisy kids somehow correct in their pestering ruckus.

The facts remain, though, that it's most likely that I'll continue to wave my shoe like grandma used to , and make the harrummmmpphhing noise when it comes down to my will or nothing at all. Sometimes I wonder if I was born or merely set aside in another dimension of newspaper grey and was launched into this world because what ever the case was running low on the premium designs. It's a habitual thought, a shudder of doubt when staking hands or crossing streets or visiting people who and which are so familiar, so complete in intimate nuances and shared knowledge that they seem alien and strange, like specimens under glass in a museum I keep visiting for a lesson that just keeps turning the corner to the next gallery when my hard shoes hit the tile. Everything I look for is just out of focus, short of the designs I see and have drawn.

Believing the world is seeing beyond the box scores and trusting what it says on the certificate; the biography has already been started, a page of facts that have gotten absurdly complicated, in love their own inventory of details that are pressed now in their uniqueness, creased and pleated, ready for rough waters I imagine await at the end of the map, where boats fall off and drift with sails full of solar wind until I wake up and yawn and scan the items on the table, the newspaper, the dirty bowls, someone else's pack of Marlboro 100s. The universe is reassembled, seamless as death itself.

Years ago I wondered if there was life on other planets precisely at the time when she left me, or asked me to leave, I wondered who else in this darkness knows this hurt as well as I?, and I stared for hours at her apartment as if trying to make the walls fly away, to lift her off the sofa, away from her meal , and bring her into my arms where I stood in the dark, next to a payphone, with out change to call out far enough to the wilderness where there is only wind and tall grass, maybe houses at the bottom of canyons that you see from jets leaving your home town before you enter the clouds that will drag on the wingspan, I would stare and the walls would stay where the carpenters intended them to remain, there was nothing to see, but I stared harder, right through the building, to the stars I knew were there, receiving radio waves, TV shows, thoughts of strong desire translatable only by action, hear me, hear me, who else shivers in a dark corner in unique misery, genius of articulated regret, who else speaks when no language gets the purity of the idea right, just right, thus forcing one to live in craziness, at the end of the alley, drinking from bottles I've pealed the labels from? As usual, the stars don't answer, they don't say a word.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Whoroscope by Samuel Beckett

The rickety and decidedly repetitive rhythms of Samuel Beckett's plays and novels suggest modernist poetry itself. As literary art shifted from universal declarations of world spirit and dwelt more on the interior life and the inability of the individual to convincingly make totalizing remarks about the makeup and purpose of existence. One is always waiting for something to happen to make the body's labors and the mind's intellectual achievements cohere with a serenity that comes only when imagination coincides with actual fact. 

Beckett's characters are not much less than obsolete machines that still make noise and can move their gears involuntarily, at crossroads awaiting the arrival of an unannounced re assignation, cloistered in boxes responding to daylight and sound with responses mimicking the slow grind of old gears. Beckett's novels and plays are in various demonstrations an acute set of visions of when the machinery of habits breaks down and grind against one another. His poetry, those few stanzas he actually wrote, get to the despairing and darkly funny heart of his matter in an even colder, more challenging light. This is the case with Whoroscope, one hundred lines of click-track short-circuiting referencing a gripe of Renee Descartes grousing over the nutritional value of an egg that had been served him. An extract from the poem, with Beckett's own notes:

WhoroscopeBy Samuel Beckett


What's that?An egg?By the brother Boot it stinks fresh.Give it to Gillot
Galileo how are youand his consecutive thirds!The vile old Copernican lead-swinging son of a sutler!We're moving he said we're off - Porca Madonna!the way a boatswain would be, or a sack-of-potatoes charging PretenderThat's not moving, that's moving.
What's that?A little green fry or a mushroomy one?Two lashed ovaries with prosciutto?How long did she womb it, the feathery one?Three days and four nights?Give it to Gillot
Faulhaber, Beeckmann and Peter the Red,come now in the cloudy avalanche or Gassendi's sun-red crystally cloudand I'll pebble you all your hen-and-a-half onesor I'll pebble a lens under the quilt in the midst of dayTo think he was my own brother, Peter the Bruiser,and not a syllogism out of himno more than if Pa were still in it.
Hey! Pass over those copperssweet milled sweat of my burning liver!Them were the days I sat in the hot-cupboard throwing Jesus out of the skylight.
Who's that? Hals?Let him wait.
My squinty doaty!I hid and you sook.And Francine my precious fruit of a house-and-parlour foetus!What an exfoliation!Her little grey flayed epidermis and scarlet tonsils!My one childScourged by a fever to stagnant murky blood-Blood!Oh Harvey belovedHow shall the red and white, the many in the few,(dear bloodswirling Harvey)eddy through that cracked beater?And the fourth Henry came to the crypt to the arrow.
What's that?How long?Sit on it.
A wind of evil flung my despair of easeagainst the sharp spires of the onelady:not once or twice but?(Kip of Christ hatch it!)in one sun's drowing(Jesuitasters please copy).So on with the silk hose over the knitted, and the morbid leather-What am I saying! the gentle canvas-and away to Ancona on the bright Adriatic,and farewell for a space to the yellow key of Rosicrucians.
They don't know what the master of the that do did,that the nose is touched by the kiss of all foul and sweet air,and the drums, and the throne of the faecal inlet,and the eyes by its zig-zagsSo we drink Him and eat Himand the watery Beaune and the stale cubes of Hovisbecause He can jigas near or as far from His Jigging Selfand a sad or lively as the chalice or the tray asksHow's that, Antonio?
In the name of Bacon will you chicken me up that egg.Shall I swallow cave-phantoms?Anna Maria!She reads Moses and says her love is crucified.Leider! Leider! She blomed and withered,a pale abusive parakeet in a maistreet window.No I believe every word of it I assure youFallor, ergo sum!The coy old fr?r!He tolle'd and legge'dand he buttoned on his redemptorist waistcoat.No matter, let it pass.I'm a bold boy I knowso I'm not my son(ever if I were a concierge)nor Joachim my father'sbut the chip of a perfect block that's neither old nor new,the lonely petal of a great high bright rose.
Are you ripe at last,my slim pale double-breasted turd?How rich she smells,this abortion of a fledgling!I will eat it with a fish fork.White and yolk and feathers.Then I will rise and move movingtoward Rahab of the snows,the murdering matinal pope-confessed amazon,Christina the ripper.Oh Weulles spare the blood of a FrankWho has climbed the bitter steps,(Ren頤u Perrron?!)and grant me my secondstarless inscrutable hour.

NotesThese notes were provided by the author.
1. Rene Descartes, Seigneur du Perron, liked his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days; shorter or longer under the hen and the result, he says, is disgusting. He kept his won birthday to himself so that no astrologer could cast his nativity. The Shuttle of a ripening egg combs the warp of his days.
2. In 1640 the brothers Boot refused Aristotle in Dublin.
3. Descartes passed on the easier problems in analytical geometry to his valet Gillot.
4. Refer to his contempt for Galileo Jr., (whom he confused with the more musical Galileo Sr.), and to his expedient sophistry concerning the movement of the earth.
5. He solved problems submitted by these mathematicians.
6. The attempt at swindling on the part of his elder brother Pierre de la Bretailli貥--The money he received as a soldier.
7. Franz Hals.
8. As a child he played with a little cross-eyed girl.
9. His daughter died of scarlet fever at the age of six.
10. Honoured Harvey for his discovery of the circulation of the blood, but would not admit that he had explained the motion of the heart.
11. The heart of Henri iv was received at the Jesuit college of La Fl裨e while Descartes was still a student there.
12. His visions and pilgrimage to Loretto.
13. His Eucharistic sophistry, in reply to the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld, who challenged him to reconcile his doctrine of matter with his doctrine of transubstantiation.
14. Schurmann, the Dutch blue stocking, a pious pupil of Vo봬 the adversary of Descartes.
15. Saint Augustine has a revelation in the shrubbery and reads Saint Paul.
16. He proves God by exhaustion.
17. Christina, queen of Sweden. At Stockholm, in November, she required Descartes, who had remained in bed till midday all his life, to be with her at five o'clock in the morning.
18. Weulles, a Peripatetic Dutch physician at the Swedish court, and an enemy of Descartes

What's striking is how this foreshadows the late William Gaddis' final novel Agape, Agape, where a dying man holds forth on a scrambled, stewing monologue about the history of the player piano and how that was an omen of how technology would invade our private lives and monitor the stirrings of the soul. Pouring over a lifetime of research, notes, papers, he rails between the sources of his misery and the increased misery he made for himself, trying to diagnose the cause in anticipation of a cure. Beckett has no such irony; his speakers are crushed by routines that have taken over the spirit. 

It is the weariness of someone too exhausted to know the world on terms other than the sheer effort to form a vowel. Gaddis' unfulfilled researcher at least retains his belief that his ideas mattered even if they were ignored or not acted upon; the frustration he feels, painfully aware that he is out of time, causes him to rage at the world, technology, himself for perceived failures to change the ten of his time. Anger animates the monologue. Beckett's language is post emotion altogether. The long discourses of his plays and novels are not monologues as they are imagined transcriptions of sounds one might have made when the genuine feeling was still possible. The lines are shown here in "Whoroscope," with their fowl references and interventions upon arriving at a point of recognizable memory or sensual sensation, are made of static signifiers, weathered billboards on an abandoned road.

I'm a fan of Beckett's poems, and it's impressive to find out how fresh and contemporary these abrasive lines still are. Beckett's speakers are those for whom the effort to contain their rage within the conforming protocols of civil nee rational language is as herculean as any physical labor. The topics are lost as the sentences stop, break, take fantastic leaps from idea to idea to view. This is the narrative of a man trying to resolve many particulars of his life and finds that having that secret history to himself for so long finds that there are no resolutions for his contradictions that he can speak to. This is the state where words lose their ability to shape the world and become something like animal sounds, the equivalent of grunts, moans, and snorts to signify the internal grinding of a mind that can no longer be molded.

Prostitutes, abortions, issues with sexuality, guilt, self-recrimination, the objectification of women, mother issues, religious torment, the gaping gates of hell welcoming the self-consumed sinner? All that is in there and good stuff for poems and literary prose to deal with. You, though, seem to have issues above and beyond experimental writing. I will simply say again, briefly, that his kind of obscurantist, indirect writing is difficult to do effectively, and Beckett does it brilliantly. There is a reason why his name and work still provoke controversy and heated discussion. There is something he tapped into that still filters through the current age. His work still resonates with readers who choose to read him. Great writers have that effect. 

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Spielberg's War of the Worlds

Steven Spielberg isn’t my favorite directors but one needs admit that he doesn’t make a dull movie; the one thing he remembered all that time in film school was that movies move , and that what we see moving across the screen would be impressive, memorable, larger than proverbial life itself.Spielberg understands spectacle the same way Cecil B.DeMille or D.W.Griffith did, with internal coherence in narrative structure and development being quietly absorbed by the need to advance his enormous fantasies forward, at a rapid clip, with each frame burnished, highlighted and processed for maximum defamiliarization. He doesn't let you forget that you're watching a movie, and that's a good thing. Stasis I can get by staying home.

That’s not to say that Spielberg hasn’t problems , major ones. Pandering? The deliverance of obvious an morality? A unfailingly black and white world in his movies, full of cause and effect and not much else? All these matters, the things that prevent one from admiring Spielberg’s movies beyond his untouchable technical mastery, are the stuff critics will hash out for years. Still, we will continue to see his films and argue over the relative merits of the small matters that nag for your attention. War of the Worlds, revived by director Steven Spielberg, is a satisfying special effects orgy that makes the devastation of the earth, in this case New Jersey to Boston, a cool and at times, yes, scary spectacle to witness on a big screen in a dark theatre.

The Martian Tripods, resembling something very wormy and metallic, are especially stunning constructions of computer animation, with the death beams they fire unto helpless city blocks and citizens seem especially formidable devices to avoid during a full scale panic. What works well, I think, is the view from the ground up: Spielberg's camera positions camera is upwards upward, from below, which provides an alarming scale of things going over head; this underscores a line delivered later in the film by a character (well played by Tim Robbins) that what is happening on earth is not a war, since a war implies a battle between nominally equal sides. "This is not a war" he says, "this is an extermination." There is an appealing air of paranoia here--Spielberg, if nothing else, can create tense airs of sensory overload. Also, the fact that we can only guess as to what horrible purpose the aliens are using their human captives for makes our imaginations work overtime constructing the cruelest mad scientist project the mind of a twisted twelve year old boy can muster.

The ending is faithful to the Wells novel, which makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise brilliantly arranged piece of cinematic catastrophe. As the menacing tripods stall, fall over, die, brought to their seamless knees by earth's native microbes, Wells hands Spielberg an excuse to indulge in his worst habit, of wrapping up thing up in a family-values cloak that never fails to ring false. Every character who matters t the hero is present at the close of the movie, and the going here becomes so cornball that you half expect ET to emerge and make magic amends for the sad, unfortunate invasion. A hasty gear switch here, a jolt to the sensibilities.

The weakest link in the film is Tom Cruise; he's gotten some good notices for his performance, but as in all his roles, he seems here only adequate to the star turn. Like Kenneau Reeves, Cruise is a wind up toy, albeit one blessed with some actorly grace. Ironically, his acting reminds me of the early days of computer animation when experimenting animators tried to get the slightest nuance of human emotion , gesture and facial movement; so close, yet so alarmingly false to the source. Distance here is not a blessing. Happily, Spielberg seems to have a way of keeping Cruise's facsimilie emotions under control, and puts his range to get use, same as he did with his mostly impressive version of Philip K. Dick's novel Minority Report. That film is worth a rental if you haven't seen it, but be warned, it is marred with the Spielberg ending , gratuitous hearts and flowers. The man cannot seem to bear to allow a grim story to remain grim, start to finish.Was Steven Spielberg exploiting 9/11 with his added element of terrorism and “sleeper cells” in his remake of War of the Worlds?
The question is inevitable, really. Had 9/11 not happened, there would writers searching for a lapse in ethical production with a question or two about whether the director was exploiting the Oklahoma bombing for topical subtext, with the Michigan Militia taking the place of Al Qaeda as the sublimated fifth column represented in the film. But 9/11 and Al Qaeda it is, and there defenders to Spielberg’s use of the attack as an undercurrent in is remake. Slate’s reviewer, David Edelstein, one of the better film critics working, goes overboard and maintains that Spielberg had earned the right to tailor his film to mirror the current paranoid state. It’s the sort of argument that uses every item on the shelf one can throw at, which makes the defense breathless, barely aware of its own absurdity. The first question to Edelstein's quick-draw defense is who among us hadn't earned the right to discuss, depict, interpret and frame the attack by dint surviving it , witnessing it, grieving and raging over it? Spielberg has his right to conceptualize his meanings of 9/11 all he wants, but his right to the material supersedes no one else's who was here, on this soil, American-born.

Precisely how Spielberg "earned the right" to invoke 9/11 in War of the Words isn't clear in David Edelstein's defense. Despite what the headline of the story implies, there is no gauntlet that Spielberg had to run, no set of noble tasks he had to perform, no spectacularly patriotic deeds he had to commit in order to gain the moral right to refer to 9/11 in his work. As is, the only rights he needed are those afforded him by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; the fact that he's a fantastically successful director whose name means large profits didn't hurt him either. I doubt there was much mulling over his "right" to make transparent allusions to 9/11 while the film was in production, or even under discussion.

For all the rest of it, War of the Worlds is typical Spielberg fair, blatantly pushing hot buttons, skirting the edge of the gross and edgy, but reeling back from the abyss for the fabled Hollywood Uplift that have made analyzing his films useless beyond a certain technical appraisal. Spielberg makes spectacles, loud, noisy, and fast paced, unencumbered by character depth or situations that don't fall into a play book of tropes we haven't already seen in his movies since 1941 or ET. The stab for significance, for a resonating theme against recent national catastrophe, is to be expected, but one cannot seriously argue that this makes for a new level in Spielberg's film making. He's tried his hand at being an important movie maker, but he remains someone who loves all the technologized smoke-and-mirrors over the examination of one real human detail. Even with all the references and metaphors to terrorists and sleeper cells, War of the Worlds is exactly the sort of expensive wind up toy we expect from Spielberg and his sort; a mechanized, mindless engine of activity that will pursue its own demise, clamorously so.
As it goes, Spielberg consistently demonstrates mastery with the big effects and visual garnishes he loves to deploy. They're eye-popping treats, and sometimes there is even a horrible beauty in the crammed images even as he strains, preens and exerts his directorial will for effect. The rain of clothes in the forest as the family flees a Tripod attack in particular is haunting for any number of reasons, not the least being that it's a well composed scene that appears at the right point in the proceedings. Subtext , ambiguity and philosophical-laced irony are not his strong suits, however, and what attempts there are in his works to grapple with the uncrossable essences of life are either complete muddles, demonstrated with his curious and garbled "collaboration" with Kubrick AI , or rescind all claims at problematized edginess by an arbitrary insertion of family-values endings, viewable in Minority Report. Other praised "mature" works like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List never rise above the ham-handed when it comes to offering wisdom to an audience, and that's Spielberg's flaw; he tries to think and succeeds principally in dressing up civics-course clichés with 100 million dollar budgets. There are those who will make a case for Spielberg as having more gravitas than he's been given credit for, but it's the sort of argument that produces language much too eloquent for the cause at hand; they don't sound as if they really believe the hype and overstate the case.

Hollywood would prefer that he most successful American director in history be an intellectual as well as an entertainer , but little in the gale of words coming to Spielberg's defense obscures the obvious, that he is a technician, an extremely competent craftsman who occasionally make satisfying, crowd pleasing entertainments. The final scene, with the reappearance of the assumed dead son at Grandma and Grandpa's house in the only Boston neighborhood that hadn't been torched by the aliens, was nearly enough to ruin the film for me. As sheer spectacle, WOTW has the slick allure of a disaster movie, but Spielberg feels required to assure us that the central characters are all okay in the end. The son's reemergence was as sloppy and cynical a ploy as the resurrection of ET.

Spielberg's right to use 9/11 references isn't disputed here, it's the pretense that what he's offering up is anything more than entertainment with an overlay of topicality. Spielberg has tried his hand several times to be Serious Director, and the results--Pvt. Ryan, The Color Purple, Schindler's Lis, Munich-- are notable for the fact that he was trying too hard for significance. The fatal flaw with these films, I think, is his inability to abandon visual hugeness and instead explore an idea of human concern. War of the Worlds works well it does because he's back with the kind of material he does wonders with, the sci-fi action-adventure. The secret in this formula is to keep the number of ideas you're working with to a minimum, keep your focus, and keep things moving at a brisk, efficient pace. It's a darker vision, it's topical and fraught with a sharper paranoia and alarm than before, but it's intended, finally, as escapist fare, expensively mounted. I don't attack Spielberg for doing what does when it comes together, but we ought not to pretend that his intentions are nobler than the woman who cuts your hair or the man who bags your groceries. On that level, nothing is nobler than showing up for work.

"The Vise" by Mary Baine Campell

Mary Baine Campbell's poem "The Vise" seems to be a missive from a soul who cannot get out of Plato's Cave. This nameless one must have done especially offensive to warrant being gripped in a vise rather than merely chained to the wall of the cavern. But it seems the same old punishments, the same tortures and teases, all those fleeting signifiers in front of him (or her), forcing all the senses onto to one set of appearances (and appearances only) so that they have to construct an idea of the world outside the cave, free of the vise, a faith, so to speak, that this vise that holds the head is exactly where it should be, doing what it must do to whom it is doing it in the framework of an infinitely larger universe, multiverse, omniverse, what have you, that is unseen. Or it might be something else entirely, such as a description of being dead, with the world burning and eroding and washing away with the monsoon as described. This may well be a poem of a great journey that starts at death and ends when a soul has reached the other side, a particular culture's conception of an afterlife. 

The wind, from which the head cannot shield itself from, blows over the face and whisks along whatever has turned to dust back into the unmade earth. To be honest, I haven't the foggiest what Campbell is getting at here, other than to describe the quality of being dust in the wind, but this is plainly too obscure and mannered for me to even care. It used to be that I thought it was cool to be mysterious and cool and utterly and completely baffling with my writing, but hey, I was fifteen at the time and reading too much Dylan and Jim Morrison and the cursed share of Kerouac, and it took me years to learn to stop being abstruse by design and instead become interesting by intent. That might have happened when I finally got something to write about, some comprehensible subject matter, which I managed to link up with a credible language, a combination that created whatever mystery I sought. The abstract quality is a result of writing well about something, not writing syntactically challenging pieces in a mistaken notion of what cubist writing might sound and read like. Campbell's poem is well structured, the language clean, spare, exacting to the the objects and their qualities, but this is just too much to put together beyond saying that it seems to be out funerals, death, and the perspective of the deceased once they've left this life, observant yet powerless to intervene in the affairs of the living . There is that odd mix of regret and acceptance that mingles in the images. There's a feeling of loss that pervades the stanzas, and a feeling of powerlessness that there is nothing one can do with what is slipping from their grasp, whether youth or life itself.

There exists here a tangible feeling that the narrator is in some fixed place of observation, taking it all in, motionless and unable to speak or intercede on behalf of the world; I took this too mean that the speaker had died and was in some astral place, perhaps from a cloud, maybe from a closet as a ghost as yet unseen, because the imagery Campbell have a museum quality, implying gold ornamentation, fruits, things one employs in funeral preparations from an unspecified culture and time. Norman Mailer's quizzical and enthralling Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings which deals quite a bit with the cult of the dead, reincarnation, and has a good amount of description of funeral preparation, all of which this poem brought to mind. But I do see the other side, the observations of one getting older who is so much wiser and suffers the eventual regrets of bad decisions, missed opportunities, consequential expressions of arrogance and pride that cannot be undone, and how all this comes to the eventual acceptance that everything in our view is somehow as it must be in the larger pattern we can only faintly imagine.

I don't want to say that this is a bad poem since I keep re-reading it to puzzle it out a bit more. Unless it's from the pen of the insanely overrated and over cited--Kerouac, Neruda, Bukowski--insert your own pet peeve here-- a bad poem does not stay long in my thinking, and it is the easiest thing to pass on, like beer. Life is too short to deal with wooden, cryptic, stick-in-the-mud language. Campbell's work has it's attractions, and I would say her minimalism succeeds to the degree that The Vise gets more than one going over. Death, though, seems to be the operative idea here--as you say, and to paraphrase crudely, life may be good and pleasantly cushioned for our narrator, but there is a defeated tone to the words, a sense that one's comfort is also one's manacle around the neck. Maybe it's the sense of defeat that puts me off about this--I am of the notion that one shouldn't require anything of a poet other than to be interesting and their work to be nothing other than good, ie, worth reading--but the lack of rage here is vaguely troubling:

It is not
That the world is unkind.
Kind hands once touched
My lips and eyes
To say whatever such
Touches say.

And every day
A spoon, laden
With softer gold
Of honey
Forces me
I would want more of a rage against the stasis, the sterility of the apparent perfection of this flesh and blood life; I would read the above lines as being something of a junkie's reverie as he nods into whatever oblivion he seeks through the needle and the spoon. Every care and dread is dissolved as a slowly corrosive bliss overtakes the body and the spirit that attends to it. But this may be exactly what Campbell sought to get across in her tightly sealed stanzas, that being alive is filled with it's own kind of death, our material and mental blockades to the world, save for a noise, a chime of a phone, a flash of light in the sky at dusk that reminds us of the churnings outside the body and its republics of dulled sensation:

From all directions
Lightning tells us
What is lost
Or burnt
In the collapsing

The nod produces its own ceremonial Edens from which the glance of old archetypes, readings from the nursery or a junior college textbook are conflated in a shifting illusion that replaces the substance of one's history, objectified into notions of the weather taking a personal care
of the layabout's bedding:
Tonight, a monsoon.
The diamond-fall of rain
Bruises my face
Washes honey
From it, and
All else.
This is all that can be seen, that can be comprehended through the suggested splendor or comfort the narrator cryptically speaks from, and so the poem may be ironic in that we have veiled comments emanating from what are already a veiled, not the least blinded sense of reality, and what is maddening for me is the acceptance that the speaker suggests as to what their situation is, hazy as it is. Although there is a chance that Campbell intended our subject to be alive as they recited their spare vistas, it suggests ritualized death all the same, a ceremony of surrender:

But in the vise
I can still stare --
Through brilliant
Obliterations of storm --
At what is
Still there.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

USED BOOKS: A Multitude of Sins

A Multitude of Sins
stories by Richard Ford(Vintage)

Currently finishing A Multitude of Sins, a collection of short stories by Richard Ford. He has the strained relations between men and women falling in and out of love with one another nailed, better than anyone since John Cheever, with a prose that is flawlessly crafted and deeply felt in its economy . Richard Ford is an extraordinarily gifted prose writer whose control of his style is rare in this time of flashy virtuosos , ala Franken and DF Wallace or Rick Moody, whose good excesses run neck-and-neck with their considerable assets. Ford, in his The Sports Writer, Indendepence Day, and certainly in this collection of Multitude of Sins, understands his strengths in language and advances , seemingly, only those virtues in his work. He obviously understands the lessons of Hemingway , and wisely chooses not imitate: rather, the words are well chosen.

For the more poetic language of simile and metaphor, The Cheever influence is clear; the imagery to describe the detail make those details resonate profoundly, as in the last story "Abyss", without killing the tale with a language that's too rich for the good of the writing. His writing is quite good, although the shadow of Hemingway dims the light of his own personality. Ford seems as if he’s made peace with the gloomy and morose code of honor and betrayed idealism that is said to the heterosexual male’s stock and trade. But maybe not just peace; it’s as if he’s cut a deal with the emotional sagging age brings upon his brow, and he cherishes each sour taste and resonating resentment to give his brooding prose the feeling of being more than cleverly disguised metaphors simulating the moral dissolution of a grown man’s sense of situated-nests.

"The Names" by Joe Wilkins

Someone is in a bar, having a long neck Budweiser as they look across the dark room, past the floating dust particles highlighted from glaring light from the street, talking past the person they're talking to, summarizing the state of the economy, the community, their own slice of a wretched existence, and conclude with what is they're willing to settle for. "It is no good to grow up hating the rich" warns B.H.Fairchild, to which our monologist, a persona who had read this quote somewhere and found a space in a conversation he was having to both cite the reading and to respond , responds thusly to an undifferentiated Pete, a name that in the course of this story never takes on a personality. He might as well be a mirror for this beer soaked gripes to spoken to:

Why not hate the rich? It's easy,
and some days easy's what I need.

This is speech from a Larry McMurtry novel or one of those films where a minor character suddenly becomes very chatty in a key scene and finds an articulate voice and give us the complications of his life and world view in a writer's attempt to give him more complexity, and as a speech it might work fine given the context and narrative conventions fiction or a movie would allow. It might not seem so, let us say, incredible and contrived. It's a splendid thing when a piece composed of a character's voice works, with the precarious balance between natural , loose cadences and digressive tendencies and a writer's control of the idea , in getting it across for an effect without showing his hand, but Joe Wilkens ' tone here is Hollywood production.

There is one thing for someone in theater to go off on a soliloquy in the presence of another actor , since good stage writing and direction can effectively imply that we've entered the character's more resonant thinking for a few beats; the lights come up again, the other actor recites his line, and the plot continues apace. We have no such context in "The Names".

The other person this narrator is assumed to be talking to is insufficiently established , and the notion that these are the private considerations doesn't convince me either, since this poem strains between being a rambling string of anecdotes and a polemic. One can’t imagine this kind of conversation happening in a bar where the working poor gather ; Pete, if he were a kindred spirit in this narrator’s peer group, would competing for the spotlight himself with a competing monologue, another list of complaints and ready lines. Even in commiseration there is competition, a competition to out bottom and out –bad luck the guy you’re sitting next to. But here, the fix is in, and this is what ruins the fidelity to describing experience that is intractably tragic.The thoughts are too complete, too polished. Someone with this kind of insight, or at least this ability to artfully phrase his details, ought to be able to do better than wallow in his own disappointment:

This country I call home is, like yours,
lost, and my people too are lost, like me,

so let me hate with them, let me sit up at the bar,
and curse the banker, the goddamn-silly-designer chaps
the new boss man from back east wears,
let me speak the names of the dead and get righteous,
for at least one more round.

The writing shows, the urge to totalize a context. Wilkens doesn’t show the moment as much as gives it shape with conventional writerly moves.Barroom bathos, a country singer's stoicism, a poem that seems more like something emerging from Central Casting than coming across as something made from things that one might actually have heard or had seen. Over rehearsed is the phrase for this, with the small town details arranged in such a circuitous way that they unintentionally expose what "The Names" actually is, a tall tale to flesh out Wilken's sarcastic reversal of Fairchild's one-sentence quote. It's a lot of work for so little effect.