Tuesday, March 31, 2009

GIMMEE THAT SHOVEL --blues harmonica

There are some who think me a vain and self-concerned fool, and I will admit to a slight egocentric tinge. I think I am modest to know when to shut up, though, and I'm certain enough to insist that there are some things I actually do well. Opinions on poets and their poems and the further concern over what it is poetry needs to strive for, accomplish and what truths it needs to adhere to will remain insoluable, with my two cents (three cents? one cent?) tossed into the the melee , but I do play well. It bores a good many others, though, and for those readers who haven't the love of blues harmonica, I apologize. This video, recorded today, is especially tasty; I ought to take out of the of the office and onto the bandstand. Meanwhile, enjoy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

MAN IN THE DARK: Paul Auster takes a nap

Paul Auster desires to be a cross between Don DeLillo and Borges, which is to say that he desires the cool surface of the DeLillo's beaut fully managed tone and Borges genius for making the inane become suffused with an nether worldly sublimity. It works , at times, as in the novels that comprise the "New York Trilogy", his novel "Leviathan" and more recently his masterpiece from a few years back "Book of Illusion"; the way he uses the element of chance in his narratives can at times be one of the keener miracles of American writing. Auster, though, is a man of limited style and a set of ideas that have very nearly played themselves out, as we see here in "Man in the Dark". A small-time professor and book reviewer , recovering at his daughter's house after a horrific auto accident, spends much of his time watching movies and lying in the dark, imagining movies of his own, in this case a narrative of an alternative America that is being torn apart by a civil war. The elements here get very convoluted, and those familiar with Auster's favorite devices will sense the writer just a shade bored with his inventions and his borrowings.What you could see coming up in this tale was the eventuality that somehow this man in the dark, the imagining invalid, will have to confront the protagonist of the very tale he's concocting as he lies there. Tension is supposed to start here, the twist is supposed to make the skin tighten and the fingers eagerly seek the next page, but these are conventional turns in an Auster manuscript. When he's taken with a set of ideas, he can make incredible coincidences believably take a reader on a trek launched by sheer caprice. Man in the Dark's action seems engineered at best. The spare, evocative style that is the writer's trademark hardly rises above a monotone. Narratives, real and imagined, twine together in such a way that we're supposed to ask which is real and what his false until we are brought to a relief, although the only relief to be had here is not from the novel's building tension, which is slack, but from the tedium that ensues. That's a feet for a book that isn't even two hundred pages long. I was a bit disappointed by this novel, less for witnessing the decline of someone who was once a reliable provocative writer and more because he repeats his good ideas here without grace, snap , or variation worth noting. This was the draft you're supposed to throw away,not submit to your publisher.

The End of Verse? Again??

Newsweek has a piece about a the results of a report from The National Endowment for the Arts that was a mix of good news and bad news for those concerned with the national reading habit; people were reading more , with increases in fiction and non fiction alike, but we were, collectively , reading less poetry. The article takes the usual dooming sensationalist slant with the article's title, The End of Verse?People love to read about funerals, I guess, or the cultural echo of re-runs have truly colonized our attention spans. This is the same used car with a new coat of paint.

There is a long history of poets and critics declaring poetry is something completely other than prose, a separate art approximating a form of meta-writing that penetrates the circumscribed certainties of words and makes them work harder, in service to imagination, to reveal the ambiguity that is at the center of a literate population's perception. An elitist art, in other words, that by the sort of linguistic magic the poet generates sharpens the reader's wits; it would be interesting if someone conducted a study of the spread of manifestos , from competing schools of writing, left and right, over the last couple hundred of years and see if there is connecting insistence at the heart of the respective arguments .

What they'd find among other things, I think, is a general wish to liberate the slumbering population from the doldrums of generic narrative formulation and bring them to a higher, sharper, more crystalline understanding of the elusive quality of Truth; part of what makes poetry interesting is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting ) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things. Each poet who is any good and each poet who is miserable as an artists remains, by nature, didactic ,chatty, and narcissistic to the degree that , as a species , they are convinced that their ability to turn a memorable ( or at least striking phrase) is a key with which others may unlock Blake's Doors of Perception.

The lecturing component is only as interesting as good as the individual writer can be--not all word slingers have equal access to solid ideas or an intriguing grasp on innovative language--but the majority of readers don't want to be edified. They prefer entertainment to enlightenment six and half days out of the week, devouring Oprah book club recommendations at an even clip; the impulse with book buyers is distraction, a diversion from the noise of he world. Poetry, even the clearest and most conventional of verse , is seen as only putting one deeper into the insoluble tangle of experience. Not that it's a bad thing, by default, to be distracted, as I love my super hero movies and shoot 'em ups rather than movies with subtitles, and I don't think it's an awful thing for poetry to have a small audience. In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if all the money spent on trying to expand the audience were spent on more modest presentations. The audience is small, so what has changed?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Watchmen: a grinding, verbose bore

I  thought of comparing Watchmen with Francis Coppola's epic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now as an example of another expensive , ambitious film that combines botched ambition with a compelling visual style, but I gave up that notion after thinking it through for a couple of days. It would have been unfair to Coppola's troubled saga; since it's 1979 release, I've seen the film at least six times that I remember. Vague, grandiose and over long the film might be , and as problematic as Marlon Brando's performance as Col.Kurtz remains, you can still study the metaphors and allegories director and co writer Coppola was using from his source material, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; one does pick up on the notion of how an individual (or a culture) can drive itself to an obsessed pathology , and the images from the voyage up the river create a sustained feeling of a contracting world view. The paranoia is vivid, felt; fail as he might in revealing what "The Horror" is at the heart of this simple fable is, Apocalypse Now manages, none the less, to creative a diffuse poetry from the symptoms. Watchmen,  is well beyond the symptoms and focus's on the wounds and, sadly, fatally, has characters lecturing each other on the way things ought to be. For all it's flash and form, Watchmen is a grandiose, bombastic bore. The audience seems to think so to as well. It's not a film I care to see again short of being paid to do so.

The big reason Watchmen tanked so badly was because the film was, after all, structurally incoherent. Not all the blame can be laid on Zack Snyder, since it seems to me that Warner Brothers, eager to trump competitor Marvel at the box office, went for what they considered their sexiest comic book property for screen adaptation. Any honest fan boy or gal would have told you that Alan Moore's original novel wasn't the likeliest item to made into a movie; Hollywood movies have an aesthetic and style that demands a far simpler storyline and shorter running time , and the original novel , with it's layered story lines, post modern feints and it's intangible blend of physics, history and philosophical axioms, was weighty with an ambition that is contrary to a visual medium.

Even with the substance of the novel slashed back considerably, there was still too much for director Snyder to have to contend with; even at the barest representation, there were a gross too many characters who's back stories had to be presented at inconvenient intervals in the action; Snyder tries to compensate for all this an admittedly brilliant look and repulsively violence, but even these outbreaks of gruesome mayhem could not deflate the mulled over glumness of the of monologues and voice overs. The viewers, hoping this enterprise would gel at some point, had to instead sit through nearly three hours of what came down to repeated doses of this one-two combination: TALK TALK TALK TALK TALK /MURDER MAIM SMASH GOUGE DISEMBOWEL.

Snyder had worked some magic with his historical deconstruction in his film 300; his choice of style and fantasy over factual matters was justified by a confident bravado. The excitement from that film was aided, I would assert, by a simpler story line, a better idea of what the conflicts were leading up to; he was able to re-vitalize a moldy collection of cliches from the cultural common stock concerning valor,bravery, loyalty. With Watchmen he tries , bravely I think, to reinvigorate a higher class of cliches, the sort of received notions one finds on the floors of University Department offices, and finds himself overwhelmed. The source of those cliches, the original graphic novel , itself an over rated expanse otherwise smart folks have attempted to jump categories and insert into the New Western Canon, is a property that would have smacked any bright lens man to the ground.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Quietude is Deafening

Gail Mazur's poems have an easy elegance that can , in their best renderings, bring a number of heady matters into the same conversation without a sign of the stanzas tearing at the seams.Apparent one can read in a previous selection published on Slate,In Another Country, she has the ability to give form to a sense of sensations that you'd think would remain inarticulate and exist only as vaguely felt sensations: happy, sad, despairing, hopeful, what? She gives these sensations voice, a monologue. But as well as she brings her equivalent phrases for unnameable notions together in a smooth transition to a page , the transition is too pat, too eager for prime time. The conceits that drag her work down is the continued sense that the insoluble conditions she enjoys digging through for material find resolution in her over worked ironies.

"The Age" shows no shift in strategy and no modesty in the size of the unambables she's attempting place a sign on; no more odes for an empty house, bring on the Temper of the Times!!!This would be fine, of course, but what irritates me is the implied exclusivity , the book cliquishness of this bit of zeitgeist mongering. You feel like a friend you came to a party with abandoned you with a group of others , none of whom you know, who are enthralled by a lone speaker who seems to be synthesizing everyone else's input into a discussion you know nothing about, touching on each tidbit and making them fit some clever if predictable irony gridwork.

For what seemed an infinite time there were nights
that were too long. We knew a little science, not enough,

some cosmology. We'd heard of dark matter, we'd been assured
although it's everywhere, it doesn't collide, it will never slam

into our planet, it somehow obeys a gentler law of gravity,
its particles move through each other. We'd begun to understand

it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back.

This is exactly where you and I have walked in , and there is the feeling that all these longings for historical knowledge, back in time when matters made sense as they occurred and had their effects, is wishful more than anything else; the phrases are so well chisled and polished in their response to sort of bleak declarations the narrator might have been confronted with that I'm inclined to think , assuming the poem is inspired by experience, that Mazur might have been stumped by the original inquest as to what became of our collective Sense of Hope. We'd begun to understand /it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back doesn't sound spontaneous at all, it's desire for a firm place to set one's certitude studied, not weary.

Starting from small details to grander themes is a technique I enjoy when the parts are a good fit for one another, but Mazur reverses the equation here by going from grand to minute, as in the way she begins with an implied struggle against the despair of the age, settling finally on the school children chanting the name of the New President as some sign that the clouds will separate and the sun will shine again. This would be fine if it weren't such a smarmy production. This is a Hallmark Moment, an epiphany so perfectly placed in this ostensibly factual account of a personal struggle against spiritual malaise as to be incredible, implausible, phony . What Mazur is trying to get across is something that's very small yet very meaningful, yet she talks this idea to death with a busy-work string of contemplations that effectively crush the poetry .

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Locket, a poem by Peter Gizzi

I don't know if I'd call Peter Gizzi a Language Poet, though he certainly has affinities with that group of writers. He's closer in style and sensibility to George Oppen or James Merrill, two poets who appeal to me because they have an internal monologue that attempts to assess experience through the objects that represent memory but who, unlike a fellow introvert John Ashbery, prefer a brutally adjective free manner.

There is a remove in the approach among these three writers that evokes the dislocation of coming across unfamiliar things and attempting to link the details in some useful way. Gizzi's poem , I think, is like looking inside some one's desk drawer and observing, up close, a layering of items that have been shoved there over a period of time--odd material items gathered together for no singular purpose or reason other than the collection is the doing of one individual; you stop trying to make sense of the pile as a whole and seek, instead , to profile the person, unknown and unseen, who placed the details together in the first place.


Peter Gizzi
Here is the ashtray and here
the plastic cup of cool water.

And here is the known world.
As fingers duplicate the event

of hunger. Get up. Go
to the division of various

stories and look for the naked
man beneath the stream be-

hind the house. The same
house that I does not inhabit.

The car is there. The letters
are there. And this street

leads to no particular day.
The way home remains

a mystery to those who are
looking. How else recover

what otherwise is. Lost
to the open. Space between

leaves and stones. Here
also is the neighborhood.

Lost to the open./ Space between leaves and stones./Here also is the neighborhood. The world opens up rather suddenly from the hard, specific detail one inspects and interprets, only to lose it as more details and their nuances align with the first set of assumptions; what was to be a simple explanation of a photograph, a book of matches, an odd sentence written on the back of a business card becomes complex until the accumulation overwhelms the simple timeline one preferred. The particular thing loses significance in a nuanced history that cannot be reduced. Implicit in Gizzi's poem is the idea that any recounting of personal history is something of a fiction: it's the arrangement of vaguely vetted details on which one tells the tale. But what fascinates me here is the disruption of the process--the narrator sounds like he's starting over again and yet again. The objects are concrete, but their meanings are tentative, their positions seem to shift in retelling.

There is a gaze here, a tangible poring over of things that are distinct--every object has a story as to how it arrived at the spot upon which you witness it--and it wouldn't be unusual to consider that there is an actual locket, with a photo graph or image of a kind, that itself becomes obscure as other associations are conjured. A house, a place where one lived, a photograph of a man showering naked in a stream behind the house, a familiarity of images that cannot be isolated to specific incident. Something has spurred the clipped stream, and what happens as with most times when one is attempting to assemble a full picture from the dimmest of recollected memories is that the deep past is anonymous.The way home remains a mystery to those who are looking.

What attracts me to this is the yearning to know more about the vivid glimpses, and the ache of realizing that the object is beyond your grasp. The observer of the details is denied the certainty of details the objects and their fleeting images suggest and is left, he chooses, to merely imagine what might have happened in the narrative gaps; beyond a certain age, reconstructing the earliest memories of time on earth isn't unlike interpreting what goes in in the unseen narrative leading up to what we have of Sappho's writing. The guess work becomes the work of art.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tale of the proscratinating Horn dog

"All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame" by Fulke Greville, a formerly obscure poet who is now being revived and rehabilitated three hundred plus years later by the preferring mentions of Harold Bloom and others, is a superb poem of directed ambivalence. It's the tale of a man who chooses the ache of desire over the pain of losing himself to the power of another being over him.

Caelica 56: "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"
All my senses, like beacon's flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia's name
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury's wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard's heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
"Sweet God Cupid, where am I,
That by pale Diana's light,
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our senses with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine.
Look where lies the milken way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the Gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone."
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust;
Fancy's scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust.
I stepped forth to touch the sky,
I a God by Cupid dreams;
Cynthia, who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams,
Leaving hollow banks behind
Who can neither forward move,
Nor, if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic pole,
Where Sol passeth o'er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace.
He that lets his Cynthia lie
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away.
Let no love‑desiring heart
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature's art.
Wonder hinders Love and Hate.
**None can well behold with eyes
**But what underneath him lies.

We have an erotic poem here, a distended stretch of rhapsodizing the brings us in the center of a train of thought that is sparked, fired up and colored entirely by a long and obsessive gaze. It's an interesting comparison with T.R. Hummer's poem in Slate last week, "Bad Infinity" , where the reader was likewise situated in a psychology that was arguing with the world and attempting to reconcile combating approaches to a world that appeared to be failing the narrator, much of the power of which comes from Hummer deploying a set of images culled from what seemed to be reconfigured tropes and semantic turns that might formerly neatly contextualized the world with grace and nuance but now which seemed to be falling grossly short.

Greville's poem, written over three hundred years earlier, has the narrator at the most severe pitch of an arousal wherein he wrestles with all the conflicting motions. He is something like Hamlet, lost and stalled , perhaps impaled by the metaphorical scaffolding he constructs for himself; he cannot take action so he does nothing but instead continues to settle for the satisfaction of having fashioned a new kind of language to describe an intensity that finds no resolution. As the dear Cynthia, falling under the dually imperious and self-critical gaze of Greville's horn-dogged suitor, is subjected to a stream of artful exaggerations that compare her and the feelings she creates to grander things greater than her would be lover, we have the metaphorical flow taking a turn, at first describing all that is desirous of the good lady that the observer would like to physically encounter, only to have the rationale undermined as the poetry assumes its own authority and becomes the ruling edict in this stream of obsessed thought processing. She is too fine to be touched, too near the perfection of angels to be violated, hers is a beauty that is stunning to the degree that all who behold her are made motionless, made hapless, made powerless.

Some years ago I attended a lecture on eroticism , and in a section where the speaker needed to make the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, the point was made was that what we find erotic in a situation lies in the very fact that contact, the actual coupling, is suspended, deferred. Anticipation is the essence of the erotic impulse, the rituals of seduction, the contemplation of the shape and good graces of the other one is attracted to, the psychic moment when the pride and embarrassments and degrees and self-doubt cease to matter and one pursues something outside their daily concerns.

Greville's character, it seems to my meager estimation, was hoist by his own explosive rhetoric , considered something thing truly beautiful and worthy of possessing but deemed himself finally unworthy, preferring instead the ache of yearning, the pining after, the perfection of a feeling that made his imagination become gloriously alive. A fear of commitment, perhaps, but most of all I think it might have to do with a fear losing of what power one things they legitimately have. The force that could coax such brilliant from a man could surely rob him of as well, and that would leave him sans anything he knew was truthfully his. This is almost a comedy of a sort, albeit a richly musical one; a man choosing his muse over the woman he believes he could love.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The new book?

The death of the book, that paginated, bounded thing we carry around with us, dog-eared and highlighted, a friend to turn to in the moments when our attention isn't spent talking about what others want you to hear? The romantic in me says no, I want my books to be forever things, and love the illusion , now waning, that bookstores will be with us forever, but I did someone the other day using Amazon.com's reading device Kindle recently, and without bother describing it too much, the ease and comfort of use looked very, very appealing. Books in a another form, perhaps, abetted by a different delivery system? Probally so.

I can see the future of selling books being in on line downloads from a seller like Amazon or Barnes and Nobel, but I don’t think anyone will ever get in the habit of reading whole books from their computer screens, as a general habit. Rather, I suspect the fate of reading lies in reading devices that have a comfort and ease of use ; the issue, I think, is portability, since the basic advantage of the book over an internet text is that the book can become something of an intimate partner with you as you go places, travel, or just sit in a comfy chair , absorbing and considering the prose or poetry you’re witness to. There’s a need most readers have, older or younger, for the physicality of holding a book as they read –that seems to the way things stay in mind after a book is finished. So many column inches of prose I’ve read on line over the last ten years has stayed with me, superb as the writing may have been: all that wit and wisdom has vanished in the ether, passively taken in and mindlessly expelled like microwave cooking.

Not nearly as high; the attrition of the print material from memory is due more to the sheer volume of books I’ve read during my fifty six years. Getting older takes a toll. The point, though, is that what I’ve read with books, those intimate, portable, bendable, malleable objects that contain our language, has become integrated over time–the content and ideas have been better assimilated than from the materials I read on line. It might be a generational difference, I’ll concede, but I think it’s a safe guess that people won’t be reading from computer monitors, cell phones, lap tops or net books; they’ll prefer something cozier, like Amazon’s Kindle device for the book downloads they sell–it seems a device that invites the interaction between reader and the page that are the biggest allure of books over on line reading.

The move toward buying books via download is inevitable, in my view, and the real issue is what one means by “hard copy”. Without indulging in knee-jerk Tofflerism, my current best guess that book buyers will prefer a device like Kindle , or something similar, to reading books either on line or from a computer monitor: as I said before, portability and ease of use are key for the consumer instinct.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

No to St.Patrick

This Tues will be March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and being of Irish descent those who know my last name and aware as well that some consider me a poet, a lover of words used fully, have started to ask me what my plans were. Who’s party are you going to, what Irish Pub will you be drinking at, what Irish poet will you recite at the Open Reading of Irish Poetry?

Attending the idea that you would want to celebrate a culture rich in the greatest ringing glories of the English language comes the question about how drunk you intend to get, and will you remember the way back to your bedroom at your mother's house if you become unable to utter a comprehensible sentence. There are times I hate being Irish; the jokes at the expense of this culture make it obvious that White European Americans are the only ethnic group one can offend with impunity. The Holiday is a match to conspicuously open can of gasoline.

On The Day itself, many will inquire “Where’s your green?” All these questions on the single topic becomes nagging of a kind, the persistent inquiry into what someone else takes as an imperfection. My imperfection seemed to be that I didn't feel Irish enough. I don’t wear green on any day, it’s not my favorite color, and there’s a deep resentment at others who expect me and any other Irish American to play the shaleighlei -stroking trick monkey with green paper hats, green beads and affecting brogues as bogus as paper forks.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” when his character Alvy Singer berates a woman’s Jewishness with a number of wisecracks at the expense of the ethnic heritage he imagines her identifying with. The woman says nothing and Singer, feeling he’d crossed the line, gives a half-hearted apology for his jokes, to which she replies (and I paraphrase here) “No, it’s alright, I don’t mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype”

This was a “eureka” moment , since it articulated a foul mood I’d been in for years each time St.Patrick’s Day rolled around and Americans, of Irish Lineage and otherwise, rolled out their boxes of stereotypes: green beer, whiskey, green beads, glittered cardboard shamrocks, the whole disgusting offensive lot.St.Patrick's is a day on which those of us with family connections to the Emerald Isle are to relish the contributions of Ireland to the world by way of it;s poets and dramatists and novelists, whether Joyce, Yeats, John Millington Synge or Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney, an activity of worth if the proceedings were low key and attentive to what Irish writing sounded like and what cluster of emotions and experience it collectively expressed; it's a literature at war with itself and, as such, conflicts and tensions such as that results in a major poetry. Bombast, bottles and bullshit about all things Irish follow the lip service to the Literature, and St.Patrick's Day becomes no more than respectful of it's cultural name sake than does Cinco de Mayo or Halloween. It's an excuse to drink to excess and behave badly and be a lout. It was assumed that because of my last name and that I made a living both writing and selling books that I would be all over the Holiday and partake in the lugubrious, drunken wallow. I remember yelling at some partying moron with an Italian last name who was doing a miserable Barry Fitzgerald impersonation that I had it in mind to come to his house late at night and do some patently offensive immigrant through a bullhorn if he kept up with what I thought was a cultural slander. Of course he didn’t get what I was getting at, and I never showed up in his driveway to deliver on my promise, but the upshot is that he's never forced his face into mine after that with that wavering brogue.

I resisted the temptation to ask if he did Minstrel Show impersonations for black people on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, as the point was both overkill and would be lost on him.Say what you might about me, but I pride myself on the quality of issues I waste my breath on, a perverse pleasure that might reaffirm the cliche of the Irish being masters of futile eloquence. Doubtful; I just love the sound of my own voice and don't compelled to credit cultural determinism for what is either a gift or a curse( depending on circumstance, inspiration, and the quality of the coffee I might have been drinking when inspired to place a few words on the page, in rhythmic order, declaring war on a latest peeve or pestering pustule of aggravation). It must be said that despite that small country’s amazing contributions to World Literature, I’ve never felt much kinship with Ireland, nor with the native Irish I’ve met. What I've felt like through my life is a middle class white guy, Irish American, emphasis on the American. Irish-American.It's a different tribe.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A poem that walks over your grave

There are those I know, friends and former friends alike, who know it's well within my personality to become a fire-breathing jerk; though I prefer to regard myself as having an even temperament most of my awake time, there are those moments when something gets to me that will not let up. An annoyance, a complaint, the site of something ugly or something said that was offensive to my closely held (and improvised) standards as to how reality and it's subjects should arrange their affairs. Bear in mind, please , that I am seldom right when I go off on a toot, and my universal declarations about the exact nature of the world's wrongs are inappropriate, over stated, bigoted, unfair, the rantings of a salivating asshole. Even at my age, with the wisdom I've garnered from decades of mistakes I've learned from, I still have to make amends, apologize, repair the damage I've done during my lashing out. That said, bear in mind as well that these moments of rage binging are much scarcer than they were , say, twenty years ago. The point, I suppose , that knowing better is not enough.

But anger, being in a state of pique is seductive; quite suddenly, as the adrenaline flows and what had been a passing social glitch becomes a World View, the world gets smaller, I get larger, and all matters at hand and hidden, all business , entertainment, love and remorse become intertwined, connected, the world suddenly makes sense. The small irritations that had been collecting in the recesses of compartmentalized personality show their full fester at last and everything that one knows becomes a chain of related failures, betrayals, breakdowns, recriminations, all of which seem to be headed to one end, a single source for the source of the world's (nee my) discontents. It's much the same as being on a drug, and there is something awesome as one calms down and realizes the stress they'd just put themselves through--one wishes they could rage more and sustain the fleeting unity, but it is illusory. It's proof , for me a least, that my brain isn't my best friend when I've exhausted my wit.

What I've marveled at, though, is the associations that come to you when you've revved up your mind to function at the sharpest point of a perfect snit. Seamlessly, effortlessly, without resistance and without contradiction , you find yourself being like Hamlet equivocating brilliantly as he ponders a conspiratorial heaven that draws an ill map for him, or Lear, for that matter, going insane as he strips himself in the rain of the vestments of his power, real and symbolic, because the actual relationships so revealed to him are too much. It's poetry, the power to begin with the instance and utilize language to extend a psychology that places human worth below the philosophical certainty we might have been raised with.

Poet T.R.Hummer gets at this beautifully with his poem "Bad Infinity", a ram-rodding crash course of sensory overload that begins with a colonsocopy as a starting point and soon compresses the raw cycle the narrator speeds along:

During the colonoscopy, orbiting through twilight sleep,
***she felt, light-years distant in the interior darkness, a thump
And a dull but definite pain—as if someone were dragging,
***at the end of a rusty chain, a transistor radio through her body,
A small beige box with a gold grill, assembled by a child in southeast Asia
***in 1964—and she woke in groggy panic till the nurse made soothing noises
For her to sleep by, like a song in an alien language heard through static
***beamed from the far side of Arcturus: The Dave Clark Five's
"Glad All Over," maybe, tuned in by a boy in Thailand. Such a drug,
***the doctor said. Everything you feel you will forget.
Amen to that. Amen to plastic and silicon, amen to a living wage,
***amen to our tinny music, to the shrapnel in the IV drip,
Amen to the template of genes that keeps the body twitching
***and the wormhole in the gut of Orion I will slip through
When the chain breaks and the corroded battery bursts, its acids eating
***all the delicate circuitry that binds the speaker to the song.

Wonderfully done, powerfully done, this gets that state of helplessness as the subject, a woman under examination, feels the effects of the drug and the invasion o of her body, attempting to balance between a giving in to the process she's volunteered for and an attempt to maintain control, dignity, a small measure of power that couldn't robbed for her. Hummer has an ear for interesting coinages and odd juxtapositions , and understands the irrational references an addled thought process can take.

Hummer's technique avoids an explicit argument and side steps the rhetorical flourishes with which to make concrete details bring the reader to material point , preferring rather to allow the similarities he aligns in this string of association to bleed into one another as we come upon, perhaps, a metaphor that is delivered invisibly, nearly outside the poem, The body and the radio are made to be similar items, organic matter and technological device coming to the same fate, the eventual break down. Everything breaks down, falls apart, all things , whether the bodies of living creatures, buildings or mechanical devices, fall prey to age, wear, tear and spill their contents back onto the ground; all things release those things that give them an animating spark, including those machines designed to detect defects and indicate a means of real-world salvation. But all things fail, and a life is never truly saved but rather, at best, is allowed to linger longer. Hummer blitzing images and manic rhythm radiates the rage of someone who gets this emphatically; in the end we are reduced to the sum of our dissipated parts , with the attending terror that there is no salvation after the last pulse.

The probes feel like a cheap transistor radio playing a Dave Clark 5 song ironically called "Glad All Over" as the probes search for cancer cells,
and concludes, violently, hauntingly, with the tale of the imagined radio become personified and wearing out, the battery leaking acid, corroding the sheath that contains it. This language stream, equal parts brutal fact and drug enhanced delusion, combines what I hear is fear and anger meeting head on in equally forceful bursts, the result being something between acceptance and the last act of defiance . The beauty of it, of course, is that Hummer conveys this as a state one is currently in, with little in the way of set up, nor a clue as to what the post-examination results might be; this is not unlike walking into a room you thought was empty and finding someone in there alone, confessing secrets from some isolated area of their being to the shadows. Hummer makes us feel ill-at-ease and maybe a little as if someone had just walked over the spot where we'll eventually be buried. Or scattered. Not many writers do that for me.

Sailing through the dry facts

Jill McDonough's poem,"December 12, 1884: George Cooke", from a series of sonnets she's been writing drawn from actual events in American history, has only one good virtue going for it; it spared me the purchase of the book.

This reads as if it were a combination of dry facts from a history book blended with a student's marginalia. Scissors, paste and yellow highlighter are all over this assemblage, which indeed seems more assembled than composed. There is a punchline McDonough wants to land on, an example of Fate's anonymous wit, but there is not enough here to make us, meaning me, the reader, care enough to interpret the poem so that it becomes whole and coherent. It would be easy enough to dwell on issues such as how a sensationalist media twists historical fact into personality driven events and fictionalizes the record with romantic constructions in the interest of selling papers, but that would be too much weight to lay upon such a slight and underfed piece of writing. Such speculation would be more than the critic's invention than the author's intent.The mistake was to approach this set of information as a poem, as this is a clear case where an unambiguous prose format would have achieved what resonance McDonough wanted to have us experience; prose seems better suited for such terseness. I'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway, who's masterly avoidance of qualifiers still provides a powerful kick, particularly his short story collection In Our Time is a masterpiece of what wasn't included in the telling. The italicized sketches between the longer stories are what McDonough should pay attention to, as they show how only a few facts conveyed in a paucity of words can still pull at your heart the way she wanted.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Peter Campion

I was doing a bit of cleaning up of old computer files yesterday when I came across this fine poem by Peter Campion , posted in March 2004 at Slate by their poetry editor Robert Pinsky. "Poem to Fire" is an alternately sweet and brutal examination of an American dualism that no one's able to resolve, sex and cars.

Peter Campion is a good poet but a dreadfully standard-issue reader, and as always, the tinny recording values offered by Microsoft engineers makes the merely unexceptional become truly awful. Which is too bad for Campion, because this is a good poem that has legs beyond the poet’s near motionless reading?

Near motionless indeed, since this strikes me as about speed, impatience, anticipation, the world whizzing by in a television ad fantasy of a man rushing through traffic, in his home town, lifted on the wings of his desire and lust as he attempts to free him of the ordinary stuff of existence he endures and land him in the presence of the woman that makes the battle with jobs, traffic lights and slow drivers worth it all. Campion conveys a masculine verve that seeks what arouses the male sensibility; the town he rushes through is a blur of details he desires to be past, beyond, liberated from as he vanishes into the v shaped perspective of the road vanishing over the perfect hillside that exists only in the mind's eye.

Fast transparency that explodes the fuel and air

in the cylinder and shuts the intake valves and thrusts

down on the piston so the crankshaft spins and spins

It is the rush, the race, the mechanics that are erotic and the source of the stimulus that engages the senses, that creates the elusive reference to the body's swelled reaction to a fast tracking of particular set of ideations. This is a waking dream dream scenario where each strand of sensation and movement ceases to be distinct and isolated and which seem to meld into one primal rush to "be" in the world as intensely as the body can stand:

this pull to her could be your own impersonal presence /cloaked in the day to day of the malls and condos /all those wired sensors keeping on guard for you /except you flicker even inside the wet wall /where papillary muscle makes that sweet pulsation in whatever room she's moving through this moment /under the cotton and the cool smoothness tinted blue.

This is a kind of race toward an extinction, a surrounding of all manner of power and control to something greater than the hunter can manage; the poem ends in the suggestion of softness and "cool smoothness", a space of erotic surrender where the armor is doffed, the bullets unloaded, the pent up knots and coiled aggravations of the day released in some fantastic exchange until there is a drift into oblivion where gas pedals and traffic lights matter not at all. It reads best, without Campion's recitation, when you regard this as bittersweet jag of thought where one finalized object of desire colors the surrounding world. This is done wonderfully, the world defined by the reach of one man's looping obsession.

Campion turns an ordinary thought into an extreme language that simulates the frequent fast-forwardings a good many of us power-obsessed sorts are prone too, wherein the world of home, work and community relations can go to a sudden and unexplained hell for all we're concerned because there is a sudden and seeming instinctual need to severe ties and race forward toward that which is most desirous to us. Prohibitions, niceties and protocols are damned, we want what we want when we want, and we've the will and the means to achieve our ends.Male fantasy, perhaps, rarely acted on to the extent I've described because most of us don't fancy jail or losing jobs as acceptable consequences of pursuing a whim, but it is the mind set that Campion details in his abrupt, speedy phrases; in the chase, the world is a blur, details like their defining points and accompanying contexts, and there is a kind of elevated euphoria that arises in the acceleration toward desire.

A sort of drunkenness, I suppose, an urge to burn up what energies there are in one's body and in the world where one lives and to be made in the flash of either a literal or metaphorical flame into a another form of energy; it is the urged to be changed, and in this case it is the eroticism of thinking of the woman he his racing toward, that creature of another kind of power with whom he may merge and dissolve. This is DH Lawrence at fever pitch. Lyricism has more than one kind of music to play along with, but let us also say that music is not always lyrical. I don't think Campion intended sweet sounding passages that might assume to emulate an easily assimilated melody. This is not Sara Vaughn, but rather Charlie Parker. As with Parker's serpentine phrases and crammed choruses, the matter is speed, which Campion gets right, and the attending anticipation that becomes sheer impatience with the world the higher the velocity becomes, or the higher the desire for yet more speed becomes. The poem doesn't sound lyrical to me at all, and the angst isn't in the sort that would make muscle men behind the wheels of Detroit's noisiest engines contemplate their long empty nights at intersections.

The poem works for me because Campion's voice comes from a condition of his narrator's thinking rather than a nuanced response to events that have already happened. It is about the wish for a rapid exit from obstacles, and it is in this instance that he creates his breathless, blurring effect. The physical world is summarized and dismissed while the desired object is enlarged in the expectation. As with all things erotic, the urgency and tension are created in the distance between the two, in that in-between state the narrator desperately wants an immediate exit from. This is much less about the actual race to his lover's house than it is about a mindset that takes control of the nervous system and produces a physiological effect. Our driving hero might well be stuck in a traffic jam on the Interstate for all we know, and that matters little here.

The relationship between the speaker and the woman seems to be suffering from some unspoken fallout, even if it is only physical distance. What falls outside the frame in this case only intensifies my curiosity about the extreme in which the narrator's personality is tilted. It's not important for me to know anything about the woman (if she even exists in this narrator's frustrated thinking jag), only that it's a telling element, a slight detail that convincingly leads up to a fleeting state of mind that Campion isolates particularly well.

Campion is a fine poet, a very good one, and "Lilacs" is a fine bit of elliptical heartache from him. He has a wonderful way, if that's the phrase, at getting nestled between the long deep sighs and low toned moans erupting mid throat. There is so much imaginary agony the narrator suffers here while he inhabits a life that seems to be working, one wonders what goes on behind those eyes. We've all seen those eyes, on buses, in banks, at parties, when someone is in the middle of a throng of people, in the midst of mad activity, eyes on someone who still strikes you as being alone, lost in thoughts, their eyes cast at some translucent thing in a corner, high or low, rummaging through imaginary boxes filled with their life, looking for a clue as to how they came to be standing among others of whom he or she wants no part of.
It used to burn, especially in spring:
the sense that life was happening elsewhere.

Smudged afternoons when lilacs leaked their smell
past schoolyard brick, whole plotlines seemed to twist

just out of reach. Inside the facing houses
chamber on networked chamber rose … to what?

Some angel chorus flowing around the sun?
Some lurid fuck? ... For years that huge desire

simmered, then somehow ... didn't dissipate
so much as fuse itself to thought and touch.

Not an attractive state to be in, this perpetual state of regret and unexamined expectations, but it is a state of mind nearly epidemic among those for whom poverty isn't a source of their despondency, and for whom scents, sounds, tints of light or billboard slogans are triggers , launching points for them to go asea rudderless amid the ebbs and flows of unconstrained memory. This poem is a small gem, a perfect lyric of a mind trying to reconcile actual choices he's made in partners and occupation and location, with other he might have made, thinks,perhaps, should have made.

Though one would usually be compelled to elaborate too much, too long, too often in exploring this situation--what defies being named encourages the exhaustion of even the best writer efforts to tease a sense of exactness from such a state of perpetual , nebulous limbo--Campion sticks to poetic principle and gives us language that creates a sense of the interior argument. The external world is not banished entirely from his thoughts;rather, they intrude on his reverie, they bring back to his current obligations, duties, his willingness to pretend to be happy inspite of persistent regret.

You stand in purple shade beside your dresser.
And filtering off the park the breeze returns it:

lilac: its astringent sweetness, circling us
as if it were fulfillment of desire.

But not fulfillment. Just the distance here
between us, petaled, stippling to the touch.

Campion, again, writes well about what happens in the cracks between life's cushioning assurances, but he reads dreadfully, and the recording provided us reveals him to sound whiny, sniveling, limp wristed, a reticent and rattled drone of gutless pessimism. The poem is too good to merely be known for a wimpish rendition; even the most self indulgent of regrets should have a residue of rage smouldering, a flame of anger still consuming the last unspent piece of lumber.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Stephen Dunn Versus the Cliche

Some days are just are a bother for no reason you can put a pulse to, especially on those days off when there are no plans , leaving you to thrash around the house looking for something to inspire you. Some days are like that , and the lesson might be in the learning how to survive the hours when there are no crisis to defuse, no lives to save, no call to demonstrate your expertise or authority. Steven Dunn has a poem that doesn’t precisely address the condition I vaguely define here, but it did give me a counter point when I came across it yesterday:

And So
Stephen Dunn

And so you call your best friend
who's away, just to hear his voice,
but forget his recording concludes
with "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, but I have other plans,"
you're always tempted to respond,
as an old lady once did, the clerk
in the liquor store unable to laugh.

Always tempted, what a sad
combination of words. And so
you take a walk into the neighborhood,
where the rhododendrons are out
and also some yellowy things

and the lilacs remind you of a song
by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"
is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill
two fidgety deer cross the road,
white tails, exactly where

the week before a red fox
made a more confident dash.

Now and then the world rewards,
and so you make your way back
past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,
knowing the soul on its own
is helpless, asleep in the hollows
of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

This has the breezy informality of what Ted Berrigan could do with this remarkable faux sonnets. It's hard thing to pull off , the moment-to-moment progress of someone moving and thinking as they move about a community they know, and even Berrigan was, much of the time, a little too much off beat personality, too little genuine poetry. Dunn is a bit more formal than Berrigan (who's charm lies in his shambling verse), and that bit of reserve brings us a sharper focus as his gaze and thoughts engage. It's a swift stream . What I enjoy about this poem is Dunn's clarity and the ease in which this sequence of images, with the tone modulating ever so from point to point. It's a poem about nothing in particular and things in general, about the things that come into the narrator's field of vision and the memories that are sparked after his failed phone call and his resulting walk through the town he lives in.

I especially liked the Nina Simone citation, since one of my absent minded habits is to start thinking of or even hum a sung a phrase someone else had said had inspired; it's like a private intermission from the affairs of the day. This is a record, also, of the narrator's own thinking, thinking, in this sense, being not an interior essay one fashions as if preparing for debate, but impressions of what's seen conveyed in broad strokes, sketches of the real world one is lost in.

Less argumentative than reflective, with the reflection being refreshingly unprofound yet elegantly modest, it is a poem of someone starting a point of the day in a casual funk who comes to realize that the world in miniature, his suburban (or exurban) locale, is abuzz with others wrapped in their chores, their jobs, their hobbies lest they think too much on the emptiness around them and drive themselves desperately crazy.

Mad Magazine used to do a feature called "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions", my favorite being a cartoon of a man climbing from a wrecked car he just ran into tree. Some one else walks up the scene ands asks "Have an accident?"

"No thanks, I've already one" responds the bemused victim.

I am tempted more than once daily to get a smart mouth when other citizens in passing give me platitudes, cliches and truisms in conversation, and that, as we know, is a waste of one's energy and wit. What I like about Dunn's poem was that he could turn it into a poem, something larger than the gripe at hand and creates an hypothetical existence that corresponds with the idealized and finalized exactitude a stale phrase or moldy poeticism contains. Beyond that, of course, is the narrator's realization that after his particular bit of snobbery, his perfect response of "No thanks, I have other plans" becomes ironic, effortlessly so in Dunn's straight-forward rhythms and images. It has the odd tinge of self-fulfilling prophecy, and you wonder if the speaker considered another cliche by the end of the poem, the one attributed to Abe Lincoln,"People are only as happy as they make their minds up to be." It's a conumdrum one drifts into while taking a long bus ride or waiting for a table , and it's something one gets out of with a sigh and then pressing on with the agenda that's been plotted. Dunn gets that moment beautifully as well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Addictions by Carole Muske-Dukes

Funny, but everyone has an opinion on addiction. Luckily, Carol Muske-Dukes poem Addictions , is not one of them, but rather a mashed up scowling at how the way the culture lives is analogous to habits one cannot stop. It is a rant and a rage and a pissed off diatribe of someone who's been too long in the wraps of addiction, to booze, speed, heroin, money, love, those things that we involve ourselves in some quest of mastery of our destinies, only to find ourselves instead to be the slave to the cure we sought. Muske-Davies is an enjambed, colliding, corrugated assortment of conflations and confluences, one thing leading to another--there is the reckless stammer of someone peaking on their delusion or mumbling from the depth of an incompressible bottom attempting to give insight, lay blame, paint the large picture with small details they cannot bring together. Not hopeful or necessarily bitter, Addictions glides between tones, rests briefly on different moods, providing a travelogue to some deeply confused discontents.The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says succinctly that one cannot be sober--in this case let us say, free from whatever trait it is that makes our lives problematic beyond manageability--solely on the basis of self-knowledge; knowing better is never enough. What Muske-Dukes does with this poem is layer all the different things in such a way that they become akin in their allure and their sorry consequences, and presents with a picture that suggests that even the so-called cures can be mere subterfuge for new variations on the slippery thinking that keeps addiction alive; it is the disease that sleeps with one eye open.

I would agree that one is always an addict, regardless of how much clean time one might have. Addiction, from what I've read on the subject, is a condition involving brain chemistry more than anything else, the upshot is that once one achieves an addicted state, the propensity to become addictive to narcotic substances does not vanish. My evidence is anecdotal, but I have never seen an alkie or an addict go back to successfully being able to drink or use. Many of them wind up worse than they did before, rapidly, and many of them die. An addict and alkie essentially have to accept the fact they will always be so in spite of their clean and sober time, and they need to learn to live their lives as the rest of the non-addicted population does.

It's been said that what Muske-Dukes wrote here is less a poem about addiction than she has an anti-war poem, and I'd say sure, the elements are there,but what we really have is a miserable persona in effect going off against the state of things that they think has a singular cause, the doings of all these damned addicts and alkies lying, cheating, stealing to get their drugs and booze. Rage, as a state of being, is a condition that gives one the illusion that they are finally perceiving everything as it really is, and sees those things as a series of connections that form, apparently, to no good purpose than to ruin the world generally and endanger the narrator specifically. It's paranoia, and the ironic twist is that the speaker is as much a victim of addiction as the ones physically and psychologically habituated. Denial is a needed element for the perpetuation of addiction cycles, and what Muske-Dukes creates is the chorus that naysays wretchedness of the addicts whose lives they make impossible to recover from. The narrator is not someone in sympathy with the poor, the downtrodden, the ones in need of help, this is someone who is fed up with the troubles and would rather have they --an amorphous mass differentiated only by their not being the speaker- vanish, like stains giving way to the scrape of strong detergent. The larger point concerns the difficulty of stopping the behavior that we know is killing us. She does well in recreating the wicked downward spiral of negative thinking, collectively expressed.For me, the whole subject is black and white, an addict uses until he or she is dead, the only cure is abstinence, and those who cannot stop using or drinking in amounts contrary to our tentative idea of sanity simply die as a result of their excess. I am an agnostic in spirit, though I have an open mind about spiritual matters, and I will assert that the spiritual nature of AA saved my life; I started to at least give lip service to the principles and then gradually came to believe that there was something to this "surrender to win" ethic when I began to notice improvement in my life. For me it comes down to the Chicken Soup Theory:

Can it help?

Couldn't hurt...Muske-Dukes, though, really isn't talking about addiction as such, but rather uses it to describe the expressive tendency of an entire culture--it's a metaphor for a what's seen as a global condition, that everyone is self-seeking even though they hanker to be more charitable and humane. With our selfishness and our thinking at odds, we have all sorts of confused and conflated ideas about what the "right" thing is, and we wind up operating in grotesque ways, rationalizing with various rhetorics, philosophies and wishful thinking to justify the worst of our ways, and use the same vocabulary to lay the blame on others. Muske-Dukes is wise to put this in the form of an accelerating rant--the velocity of the resentments fuels the rage distills it to some hard, palpable gripes that are not without merit.


I subscribe to the idea that the validity of a theory is in the results it gets, and it's not my place to argue with people how they understand their particular addiction, nor judge them as to how they've coped with and surmounted their problem. Let us say that my understanding of my alcoholism comes not from any need to fill up what was missing in my make up, but because I liked the effect produced by alcohol and sought to continue, sustain and increase that feeling with ever-increasing amounts of the sauce until such time that what I used to be able to take or leave became a habit I couldn't stop under my own power. Alcohol wasn't a symptom of an underlying disorder, it was the problem. I reject the oft-recited template of bad nurturing, unreturned love or other forms of psychic scarring that set one up for years of trying to compensate for what was missing with the intake of copious amounts of booze; I was a reasonably happy kid, my parents loved me, I had plenty of friends. I had an average amount of teenage angst--the reason I drank was simply that I liked the way it made me feel. This isn't to say I didn't have issues, tragedies, and traumas to contend with, but none of these, individually or combined, convince me that they were the reason I drank. Granted, I experienced every bit of the irrationality, craziness, meanness and chronic fucked-upedness that comes along with twenty years of steadily increasing binging, that state we in twelve-step programs consider to be insanity, but it's my understanding of the way I drank, arrived through several long inventories , that my unmanageably started after I crossed that line between heavy drinker to alcoholic. I am not much of an onion peeler , I'm afraid, but my inventories were thorough, my amends were a long time to complete, and the point of the self-examination wasn't to discover why I drank but rather to avoid the sorts of behaviors and habits of thinking that will make me want to drink again. I've gotten a sufficient amount of crap from Big Book thumpers who've had the nerve to claim that I've been staying sober the wrong way, but I've seen many Big Book Thumpers and twelve-step gurus get drunk in 21 years, and here I am, still sane, sober and productive. What this means, I think, is that there's no wrong way to stay sober--with Jesus, with Bill W, with the naysayers at Rational Recovery--as long as you're staying sober and living a life that works. Happily and usefully whole. If one wants to subscribe to a theory that everyone is an addict that all bad behavior and the odious consequences thereof is a form of addiction, fine, so long as what one garners in such a belief is a clarity that enables one to make better decisions as to what to do with their life. Without those results--results that come in God's time, not mine, not ours-- I will think that one is living --wallowing--in the problem.


I complained, somewhat , of what I took to be Barry Goldensohn's throat-clearing noise in his poems, the sort of things one writes as an extended warm up to the real material of their writing. Fair enough criticism, but then someone holds a mirror to the accuser. Frank Wilson at Books, Inq.--The Epilogue cites a paragraph from the review, prefacing it with "Too much ... of what Kierkegaard call the preliminary expectoration", by which I means I spent too much time, as long as we're using analogies, revving the engine before driving anywhere. The offending paragraph;

Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of its amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.

I present it here as evidence of my prolix problem; it's been deleted from the post below to give the worth Goldensohn a less-larded discussion,but I'm sure other examples remain. Need I mention that I'm enamoured of my own writing voice?


Monday, March 2, 2009

The Poems of Barry Goldensohn

Somewhere in space the tempest of intellection vs emotion in contemporary poetry ensues, participants more passionate that habitual losers at downbeat racetracks.
No one walks away happy from these discussions, of course, and although common sense
the proper place for one or the other of those qualities lies in the middle, with dominant tone depending on what is being composed, matters get sidetracked to issues that leave aesthetics behind and land somewhere in the swamp of Deeply Held Personal Beliefs. The outcome from that kind of morass, in extreme, are crusades, jihads, and obsession with celebrity murder trials. Sometimes it’s harder to stay in the center of a discussion than on other occasions:

Reading Faust When Young
for David Mamet

I remember only the leap from the bridge
into the turbulent river after knowledge,
but not what special knowledge or what power
ever came his way in the old story.
I was young when I read it. Immortality
meant art and Faustus was never an artist.
And as for girls, you didn't need the devil,
when you offered everything. What did he really
need to know? Something about the girl—
what she felt and could never say because
she had no words for it? He had little
to say to the Greats. Helen was a peep-show.
And the stuff about his soul—
well, that was religious and historical.

Overreaching for me was natural. I wanted
to know everything, to stay forever in school
taking courses. God and the devil
never figured in. With his snaky tail
the devil was too fanciful to explain
the lines waiting for gas or a bullet and ditch
and fire bombs and carpet bombs and the icy
rapture of ideologues shouting about who to kill
and who to save. My fellow humans were real:
their evil was sufficient. The sacred
was love and art and the political dream.
The world-drunk heart was what I took for the soul,
which dulled the edge of Faustus' sacrifice
and god was never real enough to love or lose.
 This is an acute recollection, stark and crisp, but it seems a fanciful evocation of some delayed connection of points whose effect ought to have a less earth-shaking idiom. There’s a lot of throat clearing harrummmmmphing going on in the lines as I read them where a lighter, more minuscule rhetoric could have prevailed.There's something to be said for distanced irony, the now-I-get-it school, but since the instances were fleeting, minor, gradients of perception building to a larger, if not earth riving sharpness, a voiceless swaggering in its couched self-loathing would fit the material better. It would seem a better idea if Goldensohn hadn't mentioned Faust or Jung at all but in the title, and instead placed us smack dab in the action of his past thinking, the incidents as he vividly recalls doing them in his earnest, youthful practice of applying his hormone-fused enthusiasms upon his world. The mention of historically loaded names and sufficiently parsed ideas, though nicely arranged and phrased, are too precious for me to take this as anything more than an occasional poem that would normally find its way to the bottom of a drawer: it fairly gloats with its knowingness, and the author sounds too close to thinking that his eventual lesson learned is something to glory in. Look at me, I am wrong on a higher plain.

The piece is over-loaded with awkward references and glancing mentions of religion and myth; the poet's voice aside, this poem reads like an abstract of a freshman's ill-crafted term paper. A reader might object to Goldensohn's irony with the insistence that a lyric poem supposed to be about emotion.I ronic observations, they might insist, are not emotions, merely cruel juxtapositions of unfortunate inclinations.

The lyric poem is the verbal equivalent of a musical evocation of intense feeling that defies the logic of words to express adequately. Thus, the looping chains of association, the constant comparisons of unlike things, including the sounds of the words creating euphony. Intense emotion colors the entire world, cast it in all engrossing tint. The perceived world makes a certain kind of sense, though the sense eludes us more often than not; there is even an element of paranoia that can come to play here, as in the notion that everything in the world, be it people, places, things, institutions, weather, are all somehow connected to the internal transformation.

Irony alone isn't an emotion, but because it has something to do with an individual's perception, whether the poem's speaker or the reader themselves, it can become a key and determining factor in how hot emotion might boil or cool off, whatever the case may be. Irony concerns the incongruity between what is said and what actually is the case, and since a lyric poem operates on the transcendent level where emotion bypasses logical argument in pursuit of impossible language capturing the inexpressible, conflicts, disjunctions, distortions and contradictions between myth and fact, action and deed are likely to happen as default conditions, and will ratchet up the energy a lyric swoon requires.

I do think that my own work and explications regarding verse aim toward a Dionysian expansion , but unlike a host of others before me who pursued that expansion into sheer incomprehensibility --Kerouac, late John Ashbery, Pound, Language poets who've pushed at the margins of prefabricated resolution and took the entire enterprise of American poetry off center--I think the image, lines, and music need to be reined in, operate within strictures, Jazz is hardly a formless expulsion sans melodic infrastructure, since the quality of the best sets of spontaneous composition require suitable composed materials to contextualize the extrapolation; the form of the melody being extrapolated upon gives shape to the musician's improvisations.

There's a point in the kind of poetry I find appealing and the poets I think do interesting work where they have to acknowledge something a real subject set in the material world, the physical world, and that there is a need to link the most fanciful forays and high-flying linguistic maneuvering to real emotion, producing something at the end resembling whatever effect the writer thinks he's working for. It's a dialectical process, for want of another term, thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Goldensohn's intellection resembles a tight suitcase about to burst open on the bed; the epiphany is too slight for the evocation of top-heavy name like Faust. Faust, of course, could have been used effectively as a reference serving a satisfying conclusion, but the hand is heavy here when the name and its cache is played. Irony trumps everything, as the saying goes, but it can also kill everything that's going on in a work, and the willingness to abstract compulsively here makes for a small work that is all over the map. It's an over-packed suitcase. Stevens’s strategies better, in so far that his work is about the experience, at the moment, in the intelligence of a perceived who is in witness to things that will not yield their essence in the metaphysical sense. Stevens, though not overtly emotional, crafts a supreme fiction he often spoke of to take the place of the secrets that are forever unknown, a dramatized system of perception that acknowledges the world as its own adequate symbol.

Wallace Stevens believes in the adage that there ought to be "no ideas but in things..."(concisely phrased and explained by William Carlos Williams). Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of its amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.This terrain has a permanent equilibrium; the roiling core of a man's irrational impulses become abstracted, formalized in a design where language absorbs, fragments and restructures the shape our meaning as days, months, years pass by. Stevens was entering the world, and to have the world he experiences shape and forms his readings and his writings; he wrote, I think, as a man who was in that legendary of state of constant becoming. Goldensohn sounds lost at best, though I am sure he can write a decent poem. This isn't one of his better ones.

Goldensohn offers up a poem titled "War Work" here, the intent being to bridge childhood memories of Manhattan thunderstorms that he mistook for a nuclear attack, and how his parents consoled him that his small world still held its comforting center. A moving sentiment, perhaps, if told in real life, but horrid and malnourished as a poem. The poem confirms the tired complaint that too many poems are bad prose broken into irregular lines--the reader is given the worst qualities Of both forms and must surrender to vague critical asides that claim there is more in the ambiguity than the unguided eye can connect. Or the reader must suffer the personal insult, by implication, that manages to live despite the fact that they have no heart.

I suppose I have no heart. This poem is so weak that if on the off chance that this incident is true, I hope his parents made fun of him from that day forward, into his adult life. Writing this poem the way it seems like an attempt to ennoble a childhood embarrassment by dressing it up in the unseemly character warping issue of Nuclear Destruction and General Apprehension.

This has interest if one were to read it as a single entry on a blog, or paragraph out of a long letter, but as a poem is slight and repulsive for being so unambitious. It's the equivalent of being a bad mood while on the way to work early one mid-week day and seeing homeless men gathered at bus stops, smoking mooched cigarettes and drinking, and then having your mood uglier.

You want to throw these guys in jail for being lazy, shiftless, drunk and leisurely at 7 in the morning while you and your fellow wage slaves go off to work to make a wage and eventually pay a tax that pays for the bench that has become their reclining point. It has nothing to do with fairness, logic, the like, and it goes against my professed belief in social justice, it's just an emotional response, hitting me like a sucker punch. I feel the same way about this poem; it irritates me that this half-baked pot of gummy sentimentality gets the exposure (and the poet gets the paycheck) while the rest of us work hard for our muse, producing better work in the responses to this gruel than the what the actual poem contains.

Again, fairness, balance, reason has nothing to with this reaction, and it's obvious there are other things under the tight lid of my personality that makes me want to slap Goldensohn for being so shiftless in my presence (in a manner of speaking). Envy, resentment, arrogance? Well, yes, all those pesky defects. But beyond it all, beyond all my failings on this issue of being a wordy critic of other people's poems, this poem has the appeal of a small toy after a baby as finished slobbering and puking over it. It bites the bag, it chews the root, it sucks long, deep and with braced teeth.
Fog has its appeal because we’re interested in the idea of a netherworld coexistent with our own, where things are less definite, less material, able to appear and vanish into other details, or into vapor altogether. It’s a filter over the hard edges of what we see and take for granted and perhaps even curse for being solid, precisely drawn, an arrangement of three-dimensional things we have to walk around, not through.

Walking in the fog, through the woods is what Barry Goldensohn fancies with his poem “Walking In Fog”, a jaunt that has one feeling that one is walking through unforgiving barriers, penetrating unseen membranes. There’s that twilight, near dark feeling of the world one knows becoming vaporous and and translucent, less fixed on names and definitions that are written down and conveyed by way of essay and routinely complicated system-making, and which seem more as ideas in themselves, the notion of things that hover over our straightforward lives whispering subdued captions of what our lives and our contexts are like free our fear of not having enough or losing what we have.

Goldensohn’s trek through the forest, through the signifying fields, has something in common with the dyes of a madras shirt; everything, from detail to the slightest glimmer of joy or foreboding trilling lightly at the delicate edge of the paradigm, it all bleeds together.

Everything looms at me. Hound's-tongue
with wet doggy leaves and blue flowers
starts up from the mist-streaked hillside.
Standing by itself, framed in fog
the live oak twists black arms above me,
an embrace, free of the crown of leaves that hides
the outlines of limbs in the crowded background view.
The canyon and the next hill disappear.

There is a dream logic at work, not the rational cause and effect a more stainless-steel mind requires, but instead the logic, intuited sense of how elements fit together; Goldensohn has an especially balanced poem here, the physical details veering toward the surreal but never escaping the atmosphere so as the poem is made turgidly weird and overwrought with metaphors that might have sunk the poem.

There is, with sincere thanks, a lack of explanation about any of this means, and the power of the poem draws from the way things appear and vanish in this verse, from looming branches and wet leaves; things emerge as one comes closer, things that one has just past vanish into the cottony mist. There is the feeling of being drawn in, embraced by all that one sees; animals and their habitats. I come away with the feeling of being absorbed

Plunging into dense puffs and gusts of fog
along the road a dying friend wheels
and lunges from cliff wall to cliff edge
in a bright yellow blouse and blue jeans
joyous with losing herself and coming back
in daily magic, you see me then you don't.

It comes to death, of course, the fascination with it, the thinking of whether this life is worth the struggle and the pain and the sheer labor just to be current with one’s accounts and relationships, and the thought does arise among many of us, musing at twilight, at dusk or dawn, in fog near the cliffs where the songs of sea maidens and powerful water gods offer their promise of rest and deep, coral-toned symphonies, that the transition from this life, the hard life, the life where everything has density and measurable weight, to the life where gravity takes no toll, would be simple, easy, painless, natural beyond nature. The final image of the dying friend wheeling herself to the cliff edge, decked out in a bright blouse as she considers going over the edge and then returns from the fog as if by magic, caught me by surprise, it stopped me, it fairly stunned me.

Writers, the sort we like to discuss, the introspective and the thoughtful and the perennially worried, are most comfortable on the smooth, stainless steel surface of given meaning, but they (we?) are cursed (blessed?) with the impulse of analyzing where they stand, why, and how it might be otherwise if their rules of gravity weren't an imperative.

The speaker here is someone noticing how things familiar and commonplace appear to be at once ethereal and somewhat supernatural given the change in atmosphere, light; the density of things gives way to diffusion and there is the feeling that you're walking through the material world and traveling great distances in no time at all when you stroll through the forests; our narrator observes what things appear as, notes the change in a personal psychology, the rise of feelings that have to explicable basis, but never gives way to the seduction of his mood.

He is firmly rooted, and wonder, as he might about another plain his language, is inadequate to describe, he remains on the soil he landed at birth. He has much he wants to do, and hasn't the hankering to consider other options; the wheelchaired friend, though, has the luxury to wonder, to play games as described, coming so close to a mystical abyss only to back away from it's yawning gasp. Giddiness is the mood, finally, the thrill of having trekked alongside certain fatality only to walk away from it, if only by mere inches. It is one of the benefits of not taking the Leap, the reminder that one is alive without a doubt when every sense is going off like fire alarms.

The fog, with what its qualities suggest about being a portal to some greater realm above our own, is something we journey through, absorbing the associations, daring to think of a life free of the dreariness of making a living and keeping your word and thinking perhaps further that passing on would be so bad, and then coming back, an aberration in the mist, slightly crazed, energized, fresh from the foxhole, ready to shoulder the weight of the world one was birthed into, realizing there are still some things one would like to attempt before presenting a boarding pass.