Thursday, August 27, 2009

In defense of Daniel Bosch

It's a scene any introspective sort will recognize or feel empathy for; one is alone in a cold, dark room, staring out of the window, gazing at the stares and the spectral clouds passing over the face of full yellow moon, contemplating what there is beyond this existence. Is there something one goes to and finds an ironic eternity tailored by one's decided deeds on earth, or is there only dust, silence, a blank slate of non-being?

This isn't comedy for self-infatuation by default, but exactly the kind of exercise the mind plays at when there isn't the opportunity to engage with the world beyond one's own skin, and it's not uncommon to wonder, once one is done with the cerebral gymnastics to sort through their obsessions, loves and losses, to finally ask the variations on The Question: when does this all end? What will I say if there is someone /something waiting for me? What legacy will I leave? What will the consequences of what chose
to do and refused to do?

One wonders, one pauses to refresh themselves, one ponders, one writes a poem , one dreads, one begins a hundred different projects for fear of wasting what time remains on the Big Stop Watch.Thanatos brought to the personal level, where it hangs alongside the day's activities at work, lovemaking, paying bills, visiting museums and playing with grandchildren, is that chill one cannot shake from the bones. It is a tone in one's voice that one cannot rid themselves, it is a low grade depression that lingers no matter how hard we laugh. Death doesn't so much stalk us as it waits,in an inside coat pocket as an envelope we cannot open , containing the expiration date of our lives. The sum of many a man and woman's life has been how well or how badly they've adapted to the knowledge of the inevitable deletion of their life force; literature, in it's limitless styles, rationales, intentions, aesthetic rules and origins, chronicles to greater and less greater degrees how well one lives with the sour taste of their own death forever under the savoring of each bite of food and drink.

Death's Doorman
by David Bosch, turns this theme into a two voice theater piece, and it works, surprisingly enough, for such a gimmick-tending conceit. I well imagine the introspective sort I described earlier in the bathroom, late at night (although a sunny mid afternoon would do just as well) staring at the mirror , envisioning all sorts of after life scenarios, asking every question , poetic or merely dumb, that he or she can muster, trying to arm themselves with a knowledge where an unavoidable fate can be made
tolerable. It's as if the interlocutor is trying to reserve the best seat on the last plane out of Hicksville. What returns , we see, are one word answers, like echos coming from a long , deep cavern, warbling refractions of what he or she had just asked, the keywords distorted and changed.

Would this be ambience, or atmosphere?

I hadn't expected such an emptiness!
An empty nest.

Do you open up before or after a good pandering?

Book, Web site, infomercial. Edginess must be catching.

So let me be the first to congratulate—
Too late.

What is it people seek in your utterances?
Other answers.

You knew Mozart. Before he decomposed—
He composed.

And Freud was your plumber. Conscious or unconscious?
Kein Anschluss.

But have you ever crossed over? You know, necrophilia?

This becomes a brief and bitter comedy, and is something Samuel Beckett would have written as one one of his radio plays, the usual scenario of a character frozen in habit or ritual , redundantly trying to revive some earlier sense of coherence from situations or things. Bosch's second voice offers no inside information, provides no clues, but rather deflects the inquiries with accidental puns. This is a piece that doesn't so much ends as it does stops , cold. It's seems that this inquiry could go on indefinitely, right to the grave, as the peculiar narcissistic loop provides just enough variation in the malformed responses, the echos, that one can proceed with it forever as if they were indeed closer to a Big Secret. Bosch is wise to leave the scene when he does, leaving us with a funny , if minor melodrama .

One can, of course, seize upon any of the questions and their responses and find layers of implication and hence unearth every deferred meaning, but I think that's part of what makes the poem work so well. Bosch plays on the human brain's insistence on making utterances contain more than surface references, and it is a nice trick he's pulled. The character, the interlocutor , is trapped in infinite regress with his questions, and the reader, as well, might be compelled to parse each pun and skewed return. This might ,then, be a comedy with two acts performed simultaneously.

Stephen Dunn hits it hard

Stephen Dunn swings for the fence with his poems, and when he connects, the crack of the bat is loud and the ball is lost to the suburban trenches.What I enjoy about this poem, "And So", 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 itno 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.

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 reads effortlessly, and it's an easy mistake to assume it came to him effortlessly .It 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 .

Into history, or the dustbin

One advances into their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgement of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere.The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium. History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Moonfire: an insult to Mailer

Taschen Books has published a Moon Landing commemorative "Moonfire", a very over sized and sinfully expensive limited publication that makes use of the writing of Norman Mailer.The Taschen stunt-publication of this edition is an insult to Mailer, really, as it cannibalizes what was likely the one true masterpiece about the moon landing, >"Of a Fire on the Moon", for an expensive gimmick that is inaccessible to most readers who'd otherwise benefit.

Besides being the result of prodigious research and reporting, the book was an insightful essay as to the role and the fate of the artist in the face of new technology that has usurped the Romantic notion that truth can be revealed through intuition and imagination. The sin is compounded by keeping "Of a Fire on the Moon" out of print, which irritates me endlessly; a major American author's best nonfiction book unavailable to the public Mailer, arch romantic himself , wrote about this through out a number of his essays and journalism, that what we consider as qualities that make humans unique are fated to be regarded as passe and dangerous, as the massive accomplishments of technology demystify the universe entirely and leave the artist , the poet, the novelist irrelevant artifacts. Irony has no limits, we find, with the Taschen volume, who have used the available machinery of contemporary publishing to produce bulky, expensive volumes that are less books and more engineering feats.

Mailer's fine work about the moon shot and the social consequences upon the artist for decades to come , intended for the idealized general reader, are made into mere elements of a pricey elitist vanity. It's an obscenity

Sunday, August 23, 2009

William Bronk and Wallace Stevens

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World
William Bronk

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.

Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space.

William Bronk is a good companion poet to read along with Wallace Stevens, as both concerned themselves with our ideas of a world unspoiled by skewed perception. Both were poets you could imagine walking among their gardens and cities of perfect forms, the ideal types and not the inferior, material imitations, chancing some thoughts beyond the gravity of the actual planet.
Helen Vendler asserts in her review of new "Selected Poems" that Stevens disguised his true hurts and sorrows with symbolism, merging his high, English inspired cadences with a Yankee's habit of plain speak. His was a seamlessly expressed struggle between the ideal relationships among things or the ideas of things finding harmony among their distinct qualities, and the tense world he must return to. He was a vice president of an insurance company, after all, an institution designed to protect and amend the quirky happenstance between gravity and clumsy people.

Bronk, in contrast, seems to be in one world who is constantly thinking of the other, and here suggests that it is our ability to coin words or vary our linguistic references to known, quantified qualities that recreates our world constantly, in terms of a musical score, with beats, rhythm, a narrative line that flows or gets jagged according to the tone each moment might take. And it is that skill, developed through various layers of frustrating experience and states of monotonous torpor, that we can again think of what we see as too familiar and what we see as alien and strange as intrinsically exciting, full of intrigue, it's own vital elements we can learn about and learn from. We come to think of the world in other words and not by the clinical terms they're assigned by dictionaries. This availed Bronk to see that light in the street he trudged every day, palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in from say, the sea, a purity of space. Our language needs to remain vital and up to the task of re-inscribing conventional experiences, lest we miss the whole point of having senses to begin with.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jackson MacLow

In the late seventies, Jackson Mac Low came to read and lecture at the University of California, San Diego. At the same time, I was an undergraduate there, a benefit of having a Literature Department whose poetry doyens in presenting experimental artists. The reading was in a basement room of a large University facility that doubled as an undergraduate art gallery, with Mac Low, in a dark coat and a fine head of long hair, standing before a screen as slides of odd numeric and word sequences and arrangements flitted by when he clicked on a control. The word combinations came in spurts, punctuated, quite literally, with silences, stammers, elongated repetitions, until it became clear (to the few in the room who might have been truly curious) that MacLow had his allegiance with the earlier Modernist poets, especially William Carlos Williams. The reading, we can say, was not the sort of thing that would-be Ed Dorns or erstwhile Ginsbergs had been prepared for. Although latent with meaning and associations that cannot be wholly deferred, words still have tonal properties that can be organized in ways other than literal meaning.
MacLow's "chance system" theories of composing verse satisfied few readers/listeners, but there is a rigor in the method he used in a lifetime of work and a genuine curiosity of what one can do with poetry than reaffirm the old themes. At the time, I was more or less baffled, taking it in as future banter and bullshit for a student party, and the others of my station seemed to be smiling a little too hard, too earnestly as they jotted various notes in the crowd, making smart talk with their attending faculty. MacLow, as I remember, seemed perfectly amiable, although he seemed not to feel compelled to explain his ideas in more straightforward language. Good for him. Stating that poems are "unreadable" is slippery here since it's an accusation tossed about by too many readers describing difficult poets. As an experimentalist, MacLow hardly forgot about aesthetic pleasure; in fact, it's safe to say that he was bored with the standards that were in front of him, had no use as to what the general concept of beauty was, and went about seeking the company and energies of others who shared an interest in seeing how new art can be created. Granted, there is nothing less appealing than yesterday's Avant garde, but there are several artists, Cage and MacLow among them, who merit serious attention after their passing.

Mac Low is hard to read--a better term-- essentially, he was given to experimenting with new compositional techniques, "chance systems," as he called it. The result was meant to challenge the reader/listener to approach the work differently. I happen to think that quite a bit of his writing is perfectly readable if closed on its own terms. But MacLow's work, like Cage's, wasn't about delivering pleasure wrapped in a consumer-friendly package, but rather about the unexpected things, the noises, the random words, the accidental pairings, the overlaying of contrary sounds, that lay in the spaces between the words and the notes on a page. One either opens up to the possibilities, or one does not, but even here, one's reservations and resistances are important to explore.

Cage and MacLow both read about and around, if not through, and look at. Cage was among those, like MacLow and earlier modernists like WC Williams and Stevens who thought that a poem "...should not mean but be..." (Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"). Cage, of course, was less materialistic than his earlier American poets and was attracted to the chance formations that Zen study gave him the stamina to imagine containing in particular compositional systems wherein the natural sound and tonal value of each element in a limited terrain find a new aesthetic arrangement, the aesthetic of what the eye sees, and the ear beholds for that fleeting moment and then vanishes. In any event, MacLow's work as a poet, composer, and collaborator was a lifetime endeavor. He sought beauty and new perception in his own fashion for his work.

My favorite thing about that McLeish quote that gets trotted out all the time is how its mania for defining poetry defines itself right out of the category. That is precisely the meaning of the quote: poets have to write their pieces "out of the category" of conventional verse and create new ways of writing and reading poems instead. It's about ways of seeing the world and recording the experience in a manner that would revolutionize perception. Bob Perelman addressed this whole notion of experimental geniuses who sought to revolutionize the way readers came to experience the world in his book The Trouble With Genius; sussing through the writing and aims of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and others, Perelman caught the usually undiscussed detail that these experimentalists,
preparing the literate world to reshape their thinking about writing sequence, had in fact isolated themselves with their own genius from the public they wanted to influence. The bold originality of their work had made them geniuses, but of a different sort than one regards DaVinci, Einstein, or even a Henry Ford. Perelman's modernists were writers and aesthetes and were geniuses of poetic form, not practical application. It might be said that there was advancement in the sort of difficulty poetry and prose could encompass. Still, these were problems of interest to already marginalized audiences, other aesthetes, poets, and academics. The modernist project was a failure for reconfiguring the world through a radical expansion of the senses. But as literature, this generation produced their masterpieces, problematic though they were for a wider audience. This is the great conceit of the experimental artist, a project doomed to failure so far as the universal revolution is concerned, but what remains in the resistance to old categories are, nonetheless, new ideas of what poets ought to be doing for their own time.

Modernism's experiments with Imagism and Vorticism and a host of other revolutionary projects might not have reconfigured our audio and visual senses. However, they have given us some newer ideas about image, theory, rhythm, scope, and subject. Much of what we take for granted as the given of modern, conventional verse wouldn't be possible sans these seemingly indecipherable experiments, which isn't to say that poetry not have changed with the times. Without our savant grades and experimentalists, though, it would be substantially different. Well, let's look at the poem itself. The spirit is the same for Mac Leish as Cage and MacLow. That poetic language needs to find new ways to address the world we experience. Mac Leish wants words to have a particular "thingness" that can get the substance of the objects it strives to be about; that the thing -in and of itself is its own adequate symbol. MacLow and Cage were more interested in the lost arrangements of the hidden world, the sounds and objects one finds in those odd moments where the mind fixes on seemingly ephemeral details of daily endurance. In either case, there is a search for a more accurate way of getting perception across to a reader. What separate them are strategies, not sympathies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gluck's private party

Louise Gluck's poem, "Crater Lake," is cold as crypt marble. This is the second Louise Gluck poem that we've been presented within two months. I'm more convinced than ever that she has even less useful things to say to the land of the living."Crater Lake" has all the symptoms of a writer who regards their thoughts, their thinking as so bracingly brilliant that they are not obliged to aid the reader in the slightest in figuring which end of this poem is up and which is down. Not that it really matters, though, since the effect here, as with her last poem published in Slate "A Myth of Innocence" [], is walking into a room in a large house thinking that it was empty and coming upon some there, alone, back turned as they gazed out the window, muttering phrases and broken references to themselves.

There was a war between good and evil.
We decided to call the body good.

That made death evil.
It turned the soul
against death completely.

You do get the feeling that there is a submerged attempt to marry myth archetypes with the sweltering and restless subconscious tensions that confront us as we, a race, reconcile the glory and agony of love and death. Still, Gluck boils her worries to arhythmic, unmusical aridity. Think of that strident piano banging in Kubrick's most pretentious film Eyes Wide Shut; terse, strident cadences applied to a scenario of ritualized, debauched despair, pushed forth with a hardly an interesting nuance, phrase, image to part with and make us consider the further complications.

The pretentiousness comes in large measure from Gluck's glib and unconsidered use of Big Terms to make a reader pause and inspect a line for a profundity that isn't there. "Good and evil," "love," "death," "love" are all dished out like portions of food you don't want to eat--eeeewwww, cooked carrots, liver, creamed corn, grossssssssss--and yet we have to read and digest on the sorry promise that it's good for us. Gluck, though, recedes into a vagueness here that commits the worse sin one can manage for an oblique poem; it provides you with no reward for reading it. There is a complete absence of euphony whatever underscores the notion that the poem fails because it cannot sustain itself without knowledge of the myths Gluck is ostensibly deconstructing.  It does, perhaps, fulfill a structural function with the single narrative which this poem is reported to be a part of, but the effect is lost here; we assume, the punch of this writing exists only in its context with the other works that go with the storyline it obliquely refers to.

"A Myth of Innocence" [], which is lecturing, nearly hectoring and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elderly priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine-year-old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when one's loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of palatable food. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities zig-zag in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self, and an unassigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, not particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader in the ribs.

This may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft, the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have cleared her palate and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.

Poetry lives, it thrives, it has purchase. And a pension

Poetry does encompass all sorts of odd configurations and rethinkings, it seems to me , and will continue to do so regardless of anyone's well-worded attempts to put a fence around the form and preserve it's purity. Language , we tend to forget, is a living thing , used by millions , billions of us around the globe to get across the complexity of experience with a finite vocabulary, and to encompass new successes, new disasters. It's a malleable entity, and while the meanings of words and their syntactical constructions change with constant use, tempered by technology, politics, pop cultural, language and it's literary forms, the novel,the poem, the play, the short story, wind up settling down into a semblance of order, structure, coherence. Frayed, changed, tweaked, but in tact.

I'm not a Flarf fan--I will take William Burroughs, Godard and Pynchon over the easy ironies of a generation of bright scribes who seem intent, to hammer the remaining life from the concept of irony--but those who've been around poetry classes, workshops, reading series and have written three decades worth of material trying to simultaneously debunk previous standards and extend them yet further, we've seen this energy before. This is to be expected and desired; while there's only so many intellections one can play their variations upon in the attempt to develop an original poetic and aesthetic with which to nestle their work at a theoretical distance from a casual reader, the real energy is in the work itself, the actual poems that get written with the attitude to "make it new". Verve and innovation are what poetry constantly needs to keep in a relevant resource for reader desiring something other than coldness of a sober prose.

It's not that I don't get Flarf, but rather that the kids have discovered my old toys in the attic, in the form of old avant gardisms and mouldy experimentalism, and who have painted the notions in colors of their choosing. An aesthetic that generally suggests a preference for inappropriate juxtapositions of rhetorical pitch and tone, practitioners of flarf scour the Internet for the convolutions, crazed coinages, conflations and confusions an unmonitored language finds itself subjected to; the findings are brought back to the reader (anyone eager to be in on the joke) in poetic form,shall we say, in an effort to bring an x-ray to the pinched seriousness of a literary establishment's endeavors to pass itself off as essential to existence. It is, we guess correctly, a joke. If that's the case, it's a joke that gets told over and over, the thinking being, it seems, that a concept gets more profound and funnier with frequency. I used to have great fun with the find and replace mechanisms embedded in Word documents; I would cut and paste a straight forward NYTimes article detailing some bloodless activity only wonks would be interested in, and then used find and replace to switch-out appropriate ones for ones that were non sequiturs. Finding and replacing all uses of the article "The", for example, replacing it with with a nonsense sentence like "Jesus, your breath makes want to eat Cheeze Whiz Hunger Punks". And so on. It was instant Dada, incredibly funny, but after the glee came the tedium of just doing something in an attempt to re-ignite a mania that had passed. Flarf seems a more grandiose version of that and, as with many experimental movements of the passing moment, the rationalizations for their perpetuation is more artful than the work itself.

Poetry , meantime,will withstand this assault as it withstood the valiant energies of my contemporaries and I, the best of their efforts will be absorbed, the best work will find homes in appropriate anthologies and web site archives, and another group of writers, some years younger, will begin their attempt to usurp the current residents at the top of the heap.

One might call this a dialectic, a cycle; one might also consider terming it a pathology, having as much to do with vanity, ego, status and the conviction that one's generation is the last word at the end of history. Language and it's attendant form, poetry, however, goes on. We still breath, it still thrives.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Envy of the Dead

In one of his essays, Edgar Allen Poe summarizes one the essential elements of his philosophical musings by asserting that we are cursed with "the memory from before birth", a slight and wavering recall of a time when calm and serenity were in place and there was nothing of the distortions or crass money, family, or religion to make us nervous, devious, only half alive (if "alive" at all). The upshot of his baroque hypothesizing was, to be sure , our constant and at times overwhelming desire to return to such a nocturnal, darkened, stress-less state, a return to the womb, perhaps; in any event, his pining was a desire for sleep from which one needn't wake up from, death in other words.

Following suit are Poe's peculiar interest in things decadent and decaying, those thin , reedy and tubercular characters of diseased gentry and errant aristocratic stock who hang on to the waking life by a mere thread, effete and defeated and gracefully blended into the material realm, waiting for gravity to take its toll and to become themselves receivers of the dirt nap, freed of the binds that only punish you for having nerve endings.

There was, among the decadent writers and artists following Poe, a literal worship of an aesthetic principal that the greatest beauty was in a person or a thing in it's decline, when it was letting go of the struggle and was reduced to it's basic, most true and frailest form. An aspect of this, I suspect, was envy of the declining aesthetic object, be it a human or a diseased elm; a deep and permanent rest awaited them, and death would be that thing that gives the lie to the certitude of philosophy or economic determinism that insist that life must forever be thus, a certain way, without change. Those who die have escaped, and there are no arms to bring them back to suffer more with the rest of us pining over a grave.

Poet Patricia Traxler gets all this wonderfully, succinctly in her poem The Dead Are Not, published on line this week at Slate; the poem is brief and each finessed line conveys the complicated, conflicting and confused set of emotions one journeys through as yet another death comes closer to one's inner circle of confidants and family. The dead are not dead yet,

Always they take
their time, and we wait
politely, dreading
how real it will
have to be, sooner
or later, and at the
same time longing
to know that reality.

There are arguments one has with the departed, negotiations still in session, curses and protests of undying love are uttered, self-recrimination and blaming goes on for days and nights until one tires of the their tears and breathes easier because sunrises still come inspite the weight of grief. We mutter to ourselves that the dead are "in a better place", that they "felt no pain" or that
" least they died quick..." all so we get on with our lives and our responsibilities, and yet an echo of our accepting rhetoric stays with us as we shoulder our daily responsibilities, that "better place" doesn't sound so bad, and we become envious and petty all over again, we blame the dead for being cowards and laggards who would do anything to shirk their duty, and we come to envy them and that place they've gone. Gravity takes its toll, our bones ache, the mailbox is filled with bills, someone else you know has told you they have a fatal disease, your back hurts like shit:

Nights, as we reach
to switch off our bed lamps
and close our eyes,
we dare it to take us
into its mouth
that smells of tar,
saltwater, sludge,
take us up then let us
tumble endlessly,
blameless again
and helpless as any new life
forced out for the first time
into the terrible light.

Traxler gets to the center of that guilty little secret
at the core of grieving, the scourge of envy and the many faces and tones of voice it takes. Without metaphysical baloney, faux piety, or even a tone of anger, she writes in the cool, reflective calm of someone who has investigated their feelings and discovered an unknown fact about their thinking. This poem has the remarkable clarity of genuine self-sight, unnerving in its tone, beautifully expressed. Her skill gives us the chance to see something very private, unobscured by clouds of delusion. A very fine poem.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TO READ: nearly perfect

This is only a few paces removed from being a Hallmark greeting, but Michael McPhee's poem "To Read" is sweet and lightly likable . The metaphors are juxtaposed well , on balance, and what saves the comparison between picking up one's first book with an initial driving lesson is McPhee's delicate touch. This is an amusing, interesting effect that's constructed on the slimmest of plausible analogues, but there is a logic in the balance the poet maintains between what what he sees and what he associates with it.

He held the opened book
in both hands, at arm's length,

as if he were a student driver
practicing steering this Model ABC
that resisted his touch,
that he could tell he wouldn't know
how to control once it started,

not yet able to ease his grip
or surrender his frown
and learn to let the sentences unwind,
letting their momentum
carry him down the waiting road,

stopping and starting his way
into a world of words.

The awkward grasp on the book, the hesitant hands on the steering wheel, the slow, careful easing through the paragraphs, the lurching starts out of the driveway, the gathering of momentum as the plot thickens and the sentences take on more detail, the increasing convolutions of the streets and their patterns; in the brief space he allows himself McPhee draws up the parallels one's mastery of their language in written form and the growing skill as a driver. In both areas, one's technique becomes reflex. Personal style and flair are expressed while maintaining a knowledge of rules, limits, the need for restraint. McPhee remembers his lessons in restraint and preserves the essence of his idea; not a vehicle for an impressionistic essay nor an excuse for a confession, the poem is focused on the young reader, the fleeting, incidental analogy McPhee imagines. It is nearly a perfect crystallization of a hard to grasp perception.

The "reader" portion of this analogy has a strong sense of trepidation and adults, generally, don't have those kinds of fears when it comes to picking up a book and reading it. Children, though, especially those who are too old for board books, picture books or the sorts of books intended for toddlers, do, as a whole , enter come to more sophisticated writing with hesitation. The books they'll read will be nonfiction in large part, fact-based books, with that they will be expected to recall and remember what they've read. I sell children's books for a living and have talked to many teachers and parents about young children, resistant to a more difficult reading, and how their lesson plans are designed to ease through their resistance and value reading, in itself.

The leap to the driving lesson is meant to give us a sense that there are times in our lives when we must leave what's comfortable with and take the next step in our progress to becoming fully functional adults. I had the combination of anxiety and excitement as a teen when it was my turn to learn how to drive--I liked being driven everywhere I had to go , or mooching rides from friends who had their licenses, but there came a time I had to find my own way, with my own means. The analogy between the two, I think, are distinct, but cogently compared.

A simpler explanation might be to not get hung up over how old the unsteady reader is and appreciate the artful way McPhee accomplished verisimilitude in such a small instance. In both images, the unsure reader and the analogous new driver have somethings in common which the poet found a right-sized set of terms to bring to our attention; beyond that, I don't think the poem means much more than the particulars directly identified. Everything else, whether the reader is a young child or an adult with a reading problem , as zinya skillfully hypothesises, are things that are suggested, if not hinted at. Some of the best things we like in particular poems happens off stage, in a gathering of our own associations that enable our imagination to fulfill it's default function, to complete story lines and flesh out sketchy details. In that sense, each more detailed explication of the poem becomes, in a sense, autobiography.

There's a maxim I heard in school that I like, that a work of art isn't really finished until an audience, separate from the artist, experiences it and invests the object with meaning. . If there's something in McPhee's poem that makes some others think the reader is an adult, that works just fine, since it's a suggested texture that occurs independent of what the words claim is going on. A poem evokes ideas that are not in physical evidence.

It's an almost perfect poem. Nearly, that is, because the last couplet, "...stopping and starting his way / into the world of words" spoils the clarity of image and idea; McPhee starts to think at this point, tacking on something that is a tactical error among many a poet, that of summing up with a punchy conclusion. It does not fit the rest of this otherwise wonderfully spare poem, an abstraction that adds weight , not gravity. It's almost an editor sneaked this into the draft before it went to print, someone who just had add the phrase "world of words" in order to connect this piece with a more rigorous discourse being conducted elsewhere. The phrase, I think, is trite and hackneyed, and wonder why there was an impulse to clutter up a poem that was almost perfect.

Richard Poirier,RIP

Literary critic and cultural commentator Richard Poirier has passed away. Clarity and diversity of interests made him one of my favorites; Mailer's best critic, amazing on the subject of Wallace Stevens, The Transcendalists, pop culture. He had a genius of connecting popular forms with long standing traditions and could appreciate it when particular artists were blurring distinctions between established fields to come up with a meaningful response to contemporary experience. He was aware that the artist was not separate from history, but realized as well that history wasn't static nor a straight jacked that limited an individual's aesthetic options. He was brilliant. And he could write with an uncommon clarity.


I've recorded several versions of this T.Bone Walker classic, and this is the best one, I think. As much as I love a full, blasting amplified,tone with reverb, gain and the like, sometimes I like to highlight the acoustic side of the blues harmonica. I am hardly Sonny Terry or Sonny Boy Williams, but this has it's merits; my indebtedness to Paul Butterfield is conspicuous here.

Please let me know what you think; all praise and criticisms are welcome.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The poet's depression

Barry Goldensohn can write with a snap and twist in his lines with the first part of "April 26,2006" his poem that prevent this from being merely a speedy itemization of habits he's had on his life 'til now. He has the sense to ease on the breaks, slow down, offer a side comment, an aside on the passing banalities he's bothering to tell us about.It's a fast list, and it is not without the slight shock of recognition:

...the century in which I've lived most of my years
on an orderly, ritual-loving continent,
with well-regulated trash collection,
public gardens,
smooth lawns, milk delivered at dawn in cold bottles,
clinking and sweating...

At age sixty nine and he's ready to burn all his old clothes, move out of the shabby house, develop interests and rituals that are seemingly irrational and ill mannered for a man who is supposed to have more dignity as he ascends to deep senior citizenship. Not so, the narrator implies, I've behaved and have been dutiful and dull all my life; why should I be more of the same as I realize there are more days behind me than ahead of me? It's a question worth asking, and Goldensohn does a good job of setting us for a rant about living a fuller life full of rage and ecstatic abandon as the days get shorter, but here he does a hard left turn and turns what 'til now was a minor key bit of longing into something angry, outraged, morally offended:

--screaming and glistening with blood
at the hour of my birth Guernica was carpet bombed
as practice for the time of saturation—
the horrified face through the window that sees
the broken bodies by the light of a bare bulb—
devastating cities thick with targets, human
and other items of civil life: school,
public sculpture in parks, music pavilion, musician,
library, literary life, the writer.

There are ways to present startling contrasts in differing views of the world , and there are ways where irony can emerge in the presentation and reveal the tenuous foothold any paradigm has on defining the all of everything. But this isn't the poem, and for all his skill as a phrase maker--there isn't a badly written line in this poem--there's a cut and paste feeling to this piece; it's as though Goldensohn were rummaging through a shoebox full of parts, unfinished stanzas, templates of recurring poetic themes and slapped them together, a jarring wedding of two poetic styles, the wistful and vaguely nostalgic, the other hectoring, moralizing, humorless and grave.

It is one thing to segue from the hour of his birth to horrible battle scenes, but Goldensohn's horror is just as aestheticized, abstracted and at several layers of remove as was his previously addressed assumptions about a lifetime of being a banal, dutiful citizen. He relapses obviously and conveniently into the seductive habit of writers using art and art making as subjects through which they tackle the confusing, the contradictory. Here he winds up describing , plainly, Picasso's iconic "Guernica" painting as a means to deliver the moral of his story, which is that artist ultimately fails to say anything fixed about existence in their work. This is material that thousands of poets, good, great, mediocre, have covered to the far flung best of their abilities, and as such all wind up saying the say thing, that the senses are fallible and that the best an artist can leave behind after they pass on is interesting evidence of their failure to uncover the big truth. Goldensohn's big truth with this poem seems something written out of boredom, or typing practice, being the kind of self-inquisition that poses a hard question and then dodges the bullet of making something interesting from their set with a cheesy sleight of hand.

It was a typical trick in high school debate class for someone to invoke Hitler or the Holocaust when the subject concerned matters of life and death, whether the death penalty, birth control, the draft. It was a ploy to stun and stall and defer, and a attempt to get the opposing debate team to cede points that hadn't , in fact, been clearly argued. Goldensohn, stuck for an exit out of what was turning into yet another flyweight screed of casual irony, slammed us with Heavy Subjects and Grave Issues, and dares us to ask him for a better linking between the two voices, or to ask what it was he was trying to talk about in the first place.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"The Wild Iris" by Louise Gluck

Critic Robert Christgau commented once that Eric Clapton was a classy blues guitarist who was perfect for the tasty, brief statement but who had the habit of playing in long form and , consequently, losing emphasis, momentum, and gaining only redundancy. Something similar might apply to Gluck, who's strengths can be seen here, a confident voice, a sense of place, a subject addressed directly and indirectly without drift in a voice that still has the capacity to be surprised. This is a wonderful lyric, as much as other of her admirers might object to the term; she sounds like she had an idea of what she was trying to achieve. --tb

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sometimes the best I can do with a poem is respond to it emotionally and admit that what the writing contained was an element, a sentiment that slipped under the critical sensors and got me the gut. Mary Jo Bang's poem here did just that, stirred up feelings I thought I contained and filed under that vague category called wisdom. The wisest thing may well be to stop assuming that you have a handle on anything wrenching event in your life and to appreciate the fact that you've maintained your capacity to laugh or feel sad despite the cynical disguises. The anniversary of the death of both parents, both in August (although in different years) gives the lie to any idea I might have had about being hard boiled.

You Were You Are Elegy
by Mary Jo Bang

Fragile like a
child is fragile.
Destined not to be forever.
Destined to become other
To mother. Here I am
Sitting on a chair, thinking
About you.
About how it was
To talk to you.
How sometimes it was
And sometimes it was awful.
How drugs when drugs were
Undid the good almost entirely
But not entirely
Because good could
always be seen
Glimmering like lame glimmers
In the window of a shop
Called Beautiful
Things Never Last Forever.
I loved you. I love you.
You were.
And you are. Life is experience.
It's all so simple.
Experience is
The chair we sit on.
The sitting. The thinking
Of you
where you are a blank
To be filled
In by missing. I loved you.
love you like I love
All beautiful things.
True beauty is truly seldom.
You were. You are
In May. May now is looking onto
The June that is
coming up.
This is how I measure
The year. Everything Was My Fault
Has been the theme of the song
I've been singing,
Even when you've
told me to quiet.
I haven't been quiet.
I've been crying. I think you
Have forgiven me. You keep
Putting your hand on my shoulder
When I'm
Thank you for that. And
For the ineffable sense
continuance. You were. You are
The brightest thing in the shop window
And the most beautiful seldom I ever saw.

It's timely for me, since this is the beginning of August and both my parents died in this month, my mother in 1986 and my father in 1994. This isn't to say that August has been a burden of sad thoughts, but there are those days when I pause and feel something akin to what Mary Jo Bang gets across with this elegant, plain spoken lyric; there are all those things that I wished that I said to them when I could have and what is heartening about Bang's poem is how she is able to say those things to her son without an overwhelming sorrow. This is a voice that has been tempered by grief and realizes each thing said and done with someone you love is important, vital to your existence. That the person who has died has become a part of you and thus you are stronger, wiser, for the experience, aware of what's important and what is a waste of one's time. I admire the focus and the simple beauty of this poem, expressing sentiment with out being sentimental, not an easy task one assigns themselves.

As it goes, it was brought to my attention that Bang herself did not have son that died. don't think poets are obliged to write solely from their own experience, since we have to remember that poetry is , above all other considerations, an imaginative craft. There are any number of times that I've written pieces of my own that are based more on an idea and inspiration ; although based or premised on some actual fact of in my life, the details are often fictional. It is the rare poet, I think, who rigorously sticks with autobiographical material who doesn't soon writing the same set of poems over and over until they finally stop writing. The issue, of course, is balance; how much ought to be from real life, and how much should be embroider, enhance, fictionalize?One way or the other in excess can result in dullness or unspeakable bombast. Empathy , I think , is what the poet is after; can he or she write in such as way as to get a reaction from a reader who might empathize?

As it goes, Bang's poem is a strong one all the same for all the reasons I've already said; she is a good writer. Poets , we must remember as well, are writers, and writers tell stories they want readers to relate to in some capacity. Not all the stories they tell us are true, and the worth of the writing lies simply in the work's capacity to get a response from us. In this case, it's visceral.

LOUISE GLUCK: Dancing with The Drone

There's a poignant moment somewhere in At The Dance, but Louis Gluck's drifting, shapeless, monotonic style effectively obscures it. She is an outstanding example of the sort of poet who has charmed the chronically introverted and other over-thinkers who love to think they have a rich interior life but who can't really make it of any use; rather than measure among the experiences she's had and decide what carries the most weight and value. We are handed , over and over, a series of lumpy reminiscences that resemble a long gaze into a an unkept house; nothing gets thrown away , every item has equal value, and the narrative , such as it is, lacks any animation. Gluck loves to talk, but is hesitant, it seems, to create a hierarchy of signifiers that would create a momentum toward what she wanted us to assume was an inevitable irony. This is a droning piece, and what ought to have been a cleverly constructed series of parallels between the the protocols of dance, the rituals of attraction and the surrendering and reacquisition of power in interpersonal relationships is static instead, at best the the static-like rip of Velcro jacket being slowly pulled open.
By smell, by feel—a man would approach a woman, ask her to dance, but what it meant was will you let me touch you, and the woman could say many things, ask me later, she could say, ask me again. Or she could say no, and turn away, as though if nothing but you happened that night you still weren't enough, or she could say yes, I'd love to dance which meant yes, I want to be touched.
Some readers may find the seemingly un-ruddered drift of Gluck's poem appealing and opine that the spread of daily speech is in itself fascinating, and others would prefer that the writer remember that poetry is writing , distinct from speech, and that the power of daily speech would lay in how well the elements are selected, presented, given voice and cadence. Gluck , to my ears, is attempting an imagined transcription of a spontaneous utterance ; the effectiveness of something so literal is best spoken, I suppose, but here, sans sound facial expression, hand gestures, the pauses, rises and diminutions of the voice actual heard , I find the poem to be dormant. It does not move toward some crystallized set of particulars that memorably frame the exposition. In the area of prose poems detailing an author's bringing a past event into an at least temporary relief, I prefer Dorrianne Laux's poem How It Will Happen, When. Her tone is more engaged with the specific images that arise from her rummaging through her recent history--she shows an intimacy in the descriptions only the long view can provide, and yet holds back revealing the final mood as she constructs this poem neatly between the mess her mate left her to deal with, the ritual cleaning the house and the burning of all traces of what would remind her of a memory that would other wise shackle her, and the fast, unexpected revelation that what was an intellectualized acceptance of loss now hits her hard and without relief; triggered by a random occurence, she knows her mate is gone and not coming back, and this creates empathy within the reader. It's a poem of felt experience, and what I appreciate in Laux is her craft, which we do not see on the page. This has the power Gluck doubtlessly attempted in her poem. One might call this a poem of awakening, when young women discover what they are attracted to and that they , in turn, are attracting the attention of young men, and it's here where I think Gluck missed her opportunity to present us with something effective and delicately presented, which is the potentially metaphorical structure of dance It's not just that young women come to understand that they have attractions and are attractive in turn, but also a sense of empowerment; one finds themselves in a mysterious position of both drawing attention to themselves by simply being , and there is a gathering feeling that one might also control the elements about them with various, nascent rituals of beckoning and denial. She draws away, but does not flee the situation, she looks down, but does not leave his side, she watches where his hands touch her body and flinches at a sudden brush or attempted caress, but does not reprimand, lecture, become angry or afraid. 

This seems a dance no less than the location the title suggests, and what really dilutes the power these burgeoning emotions and impulses might have contained is the way Gluck , or her narrator -stand-in, goes on with a what comes to a dead pan recounting of the facts; her poetry, perhaps, was supposed to emerge from the tone, but I would have been interested in something more closely observed, with something more about the interactions between the young women and young men, the camps coming into the hall in various clusters and cliques, where they chose to stand, some snippets of overheard dialogue, the eventual pairing off and awkward exchange of exploratory small talk. This sounds more plotted than the monologue Gluck offers us, but it is a way this poem might have come alive with a sense of place rather than become what it remains, a routine , uninflected regret. Gluck sums up of the scenario in a quick application of the story's moral, a conspicuous working of the old saw that when a women means no, she really means yes. Something wonderfully twisted here might have emerged if she had hacked away at the talky qualifications around the poem's main points and pushed harder toward the edge, talking about how women and men cause hurt and are hurt in turn by misreadings of intent and gesture. 

What Gluck had here was a small poem, a minor sigh of regret in later life, the impression that strikes you when you're preparing for the day in front of you , or when you stop to catch your day. It is a slight insight into what had done in the awkwardness of maturing, but the scale of this thing, not epic length, not Ashberyesque in density , is, all the same, too much for this slight conceit. What might have been intriguing would be a juxtaposition of the narrator's current situation and the anecdote she's chosen, with a judicious use of the telling detail, the image that can stand alone, unadorned , which could contrast with an equally effective image . This is how one produces resonance that carry on beyond the page, and this is among the things that distinguishes poetry from the linear inclinations of typical prose. This is typical prose that requires an editor's blue pencil.

cummings the patriot

Mailer opined in Why Are We at War that" America" had become America's religion, refering to the supporters of the Iraq War who would invoke the safety of the nation when defending our right to invade and occupy nations that had never attacked the United States. Insane, he thought, and I agreed, and wondered what other diagnosis from a literary figure I could find to support my notion , stolen from W.C.Williams, that the pure products of America go insane. And then I happened upon this poem from e.e.cummings:

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

ee cummings

This keeps with his concentrated genius for putting back in the politician's faces with their own politicized babble, but only after taking a hammer to it. Under all the huff and puff about God, glory and country stands revealed forces that would have us all fearful, in debt and apathetic to calls for change. How appropriate for the current climate; the poem, though, does not let us off the hook; we are complacent with the fools for letting them have their way. The shock of this poem is that there are many of us, these days, decades after this was written, who recognize our own voices saying moronic things like this.

Might there come a time, should the Obama initiatives work and Our Country again starts to fulfill it's promise, that some good poets would feel moved to write something positive about America and mean it, without commission, salary, title? Will we have a poetry again that speaks truthfully of our virtues rather than our insanity?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fretting in the examination room with Sophie Cabot Black

Robert Pinsky , Slate magazine's poetry editor, has the enviable task of selecting and posting a poem for interested readers to debate each Tuesday morning, a fact I mention only because the discussions that result appear on that magazine's attendant Fray forum contribute to the minor declarations you read on this blog. The talks alternate between lively, inspired, dull and droning, and there are those outbreaks of real acrimony over imagined transgressions a few participants in the digital ether believe have been committed against them. It's a quarrelsome rhubarb much of the time, there are moments when I wonder I spend so much time on the board, between work, free lance assignments, reading my book of the week and the regular social engagements:might I have take that time and write the great American rent check instead?

Maybe, but I realize quitting the board would deprive me of a source of material to post on this blog; for the last five years I've been commenting on Pinsky's selections, honestly, subjectively and all that, and have blended the best of the exchanges into a single blog post. Sometimes, however, I get stumped, there is a poem I can't respond to, not because I don't understand it, but that I understand it too well. There are things I prefer not to think about, although I know I have to. Try as I might, the issue appears again, that low branch I run into while looking back to see how close the boogieman man is behind me. Whack! Sophie Cabot Black's poem "Biopsy" smacked me hard.


Once he lies down, he says, he is afraid
There is no getting back up. Maybe
It will be that nothing ever

Is the same; you put the body down
On the adjustable bed in the room where
Those before you also came and climbed into

Clean sheets, one blanket, one pillow, and a noise
Turning into trees whispering overhead.
People dressed in the exact clothing of each other

Walk in and never look at us. He is still afraid,
And so I lie down first, which is to say nothing
Except I am not him, concentrating on the manufactured

Tiles above us, which came from somewhere far
And were brought by truck or rail to this city
Where in time they were laid one by the other

To make a ceiling, sky below which we lie
Looking for stars, as the needle enters the vein,
And we search for any possible constellation, something

Familiar to name.

The Black poem "Biopsy" hit close to home with me because I had a biopsy myself three two years ago, one of the most nerve nerve-racking and dread-filled events of my life. Some peculiar had come up in the results of a blood test a doctor had ordered up, so we arranged for some tissue samples to be extracted from the area of concern.

This was one of those health plan doctors who seemed to habitually overbook his daily practice and who's staff is humorless and seeming more interested in their tasks than in the patients. I was instructed to take off my pants and have a seat in an examination room and wait for the doctor ; an hour later, after reading every chart on the wall at least three times, no one had come into the room. I put my pants back on and went back out the nurse's station to complain, and the response from the staff who'd heard me were stares, blank stares, more annoyed than anything else, like who was I to complain about being kept pantless in utilitarian examination room for an hour without even a magazine to read?

Black's poem is effective in sound and image, but more importantly it gets that anxiety of the mind trying to distance itself through various means and subterfuge from the nearness of death, a dread compounded because the thoughts you're trying to bury or obscure have a way of emerging back up to the forefront of consciousness; that sinking feeling gets you again. It does sound, I realize, that I am complaining about the small things, but this dread was awful. I was in a mild depression for days leading up to the exam , and the actual appointment was prolonged, bureaucratic. It was my good fortune that the results of the lab analysis were in my favor, but the processes leading up to the relief were interesting to note, especially the various kinds of deal making I was doing with God or whatever fateful pixilations that await. I was , in effect, preparing to settle my accounts on this planet between the mental sessions of minimizing and maximizing the pending news about the health of my prostate. Black's poem is about someone's psychological defenses against the cold facts of the certain death nudging up against unavoidable events. It is enough to make you pause and retire your certainty as to how the way things should work. You're forced to deal instead with the way things are, concrete and unmindful of what you'd rather be doing.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reading, etc

The lasting pleasure of owning a literature degree isn't, often time and sadly enough, financial, but emotional, spiritual, satisfactions achieved in the late hours or those morning commutes to work when you find yourself doing an extraordinary thing.One can feel intelligent for a moment without having to look over their shoulder to see if someone smarter is frowning at a conspicuous display of vanity. You're still talking to the novels you read and re-read years before, still interrogating the author for inconsistencies of style, chastising characters for lacking hindsight or being intuitively dumb. For a moment, you have your own version of the Borgesian library, but in this scenario the shelves are in your head and the books are an apartment building,not an institutional structure. So sometimes a strange smirk comes over my face on various bus routes. Odd, yes, but imagine thinking of something that you think is clever and having no one nearby to share it with. All you can do is smirk, take in a deep breath, bring the book back to eye level.
I have generally enjoyed and admired the Hemingway I've read, and I think the short stories in In Our Time are among the best by an American author in the 20th Century. That said, The Sun Also Rises was amazing and To Have and to Have Not equally so. THAHN, in my view a perfect example of Hemingway's skill at creating a visceral feeling of unspoken emotion, events and actions in a brief, concentrated syntax, contains another pleasure that contrasts with his signature brusqueness. In the center of the book, the story leaves the protagonist's plight for a time and takes the reader on a tour of the Marina, where a series of long, carpenter-crafted clauses seems to skim along the surface of the water and explore, in passing, a number of the boats docked there, wonderfully and credibly making the reality of this short novel more complex . You hardly know your reading a sentence that's untypical of Hemingway, ie long, until your done. The irony , one realizes, is that the master of the short sentence went for the long line as the best method to expand the social range of his novel without adding reams of undigested research, a malady that plagued the prolix James Michener his entire career.
At his best, Hemingway really could convey large emotions and subtle movements of mood with very few words. It was a reverse virtuosity that couldn't sustain itself, though, and left him with nothing but self parodied the more he was unwilling to change his style. Old Man in the Sea, among others, are relentlessly dull and full of the kind of self-pity that makes you want to smack him. Hemingway may have fallen short of the self-actualization, but his fictive attempts, at best, resonate and move, and achieve transcendence even when he did not. Perhaps it is a male thing, that these are matters that a reader might have to be intimate with in order to enlarge their appreciation of the work, but I think not. More, I think, it comes to personal taste, as in, if one does not care for the way Hemingway described his universe, fine. But I don't believe the ability to relate emotionally to a text need be restricted to gender, nor should it be limited to any other smoking gun criteria.The college professors who instructed me through his work were men and women, and the women, I have to say, win for inspired lectures, wedding appreciation with critique, understanding the poetry of the struggle, and why the struggle was futile. It would be good to note that in the course of the struggle to rise above one's demons through art, a good amount of good story telling was left for us to enjoy. I wish, at times, Hemingway had found some solace and continued to write stories that reflected a sane, balanced personality. But I am glad for the best of what's been left.

Prospecting for insight through Kerouacs' journals will be give scholars reason to devastate another section of prime forest, but his novels remain , inspite of it all, maddeningly inconsistent in their best forms, and progressively unreadable in later writing years. Kerouac had his moments of divine lyricism, I admit, but the cult around his grey, sotted visage is nearly as objectionable as the devotion many give to Ayn Rand: the matter is not how good the writing was, but what the author stood for. Once the chatter about writers drifts, or jumps desperately, from concerns with style in the service of great storytelling and lands in the odious camp that insists that a writers' primary task is only to reaffirm a readers' shaky self image of being a rugged and forward thinking individualist, I reach for a good book, or ponder taking a nap. Either option is more fruitful, and both are more interesting endeavors. It galls me that comparatively little attention was given to the passing of William Burroughs, the one true genius of the Beat group, while the easily assimilated rebellion of Ginsberg and Kerouac claims the top half of the Literary pages.

Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to one of my favorites, John Cheever, by many well-meaning critics, but rather than a young writer taking some cues from Cheever's careful and lightly applied poetry and sentiment as regards infidelity, alcoholism, insanity and lurking bi-sexuality, Moody is as effusive as busted water main. All of the previously described elements are there, but without Cheever's wit, irony or craft. None of his grace , either. Moody is one of these young novelists who is in a hurry to cram the world into each paragraph, with the goal being not to persuade the reader to go along with a story but rather to make the telling as intense as possible. This is the kind of ham handed narrative style that is a prose equivalent of an Oliver Stone movie, the uneasy work of a artist obsessed with keeping their "edge". Moody may have kept his edge, suggested by the jittery run-on disasters this rag of a novel lays out, but it's nothing worth sitting down for. Purple America, though, is worth throwing away.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Edward Hirsch befuddles the Gnostics

Edward Hirsch is a perfectly fine lyric poet, sometimes a little obvious with the carefully placed poeticisms that crop up in his lines. There's what reads like a desire to be seen as thoughtful and sensitive to Jack Handy like "deep thoughts", a habit that will trip up what are otherwise readable and soundly evocative poems. The philosophical turns are not what he does well , as the language betrays an embarrassment from having to rely on instinct and feeling for a reason to write; intellectualizing a visceral response leaves you with a brittle, match stick construction that will simply tremble and collapse under a casual inspection. Hirsch is a superb poet of feeling and evocation, and the corrosive realm of ideas and argument are not his neighborhood to hang an address. The writing is rich in atmosphere, detail, concrete in metaphor and fleet of adjective and verb, is a poet best writing in the present tense. A case in point is his basketball poem "Fast Break":

Fast Break
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn't drop,

and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump

perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession

and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender

who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight

of a high, gliding dribble and a man
letting the play develop in front of him

in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach's drawing on the blackboard,

both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out

and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball

between them without a dribble, without
a single bounce hitting the hardwood

until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man

while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air

by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,

but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country

and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly though the net.

Fluid, cinematic, switching between points of view,Hirsch creates a narrative line that he speeds up and slows down at will--the progress of that ball and the players trying to advance or impede its advance down the court leaves the willing reader breathless. "The Gnostic Gospels" Slate
is not Hirsch writing in current time, but rather as a voice among many in a long forgotten Christian sect which seemingly has been monitoring what Christianity has become through history and into modern time. The speaker, agitated, aggrieved( self righteous, shall we way?) announces the tenets of his faith and his suppressed gospel and eviscerates the falsification of the faith by a culture that has constructed false idols in consumer disguise:

We are like a surviving Gnostic sect,
*****living in caves and eating fallen fruit,
**********practicing our own brand of adoration,

which is devoted to wondrous signs,
*****inner mysteries, the radical unknown.
**********If you bring forth what is within you,

what you bring forth will save you.
*****If you do not bring forth what is within you,
**********what you do not bring forth will destroy you,

so Jesus said. Let others praise
*****the electrifying force of mass media
**********or kneel at the bruised altar of politics.

We keep faith with the technology
*****of the body, with the voices of pilgrims
**********naming the unnamed and resurrecting

dead languages of grief, inaudible pitches
*****of praise. We believe in the root power
**********of words, dreams, ecstatic trances, visions.

You are my twin and true companion,
*****Jesus said to the citizen, examine yourself
and be called "the one who knows himself."

It's true that our robes were stripped
from us, yet we are as stubborn as birds
searching for morsels of food in winter.

It's a plain case of us against them, the pure of heart, intent and action against the soul-less pragmatism that has de-centered Christ's teachings from care for the poor and the earth to distorted interpretations that remove the humanity from our dealings and replace them with bottom lines and expedience. It's a loaded spiel, and a hard one to say anything against; the audience for whom this poem is intended doubtlessly agrees with Hirsch to varying degrees to give him a pass for a weak poem.

The Gospel of Thomas intriguing myself and wonder if Christian faith can be re-tooled in a more politically progressive cast-- isn't it time for the Left to reclaim God and Jesus as the center of their moral certitude?-- and perhaps Hirsch does as well, but the poem he tried to write, the agony of the believer in a more human-centered Christianity toiling in their duties despite the shadow hanging over him, is more resentment than rant. Rants, when they work,get the blood pumping and instill the rage to get something done. The contrast between the gnostic gospels and the observed Christianity-Without-Christ that is the modern distortion of the Word is saturated with smug defeatism. It is the slave morality Nietzsche detested . I would call it befuddled and befogged.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Dead and their Sucker Punch: A poem by Dorrianne Laux

Dorrianne Laux is one of our best free verse poets. She can write about everyday things and easily comprehend emotions clearly and with some genius of expression. She serves the situation with a fine, delicate balancing of the prosaic, the simple phrasing, and the higher allure of lyric speech and allows neither for overwhelming the other. Her poems, often time presented to us in the guise of prose, has an intimacy rare among a generation of poets who maintain distance from their most volatile emotion; her poems have the power of revelation, of someone sorting through old photographs or a rediscovered journal which, while recounting their day, gets a high pitch in their voice as they realize something even they hadn't realized. Laux never forgets herself as a writer with a goal; fret not, there is a point she comes to, the payoff one expects to make the listing of a poet's personal world resonate in ways it otherwise wouldn't. 

 She is suspicious of rhetorical resolutions to real problems and relationships that inhabit her poems and offers instead an intimate tone, the voice of someone who begins to tell you a story after some arduous activity which then lays herself bare. Not a confession, not dumping of toxic emotion, but a revelation, possibly at the very instance when the clarity comes to her; all the bits and pieces of past events with family, husbands, friends who have passed on are now a whole. Her poetry quite often is something extraordinary, intimate, moving. I found this poem fitting for the month since both my parents died in August at different times. Since then, the month has been a bit touchy for the family, but we collectively give a shrug and move on with nary a pause to linger over the lives of the couple born the four of us. One grieves, commemorates, and then moves on, right? Not so fast; sometimes, in the middle of watching a television program or waiting for the bus, something falls inside of me. It's the sensation you'd imagine having inside an elevator whose cable had been suddenly cut. The bad news hits you again, and yet again, if you let it. Laux's poem on the matter speaks to me and punches me in the gut to coin a phrase.
How It Will HappenWhen /Dorrianne Laux


There you are, exhausted from a night of crying, curled up on the couch, the floor, at the foot of the bed, anywhere you fall you fall down crying, half amazed at what the body is capable of, not believing you can cry anymore. And there they are, his socks, his shirt, your underwear and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile next to the bathroom door, and you fall down again. Someday, years from now, things will be different, the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows shining, sun coming in easily now, sliding across the high shine of wax on the wood floor. You'll be peeling an orange or watching a bird spring from the edge of the rooftop next door, noticing how, for an instant, its body is stopped on the air, only a moment before gathering the will to fly into the ruff at its wings and then doing it: flying. You'll be reading, and for a moment there will be a word you don't understand, a simple word like now or what or is and you'll ponder over it like a child discovering language. Is you'll say over and over until it begins to make sense, and that's when you'll say it, for the first time, out loud: He's dead. He's not coming back. And it will be the first time you believe it.
This speaker is talking about spending a period of her life trying to talk herself into accepting the loss of her dearly departed, and goes on from there to talk about a life that seems detached, dreamlike; there is an unreal calm in this world as she struggles to push on. Laux isn't contradicting herself but instead talking about the transition from merely mouthing the conventional platitudes of acceptance of a loss and the eventual, inevitable realization that her friend's absence is permanent. She is emotionally numb, so far as I can tell, until it hits hurt, triggered by what some small matter acutely detailed her when the artifice comes apart, and the fact of her friend's absence hits hard, almost like being struck. 

 Artifice includes ritual, is the compulsive house cleaning one occupies their time with while acting as if that they're moving on with their life; the activity and the manic obsession with the details of these tasks are, for me, a conspicuous clue that there is something the person would rather not deal with. There's an intuitive leap here. The poem's power is the quick but not illogical insertion of the final remark, that instance when you realize a loved one isn't returning. Laux shows that a feeling like this is like a sudden attack, coming from seeming nowhere, leaving you in what I could only describe as a state of shock. This is not a formal argument she is making; this has that eliding quality few poets capture well, the revelation expressed as if we're witnessing the thought coming to the narrator as she speaks. The "clean house" Laux mentions, with everything neatly arranged and placed in their place, every trace of the person is gone or tucked in some burnished-over corner:
the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows shining, sun coming in easily now, skimming across the thin glaze of wax on the wood floor. (...)
"the absence of pain is mistaken as solace, and the narrator tries to sustain a numbness in her household. But comes undone, inevitably; the years the person had resided in those rooms, the small, shared rituals and pet phrases on familiar furniture have absorbed something of his spirit, it seems, and a memory is triggered, a flash comes upon the narrator. This is an apt metaphor for the attempt to deal with a loss by discarding personal reminders of the departed; the house is "clean," as in emotionally neutral, the goal is that he would be a reclaimed and re-imagined space where comes not to grow but to not feel, not a feel a thing. Those who are gone remain in the details regardless of who hard we scrub the floors or repair the roof:
You’ll be reading, and for a moment you’ll see a word you don’t recognize, a simple words like cup or gate or wisp and you’ll ponder like a child discovering language. Cup, you’ll say over and over until it begins to make sense, and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead.
Although he was burned and the household has been scoured and cleared of reminders that he once lived there, the space cannot be converted as if nothing had happened before. It's circular; what we toss out comes back to us.
He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.
This is beautifully done, a setup for someone telling you that they've accepted life on life's terms, with the strong suggestion that they have exhausted their allotment of emotion, only to be struck once again that they've lost something valuable that cannot be replaced. The narrator is at the precipice, the classic existential situation: aware, finally, of the facts of her life as a felt experience, it remains her choice to stay in stasis and so become bitter and reclusive, or to finally, truthfully let go of what she's held onto and take new risks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Billy Collins Reflects Rod Serling

470 331 522

"Seraphine": It's how you make it long

For a time after my UCSD years, I was a bit of a film dilettante , and felt cheated if a film was a merely ninety minutes long; I equated length with seriousness of intent and integrity , the way some people consider thick novels to be necessarily better than shorter ones. Getting older makes one discerning about what they’re willing to sit through and put up with, for many reasons, but for me it comes down to not having the patience to wait for a film to start to work. Time adjusted my aesthetics with my attention span. I liked Seraphine formally—the director Martin Provost did a fine job with his composition, and suggested a period in war time convincingly without turning this thing into a turgid, Scorsese-inflected costume drama, and it was a well down outlay of who this woman was, what her world was like, both private and public, and I was impressed with the way the artist’s process was incorporated into the narrative. Her mania to please her guardian angels, endearingly played by the reticent presence of actress Yolanda Moreau, was an intriguing back story to the obsessive art making, from the way she gathered her materials for her paints, the preparation of her pigments, and then the actual painting , with her fingers, on the floor, as if she were wrestling with a large vision that was resisting being captured on canvas. But it was long, very long, too long, and I found myself, like you, perhaps, getting a little antsy; maybe I’ve been seduced by the brutal efficiency and convenience of Hollywood narrative style, but I wanted the pace to pick up. It’s interesting that a director like Clint Eastwood has made a number of movies that one would consider slow-moving—Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima –but not consider glacial in the time it takes to watch them all the way through.

 The difference, I suppose, is that Eastwood , an admirer of European film making no less than any of us in the audience, remembers the best that Hollywood has taught him and remembered that movies are things that move. There’s always something going on, some bit of dialogue and visual cue that sets you for some satisfying dramatic complications. Eastwood, I suppose, would be a film maker who has wed a French eye for the small detail, the love of incidental things that make up a world he’s exploring, with the emotional impact of his masters, John Ford and John Houston. Provost, who’s work I’m not wholly familiar with, and tended to wear me out after a while. Lovely images, of course—I liked the final image of Seraphine hauling the chair out to the large tree so that she can be in environment that can enable her to find some psychic peace—but I wanted less of her and more of the others. 

Eastwood is amazing because he has an instinct in setting up dramatic contrasts, two strong minded characters having to clash, negotiate, argue, battle, make peace in dramatically plausible contexts. I wanted more about the critic and his world, his attempts to sell Seraphine’s paintings and the circumstances, cultural, social, economic, political , as to why she never ascended to the ranks of Picasso or Rousseau. The story needed to move beyond being solely about the title character and develop the lives and worlds of the people who interacted with her. The movie’s flaw is that the poor cleaning woman is the only one who is given any kind of complexity, a fact that allows the movie to remain in place, static. An interest in another character or two , with personalities amounting to more than the brief significations of the dialogue, likely would have given this beautifully mounted project a brisker tempo.