Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Frank Gallimore's heart breaking elegy

Frank Gallimore's poem "Elegy for Miss Calico" got my attention and kept for several re-readings; something got under my skin. An itch one couldn't get to, perhaps. All the same, this poem is lovely, wonderful even, although it sets up a sad terrain of a homeless deaf prostitute making her way through the city using wits in place of the sense she lacks. Gallimore writes this with a particular empathy of someone who discovers the crucial truth of how sounds mold a sense of the world, and how language, the arrangement of specific words in intuitive yet musically sensed arrangements might create vivacity that exceeds what a normal array of the senses would give you.

When they fished her out, the eastbound roared
through necklaces of skyline, or so I remember,
or so I say. By rust-ravaged fronts, I sensed
a hustler's craft, device of handshake and for-the-best,
while there lay syringes by which to tune his happiness.
I used to watch his girls cluster like flowers on a mock-
terrazzo ledge, pressed on a barred patio. I'd watch her coo,
make mouths of inscrutable lingo for the long lash of his body.
And O the too-short calico dress, hand-me-down,
arranging itself on the breeze of his battered porch.

There's a hint of a Leonard Cohen song here, ah homage to "Suzanne" or another crazy lady he's come across in the lower reaches of the city who's mental infirmity he thinks may be a hint of divine clarity. But as Cohen has been the observer, sensual yet detached in the evocations of the poor making their way through the long shadows of urban disregard, Gallimore does not forget the weight the burden of existing as one does can be. There is gravity here, a physical gravity that is not about grace or profundity or suggested states of elevated being; it's about an observed life who's oddiments and quirky habits are signs of survival skills honed and codified; a life lived in the present tense, hard and silent, but nuanced with the touch of the surfaces of the world, the aromas of the earth, nuanced in dimensions that are inexplicable to the better heeled.This poem swims, skips, pirouettes, performs elegant dance steps across the long room, ram ping up the emotional impact of matching hard fact with accurate , fleet-footed allusions. The power of this poem is Gallimore's sure-handed refusal to affect the clinical detachment a generation of tone-deaf writing program graduates have shown us and instead dives straight into the heart of the sound of the words and the emotions they can evoke if joined in certain , intuitively sparked ways.

There is an admirable command here of the allusions, the metaphors, the sqarely arranged similes that places everything in a world that is colorful, full of smells and layers of history, both political, cultural, personal, which presents the city, the narrator and his subject, the deaf homeless woman, with the concentration being empathy, not sentimentality. I have been hard of hearing all my life, have had many operations to correct the situation and have worn hearing aids for years, and what draws me to this poem among other splendid items is the way Gallimore writes like someone who relishes the potential for words to create a music that inspires, saddens, evokes a richness of emotion; but I also admire the discipline of the poet for not overwriting. Empathy is his intention, obviously, but not at the sacrifice of aesthetic worth, The combination here makes this that rare Slate poetry offering: a poem that's truly unforgettable.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wine Critics v Rock Critics

Given the choice between listening to rock critics wax endlessly on garage centric one shot wonders who emerged from Decatur suburbs and wine critics swanning about about a particular pour's pretensions, bouquet, garish aftertaste or the quality of the buzz it might give you, I would have to select the rock snobs , dreary as they might be or become after a duration.

Rock and roll began as a legitimate grass roots alternative to the ossified white pop that had a stranglehold on post-forties pop music, and it actually is the case, despite rock criticism's sloven tendency toward self-fellatio, that something honest, original and artful might come through all that energy, anger and quirkiness.

Wine, to my view, is merely a form of hooch, and the sum of my aesthetic toward it's qualitative states were whether it made me gag or if went down the gullet without a fight. Art and subtlety and self-expression had nothing to do with it--wine was for getting a buzz, getting plastered, getting terrifically fucked up. In that sense, wine appreciation is democratic because alcoholism isn't a respecter of race, class, gender, or sums of money one might have.

The salient difference between the two is that rock and roll is something that sounds good, when it is good, sober. Wine, after you quite drinking and stay sober, is just something you learn to live without and wonder how the fuck you spent so many years being wrong for so long about what a great thing spirits were to one's quality of life.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ashbery's mojo

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery overrated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own counsel regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble-rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain sight. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain sight, crowded and clouded, however, by incessant thinking, the cloud bank of memory. His poetry often makes you think that he's walking the strangely familiar yet alien streets and gardens of Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction, a terrain where Ideas are fixed and permanent and oddly anonymous; that our would be stroller has only human eyes to observe the objects of pure perfection, it would be natural to assume that they are vague at first, as though emerging from a persistent, shrouding mist, slowly coming into focus, achieving an acute sharpness briefly and then receding back into the cloud bank. That he can achieve this effect in his poems consistently He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch-romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with the popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes, and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection.

Oddly enough, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where the ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

"Next Life" by Rae Armantrout

Next Life, Rae Armentrout (Wesylan).  
Rae Armantrout is a poet of intensely private language whose seeming fragments of sentences, scenes, and interior recollections still read vividly, provocatively. A member of the Language group of poets whose other members include Ron Silliman, Bob Perleman and Lynn Hejinian, among other notables, she has distinguished herself from the frequently discursive style that interrogates the boundaries between the nominal power of language and the contradictions that result when conventional meaning rubs against insoluble fact, Armantrout's poetry is brief, terser, more taciturn and pared to the essential terms and the sensations they conflate. More autobiographical, perhaps, more concerned with raising a sense of genuine autonomy from the words one employs to define direction and purpose, Armantrout's poetry is an ongoing inquiry about what lies beyond our expectations once they've been given the lie. As in this fine collection's title, what is the "Next Life"? What she leaves out is fully formed by its absence; 
We wake up to an empty room addressing itself in scare quotes. "Happen" and "now" have been smuggled out to arrive safely in the past tense. We come home to a cat made entirely of fish. --"Reversible" 

A good many poets lavish their subjects with an overflow of language that twists and turns and deliberately problematizes syntax to achieve effects that are more stunts than perception or even an interrogation of an elusive notion. Armantrout's poetry is strong, stoic, lean to the degree that what remains are the resonances of a personality witnessing the truth when internal idealism and material fact don't compliment each other. Armantrout's poetry is a calm voice intoning over the varied scraps and arcana of experience and crisply discovers, underlines, and speaks with a curt irony. There are things we've said we were, there are the things we've become, and there are the words we first used to make our declarations asserted again, though mutated, altered, given a few shades of new meaning to meet the demands of a life that becomes more complicated with small, distracting matters. There's a blunted, occasionally jagged feeling to Armantrout's lines, a cadence that will alternate between the intricate, acute image, half-uttered phrases that seem like mumbles, and the juxtapositions of word and deed that expose an archive of deferred emotion. 

 1. "That's a nice red," you said, but now the world was different so that I agreed with a puzzled or sentimental certainty as if clairvoyance could be extended to the past. And why not? With a model sailing ship in the window of a little, neat house and with a statuette of an stable boy on the porch, holding a lamp up,  someone was making something clear-- perhaps that motion is a real character. 2. How should we feel about "the eraser"? "Rampages" wears one expression while "frantically" wears another: conjoined twins, miraculously separated on Judgement Day? Then "only nothingness" is a bit vague. But words are more precise than sight-- increasingly! 3. The old man shuffles very slowly, not between a crosswalk's white lines but down one of them. Like a figure in a dream, his relations to meaning is ominous.-- --

 These are voices of a consciousness that surveys several things at once; time is collapsed, details are suggested, associative leaps abound, and the phrase is terse, problematic. Above all, this is a poetry of concentrated power; what is spoken here, the dissonance between expectation and the manner of how perception changes when idealism greets actual events and deeds, are the things one considers late at night when there's nothing on cable, you've read your books, and only a pen and paper remains; what of me remains in the interactions, the negotiations, the compromises that constitute "making my way" in the world we might inhabit? This is a city of comings and goings, of people and their associations dancing and struggling with the invisible forces of repulsion and attraction; one seeks to transcend what it is that surrounds them, but find that their autonomy is merely a fiction shared only with the self when a community is lacking to applaud or argue with one's declarations of self. Armantrout gets to that minor and hardly investigated phenomenon of how all of us--as readers, writers, consumers, family members--create our dissonances in a manner that is intractable and ingrained. This is a fine, spare, ruminative volume by a singular writer.

Barry Goldensohn stops traffic

Barry Goldensohn is a poet of stylistic conflicts, one part a gifted lyricist who can raise a subject to a higher level--he can almost persuade you that so much does depend on matters, materials and emotions so small--and the other someone who loses their way in tangled intersections of language where metaphor alone does not suffice for effect. The downside of his work is that he often talks more than he ought to. He sinks his poems into odd arrangements of phrase that mark someone who is attempting to be original, memorable; I understand the attempt, but the mistake , I think, is the use of more words rather than accurate words. By "accurate" I mean the construction of images that are at least convincing of both situation and inspiration that would result in a stanza that becomes quotable, something that makes you stop and read the line again.Goldensohn's worst habits cause me to stop at his most glaring coinages.

In "Dissolving", a soul of "dangerous weight" enters the lake waters and experiences something akin to a weightlessness that suggests the burden of gravity has been removed as his girth displaces the water line ,if only a little. Anyone of us might have compared this description to a retrun to the womb, the legendary desire embedded in the lowest recesses of the male brain that wants to escape obligation and engagement, but the poet moves to move beyond the cliche by positing this awkward idea:

he swims
on his back in the female receptive position,
A genuine conversation stoppr, this image.This is as awful a line as I've ever read in a poem by an established poet, it being silly, presumptive, altogether unevocative of anything he was trying about in this poem. There's a tinge of hubris , to my thinking, that a male can find an ingenious trope through which to draw a comparison between a woman's position in conceptionizing lovemaking and overweight male's sense of being liberated from his earthly bonds. Had this been Lawrence, the trope would be animated, passionate, full of bitter sweat, sores and a heart-racing ache that would imply that man and woman were changed and for a moment interchangeable during their coupling. This does none of that, and exploring a nervously mentioned notion within a larger narrative bracket wasn't Goldensohn's intent; let's grant him that. But while poetry isn't obliged to adhere to vetted facts, credibility is still the point. What sounds clumsy or dashed off stops the reader's investigation. But he makes matters worse; Goldensohn is a smart man and needed a space within this short poem to demonstrate his ability to riff along in excess of the need.

thin clouds
vaporizing fast in the sun's brilliance
with the water beneath him penetrated by light
and substanceless as air and he afloat
in nothing, one with the water and air and light
and the purposeful seeming union of atoms
producing a mind digesting meanings
like a ruminant disgorging from stomach to stomach
the sobbing face on the stair,

This does not sound natural in any sense--it neither convinces that this is something either seen or experienced first hand, but it does make you think of a conceit someone comes up with and works overly hard to make it fit.It's a unfortunate symptom too prevelant in this time-crowding era, that of a poet trying to have an experience. At best this sounds like an ad libbed pitch for a movie an erstwhile screenwriter might convince a studio to finance; the wouldn't such a bad thing, of course, since various ways of condensing narrative can be artful. Goldensohn, though, gums it up by thinking too much. Perhaps it might have worked even as a contrived situation, but what Goldensohn ought to done is to have considered shoring up his William Carlos Williams influence and edging away from the association-packed candenzas that hightlight A.R.Ammons orAlbert Goldbarth; those guys have a gift for the intellective improvisation from the conveyed image. Their insertions do not stop the traffic.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

God as Hamlet

The stark differences in God's persona between Old and New Testaments had changed his mind as to what to do with the world he created, and it's reasonable to think of him as a Deity who is constantly changing, evolving. Otherwise we'd have a God who is static and incapable of changing; he'd be someone who'd be incapable of dealing with an continually unfolding cosmos which he put in motion in the first place. The Prime Mover, I'd think, must by definition be able to move again, and yet again, as needed , as his vast mind assesses, discerns and decides.

Process Theology, put forth by Alfred North Whitehead and others, deals with a bit of this, as does Norman Mailer in most of his writings, most recently in his dialogue with Michael Lennon, On God. God is a creator , small "c", in the sense of the artist, continuously involved with their process as they investigate the further reaches of their muse.

New forms are created from old parts, and not everything is a success, and yet everything is a needed aspect of a life that is fully engaged in a struggle against an all -defeating death. Things wouldn't just be moot, in the popular sense, they would stop being things at all. It may be a mistake to think of God as omnipotent ; if we are made in his likeness then our weaknesses are his as well, and this gives a vital clue that God is less than all-powerful and that he doesn't know the outcome of each and every matter before him. It's an attractive notion that God remains teachable by the very things he creates. There's a reason that it's written that God blessed/cursed man with Free Will, but I'm hesitant to say what that is. It has to be more than a curse he engineered in us all to cause us to stray from a path of righteousness.

Being Omnipotent and A Supreme Being, I would think, implies that there's more for a Deity to do than create Heaven and Earth and treat his subjects on the one inhabitable planet in the solar system as if the whole guise of existence is a reality show, everyone one of us literally, in some sense, waiting to see who gets "voted off the island". Or worse. I would assume that we are possessed with this cumbersome element because it is also in God's nature to choose to one thing, or several things, as opposed to doing one or several things to the contrary. And, of course, he could also do nothing and instead wallow and abstract about all the things he might do when his calendar clears , that is, procrastinate. This might be the reason for the lack of witnessed divine interventions in large public places since the Bible was gathered and codified as Church doctrine. In is image, we are ambivalent and decide on the basis of what crisis is most immediate I actually believe that FW is central to his Divinity, in the sense that he could choose to battle his creative power and simply do nothing.

The existential nature of God, though, would become bored and ill-tempered simply existing in a vacuum, and so he decided to create meaning for himself, much as we do in this realm. Free will is that thing that allows us to associate together and determine and define right and wrong, good and evil, and it is also that inspire given instinct, I believe, to empower us to fight the baser desires and instincts.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kicking Mailer When He's Dead

It's time, I think, that the amorphous reading mob called call "we" slide past hurt feelings and admit that the late Norman Mailer did write more than a few books where talent outshone excess and ego. In my mind, anyway, and you can read my various pieces on Mailer's career and work in this blog's archive. His enemies, though, won't his credit for composing anything of worth than The Naked and the Dead, and lately, there is a buzz that it was a fluke, or, as Gore Vidal wrote, "a fake". Sour grapes, it seems. Sometimes the name doesn't have to be mentioned at all, as some dedicated haters will just dump a smoothly honed rendition of Mailer's sixty years of negative press in a belated effort to get their licks in. Norman Mailer cultivated turmoil and controversy with the publication of his 1959 combined memoir essay anthology Advertisements for Myself, where he declared, on the first page, in the first paragraph,

The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I’m the fool who will pay the bill, but I think we can all agree it would cheat this collection of its true interest to present myself as more modest than I am.
No one was better on the subject of his own vanity and the presumptions of what his talent could do than Mailer himself, and very few others, even the most conceited of our best and worst scribes, were willing to go as far as admit that they wanted to change the world through their art. Only Ayn Rand comes close, I think, but the difference was that Mailer was an artist above all else, with an artist's inclination to follow a whim. Rand, locked into a philosophy cobbled together from misreadings of Plato and Nietzsche, couldn't break from her self-constructed jail of doggerel and dogma; Mailer strayed in interesting, sometimes illuminating ways, his vanity in tow, willing to be a clown, if need be, to produce the book, to advance to the next project. He had bills to pay. Conservative literature czar Roger Kimball blogged an extensive litany of Mailer's infamous deeds, and offered an acidic view of his major works; the essay, though, went online so soon after Mailer's death that one can't help but wonder if Kimball had it sit laying in a drawer, figuratively speaking, waiting for years for the author to pass on. It does read like a jealously kept collection of evidence Roger was saving so he could cast a definitive and finalizing negative assessment. I should mention, though, that a few days later the site, Pajamas Media, published a more balanced overview of Mailer's career by Peter Freeman who, though appalled by Mailer's antics, admitted that the wildman was still an artist and was capable of finely crafted writing. Good for them, for once. Those like me desiring lengthy evaluations that make the case for the overall success of Mailer's odd genius can find solace in Lee Siegel's critical summary of his work in the New York Times Book Review when he reviewed Mailer's final novel The Castle in the Forest. It's a smart fit, as Siegel, like Mailer, is something of a blowhard and in love with his own intelligence; all the same, again like Mailer, the man is smart and has the right take on what the novelist was up to with his practiced exhibitionism.

The latest instance is from Commentary Magazine; basically a compendium of the lowlife's of Mailer's public career, the piece declares, for the most part, that Mailer's body of work was, in its entirety, dull, the prolix vaporing of a delusional fool. The level of gossipy slander is high, and no real argument is made as to why Mailer's books, pace Naked and the Dead, are dead on arrival. Consider the source; Norman Podhoretz is still trying to settle scores. That his publication is arguing with a dead man heightens Mailer's value. I don't doubt many work boring, but I think it's more to do with your taste rather than with the late author's writing. Writers who are boring, dull, lacking ideas, verve and are unable to make themselves more captivating generally don't spend six decades in the spotlight of contemporary American literature, as Mailer had. Not that there's a consensus on his work and life; fierce debates about his books have been raging nearly as long as he's been a public figure. This nearly sixty years of contention by critics and readers, yay and nay, is not the mark of a boring writer. Boring writers are ignored and go unread. Mailer, to say the least, you paid attention to. I would reject is an all-encompassing pronouncement that Mailer is an awful writer, or that the majority of his work is dreadful and merely the extensions of a large, unclued ego. The fun in all this, though, is contrasting one's peculiar justifications for enjoying or disliking a writer (or filmmaker, poet, painter) and seeing what responses come forth that think differently.

There is something to be said about Mailer being the second hand and slap-dashed in his writings--I'm thinking of his foghorning pomp on the state of American theatre in his introduction to his play version of The Deer Park, his glorification of juvenile delinquency and his homophobic mewling in Advertisements for Myself -- but he did, for me, rise above was mere petulance and high octane assholism in his writing, which is to say in his thinking, that he kept me interested over the course of forty plus years of reading him. Of a Fire on the Moon, Harlot's Ghost and Why Are We in Viet Nam are written in three distinct styles, with varying dictions and pitches. It was a large plus in Mailer's column that he varied his tone to do the best service to a story. As much as one admired and even envied the rolling cadences and chain-reaction like flurry of metaphors of the style that characterized, his richest period, the sixties through the seventies, one had to find relief that the author himself seemed to have grown bored with addressing himself in the third person and proselytizing in a high rhetoric.

The briefer sentences, the barren, stark voice, the uninflected hiss of the language was the perfect foil for The Executioner's Song. He was not the perfect writer, but from the excess of his self-promotions and cracker barrel prophecies comes a voice unlike any other, and a voice as well with sufficient mastery to have produced a handful of masterpieces as well as a selection of egocentric subject groping. These are the works that Mailer partisans will have to contend transcend the late author's feuds, fights, wife stabbings, drinking sprees, and divorces. The hope is that his reputation as a writer catches his notoriety as a professional jerk.



Thursday, September 17, 2009

Death may be your Santa Claus

We get older, our joints ache, our blood pressure rises,we bore ourselves with our jokes and our set platitudes said to friends who are having a sorry time of it . We tire of being responsibility for other people's feelings, we weary of repeating ourselves again to the same people the same things. We want to be done with our pains, our complaints, the sounds of our own voices venting our regrets and resentments: sometimes we just want it all to end. But most of us do nothing to abort our transactions with the inane and the repetitive--we shoulder our burden, we cram our misgivings into a burlap sack, we continue to live for the next five minutes of happiness all this breathing and work schedules too infrequently results in. But still others of us want it to stop, all this obligation, this drudgery, this loss of interest in the vitalism they used to see at the core of their community, their jobs, their jobs: one finds themselves living by rote to forgotten rules and the awareness of the inability to forge a new path , an improved outlook, a fresh perspective causes one to dwell on the idea of escape, the permanent solution to the consequences life in the big city. You just envy the dead their peace, you become romantic for the one thing that is, indeed, forever and unchanging.

Deborah Digges

See how the first dark takes the city in its arms
and carries it into what yesterday we called the future.

O, the dying are such acrobats.
Here you must take a boat from one day to the next,

or clutch the girders of the bridge, hand over hand.
But they are sailing like a pendulum between eternity and evening,

diving, recovering, balancing the air.
Who can tell at this hour seabirds from starlings,

wind from revolving doors or currents off the river.
Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don't call them back, don't call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

This hit me like a sock in the jaw--it seems to get the mood of a writer who has an intense sense of that all manner of gravity, both natural and moral, has ceased to exist that the material world and the conduct of the population was now free to play, wander , roam, let themselves go into a an vertiginous , all embrace void. These very much resembles Yeats, and the ringing rhetorical and hard edged images resound like "Easter 1916". The difference between the two, of course, is that Yeats' poem was a prophecy, and his poem was apprehensive because everything old was being made new with new uses, new meanings, remolded from a new philosophy. Terrible in the unknown and beautiful in the sense that life processes cannot be stopped, only made into something new , different. Digges gives the feeling of the floor, the sidewalk, the street giving way from under you , that the conditions of conduct are suspended or revoked outright, and that the life goes to an inevitable, ecstatic end.

Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don't call them back, don't call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

These last lines get the pitch exactly, the pull toward a personal apocalypse being so strong that the bounds of reason, protocol, faith are undone. It's a seduction to the darkest yearning, to enter a sphere where there is no contradiction, no agitation, no weighted arguments with the balance of one's universe. To become nothing. It's a plea, as well, for the families, the friends, the passers by to cease heroic efforts to prevent the inevitable and accept one's decision to be raptured.The nihilistic lure is overpowering here, and one is made to feel that there is nothing for this speaker to do but to surrender to natural forces, to embrace the inevitable end.

What gets me in the poem is how it makes the Big Sleep, the Large Nod, the Humongous Nap an attractive state; life consists mostly of temporary problems requiring our wits and ingenuity with which to engineer remedies. It's a wearying task as the years go on, and Digges , it seems to me, writes from a point of view of someone approaching their nadir, the breaking point when what passes for ironic disengagement, the activity of minimizing one's labors in just getting through the day, becomes an encroaching obsession for a permanent solution . The narrator seems envious of the dead, as you say, but I think there's a real desire here to leave this sphere of being. The weightlessness and unboundedness of the dead suggests desire, a deferred longing . The narrator sounds like she is desirous of what the dead get to do in the universe as we understand it, which is nothing. The desire is to do nothing and to be nothing in turn.The foreknowledge that every living thing dies finally crowds the poem like a Bosch painting--one last intense set of indulgences of the human senses, and then ride the sensual tide to a darkness one cannot report back from. This is beautiful, unnerving, slightly scary.

Reading about the yearning for death, though, can be worrisome in itself, and Kim Addonizio provides a proper antidote with this piece:

by Kim Addonizio

On winter nights, the dead
see their photographs slipped
from the windows of wallets,
their letters stuffed in a box
with the clothes for Goodwill.
No one remembers their jokes,
their nervous habits, their dread
of enclosed places.
In these nightmares, the dead feel
the soft nub of the eraser
lightening their bones. They wake up
in a panic, go for a glass of milk
and see the moon, the fresh snow,
the stripped trees.
Maybe they fix a turkey sandwich,
or watch the patterns on the TV.
It’s all a dream anyway.
In a few months
they’ll turn the clocks ahead,
and when they sleep they’ll know the living
are grieving for them, unbearably lonely
and indifferent to beauty. On these nights
the dead feel better. They rise
in the morning refreshed, and when the cut
flowers are laid before their names
they smile like shy brides. Thank you,
thank you, they say. You shouldn’t have,
they say, but very softly, so it sounds
like the wind, like nothing human.

This is a is a sharp and funny rebuttal to the late Digges' poem. Unlike the narrator in "Trapeze", who all but says she envies the dead their inertia and seeming serenity, Addonizio's poem tells of us spectral traces of formerly corporeal beings who cannot severe their link with the physical world. It's funny in an odd way, as it mirrors the vanity of the living's obsession over status and the fear of not getting what they desire or losing what they think they have. Addonizio's point, after her brisk and crosscutting descriptions of spirits contending with various dis-pleasures and discomforts, is that we should make our peace before our time comes; otherwise the anxieties will follow us in the crossing over to the other side and cause us to stall before we reach the place of fabled Eternal Rest. It seems Addonizio sees this state analogous to being stuck at the starkest intersection for all time. A drag.

Monday, September 14, 2009

jim carroll is dead

eventually you roll up your sleeves
after you arise from the nod
to notice
the back of your shirt is covered
in grass stains and
small twigs
the shape of crucifixes.

there's another song
these fingers will manage
as nicotine tips strike
keys that click
and snap another
name that
occurs to you
when the morning sun
is right where you like it,
in your eyes,white and intense.

the name rhymes with
the things
you've done
and the things
that became broken
as you past through
court yards and gymnasiums
trying to keep your balance.

the name
sinks like a rock
to the center
of your dreams
where you are leaning
against a rock
nodding to the lines
the poet grunts
as he comes clean
with nick names
and a drum stick or two.

you look down
and see yourself
on the floor
not moving nor breathing
and look
to the page
you were trying to fill,

it is empty
as the air
between the words "I love you".

you return to the floor
to the floor,
reach for your heart
leave your hand

and then die.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Insomnia with Jane Hirshfield

Jame Hirshfield is a quiet poet, it seems, a writer of diffuse focus but deep feeling who manages to report from the far ether of her perception. Her poems are a painfully sincere testimony to her difficulties in reconciling the inexplicability of experience and a poetic correlation. There is the continued feeling of things left out, of items set far from one another , in separate piles, but arranged in an arcane relation that suggest someone arranging a set, a doll house, with items that are to relive scenarios once all the markings are in place. Her poems make me think of of years of unfinished perception and mullings over the gathered experience of so many years alive, moments sad , tragic, hilarious by turn, all lacking a finalizing punchline. What makes her poetry a wonder the small scale yet heroic effort to reduce the clutter from her lines and bare instead the image and the naked association that goes with it; it is the effect of over hearing someone talking to themselves. You can only imagine what the rest of the story might be.

Her poem Invitation is from someone who has traveled too much, or at least excepted too many invitations to various events. Hirshfied gives us the half thoughts of someone telling their tale between stations of awareness--the mind is half asleep, on the edge of blacking out, while the other is barely focused at all. Large gaps between the vectoring comings and goings leave much for the reader to fill in, and one senses as well that Hirshfield is attempting in someway to fill those holes herself. The poem reads more like an outline rather than a conventional narrative; this seems like a map of where she has been ; with the dates, faces, names, and causes blurring into an impressionist squint, the speaker attempts to find a center of being, a sense of gravity where the body feels it has weight rather than being spectral, ghost like, a presence hardly accounted for that in turn cannot engage the special occasions she's been invited to attend.

Before you have said yes or no,
your arms
slip into its coat sleeves,

and on your feet,
the only shoes bearable
for many days' travel.

Unseen, the two small fawns
grazing in sun outside the window,
their freckled haunches
and hooves' black teaspoons.

Abandoned, the ripening zucchini inside the fence.

Krakow, Galway, Beijing—
how is a city folded so lightly
inside a half-ounce envelope and some ink?

That small museum outside Philadephia,
is it still open,
and if so, is there a later train?

The moment averts its eyes to this impoliteness.

It waits for its guest
to return to her bathrobe and slippers,
her cup of good coffee, her manners.

The morning paper,
rustling in hand,
gives off a present fragrance, however slight.

But invitation's perfume?—
Quick as a kidnap,
faithless as adultery,
fatal as hope.

Lovely, really, this small mystery of perception. This is someone finding their experience collapsed upon itself under the weight of sameness--sleepwalking is the apt metaphor here, as the receiver of the invitation finds herself putting on a familiar coat and comfortable shoes she associates for long periods on foot. Even the home, with which she ought to be intimate with and sad to leave yet again becomes instead, just another item that comes and goes . With eyes open and senses in tact, everything is at the edge of recognition, teetering between acute awareness and conditioned amnesia. Like her map of places to go and the roads to take in order to arrive on time, the world is small and lacking in wonder. This is a mind forcing itself to address what it is it has recently dealt with, an attempt to chip away at the dullness of mind that overcomes even the most alert and sensitive soul. This is a poem about whirling through the hard, detailed vagaries of things and realizing that one isn't broadened for the relentless exposure, but depleted.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Jack Spicer speaks to 9/11

Ron Silliman commemorated the 9/11 anniversary on his blog yesterday with a gruesome photograph of ground zero with two poems by Jack Spicer superimposed over the carnage. It understandably caused a minor tempest among a few readers who thought we'd had enough fetishism over the attack, and that it was a use of Spicer's work the late poet might not have approved of. I thought it fine and appropriate; Spicer equated God with a Big Radio, and seemed taken with the idea of a poet's inspiration being transmissions from far off places, old voices of dead poets in turn who find their metaphors turned into apt descriptions of current circumstances. By the time the hidden essence, the secret nuance of what a poet was talking about catches with a culture's experience, their original intent, while interesting, is not relevant as to how their words make our lives comprehensible, even if only on a visceral level. You could argue that the correlative intimations older poems have on the range of contemporary events is coincidental irony, but there is a saturation point when the lines, intended for what's implied, hushed and only vaguely graspable on the specific subject, become instead the needed at-hand phrases that get the ideas that elude you when tragedies or windfalls of good fortune intervene on the come-and-go. The poet loses control of what his poet is supposed to mean as history adds associations to the syntactical skin. Spicer, I suspect, might well object to the use, but there is a savage bluntness about poets and their varied attempts to find a greater resonance from the obscenity of violence that resonates loudly with what we're remembering today. What Spicer intended is a moot point, and in this instance, inconsequential. Today was the day everything changed, as the overused phrase went, and that meant everyone had to take a hard look at who they were, who they said they were, and why that mattered in the face of such insane destruction. Spicer, not the least, likely would have considered long and hard; there is the notion that what you've said in a situation you want to clarify gets repeated against seemingly opposing backgrounds. The voices from out of the air, from the radio of memory, are triggered by extraordinary events that transform our regular which, after all, are not static in any sense. Silliman's collage is an inspired combination of histories; they are no longer mutually exclusive.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Banking on The Beatles

The marketing of the Beatles continues with undelayed urgency, with the advent of Beatles Rock Band video game, and now the remastering of many Fab Four recordings in a flashy, bulky, expensive package. I cannot see myself having my history sold to me yet again; my memories ought not be what breaks the bank account.I was born in 1952 and was , more or less, a perfect witness to the Beatle phenomenon as it happened. From here , I'll the dulling recollection of what they meant to me and my generation and will not wax on their dually over rated and under appreciated qualities--few popular bands have ever been subject to the kind of exaggerated elevations and damnations than these guys have--and instead cut to the quick; the subject of the Beatles bores me stiff. We gone through an endless series of repackagings of their music since their 1970, none of which has made their great tunes sound any greater, nor made their slightest songs gain any more credibility. I refuse to live up to Tommy Lee Jones' groaning admission in Men In Black ; I will not buy the White Album songs again, no matter how crisp and clear the new versions are promised to be. I'm fine with my copies of Yesterday and Today, Revolver, The White Album and Abbey Road ; this was their finest string of albums, brimming with new melodies, wonderfully elliptical lyrics and wholesale genius in the vocals. To get these albums again would make me a mere fetishists, not a fan. But a fan I remain, and in the time since the rise of the Beatles and my tour of duty as a working music critic for several Southern California publications, my tastes have changed. Not "matured", not "improved" or "gotten more sophisticated", just changed. I remain a rock and roll fan, a Beatle fan, an encourager of loud guitars and passion, but the point of being interested in arts , as the cliche goes, is to broaden one's world, not to continually spend cash money on refurbished tunes in an attempt to relive what is past. I don't want to shut the door on the past, of course. I'm just annoyed that someone my age is expected to go out and buy again the music that I already own.

Chance of showers

There is no smoke from the city today,
the streets are crowded with cars
and pedestrians waiting their turns.

it's warm
as a wool hat
worn on a July beach,
the afternoon shadows
begin earlier in the day,

shadows of birds
against the tallest
of what's been built
dash by , barely seen
by eyes reading a newspaper
or scanning a screen
while talking on the phone,

from this floor you can see
most of the city and the rivers
that give the neighborhoods their names,

boats of all sizes
take on the horizon,

nothing comes over the horizon
but winds warm and cold,

rain in the forecast, chance of showers,
everyone is going to their job
or looking for one in different zip codes,

nothing is falling
except how much we're paid
to stay where we are,

we have moved on,
we are home.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When books talk back to you

Having literary genres and various subcategories is a fine thing to have at your disposal when you're pressed with putting a label on a book that baffles you after you finish it; more than once I’ve looked at a book in my lap that seems to stare back at me after I’ve finished it. The book seems to ask “now what? What do you make of me, and how have I aided in enhancing your experience of the life you find yourself within”. But one needs to proceed cautiously in their attempt to name that tune. Categories themselves are as slippery as the narratives they claim to explain and contextualize; the further one steps away from a book for the wider perspective might cause the reader to lose sight of the original text and witness instead nothing but the vast horizon. That’s not bad for a Grand Canyon vacation, but many readers would find it infuriating. Or frustrating. Contextualizing everything according to a variety of theories and generic definitions becomes an unpaid task and dilutes the book’s main purpose, to divert. We need to remember that despite theoretical promises of unlocking the secret messages novelists might have, the essence of these books is making stuff up for our entertainment.

Writing and literature is all veils, I would think: if anyone could get "IT" with a piece of work, we would have to assume the writer, and his audience is satisfied, sated, and are disinclined to hear the story again. But there is always another wrinkle to relate, another nuance to discover, another veil to be taken away. This echoes Roland Barthes’ idea of writing/writing as being an erotic function, that the end that one gets to at the end of the tale is not the point of the quest, but the quest itself, the unveiling of the language, the constant re-assimilation that names for things are made to undergo as the nature of the material world defies literary form; it is the imagination that needs to work within the waking sphere, not the world that needs to fit within its contours.

Working writers dutifully engaged in their projects don't seem concerned as to the categories their novels might eventually be placed within, and most would, it seems, be amused or annoyed with the intrusion of a specious jargon that's been developed to explain what it is texts cannot do in the social world, beyond the assembled signifiers. Is Gravity's Rainbow any less a work of "Magical Realism" than what we've seen in Garcia Marquez or Borges? Is Pale Fire less postmodern than, say, Mulligan Stew? Critics have fled the storyline and the narrative technique and have forsaken the task in discussing how writing comes to make sense; it becomes the definitively moot point, irresolvable and subjects to an unending detour the circles around the precise meaning of finally inconsequential terms. Imagination is a trait that will use anything manner or style that is suitable to a writer's project at hand and it ought not to be surprising or upsetting that many writers, assigned to roles by career-making Ph.D. candidates, simply do what they need to do in order to get the work done. We witness fascinating paradoxes: Norman Mailer, by temperament a romantic existentialist who might have been in the late 19th century, is one who took to post-modern strategies to render is work: the range of his assumed styles and experimentation creates specific problems with literary historians who might be eager to be done with his books and his name.

The sectarian insistence on the differences between styles is pointless, I think; it's more fruitful and more interesting to have a more fluid approach to the study of literature and writing, particularly in how writers will take cues from one another and molds those influences into something that's very much theirs alone. Garcia Marquez (nee Lopez) has spoken of the great influence Southern Fiction had on his emerging style, particularly Faulkner, and Pynchon gives credit to William Gaddis and his Joycean The Recognitions as a major motivator for him to write with the denseness he has. Criticism tends to be like guys who talk about cars with all their specs yet who never drive one, never really comprehend the feel of the tires on the road. A criticism that takes into account how style, whatever its source or use, produces its effects, it's tactile quality, seems much more inviting. But "truth", large or small t, is something we arrive at after the fact, up the road, after we're over the hill. The point of personal experience is something we assign later when memory arranges the particulars in some fine fashion that makes the data resonate like some kind of grand or sad music that needs its expression in talking, a phone call, poem, novel, blues guitar. Since experience is the hardest thing to convey --it is not an argument I'm making, it's a tightly knotted cluster of feelings and emotions linked to a sequence of events that I have to need to relate to you, to bring you into (in a manner of seduction, dropping the suspenders of disbelief) -- I generally favor any writer to use any and all materials available and appropriate.

At best, we see an outline of the truth, a blurred reconstruction, and it's here we, as readers, need to give our trust to the writer to take us through an implied but imaginatively plausible world. Mastery makes us forget the lines we're reading, the very words we're taking in. Good writing, whatever it's style, origins or intent, quite literally pulses, and is that shape, the "truth" we want to pull the veil from. The idea of the metaphor is metaphorical, and since the 'truth' it's protecting is metaphorical, or at least figurative in some way, it seems like a dead issue. There are the same thing, though we can say are separate units of the same perceptual operation. What's useful is to consider the process 'through' the veils, or, in conventional literary lit speak, the arrangement, tone, and orchestration of the narrative events that lead a reader finally to the last chapter, the last page and he last sentence, where one arrives at the author's sense of an ending, and their implications of whether the tale really does "end" there, done with, having served its purpose of illustrating a 'given' moral lesson based on a nominally 'realistic' event, or whether the lives of the characters go on, after the last page, changed after an arduous narrative, braced for an unknown future.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Miracle Whip is Even More Caucasian than Mayonnaise

Mayonaisse gets a bad rap for being the blandest condiment one could put on a sandwich, which is unfair, I think, if only because I happen to like the creamy stuff on each and everyone of my baloney -dominated snacks. Bachelor living at it's finest, and a student's best friend. The further insult to the product , though, is that it's alternative spread is Miracle Whip, a yucky, nauseating, wretch inducing swirl of semi-sweet crud that makes one think of money shots, not satisfied appetites. It's not an appealing item to consider spreading over your cold cuts; it has a flavor that could make filet Mignon taste like K Rations. At best.
The makers of Miracle Whip are trying to counteract the disrepute the spread is held in with a new add meant to seduce hip, trashy, slacking and absolutely rudderless youth into thinking that this is the secret ingredient on which their life style and ethos rest. "We are Miracle Whip, and we will not tone it down" the add blares while an unfortunate punkette saunters toward the camera holding jar of the putrid stuff; perhaps their trying to equate Miracle Whip with energy drinks, boner pills, or doses of those drugs that make anyone who ingest the quantities into a babbling, inarticulate, free styling simpleton. I can't imagine anyone being convinced to go out and buy Miracle Whip based on this commercial. Corporations seem incapable of learning that they cannot make their products seem "hip"; hip, essentially a consumer defined essence, is determined by shoppers who find something appealing independent of the manufacturer's base claims. No one in the market place has ever suggested Miracle Whip is cooler than Kerouac or crack cocaine. At this point , after all this time, these ads are unlikely to fool anyone into thinking otherwise.

Blogging for the ages

Susan M. Schultz, a poet , small press publisher and author of the excellent Tinfish Editor's Blog, has an interesting post where she speculates about the objective criteria that might eventually form when we discuss evaluate blog writing. She considers the misgivings critics and readers with a strong prejudice for print have over the alacrity of opinion that speed our way in the wake of a book publication, a political event, a contention over public policy; the writing is called "too bloggy", changing the term into a negative, with the implication being that blog writing will the death of English prose with it's surfeit of drifting diction, under-researched opinions, breezy informality and, worst of all, the erasure of the reflective pause between what's been witnessed and one's response to it.

The "considered opinion " is near extinct the conservative scribes among us insist. "Response", an analysis of a subject's contents, assertions and a presentation of counter assertions, is replaced with "reaction", too often the knee jerk variety, with an in-extractable reliance on hearsay, received opinions, gossip, fear monger, walled off world views. Not a pretty sight. Schultz thankfully does not let the matter rest on a casual bemoaning on the lack of standards for bloggers; we will and are creating the standards that will have standards the lot of us will be expected to aspire to, regardless of a blog's focus, political, literary, popular culture. The standards will be in place because, I suspect, the lot of us want to be read again and again , certainly more than the once-over.

The forlorn yearning for immortality remains strong even with the whiplash pace of internet news cycles. She list 8 salient points she suggests for what a readable, well considered blog should have. I think it's a good place to start as bloggers start turn professional.The blunt fact awaiting those who actively demean blogging is that at the end of the day blogging is writing above all else. One needn't wax too generally about the history of how new technologies changed the character of writing--the invention of the printing press made the book a public commonplace and made for writing that was for the general reader, not the entombed specialist, priest or benign dictator. The emphasis of writing had changed, of course, but it was writing all the same, professional writing this time, in popular genres, for a growing audience, and there was the inevitable turn in the elitist thinking that there was simply nothing they could do to put the genie back in the bottle and instead accepted the inevitability of movable type, books and a growing literate population.
Blogs, whether we like it or not, mean more writers, and as with all else that has come before, critical terms and criteria are still being formed--the best will remain , the rest will fade, simply vanish. We all know that not everything published in print form initially are sentences without peer; most books chew the root, to be honest. The same for blog writing, I think, and we're already seeing standards form bloggers will be held accountable to.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The art of the cracking yourself up

Cody Walker is a joker, it seems, given to giggles, giddiness and guffaws in the pursuit of cracking himself up on jokes perhaps only he and select coterie of friends and fellow travelers would get. His poem "Update",is an exercise in a man chortling loudly in the back row.And even if a reader was fortunate to "get" Walker's interior monologue of skipping rhymes and cross-referenced literary forms, it's my modest guess the number finding this bit humorous would be lesser still. No matter, since I am as well in the habit of cracking myself up, imagining lines of dialogue among unlikely characters and personalities in improbable circumstance, chewing the fat on absurd and discreetly vulgar subjects.

It would be something like a three year old playing with his toy cars, conjuring one automotive disaster after another on a strip of wood paneled floor quickly imagined to be a ten lane interstate, or a six year old, when the young mind grows out the crashing spectacle of accidents and now imagines characters, recognizably humanoid, with distinct personalities, representing abstract, if two dimensional virtues, with attending voices. All this fills a mind with busy talk and scenarios, in the casual preparation for engaging the real life imagination will help them , with prayers, survive and thrive in.

Later still, in the far throws of adulthood, there come the private totems, the hallowed reference points, the memorized conventions of morning cartoons, biographies of great poets and advertising jingles, conflated to essential absurdities one tears down and reconstructs and tears down again as the surging mood to distance oneself from the drudgery of work and obligations; one takes flight, throws water balloons at the canon, paints the icons in garish colors, makes unlikely partners of dissimilar virtues in order to reveal some space in one's consciousness where logic and hard rationale haven't invaded and tamed. Then comes the "eureka" laugh, that fast, hard snort of being elevated above the physical place where you stand, momentarily transcendent, untouchable. I do this often enough alone, at home, whether writing or reading a book, and too often, perhaps, at work, where such outbursts are evidence of a mind being on other things other than the bottom line, and it is for those seconds when all things are reduced in stature, made equal in size. It doesn't last, of course, and soon enough the euphoria evaporates into the hard facts in front of you. But it is nice when it happens.

I should also make it a point to relate that I just about never try to relate what it was I found so funny to anyone I'm around; the description defy anecdotal reiteration, most times seeming sketchy and bizarre when I do try. The punch lines are too private, the references mired in that roiling swamp of a consciousness that cannot be brought to public view without the mediation of
thoughtful consideration and editing. And even then it would be dubious whether an audience would find the reason for my fleeting giggle worth the effort to listen to me bray on.

Cody Walker has decided to bray on.Walker's poem isn't a great one by any means, and is such that you wonder once again what Pinsky's attraction to it was. The rhymes are trite, the subject attempting to lane change across style barriers with the worst kind of ham-handed self-referential readily found in the most grating post-modern poetry, and there is what can be a smug -knowingness that saturates this brief operation. We have a scenario where a bright boy , trying to regain his equilibrium after the departure of his girlfriend/wife/significant other, invests himself with the powers and abilities of his great heroes from comic books and the scant readings of top shelf authors. He becomes Star Trek:The Next Generation's Data
("I've also rerouted... my neural pathways..." and Superman , with a mention that he has also re-routed "fjords", an oblique reference to the opening of the fifties TV program where the Man of Steel is said to be able to "...change the course of mighty rivers..."

And so it goes through this short poem, a desperate playfulness abounds, a growing hysteria mounts, a breakdown threatens, all this stewing while the narrator seeks the blessing of the over-cited Nietzsche guarantee , to paraphrase a paraphrase, that what what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. What Walker intends is unclear--that the social constructions that result from our innate need to have life have purpose and meaning are finally inadequate? That mistaking experience as merely the means with which we test the veracity of our philosophical models is to lose sight of actual value?-- but what there is here is minor, indeed, worth a laugh, perhaps, but worth a laugh in the sense that what's funny is a reader's belief this
tightly packed box of a poem merits a close textual reading.

Walker wrote this as a knock off, I suspect, something to be put deep inside a collection as an off key note, a character-giving bit of dissonance.
The insanity it suggests is disturbing, and it makes my case that mental anguish does not necessarily result in good poetry.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Odalisque" by Mark Salerno

Mark Salerno
(Salt Publishing)

Mark Salerno offers a selection of noir-inspired sonnets that tell a tale of cop and a hooker who start up a relationship that takes us on a tour of a mythical, distant, black and white Los Angeles of contemporary time. Shifting voices, locations, presenting the city as an amorphous spread of contradictions--a site where generations have settled, started anew and quite completed the paradises they tried to construct for themselves--Salerno offers up a terse diction that works splendidly in the sonnet form.
Like the champion scribes of The Big Orange Raymond Chandler and John Fante, Salerno has created his texture and tone as he writes of the places and things his erstwhile lovers encounter and pass through; a squandered chance, an exhausted idealism, a world view made directionless by relentless short term pragmatism. This is the poet's ear for the language we all speak that has continually denies and embraces the cluttered and conflicted urban chaos that distracts and drives them at the same time.


To be without believing or just forget the dream
as when a former odalisque too late to get lucky
settles on a set table in a dingy outlying suburb
she told her soul to leave her alone and it did so
chastened by the memory of true life in the far west
and a little roughed up in consequence of feeling
when giving up becomes one way of staying alive
I was M. dilatory in my wanderings and a lost man
hustled by a cutie girl and drenched in flop sweat
for my anxiety to know the really real or breathe air
between seeming and being of the way she said couple-y
along with all the other beauty school graduates
cooped up and portioned out running gags and shtick
to save a fairy tale as I have scrupled to aver.
There is a particular punch and power to Mark Salerno's sonnet style, at first reading as if it were an incoherent clash of radio stations competing on the AM dial. But as one reads, as one absorbs the terrain, the local businesses and street names, the voices emerge, masculine and feminine identities switching sensibilities, the monologues revealing all the moods, every defense, every method of inoculating oneself against the prevailing truth that greets many a visitor , many a person who has come to stake their claim on a terrain that absorbs emotion, kills desire, and makes one a slave in life that sustains itself on trying to recreate a vague notion of an unrealized ideal.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: Scalped

Quentin Tarantino makes me think increasingly of the bright musician of generous technique and dexterity who fors
akes sheet music, or even head arrangements and insists instead of improvising, from a cold start. Keith Jarrett comes to mind, superb pianist in group contexts who, somewhere in the Seventies, elevated himself to a concert soloist, literally, with a series of multi-disc live releases highlighting his ability to extemporize melody and development. Tension and release is the key to keeping any soloing alive, an element that requires pacing; the problem with Jarrett's elongated improvisations, it seemed to me, that he too often went frameworks that supported his configurations and offered up, at extended rates, a form of noodling, riffing, a repetitive set of rills and streaming, gutless variations that lacked adventure, daring. Jarrett, unknown to him and ignored by his fans, had turned into a New Age pianist, a verbose George Winston. I couldn't wait for the man to ease himself back into band situations, which he has, and good for him, and good for us. Inglorious Basterds, writer-director's Tarantino's homage and ramping up of the Men On a Mission war drama, is a flashy, occasionally gripping bit of now dated mannerisms characteristic of the filmmaker who, as Duncan Shepard has remarked, loves to hear his voice emerge from the mouths of characters he creates. The characters, though, are no more than sock puppets, and what used to pass for style in this man's work has become a shtick. One gets the feeling through the movie that the generic plot points Tarantino writes over are not notes to a melody he would lovingly embellish, but are considered as little more than a chord progression over which he has another excuse to blitzkrieg us with dazzling technique.

Shtick, though, can still be fun if deployed in a lively way, and there are moments when the predilection of long monologues or convoluted stretches of dialogue that lead, at snail pace, to an expected burst of violence grabs you by scruff and bangs you around some, the obvious example being the performance of Christoph Waltz as the charming, effete, well mannered and murderous S.S. officer Col. Lada. Waltz is inspired as he embodies the self-aware elegance of a man who likes nothing better than to exterminate Jews for the Nazi command. He cannot, though, balance Waltz's performance with an effective counterweight; Brad Pitt, of late the most interesting Hollywood actor with the roles he's taken --Burn After Reading, The Assassination of Jessie James by The Coward Robert Ford-- but in Basterds he's only on screen less than half the screen time, and he is impaired beyond belief by a cartoonish Arkansas accent. Pitt has the appealing skill of vanishing inside the character's skin and letting his physicality become inhabited by another personality, full of ticks and twitches. Unlike Al Pacino, say, who battles to conquer a writer's character with his trademark rages and rasping, ranting style, Pitt's portrayals strike you as people you wouldn't look at twice; this is the talent to seem insignificant until a series of gestures and reactions reveal an unannounced agenda. Except here, significantly; Pitt looks like he's practicing his accent in a mirror while he studies the smooth curves of his face. It never becomes a comfortable fit.

The Lada speeches go on for extended lengths, reprising feints, indirections and nuanced deceits of past Tarantino movies. Tarantino hadn't an outline for this film, a structure to hang his best ideas on; rather, he improvised from the outset, the result that his worst tendencies show up as often as his best virtues. Which made Inglorious Basterds a dull, grinding, unpaced endurance contest.He reached his saturation point with steroidizing movie genres with his two-part masterpiece Kill Bill, with all it's seamless and bravura conflations of different action film styles, but he has based his reputation on this one knack, or, more accurately, this habit. Death Proof was a chatty, grinding bore, with the fabled Tarantino dialogue sounding like leftover material that didn't make into Pulp Fiction or True Lies. Inglorious Basterds continues the downward spiral despite the generous reviews from critics eager to crown him an auteur, continues the downward spiral.

His sleights of hand, his postmodern conflations, his promiscuous homages to film styles that drag down his narrative momentum--hard rock guitar riffing in a WW2 movie? Whoa, cutting edge stuff-- fail to lift this bit of labored pandemonium. Eccentric liberties with formula plot structures made items like Pulp Fiction and the pair of Kill Bill movies fun things to sit through, a superb blend of filmmaking panache and a young man's energy to jack up the action; even his incessant references to other movies were endearing because you sensed the director had shoved two generations of film theory to the side and resolved that movies were fun; aesthetics were a matter of making the entertainment more intense.What hasn't happened the maturation of the approach; fun can still be a value in itself, but there is the expectation that an artist has developed a finer sense of what that entails; themes ought to transform over time. The aging wunderkind remains on the same playground, though. As with Death Proof, Basterds isn't an improvement on an original idea, but rather someone of limited ideas determined to tell the same jokes over and over. It would be one thing if he were developing his themes, but Tarantino loves his riffs and mulled-over mannerisms too much to alter them, to play with them. He loves them way a thief loves his stolen booty. No matter how lovingly he polishes and resets these things, you are aware that they don't belong to him.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


A shot full of grace
Blesses the side a barn
With a rock salt baptism
That’s just a slip of the tires
On loose, slimy gravel
By the time that
No matter how far we got from the city
To set up our amps
For 2000 of our friends,
A police helicopter will always
hover the gathered yearning
during the guitar solo
that I learned
from Robin Trower's second album,
after the singer
stepped away from the mike
and every note is the
last thing the coolest cat heard
that night as the sun rose
or this helicopter blared through
a PA that
there are free meals and
no consequences waiting
if everyone just leaves
right now,
but they are wandering
in and around the barn
making fun of the animals
and ignoring my solo, shit man,
even a wah-wah pedal couldn't
get them to listen.

Smoking Sucks. And it Blows

It came up in a conversation with another ex-problem drinker about the relative demoralization and levels of unmanageability caused by addiction to alcohol and cigarettes. I had championed that those new to sobriety perhaps ought to stop smoking as well as cease their intake of booze and sundry narcotics. My friend maintained a traditional line, let the newcomer smoke until they're ready to quit. He said

They don't make you steal from your family, abandon your family and destroy marriages.

It's an odd loop here; addicts steal to buy drugs, which are very expensive because they are illegal. If cigarettes were illegal, I have no doubt they'd be a major contributor to smokers entering committing crimes and destroying relationships in order to support their habit. Cigarettes, however, do take control of a portion of your brain, if not steal it whole; like it or not a smoker becomes addicted and their use has programmed them to ingest cigarette smoke at regular intervals, whether the smoker wants to or not.

It was once postulated that I had bigger fish to fry when I sobered up twenty two years ago; let the man smoke was the conventional wisdom. Truth be told, though, I would have quit had the nicotine gum been available in 1987, the year I took the drinking cure. I figure I would have saved myself several thousand dollars in cash I would have spent to support my pack and a half a day habit, and I would have avoided, I think, several bad colds and not have missed so much work because I was compelled to smoke outdoors, in the rain in winter, when I had the need to excuse myself and fire up a Marlboro. I might have had my self esteem lift somewhat as well and felt more in the mainstream of life had I quit; as it went, I was one of those people you see on cold, rainy days standing in the service entrances of where they work, smoking away, sequestered and ghettoized , conspicuous drug addicts getting their fix. The allure of the outlaw faded quickly.

Seeing the death and sickness and misery and financial burden of medical bills ruin the lives of friends and family, I can't think of many health decisions more important than to quit smoking. To diminish the severity of the destruction these odious products bring to people is, in my less than humble opinion, to really deal with the cold facts of the matter.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Long Winded Extract from an On Line Discussion About Poetry

A New Yorker cartoon shows two dogs in a den, one on chair, in front of a computer monitor , talking to another dog seated on the floor. The dog in the chair tells his friend "No one knows you're a dog on the Internet."

Exactly, and I suppose that's the appeal of forums and blogs; one is at liberty to represent themselves as having some competence and insight on a subject. One might even convince readers, or some of them at least, that one has professional expertise;one might even have something interesting to say. I don't know if the words that following are interesting beyond coffeehouse chatter--I think the points are sound enough--but here they are. Judge them as you will, and call me a jerk if you think I'm a deluded dealer in obvious asides.-tb

He was typing furiously to get a response to me before I shut off the computer, and sure enough, after refreshing the computer monitor, there was his nickname on a new post, attempting a counter argument in a protracted discussion (or competing rants, if you will) about the uses and role of art and poetry in this world. He wrote “ART used to create a response in LIFE. “

It's the other way around, replied, and continued; Art is a response TO life, a creative way for us to find new ways of experiencing what otherwise an incoherent flux of activity that only bullied us about with out any of us having the vaguest idea of how to better our lot. Life, as sheer process and force of nature, cannot be swayed by pure acts of will or bold imagination; art, besides leaving civilization with personal expressions of who we are and how we felt while we were alive, is also a engagement of our senses and skills that empower us to solve problems, to maintain a sense of humor, faith in something greater than our lone human selves, and provide with a means to live better lives. Art is a means for us to bring our imagination to bear on this planet, to create something for our selves that make this existence bearable, and at times joyous.

One discussion I had recently was interesting in that the person I was spoke with insisted that technique was over rated and that “…form is immaterial... so long as it creates the desired effect”. I scratched my chin and offered that one can usually have an effect of any sort only if the form is effective in getting across the intangible things you want your poems to address. One may effuse and rhapsodize all they want, but beyond a certain readership already inclined toward sentimental barbarity (the breathless pursuit of trite expression and banal conclusion, a defense mechanism, I believe, that shields the nervous from thinking bolder, or at least clearer about the larger implications of their actions in a world beyond themselves), the larger readership, small though it may be, will gain nothing, remember nothing from odd lines that exclaim obvious annoyances and joys. War is bad. Love hurts. Babies area cute. Mean people suck.

Millions of poems written by thousands of furious scribblers don’t get much further than these belated realizations, and it is understandable while yet millions more walk away from poems that are uniformly unmemorable, with hardly a quotable line or pithy adage to be drawn from them. This is all very sad because what comes forth in these untidy ossifications are notions that are revelatory and previously unrevealed to the writers themselves but which otherwise rest on the bottom of the fish tank like so much glass seashells.

Form matters because it means that one has learned their lessons about writing—poetry, though expressive of the soul’s yearnings and all, is writing, remember, subject to rules of clarity, precision, diction. One may do what one wants to do with language only after the lessons are learned, which is to say internalized. Form does matter, as in grammar, language skill, syntax, et al. A writer is more or less required to know the mechanics of writing and something about poetry before their efforts reach the level of art of any consideration. One cannot break the rules unless one knows the rules. The poet ought to desire the effect, but the insistence that a work have the "desired effect" is a slippery bit of business. Individual readers will bring their own experience to bear when they read and interpret the work; a bit of themselves will color how they recognize the particular ideas and instances the poet writes of. The poets' task, better said, is to write their material in a way that it elicits a response in the first place. For the most part, the dimensions of response are none of the writers' business.

Poetry... without effect... is meaningless babble.

Too broad a statement, covering as it does too many centuries of poetry, ideas about poetry, cultures in which poetry is written, et al. "Effect" is another slippery word; what one doesn't personally respond to may well be and probably is someone else’s' core moral truth. There is also the reasonable possibility that the reader finding something foul in a style of writing is unaware of the standards and requirements the style needs. What isn’t understood straight away is often condemned out of hand, without inspection, and it’s not unlike many to be willful in their refusing to learn something about writing aesthetics they didn’t know before. This fact doesn’t lessen the quality of the complainer’s preferred bards, periods and dictions; indeed, some of the poets might be embarrassed at the use of their name for cultural intolerance. Still others, like Eliot or Pound, would join a chorus of condemnation in short order, as long as the controversy involved further vilification of Jews.

That said, let us conclude that no one reading this the Ideal Reader, earnestly reading literature without preconceptions as to an art’s need to bolster unchanging certainties, and that we do the best we do to understand how something works on its own terms. It’s the cliché we hear from time to time, the search for similarities among ourselves rather than the concentration on obvious differences. We can reject the similarities if we like, but it helps to have a humane preference as to what one leans toward in the service of creating a life worth living rather than merely wallowing in the bitter juice of sour grapes

My adversary changes the subject, a dig at the universities and their secular relativism: At worst it is pseudo-intellectual drivel indented to impress Academic pundits. Take that!! Have at you!!!

You're writing about a particular KIND of academic poetry, I wrote back, and went off on another riff; this is suspect, and here condemn hundreds of poets and their work without a fair reading. It's hard work, I know, trying to keep abreast of what's available, what's being written, and a lot of it is bad, stale, calcified on the page, but a good amount of it is daring and fresh, contains verve, engages ideas and the real world at the same time, and otherwise performs what has always been the principle mission of the poet, to find new ways of experiencing the world, and inspiring new ways of living within it in a larger sense of community.

Poetry, at core, is about ideas and intellectual concepts as much as it is about feelings, and far less about sentiment. Without the kind of rigor these "intellectual" poets bring to bear on their work, there'd be nothing but a dull gallery of old and brittle styles for us to choose from, a juke box full of scratchy records, rhymes of old dead men that we ceaselessly imitate without a wit about why these old lyrics were written in the first place. I would say these old tunes were first written to bring some NEW IDEAS to our consciousness, some new perceptions to fire our sense of a larger and more interesting life. This is something we can’t afford to stop doing. At best it elevates the spirit or creates deep emotional response. Life, I believe, is something whose final, "fixed" meaning is unknowable, and is, really, something we bring "meaning" to by dint of our actions.What we have done, said, written will speak for us when we aren't able to rant, cajole, seduce and wave our arms as we attempt to persuade others that we're a benefit to the race. This, of course, makes life neither inherently good nor bad, though we do have it in our power to agree on acceptable, workable, flexible definitions of what constitutes the "good life" and what actions make for the ill. Life, though, is more than just "mankind". It is EVERYTHING, and we are just here visiting. The quality of the visit, though, is entirely within our grasps.

He didn’t answer and I was tired, and it was then I noticed the neighbor’s television was on, and loud. David Letterman was barking his quips about Regis Philbin, his voice muffled as it filtered through my radiator. It was time to shut things down and go to sleep/