Sunday, May 30, 2010

Leslie Scalapino

Poet Leslie Scalapino has passed away, a great loss to American poetry. I had a good fortune some thirty-plus years ago to do a reading with her at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco at a reading organized by friend Steve Farmer, and I've been a fan of her writing ever since. Her particular genius was bringing language to the forefront and investigating how accounting for what one perceives isn't a cut and paste process as we would normally believe. Still, something actually more complex, elusive, wonderfully confounding. There is a sense in her work of experiencing many emotions simultaneously, and the notion of feeling the varied senses fire up in sequence. She presented her poems as variations on the small things heard, seen, felt: it seemed to me that it was the smallest matters for her that evoked the largest response. Coherence was more nuanced than what the mainstream culture would have us think. She was a poet of accumulating power. I am grateful to have read with her. I am grateful for the books she wrote and published.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper

The funny thing of it all was that this morning a work associate and I were talking about recent celebrity deaths, a habit many of us indulge in when more than one celebrity passes away. We'd had gone through the mentions of Art Linkletter and the actually tragic Gary Coleman when she asked me how Dennis Hopper was doing. I  said that I hadn't heard anything since I read that he was gravely ill a couple of weeks earlier.
A half hour later during a break I  went online to check on Google News headlines, and there it  was, Dennis Hopper Dies. It caused a chill. Hopper was  as iconic an actor as has ever come out of Hollywood, an intense student of the Method who's twitching, mercurial intensity got him involved in some truly landmark motion pictures--Rebel Without a Cause,  Easy Rider,Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, River's Edge. One might say that his trademarked style of performance, of finding the raw-nerved insanity of each emotion a scene called for and maintaining a sense of a barely contained contradictions within his  character, was something that limited the range of roles of might have had during his career.

His style  could at times be like listening to late period Coltrane, where the saxophonist pushed his technique to a sustained , shrieking harmonic emotionalism; the ability to get to that edge and maintain it over time was impressive, but it could also grate. Hopper's presence--a figure of narcissistic menace who was constantly evaluate what is in his world and abruptly, violently remove the people and things in it he no longer fancied-- had the good fortune to find use in a series of films that weathered the fickle preferences of studios and audiences.The appeal of Hopper's roles in this best work is that he seemed to be the person in the crowd who had realized the great possibility that the meaning of existence depended more on the quality of choices one made in good faith rather than adhering to an abstract moral framework one is intractably born into. It seemed that his most extreme creations--Frank Booth, The fried  Photo Journalist in Apocalypse Now--had come across the fine print hidden that  stated that our philosophies and our certainties are based on nothing outside our own invention. In that regard , one wonders what Hopper might have said of his own life, his own work,  his legacy of worthiness beyond his personal and career struggles to be honest, creative and helpful in the world he actually lived in. To over-stated praise after his passing, Hopper's lurking  spirit paraphrase the Photo Journalist's rant about the cryptic Kurtz:

 I mean, what are they gonna say when he's gone? 'Cause he dies when it dies, when it dies, he dies! What are they gonna say about him? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bullshit, man!
Nothing yet to be made of the day but some wet hair clinging to the nape of the neck, coffee that's too hot to power down, a groaning neighbor regretting last night's play-making. I type a bit, reach into my pocket and come upon a to-do list of things to finish. It was folded a dozen times, it seems, each crease deep as wrinkles in an experienced skin. I made the list a week ago. Every deadline has lasped, every task is incomplete. I hate myself for some minutes, sip at the coffee, cringe at the cold hair teasing the wet locks adhering to the back of my neck. Time to go.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Writer's block and the home made cosmology

Don DeLillo's novel Mao ll shows the writer at the height of his powers, a novel that highlights an individuals experience of seeing the coherence of his belief system erode and chip apart as forces, historical and economic, invade that area of life that had seemed safe for so long. Potent writing, one of those characters is a reclusive Pynchon (or DeLillo) stand -in whose absence of new work or public appearance has created a presence larger than literary reputation alone could manage: if we talk about the speed at which disparate events suddenly seem to converge and become linked through the slimmest of resemblances, this is the novel to start with. This DeLillo at his championship best--he is superb at amassing the telling details his characters surround themselves in a secure themselves with. Likewise, he effectively conveys how intervening events readily dismantle a homemade cosmology.

The novel's fabled author, sensing that he is nearing the end of his creative potency, agrees to come is seclusion to participate in a large public reading to support an obscure poet who has been abducted by terrorists ; he emerges from the world of the secluded artist who has control of his creativity and the consequences of his choices and reenters the world he withdrew from, the world he nominal takes his inspiration from, and is subject again to the ebb and flow of events he assumed he finally understood through a career of fictionalizing it. DeLillo here does some of the best writing I've come across about the practice of writing, or rather, the rituals of writing; the novelist is working on an eagerly anticipated novel that will place his long career in perspective, but the reader witnesses isn't a conclusion being achieved, but rather stalling.

There are revisions, a retyping of notes, editorial changes, alterations of format, more research to do, more cross-indexing to be done before the manuscript can be submitted to the publisher and the judgment of history. Death, of course, is easily detected presence here, hanging over the composing and collating procedures like some  cloud threatening to rain, but DeLillo defers reference to the inevitability and concentrates instead on the intensity of the busy work the novelist and his assistant engage in during their work sessions; there is a focus on the details of narrative and the word choices that serve as  background noise, a loud music of a kind that keeps the lurking notion that there are no more words to come after this book is completed and out of his hands. Getting started again, becoming interested in a new idea to the degree that one is willing to subject themselves to another span of time of research, writing, and revision. Mailer had commented while he was writing his final novel The Castle in the Forest that he was "...going to finish this novel, or it's going to finish me," summarizing perfectly the process of writing as an activity that requires every resource one has to commit to a book they think needs to be written.

One does feel used up and empty after the last correction is made and the manuscript is shipped out; the prospect of starting over again for the next book is daunting, and the idea of  starting a new work late in life, admitting the possibility that one might die before the work is done is a frightening prospect. One does not want to be found in the midst of their unfinished business, whatever it might be. The stalling tactics of DeLillo's fictional novelist become understandable: delay the completion of the book, extend the length of one's life. The question, though, is whether the quality of life, on those conditions, rises above being a kind of stasis-defined Limbo. Is a life predicated on the non-engagement of one's creative instinct worth sticking around for?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Mr.Zimmerman

It was Bob Dylan's birthday the other day, and I had the pleasure to attend a tribute performance of his songs , featuring a curious mix of renditions of obscure Dylan songs and versions of more familiar ones that were, in a word, problematic. The gathered performers, singer-songwriters all who obviously feel their debt to the iconic man is something that they cannot repay in full, obviously had fun with their choices and their occasionally idiosyncratic arrangements. The results were mostly enjoyable, although there continues to be the knee jerk habit of praising Dylan's songwriting beyond good sense. Dylan has been in the music game since the early sixties, his influence on other performers is second only to the Beatles for the unalterable game change he brought to rock and pop music, and it's astounding that that through the decades, weathering fads, trends and  several years of bad road, he remains relevant. But that he remains a touchstone younger generations model themselves after isn't the same that everything he's written is equal to the best work; some of it is , in fact, slapdash, repetitive, and unconvincing as narrative vehicles.  

It's often pointed out by critics   and the occasional  academic like Christopher Hicks that Dylan's writing shares with legitimately Canonical figures like Pope and Milton a life's work that reveals the gathering perspective of one who has outlived their foolishness and impulsive certitude; perhaps, Dylan remains a songwriter, not a poet , and his lyrics are locked into the bare chord essentials that have been his preference since "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan". His melodic range is limited, and part of the problem with the weakest of his later songs is that there isn't musical cue to give the artist a hint of when to wrap up his subject. Instead, one chorus follows another , with little variety in a song's melodic logic to indicate when a subtler, terser phrase is needed, when a more vivid refrain is required.

A consistent tension between melody and lyric creates interest, and makes lyrics quotable. Too much of latter day Dylan is not quotable, but are, rather, prolix, a longish bit of daydreaming in the vaguest of locales. The vagueness would be fine if there were a more evocative word selection, but too often Dylan writes what seems like an interesting commencement upon an intriguing passage, only to quickly bury it with insipid qualifiers and disposable asides. What I keep wondering is whether if Dylan had advanced his musical vocabulary--The Beatles had, The Rolling Stones had, Elvis Costello had, Dylan acolytes all--would his lyric chops likewise seen an elevation in quality and variety?

While pondering that at the concert, a performer on stage was attempting a version of  "Like a Rolling Stone",  a miserable experience. It came off more as a Ricky Lee Jones parody than a tribute to Dylan, with an arrhythmic mix and match of tempos and grating blues inflections and melismatic improvisations on the famously acerbic words that made no connection with the surreal rant that is at the song's center. It was an indecisive version, full of stops and starts and wasted vocal gestures--voice and guitar seemed not to know what the other was doing; it was like watching someone try to park too large a car in too small a space. Dylan's best songs deserve better.          

Monday, May 24, 2010

the weather?

sit here like there's nothing there at all
while the cattle roams the mountain side
stressed for a stream and the long grass.
the moons have gone over the eaves
of houses sagging at the a frames
with the wood grey like the moon
we imagined for  days without end
as the pure grey tone of our meals in the dark.
cars are not the only things that stutter
on a cold snap.
electricity is the thrall of falling into
a ritual better than religion, a cigarette,
a barrel of burning refuse,
hands being rubbed together.
tribal concerns mean war on the steepest incline.
what shall we fight about?
the weather?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jim Powell and William Carlos Williams

Jim Powell's poem "Dance Figure" resembles William Carlos Williams' poem "Poem (As the cat)" in it's sharp, curt delineation of a something observed; the difference, though, is that the Williams' poem is closer to the late poet's natural, evolved style. Williams worked a lifetime developing a poetics that would be about a poetry based on what he considered the American voice, a natural, un-embellished cadence that he considered the model for his imagist inclination. A direct treatment of the material thing perceived was the goal:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset

first the right
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty

It's short and not so sweet; something here reminds me of the still photograph experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, in his continuous photographs of a single action that, when seen in rapid sequence, replicates motion. We can see the cat padding about cautiously as it tests its balance on a precarious edge, we can sense the progress, stanza to stanza, the halting placement of the forefoot, the comedy of hind leg stepping into an empty flowerpot. This artfully , succinctly condenses visual information to essential actions , creating the feeling of the excited, rapid commentary of one friend nudging another to view a comic vision. One nudges the other, whispers "get aloud of that ". Longer digressions are left behind, compound words and their alliterating implications are left on the work bench. Word selection and length are everything, and the goal for Williams, I think, was to create a sense of the event happening in real or recent time, detailed with words that are fresh and pure of post-reflective abstraction. He hasn't larded up the perception with  cracker barrel philosophizing.

Jim Powell accomplishes much the same effect as Williams, although he isn't as temperamentally taciturn as the late poet was. He does have, though, a strong sense of the lyric move and succeeds, in his his strongest work, of knowing when the lines break, when the image commands the center of the work, and when the narrator's rumination filters through the descriptive arrangements, an insertion of a personality that sufficiently problematizes his subject. It's a delicate balance of the objective, the correlative and the subjective. It's a nice seduction, when the writing hand isn't over eager to deliver a payoff.

Dancer Figure
He interlaces
his fingers
and stoops
to make a saddle
at knee level
of his palms
where she places
her right foot
and steps up
continuing to rise
while he straightens
to lift
and boosts her
springing from his hands
arms extended
fingertips pointed
arrowing skyward
as she leaps
than either

Ah, but this is a crisp description of a delicate scene; like Williams, the concentration is on closely observed movement, the cupping of the male's hand to form a lift, a bridge for the woman to place her foot, the slow rising from the floor toward the sky, the final, cascade-seeming leap. What Powell has assumed from Williams are lessons well learned; the brief lines are an internalized beat, a slowly wound spring tensing up until an eventual, ceiling-bound release--the motions here are a seamless stream without the bumps and segmented grating a stitched-in abstraction would have brought to Powell's elegant outline.

One element rings false, if only slightly, the additionally commentary at the conclusion "...she leaps / higher / than either / separately could." The narrator emerges from the wings , Rod Serling style, and offers up the summarizing afterward , and this an intrusion on the serene, zen-moment mood Powell had other wise established here; it takes the reader away from a simple, sweetly arranged music, remarkable for its brevity and absence of loaded terms and freighted associations, and places us in the realm of argument. It's a jolt , as it was both unneeded--did anyone really need to be told , at poem's end, that this was a feat a dancer couldn't accomplish without a partner? The abrupt turn, shifting from the evocative to the editorial, would suggest that Powell has things in mind that the dance partners are symbolic of , or symptomatic of , but I doubt that's the reason. He's too concrete a poet to become vague and allusive and allude to invisible concerns outside his actual writing if there wasn't anything in the work to give the insinuations a tangible presence. I suspect it's merely a case of the instinctual habit to sum things up; this is a habit that can be effective in longer works, where a brief paraphrase of a poem's tropes can illuminate how imagery and theme has been reconfigured in the process of bringing to an articulate expression, but "Dance Partners" is too brief for the effect. The minor failing of the ending illustrates my belief that a large factor of a good poet's working philosophy is the instinct of knowing when to stop writing--often times a poem is complete before the writer thinks he's finished with it.  The point of these tense, brief lyrics is to leave well enough alone

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A sudden memory

Was making one of my constant vain attempts to clean the apartment when I came across a dog-eared mass market of Danny Sugarman's Jim Morrison/Doors  memoir No One Here Gets Out Alive. Sugarman passed away in January of 2005, and a little bit of a flash back was all I needed to drop the broom and delay the clean up. Sugarman had the fortune and infamy to have been hanging around with the Doors since he was a mid-teen, and spent a good part of his adult life cashing in on the fact. During the Seventies he was scheduled to do a college reading in San Diego, and the editor of a local music weekly I wrote for at the time gave my name to the events organizer to be Sugarman's "local poet" opening act. I didn't care for Sugarman's writing, but there was money in the deal, so I went and did the deal, and found old Danny to be a very nice guy indeed. Not a shred of detectable ego . It was the most enjoyable fifty bucks I've ever earned. I have to say that the least enjoyable fifty bucks I ever earned was having to read No One Here Gets Out Alive for a review for a local underground paper. Even as a young man who hadn't yet outgrown his obsession with the late Morrison's confused poetics and drunk posturing,I thought Sugarman's book was too much of a love letter, a mash note he couldn't stop writing. That said, I will add that I remember Danny Sugarman being a super guy, friendly, supportive in my own writing. He bought a copy of a chap book I brought to the reading. Alas. The apartment, you guess rightly, is still cramped with stuff and dusty as ghost town plates.

Still Holding

Still Holding
a novel by Bruce Wagner

There's something refreshingly unforgiving in Bruce Wagner's lacerating Hollywood satire; those readers who've had a love/hate relationship with the movie business, an attraction-repulsion dynamic that loves movies themselves and yet is sickened by the business culture that makes it possible, will find the nasty laughs here telling, truthful, and an overdue joy to read. Anyone else who desire something redeeming to emerge from all the bad faith, a kind act or sacrifice arising from some forgotten reservoir of decency would be better off seeking less severe wit. Wagner mines the old joke about Hollywood that "underneath the tinsel there's more tinsel", and obviously appreciates Jean Baudrillard's theories on simulacra, where the slavish and stylized impression has replaced the real; set this heady abstraction on to the business of celebrity lookalikes and the community that arises among them, we get a twisting , fun house mirror of Hollywood , a parallel existence that mimes the worst and most inane features of the stars they imitate. Wagner, in addition, writes like a wizard who knows where the garbage is dumped.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Big Three

A number of us were tossing around lit/crit topics the other night  and , as usual with conversations dealing with the less tangible aspects of the writing life, we began a breathless exchange of  writer names, mostly dead, of who the Best Three American Writers were. Names, critical tropes and beer-fueled endorsements and denunciations flew like so much hair in a military induction barber line.Why stop with three greatest American Writers? Think what you may, but the second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received.

Harold Bloom not withstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier. This conversation, though, settled grudgingly on a Final Three , those who survived the worst insults a number of us could heap on them; the rationale, slippery as it was under the conditions this chat took place, were that each had written books that not only survived their time, but also the author's egregious personalities and  styles that progressively degenerated the more they wrote beyond their respective career high points.

On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers , then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is The Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updike's "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time. Hemingway, I thinks, merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. "In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island In The Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.

Jack London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The admixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style.I've just re-read "John Barleycorn" , and the book is ridiculous, amounting to being an extended attempt by someone thinking they will not drink in excess again if they stay physically fit and on course with the projects they have planned. Stay committed, in other words, and reap the satisfactions of a series of tasks consistently well done. Terrific advice , of course, but there are limits to the therapeutic effect, and there is value to "John Barleycorn other than London's attempt to create a solution to his alcohol problem; it does offer up a grim and gritty view of the life the practicing alkie, a redundant habit of progressive degeneration. It manages to convey Truth even as the author tries to deny his basic ailment. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after he vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic. I doubt the record shows that London cured himself.  But he left us with a vivid testimony despite his short comings, and this leaves him on the shortest of all lists of quality reads.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Waking up is hard to do

In the days nearly next mornings
a casual flair of forlorn socks
that landed where
the chair used to be,

Never can this day open like fanfare
of crescendo day-breaking
so much glass imagined as applause
for a word kept mum, under a pillow,
asleep in unsaid lakes of whatever,

Could be but often cannot be
the same clothes and haircuts
gussied with oils and stray perfumes,

But please, no pleading with pleats
that could stand for themselves
against their formless contradictions,

A small , wooden box with art from cigar store windows
brims with quarters that find their way
to slots for a promise of life, a surge,
a basket of clean undershirts,

The suds
are a mountain range
we could smash
had we enough
to unload
in the dream life we've just left,

We could smell next door aromas
even under the damp bedding eaves,

scents that speak to nerve endings
and brings a sense of what's to be done
with a history that got undressed
the night before|
and crawled into the bed and commenced to snore,

Shoes tied, pants zipped,
we go out the door,
still snoring.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What to say after the worst has happened

The death of a loved one is not something that one just "gets over", as if there was expiration date on grief. Yes, one moves on with their life and tries to have new experiences and adventures, but poets, like anyone else, get older, and the longer view on their life and relations comes to the for. Poetry will cease to being the  chatty, wit-leavened record of one's impulses, and will become more meditative, slower, a more considered rumination on those who've are gone yet whose presence remains felt and which influences the tone and direction of the living.

It's not about getting mileage from a tragedy as it is a species of thinking-out-loud. We speak ourselves into being with others around us to confirm our life in the physical world as well to confront the inescapable knowledge of our end, and poets are the ones writing their testaments that they were here once and that they lived and mattered in a world that is soon enough over run with another generation impatient to destroy or ignore what was here only scant years before so they may erect their premature monuments to themselves and their cuteness. We survived our foolishness and quick readings, a poet writes, we lived here and mattered to a community of friends and enemies in ways that no novel or epic production can capture, and we wish you the same luck, the chance to live long enough in this world you seek to fashion after your own image so you may write about your regrets, your failures, the things you didn't get around to doing.

Despair isn't the default position for poets to take as they get older; as I think is plain here, poets will in general treat their subject matter with more consideration, more nuance, more acuity as they age. The host of emotions, whether despair, elation, sadness, celebration, aren't likely to alter, but the treatments are bound to be richer, deeper, darker. One has aged and one has experienced many more things since they were in their twenties, and convincingly casting off the same flippant riffs one did in their fifties as they had while a college freshman is a hard act to pull off, emphasis on "act". One grows up, if they're lucky, and acts their age. Acting one's age doesn't necessarily mean one becomes a crotchety old geezer yelling at kids to get off his (or her) lawn; those character traits are formed long before the onset of old age. But what I think is a given is that an aging poet would be inclined to be more thoughtful as he or she writes. And why shouldn't they be. They have more experience to write about and to make sense of.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2 clanks on and on.

Iron Man 2 is out and more than ever I am seeing the Robert Downy Jr-Richard Dreyfus connection--both these actors cannot seem to leave a scene unchewed, a line unhammed with excess tics and twitches, both are completely incapable allowing a close up to be photographed without a smirk, a grimace, a tilt of the head, a believable tone of voice.

To paraphrase Duncan Shepard , both go about their business as if they had just sat on a cattle prod. That said,the follow up the brilliantly finessed first film tends too lag in the start, with a frankly tedious series of action/ fight scenes and a laborious origin story for Micky Rourke's Russian super villain. It is not a lean story line, as comic book narratives demand--we will make an exception for The Dark Knight--and spends equal amounts of time trying to gin up excitement for the forthcoming Avengers movies with a stalling segment with Nick Fury (curiously played by Sam Jackson).

The last forty minutes, though, tighten the slack pace , with chase scenes and nicely animated combat scenes bringing at least a video game excitement to an otherwise formless display. The voluptuous Scarlett Johansson has a good turn as an agent of the SHIELD agency; in a form fitting action outfit, she practices a sweet kung fu science against a troop of black clad henchmen. Her bad-girl is one of the truly good things in this oddly foot dragging action movie.

On the subject of super hero movies, it's remarkable how quickly people stopped talking about Kick Ass; it has less to do with the follow up release of Iron Man 2 than you might think; I would put with an audience boredom for the whole sub Tarantino irony-mongering as regards a movie reflecting upon it's own genre restrictions. The spectacle of an eleven year old hero named Hit Girl fatally bloodily stabbing, gashing, shooting and neck-breaking an army of henchmen --you wonder why villians keep employing ineffectual muscle-- is something offers something to challenge our moral expectations years beyond when such a thing would have created a fury of self-recrimination. It's that wild grab by someone who strives to out do someone they regard as a master--in this case, Matthew Vaughn tries to mimic Tarantino in the extreme as though wanting QT to pat him on the head and give him a gold star. It is deadening instead, providing yet another occasion for the perennially egregious Nick Cage to proffer another self-mesmerized performance. That he reads his line in a glacial cadence in obvious homage to television Batman Adam West only makes the the lethargy between fight scenes more apparent. This is like a long back seat car ride where the only thing you're looking forward to is the next rest stop.

Poem for conversations that die on the vine

Conversations that go dead, that figuratively "go up on the rocks" , are those moments in life that one has to consider the bright side of the current situation, wherever it may be: at least this isn't world war three, at least this isn't a deadly car wreck, at least I haven't had a meteor smash my city to bits. These are small consolations, though,while you're in the moment trying to make your starter phrases and topic offerings a means by which to make the time go by quickly and amiably. But there are those who will not be chatted up, as they enjoy their own company too much, and there are those who perhaps rather enjoy the spectacle of seeing you wrestle with your words. It's a maddening condition, these stalled bits; a video tape of any such protracted exercises in fruitless similarity-finding could be transcribed and staged as Beckett comedies ; long silences, words that refuse to stick to any object they are intended to address and define, blank stares into far off spaces. The greatest distances are sometimes just across the table.

Fitting that Kim Van Voorhees's "Sea Level" poem, an inspection of a such a comedy of failed reciprocity. The table is an unnavigable void where words seem nothing more than casual bits of sodden detritus that drift onto a stony beach with the foam and seaweed, a washed out version of it's original intent. It has the depressing clarity of someone looking at a situation they've spent precious energy on trying to make it a fulfilling experience only to realize that there is only a deadened air for all the effort. Stillness resonates with absurdity after a frantic attempt to make something catch fire.

So this is what the ocean has been pushing across the table at us
all these years—

the dry, white spot that opens like a moon at the back of the throat
the quieted tongue, the last of all words.

There is that sense that the dry spot in the back of the throat is the point where one realizes that whatever else one will say is already hollowed of meaning; the absence of response, the failure of an nearby other to allow itself to be changed, in perception, from an abstraction to be solved and a more human presence with a personality one can negotiate a good time with, has rendered the power of one's vocabulary to a series of sounds one might other wise make in their sleep during a bad dream.

Our ever-faithful dinner guest—who kept her wet fingers lined up at the edge
of the world, who politely folded and refolded her napkin—stops
passing the peas, leans back quietly into her chair to watch

what we'll do now. She's done, the sea quits, stands without comment on the shore, is
just another dumb, beautiful animal considering the cliff, the final leap
back into itself.

The other, the dinner guest sitting across the table, is aware of the power she has in this moment, limited as it is--the conversation can either brighten and instill in her companion a sense of worth, that one's choices haven't been foolish or self deluding during this day, or she can with hold response, keep her participation to a minimum, give barely perceptible clues that she is done with the ritual and that both the dinner and the host no longer engage their interest.

At least say we were among those who kept the conversation up for so long—
you and I handed always and never back and forth again and again

while our arms distressed the surface.
Let's just say the table was too large, that we lifted the heaviest dish
and got tired—

that only the ocean knows how to spoon salt over a great distance
under any kind of light.

What Van Voorhees does with this awkward instance is her use of telling details, concrete things where her metaphors actually convey an experience where the failure of words are exactly the issue at hand. The metaphors themselves are concrete , and their aptness isn't freighted with the typical twin indulgences, autobiography and literary self-reference. Where another poet challenged with a subject that defies an agile writer's skill to essentialize and so dwell on the inadequacies of the literary form or inspect the fragments of otherwise flushed child hood traumas, Van Voorhees sticks with her idea and works through her conceit; the result is a bright , if discouraging, set of alignments of things that do not speak, still materials that give no hint of what the character's words fail to get to, and the characters  themselves, who ought to have remained silent all along.
What's revealed is that this is a conversation that has gone on too long , without a shred of engaging subject matter, a battle to see who can keep the chatter above and bouncing with the animated insistence of ridiculously assertive absolutes; trivial ideas, cast out fleetingly as two people try to distract themselves from their shared awkwardness , are over emphasized, assume great volume, and while the conversation for a while rises and crests with a excited pitch, it is followed with agitation; even as the small talk escalates, it is like a balloon being inflated with too much air; it either bursts or it deflates rapidly. Likewise, both of these dinner mates would quit the game and fall back into the awkwardness they tried to avoid, painfully aware of their lack of similarities. There is only the table, the metaphorical ocean between them, that remains

. .

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The center holds ,and it's crushing us

Poet Mary Jo Bang has the unique ability to write a polemical poem that is both a superb example of straight talk-there is no mistaking her fevered sentiment for anything else--and an elegant sample of exquisitely placed simile and metaphor The power of "After the Fact" comes from the first lines, a narrator setting up the world he/she lives like it were subject to templates from which only tragic outcomes can result. The sin of this all, the source of the outrage, are the actors in the self-limiting melodramas--buffoons peacocks, egomaniacs, narcissists with trigger fingers mistaking the contrived circumstances of their cause for the way things required to go.

Sleep tight, you martyrs.
And you criminals who killed for a narrow share
of power and a few rotten spoils.
Enough is enough.

This is very tough stuff , an indictment with a sting, an x ray to the heart of the matters; while those who wage wars justify their aggression in the many slippery rationalizations that seek "justice" through a rhetorical back door , the results of their righteousness, their efforts to set the world right, only make the tragedies worse. The calamity multiply, the genocides continue, the planet darkens even more and becomes unlivable-the only thing that seems to renew itself is the rhetoric that proclaims a vision of aggressive human perfection, a heaven here on earth, while the heart grow harder, colder. The fatal schemes, the complete waste of what's best in this existence, contracts not just the heart, but makes the universe appear to shrink to a burned out cinder.

The corners converge, causing the globe to grow smaller
than all of time times space divided
by every petty difference.
The center would not hold for Yeats; it contracts for Mary Jo Bang, become a flaming ball of contentious bad faith . It's a simple morality tale, a simple but profound choice that each of us needs to make, to make decisions exclusively on the basis of self seeking, or to help others, create community, cooperation. Bang's poem/polemic provides the profound example of selfishness when it's codified with a language that adopts some of the leaner rhetoric of justice, peace and harmony and uses the terms to rationalize an institutionalized State of War. It is the tragedy of trying to make the mystery of life comprehensible by means of fear-- investigating the life and ways of a Villainized Other is to trade with the Devil.

The girl newly dead on the sidewalk says,
"Excuse me, but—
what kind of moral force is brute moral force?"

The poem can be said to lack subtlety, but a muted message in this instance could be so finely wrought that even an informed reader would miss the point in search for clues among the ambiguities. This has the brilliant, placard bearing power of Ferlinghetti's political poems, particularly "I Am Waiting"; it is a succession of one lines and witticisms that crystallize the crisis and makes it memorable. This is a poem meant to get you thinking about something other than whether it works as a poem. It does just that.

I don't think Bang's poems encourages passive martyrdom of any kind, if I understand your question correctly. It has more the feel of a scaled-back soliloquy delivered in the last act of a Greek Tragedy, the summation presented while the evidence is plainly visible, undeniable, to anyone who might have been involved in debating war and power-grabbing in the abstract. The poem operates under the assumption that the evil doers--politicians, generals, corporations--are shamed to silence while the damnable curses is cast, but beyond this minor suspension of disbelief --politicians, generals and corporations won't reform themselves and seek justice rather than justice as the result of a good scold--we realize the poem isn't intended for the perpetrators of misery, but the citizens who've been seduced by a well-oiled propaganda.

We are governed solely by our consent, and the further implication is that the governed population's failure to hold their representatives to higher , more consequential standard is just as responsible for the grim tales told here. Our songs, our campaign slogans, our policy discussions are geared to assure us that the greatest good is the intent ,and that it surely will be the result. Mary Jo Bang's speech--and that is what this is, finally, a speech--shows the reader that there are leaders elected in our name who are singing of their esteemed virtues while everyone else can see the devastation they leave in their wake.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A fine CD from Larry Coryell

It's been instructive to revisit jazz guitarist Larry Coryell after a decade or in other neighborhoods. A pioneer of jazz-fusion, this musician is, at his  best, wildly inventive, cranky, blistering and rapid fire, someone akin to Jeff Beck in ways of attacking an improvisation from unexpected angles of attack. Like Beck as well, his body of work is erratic, and one wonders if Coryell might have become stuck on the fence sometime in mid-career, performing an unsatisfying amalgam of mainstream bop standards, pop-jazz and thud worthy, unmotivated funk and rock blends. Fortunately, age and good sense has toughened the guitarist's technique; his album Tricycles and the more recent Earthquake at the Avalon, are both superlative examples of this man's ability to display a pristine delicacy on ballads, fleet-fingered flurries on the accelerated compositions, and a hard-nosed edge on the blues. Of the two albums, Tricycles gets the higher marks, as Coryell has a sweetly trio in bassist Mark Egan and drummer Paul Wertico bring off a varied set of styles with the ease of a unit that knows the strengths and nuances of each other's respective approaches. Coryell's guitar fairly bristles and sparkles through his rich chord voicings and pristine essays, with Egan and Wertico upping the rhythmic ante and lowering it again as the major and minor turns of the songs change the mood. There is a richness in the performance that suggests a larger group. Recommended.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Michael Jackson and the fatal spirit of the true artist

A telling side effect of a celebrity's death is the degree to which it prompts some people towards autobiography, memoir, or to indulge the urge to examine their own history as a parallel course to the trajectory of the more famously deceased. Those of us over fifty have only to recall the unending tide of essays and books where Americans recalled where they were, precisely, the day and moment that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The effort, of course, was more than merely paying tribute the brilliance the departed embodied; more than that, it is a recollection of how they'd been made to imagine greater possibilities for a  world they otherwise couldn't challenge.It's the tiresome ode to a dream deferred . There is something to the notion that celebrities cease to  be human in our estimations once they acquire certain saturation in the culture--they become, in a sense, a personal god one measures their best and worst qualities against. It is a tendency that can become pathology  Patti Davis, daughter of the departed President Ronald Reagan and someone who knows something about growing up in a fishbowl, weighed in with a brief commentary in Newsweek last year  about the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. The piece isn’t as cloying as one would have suspected—she notes the similarities between Jackson and another child star, Judy Garland, reasonably speculating reasonable that these talents were essentially raised in a bubble by a horde of managers, executives and an unlimited variety of sycophants whose interests weren’t those of their nominal employer, but rather their livelihoods. There’s more than enough evidence to support for Davis to make her case, which we find in the case of Jimi Hendrix and certainly Elvis Presley, two major talents and money makers who , it seems, lacked the discerning voice in their midst to say “no”, or to give advice that was free of enabling. Davis, though, spoils her entry with a rationalization that absolves Jackson and a host of other bright unfortunates who’ve met with untimely demises of any responsibility for the odd choices they’ve made.

Michael Jackson, Jack Kerouac, , Jack Kennedy, Charlie Parker, Sylvia Plath, Jimi Hendrix, and the lot died of causes that had nothing to do with the fact that each of them had varying degrees of talent. People die daily who haven't distinguished themselves as singers, dancers, writers, poets, jazz improvisers; they drank themselves to death, they overdosed, they committed suicide due to untreated clinical depression, they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one, though, latches on to a single name of the average anonymous drug casualty or suicide and speculates as to the nature of the sad, early death, no one really wonders about the soul of the everyman that just might be too sensitive to deal with the harsh facts of life and is driven to end the endless pain. Rather, we shrug, we say”ain't that shame" and then go about our business, mildly annoyed. We love celebrity hood, though, we are obsessed with as a culture, and indeed celebrity has become our religion--we create a mythology about the doings of the famous Gods and wonder about their inner lives, their moods, and their ability to cope.

Davis, a marginally well known artist/writer herself, picks up the stalest cliches around, the most exhausted of all tired tropes, the most insipid of perspectives by wondering aloud if there is something in the tortured psyches that compels the brilliant and the intensely gifted to short circuit themselves and bring an end to their lives. The implication is that sensitive artist types are sentenced fates even an enemy shouldn't suffer, an especially perverse elaboration that artists are not really the source of their talents and the inspiration that comes with it, but rather a channel of a Higher Power's wisdom and good graces. Davis not only gives absolution to doomed geniuses and near geniuses,but offers up the notion that for them Free Will is impossible. One always has a choice, though, and anyone of the people named in the second paragraph, not least of all Jackson, all the the ability to choose what their circumstances would be and the company they could keep; brilliant or not, they, like the rest of us, make bad decisions and they, like some of us, make choices that sooner or later prove fatal. Assuming without question that the tragedy was inevitable due to predestination only makes the tragedy deeper. What freedoms and insight the work might have provided us is negated by an overwhelming assumption that divine forces were at play. The circumstances, though, are human, all too human.

It's  irritating  enough that Davis concludes her commentary so insipidly, but it is also aggravating she's given such a big microphone from which to entertain her morbid hero worship. This is the same worship of the Celebrity Dead that had surrounded the discussion of the Confessional Poets for so many years, the not-so-subtly disguised attitude that a poet so categorized would only be regarded as great if they met with a tragic death, preferably by their own hand. Only in that instance do they become poets worth taking seriously. Serious as in examples to avoid , I think, and what's to be avoided as well is Davis' unfortunate comment, in a subordinate clause, that " true artists", by in large, are burdened by the creativity God or may not have blessed them with and lack the stamina to survive a life in any of the metaphorical food chains the celebrity culture creates. Davis handily enfeebles artists in general, poses no counter argument that art is more likely to make the artist more resilient in their daily struggles, and she seems willing to let the issue rest in a bed of sighing fatalism. This won't do.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Oil spill blame game

A casual scan of the news sites reveal that the right wing noise machine is working furiously to blame the oil spill currently threatehing the Lousiana coast on President Obama, terming it his "Katrina". Well, the point with the Katrina disaster wasn't whether it was Bush's fault, but rather his administration's lack of prompt and compassionate response to the plight of the people of New Orleans. The low priority the hurricane aftermath had on that White House's agenda couldn't be more clear considering that just months prior all appropriate agencies responded with what's been called \"brutal efficiency\" in response to a similar catastrophe in Florida, whose governor at the time was George Bush's brother Jeb Bush.

This difference was glaring and telling. Obama's response to the oil spill, by any standard, has been quick and decisive; it made short order of BP's minimizing assurances that the accident was something they could handle on their own and exercised Federal Authority. This does sour Obama's declaration that he is opening up more of the East Coast for off shore drilling, but that is merely an irony, not a source of blame. This ugly disaster , if nothing else, frames the argument for weaning America from it's dependence on oil in a new light. Chris Matthews remarked on Bill Maher's HBO program that the drive and demand for alternative, green energy technologies will likely increase, maintaining that this may be the best shot in the arm solar and wind power may get. This was a graphic and gross example of what oil consumption does to our planet and that we need to get ourselves away from the Middle East wells.