Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Greil Marcus

I look forward to reading the new Greil Marcus book on Van Morrison and I expect to experience the familiar aggravations and exhilarations from the critic's writing yet again. The pay off in reading Marcus is that he does, at times, write remarkably well , with the ability to be a key witness at various cultural situations otherwise invisible to the interested reader and create a sense of the gut-feeling, winging-it verve that makes for art. Think of the longish description of the Sex Pistols recording "Johnny B.Goode" in which Marcus nearly convinces you that this wasn't just a random batch of thugs butchering a Chuck Berry classic, but rather a moment of transformation, of the song, themselves, the moment in history. Each item Marcus chooses to talk about in his far ranging discussions,from punk rock, Elvis, Dada, Cabaret Voltaire, the rise of Situationism, are all made to seem epochal. As in the subtitle of his tome "Lipstick Traces", the critic is obsessed with secret histories of human conduct, and is determined to use pop musicians as the epicenter for the loud mashing together of materialist forces.

The downside of Marcus is that he too frequently a lazy inquisitor of his materials, a maker of broad statements based on anecdotes, newspaper clippings, things he bookmarked or highlighted with yellow pen.The aggravation Marcus causes is easily seen in his book "Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads": he throws every wacky idea and reference he can at the slim information regarding the writing , recording and release of the Dylan... masterpiece, and seems curiously enfeebled in his attempt to make us think that the song is more than what it is. This habit, a trait a good editor would have blue penned out of existence, is what makes me loathe to think about how he'll come to treat the work of Van Morrison: a writer who is not satisfied to make their points, but rather to write a philosophy. Musicians are not politicians or philosophers, though, and Marcus is not  Toynbee. The songs remain songs, bombast or no. As brilliant as any of the best art , literature and music in history, Marcus cannot get it straight that the masterpieces are the results, among many, froma cultural tumults, not the cause of  them. You really can't blame academia for Marcus's increasingly dense meanderings, since even glory days I always found him striving for the Grand Sweeping Statement. His problem is that he has never put forth a comprehensible thesis on which to hang his abstractions; he assumes , I think, that what he's getting at is implicit, and this causes him to skip over the niceties of making himself understood. Marcus is the victim of subject bloat, a malaise he's had since Rolling Stone. He does, as I said, still manage extended bits of insight in glorious prose--his talents are as a journalist, not a theorist.

As for Morrison, I agree wholeheartedly that Astral Weeks is a brilliant album. On the subject, though, he will be writing in the shadow of Lester Bangs, who's chapter in the "Stranded" anthology on the album, and particularly the song "Madame George", is one of the greatest pieces of emphatic,inspired, gorgeously rendered rock criticism of all time. It is a masterpiece of subjective criticism, something I would assign students to read along with examples of other brilliant critics like Manny Farber, Joyce Carole Oates,Randall Jarrell, Frank Rich (when he wrote theater reviews) and Gary Giddens. What I dread is that Marcus may consider himself in competition, Harold Bloom style, with the late Bangs and may attempt to top him with even grander , hastier effusions. Reading the new book will , as usual , a mixed bag of fresh fruit and stale donuts.See MoreThat being said, it is this determined wrong headedness that keeps me reading him and , in turn, keeps me thinking of new ways of complaining about his method.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The James Brown Revolution

James Brown released an album decades ago who's title announced the 70's ethos in screaming , feel good disco beats:

Man oh man, I thought when I first came across that disc, flipping through albums at a Wherehouse Records somewhere in the San Diego beach area, this brother was about to implore us all to forget the past and to live for the moment and and create a path to a rosy picture but was overwhelmed, shoe-tips to  fingered pinky, but a core primal nature the refused to let himself get preachy beyond a few monosyllables. Forget everything else, forget the revolution, the high interest on easy credit loans, the lack of money when the bills are paid, the unjust wars,the lack of gasoline, the ugliness of buildings staring down on your gaping mouth as you look up toward the cloud with the wondering of when will it rain money, it was time to dance, to frolic, to make the groove paramount in how one conducted themselves.

Dancing trumped every concern, and one didn't conduct themselves in any fashion, as that implies a measured, contrived and controlling manner of being in the world our spirits were forced to endure--it was a script, false, predictable, tested in the laboratories of predictability. James Brown always of using that microphone as a weapon when he was self-inducing one of his performance nervous breakdowns--right at the point when he was on his knees and his valet put the retirement cape over his shoulder--I'd seen this act a few times on television shows during the mid to late sixties--one wished he'd break the habit of the scripted break down and seize the moment with some genuine, crazed, hyena-eyed storm-bringing: GRAB THAT MICROPHONE AND SLAM THE BASE INTO THE VALET'S GUT! UTTER SOMETHING PROFOUND AND BASIC AND FREE OF VALUE TO AN AUDIENCE THAT EXPECTED TO BE ENTERTAINED IN ALL THE CONVENTIONAL DISGUISES FOR DISGUST.

Brothus and sistahs, wonez upon atime in a cassle so fine erwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwHHHHHHHHHHHgggggggggggggggggggggdigittty DooooRannnnnnygumption, yeahhhhhhhh, heh, hit me, hit me gain, up onna bridge, bidge, yassuh, a manz gotta slop sum stumbling facehangdown groanfactgor yassuh! Hitme again, yeabh ,babbybabybaby, eewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh, heh!"
We might assume that there are cameras at this mythical point in JB's career, this point where his harnessed intensity broke beyond the conceretized limits of language and propriety and made him into a garroting example of what happens when the last brick finally falls from the last wall between chaos and organized ennui. The cameras would follow the crazed soul singer to the parking lot , where he screamed about magpies under a yellow, sodium street lamps. He would get into a car and then drive off , at once, at eighty, ninety, a hundred miles an hour, careening for a hundred miles, blasting the classical station and screaming the words of "It's a Man's World" while the static-prone station filtered a guitar quartet plucking out Bach organ solos while every abandoned furniture factory and machine shop in the Midwest sped by. State and local police, of course, were in close pursuit, and the result of all this confusion was a big dance party at the end of the highway, in the empty lot by the Piggly Wiggly and the TuVu Drive in, where Farrah Fawcett was on the screen in the film "Sunburn". The commotion, caused by car engines, car radios and James Brown screaming, yet again, into a bull horn about Teddy Kennedy and the Boat, caused the movie to burn and melt as it shown on the giant screen. Car horns galore blasted as drink cups and boxes of pop corn dotted the night sky.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THE AQUARIUM by Jeffrey Yang: Wet lyricism

The Aquarium
poems by Jeffrey Yang

The book's conceit, an appealing one, is to write a series of poems on the fish and other ocean creatures one would come across in an aquarium, in alphabetical order. It's a sort of involute indexing of whims and amusements that would soon get ragged with repetition in heavier hands, but Yang's touch is light and varies his approach, creature to creature, and what his musings land on, of course, are continued inquiry into how we know the world.

We mirror, we model, we mimic, we claim credit for all the nobility that happens in domains that are, in fact, alien to our cities, countries and cultural ambiguities that Yang has the pleasure of gentle yanking our chain. As usual, the real issue isn't so much the wonders of sea life as exhibited--and the phrase ''exhibited underscores the problematic nature with which human languages address the external world as if it depended on our giving it narration--as it is something else altogether.
There is great appeal in the work of poets who can artfully contain a series of ideas in a brief piece of verse, the goal is to turn philosophical precepts into the glittering surface of a poem’s allure and still address an issue quite beyond the more comfortable subjects of beauty or an aesthetically constrained idea of Truth, capital “T”. Jeffrey Yang’s first collection, An Aquarium (Graywolf Press) is a series of poems that at first seem like they concern themselves exclusively with ocean life; indeed they do, but the author is shrewd in seeing what other areas, outside the aquarium tank, these creatures touch upon. Yang offers up a view on how we think about things. Here, in the poem" Parrotfish", the creature is nearly lost as the poems start like the first sentence of an encyclopedia entry and quickly turns into a bit of cocktail chatter seeming between artists, secret agents, and critics, all of whom sacrifice the subject in favor of extending their rhetorical devices.

The life phases of a parrotfish
are expressed in colors.By day,
the parrotfish replenishes coral reef
sands, and by night spins
its mucous cocooned-
room. Is this art's archetype
abstracted from politics?
Picasso thought abstraction a cul-de-
sac. The CIA loved Abstract
Expressionism. Hockney: "I
don't think that there is really such a thing
as abstraction." Langer:"All genuine art
is abstract."
What do you think parrot-

I think the aim is to undermine the insidious intent of rhetorical questions that frame ready-made political assumptions. The question in "Is this art's archetype abstracted from politics" forces agreement from the reader through it's disingenuous appeal to a person's vanity, from which an argument may be made for agendas that have little to with art, parrot fish, or life in general. This is the use of language that treats the things in nature as if they were symbols, real or potential, for great oppositions at war in an unseen metaphysical realm.

Yang seems aware that there is a very human tendency to regard the world outside our senses as though it were a linear narrative being played out, with virtues reducible to good v evil, beauty v vulgarity, honesty v criminal intent being the principle extremes in play. The narrative form, the storyline, is a convenient way of making the raw experience comprehensible, but taking a cue from Heidegger's work in phenomenology, Yang would have us be aware that the parrot fish and its environmental niche are not abstractions of anything but rather expressions of their own life. "Back to the data", as the man said and, in the choice phrase of the confounding Ezra Pound ," the natural object is already the adequate symbol".

He follows the erring assumptions to an unusual but logical conclusion: the symbol of beauty and abstraction must surely be brilliant intellectually, and so must, by default, have an opinion of the matter. He places us in witness to an absurdity: intelligent men, seduced by their nuanced sophistry, asking a fish for an informed opinion. Yang seems to me to be making fun of the way we call things either "beautiful" or "abstract"; for all the sophisticated and nuanced reasons critics, theologians and agents of intrigue approach the subject, the competing philosophies all fall short, far short of articulating something truly tangible. The irony is that the embodiment of all this speculation, the lexicon-heavy guesswork to a thing's essence, is not aware that it is beautiful, abstract, or is somehow an embodiment of a set of ideas that are meant to change the world. The parrot fish isn't even aware that it's a parrot fish, which is entirely the point--it is too busy being part of the rest of the underworld. Unlike human beings, who are continually trying to separate themselves from nature so that they may subjugate it a little more

Thrive as we might, we are lost in our self-consciousness and cherish the sort of autonomy one might perceive in the creatures swimming their currents, inhabiting their niches, living survival and death in the same fluttering of a gill. But beyond this, Yang streamlines his erudition--these aren't lectures, these are lyrics that are broadened or collapsed as the idea determines. An admirable effort by a writer with a composer's ability to embrace the ambiguity of form with a coherence of flow.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sometimes two is better

Another controversy involving Vladimir Nabokov is about to ensue, Slate magazine's Ron Rosenbaum informs is, when his publisher issues a stand alone publication of the titular poem from the novel Pale Fire. More than a few tempers will flair, more than a few words will be shot over the figurative bow.The controversy from a few years ago, involving the publication of the index cards comprising the first draft of the unfinished The Original of Laura, is different than the impending ado over releasing the poem from the novel Pale Fire by itself. One wasn't even a finished piece of writing, something that had existed as reed thin sketches that might later be fleshed into a work worthy of Nabokov's esteemed reputation.

I was among those argued for the destruction of the "manuscript", such as it was; I suspected that the endeavor was to compel us to further stress our credit limits and credibility in the same instance, to make money on slim offerings and, indeed, to see the Nabokov faithful fawn and fall over themselves raising the skeletal notes to absurd levels of desperate praise. The issue was that I am generally against the posthumous publication of rough drafts by famous writers; I generally assume that there is a good reason why the works weren't published in the author's life time. A good writer would know when they 're writing with less than a full tank of gas. An interest in an unpublished manucript is warrented, I think, provided that the tome is, more or less, a complete work , or in a state of near-completion; though lacking the fnal grace notes a note late writer might have provided, the finessing that creates the signature tone, it remains a fairer idea in comparing the posthumous publication with the ouvre that came was produced during an author's productive years. The Original of Laura, though, is rather too skeletal an artifact . Considering a finished work, as a few critics have done, borders on literary necrophilia.

The new issue is something different, as the poem in Pale Fire, titled "Pale Fire", is a strong work on it's own terms, separate from the meta-narrative that surrounds it. It highlights the writer's brilliance with English--the flowing musicality, the lyric wordplay, the seduction of the senses that gives lust and obsession a rationale, a heartbeat. No one, I suspect , would be embarrassed by reading the poem as a stand alone object. I think this could the start of a interest exercise in meta-texting; Kinbote's annotations to the fictional Shade's epic are themselves a poetics based on the assumptions of a inquisitor who's credentials , it turns out, are fictional, and that the whole novel turns out to be a a tightly knot of considerations premised, it seems, on what the commentator needed to exorcise. The poem published by itself could be reinterpreted by a generation of new critics intrigued with the prospect of reviving a form of Freudian criticism, investigating ideas on the supposition that Nabokov was engaging issues he wasn't aware of on the waking level. And it's not as if the original novel is being replaced by the unchained poem--it will be available as long as readers care about how beautiful, sly, musical, sexy, and hilarious prose can be .

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I like loud and distorted guitar the old school way,in the form of jamming power trios, those guitar-bass-drums shoot outs where the downbeats started at debated counts and the length of improvised middle section was undetermined and unpredictable. Improvisation, riffing, vamping, monochromatic chord mongering, the center portions of this species of spontaneous noise took it's stylistic cue from several generations of black American blues geniuses and took their clear, elegantly expressed formulations of anger, pain , dread and joy and tweaked the pentatonic elements to a narrowed strain of white male rage, performed at volume levels beyond endurance levels , with the nimble, simple, eloquent rhythms and solo configurations of guitar , harmonica, banjo being replaced with a waves of distorted notes bent to their furthermost pitch of emotional credibility.

It was perfect for the smoky ballrooms I went to in the late 60's, where the likes of Cream, Blue Cheer, Sir Lord Baltimore and Mountain belched, groaned and assaulted a beleaguered audience of addled brains with their instrumental abuse; on some nights the commotion and clamor reminded you more of a demolition derby instead of a unique engagement with a fleeting muse. Impact was more important than configuration.

There was joy when , in Detroit where I lived, I came upon the MC5 and the Stooges. The 5 were every car Detroit had manufactured being tossed off the top of the Penobscot, the tallest building in down; they had a speed and power only the fury of a accumulating gravity could provide, and half the fun of watching these guys batter, abuse and flail their instruments while the wiggled and wrenched themselves in hip-thrusting deliriums was the expectation of their metaphorical car crashing, smashing into the hard, metal strewn concrete below.

The Stooges were, on the other hand, the guitar that was tossed off with a violent fling at a bad rehearsal and left on, still plugged into the amp, humming and crackling the whole night; Ron Ashton's guitar work was perfect, imperfect, with a wood-chipper rhythm, a perfect three and two chord background for Iggy Pop, who's psycho-sexual explorations into the outer areas of teenage impatience would make you think of a zombies severed arm. It still twitches across the blood, the hand is still making grasping motions for your neck, you realize that even death cannot stop this force that requires your attention.

Nothing doing in anyhow town

Perhaps we should use our Internet like it were a telephone; use as needed, but only in helping us navigate the community we live in or the communities we might visit. Hard to do, though, as in the death of book stores and record stores displays; a good many of us prefer spending our money from our desktops rather than go to town. Going into a shopping center used to be a useful time killer, an activity that had attractions other than the assortment of utility -based commerce,like drug stores, hardware stores, supermarkets; one could browse a bookstore shelves and decide what to take home after inspecting the completeness of scattered topic territories, you could listen to and buy music at a record store and perhaps experience new ways of making melody and improvising on a theme that hadn't yet been in your experience, you could see a movie at a theatre and maybe, just maybe be privy to a foreign release on the aggressive cognoscenti are aware of.

Movie theatres are hanging onto their turf in the public sphere, of course, but there is less reason to dwell , walk around, to visit the town center further. It was recently like this, when I worked as an agent at a call center for an Internet company, who had their headquarters in a new industrial park on the far fringe of the developed land in North San Diego County. I would take the bus to the mall nearest the complex and would then walk for fifteen minutes to take my seat in front of phone console, waiting for the first irate client to call in. It used to be that every mall I went into had a Wherehouse or a Tower Records, a Walden or a Doubleday Bookstore; now it's empty windows covered in long , brown sheets of butcher paper, kiosks selling sunglasses and cell phones, clothing , bath, and electronic stores with one, maybe two browsers per store, if they were lucky, with no sales being closed by hapless sales clerks. There was nothing , nothing at all I wanted to buy, nothing I wanted to see, nothing in the name of anything interesting I wanted to inspect, pick up, make mine, even if I had the time.

Walking to the office building where I worked, down those long, wide avenues with cars by the hundreds heading for the freeway, away from the city, was more inviting than killing time where the spirit of life had been murdered.  In short order, I would have my headset on, talking to people who listened to Rush Limbaugh responding to an ad he'd just read on the air, an offer they couldn't refuse. Credit card in hand, they wanted to make an order with me, or complain in technicolor language about an order they placed with someone else wearing a head set like mine. Life had gotten smaller, lazier, and  small wonder that it seems everything we thought was certain is now a pile of platitudes and the recrimination of morons; we can't get in our cars, get on our bikes, get on a bus and spend our dwindling resources in the town we live in; mean people are too lazy to harass the hired help in person.

It's pathetic.

Friday, July 23, 2010

God is an argument waiting to happen

In a poem that dealt , somewhat, with God and theology, I made reference to God's best ideas being "cloud bound"; a conservative on the board where I posted the verse took exception and proceeded to say all sorts of nasty things. This is a little bit of that  exchange.

Wherever did you read about God being "cloud-bound"? Name one book stating this.

One cannot believe that you’re this much of a pop-culture illiterate. The popularized conception of in mass-culture is that God is in Heaven, and Heaven is in the sky, i.e., the clouds. It’s an image and an idea that is inseparable from the way we think, in the short form, of He who we call Lord. It’s in our literature, our poems, paintings, cartoons, and our movies. Ever see “The Horn Blows at Midnight” starring Jack Benny as an earth-locked angel? Rent it, since it is an amusing comedy utilizing the popular notion that Heaven, with God in it, is in the clouds. Really, Cal, are you actually this obtuse?

God commands us to "love one another" and obey the Golden Rule," and you adduce to Him bulliness?

. The God of the Old Testament was a bitter, cranky, vengeful deity, a bully in other words, and the message of the God we discover in the New Testament essentially demands that we serve his purpose and plans for Humankind lest we be judged and condemned to horrible, eternal punishment. He makes threats , in other words, and this is bullying behavior however you dress it up with transparent words like “love” and “sacrifice”.

Are you a Christian, and are these YOUR PERSONAL points of view?

Christian by birth and culture, but not a doctrinaire worshipper. God gave us minds to use, and it’s my guess that He , being God, isn’t in need of his self-esteem reinforced with coerced praise, and isn’t the sort of deity to threaten us with eternal damnation unless we play His grubby game of Theological Monopoly. My guess would further to say that this God of my understanding is likely bored with that whole business and thinks there more useful, creative ways to fill eternity . These are my views, but the ideas aren’t new. Inspiration comes by way of Soren Kierkegaard , Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Bill Wilson and Norman Mailer. The way the ideas are expressed are my words, though, based on my experience.


a glass of water

a pretense of rain

several men in a public bathroom stall

women named Jessee naming animals

toast, hot, buttered

no fuzzy dice

television with no sound

a handsome face moving its lips

no indirect route

a passenger seat

a broken window

the rock that broke the window.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

INCEPTION: sleep aid

Inception was a colossal strain on my attention span , as was director Chris Nolan's previous film The Dark Knight. Both the films were well mounted and the available budgets were well used--as they say, you could "see the money on the screen"--but Nolan mistakes plot confusion and ambiguity for some variant of poetic ellipsis; some issues are unresolved, or forgotten about, it seems, as the crowded confines of I and DK pile on the dialogue, the mid-chase explanations, the chaotic , jagged cuts between parallel scenes. The plot concerns of Inception are the stuff that made Phillip K.Dick such a brilliant, if harried science fiction writer; Leonardo DiCaprio as a high tech industrial spy who has the skill and technology to enter a subject's mind during sleep and extract professional secrets for business rivals. The problematic point , though, is that he's haunted by the death of his wife, who's image keeps appearing in the dreamscape he and his team construct to fool the sleeping subject. She is the ghost that follows the team leader in whatever scenario he concocts-- her appearences no good.

Nor do they bode well for cohesive story telling; after a splendid first thirty minutes in which the viewer is landed in the middle of the action--a tasty variation of the James Bond tuxedo-ed assassin ploy--the film chokes on back stories, flashbacks, and stretches of dialogue that seek to contextualize the hurried scenes.

Had the film been a leaner, less cluttered tale, attempting, as it does, the sort of convoluted layering a competent commercial novel might have, Inception might have been an intelligent adventure film: issues of love, morality, political economy, redemption could have been discussed in conjunction with concurrent action. The abstract (a conventional set of ethical challenges , really) would have been realized cogently in the narrative flow. The movie, though, stops again and again and yet again with a flashback, an extended pause in the momentum, so DiCaprio can discuss his feelings, make a another emotional breakthrough.

Confusion and ambiguity were the working idea behind Momento, and to the degree that Nolan conceived his idea and worked through the variations of a memory-impaired man attempting to advance a plan of vengence in a present he couldn't keep in mind, it worked splendidly, wonderfully. The film had an ironic twist--a real one, not one of those cookie cutter conclusions that wallow in the irresolution of a conflict--which made the fractured plot coherent, finally,and illustrated consequences beyond what the hero or the villians could imagine.The various scenarios at play in Inception, though were, of themselves , simple enough, but Nolan's problem was pacing and, sorry to say, the inability to make the characters connect with a believable emotion. The film was rather frantically edited , and the cutting between the three dreamscapes in the last third of the film were long in duration. The effect on this viewer was a loss of interest in a mission who's impetus was more hysterical than urgent. 

All this makes Christopher Nolan a lead-footed action director who is intent on turning the pleasures of pulp genres into think pieces and talky existential dioramas. Economy is the key, of course, and decisiveness is the quality needed the most; conviction about the genre your using to get your narrative ideas across. A fresh idea would have helped , though, or at least a fresh approach on using old ones; Inception has deep echos of The Matrix, Heat and Solaris during it's length, the result being an interesting, if tedious distortion of what seems to have started out as an interesting idea.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

poets reviewing poets!

We now have a new form, circle--modernism. It's been bad enough that we've had to suffer a generation of dull poets writing poems about poetry (PAP) where the subject seems to be either the poet as sensitive being channeling the variety of vibes that the rest of us cannot discern, or the inability of poetry to "get" at the exactness of the moment. Now we have writing in praise of writing about poetry. 

There is a good amount of log rolling here, with more than a clutch of poets intent on not giving away the game on which careers and reputations are built on, but one does admire the adroit skill that gets applied to the least interesting of the least tangible poems. What is even more interesting is that a good amount of the essays exclaiming the value of these poets under nominal review don't actually explain how the poets are successful at their tasks; more often we get an examination as to the poet's intention, and then a long run in eloquence describing results that I , for one, rarely witness.

 I ought not generalize too much poets remarking on the work of other poets, since there is a difference between actual criticism-- evaluation based on close inspection--and the sort of careerist suck-upping one finds on the back of new books. There is the idea that some wag had put forwarded about poets who put forth their own theories about they and their associates do; the theory is more interesting than the poetry it discusses. It is, often enough, more poetic.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hamlet's Ghost Catches the Late Train

Alan Shapiro tries to drop us in some one's thoughts midstream in Wherever My Dead Go When I'm Not Remembering Them , an attempt, I gather , to show us what a mind doing casual housekeeping when the ruling personality isn't focused observing himself being poetic. There is impatience here, the anxiety of the wait : the narrator cannot be engage the world as he would wish, to exert a measure of will on to his stage. The imperatives of free will, imagination, self-definition , following of one's bliss are for a time suspended, or at least irrelevant because our figure is here waiting for a train that will take him some other place he needs to be; this is a schedule not his own and this leaves him virtually nothing to engage but his own thoughts , inspired by the scene of the wait, the grind and mechanized stutter of the city the whirrs determindedly past him. The idea is an attractive one, I guess, the conceit of what a personality, normally fitted for turning their life's experience into miniaturized melodramas, would do in the off hours, when the mind is "off duty".

Impatience , though, implies something  like  film maker jump cuts, the jagged, abrupt , yammerng intrusion of one thought upon another, the overlay of images and opinions, the irrational mixing of personal history and visual detail from the present moment: the effect should be one similar to walking into a room where radio, CD players, televisions, internet and cell phones are all blaring at once, at full volume, with the same shrill , monotonous insistence. Shapiro's poem sags under the weight of a conventional narrative construction, weighed down with a string of specifics that kill the sensation:

Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stone
of living tissue it can quicken from;
or the dried–up channel and the absent current;
or maybe it's like a subway passenger
on a platform in a dim lit station late
at night between trains, after the trains have stopped—
ahead only the faintest rumbling of
the last one disappearing, and behind
the dark you're looking down for any hint
of light—where is it? why won't it come? You
wandering now along the yellow line,
restless, not knowing who you are, or where,
until you see it; there it is, at last
approaching, and you hurry to the spot
you don't know how you know is marked
for you, and you alone, as the door slides open
into your being once again my father,
my sister or brother, as if nothing's changed,
as if to be known were the destination.
Where are we going? What are we doing here?
You don't ask, you don't notice the blur of stations
we're racing past, the others out there watching
in the dim light, baffled,
who for a moment thought the train was theirs.

This is more an impatient explanation by the poet of what he was trying to do with the poem than it is an a particular set of impressions of standing alone on a train station platform as thoughts invade awareness and then recede. The not so faint shadow of Hamlet attempting to speak to the ghost of his slain father isn't far off, and the poem suggests that a good many of us have incomplete conversations with our dead parents or spouses that we find ourselves conducting when the real world obligations are, for the moment, done with. But for all the emphasis on what rattles in the brain when it's tired and feeling rushed, the poem doesn't convince me. The writing sounds rushed, though, and in fact feels more like a convenient and easy to contrive self-dramatization than anything composed with assurance.

Where is the feeling of the world falling in? The nausea of the ground giving way under your feet? The lightheadedness when , in public, a host of repressed emotion and unresolved issues press upon you suddenly, severely, mercilessly? What's missing is the alienation effect, the familiar "made strange", in Bakhtin's phrase; the trains, the buildings, the cars passing by should be bereft of their normal assurances, including the easily conveyed sense of melancholy; this is a world that should seem, at least for the moment, possessed and defined by the dead. Shapiro, however, uses them as props instead to reinforce a conventional poetic sensibility, and misses a chance to write something genuinely strange and memorable.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Birthday Note

Today marks my 58th year on the planet, another way of saying that it's my birthday, and there is less reflection on how I've spent my years than before, replaced, I suppose, but a low-murmuring astonishment that I'm still here, breathing, writing, whining, celebrating, arguing , laughing along with the rest of the community. It's not that I'm about to go soft in the head and the heart and profess reams of  steamy, flatulent prose about being grateful and such--even when I understand the awesomeness of an occasion, confessions of unending thanks make me instinctively--but I would like to briefly remark that at one point in my life I didn't expect to live this long. Good fortune intervened in my travels, however, and one might say that I am over two decades past what I expected to live until; that fact still astonishes me , the profundity of the fact has never escaped my thinking. It's in view of this fact that I go forward with what little real humility I have , secure in the knowledge that the miracle that I might have been waiting for in the past has already happened, and ,indeed, continues to unfold.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

School of Defeatitude

"Wissahickon Schist" by Karl Kirchwey is a poem that practically brags about it's failure as a poem. The brutal upshot is that the poet is not able to complete his self assigned task of bearing unaffected witness to a natural situation.The poet ponders the nature of nature and starts to write a line to crystallize his emerging perception and then stops, catching himself in the act of attempted epiphany, realizing at some point that for all the skills with words he's attained in many years of reading , they alone cannot avail him the unattainable essence of things before.So he stops writing, stares at the formations around him, the birds in their habitats, the plants and their reactions to the changing weather and realizes what it is he is missing. And later, turning himself into a second person "you", writes a poem about being overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of the nature he was trying to make even more extraordinary.

Ergo, another poem about poetry, or worse, a poem about being not being able to write a poem; this is a poem about the writer's impotence to get to the heart of the things that make up his world, those things no human , motivated by imagination and the imperatives of free will, had a hand in designing, constructing, arranging in situ. The imagination is reserved, finally, for creating a mythology for how all these things arrived in the states and ethereal essences that are their allure--the narratives of what is already visible, complete, and unto themselves. Myths, poems, epic dramas used to be the way we explained to ourselves the formations, disruptions, and inevitable continuity of the world, that a creation of metaphorical structures could link us to a grand design greater than ourselves; our task was to abide by the revealed law of the poetically evoked and make our place within the narration.

Science , though, has hollowed out the myth, made the metaphors mechanical, reduced mystery to the level of the lost cell phone we will eventually find if we look hard enough. We know the connections between natural phenomenon, we realize the power of metaphor exists only in the arenas where the concrete facts and their theories are unknown, unimagined. So the metaphors are empty and the poet realizes he has no power to contain even the contents of his perception, and he stops writing and seeks rather to vanish back into the library to lick his wounds with another poem that confirms the sheer futility of being a poet in the first place. This poem is a stinker, a dishonest, whining stinker.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pulp Fiction yellows

Tarantino fatigue has set in ; what made him hip now makes him seem like a gimmick prone stylist living up to fan expectations; I think of good amount of Fellini when the subject of Quentin arises. Is destined to make a million motion pictures  the contents are familiar to the point of contempt?  There is a strong chance, unless Hollywood runs out of money first. Even Pulp Fiction, his best effort, seems dog eared  just as Citizen Kane seems over stuffed.  PB movie will hang around Tarantino's head for as long as he lives because it will be regarded, always, as the best thing he's ever done. It remains a powerful film for the most part, full of wicked laughs and and re-convolutions of seamy paperback action novels, but it does shows it's age. The dialogue is something... else altogether, but does anyone really think he's done better than the Master, Elmore Leonard?The dialogue ,as such, are extended riffs divorced from the violence and action, a sort of virtuosity that is more obtrusive than revealing; the beauty of pulp fiction was that its minimalist discussions, compact, jargon filled, quirky and redolent in references that suggested a sub culture beyond the melodrama of ...the basic plot, were models of sledge hammer concision. The dialogue here merely stalls, stops, occupies time like it were a waiting room. Seeing these characters again go on about the differences in burger joints between Amsterdam and America, the finer points of foot massage and revenge, on changing one's way of life due to a revealed miracle, makes you wish something would happen that was gratuitous and without justification. Anything to get on with it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Coen entropy

As usual with Coen Brothers films, The Man Who Wasn't There is visually stunning, and has its share of odd touches and sublime moments that set the film makers from the rest of the herd . I think it's the least interesting of their movies, though. The varying elements of a James Cain flavored noir thriller filtered through Camus-toned existentialism and the zany insertion of UFOs makes me think of bright guys brain storming against deadline; much of the meaning of Coen Brothers movies is open ended and deferred, but this film just couldn't merge the oddities. Billy Bob Thorton, though, needs special credit for maintaining his granite faced deadpan in a film full of eagerly demonstrative actors. And his flat effect is so consistent and untouched by a hint of actorly style that you would swear that his chain smoking is a real life death wish.

Gallagher , foamy and bitter

Gallagher is that sledgehammer wielding comedian who smashed watermelons between dry-heaving rants and bad jokes . Not a few of us considered him the rankest of all the post-George Carlin comedians, an energetic yet grating presence who's demented insistence that you pay attention to him was never mitigated with a real laugh. It was nervousness, actually, an anxiety -induced set of giggles disguising  the obvious desire to have him return to the clinic he has a day pass from.

Now we find out from Salon that the comedian has turned into a right wing hate monger. He has found new things to smash with that sledge, ie, Obama, lesbians, Muslims, illegal immigrants, the unemployed.  Who would have thought the Tea Baggers would need yet another comedian to mouth their confused crib sheet of screaming points?

Gallagher always seemed like he had a lifetime supply of bus tokens to Crazy Town even when he was  in the mainstream of American comedy. Now that he's a foaming hate monger only makes him a more grotesque version of what's always been, an odd, strident, unfunny attention seeker. He is the guy we all know who wants to be famous no matter what it takes; smashing watermelons used to do it, and now he thinks he's upped his game by bringing talk radio into his repertoire. I suppose he's maneuvering to replace Dennis Miller on Fox News as their resident hack comedian yock monger, or perhaps a position on Andrew Breitbart's board of policy advisors. Should he get a job with Breitbart, I hope he can adapt to the company uniform, clown shows and a big red nose.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"Going to Zero" by Peter Balakian

Going to Zero is a poem that contains a familiar echo, a trace of another poet.My guess is that author Peter Balakian takes his cue from Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died", another narrative about a man making his way through New York City:

The Day Lady Died
by Frank O'Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.
This is New York City from the eyes, ears and walking feet of a man who knows the city and loves the many distractions and cluttered blocks of relentless activity, the commotion and hustle to get from one place to another. It is, of course, a poem of some knowledge and emotional response being contained under the surface, but when he arrives at the 5 Spot and listens to Mal Waldron open up on the piano, all the facts hit him in a hard rush. Billie Holiday, the singer who's experience-cracked voice could unlock the buried emotions of listeners all over the world, has died sadly, and O'Hara's response, deferred in the noise and hustle of city life, comes at him at last, as Mal Waldron plays, the truth comes out; he cannot listen to his beloved jazz quite the same as he had . (I; had the pleasure of listening to Mal Waldron perform live--he is an outstanding musician).

Balakian's narrative is longer, the effect is more accumulative than O'Hara's grief epiphany. There is the same set of distractions and sights the poet travels through to his destination, but while O'Hara seemed to be trying to sustaining a buoyant optimism, the events in Balakian's line are shaded with hints of a gathering melancholy, a sad state of affairs about to be revealed:

wanted to buy the Frankenthaler, a modest, early print,
minimal, monochromatic; surface and perspective in dialogue;
on 24th off 10th –the gallery still smelled like wood and plaster—

but I didn't stop, and when the train reached the Stock Exchange
the Yom Kippur streets were quiet, and the bronze statue of Washington
was camouflaged by national guard. I was walking my old mail route now
like a drunk knocking into people, almost hit by a cab
until the roped-off streets cut me at the arm.

It's hard to take in the sites and attractions of a city when you happen upon the site of the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history. There is numbness, a nagging sense that all the galleries, restaurants and marvels of classical architecture that New York City is famous for are no longer significant in dimensions that make our humanity seem insignificant, a lust shared by Ayn Rand and Albert Speers
At Broadway and Liberty

the fences wound around the bursts of dust rising
over the cranes and bulldozers, over the punched-out windows—
I stared through a piece of rusted grid that stood like a gate to the crystal river.
I was sweating in my sweatshirt now, the hood filling with soot,

as I watched with others drinking Cokes and eating their pizza of disbelief.
Zero began with the Sumerians who made circles with hollow reeds
in wet clay and baked them for posterity.

At Broadway and Liberty. At 20 floors charred and standing.
At miasma people weeping. Anna's Nail Salon, Diakichi Sushi,
the vacant shops, stripped clean in the graffiti of dust-coated windows.

Something blasted from a boom box in a music store,
something, in the ineffable clips of light,
disappeared over the river.

In another context "pizzas of disbelief" would be a perfect phrase to use when ironic whimsy is the mood, but it fits here beautifully, a skillful detail illustrating the silent, choking grief as the process of cleaning up the carnage of ground zero proceeds; the chaotic clamour and ecstatic in-your-face atmospherics that make O'Hara's New York so appealing from the outset of his poem, until the brilliant timed emotional collapse of the last line, becomes, in Balakian's poem, the groan, crash and hammering of a city laboring to bring itself together after an unimaginable calamity; the life of the city goes on after the loss of thousands of lives because it has to, and amid the cramped genius that is New York City a collective despair falls on those day timers who watch in various states of lingering shock. The mania of "The Day Lady Died", but without the ecstatic propulsion brings to his mean streets; O'Hara gives a picture of himself when he isn't poised or positioned to the talkative life of the party continually ranting about the genius that live in Manhattan. His shell has cracked, and even the sweetness of city life cannot keep him aloft. Balakian's narrator, I think, isn't trying to sustain any illusion of being up or feeling honored to be in a world class city--all else is scenery and distraction that must fade from concern until one contemplates the very air that incredibly, brutally changed around them.

Yes, one might say, we are clawing our way from under this rubble, but where are we going?