Thursday, June 26, 2014

IN OUR TIME, part one

Fifty years after the death of Ernest Hemingway, a curious reader still has to hack their way through the thick foliage of bluster, posturing and self parody that remains a strong part of the late Nobel Prize Winner's legacy. I came across Hemingway originally after I discovered Norman Mailer's collection of essays, "The Presidential Papers", and in my growing obsession with Mailer's brilliantly self-declaring sentences I made note of his own obsession with both Hemingway's style and philosophy. In pursuit, I purchased a couple of the author's books and sought what had made Mailer a conflicted partisan of the man's approach to writing; what I found was something else altogether: a crow in a tree with a machine gun.

Monday, June 23, 2014

They left us hanging on.

Man oh man, what a band. Vanilla Fudge was a band of  competent musicians who came up with one good production, their inspired production of "You Keep Me Hanging On". It was an inspired move to slow down the Supremes' most jacked-up hit . Instead of the ringing -telephone shrillness of the original, this became instead a mock-fugue, building tension and releasing it effectively erotic explosions. 

Sometimes I still thrash around the living room with this song in my head, miming Vince Martel's clanging power chords with broad sweeps of my hand. VF's arrangement of this song became the standard approach for the most part; Rod Stewart did a credible take of his that borrowed heavily from the Fudge's initial recasting.

 Sadly, though, the band relied too much on that one idea, too often. Their songs, original or reinterpretations, tended to be dirge like and down right pompous, dullsville , a drag. And their album "The Beat Goes On" beat Yes to the punch , producing the single most pretentious and bombastic concept album years before the British band mustered up that three disc Hindenburg they titled "Tales from Topographic Ocean." Vanilla Fudge has a mixed legacy, but the one thing they did well, the storm and thunder that comprises their version of "You Keep Me Hanging On", they did brilliantly. It is a thing forever and so few of us accomplish that even in our most inflated fantasies.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

This Poem makes me think of no poem in particular

This poem makes me think of coming back late from a party in the late 70's and discovering that the phone has been off the hook for a least half the day. To this day I wonder who might have called, what good news or ill omens they might have had to tell me, what my  life might have been like if I left the phone on the hook, had been home to pick up the receiver as the  ringing filled the apartment with its clanging sonata of anxiety, if I had only  scraped together the coin to buy a Radio Shack answering machine. Those of of us with nerves even the sniffling drivel of bad poets at sparsely attended open readings cannot rattle know the anxiety of the phone off the hook, the screaming, whining, whirling sirens of hell filling an empty room from shag carpet to cob webbed ceiling corner, satanic variations within the monochromatic scale, bristling fingers on a blackboard amplified with Glen Branca's Fender Twin Reverb, a sonic variety of nerve gas that is nothing less than the hungry ID demanding more pie, or that you bake one right now if no slices remain. 

This  poem is sound intended to kill appetites and interest in community affairs; all one needs are books from which to paraphrase metaphors and contextualize the evidence of one's life until there are only footnotes and marginalia where a pulse used to be. There is the scraping of fingertips across a page of paper irritating to the touch, there is a click, a rattle in one's throat as instinct commands you to say something to void the emptiness, but there is only phlegm, a congealed incoherence suitable for a celebrity wedding. This poem is a compost heap of vowels and their modifiers that was left in back of the garage in the wan hope that they'd be rich with meaning by the time spring air altered the way clouds form on the morning and evening horizons. Often enough we write things down so we would have ad libs and occasional poems to utter when the plumbing groans and the siren rhyme of the cold water streaming to tub and basin obscures the pleasant voice of a lover you remember through the concrete of missing minutes in the day.  
This poem is like that noise, a constant string of phrases that are a constant noise textured with static and prickly heat. I would prefer to listen to someone continually busting open the Velcro fly on their old Members Only jacket. I imagine the being someone who would find placing his thumb on an old record turntable to be great fun, a reminder to himself and a warning to the world that entropy trumps ambition, needless ejaculations of fear and panic beat a massage and after dinner sex. 

This poem is finally about itself, not who ever he might have been addressing in whatever simulation of a life there is on the other side of his apartment door; we cannot, of course, escape the prison house of language, but there is a point where self reflexivity is merely a dodge, a distraction that we have yet another poet who is tone deaf to the art of collage, cannot construct an ear worthy pastiche, is unwilling to abandon the disguises and borrowed phonics and consider his future as an author of writing with uneven line breaks. This poem is the test pattern staring at you after you come out of a black out. The national anthem has been played and the stadium is empty, like this poem.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Simple grace
would do the trick
if there was anything
simple about grace.

I've tried drinking soft drinks
perched like an ill bird on a limb, but there is
as much spill as thrill
as the horizon teeters
and telephone poles
out number tree tops
of likely places to land.

Walking on glass and hot coals
likewise get me nowhere near the center of things
where all the tension is released from my muscles,
the headaches abate, and my appetite returns.

You asked me once
what made me happy
and i imagined
an empty glass and
 calendars stacked in the attic
next to the noise makers and paper slippers.

Your eyes, i said, your eyes
make me happy, the blue and green pools
i fell into when i lifted my head from
books, magazines, airport novels,
when i turned my face from
the television
and saw you writing letters,
talking on the phone,
staring out the window
to what might over the hill,
the tree tops, imagining who makes their way home
and pays what's come due
'though the world seems
to dissolve like
sugar wafers dipped
Where was the grace we wanted,
walking between bullet streams and falling bricks to the end of the day
where ever after
was a calendar without pages?

On the other side of the street,
a bike chained to a bus stop signed,waiting for its master
for as long as it takes.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Emily Nussbaum: The Shallowness of “True Detective” : The New Yorker

Emily Nussbaum: The Shallowness of “True Detective” : The New Yorker:
HBO's first season sensation "True Detective" is old news by now, but one of the wonders of the internet is that old news items don't simply vanish as they did back in the days of print. Scanning Google for some news on what the  second season of TD might contain, I came across Emily Nussbaum's negative review in last March's New Yorker. As the show has had magnanimous praise from critics high, low and middle, her sour take was an oddity, for me at least. I read  with interest, and she has some points that needed to be made. Briefly, though, EN overplayed her objections.I was nodding when she making her point, but the objections seemed rather conventional. She objects to dead females and shallow naked females, and I can see her point, but the world these two guys are weighing into isn't a pristine , serene paradise, it's ugly, insane, full of the kind of carnal vice and exploitation she is objecting to. I think she is just being a scold.

 And she thinks that Rust's quotable nihiilst philosophizing is trite and premium baloney; I wouldn't argue against that, but this is a television drama, not an ethics lecture, and if Rust's declarations don't hold up under interrogation by professional philosophers, too bad for the philosophers, as that would be a blatant case of missing the point. The point, I submit, is entertainment of a high degree, which True Detective provides.Also, EN is upset that the show is really only about two characters, Rust and Marty, and that it is not an ensemble piece; I submit that good ensemble work requires a more open ended format, a longer season, certainly, and of course, multiple seasons for complexities and interactions of the characters to come to satisfying fruition. This show is a short novel, a James Cain/Hammett/Jim Thompson tale that is terse, sweet, complex in it's compact utility; creator and writer Nic Pizzolato's decision to focus on the the lives of two unlike detectives in the course of their involvement with the case is a smart one; he is getting a good amount of  plausible narrative complexity and nuance from the two of them. It's a smart creative decision.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Crude Hangovers

Sandwich Notch Road, Two Days Before Christmas
John Evans

 On dirt roads
with good friends
the names come back all at once.
with good friends  the names come back all at once. with good friends  the names come back all at once.No one I know  who lives without deep sorrow.  No one ever  really finished with desire. The soft animal of my body  does not love  what it has learned. How could it? I wind constantly  the fragile timepiece of another life.No set hour.  No luck.  No path  that doesn't eventually double back. Wanting to live  after your death  is like waking  in an empty room:  too much space. All day I sleep off  the crude hangover. .
I like this poem in theory , as it satisfies my current interest in poems that have a sparer, even skeletal structure, but Evans could have done something global here. What it does with the localization of grief--the stunned incredulity, the trudging past familiar and unfamiliar things--works well enough, but it seems to stop short. In fact, it stops right at the point when there's an opportunity for the narrator to make caste some lines of the world at large, in this time of grief, seeming spectacularly irrelevant:
Wanting to live
after your death
is like waking
in an empty room:
too much space.
I love this analogy because it hints at the seeming futility of our desires and goals when the worst thing finally happens, that the petty, homemade philosophies that gave us comfort and a sense of continuity through a chaotic world are flimsy premises once the unavoidable fact of death encroaches on one's most intimate sphere of association. This could have been a spare, concise King Lear moment, where a few lean stanzas describing the tone and mood of the universe after the bad news is learned and being processed could have brought a deeper, icier sense of psychic remove. It's not that Evans needed to add an onslaught of language to expand his view, but one does get the feeling that he was just getting warmed up before pushing his wits to another set of consideration; the entire poem reads like a set up that ends unconvincingly. Evans follows up his rich metaphor of comparing of living beyond your time to waking up in an empty room with a sign off that is quick and cliché,
All day I sleep off
the crude hangover.
There is, to be sure, the suggestion that the narrator sought a temporary death through an aggrieved drinking binge, that he wanted to blot out and remove an accumulating mass of emotion that will inevitably overwhelm him and that this fits in neatly with the previous image, but it is cheap disservice to an evocative phrase. There is a point where the vocabulary could have expanded, swelled just a bit, that the metaphors could have gone beyond the tics and aches of the narrator's hangovers and dulled senses and demonstrated the external world at large, pieced together by senses that are deranged with sorrow.

I suspect Evans submitted these poems for publication too soon. While I like the style of the poem, it seems tentative; where he presents an interesting springboard to some inspired metaphors, he stops and this, I think, is the poem's failure. In the two poems you present, he is a bit more talky, and he edges closer to monologue, to prose, instead of poetry; they remind of the leaden open pages of Rick Moody's overwrought, hand wringing novel Purple America, a string of run on misery that irritated me rather than feel sympathy for the man who must know care for his aging mother. 

Evans, I suspect, is still too close to his material. I am a fan of ambiguity in poems and I rail against the idea that a poetic narratives , by necessity, be a righteously crafted thing that is a finished product, self contained, which ties up the loose ends of a poem tidily the way a situation comedies end with a episode concluding laugh line. I think Evans is obliged to be honest to his emotional progression and leave this story unfinished; otherwise it merely becomes another Lifetime movie of the week. What I didn't like was the convenient, easy, lazy bit about recovering from a hangover; it does not sound earned. Hence, I wanted more from this poem; it was building credibly, and then he stopped at the point when I think he should have pushed further. The poem is premature, I think; he should have set it aside and come back after some days had passed.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

No More Songs, a song by Phil Ochs

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his previous album, the ironically titled "Greatest Hits." Ochs had taken, late in his career, in dressing up in a gold lame suit and famously told a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution and that that wouldn't have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara.  Ochs, who was a deeply romantic in the belief that Great Men with Great Ideas can change the world for the better and who was likewise an alcoholic and a man who was prone to given to depressions that became deeper as he grew older, seemed to be writing a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships. Ochs did, in fact,  take his own life in 1975.

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone

And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it's time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he's dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called "Upbeat," hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubblegum rock and pop-soul bands who performed bad lip-sync renditions of their regional hits songs. The DJ knew enough about Ochs to see that he was a protest singer by trade and mentioned that with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt by the US and North Vietnamese Government to end the Vietnam War, the otherwise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said he hoped for the best and then performed "No More Songs" live on acoustic. I remember this being one of the few songs that made me haunted me and continued to haunt me for decades. At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet, someone who could easily be the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, writers of abnormal mental activity that they were compelled to write their demons into verse form in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls, a project, it's been suggested, is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without means to grow stronger and find hope and sunlight. It's been recommended as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one's own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was how a poet of this description achieves their reputation and legitimacy as a poet. The concept--aesthetic worth judged by the fulfillment of a personal death wish--repulsed me when I was studying 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality and every sensation this skin we have has us subject to. 

I didn't read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance anyone's preferences as an arbitrary standard each poet, painter, writer, the dancer had to live up to; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, it manifested its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence, and it was under no requirement to make our lives better,  let alone save our selves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone's fate is their own and no one else's. Most live more or less everyday lives, where ever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just....doomed, in some respect. Again, I am reminded of Harold Bloom's assertion that literature's only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world,  the quality of being nothing more nor less than human, struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality.