Friday, January 29, 2016

Nothing to say about nothing at all

Elise Partridge’s sparse poem “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” , is a telling verse of someone trying to remember the precise word to describe the slightest detail of the slightest thing and feeling as a result the mild dread that a part of themselves has gone away, vanished as would nameless leaves in a stream rushing toward a storm drain. Her language is crisp, brittle, but there is a power in the skeletal telling that more robust rhetoric would merely have blunted with their compounded comparisons; Partridge has something here akin to an artist sketch pad, getting the essence of a situation, in this case a memory lapse and a growing alarm, in a few confident strokes. It is, perhaps, a skill garnered from years of writing verse with the linguistic cleverness and gusto younger writers feel they need to do, to transfer their book reading into the tight corners of their as yet unexplored lives. Partridge’s poem here reads like someone who knows the world they have defined, formed, created to their satisfaction; the task of this poem is to observe the poet finding her place in the world, to remember the names she had given the animals, the places, the things of her life.What we observe, of course, is something like a comedy, where the protagonist is frustrated in their task and gropes about the clutter, real and recollected, in hopes that the object, the word she wanted appears suddenly, magically, like a bright, shiny coin. It’s a touching sight to imagine, not without humor: Where is the word I want?

in the thicket,
about to pinch the
berry, my fingerpads
close on
I can hear it
scrabbling like a squirrel
on the oak’s far side.
Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean
your singular flare,
your  topaz in the mind’s blank.
Thinking, remembering, the pleasure of the poet, the reader, the talker of long phone calls and timeless coffee chats, the effortless act of bringing together experience, reading, emotion into new forms and communicating new ways of witnessing the world in the community of one’s imperfect compatriots, is now work, labor, Something that was always at the ready in the notated folds of one’s mind is now missing or renamed, misplaced somehow in the archives of one’s interior life. One’s brain has become an overstuffed closet where all manner of incident, sorrow, joy, growth, frustration has fallen out of their boxes and now overlap one another in an avalanche of obscuring imagery. But there is bravery inspire of this, the sort of reaction to fear we don’t speak of that often, that of making the brain behave as we think it should, however in vain our efforts seem to be. Partridge gropes for that thing she cannot name nor tell you what it means; this is a search for the Golden Fleece, the Gold Urn, the unnamed thing whose connection to a supposed metaphysical order, would reconnect the searcher to their path, the point they were trying to make, the directions they were trying to give, the emotion they were attempting to express. This is Calvinism on the intimate scale, the thinking that if we continue the search and beseech the elements with urgent humility, magic realism will take hold and what is causing pain and anguish is massaged out of countenance.

I could always pull the gift
from the lucky-dip barrel;
scoop the right jewel
from my dragon’s trove….
Now I flail,
the wrong item creaks up
on the mental dumbwaiter.
No use—
it’s turning
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
Venetian alley—
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.

There is among other elements a dream quality to Partridge’s poem, a flickering tableau that seems to shake, vibrate and spin the harder the dreamer tries to slow the activity and locate a center of their thoughts. This has the effect of picking up a thick, large format magazine and concentrating on the fleeting images and text while they speed by as you fan through the pages as you would a deck of cards. The poem goes from being a stuttering, hesitating description of stymied intellectualizing and evokes something larger, quietly horrifying as one accepts the fact that everything runs down and everything gets lost and that everything, at the end of their use, are isolated . The last stanza, with its image of things and meanings being just out of reach, the “pigeon mumbling something / I just can’t catch…” is reminiscent of the kinds of dreams, the melancholic fabulation of our lives that takes place after we drift into the thorny wilds of napping, where we are young and searching for answers and yet burdened with several decades of memories and experience; we ask the strangely familiar things in our dream state presence who we are and the name of the place we stand, but the characters, whether family or, in a tip to Lewis Carroll it seems, pigeons who can’t clear their throats and speak clearly, all with hold the information, they are mute. 

The poet’s tone, calm and vaguely bemused, and her language and phrasing, which is elliptical yet precise, musical yet aware of how silence and pauses can mold cadence and provide the power of to the bittersweet nuance of Partridge’s punch lines, work splendidly toward creating a dread just under the calm surface. But she struggles on, soldiers on, and realizes that what she is doing isn’t a destination at all, but a journey; she responds to the blockade by writing a poem that is made of the things that she came across in her determined search for that precise word that would have nailed what she had initially started out to say. She had taken a detour and wrote a narrative, another chapter in a story she is done yet done with.While Partridge’s narrator gropes for the word and, metaphorically, attempts to get her footing, we have a sense of someone climbing a sheer cliff; the suspense becomes less than the original task will be fulfilled than it is by what force of will and ingenuity can this annoying torture be overcome with some kind of grace. There is an anticipation that makes you root for the hero who must suddenly contend with a mountain, of a sort, that keeps from completing a thought.

There’s an understandable desire to have the poem speak to us in full sentences, but there is something to be said for half-sentences and the barely articulated; in a far less grim comparison, the poem reminds me of a police procedural in which we see the detectives looking at a bulletin board full of snap shots of the victims and the suspects, newspaper clippings, Photostats of canceled checks, seemingly random things linked together with circles, arrows and yellow post-it notes giving us bits of a linking narration. What intrigues in that image, as in the poem, are those key items that are missing? In this instance, there what I feel an intensive effort to go back to the moment, the very instance, when her idea, the notion she was about to speak, eludes her ready grasp and she does a quick mental rummage of the memory, rummaging clumsily among the associations that intrude on her path for right term for an idea she has likely already forgotten.

A large part of why this poem appeals to me is because it creates the idea that as she comes across an image of her past , the contexts and sensations associated with it announce them announce themselves like emphasized photo captions. At some point she is off her determined search altogether and finds herself instead following associative string of personal icons and finds herself entranced, perhaps, but the murmur of the descriptive words, presenting themselves in a what it less a stream of conscious than it is a rough, fast ride on the rapids. 

The narrative that forms is piecemeal, seemingly related, people, places, things and the reflexive grasping for parts of the anatomy twirled and twined and otherwise spun together in a rush of sensation that reveals nothing, finally, other than all the compartmentalized detritus we have organized and placed in the mind’s cold storage easily enough becomes chaos and clutter again with the right provocation. Partridge’s intention, I think, is not create meaning or provide a comfortable lesson to be derived, but rather the sensation of an experience that, by definition, defies language’s ability to fully express.There is much here to discuss , I think, but I will say that I am in awe at how sharp a scene Elise Partridge has drawn with such a superb word selection and construction of phrases. There is modern jazz here, Miles Davis/Chet Baker, confident masters of their craft who know when to leave spaces, silences, who know how to build toward surprise.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The rocket's red glare

 This is one of the many crank rant poems I used to enjoy writing when the combination of coffee and cigarettes had sufficiently charged me and reinforced what my ego demanded a clean and sober artist must be in order to be interesting, expressive, a hat full  of cornball gestures: the personality I'm trying to project here is, please note, fictional and the intimations of wild things having happened with serio-comic consequences are created from whole cloth as well. This might blow my reputation as a poet who recounts hard living in funny and bittersweet couplets and rhythmically charged lines that simulate the rapid eddies of a Freddie Hubbard solo. Well, it might threaten what street cred if I had a reputation more expansive than friends, estranged drinking buddies, a few associate professors and members of my family who like what I do no matter what it is I put on the dinner table. I make stuff  up in half the stuff you'll find in my various chap books, anthologies I've been included in, the various blogs I fill with words that yammer and shriek a loud, if vaguely articulated discontent. 

Discontent with the skin I'm wearing, more than likely, as this current sheath is wrinkled, getting flabby and the joints ache worse than the linger effect of losing whatever person, place or thing that truly mattered to your existence. But don't think this a dishonest poem; I disagree with the notion that poetry in this age requires the poet to expose their darkest don't-tells. Poetry will not change behavior and will not make you feel better about being a shit heel; that is what therapists are for. 

This , I think, is worth reading for the same reason some recent science fiction movies are worth seeing because the computer generated animation sequences are  as spectacular as the stories that justify their use are insipid. This is honest poem because the attitude, the language, the tone that waivers between confirmed don't-give-a-goddamn and the  congealed frustration that threatens to become something louder ,  vulgar and violent. They ring true for me and reflect those days a time ago where going insane seemed a viable an option as any young alcoholic artist and poet could choose. Thankfully, I have survived the logic of the heated impulse and stayed around long enough to enjoy a more modest means of getting to the point. --tb


 The rocket's red glare

how drunk could be get
before we began to
look attractive to the
flies that buzz around
our heads ,

the broad strokes
of red
and henna coded clouds
that set the horizon on fire
as the sun sinks
just a tip under the
blurred line of the planet
where earth and sky
are a duo
that play one masterful rondo
after another
one of us stands up
to God and his
whispering minions
that he is tired of
suffering the results
of a good idea
gone to bullet bursts
and fist fights over the change left
on cafe tables.

i raise my head from my palms,
stop studying the way
my shoe laces are
coming untied,
i gather a sense that
there is more to life
than gas , food and lodging
but would settle
for any thing
because i had
none of the above
and no love for curbs
and the drainage dreams
they inspire,
i ask

the other one of us
was still
drinking as he careened up the street,
one side to the other,
all the billboards
should read "tilt",

he yells at a passing bus,
i laugh, Jesus what a jerk,
i will take the bus
and play music in my skull
until it comes,
i will be serene and lean
on the vernacular
that's so spectacular
when I'm in the bag
and full of mean remarks,

i will behave,
i will be silent,
nothing will upset me,
i am invisible on the bus line,

but even as my mantra
is uttered and folded
into a vest pocket of the soul
over where the heart still beats
with what remains of
my sense of my self and
virtues beyond the
bulge of my wallet,
a car approaches
through the intersection,
it veers closer,

i sing to the streetlights,
the fixtures on the power lines,

the car slows down,

i'm on the twelfth chorus of "Cherokee",

something breaks in my lap
and then I am wet
with water
neither painful nor holy,

the car speeds away
into the slim v perspective
that runs right to the water's edge,

i am wet
yet am i blessed
in such a state,
i hum another chorus,
my lap drenched
with tap water and
bits of burst balloon,

and now it's dark
after eight pm in July
when the fireworks go off
from the end of the pier,

where i wanted to be
to make a phone call
under the rocket's red glare.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


People who are cool are those who don't professionalize their names and become the odious species called "professional celebrity". Johnny Lyndon became a celebrity, famous for being the former Johnny Rotten. Grace Slick is cool because she retired from being a rock star when she realized she was too old too silly singing those old songs about the problems of youth. It seemed to her, shall we say, inauthentic. People who are cool are not, by default, nonconformist or anti-social or any of the other rebellious bullshit that is actually an identity we buy into by corporate marketing departments. Being cool is doing what you want to do, liking what you like, listening and reading and seeing what you want because they truly mean something to you; cool people really have no interest in trying to appear cool. I would ask why are writers for online magazines and pop culture sites so eager to condemn their fellow citizens for not being just like them. The Sex Pistols were the result of clever marketing no less than the Monkees were back in the day. There was an unrepresented generation in the music marketplace and Malcolm Mc Laren, in his fashion, created a product, of which Lyndon was part of, to fulfill a need. Or at least create a "want", as Chomsky would argue. Lyndon bright enough to be aware of the contrived nature of the Pistols, a band that wanted to destroy the machinery that produced manufactured entertainment that was no less manufactured by the same methods and reasoning, but on the cheap. Being a real punk, ie, a habitual jerk, he set out to destroy his meal ticket. He asked if the audience felt cheated, a manner of pulling back the curtain on a variation of the star-maker machinery, but his willingness to expose the hype became an essential part of what became his act (or shtick). He made a living a being the former Johnny Rotten, a low-rent Oscar Wilde. He may have been speaking his truth, and bully, but he wasn’t wit and he wasn’t especially enlightening. 

He was guest VJ on MTV decades ago, post –Rotten and Pill and here he was easing into the one marketable guise he had remaining, the go-to “survivor” of a heady period at the popular culture margins. He was to introduce clips from newer bands and comment briefly when they were done, a negative bon mot before the station cut to one of their endless streams of commercials. After a Jesus and Mary Chain video had played, the image faded and the camera opened up on Lyndon’s constipated visage. “Oh, that was awful. They are so derivative of the Velvet Underground…” I might agree with Lydon if I knew more about the JAMC songbook, but the remark had no impact, no sting, it cut to nothing at all; he seemed bored with his whole act of being the cynical, seen-it-all rock and roll revolutionary who must manage simulacra of disgust to sustain a paycheck. Not hip, not cool. Capitalism wastes nothing, even the shards of the artifice someone has blown up with some subdued version of the truth. Remember Marcuse's idea of "repressive tolerance"? That was the idea that democratic capitalism is so insidious that it has an organic function to nullify the revolutionary potential of various cultural and social upheavals by permitting those ostensible enemies of order full legal expression of their style, their manner, their ideology. The goal is fairly obvious, you negate revolutionary change by allowing those who expose and espouse radical transformation to vent and argue their position and allow the creative expressions they generate to emerge more or less unmolested. Everything we create is transformed into product or material that can be used to manufacture variations of the false utopia we bought into in the first place. Nothing is wasted. The smashed idealism we tossed out is reassembled and given a new coat of paint and then sold to someone else who is trying to trust the authority of their senses. Che, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky and Karl Marx himself adorn t-shirts, mugs, and keychains  manufactured in Free Trade countries at what amounts to slave wages, the rebel-yell tradition of rock and roll is codified and neutered with a Hall of Fame, and what could be instructive criticism for those of us to change our behavior and get involved in the politics of their lives is made irrelevant by being turned into feel-good cynicism suitable for coffee mugs, shirts, greeting cards and witless situation comedies. Johnny Lyndon is a tool, a professional celebrity, and his greatest accomplishment is in creating a generation that had no greater desire than to be professional celebrities as well.  

The whole withering -away- of- the -state endgame in Marxist theory was a pie in the sky, I think, a trope that replaces Christianity's doctrine of Eternal Life in Heaven with a promise that amounts to the same thing. Happiness and fulfillment are forestalled until certain unattainable and unverifiable conditions are met. The transformation is never witnessed as advertised. This seems to be same with how things are sold to customers--you are not perfect or really at ease until you own this. Again, we never really see the transformation of ordinary people into extraordinary ones, but we can witness the accumulation of useless things, received wisdom, dime store attitudes displayed as philosophical distinctions. Being hip or cool, it seems, seems to part of this whole mentality that there is an exclusive club one must pay to join in order to get a glimpse of the heaven they’ve taken out a prescription to. This is the reverse of what being cool was all about, which was living a life that was modulated to not absorb the static, babble and decaying artifices society put upon you, to conduct oneself with a knowledge that horrible violence and obliteration can be visited on you any second and, with knowledge of that, make life meaningful by making authentic choices as to what you want to do and to take responsibility, full claim, to the results (and consequences) of those actions. Creative commitment is what that is called, an element in the overly abstruse doctrines of existentialist thought.