Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Bond and Borat

Casino Royale , the third production of Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel (the first was in 1954 as an episode of a CBS show Climax, with actor Barry Sullivan as Jim Bond, an American CIA man), launches Daniel Craig as 007, is the most impressive of the lot. Craig, I would say, is the best James Bond, period, eclipsing even the hallowed performances by Sean Connery. Not a pretty boy, and not yet the suave dude , this is Bond in the rough, closer to Micky Spillane's Mike Hammer. That is to say, this Bond is a thug, a brute, someone to whom you would give
a license to kill. Craig is a good actor, evidenced by performances in Munich and as Ted Hughes in Sylvia., and manages the right combination of cold dispatch and faint glimmers of rage and even love, but with a tight , strong hand on the reins. For all the agent's command of situations that would baffle mere citizens , there is the sense that he could have a melt down at any second. That said, the substitution of Hold 'Em poker for baccarat in the key gambling tournament makes little difference so far as maintaining what's left of the novel's integrity, though one does pause and wonder if anywhere in the world there might actually be a
table of men in tuxedos playing such a low brow card game.

Borat , in turn , is about to snickers, a snort, one belly laugh in the first forty minutes, and then it's a wallow in cheap set ups and purposeful misunderstandings. One should consider at length what is being exposed by the gullible Americans who fall for Sacha Cohen's grating put on, but this is a one joke movie that substitutes Jackass punking when the snickers and half laughs become restless giggles and eventually snores. There is more Andy Kaufman here than anyone is willing to talk about, and that is part of this movie's problem. Kaufman wasn't especially funny after a few years of his high concept performancing. Cohen , like Kaufman, practices comedy-as-assault, and there's a point in the movie where I wish one of his victims clocked him one.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Was In A Band When the Decade Sounded Drunk

I was in a band in the Seventies that played hard rock, butt rock so-called, and I was the singer, not that I could sing, but it's not as if any of us could really play either, save for a guitarist who had chops, no ambition, and a taste for coke. Everyone in the band is missing in action, including me , but the fact that my phone doesn’t ring with queries from these guys hasn’t diminished my life style. Between groping other guys girl friends, stealing drugs and records, and not paying back any of the borrowed money I promised to pay back in merely couple of days , it’s just as well that bad news that’s over thirty years old remain the pathetic history it has so far remained.Our song list:

Hot Blooded

Mississippi Queen

Bad Motor Scooter

Tush /Waiting for the Bus / Jesus left Chicago

Heartbreaker/Rock and Roll/Goodtimes Badtimes

All Right Now / Wishing Well


I Just Wanna Make Love to You (FOGHAT VERSION)

JEANIE JEANIE (remember Automatic Man?)

Dancing Madly Backwards (remember Captain Beyond?)

Too rolling stoned/The Fool and Me/Day of the Eagle/Man of the World

Hellcat (Scorpions)

Dirty Love (Zappa)

Thumbsucker (Mountain)

Hiway Star/Space Truckin/Black Night(Deep Purple)

Supernaught (Sabbath)

Bang a gong

Rebel Rebel

There were hundreds of hours of rehearsal in a floating crap game of a scene, going from one band member's parents house to the other for what were really drinking parties. Things usually got destroyed, and sometimes we made it all the way through a song. We even played a few dozen times. I was drunk most of the time, so that I could scream the few words I actually knew to each song, somehow, truly, thinking that I was sounding just like Robert Plant or Paul Rodgers or Rod Stewart or any of my swaggering, macho strut heroes, only slightly aware that for all the half-skips sash-shaying I took for masculine intimations of heterosexual power were in fact very much a swanning display of featherless fan dancing. To the end of my time in front of the microphone, twisting my vocal cords into twisted knots of scraping rasps and glottal whispers, I was convinced my style was akin to the greatest belters blues and soul music gave to the white world for worship, Ray Charles, yes, Otis Redding, oh yes, Little Richard, fuck yes! It was small beer that I never knew what I sounded like, the grunts and groin splitting yelps buried under layers of untuned amplified guitar , farting bass lines and the endless thrash of a speed freak drummer Someone once recorded one of our gigs on a reel to reel at a San Diego State Frat Party, and it was a gross, hell-bent, auto accident cacophony, fuzzy and sputtering with feed back and wrong notes and crowd noise and breaking glass: the noise hurt the inner ear: the MC5 without conviction. I was singing, all right, but I sounded like I had two wool socks crammed in my mouth, screaming in muffled horror while a serial killer approached me with a blade. I sounded drunk. The band sounded drunk.

The decade sounded drunk.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More notes on Wallace Stevens

She asks, during an online discussion about poet Wallace Stevens exchange "Isn't a lyric poem supposed to be about emotion? Last time I looked, irony was not an emotion. "

Yes, a lyric poem is the verbal equivalent of a musical evocation of intense feeling that defies the logic of words to express adequately. Thus, the looping chains of association , the constant comparisons of unlike things, including the sounds of the words creating euphony. Intense emotion colors the entire world, cast it in all engrossing tint. The world to the perceiver makes a certain kind of sense, though the sense eludes them more often than not; there is even an element of paranoia that can come to play here, as in the notion that everything in the world, be it people, places, things, institutions, weather, are all somehow connected to the internal transformation.

Irony alone isn't an emotion, but because it has something to do with an individual's perception, whether the poem's speaker or the reader themselves,
it can become a key and determining factor in how hot emotion might boil or cool off, whatever the case may be. Irony concerns the incongruity between what is said and what actually is the case, and since a lyric poem operates on the transcendent level where emotion bypasses logical argument in pursuit of impossible language capturing the inexpressible, conflicts, disjunctions, distortions and contradictions between myth and fact, action and deed are likely to happen as default conditions, and will ratchet up the energy a lyric swoon requires.

I see it the other way around, since it seems to me that Stevens believes in the adage that there ought to be "no ideas but in things..."(concisely phrased by William Carlos Williams). Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of it's amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is. As for supreme fiction, well, it's Stevens' term, and it is an imaginative and accurate short hand for his compositional practice.

"What our eyes behold may well be the text of life but one's meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality. " -- Wallace Stevens
Logic by itself is over rated certainly, but unalloyed intuition is equally the subject of excess estimation, and is, in fact, a recipe for perceptual disaster.
Stevens realized this and made a body of work that provoked( successfully I think) thought and discussion about the interaction of imaginative and materialist approaches to appreciating and divining the corners and contours of the earth.
"All the great things have been denied and we live in an intricacy of new and local mythologies, political, economic, poetic, which are asserted with an ever-enlarging incoherence. " --Wallace Stevens

Intuition and imagination are the things that give the world outside our bodies the shape and scope, and logic is that no-less human tendency to discover the order of raw sensory data and thus engineer ourselves usefully within it. Each capacity, with all their attendant subdivisions and distinctions, cannot be divorced from the other, the mind cannot exist sanely sans the capacity to know when the imagination ends and uncompromisable reality begins. This is the basis of Steven's work, his central idea: all the great poems of Heaven and Hell have already been written, and what remained to be examined ,in the kind of intensified investigation that poetic language allows us, are poems of the Earth, not the least in this subject matter being the ceaseless contradictions and conflicts of humanity's desire to name the world he lives in and control it.

"To regard the imagination as metaphysics is to think of it as part of life, and to think of it as part of life is to realize the extent of artifice. We live in the mind. " --Wallace Stevens

The world, the Earth, Nature itself, of course, can be imagined in any number of ways, and humanity itself may well come to believe his abstract definitions as implacable facts, but Nature goes on in its own set of processes that man is finally subject to. However reshaped into man's image (or the image of the God man believes himself to resemble), nature pushes on, grows, expands, decays, renews, recycles, re-molds , destroys and creates anew, constantly churning, upsetting and moving through the convulsions and rough beauty that are the evidence of its life cycle.

All this renders the hoary substance of humanity's definition into so many fictions, supreme and less so, a poetry that nears special knowledge but which lacks the final gaze beyond the last, final veil. Our language is our method for beautiful guess work. Stevens gave a poetry that centered around this, to which his last message might well be that we have Poetics that cast itself in perpetual awe.
What we draw from a poem like "Sunday Morning" is his penchant for addressing everyday occurrences in terms that approach the mythological. We can suss and hacked through the ornate textures of the writing and found the "common place" events and emotions that Stevens loved to broaden in scope with his righteously writ rhetoric. This, I think, is precisely the sort of reading he would hope a reader would embark on.

You've also given us a vivid time line with your deciphering of Stevens' lush tones, and have opened the door on his grand theme, that our world as we build it, live in it and contemplate its larger moral and aesthetic worth, is connected with a habit of mind, a quirk of human personality , that has never left us. As with other modernists of his period--Eliot, and Pound, certainly-- Stevens viewed the material world as evidence of myth-creation, objects, art and philosophies that are extraordinary less for what they reveal about fixed and permanent virtues, but more the poetic ingenuity in the language created to make their case. Here, with a simple Sunday coffee by the sea and an incidental twinge of guilt, we are linked to legends and sins of cultures worshiping allegedly alien gods.

Our reality , composed as it is with particularized aesthetic rigor and moral complexity, is no less a supreme fiction. Behind the fictions and the dimensions of the respective paradigms they allows us to live within, lies the differentiated mass of humanity, constantly creating the grand poetry that is the essence and unseen breath of their lives.I don't know why there's all this defensiveness about whether Stevens is "obscure" or not. Erudition is generally a description of someone who is versed in many subjects that are outside thhe scope of the everyday; such knowledge is by nature obscure.This needn't be a veiled insult, though, because in the hands of a supreme poet, it's not a bad quality at all. The real issue comes down to readability , I think.It's the crucial distinction here between what Stevens gives the world with his splendid blend of intellectual rigor and musicality, and what this week's poet tries to slip under the door.

Steven's verses are with abstract ideas, subjects by their nature obscure and requiring rarefied terms and jargon to describe dimensions that don't readily lend themselves to streaming, concise captions. But where something as Brock-Broido's work is made dense and unclear by a strained cadence and self-consciously uglification, Stevens' ideas are smoothly parlayed to a larger world by way of addressing his emerging ideas of phenomenal existence through the lens of the world whose intransigent knowability he interrogates. His is a world that retains its mystery and wonder and which is still capable of creating actual, unsentimental awe in the curious and alert mind. "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction", "The Blue Guitar", "Emperor of Ice Cream" have that rare musical curve and sweep that set up paradoxes and then resolves them in ways that make their perception as much a part of natural process as anything else a species creature like man might abide by.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Three Novels You Might Enjoy

If you haven't gone to the bookstore yet, here are some titles I think are especially good.

Crackpots: by Sara Pritchard
Brief beautifully written book about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot button stuff
engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of
a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult
with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as prose stylist.

The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell.
A New York comedy of manners set in the Forties, it concerns a married couple comprised of a famous playwright and her husband, an academic who labours at his speciality in obscurity. Powell is one of the better comic writers we've had --a spikier Edith Wharton, shall we say--who provides momentum, atmosphere and rich, crackling dialogue in this many -charactered satire. This would be the sort of novel Tom Wolfe has been trying to write for years. We have here a situation where the fortunes of famous wife and unknown husband are suddenly and realistically reversed, a turn that reveals the shallow relations and loyalties, tied as they are to one's fortunes. Or lack of them.

Big If--by Mark Costello.
Remindful of Don Delillo's White Noise this is a novel Lyotard (a French convolutionist) would have love, a postmodern situation comedy.Brother and sister, he a programmer for an online game called Big If, and she a Secret Service agent assigned to protect an unnamed Vice President considering a White House bid, find their respective personal lives to be wrecks or otherwise nonexistent, finding solace and purpose only in their professionalism and the attending rules and inscriptions that govern their individual trades. It is quite funny --laugh out loud, to use a foul phrase from movie blurbs-- and what it shows is how the rules and respective philosophies , no matter far reaching and inclusive in what they address as issues of existence, are finite, small and doomed to fail us as we try to apply to spontaneous, fluid situations.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I Am A Rock: many words on a fine poem by Chris Forhan

Chris Forhan's poem "My Almost-Daughter, My Nearly-Was Son" is one of the more interesting pieces Slate has published in recent weeks, and it's intriguing not so much for what many readers would assume is a man who harbors grave guilt and regret for not having children, but rather that it might actually be a boast of a self-actualized sort who is convinced that he (or she) made a sound and sensible decision to not have kids at all. I'm reading this not as thinly disguised regret, a rather easy interpretation to arrive at, but instead as evidence of an imminently sane mind.

All that rain that blathered on the patio, leaves
lifting and twisting, a demented semaphore

Although the narrator , whether male or female,
has obviously been tempted to join with another and endeavor to have children and raise them in the world, the passage above gives us a firm clue that the world as is held in low regard, an ill-fated place not worth bringing children into. Rain, usually used as the poetic symbol for various Big Ideas and Emotions for which the reality for which it stands wins out and grandly transforms or dismantles a poet's egocentricity about how the world works (Natural Law always trumps My Will)
is in this line made into a nuisance, a bothersome noise that signifies no messages or meanings but instead "blathers". Leaves, likewise an easily ceased image used to subtly underscore the ironic effect of nature's finalizing essence, can only twist uncontrolled in the ugly weather, at best
"semaphoring" irresolute gibberish.It is a subjective take on one's
existence in a world they see as intrusive and bothersome. One needs to assume the age old practice of willingly suspending one's disbelief [] to read the poem on its own terms and then deciding the merits afterwards.It makes for better critical practice.

What the narrator of the poem does, along with justifying his or herself for not having children, is to reject the external world of life processes, preferring their distractions of work, clarinet practice, varied forms of busy mental gymnastics. Such a personality , with no use for others or life outside their pitifully reduced existence, rain would indeed seem to "blather", seeing the weather condition not as a bringer of growth and fresh air, but only a massive and incoherent interference with their slight agenda. It helps to determine what the mood and prevailing psychology of a work is before condemning it
out of hand.

If nothing else, Nahron's poem does not blather, something associated with run on sentences and unfocused , unshaped subject drift. "My Almost-Daughter, My Nearly-Was Son", whether you like it or not, is concise, tight, and has a point, delivered with a light touch irony. It is possible to not like the poem, but a better critique
is expected as to why it fails. I think it works at every level.

Forhan's narrator wants none of this chaos, this controversy, wants nothing at all to do with being responsible with teaching children his miserable
wisdom about the world he or she is loath to live in.The character weighs the ups and downs of being a parent and prefers their relative isolation, the hermit like concentration on their projects

Those overtime nights in the ice factory, eyeing gauges, greasing gears:
that's one thing. And the hours of clarinet lessons

... I hired myself

to crack that code, kept busy not conceiving you. I peopled
the past, got safely sad about that. I hammered together

a hut in the back of my brain to crawl inside and rest
from the labor of making it.

This is a tragedy of a kind, and one does here the
regret somewhere between the words, but Forhan
keeps a sharp focus on the terse and bitten-off cadence. The diction is straight forward, clipped, almost military, and the words themselves are not especially poetic, being rather plain and undecorated with catapulting syllables.

The poem is a monologue, really, and it's aim is to convey the sad fact of someone choosing relative isolation over raising a family even as the narrator seems to brag about the soundness of their decision. The tragedy, of course, is that the narrator is aware of what he or she has missed out on and the fact that the matter weighs on his or her mind (in the form of this poem/monologue) indicates a fragile balance between competing needs. The poem sounds like rules ritually referred to, like campaign points, to shore up encroaching anxieties over what was missed, what was not fulfilled.

These words, a rhetorical fort defending his or her decision to dine alone for all time, hurt the narrator even as the words are said. In explaining the decision, one must again ponder the quality of life that is missed. It's obvious what takes place off stage, when the voice recedes, which I take to be a continued wondering about how things might have been different.

The poem seems to me to hold out the possibility of conception, labor, production. I don't know that it pins down an emotion as concrete as regret about not having children, but it certainly acknowledges a powerful impulse to want children (otherwise they wouldn't be almost born).

The mastery Nahron reveals here is
astounding, in that the poet reveals precisely an opposite set of contrary emotional lows without a
word written about such low-born states of the soul. Our narrator's crimped protests of stoic self-sufficiency reveal a loneliness that is at the core
of every man, woman and child.

It touches a nerve, indeed. I never had the chance to have children, and this straight, middle aged male finds great solace and joy in playing with his grand nieces and nephews. I'm lucky that my family lives mostly in the same area. Still, I recognize this narrator's decision to remain alone, childless and sans mate ( we assume)as a passive aggressive way of saying "fuck it" and then withdrawing from even the most banal interactions of social activity.
Think of Paul Simon's song "I Am A Rock". These are folks we need, finally, to have sympathy for and to recognize within ourselves isolating habits and negative thinking that are to be fended off, a needed task if any happiness is to be possible for us.

This poem has the feeling of someone quite suddenly compelled to explain their choices when pressed for answer, with the response coming across as compressed, in hard bricks of rationalization ,
characterized by a flat calm of someone who has worked on their reasoning in the "hut" of his or her mind for years and has reduced it to a few sentences they think have the clarity of revelation.
Those words said, there is nothing more to say on the matter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dancing About Dylan is Like Writing About Music

Choreographer Twyla Tharp's dance interpretation of Bob Dylan's songs, creakily titled "The Times They Are A Changin'" , brings to mind Richard Goldstein's remark in his old collection "The Poetry of Rock" that interpreting Dylan's lyrics is " running a USO in Hanoi",because the chance of getting "hit by flack" was unavoidable.Everyone has Their Own Private Dylan, and unless one's interpretation of the songwriter's lyrics achieve genius nearly equal to the subject under review--I'm thinking of Greil Marcus's critical book Invisible Republic-- each spin and burnishing of Dylan's writing will be found wanting. I had a chance to see Tharp's "Times..." show in San Diego and couldn't escape the desperation to make such an adaptable body of work lend itself to theatrical presentation; as mentioned, the the songs are fine as rock and roll numbers and work within criteria independent of other forms, but they are rather redundant, repetitive, musically constrained to furnish material for the work a choreographer is supposed to do. Billy Joel and the Beach Boys are obvious choices for dance interpretations simply because the songs have more bounce, variety, invention than the relatively primitive strumming Dylan preferred; a successful dance sequence derived from "Good Vibrations" isn't far afield. "Times...", though, seemed without ease or grace, and the dancers might as well have had tire chains around their ankles. The storyline, such as it was, was Kerouac kitsch filtered through some cracked lens of euphoric recall. The movies in my head when I was seventeen listening to "Blonde on Blonde" on headphones was more potent than the busy mess Tharp gave San Diego audiences, and her mistake was trying to make sense of what I think might have been her similarly subjective and private response to Dylan's work. What
she's mounted and now brought to New York is a buzzkill. It's like trying to explain why a Coen Brothers movie is funny. It cannot be done.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Oates, DeLillo, DF Wallace: some quick notes

Joyce Carol Oates is not my favorite writer, but for all the repetition of her themes of fragile women being imperiled by evil masculine forces they masochistically desire, she does occasionally publish something both compelling and well written. I have read ten of her over 200 published novels, and stare at the remainder the way a drunk might obsess over the unopened bottles left in a beer truck.I detested "Beasts" and "The Falls" since she exercises her familiar dreads in contrasting lengths, the first book a slender novella, the latter a literal brick, both books sounding rushed, fevered, breathless, as first drafts of novels usually do. Or a finished Oates novel, for that matter. She does get it right sometimes, as she did with "Black Water" and "Tattoo Girl"; with the right configuration, her usual wits-end prose style and fascination with fragile psyches and marginally psychotic get as intense as fiction is ever likely to get. She merits a bit of respect, although you wish she'd stop trying to win the Nobel Prize so obviously with her tool-and-dye production and take longer to write a novel a reader didn't have to rationalize about.

Editors hold much less sway in the preparation of a book, it seems. It's not just a matter of writers who write quickly getting away with redundant excess and awkward passages, such as Oates and Stephen King. Those who take their time also seem to avoid the more severe markings of the editor's blue pencil, as in the case with Jonathan Franzen.

Even though I half way enjoyed The Corrections, I was embarrassed by many parts where the good, meticulously controlled prose just stopped as if it were exhausted after a long work out and suddenly went lax and slapdash and cliche glutted. This is a tendency in writers who feel that every sentence they compose is required to sum up the human condition, and a good editor would have handed the work in progress in a conference with the author with a discussion about how to make the writing even better, punchier, less hackneyed. I would love to see Infinite Jest broken up into a series of novels in the manner of Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, a project that would force Wallace to rid the work of the twenty page foot notes and furnish comprehensible arcs from one book to the next. It would make an interesting set of ideas about he nature of addiction readable to people other than fringy grad school sorts.

I think Richard Ford is a extraordinarily gifted prose writer whose control of his style is rare in this time of flashy virtuosos , ala Franzen and DF Wallace or Rick Moody, whose good excesses run neck-and-neck with their considerable assets. Ford, in his The Sports Writer, Indepence Day, and certainly in this collection of Multitude of Sins, understands his strengths in language and advances , seemingly, only those virtues in his work. He obviously understands the lessons of Hemingway , and wisely chooses not imitate: rather, the words are well chosen. For the more poetic language of similes and metaphor, The Cheever influence is clear; the imagery to describe the detail make those details resonate profoundly, as in the last story "Abyss", without killing the tale with a language that's too rich for the good of the writing.

, yet another new one from Joyce Carol Oates, is short novella about an impressionable young poetess surrendering to a catastrophic seduction by her amoral, decadence-spouting writing professor. Oates doing what she does best, inhabiting a mind on the verge of a breakdown, giving us a personality that translates experience whose every instance portends disaster. She is not my favorite writer, but this one is convincingly creepy.

Cultivating Delight
by Diane Ackerman is a wonderful series of meditations , anecdotes, and lyric essays based on her deep observation of her expansive, personal garden in Ithaca , NY. She is a fine writer who has a dual sense of the poetic and the scientific, and her ability to employ both sensibilities on the same subject results in surprising insights.

For the greatest novel in America, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo. Really, no one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobels. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth, is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plot lines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some predetermined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. Nice work, great work, magic. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world,where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherant and supremely foriegn. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, ala mantras, to give the world as sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs , in the dead of night, with ladder and paint brush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn.

DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whose hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately "Underworld" sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed, our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and incomprehensibility upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that neve existed. The book haunts me even as I re-read it.

by Joyce Carol Oates is a rather potent little psychodrama, and it's the kind of writing Oates excels at. She gets to the heart of the fringe personality better than anyone I can think of. The Tattooed Girl, from 2003, is likewise a well shaped melodrama. She depicts the thinking of women who allow themselves to be beaten and killed with seemingly scary exactitude. Oates can also be a bore, evident in We Were Mulvaneys and The Falls. My fascination with her continues, though, since it's impossible to tell when she publish another novel that will be gripping and unnerving

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Let Me Bring You Down

There must be something genetically inscribed in
writers that compels a great many of them into
deep bottom-of-the-sock drawr confessions; the aim is to fill the page with evidence, it seems, of true authenticity of being, that what they write is more than mere twists of virtuosity culled from mastery of the rhyming dictionary, and definitely more than clever tweakings and extensions of formula metaphors, allusions and attendant devices.

I exist, I bleed, I am a depressed, these things, these events have made me sad and sullen and all these years of letting them mature like saving bonds in the vaults of venal resentment have given me a gravity that will weight my words and make the reader slip into a morose empathy as my spare , depressed renderings makes all the music in their house become mute, with only my flat, inflectionless voice murmuring like coffee on slow boil. Read me, feel me, envy my legitimacy of being, I am real, I am profound, I am a writer...

These are the sort of people you inch away from in actual circumstances--the sensation of being sucked into the black hole of their self-involvement is physically tangible, I think--and yet we're compelled to make excuses for what amounts to ceaseless whining and scab-picking, and for perverse reasons read them. It might be the same phenomenon as drivers slowing down to gawk at a bad road accident.

The first problem is that confession of this sort, which the unfair characterization above describes, is not clarification but only cleverness, and rather than seek the end of agitated consciousness through understanding and transcendence, there is rather the hope to continue as one has, writing yet more revelations
(or, rather, reworking images and situations previously described and tested on readers),and it's a matter of economic survival. No one wants to rid themselves of that thing that allows them to riff onward endlessly; one does not want to blow their gig entirely by publicly revealing the answer to their own problems. The problem is subject matter, after all, and a poet needs something to write about, or exploit. It amounts to living in a rut and having it decorated.

"Twins", by Debra Nystrom, is evidence of an old complaint frequently stated in these parts, being a routine bit of confessional prose one might happen across if they sample the epidemic of slight and overwritten memoirs, only formatted into
couplets. The use of couplets, stanzas, the spaces between the stanzas, is to offer a clue that there is about to be an associative leap in the offing, some fresh idea from choice foreshadowing, but our patience is rewarded with some frayed connections. In couplet form, Nystrom's stream of connections is less a seamless stream than it is an impatient butcher forcing a hank of ham through a meat grinder.

It sounds forced, and while these compact itemization might be forgivable in a long winded paragraph, excused, I suppose, as the heightened awareness of someone pluming the depths of their beings for truths defying conventional wisdoms, the "poetic" line breaks here serve only to draw attention to the awkwardness and sheer clumsiness of some of her sentences:

--my mom a real twin whose twin, shipped out

to Asia with the navy, had let her fall
to a rip-tide marriage along with me, little

dead-weight, little buoy


--music twisting out of an LSD
researcher's stereo like toothpaste;

You groan, you say "ouch", you reach for the phone to call someone. These flourishes read like afterthoughts, as if inserted into Nystrom's
prose diction when she hypothetically decided to change a notebook entry into a poem, written and applied to make the passage "poetic". Such effort, if so, is only window dressing, and the result here is like a sticky patch of dried ice cream one might step on crossing a hard wood floor.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Crass Hack Work

I feel like a jerk and an unfeeling heel, but I cannot get beyond the feeling that Philip White's poem about his mother's frail and failing memory and health "A Moment Ago" to be just a little canned. Elision and associative leaps are hallmarks of contemporary poems, where two seemingly unlike instances or references are brought together by some synaptic spark, simulating the effect of the poet's thinking. 
Under the best circumstances, there is the element of surprise that catches you unaware of what's coming and leaves you breathless with the end result, a point or emotion you didn't expect to be brought to in credible condition. "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara, about the day the author heard about the death of Billie Holiday, is a splendid example of this effect, done with amazing precision and condensing of detail:

It is 12:20 in New York a Fridaythree days after Bastille day, yesit is 1959 and I go get a shoeshinebecause I will get off the 4:19 in Easthamptonat 7:15 and then go straight to dinnerand I don't know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sunand have a hamburger and a malted and buyan ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poetsin Ghana are doing these daysin Ghana are doing these days I go on to the bankand Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)doesn't even look up my balance for once in her lifeand in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlainefor Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I dothink of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore orBrendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègresof Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaineafter practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANELiquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega andthen I go back where I came from to 6th Avenueand the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre andcasually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a cartonof Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking ofleaning on the john door in the 5 SPOTwhile she whispered a song along the keyboardto Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
-- Frank O'Hara

It's a poem about going about one's business in a
city legend for hustle and frenetic activities, comings and goings, and O'Hara's casual survey of the limitless details of what the city reveals (there is a feeling in this poem of painter Stuart Davis' pre-Pop Art cityscapes, large, blocky, jazzy and absolutely electric), the issue of Holliday's death is unmentioned save for a passing headline. O'Hara goes about his errands, his distractions until he remembers a seat in a comfortable jazz bar, and the tragedy, the sorrow, the irreplaceable loss hits him finally and suddenly and the room was impossible still as she started to sing. O'Hara gets the sense of
revealed truth, the rush of sensation that rings every bell and tells you that life is different now and a bit diminished, that whatever you've learned from the departed will either be your strength or your weakness.

White reads like he's only more than eager to convert his sadness into a poem. Where O'Hara was a conversation and offers up his revelation as if it were a bit a self-knowledge that emerges in a talk quick and unexpectedly, White' sentences are stiff in their writerly vestments:

We were out on the deck talking with mother,watching the line of shadow climb the foothills,intercepting the peaks around us one by oneas if the valley were a bowl being slowly filledwith darkness. She wore the blue cloth hatwith a flower, having just given up therapy.We asked what she remembered of "little"great-grandma and others we never knew.It was hot. An afternoon storm had splotchedhere and there the laurels, startling the swallows;a dusty trickle had formed briefly in the throatsof the gutters

This is prose, first off, and it suffers from obvious conceits such as the strained conceit of equating the time of day with the state of his mother's health and memory; sad as it is, in fact, does not make moving as a piece of writing by default. The fading light, the darkness engulfing the mountains, it's a cement shod set up for the delivery of the punchlines, the mother's interruption of her recollection with a frail mention of a song she suddenly remembered, something she brings up unexpectedly. What happens with the material is the kind of gutless literary writing that is over polished, seeming graceful and poetic at first, but which comes across as inconclusive in how an emotion is received. It's an aesthetic distance that decorates the bare facts of compounding sadness whose rhetorical style, a conspicuous overkill of fine writing, avoids a response that reveals something cracked in one's perceptual armor.

The mother is made into an exercise in slipshod allusion and creaky, unsurprising metaphors.I don't expect poems to make sense literally, or to be snapshot perfect in how they recreate the factual world since what interests me generally is how the writer creates a credible mood. What's interesting half the time is the skewed details. My objection is White's fervor to smother everything with thick, glorious language that is arranged just to show his mastery of the tongue rather than let on what it is he feels. Not that I'm crazy about poets who pump and gush feelings like leaky hoses, but one does note the lack of felt experience here.

White's literary reputation is more the issue of the poem, not the state and being of his supposedly dear mother. She exists here solely to provide the poetic moment for the poet to deliver his prepackaged cadences and storeroom ironies. .White, I suppose, might have been saying "Oh wow" to himself while all this was going on, and was mentally framing the poem as he stood there, maintaining a concerned face. If a sister or a brother slapped that concerned face after reading this poem, I wouldn't be surprised.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tiger, Tiger

I am a fair weather baseball fan, and a bad one at that, but I did pay attention to the World Series, my hometown Detroit Tigers up against the St Louis Cardinals in a rematch from the 1968 Series. It was the Cardinals turn to win. Here's a poem dealing with the depth of my fair weather pain:

D- Town after the '06 Series

No one saws that we must
stay here , grasping at empty, reedy straws
for something to talk about
when another ball hits the glove's webbing
and hops defeated to the trampled,red grass.

We should move to the exits
and back to the hotel
and go back to the arenas
where we don't wave blankets
but do toss octopus filets on the ice
we hope will gum up the blades
of visitors to our berg
and tell them that
all we do is puck around.

The last Taurus
rolls off the line
and into the street
in hopes a buyer
will drive it into the sunset,
flipping the bird in the rear view
as wheels come off each parked car
under the shadows of these
tall, empty buildings,

We say yeah, we lost,
and we can't afford
to give a flat tire
about it,
we make sure it gets shouted
that that's all
in the game
as we measure our pain
and relish plain facts
that bad news and broken bones
are as constant
as the weather,
our newspaper is printed on leather
and we'll huddle
in old Cork Town Taverns
over Strohs and
black and white photos
of dead Irish mayors
when it was ever good
as they say it used to be.