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.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kathy Fagan's Split Level Gleam

Dispite loud grousings about the quality of poems Slate's poetry editor has posted over the last year, Robert Pinsky has lately been selecting writers who've managed to
get the synapses firing again. A nice balance, poems out the ordinary that are still
readable as parse-able literature. I tip my hat.

In all, I like Kathy Fagan's "There's just one little thing: a ring. I don't mean on the phone.' "—Eartha Kitt" quite a bit, 'though I do understand why it wouldn't popular with some other readers. Insular, private, full of jokes that are not sympathetic to the sorts of mental laugh tracks we carry around in our unspoken narration of our lives, Fagan's poem is a deliciously dicing up of several strands of cliches and , archetypes and popularly embraced bodies about conventional thinking.It's not that Fagan performs the vacuous tasks one witnesses in second and third strand writers who give us large slices and gigantic wedges of non-sequiturs and mashed up syntax in an erring conviction that they are extending what Language Poets started in the Seventies and finished some years ago, no, Fagan's constructionist welding of diamonds, movie stars, eleganza, fashion, eroticism all have their purpose, which is to reveal how matters of desire, lust, power are undercurrents in our affairs. We are locked into a matrix of sensual drives and concomitant needs to posess to posess and dominate, however rational our philosophies about selflessness and abstractions of love explain our actions. Fagan crams these combating together, and uses unexpected rhymes to link what at first appears as unbridgeable topics, areas of concern

...the figgy pudding slash
kwanzaa stew,
the yuletide blogging,
the tinsel, the garland,
and eight maids eggnogging,
allow me to mince
neither word nor pie
and provide advice
and a list forthwith:
Do not buy and regret,
dear. A diamond
is what to get,
dear. Its extra weight
I'm built to carry.
The starboard lilt,
the opiate
drag on one knuckle,
I'm willing to accommodate
and promise not to buckle

The speaker, the narrator as it were, is the personality at the core of a personality that wants to use any means needed to satisfy a craving,
a yen, and all this is done in the spirit of pure playfulness, an infantile base that regards others as mere resources and means to gather and exhaust each momentarily engrossing object of desire. Whatever tongue it takes, whatever rhetoric needs to mustered and sustained, whatever verbal mask needs to be worn, this personality, given voice and presented as an unvarnished result of a consumer culture that has undermined institutions like Politics, Arts and Religion that were thought of as means to keep our drives and selfishness in check, trips lightly over the meanings of each area she mentions as she (or he) associates freely, each sudden rhyme sufficient for a shallow logic that uses any excuse and reference to reinforce the hard, cold need to get ones way, by whatever seductions one must use:

It's my time to
plunder, and have a little lovely
something, a nothing-too-modest
something, to set off
all this black
and dazzle the crosshatch
right out of my skin.
O halogen track,
O twinkling lights,
O shining star
upon the highest bough:
you'll soon learn how
to be the ladies in waiting,
stable pony to the thoroughbred,
Martin to a Lewis,
Cathy to a Patty,
mere vein to the carotid—
i.e., to be outwatted.
O Christmas
tree, dear dreidl,
could it be more plainly said?
Some demand the head
upon a platter, others lick
the silver off their spoon.
This childless mother
desires neither moon
nor man but the carat
dangled all this time.
So snare it,
Santa, from that other
sorry cow.
The Baby Jesus phoned,
says I should wear it now.

Someone remarked in passing that Fagan's poem seems too much of a mashing together of Madonna's songs, especially "Material Girl" and the song "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", implying that Fagan's subversion is in fact generic, ie, it's been done before. Not quite, I'd say.Madonna's songs and the archetypal "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" are achievements of a kind in that they go along way in valorizing and making heroic the crass materialism that Good Society would consider rude, vulgar and tacky.

Madonna was particularly smooth in her post-modern gestures by assuming the fashionable stereotypes of women, the caricatures of whore, mother, lover, saint, and mixing them up in ways that manage to exhaust all irony from the poses. "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" is comic in intent, and is the material of a situation comedy, and , alas, it is a conventional
trope that remains with us, dressed up in the guise of "Sex In the City". One is about style and it's
disreputable partner, fashion, and in fact encourages liberation of young women through even more slavish consumption, by which one means bearing the costs of products to support the voguish poses. It's a wallowing in sheer emptiness.

"Diamonds", and the film from which it's drawn "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", is mounted as if it were a polemic of women against male hegemony, but in the end it is a cartoon depiction of the struggle, as it were, and in both instances one realizes women are typified as witless, trivial creatures engaged in nothing constructive other than schemes for their own temporary pleasure and advancement, powerless to change their way of their own accord. Fagan's poem collapses many archetypes, tropes and bastions of conventional wisdom upon each other and gives us a personification of the core personality the core ideologies and popular artifacts keep alive and hungry for more consumer insanity.

It's a high minded and artful exposure of the slippery sets of rationalizations and justifications that are built into our lingua franca. Fagan warns us, albeit playfully, that for all our philosophies and stated principles of moderation, fairness, and service to one another, we are able, very able to outsmart ourselves and make life on this planet miserable for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

Fagan's writing is interesting for other reasons, specifically her ability to interogate the rhetoric and tropes of received thinking--assumptions and rationalizations we garner from institutional powers rather than our own critical powers-- and yet retains an ear and musical sensibility that delivers a real poem with a discern able subject. She does this with a light touch and cogent phrasing, and her results are striking, unexpected. And poetic. She does not reinforce deep seated nostalgias for a world one imagines is gone or displaced, rather she shows how the language we use to describe our lives is a mechanism that keeps us in our place, compliant and consuming.
It should be said that the recording of Kathy Fagan reading this poem helps tremendously, as she reads it as a poem with words and phrases that have interesting sounds. She enunciates, she pauses, she places her stressed accent points in points that that does justice to the resonance I imagined this having when I gave the poem an initial read. She is a poet who knows the sound and in terms of different specialized jargons and sources of slang, and she can switch gears between them, sometimes having them inhabit the same phrase, with a rare mastery. This is the art of collage, by way of John Heartsfield.All the cheap rhymes, the facile comparisons
justifying the use of another for self gratification
as only natural attraction ("...Martin to a Lewis...") concludes, finally, with the ceaseless punning and the tinny music of the slant rhymes and conceits with the Baby Jesus saying that it's a-okay to wear the shine and gleam of the ring, to literally own the stars and the flow of the moon upon the earth that is , finally, only there for one's amusement and solipsistic play. Fagan, giving us something that resembles a talk Gordon Gecko would have fancied had he the imagination of a cubist, gives us a noisy, clattering music that rises from the bit of howling, yammering need, and hers is a poem that points to how the language and beliefs that are supposed to liberate us from the burden of self can and in fact us does compel us to debase each bit of the sublime we possess and instead consume, spend and eviscerate the world while wearing the tanned skins of our formerly held virtues.Fine poem, and a tip of the hat to Pinsky for choosing it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Barry Goldensohn: everyday is April Fool's Day

Barry Goldensohn can write with a snap and twist in his lines with the first part of "April 26,2006"his poem that prevent this from being merely a speedy itemization of habits he's had on his life 'til now. He has the sense to ease on the breaks, slow down, offer a side comment, an aside on the passing banalities he's bothering to tell us about.
It's a fast list, and it is not without the slight shock of recognition:

...the century in which I've lived most of my years
on an orderly, ritual-loving continent,
with well-regulated trash collection,
public gardens, smooth lawns, milk
delivered at dawn in cold bottles, clinking and sweating—

At age sixty nine and he's ready to burn all his old clothes, move out of the shabby house, develop interests and rituals that are seemingly irrational and ill mannered for a man who is supposed to have more dignity as he ascends to deep senior citizenship. Not so, the narrator implies, I've behaved and have been dutiful and dull all my life; why should I be more of the same as I realize there are more days behind me than ahead of me?

It's a question worth asking, and Goldensohn does a good job of setting us for a rant about living a fuller life full of rage and ecstatic abandon as the days get shorter, but here he does a hard left turn and turns what 'til now was a minor key bit of longing into something angry, outraged, morally offended:

screaming and glistening with blood
at the hour of my birth Guernica was carpet bombed
as practice for the time of saturation—
the horrified face through the window that sees
the broken bodies by the light of a bare bulb—
devastating cities thick with targets, human
and other items of civil life: school,
public sculpture in parks, music pavilion, musician,
library, literary life, the writer.

There are ways to present startling contrasts in differing views of the world , and there are ways where irony can emerge in the presentation and reveal the tenuous foothold any paradigm has on
defining the all of everything. But this isn't the poem, and for all his skill as a phrase maker--there isn't a badly written line in this poem--there's a cut and paste feeling to this piece; it's as though Goldensohn were rummaging through a shoebox full of parts, unfinished stanzas, templates of recurring poetic themes and slapped them together, a jarring wedding of two poetic styles, the wistful and vaguely nostalgic, the other hectoring, moralizing, humorless and grave. It is one thing to segue from the hour of his birth to horrible battle scenes, but Goldensohn's horror is just as aestheticized, abstracted and at several layers of remove as was his previously addressed assumptions about a lifetime of being a banal, dutiful citizen.

He relapses obviously and
conveniently into the seductive habit of writers using art and art making as subjects through which they tackle the confusing, the contradictory.
Here he winds up describing , plainly, Picasso's
iconic "Guernica" painting as a means to deliver the moral of his story, which is that artist ultimately fails to say anything fixed about existence in their work. This is material that thousands of poets, good, great, mediocre, have covered to the far flung best of their abilities, and as such all wind up saying the say thing, that the senses are fallible and that the best an artist can leave behind after they pass on is interesting evidence of their failure to uncover the big truth.

Goldensohn's big truth with this poem seems something written out of boredom, or typing practice, being the kind of self-inquisition that poses a hard question and then dodges the bullet of making something interesting from their set with a cheesy sleight of hand. It was a typical trick in high school debate class for someone to invoke Hitler or the Holocaust when the subject concerned matters of life and death, whether the death penalty, birth control, the draft. It was a ploy to stun and stall and defer, and a attempt to get the opposing debate team to cede points that hadn't , in fact, been clearly argued.

Goldensohn, stuck for an exit out of what was turning into yet another flyweight screed of casual irony, slammed us with Heavy Subjects and Grave Issues, and dares us to ask him for a better linking between the two voices, or to ask what it was he was trying to talk about in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Over Cooked

Discussing how unfunny Dane Cook's rubber-limbed stage pacing and artless mugging is to belabor the obvious after a paragraph. What he has is that callow yet bottomless self confidence of a Drama Club President who convey every character with the same mannerisms , ticks and gestures without giving off any sense that they've bothered with their presentation beyond the creation of a shtick. I watched his HBO special and kept waiting for his monologues to connect with an idea , a perception that hadn't occurred to me, a laugh to smack me upside the head. All that I got was his voice rising and falling, accelerating and slowing down crazily to instill some sense of comedy momentum and urgency, and that face of his, smirking stupidly,
oblivious. Perhaps he'll do better with a film career. Cook's freakish presentation of self --all mugging, no set up, no timing, no payoff or punchline in the slightest-- makes it clear that the only thing funny is his apparent conviction that he can get a laugh that isn't a nervous reflex.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Frank Bidart;Homeless on the Range

Frank Bidart is a poet of intangibles, someone who can creep on the edge of the inexpressible and make it a felt presence. Reading Poem Ending With Three Lines from Home on the Range was gave more than one instance of having a slight chill and tremor course up my spine, as if I touched the hem of a stray ghost's ethereal vestment, or someone having walked over the place where I would eventually raise a family, bury a parent, or be buried myself. It's a poem that deals with the expansive, miasmic core of getting older, when one has more experience and fewer years to live, and what there is in one's community and the larger world outside it seems more like a series of triggers, cues for the barely dormant unconscious to give forth a rush of intense, abrupt, rapidly faded remembering.

It's as overwhelming, for those scant seconds, as any drug I've taken, and it's after effects are a permanent condition. The veils separating past deeds and pleasures and inane bits of sordidness are continually lifted , and one's concentration is diminished. Sometimes it's nothing less than a sucker punch against expectation.

Barred from the pool twenty-three years ago, still I dove
straight in. You loved to swim, but saw no water.

Whenever Ray Charles sings "I Can't Stop Loving You"

I can't stop loving you. Whenever the unstained-by-guilt
cheerful chorus belts out the title, as his voice, sweet

and haggard reminder of what can never be remedied,

answers, correcting the children with "It's useless to say,"
the irreparable enters me again, again me it twists.

The red man was pressed from this part of the West—

'tis unlikely he'll ever return to the banks of Red River, where
seldom, if ever, their flickering campfires burn.

Clipped, epigrammatic, crystal clear, Bidart's recollection is less a stream of conscious than a fast, pulsing rill,
accenting the power of the memory with the concomitant knowledge that the past cannot be regained. You loved to swim, but saw no water centers the opposing the strands, the desire set against the cold awareness of unsentimental fact. The conflation of these elements--the pool, the Ray Charles song, the lines from a campfire chestnut-- are a skillfully arranged collage, remindful of the work of pop artist Robert Rauschenberg. Bidart, like Rauschenberg, seems fascinated by how a world of contrived , manufactured things ,designed for our use, entertainment and diversion, become a litter of our old selves and conceptions as we we pass over them, reflect upon them, as we consider our progress from relative youth to deepening middle age.

The poem suggest all these things without pretense, without tangential ramble; this is the way John Ashbery, a poet I admire, would write if he were more discriminating with what he wanted to bring into his writing. Besides brevity, though, what makes Bidart distinct from Ashbery is an engagement with the events of his life. Although not explicitly stated, there is something beyond mere resignation here; he can live fully if he stops trying to rekindle the campfire at the Red River and instead transform his present condition.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Overload on a brainwashing

Does reality sometimes gang up on you
when you sleep too long and finally walk outside on a bright sunny day? This is a poem about that feeling.-tb


Overload on a brain washing

You enter an idea of light
just beyond crass ivy walls
and find a room full of coats
tossed on the bed, rising and falling
again as if breathing deep
for snows, blizzards, a stream
of convertibles whose drivers
wear party hats, cell phones in one hand,
driving with a light wrist on the wheel.

At noon a bell sounds
and then the streets
are flooded with the sound
of hands rustling through paper sacks
digging past sandwiches wrapped in
cellophane and the apple or banana ,
proceeding until the fingers, holding pencils
or phones or typing orders, under orders,
just moments before wrap themselves around
a candy wrapped in foil that clings against
the rough textured chocolate like taut, tanned skin.

You put your hands over your ears
because the birds sing too loud
when the riot of color occurring in
the flower beds that stand guard
in front of each and every home
on the block reaches a pitch
which makes you feel to swoon
and brace yourself against
a brick wall in a side alley
tagged and pasted with graffiti
and torn concert posters,
these seems so much like a movie,
you think, and squinting just so imagine
you can see the edge of the film,
edge of the Earth
Columbus couldn't find
if you drew him a map
with arrows telling him where
he was and where he was going.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Threading the Space Needle

Space Needle by Kristin Fogdall is one of the finer poems that Robert Pinsky has presented for Slate readers, and it wouldn't be fair to him to not say that his choices have been more interesting of late, better conceived, less pretentious. Not everyone would agree, but I thought last week's poem Fourteen Final Lines by J.Allyn Rosser was a subtly drawn parody of "well made poems" and their last lines of neon-lit irony, the last words that encapsulate the insolubility of knotted circumstances with phrases that operate more as puns than as summations or
truth delivered.

Rosser, like myself and no doubt a generation of other readers have tired of these facile , clever, gutless conclusions, considering them as escape pods rather than fit conclusions, and have considered doing much as Rosser had done; string a series of 14 snappy last lines (or at least sentences that resemble parting remarks)together with nary an addition of connecting tissue
and then let it set there , impenetrable, a sonnet that makes an archaic and problematic form made even stranger by its refusal to let you in, to offer up a clue.

It's an inside joke, yes, and a poem about poetry, a habitual gripe of mine, but it's a joke I get and appreciate for the way it stands as both parody and protest against the ceaseless stream of shallow, gimmick prone verses that try to justify their vacuity with an entirely mechanical cleverness. Meaning is a useless thing to sift through this poems nooks and folds for; the meaning is locked in the sound of this thing, the rhetoric of adroit phrase making that attempts only to sound crystal clear. I consider "Fourteen Final Lines" to be like a gratuitous musical flourish, a sustained cadenza when none was required, a virtuoso bit of business. A fine send up.Kristin Fogdall's Space Needle is one of those rare instances where an author gives vent to a personal bit of vanity and succeeds in writing in a vivid, image rich language that retains clarity and succeeds as well in breaking beyond the suffocating solipsism of their own perspective and
taking into account an audience that would find empathy with his wondering.

If each foot took us back a year,
the dark below would be
immaculate, like a hole

in space, instead of stars,
or a jar of colored glass
someone shook

and scattered in a dream.
But from this height,
our childhood town

spreads out, a silver galaxy,
and tourists peer
into the giant metal scopes.

It's a neat trick of setting up perspectives, wondering how far one would need to step back in both time and space to see the odd connections of community and private behaviors that are the currency that binds us together. At first the vantage point is theoretical , abstract, a magic precipice one can still deny and and swiftly return to the drudgery of paying bills and wondering what secrets to reveal to one's wife,
husband, partner, but the wondering, the sheer heights make the narrator, and he or she gives themselves over something approaching rapture and imagines visions of roads looping over hills and through towns, every familiar detail of a life laid out in doll house fashion,

I scan the towers, walls
of windows, one small pane:
sofa, tiny people

face to face—a man
and woman talking,
as they may do every day,

or perhaps this is
the last time, or their first.
The lamp she crosses to

dims the room a darker gold.
It's like watching movies
on the wall at home

where we cavort across
some stretch of sand:
I want to step inside the frame

and take my own hands,
and look into my eyes,
and see what's true

and what's idealized.

It's an eternal gag, a joke of celestial origin, the human need for meaning, coherence, to be part of a narrative where events unfold and are connected and where each occurrence is part of a
meaning that is still coming into being. Fogdall connects this fantasy perspective of one's own life and the convoluted relationships and their implicit agendas with Hegel's version of the dialectic, that the secret purpose of one's life and actions is forever in flux, evolving, never static. All this can become rather ponderous, and better known poets like Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery have tilled this soil to produce some of the most brilliant verse in English written in the 20th
Century. The soil, though ,is hardly arid, and what makes Space Needle as well as it does--I think Fogdall's accomplishment here is phenomenal-- is the poem's poise, balance and symmetry. Fogdall is a writer of grace, and is well capable of navigating abstruse ideas and odd perspectives with a style quite at ease with the difficult task of rendering an alluring self-critique of one's blinkered-concept of reality with a sense of place. Fogdall is sure and precise in her images of things that she has seen and remembers vividly, if imperfectly:

The wind is off the Sound,
and makes no sound

except a ruffle
at the rail edge.
On the tiny street below,

a man is working on the road.
Alone behind his truck,
lit by a magnesium haze, he turns

a little orange wheel,
some apparatus out of sight.
He is the perfect

model of a man, which means
we love his task in ways
that he cannot, and wish

to close the shutter on
the stars, our years, with something
like his gesture of repair.

This might have been written by Carson McCullers in Ballad of a Sad Cafe, or
John Cheever at the start of The Wapshot Chronicle; the beauty of the writing is that we recognize what Fogdall's poem shares with the writing of the other two writers, which is melancholy. For all the power and ferocity of dreams, aspirations and desires to make one's
place in history, there is the ceaseless dread of loneliness that colors each word we speak and every gesture we make. The never that Fogdall touches is that for all the language we use to define and justify ourselves, we are finally inexplicable alone, separate, with only memories to console our standing.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Smitten by fame

I know I railed against the worship of celebrity in the previous post, and be assured I meant every word of what I had to say regarding the general view that such
mindless adoration reduces us individually and diminishes us collectively. There's been thirty years plus of reading a wide swath of social criticism, from Marx, Adorno through Mills, Mencken and Vidal that's given my gut feeling a theoretical, if
densely phrased base. None of what I've said is original, I might say, though a phrase or paragraph might keep the torch lit a while longer. And yet I have to confess that tonight I am working an event at a local bookstore here in San Diego,
and that for all my objections against the the religion of fame that I am looking forward to meeting the acerbic and beautiful New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
She'll be appearing for the paperback edition of her recent book Are Men Necessary? My integrity is comprimised, and I am willing to be a slave, at least temporarily, for the smart and funny lady.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A week without Celebrities

It would be a fine Holiday gift if print, broadcast and internet media gave us a week without celebrity "news" or gossip and give us a chance to consider lives of less mythical proportions.

After all is said and done, someone like Jennifer Aniston is no more interesting than the bowl of cereal that sits in front of you each morning. Probably less so. But given the way this obsession with the increasingly banal coverage of the famed and moneyed, are we that far from stalking celebrities should paparazzi chance upon JoLo tying a shoe, or Matt Damon being told by counter help that the CD he wants is out of stock and then foaming, fuming and gasping at the impossibly demanding pressures celebrities have heaped upon their special lives? The possibility of seeing or reading about the over-renowned having tantrums , among other things, gives us the thrill of seeing ourselves as others would see us if we were given to
having breakdowns in ridiculously public places. I might guess that it assures us
the melt down and other egocentricities are okay after all. The inner child never takes the afternoon nap.

Why is it that we anguish collectively over whether Robert Downy is able to revive his film career and forget our personal obligations as citizens by failing to show to vote in elections, or offer our services to projects in our community that can really improve the lives of others. It comes down to selling papers, of course, but the level to which our obsession with celebrity has advanced suggest a religious intensity, a love of icons and their status among the heavens, which is precisely what corporate powers want us to become, passive investors in entertainment and distractions to keep their means of production running and in their firm control and to forgot about how to change the reality that confines us in grim and grey banality.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shame on Alfred Corn

"Windows on the World", a poem written by Alfred Corn and published in Slate on September 11, 2003,is an ill conceived poem commerating the attack on the World Trade Center that would seem to confirm the skeptic's view that poets are willfully suffering narcissts who think everything in the world is in play in order to disturb their peace. In other words, to fuck with them. It's strange, odd, perverse, and somewhat immoral to write a poem using the 9/11 attack as a pretext to write another self-infatuated poem that really is more about how much the writer thinks about himself and his assignation as a "poet"; whatever the goddamned what Corn puts on his tax return as "occupation" has to do with the still barely speakable horror this day has come to mean is beyond any sense I can find, and worse, it is beyond anything useful to others.

This is a wandering and traipsing along the subject matter like a drunk tourist gawking at the bizarre ways of the big city, a laughable and loathsome tour of Corn's intellectual baggage. Connecting the ruin of the WTC with the crashing of Windows operating system is a ploy him to remain a thousand miles from any connection with real emotion; it is relentlessly ironic and snobby in its form as a poem. The subject matter, the real horror is aestheticized out of mind the way a narcotic lulls one into a stupor and then a nod against a world that still must be faced and made sene of.

Corn does none of that at all, but what he does do is give us a long, wavering and arrogantly ambivalent stretch of muddled semiotics where everything is a straining reach, a forced association, a willful perversion of real imagistic reach. Had the subject not been so grim and disheartening, this would seem more parody than anything else.

This poem angers me to no end. If Corn was paid for this piece, he should feel honor bound to donate the sum to a cause that actually gives hope to others in the human community. Following that, he might quit whatever teaching job he as in the instruction of writing and get a job in the receiving area of a Salvation Army Thrift store.