Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown Gets Off on the Good Foot

James Brown has died and with that a very large part of my music listening history has gone. Much will be said by critics and others desiring to bolster their hip credentials , but the only thing I'll add is a mention of the first time I experienced Brown. In all his funkiness. Little did anyone sitting in the room realize that we were witnessing the birth of contemporary rhythm and blues, black music without a compromise to a white audience.Much as I loved Motown, relishing the thought that was a hometown product, company owner and overseer Barry Gordy made sure that the songs were strong on melody, with substantial orchestration and traditional themes of teen love; there was nothing angry or offputting in Motown's early phases, and all his artists were scrubbed, brushed, preened, cleaned and coiffed for the Caucasian middle class, where the Big Money was.Not for James Brown, and the funkier, leaner, sweatier his music, the better. Live, as it were, in your face, or whatever part of your body he wanted to insinuate his funky rhythms in. (Brown was the Funk Borg; resistance was futile, and additionally very white).

It was in 1965 or so, and the family was in the den, watching The Ed Sullivan Show,  expecting yet another Sunday night of Topo GIGO (the Little Italian Mouse), Robert Merrill baritoning something from an Italian opera, a man balancing fifty or so plates spinning on the top of high, wobbling rods, and maybe something for the teens, a pop band from England , or maybe the Four Seasons. We were in store for something else, a tsunami of smashed expectation, a hurricane of what the fuck?. James Brown and his Famous Flames came on and did fifteen minutes (if I recall correctly) of pivotal paradigm shifting, a black man in tight shark skin suit, a high pompadour on his head glistening like polished tar, hoarsely belting lyrics that neither my brothers and sister nor our parents could make out. Brown wasn't just standing there but was rather kinetic, frenzied as angry bees from a disturbed hive, doing splits, dropping to his knees, doing running slides from the back of the stage to the front , where he'd catch the microphone stand and continue his coarse pleading, the band pumping up an endless, minimally 
applied rhythm, full of hard punching horn riffs, chicken-scratch guitar fills, brilliantly insistent bass lines, drumming that was tight on the accents like shrink wrap around a steaming hot steak. It was aggressive, hard, flailing, wonderfully anarchic and yet disciplined by any number of music traditions I wasn't yet aware of when I was fifteen. What was important that it was physical, real, and that voice of his, giving rise to images of the deepest ravines of pain , rage and the scarcely habitable terrain of lust, concentrated my still-current notion of what good soul and rock vocalizing has to amount to:DAMN THE AESTHETICS, GIVE IT THE GAS.

Mom and Dad were stunned , bemused, disgusted (or maybe just one of those three adjectives) and my brothers and sister were all gabbing and laughing and getting into arguments about whether it was time to go bed. A headwind had just blown through the den, which was hard, considering that it was in the basement of our Michigan house, compact and snugly packed in all that hard concrete and cold dirt.But I was essentially self involved through no fault of my own; I was hard of hearing and had a lot of time to ponder and nuance my teenage awkwardness, and I tended to respond to things other than reading that were loud, frenzied, given to spectacle. Thus my love for rock and roll. Brown , that night, had blown all other things aside; I hadn't the vaguest idea of what it was I'd just seen , but I knew it was important, and had something of a premonition that it would be James Brown and not Topo Gigot nor the man spinning fifty or so splits on the top of long, wobbling rods who I'd continue to talk about in years to come. It turned out that I was right, not bad for a fifteen year old kid, but I had no idea that James Brown would remain worth talking about for so many decades.

Good show, James. Get off on the good foot.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

John Lennon and the end of the Beatles

A repost of an old essay on Lennon and the Beatles, suitable in view of the final FBI files on Lennon being recently released, and that this month is the anniversary of his murder. We will not see his like soon.-tb
This past December 8th was the twenty-sixth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination by that ignoble cipher Mark David Chapman, and as much as one wants to deny that they remain obsessed with the great glory of their fiery youth, a day of this kind makes me none the less want to meander around the old and overgrown ground of the past and wonder how things might have been different.

But the motives are selfish, as they always have been with me, and I am less concerned with the winsome utopia Lennon wanted to bring us to had Chapman not found his gun and his target, but rather with the decline of Lennon's music, post-Beatles. My position is simple and probably simple-minded; Lennon was a pop music genius during his time with the Beatles, collaborating or competing with Paul McCartney, definitely at the top of his songwriting and performer game, and with the introduction of Yoko Ono into his life, we see a lapse into the banal, the trivial, the pretentiously bone-headed.

Yoko Ono did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with an egomania that overrode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft-headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game.

The sheer genius of the entire Beatle body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music, and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music.

What's amazing for an anniversary as seemingly monumental as this is the paucity of new insights, previously unavailable information, or especially interesting critical estimations of their estimable body of work. It is a topic that has been exhausted, it seems since scrutiny on all matters and personalities pertaining to the Beatles has been unceasing since their demise. We have, essentially, is reruns of our own memories, repackaged, remodeled, sold to us again, and endless of things we already know intimately and yet consume compulsively because we cannot help ourselves. It cheapens the term, but "addiction" comes to mind.

There is nothing to add to the Beatles legacy except perhaps add our anecdotes to the ceaseless stream of words that seek to define their existence and importance even today. It's no longer about what the Beatles meant and accomplished in altering the course of history or manipulating the fragile metaphysical assumptions we harbor, for good or ill;we've exhausted our best and largest generalities in that regard, and the task will fall to historians, philosophers and marketers after most of us are dead as to what The Beatles and their songs are worth as art and commercially exploitable assets. For us there remains only a further dive into autobiography, where we might yet find some clue and excitement as to how these guys became an informing influence on our individual personalities. John Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I loudly bad-mouthed the pasty, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work.

None of what I thought I mattered in that instance. John Lennon was dead and it was like losing some essential part of myself whose loss would never be filled with anything even half as good or worthy. He still mattered to me in my life quite despite the fact that I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member. For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce, or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name , icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others, has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result.

Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snap-shot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that, in essence, attempts to instruct me that my own response through a period I lived in is meaningless. Such hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their own terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music, it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity. Many magazines and other media have used Lennon and the Beatles for no than their value as nostalgia icons in an attempt pathetic glimpses of their own history. It's only business, nothing personal, and that is exactly the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he had the ability to switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon's' late period were marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory.

It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his own terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make-believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his cliches as some of the contemporaries had.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Underworld", a novel by Don DeLillo

On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English the 20th Century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the group compiled by the folks at Modern Library. But appreciated the misgivings of reader factions who felt that their groups, their "voices" had been ignored, shunted to the side, 'marginalized" , with the editors making inadequate efforts to broaden the Canon. But the real use of such list, I think, is to start a controversy, to get a debate going about what makes a good novel, and, I suppose, to have at least part of the public sphere be about something other than whether a sitting president did the wild thing with an intern in a broom closet just off the White House pantry. Not least of all, I've had more conversations, well-mannered debates (!) as to what constitutes a great novel, and most of these chats have gone a step further and dealt with, oddly, why literature is important to a society and culture such as ours. The talks have been stimulating, and, since I work in a bookstore, sales of novels have been brisk, and this due to a high-flying list that pleased no one. Let's have more, and let's rescue literature from the academics, who've abandoned any certainty in their analysis.

For the greatest novel written in America in the second half of the 20th Century, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo.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 Nobles. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plotlines 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.It's never occurred to me not to consider DeLillo a postmodern writer, since his work, especially Great Jones Street, the Names White Noise and especially the hugely brilliant Underworld has outlined and defined the postmodern terrain and its most compelling attributes. As discussed earlier in this thread and in other threads where DeLillo figured largely to the subject at hand, his world is about characters trying to adjust to and survive within a universe filled with Invisible but Irresistible movements that threaten to finally take them in.

DeLillo is often critiqued by some readers and critics (perhaps weary of his name being intoned when the subject of greatness arises in their conversations) for writing characters who all sound alike, unnatural, distinct from real life. I would hope so."Natural" ought to mean an idiom that's believable for narrators and characters to be speaking in, an idiom whose success depends on how well the author constructs the fictional world they're entertaining us with. Underworld has several idioms that DeLillo plays with well-- an awful lot of this novel takes its narrative energy from the minds of characters who are thinking their way through their predicaments, a perfect and virtuoso blend of Faulkner association and Italian American cadences -- so it's a matter of vernaculars, plural, that makes up the weave up the novel.

But the DeLillo "voice" -- detached, musing, aware of some melancholic finality at the end of the storylines that belie the rationalizations and worldviews of the characters--the artists, the ballplayers, the trash disposal capitalists, the nun-- that winds up in an endless chain of ironies. It's a tone of expression that seems quite right for DeLillo: natural, in other words. What makes it into a style is his ability to modify, alter, or disguise it's timbre, pitch, and density so that he seems to create a universe that seems completely and desperately besotted by a whispering anxiety of aimlessness. The usual voice flows quite well, smoothly in fact; it's not for nothing that DeLillo is praised for writing the best sentences in American English. I don't hear any of Mamet's style in DeLillo. Not a trace. Faulkner, perhaps, especially noticeable in Underworld, but nothing from Mamet, whose rhythms are those of a dropped bag of hammers.

We end up with novels dealing with specialization seen not as a way to understand how the world and history work but rather as delusional and distracting activities that keep us as consumers. It is a body of work where what we say about the world we live in is deflected and abstracted, absorbed into larger things that are beyond our antennae. Whether the tales are about a rock artist who has millions hinging on his every lyric, a professor of Hitler studies finding himself powerless, despite his special knowledge, in light of an unexplained catastrophe, or about a risk-management assessor analyzing local political situations to minimize the the chance of ruin for potential corporate investment, DeLillo's' work  imagines the existence after modernism's' promise of better living through constant, violent change has turned into a documented set of fiascoes, disasters, wars, and genocides. 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 incoherent and supremely foreign. 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, all mantras, to give the world a 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 paintbrush, 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 press 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 never existed.

No one maintains topicality alone makes for greatness. Great style twined with keen insight makes the argument for great riches more convincing. A flair for the poetic, a grasp of imagery that enlarges one's sensibility in the world settles the issue. DeLillo, to my perhaps exclusionist sensibilities, has all these elements. But topicality is not what DeLillo is about; the currency of his plots is believable starting points for his investigations into the nature of our language, of how we address ourselves. His books, I think, have enough for generations of readers and critics to study and discuss for decades to come. He writes broadly enough, and well enough, to sidestep victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself.

I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer.

That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and it's accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

New Mailer Due

Norman Mailer is due to have his latest novel , The Castle in the Forest, published on his 84th birthday in January; it's about the life of the young Adolph Hitler, narrated by a top lieutenant of The Devil.The philandering and rationalized dysfunctions characterizing prevailing Hitler Family Values in the future Fuhrer's early life gives us a vivid, arresting depiction of the making of a Monster.Incident after incident, ranging from his father Alois's incestuous infidelities the youth's rapt fascination in a village blacksmith's theories on how a Will Of Iron is galvanized, Mailer's use of the narrating demon gives a feeling of when the worm had turned.

It's good, wonderfully seductive, a tale you can't turn away from. Among Mailer's life long themes has been various examinations of the gaining and use of power, for purposes good or ill, and The Castle in the Forest's imagined portrait of a world scourge emerging from a festering mess will give one something to ponder , perhaps in a pause of action when one is deciding whether to be a bastard by exacting a revenge for a slight, real or imagined, or whether will be mature enough to let the irritation fade and thus not make the world a more sour place. The beating of butterfly wings indeed; our good works, enacted in good faith, has an effect on how history turns out, but the sad fact is that our worst deeds seem to swell faster and sweep aside all good intentions in their tsunami like rush.

At heart, Mailer is right about journalism being mostly bad writing, but it's worth nothing that some of Mailer's most praised books have been produced under the loud and loathsome shadow of deadline. Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and most his novelesque journalism are what many consider to be Mailer's best period, and it may said that the brazen and often spectacular results of his work-for-hire supports his suspicions that he was the best writer of his generation. Quick, expensive remarks said in haste, with a particular habit of mind that could make the incidental bit of crankiness into something more memorable. But Mailer is a singular talent and his gifts are not given to the hard sifting, grilling and grind that a professional reporter must do as part of his their daily professional lives; Mailer at heart remains the critic, the observer, the fancier of the behavior of men in large crowds jockeying for advantage. It wouldn't be inaccurate to describe much of Mailer's journalism as one comedy of manners after another, Ala Trollope or Jane Austin; what he couldn't reveal as scandal or creeping evil could be suggested with his fiction-wrting gifts in the telling detail, the deft psychology of characters through the subtle reading of how the actors carried themselves.

Mailer has remarked that he considered "the Internet the biggest waste of time since masturbation", but it's likely that he would have taken to blogging if he were younger. Certainly, it fits what had been his preference to send dispatches from the front lines of an event, and it would have given instant and unlimited access to an audience that wanted to hear his unique and twisting views. Blogging itself is an even faster generator of bad writing than traditional print media--I include myself in each and every crime against syntax committed for the sake of getting my name on one more web page--but it's a safe guess that Mailer would have excelled in the medium just as he excelled in print. Or maybe not; Mailer writes in longhand, and submits it to an assistant for typing. After that, the manuscript is poured over again for editing. Knowing this, you wonder if Mailer had ever learned how to type. Perhaps that will be an issue that will be addressed in a future doctoral thesis.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Got Stress?

There's nothing to say at the moment about which trends in popular media or literature please me or offer me a prickly kiss, but I did come across an old sociology book, from the fifties, called "The Stress of Everyday Life" at D.G.Wills Books . It was less the subject matter that made me pick up the used book than it was the title's type style; blocky, bold,all capitalized, one word up upon the other like a tottering tower about to give way to lethal gravity. The Word "stress", as you see it here, was askew, cracking under strain , as if , well, under stress.Suitably, I grabbed it and virtually yelled "STRESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS" to ride the rest of the a-ha! wave. I bought the book, scanned the cover, and cropped the single word you see above. It's become a seasonal mantra, a one-syllable
password to a fellow human being likewise feeling pressed upon by the Holidays and news events that have no real bearing on their life.

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.