Friday, May 11, 2007

Carey Bell, Blues Harp Master, RIP


Carey Bell, a Chicago blues harp master who's snappy phrases and soulful tone were among the influences that kept me playing the harmonica, has passed on. A mere seventy years of age, one is grateful that he's well represented by quality studio work. More than anyone else I listened to when I was woodshedding, Bell's rhythm and blues flavored style taught me the importance of "punching it" on the microphone; each note had to land like a fist and be light as a dollar caught in a Michigan Avenue wind. Seek out this man's harmonica work. He was amazing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Would you throw another slab of crap at me, Erica?


Sometimes you read things that rub you the wrong way, the way wet clay clumps in the hair.I think both the cows and the old woman with the goiter should take turns slapping Erica Levy McAlpine's for defaming them by inclusion in a dumfoundingly tacky poem. McAlpine perhaps wanted to see fast she could over extend the equpoised parts of a what should be a brief comparsion, or perhaps she wanted to parody a bad writer's habit of trying to write himself out of a bad idea by getting prolix and posied, but the result all the same instills nausea, as peering too close and long at something is prone to do. This is not a compliment. The title is fitting; this is not a poem, it's a growth.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Tony Soprano Becomes King Lear?

The center of the The Sopranos universe is Tony Soprano, enforcing whatever laws of gravity there were in this skewed Americana that kept the players and their agendas in something resembling order. Sheer force of personality, brutality, dry-bone ruthlessness were what it took to maintain this crime empire and to maintain a social hierarchy in which everyone--Christopher, Paulie, Silvio, Carmella-- has an agenda they would pursue to disaster had the wrath of Tony not been their shared constraint. Uneasy , wobbly and self-doubting is the head of this fiefdom ,as all the self knowledge and revelation Tony has learned through therapy hasdecentered his mojo. Where he'd been able to compartmentalize his criminal career, the infidelities, the murders, and family life in square and sealed boxes whose contents and consequences never met, the barriers have collapsed, the actions and the pathologies behind have become irretrievably twined and knotted together, a perfect tangle. Tony is witnessing the world he's been the center of break apart, and he can no longer hold it together.I suspect his rhetorical question to Dr. Melfi regarding what therapeutic results, "IS THIS ALL THERE IS?",will be enlarged in the final four episodes. Tony Soprano, demanding love and loyality while he exerted his will, is soon to have his King Lear scene, alone in the rain, stripping himself of the literal and symbolic vestments depicting an idea of omnipotence he never had.

There are substantial differences between Tony and Shakespeare's delusional Majesty, the key one being that Lear relinquishes his power once he foolishly assumes that he has secured his version of reality , with all avowed loyalties and relations in tact, and that he may indulge his whims to be free of responsibility and merely be revered and adored.Betrayal and calumny are his results, and the cause of disasters, his vanity and failure to realize he's been grossly flattered in the efforts of a daugher and uscrupulous supplicants to rest power from him. The truth is what drives him past the brink and into the rain. Tony does not relinquish power to anyone in contrast, but he wearies of the weight of what he must to do maintain his position, and his refusal to change his behavior in order to change himself is costing him dearly. An old axiom comes to mind, that one cannot think their way into good living, but one can live there way into good thinking.Tony's problem is that he thought he could make his anxieties vanish on the basis of self-knowledge alone.The gathered revelations have gotten thick for him.

All the lies told to him and the lies he told himself are laid bare, and all that awaits is the last brick to fall from the last wall from this shoddily bolstered construction of self delusion. What producer David Chase and his writers come up with by the series is one of the few things to look forward to in this season of dim news and dimmer celebrity hi jinks.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Awarding genius for the right reasons

It was a fortunate circumstance in 2006 that the long denied Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar for The Departed, luckier all the more because the star-driven crime drama was actually one of the best movies that year, and a strong effort from Scorsese himself. One may name their own example of a important artists being belatedly honored by their peers and critics with an award given to something that is not their best work. The Academy dodged the bullet that time, and Scorsese can make the legitimate claim that he did the best job of directing a film last year.Following suit, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to long time jazz maverick Ornette Coleman for his 2006 album Sound Garden. Nothing ages worse than yesterday's avant gard, so it's said, but Coleman's work survives fashions that have gone to the wayside because of his uncompromising singularity of concept. Sound Garden, uniquely fractured with funk, twelve tone colorations, skewed bop references and a full host of energized against-the-grain improvisation, continues a
hot streak the saxophonist and music theorist has been for the last decade. The Pulitzer Prize folks have been seeking to make their awards for best music composition less Eurocentric, and here picked an outsider genius who, fate of fates, might now have to make peace with the cultural mainstream.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hip Hop's Intransigent Vulgarity


Kalefa Sanneh weighs in on the renewed focus on hip-hop's intransigent vulgarity in the New York Times and offers a typically middle of the road position about the music's part in encouraging violence and the furthering coarsening of American life. Don't blame the music, Sanneh writes, these words, these jokes, these attitudes have been part of African American and urban culture for generations, evolving from   

the tradition of "toasting" and graduating from the streets and the rent parties to the airwaves, discos, and television. The point of it all was to shake up the mainstream, upset the comfortably settled, and give voice at the same time to a vital life that boiled and roiled in the heart of every poor neighborhood languishing in the shadows of corporate America. Blame the corporations for disseminating the material to the larger population, blame your own uptightness if you are offended and taken aback by the rough language and general ugliness of much of the work. Some points well taken, and I'm of the mind that music and lyrics, whether Muddy Waters, Elvis, the Ramones or NWA in themselves cause people to have unprotected sex and buy "cop killer" bullets--this is a controversy that gets replayed every few years when media critics and their employers have exhausted the current crop of pseudo events for their capacity to inspire unending opinion-mongering whose collective outrage seems more scripted and assigned than spontaneous and reflecting real offense--but what irks me is the casual implication that if we'd relax and take a broader view we wouldn't get so upset. 

That's the old Lenny Bruce theory on foul language, that words are only words and that if we use them frequently and openly, they would lose their shock value and their capacity to offend. Nice theory, but very Fifties in fact, and one that does not travel well. Lester Bangs, writing of the N-word in a seventies piece called "White Noise Supremacists" in the Village Voice, examined his own adherence to Bruce's notion to defang the quarrelsome words and found the formula lacking. The word is generations old, used as powerful weapon to reinforce cultural and institutional racism and oppression, so much so, he found, that no matter how ironic one tried to be in their attempt to liberate the term from it's originating pathology, the N-word hurt, it hurt deep, it still caused anger, as it was designed to. Violence is an inevitable consequence for some when this word gets used, and so it goes with the hip-hop's street-level idiom. The language isn't going to be less upsetting merely because most of us shrug our shoulders and do nothing. The republic will survive, and the language we might object to will cease finding it's way into our public spaces only when the reality the words reflect ceases to be attractive, enviable, romantic. We return to our original and ongoing problem as a country: the transformation of a political apparatus into a means that allows people to achieve lives worth living.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"In Flight Couplets": by Alfred Corn


Alfred Corn's mentions of Mandelshtam in this week's poem ought not be made too much of, since it's name dropping vanity to mention the great Russian poet in a poem that he, Corn, is writing about his own fears of being forgotten as an artist
in the event of a catastrophe that would eradicate his name and the words he wrote. It would one thing for a poet to compare himself to another writer if that nervous one-to-one resulted in work that surpassed the fragility of the author's self-image and touched on matters that involved a readership larger than those who are entertained by the poet's version of mirror-gazing. Norman Mailer is notoriously obsessed with his fame, influence and his position among the writers of his generation and the generation before him, but he hasn't be disingenuous about his craving for influence and praise, and has worked hard to make that liability into a problematic asset.
Fraught with peril, the self-advertising resulted all the same with memorable books that transcended the neurotic center of Mailer's ego and got him to engage events larger than himself, whether massive antiwar marches, political conventions, Moon landings. The scheme was simple, effective more often than not; there were Mailer's expectations of how he would change things when he wrote about personalities and events, and then the realization of what was actually underway; Mailer got beyond to best DosPossos and Hemingway and Faulkner at their own games and became, instead, a voice unlike any other of his generation. Not well liked by many folks, yes, but undeniably the author of several brilliant books that flourished despite his worst habits. The secret was that Mailer knew when to get out of the way of the story.Corn does not know when to step aside, though, and the constrictions of the sonnet make his subject a swim in the muck that comprises a writer's vanity that cannot transcend itself. His poem "Windows on the World", nominally about 9-11, was a distanced recollection of cranky ironies that were whimsical rather than resonant with the solemn associations we would term "poetic". Horrible attacks were reduced to being mere finger exercises for the poet to limber up the writing muscle. This week's poem again works a similar airplane/bomb equation, and there is poor Alfred Corn, prisoner of text, scribbling away the words of his own epitaph , as if this page would be discovered, identified and applied to posthumous notices if the worst that happen indeed took place. The silliest thing of this whole poem is that Corn wants the audience that would read him after he's nothing but splattered body parts that he read Mandeshtam. It's comical; if one cannot be remembered for their work, they can at least be remembered for their good taste.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I get a kick out of Jesus


Because I didn't think my sins were interesting enough, being anemic , venal transgressions on the more minor points of God's limitless conditions of existence under His grace, I used to make stuff up when I went to confession because I was unclear on what confession was, didn't want to reveal the impure thoughts coursing through my twelve year old, and because I thought the whole idea of going into a black box with a man in a black dress creeped me out.

I was creeped even more hearing him breath through the screen, deep, grating rasps of a man who smoked and drank hard, amber alcohol. I was sorting through my contrived sins , trying to remember how many times I had done each imagined offense and attempting to calculate as well the penance I might receive (there was an element of trying to get a "high score") when I heard the priest mutter under his breath c'mon, hurry it up, c'mon... I told the priest to go fuck himself and ran out of the confessional and out of the church to get on my bike, riding off down Livernoise Avenue with a faint,tired yelling of "hey" behind me.

The next day at school some older boys were leaning against a fence by a parking lot adjoining the Catholic School."You told Father Martin to go fuck himself" said the biggest kid, one of the altar boys who helped the parish priests perform Mass during the week days, " You got yourself a fist full of trouble, punk."

He pushed me off the bike, and after I fell to the asphalt, each of the older boys kicked me something fierce; my books were strewn over the parking lot, my bike was thrown into the middle of the street, my nose was swollen and bloody. "Eat shit, punk" said the biggest kid."Jesus loves you" I wise cracked. He turned around and kicked me again, right where it counts

Kill Your TV

He scratches his chin where he just shaved minutes ago, the drone of morning cable news making the air in the apartment seem filled with static. This was the first time he could remember where the thought of canceling his cable service stayed with him overnight, a notion that came when he was moving between the two hundred stations, concentrating on the news and movie outlets, becoming slowly aware that there are, according to the networks, only five or six stories worth covering in the world; Anna Nicole Smith, Don Imus's propensity for stepping in his own piles of crap, Sanjaya Malakar's inscrutable lack of singing talent,, The Virginia Tech Massacre, Alec Baldwin's tirade against his eleven year old daughter. What bothered him wasn't the stories themselves, as they are news and need to be presented and understood in some fashion, but there is a point where there is nothing more to say when nothing more is known but yet the talking heads just keep right on yakking up a storm, pushing other stories off the air. Literally, off the air.

When there is nothing more to report, talking heads present some other "authority" from some hereto-for unheard of blog site, specialty magazine or perhaps a former aid to a senator that once sat on a committee loosely related to the spotlight controversy , who would then be peppered with a series of inane questions he or she didn't have a real answer to. Airtime filled with supposition, best guesses, speculation, old fashioned rumor mongering, all in the name of the public's right to know what is or is not happening to the over famous, the overpaid whose hyper image is out of bounds with anything one recognizes when they finally leave the house, start the car and attempt to navigate traffic as one makes their way to work. I have a job to pay for this seamless and seamy stream of irrelevance? It's possible to watch cable news programming for a whole day and learn nothing at all for the time spent. He twitches. The shirt is stiff and scratchy like a trucker's scabbed fingertips. The tv keeps making the yammering drone of nonsense, and the roof suddenly seems be lowering upon him; is this what a sardine feels like?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Civil Twilight": muttering small talk at the wall




Someone needs to offer the featured poets of Slate's poem of the week some lessons for reading their work over the phone; case in point is Terri Witek's
reading of her selected poem "Civil Twilight",published online in Slate. Her rendition, as is , was lugubrious, ponderous and downright slow, like clogged dial up connections to early Internet fare, but the slight ringing of feedback, the hollow ambiance of someone speaking too closely into a phone receiver proved irritating. One felt as if an oaf was trying to be intimate with you by breathing into your ear. Can the Microsoft engineers devise a better sounding result from the software at their disposal?

Not that it would help Witke's poem much, since it is stationary abstraction that in turn cannot move a single reader's grey matter to cogitate an empathetic response. There's an attraction to writing a poem loosely based on an arcane or mysterious phrase taken from an old text, but one would think the resulting verse would strive to make some sense of the cryptic words by positing coherent questions and underlining ironies that might arise when old instructions--whether technical, moral, or hygienic (or spiritual)
are considered in more recent contexts.

Witke only produces more distance, which would fine if there was a sense of an inward inquiry in play one takes to be occurring in the poems of Elizabeth Bishop or John Ashbery. But that isn't happening.
The poem seems more like lifeless conundrums
uttered as passing sighs in the night, exasperation expressed in groans and half phrases that can't even give clear color to their interior state.

Who arched the bridge to this island of flare-ups?
Which is the key to the hotel of dismay?
Nests blunt the junctions between river and ocean.
I suppose we have done with our mutual heat.


We are meant to consider this in light of the sublime disgust and resignation Eliot gave us with "Ash Wednesday" and "The Waste Land", but Witke hasn't the gift for the pithy phrase making that was Eliot's supreme gift. "Hotel of dismay??"
The poet wants to telegraph the mood, but wooden and trite phrases like that will not suffice.The poem is about one's discontent with a world that does not measure up to private paradigms,but it remains an awkward grumbling at best. Another poet falls victim to their weakest work being highlighted in these pages.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Don DeLillo, Cell Phones, The Destruction of Irony

A week ago, after work, on a crosstown bus, and all I wanted for the half hour ride was to read the galley of the new Don DeLillo novel, Falling Man,a ruminative narrative highlighting the lives of New Yorkers on the day of the attacks, 9/11. Finally, a novel about the attack that matters; not to give too much away, but this is prime DeLillo, exploring the sober side of what was White Noise's premise for post modern comedy, the disruption of fixed and certain lives by the intrusion of an event beyond imagination. 

In White Noise, the effect was comic, funny, and all ironies laid in the day were comedies of the clueless trying to make peace with the nagging changes that cause everyone to avoid the void as they try to retool old habits with new explanations, theories, contrived proofs that the world will return to normal. Now it's tragedy, and the quality of irony finds itself made ironical.The attack on the World Trade Center puts us beyond abstractions like comedy or tragedy , on which one can grasp onto something fixed in their minds as a normality they can get back to. All is muted, rendered mute.Rationalization is deferred.

So what I wanted to do in this thirty minutes was to swim in DeLillo's brilliant prose and wallow in my own abstract and unconnected intellections, vaguely aware of neon signs and street lights going past, when my own sallow pleasure was deferred, tipped over by a growing sound, beginning in consciousness as a mild buzz, a gentle irritant, but which now had increased in volume, length and grating persistence that it could no longer be ignored.A girl, twenty, yakking away in the back of the bus, at full volume. I was sitting in the front of the bus, but I could hear every word clearly. I might as well been listening from a across a Starbuck's table." --so Jenny says to me that Brad is a creep and has issues and such bullshit that makes him flake and bail on phone calls he was supposed to return or money he had to pay back, and told me too that going out with him was a bad idea, mega bad, but I said to Jenny that she could cool her jets and let me find out for myself because all that shit about Brad fucking Zoe is nothing I don't know about already and ---"
A breathless gush , a river of seamless nouns and adjectives, accelerated in tempo and announced to the entire bus in a pitch that resembled the high strung whine of apartment house plumbing when someone takes a shower; her voice was less appealing than a six year old with a bullhorn. I rose and asked her to lower her voice. She stopped talking."Your talking about stuff that's too personal for 
public consumption. We don't want to participate in your conversation..." Christ, I sounded like a goddamned old man, older than my father ever sounded when he chastised me for unctuous behavior in public. But I am an old man, truth be told, fifty four , almost fifty five, and convinced that I've lived long enough to not have to put up with this mindless inconsideration. Of course, I was talking to a nineteen year old girl, and not some muscled loud mouth male, or a crack head trying to score a fix. Big man. Still, let it be known.

CELL PHONES NEED TO BE DESTROYED!!

Of course, I calmed down. Not good for the blood pressure to fume about the small stuff. But the irritation lingers, it's not likely to subside, and what makes matters really aggravating is my awareness that I'll have to , at some time, get a cell phone.

I oppose cell phone use commercial airlines and applaud the FAA's refusal to allow them to be used. It's not right to force people to listen to chatter junkies prate on and on when one hasn't the option to move to a quieter spot. Cell phone users driving cars, in check out lines, in theaters, in bookstores, in cafes must all be quiet. "Social conventions" have yet to emerge as something we apply to cell phones. If there is a "given" about the devices, it's that owners assume they have a right, mandated from God, to use their phones where ever they choose to discuss whatever they like, making life in the city all that less delightful. San Diego, New York, Chicago, Detroit, folks flip them open, prate about their affairs no matter how inane or personal or private--I had to listen to a psychiatrist wax to a colleague about a patient, name and everything, about a patient's difficulties and the treatments he wasn't responding to in the middle while in the middle of a crowded bookstore. So much for doctor/patient privilege. Really, social conventions, such as tact,respect for your fellows, holding a civil tongue in public, are dismantled and discarded when cell phones enter the picture. I don't regard the use of a cell as an unconditional civil right and would encourage Airlines to simply ban them outright, on the principle that paying that kind of money ought not be a buy-in to listening to yammering neurotics whose company I cannot leave until the plane touches down. Or when my bus comes to my stop.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A poem by Joyce Carol Oates

"Kite Poem," the Joyce Carol Oates poem selected and posted at Slate.com  by Robert Pinksy a year or so ago, brought audible moans from my lips when I first read it and considered it at the time to be her expected stew of haphazard, unproductive edginess. It was settled: violations of form which worked for her fiction writing more often than not made her poems drear and precious attempts to dance along the edge of reason in hopes art results in the transgression. I re-read it today to see if I had been too harsh, too quick to judge, reacting in a pique of professional jealousy. I gave it another several going over:



Her art as a prose writer is problematic enough; depending on who you talk to, she is either the most important American novelist since Faulkner, or she is a grotesque aberration of the language, taking too little care to craft her ideas or her prose. I am somewhere in the center of that controversy, thinking that she writes too rapidly to be consistently good, but acknowledge that she here novels have ofttimes been brilliant explorations of the psychologically marginal personality and that at her best, she can produce great fiction that concerns itself with the sudden violence that can visit any of us, at any time. She is a major novelist, like it or not. But she is an awful poet, and why she follows this thing other than the compulsion to write in every style and genre she comes upon--look ma, no hands. But what it seems she's attempting to show us as being an effortless work is instead cryptic, undecided, and full of awkward poses. The form is one thing, rather clever in a third-grade crafts class kind of way, but a move that begs for a death sentence. Those of us old enough to remember the fad for concrete poetry and the quizzically airless experiments of Richard Kostelanetz and his late modernist cronies will find this ploy, well, quaint. Better than Oates concern herself with content because the form otherwise dictates something like the air itself; emptiness.

I think, maybe, that Oates is proposing a new form of poetry, Compressed Literalism, as there's the feeling that she intends nothing beyond the banality of these unremarkable lines. That would have been fine had there been something else implied, something another feeling, idea, a paradox of things in the normative world that the sight of kites provoked Oates to speak of these things. Imagists, at their best ("The Red Wheel Barrel," "In the Metro"), manage to create whole worlds with their precise treatment of the image. Oates evokes nothing other than an offhand remark that only seems to start an idea and never finish it. The last word, "heap," signifying the end of the kite's tail, is meant for us to get some irony visually, where the banal words are expanded, elaborated upon in our own imaginations. We're meant to finish the poem ourselves by operating as co-authors, but there is not enough art in all of Oates' artifice. It's cute, contrived, and dreadful, and it's a sin for a writer of Oates' otherwise impressive accomplishments to waste her reader's time with these soporific outings. Better another half dozen half-baked novellas in the likely chance a keeper is produced than any more stanzas that are without effort, art, or a hint of lyric grace. Mary Ann from Slate's Poetry Fray Bulletin Board asks, "Maybe she saves her "better" poems for hard copy literary journals and uses Slate for her more off-hand pieces."

Doubtful. I've read a few of her poems over two decades, and what's appeared on Slate is par for the course. She really hasn't the ear or the eye for the off-hand associations this sort of fragmented, harsh free verse she wants to write, ala Denise Levertov, Diane Wachowski, or the sainted Sylvia Plath. Nor does she have the patience to create a plausible case where negative capability plays forth. Her verses are ideas disguised as poems, but what's missing is a natural-sounding diction, a voice, and a sense of imagery that has the seamless quality of natural talent. From what I hear, she is a realistic fiction writer of a certain kind and a decent playwright. But she remains a lousy poet. If she wrote at a slower pace -- say, producing one novel a year ala Updike -- she'd get high praises for improving her craft and writing better-crafted books. She already receives primarily glowing reviews from critics; it's funny that it's those of us in the trenches, the readers, who do most of the complaining about Oates's sudden outpouring. She writes as if she wants to get the Nobel Prize in the worst way. Writing so many half-baked novels is undoubtedly the worst way to go about it. Beasts, a novella she released last year, is the kind of penny-dreadful she's wont to write. She often attempts a reversed feminist take on the subject of violence against women. In this case, the story of a young woman who falls for the power she believes resides in the knowledge and experience her poetry professor possesses. Naturally, what happens is that the girl is summarily drugged, raped, and subjected to various indignities, all of which will shatter her idealism and motivate her to change her assumptions and effect devastating revenge. Compelling abstractly, as a topic for a coffee glitch, but botched in the novel; the prose reads without a hint of conviction and would be more suitable if it were the treatment for the script of a miserable made for TV film.