Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Poet Chokes in the 9th Inning

In theory I ought to like Alan Michael Parker's poem "I Have Been Given a Baseball..." more than I do because it exhibits traits I find appealing and find not often enough; straight, unpretentious language, a knowing details about a world we might recognize from our own experience, and a deft hand of knowing when to give the details and when to hold back, to let mood and substance fill in those details that plain narrative facts cannot express. Still, Parker's poem leaves me with that after taste one might associate with Sharps or Odouls or some other fake beer they might deign to sample and find themselves having to comment on what the faux ale tasted like. Gamy, I'd say, no pun intended. You can taste the resemblance to actual lager, but what you take away is how the simulation jumped the rails and gave you a cotton tongue and a mouth that felt like it had a long drink of your mom's shampoo. Similarly, Parker's piece reads like a poem and does it's paces very well--pause, sit, speak, roll over, go abstract, give a glimpse of something comprehensible, now conclude, wistfully, whispering--but I can't get over the gutlessness of the enterprise.

The problem might being with the subject itself, baseball and it's relation to the collective consciousness of how we'd like to regard ourselves; so much has been made of this over the century, supported, amended, expanded, contracted, with limitless layers of irony and outrage that one is hard pressed to name a particular emotion or dramatic trope that hasn't through baseball's diamond-formed symbolism. The sheer attraction of the game, how it appeals to the perceived American virtues of openness and fair play and playing by the rules, that agenda after agenda, attitude after attitude have been pushed through it's fabled fields in the order of making a point, of laying out how great we are or how debased we have become. There's not much chance of using baseball again as a means to underscore points of pain of injustice or unspoken joy without having one's poetic feet snap the worm-eaten structure on which this mythology lies. Parker, though, is game and gives it a try, lowering his sights smartly enough , to a set of hieroglyphs mysteriously set in front of him, the base ball of the title

emblazoned with a map
of the New York City subways,

a novelty item complete with the violet
No. 7 line, the train that clatters out to Shea.
Too often in the '70s in the rain

I saw the Mets lose there,
among anonymous fans
under orange and blue umbrellas

or the occasional grocery bag.

There is splendid compression here, wonderful enjambment of details, a rush of words of someone speaking in a hurry, bringing us to their concern in the mid thought; the way these opening stanzas first describe the map sketched on the ball (smartly omitting how the author came to be given the object) dissolves into local New York history. This is the stammer and stream of a local who has shared in the accumulated heartache and rage of being a Mets fan. Parker echoes on of the ongoing themes of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, which follows the trading of a particular baseball that his passed along father to son, son to collector, that is reputed to have been the ball that was knocked out the Park during a crucial baseball game, "the shot heard around the world". There is no documentation to authenticate the claims of historical significance by the sellers, but what becomes more important aren't traceable facts and measurable evidence but instead the selling itself, the story telling that goes with the baseball, the language that seduces one into believing that this is indeed the baseball that was the decisive factor in the critical game, and that it radiates its genuine , extra material attributes; the buyers want this ball to be there connection to a time when baseball was played when America and Americans were good and open, playing by the rules. Parker has his character recall his own game where so much depended on the quality of a play the Mets would make that he is moved toward a slight bit of charity when he recalls a woman who's son had taken ill and died:

There's a woman I know now
whose son has died:

she should have the ball.
In the stadium this evening
the anonymous fans are hiding

under orange and blue umbrellas
or the occasional grocery bag,
and I can see her son

happy there, at last,
fidgety in the bleachers.
The lights light up the field

perfectly in the buggy, humid night—
it's like being inside a pretty thought.
When the small, sodden crowd—

are they angels?—
begins to chant Let's Go Mets,
someone changes the chant to Let's Go Home.

This is where I get the real sense that Parker had lost interest in the poem and turned instead to a scenario that could have been cribbed from the limitless number of baseball scripts that have gone unproduced over the last twenty what was effective, telegraphing compression at the start, careening nicely with a sauntering swagger that gave off a sense of big hand gestures moving about to emphasize finer points, or a detail of a dint upon a type of car or baseball hide being described, turns into a crammed last segment you get on Law and Order. This affair has to be ended now, let me out of here, get out of the way! On Law and Order they've taken to having someone get shot to death in the courtroom , the court building or in the hotel room where Police were stashing a People's witness as a means to resolve what dramatic problems they've set up for themselves when the clock urges them to quit finessing the details and to sew it all up, no matter how irrational or how ugly it becomes. Parker's narrator is motivated to hand the ball to the mother for reasons undisclosed, with the results being likewise sidestepped because the poet has discovered the writer's favorite trapdoor from a corner they've painted themselves into: ambiguity saves the day:

What would she do with the ball?
Whatever she wants,
whatever we do with anything.
This is the effect of the poet sneezing at a crucial moment, turning his head to think of something else, mentally balancing his checkbook in the middle of delivering a simile. Parker wants us to use our own powers of streaming, steaming metaphor to read in all sorts of implications , invisible and unverifiable, that this cheat of an ending might signify, but what this evokes for me is a sight of a man walking away from an accident he caused. There is no meaning here beyond the disorderly exit of the last verses other than Parker hit the exits before this ball game was over.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard, the latest entry into the ongoing adventures of New York Police John McClane's efforts to blow things up, wreak havoc on busy intersections, and pump full ammo clips into anonymous henchmen who can't seem to hit their target despite having whole arsenals of automatic weapons, is the guilty pleasure, at least for someone like me who pretends, in most cases, that movies are an art and that I attend such small-intentioned productions. My covers are pulled, because this film was a thorough hoot, a macho fender bender, high on over sized stunts and body count, low on computer animation, with enough scenes of the McClane character getting pounded, thumped on, trampled, dropped, stabbed, shot, cold cocked and so on that you can only conclude that the man does not feel pain, cannot have his bones broken, and will not die until he runs out of wisecracks.This appears to be a running joke through out star Bruce Willis's career; a movie he made for director/writer M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, where his expected everyman persona was cursed with the capability of being virtually indestructible;his bones and his organs recovered almost at once after any trauma one could toss at it. The metaphor extends, conviently,to Willis's film career as a whole, since he's managed to keep working in the movies in leading and supporting roles quite dispite the fact that quite a few of his films have tanked at the box office. The secret is likely to be Willis's likability, and his ability to more or less stay out of scandal and controversy. He hasn't done anything so indulgent and repulsive as to dissuade film goers from paying ten dollars to see his films. Also, I suspect, his films are most likely good long term revenue generators in secondary and tertiary markets; Willis and his producers understand this, and it keeps the scripts coming and the cameras rolling. Lindsay Lohan, are you listening?

Unbreakable, though, was indestructible and collapsed , dreadfully so, under Shymalan's trudging seriousness and glacial pasting, due, mostly , to the dual scourges of lacking a sense of humor and working his way up to the surprise ending that less amazing than it was inevitable. Live Free or Die Hard, in contrast, is quips, crashes, stunts, fire fights, a constant race against time as McClane bashes, bullies and beats his way to the center of a techno villian's plan to crash America's computer grid. Rest assured, there is some quality dispatching of bad guys here, as well as the constant wonder of the lead character's capacity to absorb pain.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Story always wins

Showing John Wayne films to Viet Nam GIs in an effort to shore up their patriotic zeal and to remind them what their fight is all about is straight out of Heller, Pynchon, and Baudrillard. Viet Nam will always be a horrible fact of history, but you have to find this instance perversely comic: telling real life soldiers that they have to live up to a living military heritage by illustrating the point with fictional renderings with oversized heroics is the perfect post-modern conundrum. The instruction of history, with names, dates, battles, and analysis of particular conditions, is no longer sufficient to make the past useable in the current moment, so... LET'S SHOW THEM MOVIES!

Did WWII soldiers who saw Ronald Reagan movies think that they were really swell?
The audience the Reagan war movies were intended for, the American population still at home thought they were the living end. There was an accurate assessment that the home front needed reassurances that the unexplainable events in Europe were part of some Great and Good Cause, and that our involvement was part of an effort to save everything that is decent and worthy in human history: what better way to make this argument than in an endless series of film reels, where complex historical forces are reduced to simple-yet-compelling story arcs that outlined current events as a matter of good-guys vs. bad guys? It's not as if this was a wrong thing to do, it's just that the idea of soldiers watching films insisting that the battles they're actually in are worth winning produces a wild sense of disconnection: anyone would imagine that the soldiers were already aware of the worthiness of winning the war: their lives depended on it, period.

I don't think the GI's in either the Pacific or European Theatres had the time, or the desire to watch Hollywood movies that were marked for the domestic market, but it is my guess that had the soldiers the option of watching their idealized counterparts, the reaction would be no less derisive, hooting, sarcastic. The irony of the initial post about the Viet Nam showing of Wayne films was the bone-headed notion that old, dated, and thinly valorized characters, rickety as stage props and plainly intended for an civilian audience that needed convincing that life must go on --that is, capitalism must go on-- during a good and just war might in some insane way spark a blaze of militant patriotism in actual soldiers involved, daily in actual carnage, death, destruction. In either case, real or supposed, the effect is perversely comic, and I can only imagine the laughter is a species of gallows humor: it's evidence of a knowledge that language, or its abstracted uses in narrative mediums, can come close to conveying.

Did Derrida and Barthes actually "define", or address at all the rather slippery notion of "post modernism"? Seems more appropriate to say that they, in their respective inquiries, high lighted some real conceptual issues in Continental philosophy, and created another layer of jargon that made an industry out of what, in retrospect, seems a small addition to our ways of thinking about writing. Both were inspirations to a generation of literary critics who wanted some Gallic gravitas in their corner so they may speak philosophically with out actually philosophers--or so they may extend their embedded existentialism with into the world with a bright and shiny new paint job--but my reading of them didn't come across the word "post modern".

Writing and literature is all veils, I would think: if anyone could get "IT" with a piece of work, we would have to assume the writer, and his audience are satisfied, sated, and are disinclined to hear the story again. But there is always another wrinkle to relate, another nuance to discover, another veil to be taken away.

This echoes Roland Barthes idea of writing being an erotic function, that the end that one gets to at the end of the tale is not the point of the quest, but the quest itself, the unveiling of the language, the constant re-assimilation that names for things are made to under go as the nature of the material world defies literary form; it is the imagination that needs to work within the waking sphere, not the world that needs to fit within it's contours.

We find, with reading, that writers we care about themselves could care less about what kind they are supposed to be, according to literary archivists; thus, they will have stylistics extremes that venture into another camp, away from what common knowledge dictates is their "native" style, manner. Is Gravity's Rainbow any less a work of "Magical Realism" than what we've seen in Garcia Marquez or Borges? Is Nabokov's work Pale Fire less post modern than, say, Mulligan Stew? It becomes the definitively moot point, irresolvable and subjects to an unending detour the circles around the precise meaning of finally inconsequential terms. Imagination is trait that will use anything manner or style that is suitable to a writer's project at hand and it ought not be surprising, or upsetting that many writers, assigned to roles by career-making PhD candidates, simply do what they need to do in order to get the work done.

This gives us fascinating paradoxes: Norman Mailer, by temperament a romantic existentialist who might have been in the late 19th century, is one who took to post-modern strategies to render is work: the range of his assumed styles and experimentation creates specific problems with literary historians who might be eager to be done with his books and his name.

The Amends

Something a bit different while I cook up a terse review for Live Free or Die Hard; a story, fiction, not autobiographical, not really. But there are some personality traits shared with me, I think, in this sketch of a young asshole feeling some pangs of guilt for being precisely the jerk he chose to be.


There's a woman who says she remembers me from the years of
Junior college, amid the ashtrays on cafeteria tables over flowing with
stubbed cigarettes.I was her penny whistle valentine, blowing love notes into the
air with the smoke rings, drawings of guitars in smeared blue ink
and her name scripted in psychedelic letters that leaped across
the lined note book pages like hooked marlin taut on a fisherman's line.Somewhere in the mix we tangoed to King Crimson records after a concert where she drummed her lips while one guitarist after another played to a crowd who might be looting stores on another night cursed with murder.

There was music in the living room despite all the scratches
and pops, we were surface noise on that mornings' stacked papers,
we were riffs with no song to belong to, two empty trash cans
tumbling down the cement steps of the emptiest building in the

Done, spent, hallow in the parts of the soul where
personality lived like a share cropper harvesting borrowed land ,I
stare at the ceiling in the dark and think of how many ceilings
it's been that I've stared at up until now, the cracked and
curling off white paint, spider webs in high corners, Spackle
and wood beams painted over in hasty transformations that seal
off history, fingers poke through in the hole in my gut and
practice shadow animals. I stared into the dark and heard her next to me, her
breathing , whistles and grunts circled through her nose, her
breast rose and fell, visible from the bathroom light, still on,
I was alone, thinking of escape. I dressed, I left, and I dropped out of school and took a job at a Colony Kitchen, washing dishes and prepping food,
I drank too much, never called her.

I felt like shit.

But this today, the second half of the Nineties , and twenty
years of life and death in every mundane gutter, gulch and gulp
of having fun hasn't eased anything, there's always been that
tapping at the door, getting louder, the paint cracks and curls
again, I've stared at it for the hours that years take, wishing
it weren't there. I still felt like shit.

I got her number through one of those odd times of the years
when it seems everyone you've ever known turns up, heavier, puffy
with new chins, some one else I was went to the JC with who
also knew her said that she was back in town, working at the
University as an administrator for one of the graduate
departments, and on a hunch I asked If he had her phone number.
He did, and the business card he wrote it on the back of found
it's way into my wallet, where I half hoped it would age and
stick to the other cards there like hands clasped for too

It was a home phone number, and I called that night around dinner
time, desperate for relief. While the other end rang, the walls
felt like they flew away and that the floor under me dropped
out, the muscles of my neck tightened.

A voice came on, cheery and high on a soaring note, and I
recognized it as hers, deeper, burnished by cigarette smoke, but
the same, as always. I stumbled through an introduction, my
voice a ratta-tat-tat of syllables and vowels not sure of which
way to march, but I went on, she only said, "Oh, hi, uhhh..."
My neck strained cradling the phone against my shoulder while I
fumbled across the coffee table feeling for a Marlboro pack. I
imagined shaking her head at the other end, maybe while her
husband looked on, leaning against the kitchen doorway.

"Well", she said, "what do you want?"
I paused, unable to reach the pack, and then gripped the phone
like I meant to choke the life from it.

"Oh yeah, well this seems kinda weird, I know, twenty five
years without a call or a card, but, uhhhh, it's kinda important
for me, because, you know, you remember, that night we went to
the Mountain and Pat Travers concert...?"

"Yes?" Her voice had gotten clinical, an administrators'
tone for students who couldn't enter the negotiate the mystery of an add/drop card.
I tried to imagine they way she looked back in the day, fresh and perky, hardly into her her twenties when sensation and impulse were more important to learning of the turns of the world than lectures and slide rules,but I could see her right now, frowning down at the Phone as if looking down at some one caught trying to pick up the shards of a bowl they'd dropped, the corners of her mouth up turned and hardened into a smile that framed her face in a fleeting snapshot of disgust. This didn't feel like Homecoming.

"And later, remember? Your roommate was in Berkeley, and we
came back and played King Crimson"

"Yes I do, and I hated that band."

"Did you? Sorry to force them on you, but uhhh, anyway, that
actually kinda brings up to why I'm calling."

"Does it? Listen, this is a little odd for me, and I have a
function tonight I have to get ready for, so if you get to the
point, I think we'd all be happier."

"Well , okay, okay, it's like I just said, and I want to say
I'm sorry."
"What? Sorry for what?"
"For what happened that night."
"Your sorry for making me listen to King Crimson records?"
"No! No, it was about later, you know, what happened later
after we put the King Crimson records on."

"Well, you've got me, I have to say, after twenty five years
and you call talking about one night of my life, and the only
thing I can think of is that you're sorry you were a good

"Hush, mum, err, I was actually..."
"This is a first in my life time, imagine."
"It would be, I suppose it would, but , uh, it's about that
but something else, too, I felt shitty about it, I..."

"Hold on, just a second, you're trying to apologize for
something I can't remember from twenty years ago, and we haven't
brought each other up to speed. Let me ask, what have you been
doing all this time?"

"Long story, really..."
" I suppose it would be, so shorten it. What are you doing Now?"
"Now? I'm a buyer for a book store, I meet with publishers
reps and survey their catalogs, and I handle special orders..."

"That's special. Still writing?"
"Poetry and movie reviews?"
"Uhh, yeah, for a weekly publication..."

"Okay, now I remember , it's good to hear from you..."
"Thanks, okay, that brings to why I called..."
"Alright, then."

" I mean, after we were done, you fell asleep and I was awake
and when I heard you snoring, I got dressed and left and never
called you again, never tried to contact you, and the sum of it
is that I've felt like a piece of stinking shit for years and
I'm calling to say that I'm very sorry I did that, I was selfish
and unwilling to commit to some one and I did the wrong thing,
and I'm sorry..."

There was silence, the dead air on the wire seemed to
crackle in the interstices between the tones her voice might
produce, the hum of atoms spinning along the wire. She spoke finally.

"I appreciate your attack of conscious, even if it did take
you almost a quarter of century to scrape up the change to make
the call, but it seems you've been disturbed by nothing in
fact. Forgive me, my memory is dim, but the best I can remember
was that it was a date, the concert was fun, the King Crimson
music was screechy, the sex was good, and you should be glad to
hear that, and the fact that you were gone in the morning never
to seen again was only too typical of the time, no big deal..."

"Not a big deal, at the college I thought you were cute a
braggart and shallow, but I was horny, and I agreed to go out
with you because it was something to do on a Friday night, but I
was not looking for a relationship, and if I was, it wouldn't
have been with you. You might say that you're disappearing act
was a blessing, you spared me some awkward conversation , I
suppose, but I can't say, because the whole thing hasn't been
at the front of my thinking over two and a half decades..."

"I see."
"But I'm glad you called. Now I have to get ready to meet
the graduate students..."
I wanted to continue talking. "What kind of work do you do?"

"This, that, and the other thing I have to leave. Maybe
I'll tell you in another twenty five years when you call to
apologize for making an odd phone call..." She called out to
someone, "Dear, where are my car keys? Oh, this is just someone
from the high school alumni group looking for a donation. On the
hall table? Thank you sweetie..."
"Look, I've changed, I've grown..."
"Sure you have, tall and strong like an oak. Yes, I have the
address, and I'll make the check payable to the Alumni
"And tax deductible? Fine. Thank you. Goodbye."

She hung up, and the sound was a gentle cradling, the receiver rocking slightly and then falling quiet. My receiver was slippery with sweat , and I hung up only after a loud tone pierced the stunned silence . after which a recorded voice announced that I need to hang up first if I wanted to make another call.

Saturday, June 30, 2007


Just watched the DVD of Insomnia, and it is terrific. Chris Nolan, director, has a crucial knack for getting at the character at the margins of his wits, the fractured personality who is just barely able to keep his psychic equilibrium and move forward. He did this with an especially graceful touch in Memento, expertly telling the story through jagged shards of memory that constantly reformed a narrative structure and tortured our assumptions, until there was only a complexity that was a true and achieved irony, and he does the same here with Pacino's character Dormer, the insomniac detective who is wrestling with a hideous issue of professional ethics.

Suffice to say, Dormer's ability to squelch the recent events of his life, his ability to keep them out of mind, decays as sleeplessness makes his hard-boiled demeanor sufficiently crack. Nolan, wisely, thankfully, does not tell the story in the same indie-video-film school fashion that he masterfully parlayed into the riveting Memento (even he must have sensed that it was a grand sleight of hand of a device that he could sell once to an audience). Rather, he luxuriates in the Alaskan scenery, capturing the sheer rugged and brutal beauty with a big lens, composing his shots as the characters seem like tawdry and desperate creatures scrambling across the terrain with their petty intrigues while the vastness of the North suggests something greater, more lasting.

Pacino gives a splendid performance, nuanced, not chewing up the scenery nor raising his voice arbitrarily as can be his habit; he has the saddest eyes of any American screen actor, and the lines of his face are a road map of every hard and compromised choice his character has had to make. Robin Williams is fine as well, a credible foil to Pacino as the smug, smarty pants mystery writer who relishes the chance to hoist Dormer by his own ethical petard. Smart script, with a number of reversals that are credible and smartly played. The pacing is re mindful of Clint Eastwood in his best moments as a director. The story is allowed to develop over days, weeks. The slow build in the tension comes as a relief. Rent it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bound and determined to be cliche free!!

What irks me without fail are people who ought to know better saying "uncomfortability" when they mean "discomfort". It seems that some folks think that an excess of syllables, even to the extent of using words that don't exist in nature, makes an expression of commonplace ideas and feelings sound more subtle, nuanced, educated.These are words for people who don't know what they want to say, let alone how to talk about it.

Likewise, the use of the world "potentiality" needs to be banned by law, punishable by cruel mocking in the public square. There is no advantage of using that ungainly pile-up that the shorter, unambiguous and more efficient "potential" can't get across clearer and faster. The same goes for those who , when addressing the concerns that place ill at ease, will refer to their "uncomfortability" instead the plainer, faster, clear "discomfort". I suspect these folks prefer to make their concerns sound more elaborate and will use this awkward coinage in order to give their subject more gravitas. It only strikes me as odd;the term would seem to describe someone's particular ability to be uncomfortable. Ambiguity is fine for literature,poetry, even philosophy, but every speech needs to get to the unmistaken point. This term describes someone who isn't sure what it is they want to say.

A couple of co workers are found of announcing that they're going "on lunch", a phrase that sounds as phony baloney as it gets. I realize it may be a regionalism , but here in San Diego the term grates the ear. It has the slimy resonance of an obvious poser over enunciating his words to appear hipper than sweet Jesus with an eyepatch.Dude.

Sorry to say, but there are still fields of self-help/recovery/New Age grope speak here in San Diego, and it's not unusual in the course of a day to hear someone describe a bad mood or other psychic malaise they have as being "being in a bad space." For me, a "bad space" is standing in front of moving traffic as it rushes towards you. Related to this are folks who say that they need to take care of their own needs or else they "get to that place " where they become The Hulk. Funny , but I've never seen these "bad spaces" or dreaded "places" that make people become awful. Is there a map I can buy?

"Lilacs", where the narrator goes into his brain's attic to visit his problems

Peter Campion is a fine poet, a very good one, and "Lilacs" is a fine bit of elliptical heartache from him. He has a wonderful way, if that's the phrase, at getting nestled between the long deep sighs and low toned moans erupting mid throat. There is so much imaginary agony the narrator suffers here while he inhabits a life that seems to be working, one wonders what goes on behind those eyes. We've all seen those eyes, on buses, in banks, at parties, when someone is in the middle of a throng of people, in the midst of mad activity, eyes on someone who still strikes you as being alone, lost in thoughts, their eyes cast at some translucent thing in a corner, high or low, rummaging through imaginary boxes filled with their life, looking for a clue as to how they came to be standing among others of whom he or she wants no part of.
It used to burn, especially in spring:
the sense that life was happening elsewhere.

Smudged afternoons when lilacs leaked their smell
past schoolyard brick, whole plotlines seemed to twist

just out of reach. Inside the facing houses
chamber on networked chamber rose … to what?

Some angel chorus flowing around the sun?
Some lurid fuck? ... For years that huge desire

simmered, then somehow ... didn't dissipate
so much as fuse itself to thought and touch.

Not an attractive state to be in, this perpetual state of regret and unexamined expectations, but it is a state of mind nearly epidemic among those for whom poverty isn't a source of their despondency, and for whom scents, sounds, tints of light or billboard slogans are triggers , launching points for them to go asea rudderless amid the ebbs and flows of unconstrained memory. This poem is a small gem, a perfect lyric of a mind trying to reconcile actual choices he's made in partners and occupation and location, with other he might have made, thinks,perhaps, should have made.

Though one would usually be compelled to elaborate too much, too long, too often in exploring this situation--what defies being named encourages the exhaustion of even the best writer efforts to tease a sense of exactness from such a state of perpetual , nebulous limbo--Campion sticks to poetic principle and gives us language that creates a sense of the interior argument. The external world is not banished entirely from his thoughts;rather, they intrude on his reverie, they bring back to his current obligations, duties, his willingness to pretend to be happy inspite of persistent regret.

You stand in purple shade beside your dresser.
And filtering off the park the breeze returns it:

lilac: its astringent sweetness, circling us
as if it were fulfillment of desire.

But not fulfillment. Just the distance here
between us, petaled, stippling to the touch.

Campion, again, writes well about what happens in the cracks between life's cushioning assurances, but he reads dreadfully, and the recording provided us reveals him to sound whiny, sniveling, limp wristed, a reticent and rattled drone of gutless pessimism. The poem is too good to merely be known for a wimpish rendition; even the most self indulgent of regrets should have a residue of rage smouldering, a flame of anger still consuming the last unspent piece of lumber. I offer here my version of "Lilacs". It's not definitive , of course, but I think it's interesting to hear it again with a different voice intoning the secret meanings and blurry subtexts.

Poetry As a Kick in the Nuts

Hearts and flowers and poetry about poetry are matters that give a bad case of the grabs; it makes my underwear bunch up in the crouch and my hair coil like rusty Brillo pads. A poet of precious sensibility recently posted such a poem on a forum I won't name. It ignited nearly all my jets. Here's a sample stanza:

The poet, you see, is a murderer
Killing living things for the pleasure of others
Perhaps it would be better, if
We gave more thought to those things
Which ere already dead, like

First, one ought not eschew their principle obligation as a writer to write poems that are somehow engaged in living and instead make poetry even less important and trivial to the general public's concern by indulgent stanzas reaffirming a tattered mythos and hype about the craft. It makes the image of poetry even more club-housy than it already is, at a more provincial level. It really needs to be a standard bit of the discipline for poets to keep the business of poetry, even it's mention, out of their lines. Poetry about poetry is dead on arrival, and it reinforces the larger population's attitude that it's elitist and profoundly irrelevant. Stop embalming the art.

In any case, one should avoid as well writing anything that declares or implies that poetry and poets are anyone thing, or exist to perform any one purpose; there are general rules, yes, that define what poetry is , and there is a critical vocabulary as well, but within those limits , poetry can be pretty much anything a poetry chooses it to be; the limits are the talents of the writer in question. Some poets might be compared to murderers, but uttered here the way it is, sweepingly, full of misty eyed bathos and crawling diction, it sounds unconvincing, it sounds phony, and whatever point you wanted to make is lost because it sounds pretentious and will piss off more people than it will ever convince

Saturday, June 23, 2007

DeLillo's "Falling Man": All Played Out

Falling Man
by Don DeLillo (Scribner)

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. And our expectations of what DeLillo would make of the penultimate attack on America's symbolic sense of being the world's best asset mounted to levels that were nearly toxic with glee.

DeLillo , however, is a writer who might have played out his themes and investigations of a hyper-technologized democracy whose inhabitants are searching for a useful past as a way to make the fractured, reshuffled and decentered present to at least seem to have thematic continuity. "Falling Man", the 9/11 novel, strikes me as a book of riffs from a musician who can barely muster the energy to run through his songbook one more time. In the odd sense, in the cruelly ironic sense, it's a tragedy that the attack on the World Trade Center attack happened after DeLillo hit his peak with "Underworld", as masterful of novel of America our propensity for distracting ourselves in ritual, obsessions, insane hobbies and esoteric systems of knowledge--performance art, baseball history, high finances, unrepentant consumerism, ceaseless works of charity--to keep the suspicion that all our material gains and assumptions are based on no fixed moral platform.

There are some fine sentences here, some splendid descriptions, but there is listlessness as well. "Falling Man" is finally dull,and even DeLillo's prose mastery can't make this alternating saga of survivor despair and terrorist preparation rise above the merely serviceable. DeLillo is overwhelmed by the topic, not so much for the impossibility of writing a brilliant novel in the post-attack atmosphere, but because all the themes he has relevant to the present condition are expressed more powerfully, poetically, with larger and surer measures of canon-making genius than the comparatively provincial exercise the author has issued here. It’s also a matter of whether beautiful writing is appropriate for a novel specifically concerning itself with the physical and psychic costs of 9-11; folks like Laura Miller, Meghan O’Rourke and Frank Rich have wrestled with the issue of whether drawing metaphors and similes for larger contemplation is somehow immoral when addressing the events so catastrophic and fatal. Art, in the uppercase, means framing the materials and objectifying them, taking them from their contexts and positioning them in ways that will force a deliberation over their existence; this is the aesthetic distance, beauty removed from our hands and set aside so we can contemplate some feelings in absence of real world distraction. 9-11, though , is thought by many to be above such contemplation, that this date cannot be abstracted as material for art making, literary reflection.

Brat Pack novelist, Manhattanite extraordinaire and famed party goer, got the urge to step up to the plate and write a Great American Novel, a work that would raise him finally from the middle rungs of the literary ladder and allow him to reach the top shelf where only the best scribes--Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Thomas Wolfe!-- sit and cast their long collective shadow over the fields of aspiring geniuses, furious scribblers all. McInerney has selected a large subject with which to make his reputation, the catastrophe that was and remains 9/11. Acutely aware that the minor league satires and soft coming of age stories that made his name were less commanding than they had been because "9/11 changed everything" (a phrase destined to be the characterizing cliche of this age) he offers us The Good Life, a mixed bag of satiric thrusts, acute social observation, two dimensional characterizations and wooden generalizations about the sagging state of society, of culture, of our ability to understand one another, locally and globally.

I agree that Jay McInerney is a better writer than he's been credit, but history will judge his novels as minor efforts at best. Witty and observant, yes he is, but the manner in which he conveys his best lines, his choicest bon mots have the thumbed-through feeling of a style borrowed. Fitzgerald, Capote and John Cheever are his heroes, true, but there's nothing in McInerney's writing that honors his influences with the achievement of a tone and personality that is entirely his own, an original knack of phrase making that makes a reader wonder aloud how such wonderful combinations of words are possible. His influences, alas, are visible and seem to be peering over his shoulder. Even what one would praise as sharp and elegant observations from his keyboard creaks not a little. The style sounds borrowed, and our author sounds much, much too dainty to make it really cling to the memory:"The hairstylist was aiming a huge blow-dryer at his wife's skull, which was somewhat disconcertingly exposed and pink--memento mori--in the jet of hot air ... "

McInerney is compared to Fitzgerald relentlessly since his career as a professional writer began, in so much he, like F.Scott, was bearing witness to a generation of conspicuous consumption and waste, but one notices that any random paragraph from The Great Gatsby contains more melody by far. The writing genius of Fitzgerald, when he was writing at his absolute best,was his ability to make you forget the fact that you're reading elegant prose and have you become entranced by it. It was a means to put you in a different world altogether. It's this simple, really; you didn't see him writing, you didn't see him sweat. Able craftsman as well as peerless stylist when he was performing best, Fitzgerald's prose seemed natural, buoyant, unstrained. McInerney's writing reveals that strain, that slaving over phrase and clever remark,and often times the effect seems calculated.In his best moments, he rarely sheds the sophomore flash; after all these years our Manhattan golden boy still writes like the most gifted student in a Kansas City composition class. After all these years he is still trying to outrace the long shadows of those who brought him reading pleasure.

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

This is a wandering and traipsing along the subject matter like a drunk tourist gawking at the bizarre ways of the big city, a laughable and loathsome tour of Corn's intellectual baggage. Connecting the ruin of the WTC with the crashing of Windows operating system is a ploy him to remain a thousand miles from any connection with real emotion; it is relentlessly ironic and snobby in its form as a poem. The subject matter, the real horror is aestheticized out of mind the way a narcotic lulls one into a stupor and then a nod against a world that still must be faced and made sene of. Corn does none of that at all, but what he does do is give us a long, wavering and arrogantly ambivalent stretch of muddled semiotics where everything is a straining reach, a forced association, a willful perversion of real imagistic reach. Had the subject not been so grim and disheartening, this would seem more parody than anything else. This poem angers me to no end. If Corn was paid for this piece, he should feel honor bound to donate the sum to a cause that actually gives hope to others in the human community. Following that, he might quit whatever teaching job he as in the instruction of writing and get a job in the receiving area of a Salvation Army Thrift store.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Rise of the Silver Potato Head

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer is nearly as unimpressive as the first installment in this comic book inspired franchise, with little to be said in it's favor other than Jessica Alba, as Invisible Girl, looks hot in form fitting clothes, and that the CGI employed to bring the Surfer to life are mighty fine indeed. That leaves an awful lot of time to suffer through,with all the windup zooming, running around, the crashing smashing animation, the mechanically rendered humor following suit in a hurry, a big hurry.You think they're trying to keep you winded, too pooped to look at your watch and leave early. It gets to be as predictable and formulaic as any super hero feature you'd find on Cartoon Network. Andre Braugher, impressive as Detective Pembleton on the sorely missed tv drama Homicide:Life on the Street, is on hand to play a high ranking general with a personal dislike of Reed Richards, alias Mr.Fantastic, who must soldier on with a government orders to enlist his aid in discovering and resolving a mysterious cosmic force that is affecting the earth's weather in unbelievable ways. Braugher, a good actor when given the chance, just looks stern and grumpy here, having little in the way of character to work with. In all this fumbling around, Dr.Doom , supposedly foiled and done for in the first film, is back again, to no one's surprise, but under the guise of cooperating with Richards and the Army to vanquish the problematic Surfer. By now you stop carrying, and wonder how much Lawrence Fishburn, the voice of the animated Surfer, got paid to read what seemed no more than eight lines of dialogue.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Yet more old music from my CD collection

Yes, more old music-tb

The Sign of 4-- Derek Bailey, Pat Metheny, Greg Bendian, Paul Wertico
A three disc proverbial wet dream for lovers of skronky, abrupt, clicking, feedback leavened non-jazz electric guitar improvisation. Granted, I don't listen to it that often, but it's a bonus shot of energy when I'm done with my occasional, though lengthy dose. This morning was in dedication to the recently passed Derek Bailey.

This about the only Gong album I cottoned to , and it's the only one of their albums I didn't sell off when I was moving between apartments. With this disc they had evolved from a space-rock unit and into a tight, percussion driven jazz-fusion unit. The music, for the style, still has a kick, and guitarist Allen Holdsworth, in a period of doing short stints with several name bands, does some of his best work here. Solid, melodic, fleet and moody improvisations and material that gives the players intriguing twists to play off of.

Earth Walk--Jack DeJohnette and Special Edition
A 1991 session on ECM, it's an engaging if conceptually diffuse collection; DeJohnette as a composer/arranger can be irritating at times with his habit of inserting style changes with hardly a thought of a natural sounding segue. The charts tend to drift into the kind of "space chords" vamping where there's nothing to suggest a melodic underpinning, a lack of an idea, leaving worthy soloists like reedmen Greg Osby and Gary Thompson to play more frantically than otherwise would be called for. It gets the customary ECM Afro/Euro groove going about a third of the way through, which leads us to much rhythm interplay, spiraling, head-whacking flights from Osby and Thompson and, to be sure, DeJohnette's sure stick work.
Walkin'-Miles Davis
A live recording from 1960, interesting for the inclusion of saxist Sonny Stitt , replacing for the time being John Coltrane. It is a fine, fine, fine performance; Davis takes some of the coolest solos you might wish to hear him play, and Stitt's ebullient, fluid sense of rhythm and melody does amazing things in the generous spaces he has to fill.

The Pious Bird of Good Omen- Fleetwood Mac
With Peter Green on vocals and guitar, and Jeremy Spencer, slide guitar and vocals. Green is the attraction here, with a voice that sounds as if it's bubbling from the bottom of a river of black water, and a guitar style that remains a model of economy and emotion, an uncommon virtue in an era given over to conspicuous displays of chops. Particularly beautiful is his version of Little Willie John's "Need Your Love So Bad", a gorgeous blues pleading for love, unadorned. Green's singing is transforming.
Spy vs Spy.—John Zorn
From the svelte skronk of Zorn's Ornette tribute to the minimal meditations of Glass's impressions of a man trying to find out if a horse's feet all leave the ground at one time. Good stuff, on a re-listen. I had a girl friend in college who was given to sudden and intense love affairs with many a hip trend and avant garde mannerism, much of which has aged badly and is either in cold storage or ready for the next garage sale; The Photographer, though, has it's repetitive pleasures; it's not especially gripping at an emotional level, but the sheer rigor of Glass's pared formalism is compelling in the way that an idea , a concept, finds its situation and flourishes under the circumstances.

Port of Call-- Cecil Taylor
Repackaged sessions from 1960-1961 released in the States on an economy label called Past Perfect, this is a bit more comprehensible and, say, conservative than what Taylor and his bands are known for. An abstract heat still burns away , though, and there are great moments here; the ten minute piano deconstruction of "This Nearly Was Mine" keeps you guessing and anticipating where Taylor and his trio would take the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut, and "Things Aint What They Used to Be” is rethought a dozen different ways by Archie Shepp and Steve Lacy.

Flowers of Evil--Mountain
I play this once a year, and this morning was the time to do it; the studio sides have a repetitive pomposity you can get behind after a couple of stiff drinks, but the combination of Felix Papalardi's whiney voice singing his wife's bullshit lyrics can ruin any buzz you have going for you. It's the live material that kicks it, with lots of fat, snarling Leslie West guitar work getting twisted around a punchy set of slow, grinding , distorted hard rock. Yes, arrangements do count, even in rock and roll.” Roll Over Beethoven" and "Dreams of Milk and Honey" are on my best live rock tracks ever. I might be the only one who likes this, but fuck it, it makes me happy.

Live at Bradley's --Kevin Eubanks
If you can forget the fact that guitarist Eubanks is Jay Leno's band leader and default second-banana, you gather that he's a classy jazz player; rhythmic, melodic, swift on the solos, but with emphasis on phrasing , pauses between passages. This is a pleasant respite from the copious amounts of the ever-busy Mike Stern I've listened to lately. Stern seems unable to leave a quite moment alone and fills it with frantic riffing, not so much as technique gone berserk, a jazz version of wank guitar, but rather an accelerated directionlessness. An agile Jerry Garcia would be a better comparison. Eubanks, meantime, swings powerfully, with a light touch, a spry tone. James Williams (P) and Robert Hurst (b) do lithe work here. Good stuff for a drummer-less trio.

Unity--Larry Young
Wonderful , simply wonder expanded organ improvisation by the late Larry Young. I appreciated his work with the first Tony Williams Lifetime, but hadn't looked into his own releases until recently. A solid bandleader. Trumpeter Woody Shaw, an undervalued player, soars nicely with saxist Joe Henderson. Elvin Jones gives a demonstration of drum techniques from another planet.

Free Jazz Dance-Phil Woods
Recorded live in Rome, 1969, Phil Woods blows a very swift and elegant alto with a game trio of French sidemen who can play it any speed they want to. The eleven minute Eddie Harris title tune is a fine clustering of rhythms and crashing sensibilities. Nice swing and drive, and pianist Daniel Humair has the right chord voicings for Woods' galloping lines. Takes a sweet, Teddy Wilsonesque solo too.