Friday, December 21, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen , is easily my favorite film of the year, especially surprising because the departing 2007 turned out to be a solid year for American films. Letters from Iwo Jima, Zodiac, Valley of Elah, Breach, Gone Baby Gone, Children of Men , The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 To Yuma and some lesser lights kept the movie going a pleasure, and even the more blatantly commercial and pandering movies I saw, under the excuse of their being guilty pleasures (Live Free or Die Hard, Resident Evil: Extinction) were sure footed enough in premises and execution to not dilute nor drag down my impression that the lot of us are about to leave a year of unusually good film releases. One does hope that Ridley Scott finds his footing again and can make a film as good as his past successes--Blade Runner, Blackhawk Down, Gladiator--because the glamorized Scarface/Serpico move he attempted with the listless and static American Gangster renews that annoying question you ask yourself when you walk out of his more recent efforts: what was the fuss about him anyway? One would wonder as well when Denzel Washington might lose that nasally wavering monotone that's become his signature vocal tic, or when Russell Crowe might convince an audience again that he can act and not merely memorize his lines and hit his marks.

No Country for Old Men is one of those Coen brothers films that doesn't miss a beat, doesn't miss a trick, and which makes use of each rhythm it invents and each trick it employs in service to the story with the sort of mastery that makes you forget that you're viewing something that was meticulously constructed. Seamless, in other words, as was their Fargo, a comedy that worked in broad, slowly applied strokes of the brush that inspected the ticks and quirks of the characters as they headed for their eventual comeuppance. Hubris is a striking theme in the Coen's movies, and it appears again in their new thriller, where one has the simplest of conflicts, a trailer-living Vietnam vet comes across a bloody drug deal gone bad and tracks down the two million dollars that was meant to seal the deal, and finds himself, through random occurrence, sheer chance and whimsical decision, being tracked himself by a hired killer.

The center of the film are these two characters, the vet (Josh Brolin) thinking he can outwit and kill the stalker seeking to put him on ice, and the killer (Javiar Bardam), a force of nature who cannot die, will not be deterred, detoured or delayed. His character, oddly named Antoine Chigurh ("Soo-gar"),fulfills his task required by the detection of the unwarranted pride a protagonist assumes for himself; he is the force that one does not see coming, that thing that cannot be stopped nor will wait for you. Chaos and carnage are his sole purposes. Brolin's character, named Llewelyn, has no idea what he has decided to go up against, and from here one is aware that the stage is set for the inevitable tragedy that will come and cannot be halted. The Coens have an outstanding sense of being able to slow down and draw out a scene, to have a thumb on the turntable, so speak, as they prolong an agonizingly nerve rattling sequence --Josh Brolin's character is chased across a river by a hell hound pit bull which comes mere seconds from tearing his throat out, a scene causing audible gasps both times I saw the film--and still keep to intrigued with the goings on and the detailed bits of business the characters involve themselves in.

Clarity with an unforgiving reality principle one theme in play, with this movie being a four way split between those who have no idea the cruel game they're in: Chigurh’s citizen victims, those like Llewelyn who think they can avoid or change what is inevitable, the uncompromising destructive force that is the killer Chigurh; and , in a moving and subtly, softly underplayed performance by Tommy Lee Jones, the growing awareness of a cocky sheriff who realizes that the murders in his district are without reason, logic or even passion, and that this represents a sacrifice he is unwilling to make. Destiny is another theme here, and Jones' sheriff loses his nerve and retires. Late in the film, restless and not sure of what to do now that he's left an occupation he was fated to have by family tradition, he recounts recent dreams with their vague symbolism of what direction his life was meant to take. One wonders on this aspect of the tragedy, the correspondence of action creating purpose and definition. The sheriff may have saved his life by retiring, but has he robbed himself of his purpose in the life he wanted to keep. He is caught in an ambiguity, and it's a toss up at this point which is worse, a death in service to professional duty, or living with an unsettled issue no consoling will allay.

The encroaching despondency on Jones' face as he tells his wife of his dreams, where a wise ass smirk once was now replaced with a tight, brave smile that cannot disguise a man who voluntarily relinquished his grasp on self-certainty, is its own unique tragedy. Only the craggy and creviced face of Tommy Lee Jones could have evoked the inner broodings that tear at the soul, and only his voice, cracked, rough, and choked on dust , could have managed to bring out the melancholy contained in his elliptical monologue without once raising his voice or gesturing wildly. Javier Bardem's virtuoso turn as the psychopath Chigurh , as well, is among the most memorable presences to inhabit the screen in awhile. Self-contained, virtually expressionless, given to odd bits of logic and rituals, he is not a character but a personification of every foul thought of vengeance and fury one has ever imagined in their life. He is not someone you meet, but rather a catastrophe that happens to you and hope you survive.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Noisy Eden

Below the Falls" is one of the noisier poems we've seen here for awhile, and it is Kevin Barents' peculiar attempt to convey the idea that turmoil and drama exist in those areas one might normally assume to be areas of balance and natural tranquility. Barents' goes against the archetype too readily here, and after all this is done, all this wandering around a natural scene that continually yields miniscule melodramas and suggested cycles of birth and dying oscillating in condensed terms, whether the Nature-As-Eden myths were something worth debunking, even in metaphorical terms.

The immediate association one reaches for is Wallace Stevens and his Palm Trees at the End of the Mind,, part of his sequence of poems that tours the Supreme Fiction's variously rich terrains and interrogates the tone of these mental constructions with queries about their fidelity to slippery emotional nuance.Too which he marvels at his imagined terrain's ability to smooth out contradictions, anomalies, disruptions to the nature of Idealized Form. Stevens never mistook his lyrics as being anything other than the gilded musings on what his felt, not measured.

A poem should not mean
But be.

Poet Archibald MacLeish wrote that, in his piece "Ars Poetica",his reasonable and witty manifesto liberating his poetry from having to be "about" anything other than itself. That thrust, in essence, was that poetry was no longer the central domain in which speculations about the nature of reality , beauty, and the pursuit of the Good Life were discussed and debated, and that it was , in modern times, not the friendliest grounds for discussions about God and his purpose for us on earth. Other, prose dominated disciplines had quite handily usurped those topics as science handily dislodged, diminished and debunked the mystery and mythology the general consensus used to apply to the material world. A poem should not "mean" anything, as in questing for the precise definition of things and thereby making fixed, general statements about them. A poem should "be" as a thing itself, a material item true to its own nature, a construction of words, considered by MacLeish, WC Williams and Stevens (among the poets of that generation) to be malleable no less than clay, glass or steel. The aim of the poem was not to reinforce the materiality of the world and the given political and economic realities that relied on perception that markets could define, exploit and profit from, but rather that poetry should tend to perception, free of the filters we've been indoctrinated into. These poets were not especially overjoyed with capitalism (although one would be hard pressed to call them leftists in any sense) and it's propensity to smash and upset the unannounced world. Williams wrote (and I paraphrase) that the thing itself was it's own adequate symbol,which , considered closely, stated that there is no God and that human personality could and needed to see the things in the world on their own terms, in and of themselves.

Barents writes in an arcana-cluttered tongue that he's disturbed, angry in fact, that he and his walking associate found not refuge from the city's grind and violence. What they discovered instead was only more of the same , in other forms.

Greedy hemlocks crowded in the draw
eclipse a hophornbeam. We've picked along
a path held from the hollow's laurel hells

to where a trickle pushes off the cliff
and grabbles down into a greenstone bowl
the drop has pestled through the same old years.

Barents over writes through the entire piece and consults the notebooks where he'd written those exotic words and phrases he took a fancy too, seduced by their peculiar phonics and untidy plumage. There pair making their way through the nearby wilds may as well be in the center of the city they wanted to get away from. The central idea here isn't peace but unrest, not peace but constant turmoil, of nature being a state where it quite naturally consumes and regenerates itself in new forms . Barents attempts to disabuse of one set of ideal types and tries to substitute another paradigm, that of nature as great destroyer and vicious feeder.What do we do?

Protect an heirless joy
or fold our suffering into this place?
The limpid races aren't potable.

Rusty thrushes drop a stranger's line.
Huddle with me in our leave a while
before we hurry back to our fatigues.

I would agree that this poem is glutted with obscure words that have been used for the sake of dressing up the banal, unexceptional ruling idea that is the poem's central theme, that nature contains its own kinds of dissonances and violence , and his result is nothing less than an ugly tract housing with a front yard full of garden gnomes and enamel deers, large Mexican planter pots and Christmas lights remaining on the front door months after the Holidays. Nothing distracts from the quarrelsome inanity of this poem, and adding to it's lexicon only makes the condition worse.It might have have helped if these words were used musically, but that didn't happen--it's as if Barents had three contrasting "formalist" approaches in mind when he composed this, and hadn't the heart to make this expression a purer example of a given style and habit of thinking.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

John Hazard's "Luanne": where ever you do, there you are

I haven't attended my high school reunions for the simple reason that I still live and work in the same town in the town I went to school in. There are enough of those I went to school with, late middle aged, "thickened into silence" or garrulous and bony, who I see during my week. I'm aware enough of who has died, divorced and remarried, who is undergoing treatments for fatal diseases, who has joined AA or started drinking again, who has become a new grandpa or granma. Paying good money to discover news I can get or deliver over a cafe table seems foolish.

There is , additionally, the plain and gruesome fact that there are those in high school I don't care to see again. Old girl friends, druggie friends, bullies, class peacocks, the brown nosers and the brown shirts. Some people were horrible , monstrous entities when they were teens, and although there might be the outside chance that they've changed, found a path, and turned into reasonable, decent people, there is the awkwardness of running into someone you haven't seen in years, someone with whom you've had only a tangential connection, and finding yourself standing there, struggling for words after a hesitant greeting, a handshake with a loose grip. Who is this person? Do I owe them money? Did he steal my gal? Did I steal his copy of Led Zeppelin lV?

John Hazard writes as if he's suffered through this voluntary form of punishment in his poem "Luanne Again, Southeastern Ohio", and conveys the dulling shock of seeing other members of his peer group showing the evidence of gravity and time taking their combined toll. Everyone he witnesses in the conference room seems lifeless or somehow inert and drained of whatever animation made their memories intriguing enough for the narrator to come to a reunion,

Reunion: some sit almost nameless

in a motel conference room—red and gold

balloons. Folding chairs and ham. Forty years.

Some have thickened into silence. Some are hard.

He does make an effort to imagine that it is the obvious peculiarities of the scene and the resented confines of the conference room that makes his situation so stifling, a reality where the faces might radiate life in response to a world they’ve made for themselves since graduation:

For all I know, those faces on a normal day

might stare over sinks, dandelion yards,

the children's children playing there,

grass-stained photo ops.

Still, it is deadening all the same, the faces remain expressionless masks, and so the narrator’s mind wanders over names of those who are not there, Shirley, Fred, and especially Luanne. Hazard does an interesting trick here of isolating a moment of daydreaming life when someone’s name and face come to mind, someone who one hasn’t thought of it years, not thought of but haven’t forgotten; what he gets here is the swift and seamless segue to that conscious filling nano- second where there appears a name, a face, an event, vivid and sharp, and just as brief. Hazard’s character here concentrates on Luane,

Sometimes I dream about that dog of hers,

brown or maybe tawny, hit by a car

outside my uncle's grocery. It lay

in its blood as she fled crying

to the family store (hardware, paint)

the way I ran home later that year—

fat old Rudy, coal truck,

as I watched by the side of the road.

Her dog was bloodier.

In the place that she's inherited,

is her silence richer, too,

than my packages of words?

I wouldn't be the reporter she would choose.
Hard and compact, these are details that are alive as the narrator tells it, and reveals a slight change in tone, where the foregrounding scene in the conference is an evocation of stasis, entropy and this scene of the past, where there is life, vivacity, real emotions witnessed. Here there is history, here there are events that mark a consciousness still forming a world view.

It’s not a big moment, not a third act of a Hollywood movie where there is some moral that’s learned the hard way and the beginnings of a mythologized justice being brought to bear on what has been amiss. Hazard’s narrator has only a fleeting regret, the recognition of an unspecified opportunity missed .

But here I am, Luanne, to say I regret

the vast rock between us. For all I know,

the dogs of your other life—not frisky,

not mean, not especially sweet—have been

steady, staring for scraps or staring from a porch

at grass in a breeze. For all I know,

your other dogs were happy and lived forever.

Hazard’s instincts here are right sized for the size of the perception he sought to convey on paper; this poem has the unlabored purity of the passing thought; it is the best that someone already ensconced in the complications of their life can do as the memory and
unresolved nature of whatever happened to? arises and distracts the bearer from the faces in front of him. It’s a thought that has to be tied up in a hasty knot, a botched ribbon as present circumstances demand an audience. One concludes with a soft regret of the distance that has grown between them, an admission that admits no guilt, no self-incrimination, and a bland wish that Luanne has in the intervening time prospered somehow and that he dogs , if she still kept them, lived long and prospered with her. What I appreciate here is the lack of specifics beyond the accident involving Luanne’s dog; the lines are graceful and taut in equal measure, and achieve a balance of composition. Anymore freight might have compelled Hazard to offer up a dirge along the lines of Robert Lowell, a dangerous poet to model yourself after. Hazard’s intents are much more modest and this poem has an admirable precision in getting at inglorious subject: middle aged man remembers a girl from school who’s image he cannot wait to shuttle off again into some obscure corner of the mind. There comes a time, always, when you have to stop rummaging around the attic and move fore worth with what needs to be done now; laundry, shopping, bill paying, a kiss for the woman you love in this life, not the one you left behind.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Baker and Beckett

This isn't about poetry, but it's what I've been reading and it's what's kept me in my chair 'til too late at night, that being the semi-fictions of Nicholson Baker.Not a pleasant experience, if reading, as Barthes claims, is an activity we do , at heart, for the pleasure of the text. This was more like a calculus assignment, an exercise to see if I've been being attention the most current shiftings in what is considered fiction.I think I was ahead while I was still napping.

The general reeling I get from the Baker work I've read, U and I, Mezzanine, Vox : aimless wandering around a subject, speculation for its own sake, a kind of dithering response to extrinsically urgent circumstances,something very much like going up and down an elevator. This is the writing of distraction, and its a body of work that is compellingly shallow in its aim, a window display.

Very post-modern, I'd say, but it's disturbing to think that men and women who are nominally good writers can fill up pages and bandwidth with a tweaked yammering that exists only to avoid the ideas they begin with in the subject line. This is very much like Becketts' novels, Malloy, Malone, The Lost Ones, More Pricks than Kicks, and here we have the link with the Late Modernism that had the creator (author) and subject (novel) rising , in their imperishable need to produce, from the noisy clash and clutter of an aesthetic philosophy that demanded new ways of putting the world together, of making the world non-liner and multivalent, sufficiently prepared to be remade with technology and criteria. The Beckett/Baker writer seems to face the endless variations they may take for a narrative, and instead defer the decision about which one to take and what sort of fictional ethos to manufacture. The deferral is the subject itself, the eye-averting technique that wills itself to be endlessly about the undecidability of how the reality should be written into being. This is a sub-stratum in the though of postmodern writers, the avoidance of death through the refusal of becoming engagement of any process of decision making that would definition to a sphere of activity that must then be engaged, acted within.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Emily Dickinson, Our Contemporary (expanded)

This poem I wrote about Emily Dickinson was less about her poetry--than it was about what I imagine to be the spectral dimensions of her cloistered life. Writing poems, speaking only with her own readings, informed by her books, her only audience her surroundings, her tiny little world. She is one whom speaking her mind in compact cadences, in densely packed epigrams seemed to be enough . Published but a little in her lifetime, I could only imagine further her bundling her missives, musing that she might become a voice, or a myriad of voices whose murmurings might seep through the foundations and plant a line or two in some passerby's ear.

We are all Emily Dickinson

We are all Emily Dickinson
talking to the furniture
over the pages of a book,
each leaf a reach across

small moments twixt
centuries by the inch,

we speak with modest tongues
when there is weather rattling
the windows, panes quaking
as though nervous with old meals
served on dark trays,

we have stopped moving
and have been nowhere at all
and we pause in our stopping
to consider the ash that rises
from the chimney logs,
the rooms and hallway
viewed through a crystal
that makes the air itself
become pithy, overgrown with reticence,

we become Emily
as we tie our missives together
with haggard twine in lacing loops,
we place our murmurings into a drawer,

we will laugh
like small girls
for years to come
as visitors come and go
through the rooms
swearing to one another
that they heard voices
behind the wall,
the eyes of the paintings
seemed to follow them around the room.

Emily Dickinson, the mistress of compressed reflection, advances her belief in the probable darkness that follows death when she write on the subject of the immortality of poetry. As with much of her work through her harbored life, there was a preoccupation with the concept that sheer nothingness awaited each of us. There was no "passing over", there was no seat next to God despite sermons and summons to behave righteously, there was no ethereal vantage point to see what writings were still read, which had been scrapped, which we rediscovered. Death was not a "state" one lapsed into as if it might be something one might come out of again; it was entirely non-being, bereft of potential. The fate of a poet's work, in popular regard and currency, were to be unknown once the lights went out. She doubtless refers to her own work with these lines:


The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each age a Lens
Disseminating their

She seems to assert that the poem survives , if it is vital, and with that the meaning of the poem changes with each generation that it passes through. Author intentionality is relevant only when the poet is still alive and is around to make further arguments, write more poems to expand or contract their original thesis. Afterward, what the author intended to say, what they originally meant, becomes merely historical, and the poem assumes a life independent of it's author's particulars. The poem, because it is vital, is adapted and absorbed by each succeeding "lens" "circumference" it passes through; vital poems and vital literature in general are a means for which the intellectual and cultural givens of age can confirm or critique the legitimacy of their habits of mind.
The text of the poem, or the author's thinking and intentions, cease being the end-all and be-all of interpretation, since the work's passage through generations of readers and discourse presents a contemporary audience with something layered and laden with meanings and associations that are not easily dispensed with.

The dialogues of a vital work have become as much a part of the poem as the actual words on the poet's tablet, freshly writ. This makes Dickinson quite contemporary in her thinking, since it reveals an awareness that there is no metaphysical certainty that will lock her work's definitive and final meaning into place, for all time. Rather, she was aware that, seemingly, that so long as a poem continues to be read, it continues to be changed, revised, altered. She would have been an interesting person to discuss reader-reception theory with. I don't mean to say that what trying to grok what Dickinson is driving is impossible or useless; I think I overstated that part of my rant. Rather, I think it's impossible to read the poem in situ, by itself, sans outside references, which is how New Critics would have us take up the text. Generations of discussion and interpretation have become inextricable from a vital poem and, though one may well re-establish a poets original set of concerns and the gestalt from which their poetics originated, that is not a place modern readers can profitably dwell for long. Our readings must engage decades of previous readings that have become inseparable from the vital work.

The goal is comprehension, in terms of making a poem mean something to readers beyond the poet's imagining, and that means creating new contexts and criteria for relevance. That is something I positive Dickinson, always one aware of the nearness of death, had on her mind. Or something akin to it. I don't think Dickinson anticipated immortality, but it seems likely that she wondered how her poems would be interpreted beyond her life. She seems to have been of the mind that the poems ,'though fixed, as such, in the same scale of words, wouldn't be quite the same poems she'd written. Absent her voice to correct an erring view, she was aware that the poems would come to mean different things to commencing generations

don't see ED as romantic either, but rather as someone who was doing the best they could do with a personality and temperament she couldn't help but have. Her reclusive life was her choice, and in that decision she was fulfilled, with her books and her writings. It's unfair to characterize it as "wasted" if she didn't strive for anything beyond her home in Amherst. It may well be that she was incapable of adding to the social good beyond her writing; not being a social creature, reticent to meet others and loath to travel , she wasn't inclined to engage others with ideas, projects or causes. There was nothing there to waste. Some folks are just like that, I'm afraid, shut ins with their hobbies and obsessions, doing the best they can do with the solitude they crave. The judgement of history is that Emily Dickinson has done substantially better than most who don't often venture into the light, whether sunshine or moonglow. Since her poetry is the direct and desired result of the reclusive life she chose, it really is impossible to contemplate how her extraordinarily odd and often brilliant verse without considering, speculating and opining what that life was like. She is Emily Dickinson, who left the world a bounty of work that's been mainstreamed more than any other American poet and, as such, she has no right to privacy. I am of the school that says that a poet on her level of recognition needs to have eveything about their life and work scrutinized so we can a better idea of what that greatness is. This includes her sex life, or lack of it: it has a bearing on the tone and style of her work.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

When Music Mattered

There is no limit to introspection in the younger artists: mumbling heartfelt and half baked poetry to guitar bashes, electric or unplugged, is a tradition that was strong by the time I graduated high school in '71. The melodies and the mumbling haven't improved when the Torch-of-the-Tortured-Poet was passed between generations.

But even in our glory days, with our Anti-war, counter cultural, vaguely leftist politics, what we're we ever to the record companies than a demographic to be sold to, and in turn, sold to other creators of pop culture content? I think that that Hollywood and their cronies on the fabled Madison Avenue had us pegged, detailed, and enumerated as a predictable market share just as much as they had broken down the buying habits of housewives. We were ready for shipping.

It seemed a matter of the snake taking on the language and lingo of the target audience. In 1967, or 68, in the midst of campus demonstrations, student riots, and so on, Columbia Records took out large ads in underground and antiwar newspapers, periodicals they virtually supported with their advertising budgets. The photo showed a multi-cultural in a holding cell--a long haired white, blacks, Asians, men, women, a couple of old folks (I think), all with head phones on, listening to a stack of new Columbia albums, music, presumably, to smash the state by. The slogan?


Either we were too dense to think, for a second, that the ad was a cynical ploy and that, in fact, Columbia Records was "The Man", or may didn't care and bought the albums anyway, but what this ad, and ads hawking different things over the years, revealed the keenest insight: instead of being so special that we would change the world with music and higher consciousness, we were just another age group with high amounts of disposable income passing through, buy what made us feel special. Columbia knew what made us feel special: they knew us better than we knew each other.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poems and Painting

It's an ideal situation for poets to interpret a painter's world, especially those artists who are both figurative and have content which implies a relationship between the objects and people on the campus, a suggestion of narrative complexity.The basic problem to overcome, though, is finding the equivalent tone and language that relays a strong sense of the visual style , which suggests the narrative thread. I've written of few poems after artist's work, not that any of them have been successful in any terms I'd lay out, but these efforts have been a interesting practice of jumping over the tropes you might normally rely on and instead develop a new rhetoric. Staying with a style one knows when attempting to get inside another man's art can result in a poem that reads more like product, as I noticed in a poem I came across recently, "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad" by Edward Hirsch.Normally I like Edward Hirsch a good deal, but this attempt to unearth the hidden essence of Edward Hopper's ideally isolated landscapes makes me think that it is a tad overwritten. The details seem entirely ready made:

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.

Artifacts from the prop department.This reads more like scene descriptions one finds in parenthesis in a film script's early draft. The camera lingers on the badly lettered sign, the camera pans the closed storefronts, the camera pulls back to a vista that reveals the town in bas relief against a mountain range, with houses
huddled in tight clusters that encircle the center of town. It is rather dramatic, visual, and effective , if one were watching a movie film made from our supposed script.

But we aren't, and Hirsch's descriptions more instructive than revealing. Hopper's advantage is that he could suggest relations between his human figures to one another and to their surroundings with his magnificently broad strokes and his blurred, subdued tones and yet maintain the essential isolation of each element on his canvas; his contexts are subverted by the existential singularity his streets, sunlight, his characters are all shown to be locked in. The effect is visceral, one gets his mood in a rush, and one garners more perception the more they study his best paintings.

The narrative, of course, is implied, and this is where Hirsch's poem becomes mannered, in the attempt to do what Hopper achieves by describing the elements, suggesting the rather obvious relations between them . and back peddling to conclude, finally, that the American malaise is totalizing estrangement.
It's a poem full of tricks and moves, and it makes one wish
for a more plain spoken, less qualified tone poem.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Poems and Comedy

The point, of course, being that everything that is entertaining or distracting from the morbid sameness of daily life cannot be said to be exclusively in the domain of the willfully dumb, conceived in a massive expression of bad faith: what is entertaining, from whatever niche in the culture you're inspecting, is that activity that holds you attention and engages you the degree that you respond to it fully. Tomas Morin has the new poem up on Slate titled "Twenty First CenturyExhibit", the storyline being that it takes place in a Natural History museum where visitors gawk at a recreation of an American business office of the previous century. It's a predictable run.The purpose was satiric, I suppose, but Tomas Morin's efforts to make light of museum patrons' rituals to confront works of art intended to confound them ,but this poem is so obvious that reading it through is re mindful of watching Saturday Night Live in the Seventies , sitting through one relentlessly loud and smugly mannered sketch after another simultaneously trying to convince myself that what was on the screen was cutting edge and good by default, and realizing under all the hip rationalization that the jerky doings of the cast were obvious and glaring. And not funny. The funniest thing about them was the idea that they thought they were amusing even accidentally.

The poem makes me less about the vanity of autodidacts who want to have an opinion on everything than it does a guy I knew who fancied himself a comedian. This fellow, not a friend and certainly a pest, would insinuate himself into conversations at social gatherings where we shared a number of acquaintances in common and would further level himself into any conversation he passed; he would , without variation, issue forth a formula sarcasm , a litany of similes and what-ifs delivered in an under-considered delivery that was rapid, flat, a tone that only emphasized the banality of his attempts at wit. He was the sort who often found himself alone in the middle of a party after his latest clutch of fellow party attendees simultaneously found reasons to walk away, talk to a bathroom, freshen drinks, go to the bathroom. The irony here is that Morin himself is another wind-pundit who essentially turns the role of poet into something the equivalent of being one of those anonymous comedians who make make strange, unattractive noises on VH1's Best Week Ever. This poem deals with stereotyping with stereotypes, and there is no clue that the poet is aware of the loop he got himself caught in. Not that it would have helped this poem. 

It's not that history is being rewritten, but that it is just another commodity that can be hacked, jerry rigged, corporateized and made the subject of uncomprehending punchlines ; it's not about learning, but about knowing the answer, which is to say that twenty first century man and woman wants the material available like an Ipod tune, and then disposed of just as easy. The pity is that the poet summarizes the situation is a way that repeats the absurdity he's criticizing.
The tragedy was that he isn't a figment of any one's imagination but rather a lurking mass of vapidity looking for another group to wrap it's tentacles around.Morin's poem wants to reveal the banter and jargon and conflicting forms of condescension that comes with a group of motor mouths who can't , for a moment, stand in front of an exhibit and consider it in situ, without a script. The poem , like a SNL sketch, is ninety percent set up, with punchlines dropped on you like 16 ton weights. This shtick that gives shtick a bad name.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Gone Baby Gone: terse Boston noir

Had a chance to see Gone Baby Gone during a break from all the turkey feasting, and it bodes well for the revival Ben Affleck film career . His comeback film, Hollywoodland, which had him starring as the late actor George Reeves who played Superman in the Fifties tv show, was merely okay, the sort of small film project other stars like Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction) and Sylvester Stallone (Copland)have used to rebound.

The effort didn't hurt Affleck's reputation , perhaps enhancing his credibility as someone who is "about the work" and therefore reliable, but his performance in that unfocused bio-pic was , I thought, stiff as a cardboard suitcase. Blame the script, perhaps, but I couldn't get beyond Affleck's jawline, lantern and making his smiles seem like smug, tight little smirks. Which is too bad, since I understand from current press that Affleck is one decent guy.

Good for him that he latched onto a good script with his directorial debut Gone BabyGone, starring his brother Casey Affleck.Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote Mystic River), this is a straight forward, dark-skied mystery set in Boston where the junior Affleck's character, a private detective specializing in missing persons working out of his apartment, is hired to "augment" the police investigation in a child kidnapping case by talking to neighborhood characters who won't talk to the police. Straight ahead, moody, paced briskly considering the film's length and the number of complications, Gone Baby Gone is a sturdy and respectable effort, unpretentious and never false to Lehaine's cut-rate prose descriptions of older Boston enclaves and foreboding weather, and he allows characters to establish their rationalizations.

And it's a pleasant surprise to see a good actor like Morgan Freeman in a good movie for once. Casey Affleck, very fine as Robert Ford in the recent western The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, where we see his character's fan boy adulation of the famed robber slowly evolve into a murdering paranoia, is equally adept here, conveying a detective still in the process of developing a personal ethics as he weighs the arguments from parents, hardened cops and a girl friend about what constitutes the right thing to do. Affleck's detective here is someone making his way through a pragmatic world where everyone argues that what they do is for the greater good, and he's a man who finds himself adhering to a moral code regardless of the consequences. This becomes a bit talky , you can imagine, but the verbal jousts between he and Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are wonderful things to observe, that rare thing, actors with dialogue exchanging practical philosophies.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's better to give a resentment than to get one

Sometimes you run into a left hook that's intended for your chin that someone else thinks you deserve. The aggravating thing is being accused of things that were the furthest from your mind. I remember eight years ago

I was working at the customer service desk of a college bookstore,helping a customer, a woman of color who seemed to me to be from India. She presented an unsigned credit card to pay, and she became upset when I asked for a photo ID, basically declaring a racist with her remark "I bet you don't check their Driver's licenses" , referring to a white customer who'd been in line ahead of her. She grabbed her purchase and her receipt and stormed off before I could say anything. What I would have said to the offended woman had I the chance was this:

1.I'm required to ask for photo ID when presented with a credit card with no signature by both the credit company and store policy.
2.That I'd standing behind that counter for four hours prior to my helping her with her purchase, and that I'd already asked three white customers for photo ID when they gave me unsigned credit cards.

I never got my chance to explain store policy/tell her off, which is a good thing, as any additional words from me would come to no good for continued employment. So instead I stewed, dwelled on it, wallowed in my irritation, my thinking inching disturbingly close to redneckish. Ironically, since the cause was being accused of racism when there was no offense purposefully given. The offense was in the customer's mind, and all I could conclude was that she had an standing issue that was just awaiting the right time for what I took was its frequent expression.

Irony is one of those textures of life that never cease casting variations on a theme. In the post 9/11 age of digital commerce, over half the customers I help have credit cards that request that a cash handler ask of an ID. Further, it's not unusual for customers to become irritated when they aren't carded. One client had written in the signature space "DEMAND ID OR REFUSE THE SALE". That day I was an odd mood and took offense by given a demand from someone I didn't know. I processed the sale without asking for indentification, handed over the bagged merchandise and her receipt.

"You didn't ask for my ID" she said, "did you see what I wrote on the card."

"Yes" I said, " and it's unlikely a thief would try to get away using a card with such a demand on the back."
She took a deep breath, rolled her eyes and grabbed her small child's hand and left the store, not to be seen again all these months later.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Idra Novey and the art of the brief lyric

Longing, nostalgia and the long view are the themes Robert Pinsky has given us the last two weeks, with Frank Bidart’s two fine and artfully jump cut melancholy in his two offerings last time with “Candidate” and “Valentine”, and this week, with Idra Novey’s sweetly indirect case study in coincidence and memory, “Definition of Stranger”. The style differences are key; Bidart’s poems were a direct address of a narrator’s thinking in reflection, something of a slide show with a clipped narration barely hanging the images and instances together, yet uniting them with a consistent tone he could build on.

Novay’s poem comes to a related theme, the connection between dissimilar things and the at times the artificial barriers one might use to maintain a distance between themselves and others outside their sphere. Surely, it begins pedantically enough, with a clear and cold definition of what a stranger is, a reading from a dictionary :” Person not a member of a group.” But there is more, and the sort of examples a dictionary provides, usually faceless and inert, comes alive with images that seem the sort of things one gets a glimpse from peripheral vision and then turns for a full view.

A dry explanation of a word we all use and whose meaning we take for granted acquires her unexpected degrees of implied ambiguity, and it is this element of surprise that underscores Novey’s assumption that we’re not separate and fully autonomous .

It is a function of personality that there are some matters that cut deeper than others,nescitating a distancing device so a person can make their way through their daily affairs and obligations without being overwhelmed and immobilized. Novey's poem, as I read it, is in one of those moments when distinctions, differences and distances are for a moment dissolved as memory is stirred. As I read it, this is needed since equilibrium is something that personalities require ; all is not finally settled and in place and all is not resolved like a story one has finished writing, but the occasional island of calm and feeling connected to things outside one's immediate embrace is a strong undercurrent I pick up from Novey's writings. Even as real life accelerates and becomes more complicated, there is a respite. She gets a moment with a skeletal accuracy. It is the effect of reading something or flipping through old photographs and having the scenarios flash by you once again, along with the attending emotions.

We are linked, and our actions have an effect in the larger community. The poem does run the risk of being viewed solely as list, but Novey is a smart enough poet to know when to end the stream of examples. List making is a vice of the poet who cannot stop writing, a setting up of odd things set up against one another that aims for the kind of Brechtian Alienation Effect , where we have an intense observation of the things in one’s material surroundings become odd and perceptually malformed and from which one can realize the layers of false consciousness they’ve coated their lifeless objects with. The sheer accumulation of quizzically poised detritus is supposed to fire up the synapses and make us realize that there’s too much spent accumulating consumer goods solely on the advertised promise that one becomes a better and more fulfilled citizen. In smaller doses, it works, as in Ginsberg’s early work, or in the genius that is A.R.Ammons ‘ to write long and inclusive while maintaining a running theme in his lines. But those were poets who could develop ideas and have them change, evolve, and finish up with resolution you didn’t expect to come seeing, not an easy task at all. Too often list making is merely a trick of the trade that just overwhelms a premise or hides the fact that there wasn’t one to begin with. The goal seems to be to fill the page, to view writing poetry as mere process.

It’s not mere process to Novey, and her poem has the grace and dignity of a small , polished gem, a bright stone of a perception set in a casing that’s elegant for it’s simplicity. The things around the narrator—I assume it is one who reads the lifeless definition of stranger and then rolls off the tight string of associations—are closer and more related than not, from the casual brush on the shoulder in a crowded city, to the fact that someone else’s trash can become another person’s comfort, in the image of the discarded becoming a napping place for a destitute man. She is also delightfully aware of the sounds of words and the rolling, accelerated sensation they can give

Person not privy or party
to a decision, edict, et cetera,
but who's eaten
from the same fork
at the pizzeria
and kissed your wilder sister
on New Year's.

The dual alliterations, with the p’s popping and the e’s easing their way to the finish, gives us city sounds, the vivid feel of conversations occurring at once, radio stations tuned to different stations, thoughts colliding with one another and reviving a memory, an image, formerly lost, now recalled:

Person assigned
to feed the tiger at the zoo
where you slipped your hand
into the palm
of somebody else's father

These are wonderful connections, minor, banal on the surface, but all the same demonstrating our inter-relations through what we buy, discard, what we touch and eat. Novey’s poems is seamless in how it brings together the associations between pizzeria forks, a person feeding a tiger and the lone hand a small girl trustingly held onto.But it’s not about any of those things, in themselves; what the poet gives us is a concise and sweetly evoked demonstration of the human need to order their existence, past , present, future. We crave continuity even in the things that drive us crazy with their randomness; Novey’s poem is a graceful example of how one can make their world at least settle into place, to become coherent for a period before the next flurry.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Frank Bidart's "Candidate"

Frank Bidart’s “Candidate” seems constructed from the rubble of what used to be a man’s life; someone who thought they’d change the world, set it on fire, inspire legions to do the same. Bidart is at that age when a man’s interior life has segued from the future they are going to mold with their plans to forge a revolution in the consciousness of their time, or at least achieve a number of goals that will confirm them as men of action and into a continual review of what one has done, what corners have been shaved from the building blocks of an unsustainable integrity. The man, the one volunteering himself for a cause , or feeling himself selected for higher purpose, has his reminders of the assumptions he started with, a gathering of incidental and banal things.

on each desk mantel refrigerator door

an array of photographs
little temple of affections

you have ironically but patiently made


Those promises that make us confront
our ambition, pathetic ambition:

confront it best when we see what it
promised die. Your dead ex-wife

you put back on the mantel
when your next wife left. With her iron

nasals, Piaf regrets NOTHING: crazed
by the past, the sweet desire to return to


Melancholy is the mood, the world is fragmented, made of shards and bits of things that used to be whole that are now in various stages of dis assembly; a double hardship, a deeper heartache of regret. One is stuck with the things that there is no use for, unable to throw them away lest more of what someone had been is gone. And the remains , the photographs, the key lines of old recordings, mock him. One of his wives is dead and there is only a mulling over of the last words they spoke to each other before she passed, a loop of words he interrogates and inspects and replays at varying imagined speeds to find a clue of what went wrong, what he should have done,picked up on. He hangs himself nightly with the snapshot.Piaf regrets nothing, of course, but this man regrets liking Piaf’s assertion because he once used it, doubtless, as a slogan for his perfectly formed future. But Edith Piaf was a singer performing someone else’s lyric, and her voice is a recording of a sentiment that will not, cannot change, fluctuate with time; it is the same strong, strident exclamations, the exact same nuances, pauses, rushes against a back beat, the same surface pops and scratches. The protagonist is in a life that had to change lest he cease to be meaningfully engaged with what matters for him. Lest he cease to be.

Undisenthralled you
regret what could not have been

otherwise and remain itself.
There, the hotel in whose bar you courted

both your wives is detonated, collapsing;
in its ballroom, you conceded the election.

There's your open mouth

A good photograph tells you everything
that's really going on is invisible.

You are embarrassed by so many
dead flowers. They lie shriveled before you.

This is a man who has feels himself vanishing, the trail of each compromise and evolution he’s had in his game plan , and the places where these changes occurred and thus construct the complicated, rueful, meditative character in this poem are being torn down. Soon there will be nothing left of him in the landscape he once had memorized and could tell personal stories about. An actual election takes place, perhaps? Confidence and easy answers worn to the nub, an agenda adjusted, modified, shaved, finally abandoned by circumstances large and lethal to a soul’s vibrancy, we have a character locked in a backwards glare. This is a man who cannot see what still stands, but only that which is ruined and ragged with time.

"Valentine", a poem by Frank Bidart

An interesting poem, bearing the name “Valentine”, I suppose, because so much failure to keep solemn promises, lies, thefts and endless manner of behavior that wind up harming those close, beloved, trusted equally rationalized with the evocation of “love”. What we come to read is an emerging realization that the most intimate term of selflessness and dedication to other people is used to keep wives, husbands, children, and generations, latched to and lashed by psychologies that do them ill and rob them of what they can become. It begins in youth, a young man experiencing duplicities in the name of love, and in the righteousness of untested conviction makes a pledge, he says , my case will be different:

How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he

would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love

Conviction gets tested in intervening years and, finding that experience won’t conform to the dictates and conditions of theoretical idealness, the protagonist discovers the need to invent new definitions for old words, that meanings are subjective and change, colored by experience and coined from reflex; he uses love in situations he thought he’d never find himself in, he uses a term he had wanted to keep personally uncorrupted.

Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest

something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right

must be love
must be love

The hardest task in the world one lives in with others is explaining oneself, of getting across the nuances and finer points in the terms they use; meanings and context get larger, less focused, the ground rules one has set for themselves for authenticity are negotiated, compromised. How one thinks of love becomes private, internal, a condition
of being that’s rare and precious and finally incommunicable in terms that are not wholly false. “Love” becomes a short hand for any impulse one has, any obsession that forms and becomes malignant, harmful.

Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate

my bereft grandmother bereft
father bereft mother their wild regret

How those now dead used love to explain
wild regret

Banged about, exhilarated, betrayed and betrayer , the protagonist shoulder’s his abused idealism, attempts to be stoic about the pragmatic choices he’s been forced to make with his idealism given a life that took it’s own course despite his plans to discover the meaning of “love” and so use the word unambiguously. But ambiguity is all there is here, and he becomes cynical, debasing and expanding and modifying his beloved term to the degree that words and actions are not coherent and congruent. It’s a sad sequence of snapshots Frank Bidart has given the reader, a compressed tale about the making of cynic who couldn’t sustain a passion for life beyond the disabusing of his optimism.

This is compression at its finest, and the sentences take odd turns and twists of implication without an overgenerous supply of biography; this is writing Don DeLillo, who writes the best sentences in American English, would enjoy. Like DeLillo, the history of a particular word is traced and its modulations are succinctly characterized. One may lack a name, one may not know anything in the way of biography, but what makes this poetic is the beauty of the revelations; it unfolds like a bright conversation you’re overhearing where you’ve pieced together the scenario although you lack the back-story. The effect is that you recognize something you’ve seen elsewhere. It is the shock of recognition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Norman Mailer's Presentation of Self

The frequent complaint against Norman Mailer’s style was that he was “boring , boring, boring” in the words of one recent poster on Slate’s Fray discussion board, as if repeating the charge three times conveyed a deeper , more profound depth of dullness. Fitting, perhaps, for Mailer, who, in what I consider his richest years as a prose stylist, rarely passed up a chance to make use of an apt qualifier. Taking pioneer feminist literary critic Kate Millett to task for what he regarded as her literal minded and agenda-included misreading of one of his favorite writers Henry Miller, Mailer dismantles her criticisms and concludes that Millett was
“…a pug nosed wit” and had “…a mind like a flat iron”. That gets across not just an opinion that a writer is not just boring in a shrugged-off generic sense, but also a pitiful state of being. Millett, though, had much in the way of criticism of male writers’ habits in the treatment of women in their work, and much of what she opined in her Sexual Politics remains an empowering motive for women writers and critics to define their own traditions and styles in literature tradition, but Mailer, I think, scored in his defenses of Miller, Lawrence (less so with Jean Genet), doing so in a way that made his flat iron remark sting and linger particularly long. Unfair and cruel, well yes, but effective and lasting.

That’s how you call someone boring. Actually, what I would reject is an all encompassing pronouncement that Mailer is an awful writer, or that the majority of his work is dreadful and merely the extensions of a large, unclued ego. The fun in all this , though, is contrasting one's peculiar justifications for enjoying or disliking a writer (or film maker, poet, painter) and seeing what responses come forth that think differently. There is something to be said about Mailer being the second hand and slapdashed in his writings--I'm thinking of his foghorning pomp on the state of American theatre in his introduction to his play version of The Deer Park, his glorification of juvenile deliquency and his homophobic mewling in Advertisements for Myself -- but he did , for me, rise above was mere petulance and and high octane assholism in his writing , which is to say in his thinking, that he kept me interested over the course of forty plus years of reading him. Of a Fire on the Moon, Harlot's Ghost and Why Are We in VietNam are written in three distinct styles, with varying dictions and pitches, and it would a plus in Mailer's column that he could vary his tone as it suited different subjects. He was not the perfect writer, but from the excess of his self-promotions and cracker barrel prophecies comes a voice unlike any other , and a voice as well with sufficient mastery to have produced a handful of masterpieces as well as a selection of egocentric subject groping.

Mailer's use of the third person in referring to himself didn't bother me nearly as much as it annoyed others; "annoying others" might be a clue to why he used it, to tweak his detractors again and again in service to a narrative. I got whatever it was Mailer was after with the device, though, and considered it an ingenious way for him to blend his reporting with the occasional biographical detail and his fluid, often brilliant , often obfuscating speculations on what foul conditions were destroying the ability of his country to do better in the world. Performance is a word used more often than not regarding Mailer's writing, and it frames the quality and conditions of the books, for better and ill. For better, because the whole "factional" , New Journalism ploy allowed him to create a narrator who could allow his thoughts to intrude on the intentions and thoughts of those he wrote about and to mine significance from places and things that would remain inert, unviewed. For all his amateur standing as psychologist, sociologist and philosopher, he frequently succeeded in writing the sort of heroic criticism that marked the writings of earlier era, from Matthew Arnold, through Montaigne, Oliver Goldsmith m H.L. Mencken and George Orwell. Orwell, an author claimed by the Left and Right as one of their intellectual saint, may well have been the person who most influenced Mailer to call himself a "left conservative". Ambivalent about absolute plans for solving the world's problems, he investigated other options. A counter puncher was how Mailer described himself, and he often scored points; he also missed just as often. Mailer was inconsistent as a writer, but he had a professional career that lasted nearly sixty years; from the thirty nine or so books he published, he has written what I consider the requisite number of work, five, that will probably insure his reputation. He, in fact, exceeds my arbitrary conditions .There is, in my view,

The Naked and the Dead
The Armies of the Night
Miami and the Siege of Chicago
Why Are We in Vietnam?
Of a Fire on the Moon
The Executioner's Song
Harlot's Ghost
Ancient Evenings
The Castle in the Forest

The debate over what of his reputation will be intact and which of his works last at least to the end of this century will rage, quietly or loudly, for decades to come, and it may be that Mailer’s hi jinx will be forgiven as critics seize upon a group of selected Mailer books for the purpose of championing another Great American Writer. Time has a way of seeing that productive and problematically gifted authors are forgiven their sleights, errors and all purpose displays of self-serving as holism as the concerned reading collective no longer has a reputation to argue with and only books to contend with. Succeeding generations of readers, with no vested interest in Mailer’s ignoble follies, will perhaps bring us a new consensus. Why not? Faulkner, Steinbeck, O’Neill and Eliot have been absolved by a critical apparatus that was wise enough to return to  what he'd actually written and published. Mailer might be a tougher nut to chew, but it can be done, yes, it will be done.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I’m the fool who will pay the bill, but I think we can all agree it would cheat this collection of its true interest to present myself as more modest than I am.
--Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself

The irony of it all, I guess, is that Mailer can be said to tread on the Noble Savage sentiment, but what he asserts in both "White Negro" and "The Faith of Graffiti" is there is a need, nay, a requirement for self-definition among those who are denied the means to do so for reasons of race, gender, economics, and that the form these taggers have taken is a way of making something that resonates. What he argues , essentially, is that the impulse, inspiration and discipline of committing yourself to unsullied artistic expression is the same , whether it happens to be in European salons, Soho Art Galleries, Museum Walls, or on the side of a Brooklin water tower; he rejects art as the domain of the white culture the final aim of which is a fat commission and corporate sponsorship and college courses and brings it again to something that is human in it's dimension. As it regards black American culture, the likes of Amiri Baraka, Cornel West and Eric Michael Dyson would find quite a bit to agree with about Mailer's treatise. Urban culture is now the stuff of dissertations , has been codified as an aesthetic with it's own critical parlance, and is now a legitimate part of the larger cultural landscape of America, and Graffiti, like it or not, is an essential element of this mid 20th century development. Mailer was the first one to write seriously , on his own terms , about this. One can argue with Mailer's tone, his arch style and his interest in neo-prmitivism, but I think his interest in the young men he interviewed and spent weeks with as a writer was honest and his ideas about their work were sincere. In a forward to the book, he reveals that the title was given to him by an artist who was seriously injured from a steep fall that happened when he was tagging a structure from on high. He was talking about having faith in something, an ideal, that motivated you beyond your limits. I can only paraphrase, but it came down to him telling Mailer that the name of the book that would come out of this would be The Faith of Grafitti". Mailer recognized something amazing.

Friday, November 9, 2007

American Gangster: Epic Tedium

American Gangster promises much from the advertising, highlighting to live-wire Oscar winners in the form of Denzel Washington and Russell Crow as, respectively, a powerful Harlem based crime lord and an honest cop heading a narcotics investigation that eventually brings him to trial. Directed by Ridley Scott, this should have been a sure thing, but the lesson behind items bandied as the safe bet is that they go sour more often than we wish. Scott is, at times, a brilliant stylist who can set a mood, get the atmosphere and move action and drama along concurrently, as is the case in his masterworks Blade Runner, The Duelist, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. The balance between the oddly composed frame, the baroque design and the character-driven plots ( Black Hawk Down, though, is more about combat protocol than personal demons) made for what is now a rare thing in the industry, a well made Hollywood entertainment. He's never met a skewed color scheme or illogical edit he wasn't taken with, a fact that makes more than a few of his movies as if they're in competition with brother Tony Scott. Ridley Scott often gets as agitated and formula-glutted and offers up predigested bilge such as the blandly a-historic nonsense of Kingdom of Heaven, generic equivocations of style employing an excess of trendy edits, gauche camera filters that came to nothing at all except a noisy journey to forgone plot resolutions. American Gangster is somewhere between these virtues and vices, and it is to be commended that Scott has calmed his camera hand and offered up the wonderfully grit-textured scenery of a Seventies-era New York with a minimum of gratuitous flair.The plot, though, is something pieced together from a half-dozen crime dramas one could name, the most obvious being the face to face meeting between Washington's and Russell's crook and cop characters, where opposing worldviews are exchanged: the nod to Pacino and DeNiro in Heat is glaring, obvious as a zit. Scott also takes his time developing the storylines of the crime boss and the cop to where the eventually meet and lock horns, in between being the standard troubled marriages, drug addictions, mob hits, all proceeding at a snail's pace. Add to this drawn out build up the fact of Denzel Washington's persistent monotone and we have a collection of tics and quirks passed off as style. Russell Crow again manages to barely hide his Australian drawl and underplays his part as the dutiful and shambling cop, more cipher than character. Both characters are more stereotypes for the writers to hang their refurbished cliches on. All the same, this seems old, contrived, pieced together by the numbers, and the assurance that this film is based on a true story doesn't mask the feeling of having seen all this before, nor can it make for the lack of dramatic tension. It's a paycheck, not a testament. Slowness is not a sin, of course, but there is the occasional mistake by good directors and their scriptwriters who think slack momentum equals literary acumen, something this filmmaker obviously coveted.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hollywood Ending:Tom Sleigh's "A Wedding at Cana, Lebanon, 2007"

Tom Sleigh side steps the blind alley debate as to whether this poem is prose or poetry but maintaining a fast, jerking momentum; there is chaos hear, a tangible feeling of something gone horribly wrong during what was supposed to be a peaceful , happy affirm ton of being in a life that’s worth living. He comes across this and is filled with disbelief, horror, the crushing shock of what he hasn’t seen before. At it's most effective, this poem is about a fight against engulfing incomprehension.

He said, "It is terrible what happens."
And "So, Mr. Tom,
do not forget me"—an old-fashioned ring, pop tunes,
salsa! salsa! the techno-version of Beethoven's
Fifth, Fairouz singing how love has arrived,
that's what he heard after they dropped the bombs,
his ambulance crawling through smoke while cellphones
going off here here here kept ringing—
how the rubble-buried bodies' still living
relatives kept calling to see who had survived

The narrator, whom we presume is Sleigh, describes everything he sees manically, at the dual edges of irretrievable panic and despair, creating a narrative of shattered bits and pieces with the fueled earnestness of someone swimming madly to keep their head above water. There is the pervading sense that the narrative being given, the same sort of detailing we’ve seen given by reporters in the field who’ve witnessed an attack, captured it on film, and who must now rise above their mortality and report the details to an audience, is done with the barely tangible hope that one can maintain continuity in the midst of the carnage, a sense of the world being whole in spite of the attack, a wan hope that this ruination can be repaired.

And when he dug through concrete scree scorched black
still smoking
from the explosion, squadrons of jets droning overhead,
houses blown to rebar, he saw cellphones'
display lights flashing from incoming calls and when
he flipped the covers, saw phone camera pics,
pics of kids, wives, dads, single, grouped, some wearing
silly party hats, scenes of hilarity
compacted on the screen: it was "not good"
he said, to have to take the phone out of the body
part pocket: Hello—no, no, he's here,
right here, but not—
and then he'd have to explain ... and so he stopped

The bit with the cellphones is very well played and gives Sleigh opportunity to introduce the further complication here, strong images and clues to the immensity and desirable banality of the lives of the victims, with picture of parties, party hats, people laughing, the ringing phones of callers looking for the phone owners, confused and despairing that a stranger has answered the call. A rush of words, a hard pounding stream of restless adjectives and nervously connecting commas that barely give pause before the description of the next element of the disaster, Sleigh’s condenses time, collapses it, and conveys the sensation of past, present and future happening at once; the maddened narration , the desperate piecing together of where everything was and where it had been blown away seems a grasping for a hold on sanity. This poem is filmic, in the sense that it’s jerky, forward motion and brief, flickering lapses into bits of simultaneous scenarios reminds of Black Hawk Down , Ridley Scott’s jittery, claustrophobic war film, and it is this element that spoils the work. “Hollywood Endings”, usually derided for the habit of reconciling problematic items in a film story by the end of the tale so that everyone gets the happiness they deserve, don’t necessarily have to be pleasant . For me, it’s whether the conclusions are pat , an ending, happy or sad, allowing the piece to end quickly, wrapped up in a phrase or an image that makes you believe that there is a moral to be derived.

The show over, we 
got back into our car, our tires crunching 
over rubble. As I sat there rubbernecking 
at a burned-out tank, he shrugged: "All this—how embarrassing." 
And "I hope this is the story you are after.”

Making the writer and his craft the final and the defining subject of a poem is a temptation too great for otherwise good poets to avoid, and it is in some cases a chronic condition, an urge that can’t be resisted. Sleigh gives us a downbeat Hollywood Ending,with the last shots being the camera panning over the scattered cellphones, the decimated party scene, billows of black smoke and broken glass mixed in the gravel with shredded bits of wedding lace, coming to the feet of the Westerner, gazing with Imperial Naivety over the horror, with the driver delivering the last word in the movie “"All this—how embarrassing….I hope this is the story you are after.” The narrator nods, looks at his boots, and they head back to the car and then drive off elsewhere in the city . Roll credits. Moving stuff for a motion picture, perhaps, but contrived here, a mechanical moving of the action and what strikes me as a neurotic mention that the man telling the tale is a writer. Sleigh wants to get across the creaky and cracked idea, ala VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux and Salman Rushdie, that the writer is the perennial outsider who observes, reports and deals in depth with their own inability to improve upon the miserable lives and circumstances they voluntarily bare witness to, which is fine if one intends something book length where one’s self examination doesn’t short change the people who inspire the story. The ending is jarring for me, unsatisfying, pat, seeming more the result of a writer’s conditioned reflex than the observing and rendering of an honestly ironic element that happens quite apart from his self image. Had this been in a work shop I was conducting, I would have asked him to can the conclusion he came up with and instead give the reader something as powerful and sure as what he began with. The presence and perception of the narrator and his state of mind is strongly implied and reinforcing that at the end is redundant and distracting; something more about the bit of the world that was smashed while the bigger world, the community, struggles to go about its daily life would have been stronger, more powerful, more honest.The poem is about a specific situation he was witness to, and the larger subject, how a population tries to conduct their lives as normally as possible in the midst of this violence, was being effectively presented by Sleigh until the intrusion of his occupation, a writer.The poem works as a rush of sensation and impression, and the larger issue of genocidal policy is not part of what makes this poem work or not work. The aim is doubtlessly to get readers to think critically of the situation, but discussion of that here is, honestly, useless to a discussion as to how this poem might have been more powerful as a work of literature. Politics are fine, but political poems are foremost poems, and they need to succeed as writing if they're to have impact.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Ready-mades, Aesthetic Distance, Art as Mere Fun

I had a professor once point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be This Marcel Duchamp’s' idea, a classic dada gesture he offered with his ready-mades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedestals. The point, though, was that the object became an aesthetic object, denatured, in a manner of speaking, from its natural context and forced, suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". Among the dubious yet witty results of this sort of framing, this creating of distance between the banal thing and the person who might have a real need for it is that a perfectly fine urinal, or a snow shovel, or a pipe all becomes useless.

There design virtues, originally aimed at smooth functioning, are usurped and become instead aesthetic dimensions one appreciates in a vaguer language. This aligns itself with Oscar Wilde’s notion of art, in his small essay accompanying Portrait of Dorian Gray, that all art is quite useless; this reflects, perhaps, his attitude for most people, whom he undoubtedly didn’t care for as such, but found them amusing as manifestations of impulses conflicting with protests of moral standards, Great Theatre, in other words.

The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default. Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. Duchamp, and other Dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Paul Rodgers

It’s my view, after a weekend of rummaging through old albums , that Paul Rodgers is the best singer of his generation, and is the only singer from that era who has gotten better as a vocalist .Roger Daltry and Robert Plant and a host of other blues shouters have had their voices go south, wither, get reduced to a miserable croak, but Rodgers has only gotten better--power, control, feeling, range, the whole shot. Though it's not for everyone, his Muddy Waters Blues album, a tribute to the great blues man, is a super fine blues/rock effort, with Rodgers belting, blasting and swing blues standards in ways veeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry few Brits were ever to do . The songs, classics all, are bullet proof, made for a talent like Rodger's to grace. Rodgers is a brilliant vocalist who is also one of the worst songwriters of his generation, post-Free. Bad Company were an OK band, but not geniuses in any department, and the kind of blues-bathos that Rodgers and cohorts tossed at us made the band seem like a Foghat with a good singer. They had a run, they were popular, I saw them several times, but anyone who listens to the old Free albums, especially Tons of Sobs or Heartbreaker, and not notice the depreciation in song quality, or conviction of performance really hasn't been paying attention. Rodgers sometimes sounded like he were droning into a nod, that his last held note often sounded like they were going to transform into snores, and we might have had the sound of our singer falling to the floor , napping hard. Crash!!! Bad Company's best album was Straight Shooter. After that, it was cruise control rock and roll, hard rock MOR. Nothing especially rich or interesting, basic as bread and water. The Page/Rodgers match up didn't do much for me, not completely, but I did like their version of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling". But the fact is that the Righteous Brothers version is untouchable, though others have given the songs decent readings: Bill Medley, the lead vocalist on the original version, performance that is legend. The right voice for the right song. I think Rodgers would have better luck teaming up with VanHalen, at least for one album. But only if he let Eddie write the music and David Lee Roth scribe the lyrics, provided Roth can holster his ego and content himself with being Bernie Taupin to Rodgers’ Elton John. Not likely, though, and that’s too bad.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Rita Dove's Rage Against Complacency

Context is indispensable in literary interpretation, but not every poem written requires the digging in order to grasp the larger things a poet is getting at. Rita Dove's poem "Blues in Half Tones, 3/4 Time"is a good example of this. The context is from the black experience, but she doesn't depend on every reader's knowledge of black history and it's struggle for civil rights in order for them to comprehend and respond to her more generalized theme: nay-saying and apathy are killers of the soul and ambition. Her particulars happen to be black, elements with which she creates art, but the poem is written skillfully enough for readers of different cultural origins to relate to her themes and understated assertions. Meaning, as such , is not locked up in an identity-specific criteria.

Dove sounds like she's talking about equivocation here, in the voice of someone responding to another's remarks or complaints about the wrongs that exist in life, both on the personal and global levels. The responding voice admits the unfairness of the wrongs that have been done, but offers a solution that equals the that one may as well make the best with the imperfect situation they're in.

From nothing comes nothing,
don't you know that by now?
Not a thing for you, sweet thing,
not a wing nor a prayer,
though you got half
by birthright,
itching under the skin.

Much of the troubles seem to be automatic, by the color of skin and the blood that courses through the veins; a hard fate one is born into and which one must accept as inevitable and unchangeable; only then can real decisions be made and real actions be taken to find or create some happiness.

The speaker seems a chronic, make-no-waves
placater, someone who would be considered a realist by some because of a refusal to be absorbed by the illusion and ideology of false hope (and who will not foster in others), and a defeatist by others who accepts what few comforts he or she has under the economic and political heel of a white majority. It's a voice, a constant voice in neighborly patois that encourages conformity, a studied complacency, a kind of defeatist small talk that has the unexamined sway of religious belief. There is no hope, no empowering on this earth:

I'm not for sale because I'm free.
(So they say. They say
the play's the thing, too,
but we know that don't play.)
Everyone's a ticket
or a stub, so it might as well
cost you, my dear.

It's the thinking that has it that no one gets out of this life alive, and that no one is exempt from the
dictated stations and pains of the class one is born into. There is no heaven on earth, and salvation and reward awaits in someplace other than this existence. This is the classic "slave morality" Nietzsche railed against in his tracts and rants against formalized Christianity . Dove, of course, brings this to street level, to a conversation had in market, over a backyard fence, over cigarettes and beers on the porch.It's an insidious device that keeps the powerless without means not by great machinations of determinedly evil powers (though there was and is great evil in the world)but because the victims themselves have adapted to their circumstances and made their powerlessness a virtue, a moral imperative.

Dove's poem is skillfully rendered sketch of a kind of flawed thinking that is as deep in its mal-forming tendencies as any real disease. But it's not just on the epic scale that the chatter concerns itself with. Even the smallest matters, such as finding what I take to be a wallet or purse at the end, are seen as evidence of hubris, and an invitation to the wrath of moronic, piggish gods:

But are you sure you lost it?
Did you check the back seat?
What a bitch. Gee, that sucks.
Well, you know what they say.
What's gone's gone.
No use crying.
(There's a moral somewhere.)
A self-preserving relativism transformed into a laziness that is so uncommitted to chancing anything original or self assertive that the speaker cannot (or will not) even dare to attach a cliche moral to an already hackneyed reaction to another's incidental misfortune. You understand clearly why it is a young person, writer or otherwise, would want to leave the neighborhood and all it's nay-saying constraints at the earliest opportunity.

There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same. --Norman Mailer

Rita Dove doubtlessly concurs with Mailer on this point, whatever their differences on other matters might be. A fine, delicately attack on the conformist mentality