Monday, March 17, 2008

Rock and Roll on PBS Pledge Night

I turned on PBS the other night, discovered it was a fund raising night, and witnessed the incredibly creased likes of the Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly performing truncated versions of their respective hits. It reminded me why I've come to prefer straight ahead jazz in my later life.
___________
Pledge Night

Let’s remember that
we’re strangers here ourselves
as we consider the years
we’ve had the same phone number,
the answering machine
is full of salesmen
stumbling over their scripts
and toll free exchanges,
get an extra room cleaned
for free and God, do I want a smoke.
None of us
who still have hair
believed our music
would age as badly
as an ice cream flavor
involving spinach and Brussels sprouts,
all the guitar licks
leave an after taste
of hashish, a stench of love beads
doused in petuli oil,
what was sleek and smooth
is now grey and creased
like paper that’s been
folded and unfolded over many years,
yes, I tell my barber,
roll down my ears;
give me a buzz
the equal of a shot and a beer.

I still listen to rock and roll, and for me the perfect road trip music is Deep Purple's Machine Head. I just don't attend all that many rock shows anymore, especially ones by the bands of my generation; the look pathetic. Jazz musicians maintain dignity as they age, since their music is about musicianship , not desperate appeals to what gets termed youth's "rebellious spirit”. But it depends on the artists; Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Lou Reed and some older bands like King Crimson or, in punk, Bad Religion are rock acts I’d consider paying money to see, since it’s the power of their songs and the genius of their musical and lyrical textures that have withstood the defanging quality of aging; the music still has a bite, and can take a leg off if you’re not careful. Contrarily, there have been a number of times when I’ve seen living jazz legends (who will remain unnamed) who seemed to sleep walk through their improvised paces; not every elder jazzbo can be a Sonny Rollins, a man who continues to challenge himself. The secret being an artist who ages gracefully is to make sure that what you’ve had to say in your medium was worth hearing in the first place.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Well Made Poems"


More often than not I defend the "well made" poem if the poet has the needed things going for it , like a solid construction, an ability focus imagery in a fresh and sparing way the unresolvability of conflicting responses to situations written about, either past or current.The execution should take one by surprise, leave one breathless, if only for a second. Ideally, each verse would be an epiphany;we make do with less, however, and adjust our expectations accordingly. Like it or not, those poems, scorned by large sections of the post-avant gard who write a more difficult work, are themselves not easy to write; one may speak of technique all they wish, but there is an innate sense, I believe, of knowing how start, what to build with and, most importantly , when too quit, lest one kill a good idea for a poem with the lack of confidence overwriting suggests. Billy Collins has come in for his share of jabs and jibes because of the middlebrow accessibility of his work, he is a poet who has a certain mastery of the everyman voice who writes poetry "for the rest of us" ; his is a poetry is a body of work that forces the reader to think about the world they're already familiar with in new ways.His is the world of the banal, the small, the incidental, the vocabulary of twitches and tics , but this remains a realm that needs to be written about. Collins is the man to equal the challenge in inspiring a reader to interrogate routines and schedules that guide their journeys from desk to mailbox and back again. Billy Collins, in fact, is the perfect "gateway poet"; when I worked at an independent bookstore for some years in San Diego, several customers over several years expressed a desire to read something more daring, challenging, "edgier" than what the former U.S. Poet Laureate was offering. I navigated them to Thomas Lux, comparable to Collins for clarity and readability, but darker, more ironic, a poet who explores the unintended results of one's best efforts to assert their will on the world.

There are those "well made poems" , however, that strive to hit all the marks that only make you feel that someone is trying too hard for the lead role in play they're not suited for; they dance too fast, they sing too loud, they deliver the monologue without suggesting that they're talking to another person."For D" by Roseanna Warren reads like it were a dull long poem that had been workshopped down to a dull short one; the striking language is all that's left, and there is nothing between the odd phrasings to make this prissy string of worry beads intrigue you. The poem is a dieter who has lost weight too quickly who finds that absence of flab doesn't mean one will find a prince or princess emerging from the flab and stretch marks.

This is one of those poems where you read each line expecting something to happen at the end of each line, and nothing does. It's a fussy poem, full of odd and unnatural words placed in positions where attention becomes focused on the odd sounds the words make rather than the meaning they may suggest or the unresolved feelings being sussed through. Euphony is fine, everyone enjoys rich words and intriguing slang, but there is an expectation that the person writing the poem should have his or her feet on the ground and have a diction roughly like ours (slightly heightened, of course, since this is poetry after all).

The plane whumps down through rainclouds, streaks
of creamy light through cumulus, and, below,
a ruffled scattering, a mattress' innards ripped—


No one talks like this, and no one should be writing poems with this word choices this precious. Whumps is a word suggesting body surfing as a lone man or woman braves the water and rides the momentum of waves coming to crash on a burly shore line, and it also sounds like the sound a drunk uncle might make against a newborn baby's bare stomach; Warren wants to suggest a plane's bumpy passage through some "creamy" clouds , but she makes us think of desert instead of a slow unnerving as she nears her destination. "Innards" is the kind of word one actually speaks, but ironically, in an affected voice to soften the use of a dated colloquialism. The image of seeing a slashed mattress on the landing approach could have been a dramatic one, a choice foreshadowing, but "innards" undermines that.

For the rest, the poem is over arranged, and it occurs to you finally that this reads like someone preparing their responses and poeticizing in advance of the facts; Tilda Swinton's ruthless character in Michael Clayton comes to mind, a nervous corporate crook rehearsing her prepared statements in the mirror with different tones of voice, eye movements, and differing tilts of the head. Her character, like this poem, ends badly.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Notes


Rollo May asserts somewhere that pure, sheer, absolute innocence is inviolable, and that until the one that's blessed to be in it's wrap willfully samples knowledge of a grittier world, they will be protected from harm and the ill activities of others. This sounds idealistic, even optimistic to me, and is an aspect of a larger argument -- exactly when did we fall from grace? -- That drips with nostalgia for a more interesting era, before we invented the club and the gun.

The difference between being honest and being naive, maybe. Honesty seems a state of complete awareness about the world, a state where one can peer into the eyes of others and discern real motivations behind the eyes, and in turn trust an instinct that steers them from misadventure and victimization. Honesty is a quality that is earned, a purposeful armor. Being naive, then, would be a choice for being stupid, a refusal to realize materialistic agendas of others who view others not as citizens but as resources to be harvested, stripped, denuded. Is cynicism is but naivety in another guise?

Too encompassing, I think, though it is an easy matter for someone to feign worldliness with sham cynicism: abrupt dismissals of topics with impatience and pat-rants are a handy method of avoiding conversation about things. Call someone naive is a statement about their lack of real-world experience, however it gets defined. It means, though, that some conceptions about the way life works hasn't been tested against actual events and that a learning curve has yet to commence about our subject. The cynic believes the world goes only in one direction, is motivated by the worst instincts, but more times , if we have our archetypes clear, it's a world view that's formed after a run of misfortune. At this point one may call the cynic short sighted, as in not taking other things in consideration, but not naïve. ‘‘Ignorant is a better word, as it becomes a willful act after one has tasted the imprecision of real events. It's a refusal to know more, as opposed to a state of not knowing at all.

____________________

Fiction does not need theory in order to be written. First the fiction is written, the artistic moments, and then theory arises as a consequence of critical reading. Theory is a coherent statement of known and verified material facts, in this case works of fiction, and the formation of theory, if it's to be interesting , comes after the appearance of a the primary source. Postmodern critics and erstwhile deconstructionists seek to have theory on the same level as fiction, literature, but in terms of actual practice, theory is a secondary activity, a delayed reaction to fiction, not a simultaneous occurrence. Changing tastes and fashions have more to do with novels falling off the radar, not an absence of theory. And a philosophy without a theory to begin with is not a philosophy at all, only the same said fashionable chatter. For real philosophies that get dropped into our dirty bin, it's most likely that their systems and suppositions have been supplanted, discredited and sufficiently critiqued into submission, which is just the happenstance of intellectual shelf life.

____________________

_____________________
All bad writing comes from writers who are writing badly, even normally good writers who've undertaken bad projects. There are many tangible reasons for bad writing, not the least of which is the plain truth that the world is full of bad writers who manage to get their scams published. Poe wanted desperately to be thought of as an intellectual, and tried to limn the metaphysical structure of the cosmos in such horse-shit Meta essays/stories like "Eureka" and “The Philosophy of Furniture". These are turgid meanderings in an involuted prose style that would have been consigned to the dust bin had not Poe more than once hunkered down and committed himself to unblemished storytelling, the work that is the basis of his deserved reputation as an original. I think his reputation would have been made even without his dabbling in theory. He was bad at it.

Individual talent is the issue, not generic determinism. Alan Lightman does quite a good job with his novel The Diagnosis, and the charge of it being "over rated" is a remark worth noting when one has read the book and is ready to give a critique on matters relevant to its execution and substance. Modernism cannot get "less modern", I think, because the modernism seems, in itself, only a tidying up of Romantic impulses before it, as post modernism seems only a refinement, an updating of some essentially modernist tropes and stylistics. Each age takes the conventional set of dreads and sagas and makes their contours conform to the constructed world of the current moment. What counts is the individual talent that becomes the substance worth talking about. Even in a post-modernist arena, subject to slippery laws of equivocation and deferral, the talents that transcend the limits that constrict the names assigned art-making processes and histories are what matter for us.

______________


David Foster Wallace, a civil and occasionally enthralling wunderkind whose is the leading light in the latest generation of post modernists: certainly, the man can write, though his ability to discern between gleaning the telling detail from a life of observation and mere accumulation weighs his prose into a sagging, soggy bag of entrails, dripping a tasteless juice. Infinite Jest is not the masterpiece his admirers want it to be, but it has moments, pleasures, though it drags around the references as if the author were selling the Britannica door to door. His brief works are much, much better, his best form. Underworld is well worth finishing, Scott, though it does get a little clogged in the middle section --middle - aged spread, I suppose -- but the work does sustain itself in total. There is simply too much brilliant writing in the coming pages to pass up, and one does achieve a sense of the largeness DeLillo imagined with his interlinked stories arranged haphazardly in the second half of the American Century. The bomb, the baseball, the mad artist in the desert painting the old , rusted bombers, the nun scouring for humanity in the South Bronx, the use of the language of professional waste disposal, all become part of a metaphor that makes sense in an associative sense that left me particularly breathless by the last page. I think it's a great post-modern novel, but beyond that, it is a great novel, period. One wishes for the careful trimming and tucking a good editor might have had in making Underworld an even stronger masterpiece, but please, do read ahead.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Ron Silliman's masterful "The Age of Huts"


The Age of Huts (Compleat)
Ron Silliman
(University of California Press)
Ron Silliman, an envelope-pushing writer whose unmoored referents are written with a rigorous methodology and purpose, uses images and image-born phrases in long successions that are seemingly separate from the sentence before it and the following sentence. In this poet's case, though, his method isn't isolating sentences as autonomous language units in a gallery-lit vacuum but rather bringing the rest of what's said in a place to bear. One has the dizzying sensation of hovering overhead a crowded train station at Holiday time; chaotic though it seems, one does understand that conversations continue, jarring contexts are rattling sides by the side like boxcars, images, and remarks on physical things--a sign, a face, the light of day--is dropped and reappear, changed by the response and changed as well by conversations around it competing for the human ear. Silliman's new collection, Age of Huts, brings together several books he's published as a long-standing project. It makes for alternately exhilarating and exasperating reading. Those who stay with Silliman and his task are rewarded with the most thorough ongoing examination of the American vernacular since William Carlos Williams composed and assembled his central epic poem Paterson in 1963. Silliman's is the language of a place, and there is a logic as the streams and eddies of unassigned sentences the blended variations at once rich, dissonant. 

The pieces are independent of their human personalities and the disparate subjects, an olio of the philosophical and inane, autobiographical and picaresque, the snapshot summary and the extended and unmoored disquisition, are materials that are not so much "mashed together" (as the current and lazy parlance has it) but rather layered, tangled together, interacting in phonemes and bits of invested rhetoric that suggest a great, breathing beast, a language that collides, contradicts, clarifies and is, in effect, constantly making absolute statements about character and the nature of place, only to have the declarations modified, adjusted, changed into new discourses. Each line can well be said to be the start of another poem, and although the approach, which foregrounds language as subject matter, and while the aesthetic effect of Silliman's poetry is a collection of the unchained references --there is a cubist perspective that arises when one gets a hint that each of the writer's pieces, non sequitur that they may seem, have physical locations, sites, real people with whom he's had real conversations, and there is stammering and stuttering rhythm which is oddly musical as he works through his variations of chosen icons--tone appreciates the length to which Silliman has continued his course of examining the dictions and tropes that constitute the way we address experience and position ourselves in the world.


That is the difference between Ron Silliman and others. Anyone who thrilled to the shredded surrealism of Bob Dylan's liner notes for Bring It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited (or found themselves laughing out loud or being stunned with the cranked-up mix of roadhouse wit and word-salad in his lone book Tarantula) will find a kindred spirit in Age of Hut (Compleat); Silliman loves language enough to take it apart to see where in the language the stress of personality comes in, the irreducible trace of individual intent that survives a language fragment being wrested from a larger context. The sound of the words as they're spoken and linger in memory seems to be Silliman's central fascination, and to say the least, Age of Huts provides the shock and surprise of hearing ourselves speak in our plenitude, variously manic, reserved, joyous, cranky, curious all in the same clusters of utterance.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Acorn Poems from Linda Pastan and Carol Frost


Linda Pastan has a short and punchy poem on Slate this week, "Acorns," a streaming rhythm of associations, a fast rush like the sudden gush of water of a faucet suddenly turned off in the middle of the night. One may complain that she doesn't sleep over on any of the points that she taps dances across on her way to the end, but I think that is this poem's strength. As much contemporary verse remains dedicated to the capturing of sensation and perception quickly, accurately, without rhetorical padding often enough applied in most mainstream poems to make a poem seem more critical--bigger, denser, more profound--Pastan succeeds, I think, in giving us a piece suggesting the alacrity of thought. It's an entire and active world, this yard, once one starts to closely observe the small things happening under the broad scope radar.

Many of us, me included, insist much of the time that poems be an argument of a rarefied sort about issues, emotional, spiritual, or outright political, where a bottom line is delivered in a grand language whose elegance and power of the phrase and evoking phrase defy refutation. We do this at the sacrifice of the more miniature poem, like Linda Pastan's "Acorns," where the content and concerns are smaller; the volume is turned down, the language contained to a parsable idiom, but with smoothly, if subtly drawn connections to more significant issues that I can only admire the economy of the effort. The element I enjoy in this poem and what makes it work so well is that it deals almost solely with sight and sound here, with the inferences about gunfire, bullet casings in artillery, and rookie ball players practicing their respective batting styles restricted, that is to say, fused. The commotion triggers what the senses receive from the environment and the figurative associations.

"Acorns" gives the feeling of sudden revelation, a moment of stunning perception that will make one pause in their task and cause one to ponder consequences, the meaning of opposites linked together. What is critical here is the implied dualism, succinctly illustrated, that there is a world of violence, clamor, noise that is not outside this idyllic locale, but which exists inside it, in the conflations the mind will pass under our radar as we rest, reflect, lay about, unfocused in tasks in duties. Indeed, the falling acorns and the sound they make on the tin roof brings up images of gunfire, bullet casings. The economy here works splendidly in Pastan's instinct for containing the more prominent themes in smaller subsets; it gives the reader the tension and the anxiety that no matter what our habits of remaining calm and gathering our wits in the city (or the country, for what the poem provides us), war, death, carnage are never far from our thoughts. This is a swift and effective use of binary opposition, things, and situations being defined by the things they are a contradiction of. Although this is a wholly coherent poem, one which we may read and discern the logic of how imagery from the material plain inspires recollections from the murky archive of memory, it has that quality of the daydream, the abrupt transition; this is a poem that can contradict itself, an invention that the narrator can interrogate and wonder is missing in the picture that has unfolded in front of her:

Where are the squirrels?
the gardeners
with rakes?
the farmgirls
their aprons brimming
with acorns to grind
into meal?
the dog cowers
beside the house
the cat hides
under the car
afraid of
the clattering hooves
of acorns
later big oaks
will grow, a forest
of oak trees their roots
will strangle
this house
listen, listen
all from a single
tree


The last lines listen, listen/ all from a single /tree leaving us where we had started from, at the tree, as if we were the ones who'd been lost in thought and are startled back into a sobering present tense. Suitable that the poem ends without a period (assuming this is purposeful and not a typo). It begins in mid-thought, with sound effects, a rat-tat-tat, and ends in an image that's unadorned, undecorated. Suitably, the matters of the squirrels, farm girls, and hiding cats evaporate altogether. This suggests to me an imagination that had been adrift and is now obligated to accept what is actually in front of them and finish their tasks, to get back into the day before it's gone.

In a past issue of Ploughshares, Poet Carol Frost gives us another poem called "Acorns," finely writ and distinct from Pastan's work. I find it interesting that the fruit, as it were, is presented as an item born of nature that constitutes an interruption on human thinking; in both poems, the falling acorn the fallen nut acts as an intervention in the stream of thought that seeks to assimilate the given world and reintroduces the narrators to some kind of reality principle. And indeed, both disturbances offer up their chains of association, given us in different styles. Frost, a worthy lyric poet, addresses her experience in reflection after the small event;

Last night some across the fell
and woke me as they struck
the roof. Each acorn rolled,
a die-cast down the shakes,
to tell my chances in
the sun and in the snow
to come. What might have been
grief, I didn't go
to look for in the night.


A sweetly singing opening for the poem, and one that tells us that her stanzas are neatly framed, artfully arranged, careful as to tone and color. Something about this reminds me of an Impressionist painting. The ambiguity is sheathed in a soft, muted hue that makes what one is confronted with more mysterious and alluring than threatening. It seems like a description of the things in the yard, assuming their subtle natural relations. Pastan's poem is all about the rush of sensation, I think, the dramatic influx of detail, and the rapid unfolding of an association of a mind negotiating the changes. A more collected memory will perhaps form later. Still, the appeal for me of Pastan's piece was her success in capturing the sheer speed with which the imagination can create contexts and associations and the rate with which those fresh metaphors can be altered, changed, transformed.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Buddy Miles, RIP


I was sorry to see that drummer Buddy Miles, best known for his work with Mike Bloomfield's Electric Flag and for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies from the faraway 60s, has passed away due to apparent heart disease. The odd thing was that even with playing with the likes of John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Wilson Pickett as well as Hendrix and Bloomfield, Miles got little respect as a musician, often being derided as a monotonous timekeeper who's straightforward, rock solid drumming were a drag on the greater musicians who opted to play with him. It was a bad rap and Miles deserved better. He certainly did better on disc than his detractors claimed. His drum work on John McLaughlin's landmark Devotion album, a seminal session of pulverizing jazz-rock riffing and fret scraping, is sharp, hard and bracing in sound, uncompromising as a project that was bringing jazz-fusion, as a form, into a viable mode of hard-luck ad-libbing, an application of an eight- to- the-bar tempo with chitlin circuit rim shots anchoring the explorations of others who were catering the shotgun wedding of jazz and rock. It's a great, sharply textured album, wonderfully refreshing and alive with the spunk soloing, quite distinct from the muzaky malarkey the music later turned into. It's been said that the initial release of the live Band of Gypsies contains some of the most inspired, impressionistic and brilliantly fluid guitar work Jimi Hendrix ever recorded, to which I would agree, and to which I'd add further that Buddy Miles steady, consistent , hard charging drum work deserves much of the credit. The generally favored Hendrix drummer, Mitch Mitchell, had jazz chops, sure, but the truth is that what he, Hendrix and bassist Noel Redding did on stage was flail about, out of key and erratic in tempo and transitions; the task of waiting for those moments when Hendrix "took off" and gave us one of those pockets of genius amid the miscues, the bad notes and feedback often was more work than it was worth. The Band of Gypsies was a steadier thing, a firmer base for Hendrix to improvise over; as Hendrix died young, we'll never know if he'd improve his technique and advance on to playing with drummers like Tony Williams or Elvin Jones, but for the moment all the graces Hendrix had--original sound, emotion, a mastery of volume--fell into place when he had Buddy Miles as his backbone. Buddy Miles did good Thanks, friend.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

more on the God of Mailer's understanding

Norman Mailer, I suspect, is given to the thinking of religious existentialists and considers that the Ultimate Nature of God is unknowable and that, if we're created in His likeness and have our best attributes due to his nature, it's neither unreasonable nor blasphemous to think of Him as resembling his children more closely than one would suppose. A good amount of that is that God continues to learn , continues to grow, and is one to come up with new ideas about what do with this problematic earth-bound existence he gave us, and that he's inclined to change His mind.

Since God is creation, and creation includes the constancy of change, it is plausible, feasible, very attractive to regard the notion of God sticking to a Master Plan, and that He micromanages the affairs of each soul that entreats Him in crisis as wishful thinking; the desire to have phenomena explained as being meaningful in a Grand Scheme has us undermining the idea that we are God's servants who, subtly, want to control the definition of a Higher Power as being rigid, fixed, useful for a population's sense of linked continuity , and useful as well for political purposes for those who use the few words of The Bible and have them mean their opposite.

This Static God is at odds with the world He created, which by its nature is sustained by dynamic change. God is subtler, I think, than the cloud-bound bully that millions have been forced to endure from childhood until an accumulation of experience forces one to change, lest one become rigid and fixed as the God they grew up with, without joy and without value to one's fellows.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

THE ROOM: no one home


There's a poster on The Fray's Poems forum who identifies himself as "angry young man" who responded to what he thought was the poetry editor's sub-par selections in Slate with a post titled provoctively "Bring me the head of Robert Pinsky". This brought a smile to my face, less for the sentiment than the paraphrase of a little known Sam Peckinpah western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

I would just assume allow Robert Pinsky to keep his head, since I have no need for it, nor have the room in my freezer to store the severed dome. I can't help but think of the cartoon show Futurama where 20th Century celebrities and politicians are kept alive as talking heads only, perfectly sane and full of their trade marked quirks despite the fact that they live in life-sustaining jars. Might we imagine if Pinsky had been one of those preserved , bodiless heads continuing his own celebrity shtick as he promotes poetry to the remaining half dozen readers in the 26th century?

Depressing to think about, I guess, even after a guilty laugh after the grissly fantasy. Better to allow the former US Poet Laureate to literally to keep his head and wonder instead why he loses it figuratively over poems that couldn't raise a belch from the most sodden of open reading attendees. Hmmm, still too grissly. Maybe a cliche is more fitting: "why does Pinsky flip his lid over poems that are duller than a pig farmer's shoe shine." Better? Good. My apologies to pig farmers, though; you are not the ones who lay these tinker toy poems at our collective doorstep.

It's interesting, I think, that Pinsky has selected poems two weeks in a row that are, by comparison, clear and easy to parse in their language, swinging from the extremes of presenting us with work that was notably for their impenetrability and compressed incoherence, swinging from the spirit of TS Eliot on the one hand to the daisy-chaining clarity that resides on the other. What I'll say is that he has an inconsistent ear when he selects from either side of the big river that divides the approaches. The Room by Michael Chitwood seems to be after the spirit of the brilliant poet Charles Wright, with a plain diction that wants to consider the nearly ineffable in this existence in a cherry-picked locution that might manage to vividly suggest the sorts of chills and rushes contemplation and recollection can give a fellow. It starts off well enough:

One way or another, we must all leave
I said to a room, a room empty of people,
save for me. There were two doors to the room,

ample avenues of departure. A small town.
A family. A faith. A marriage. A career.
The dailiness of days' work done for years.


Even though the last line of the second stanza, The dailiness of days' work done for years. is one of the most awkward alliterations I've read, one does expect the build up, to move with clear purpose to the physical details that flesh out the abstracted , cut-up quality that begins the poem. The staccato , slide show like visualization should merge and blend with the narrator's re-imagining of a scene, a series of scenes perhaps, that have formerly been sketchy, elusive, and only now, just now, come together as sensations connected finally to biographical details.

But it doesn't, and it's a shame, because what he get again is a poet who prefers the linguistic shell game in order to defer clarity rather than feel deeply and embrace the likelihood that what is now felt so keenly can not be undone,neither remembered completely nor resolved. Chitwood gets caught in a series of puns, dualisms, parallel associations suggesting preferred narratives, all of which could be intriguing if linked to the telling detail that evokes the larger view, the coincidences, the bad timing, the missed chances that seem to be the motivation of this poem, but which are absent and so useless to making this poem breathe something greater than the brief signs and whimpers that make up these lines.

We are leaving even as we speak I said to no one
in the room with me. To whom did I speak?
To ones already left, though left can mean

both to remain and to depart? Dearly departed
you remain here with me in this empty room,
room enough for you, empty in my aching thought.

Leavings are that scatter, those remaining remnants,
our language littered with what can't be gotten rid of,
our thoughts, our bodies ghosted, the leavings remaining.


Who the narrator is talking to is the reader, not the person or persons gone from the room he finds himself within, and this is the problem, I think, since I haven't been able to shake the feeling that Chitwood is rehearsing what he considers his best lines, lining them up with just enough of an arc to make these stanzas thematically consistent and leaves it all there, not so much impenetrable as it is unfinished. This is the kind of writing lesser, Language School inspired , usually undergraduate poets do, teasing a readership with the lure of autobiography and serving them a half-baked piece of post-structualist ambiguity instead. One may, if they wish, dwell on the purpose for the lack of details beyond the tactiturn murmerings Chitwood, but that, I think, would be an activity that would be more interesting and illuminating than the poem one was trying to explicate.

William F.Buckley, RIP


I am loathed to say anything nice about conservative commentators, at least the mangy generation that arose with the death of the Fairness Doctrine and who have, in turn, been anything but fair in their remarks regarding Democrats or anyone else who isn't in lockstep with RNC or Religious Right talking points. This odious crew, spearheaded by the absurd existence of Rush Limbaugh and followed, in various degrees of venomous deceit, hate mongering and the subjugation of honesty, ethics, and principles in favor of fat book contracts, political wonkery on cable television, and the well-rewarded obligation to be apologists for an unjustified war that has put America in increased peril and made our lot in the world community that much more difficult, is a sleazy bunch of propagandists. We speak of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, the clustered fools at the Weekly Standard. Not their concern are the virtues of debate, tolerance, or truth. Political discussion in this country has gotten coarser, dumber, louder, meaner in the last twenty years, and the scales have been tipped toward what we call wingnuts in terms of who was allowed to have the loudest megaphone. The networks were bullied and badgered to have more conservative pundits on their programs than those who would be off the extreme message or even the least bit left of center. As Eric Alterman asked in the title of his fine book, we ask again, "What Liberal Media"?All that said, I am saddened that conservative gadfly and National Review founder William F.Buckley has passed away at the age of 82. I've always been a liberal Democrat and have found myself on the other side of issues with the late Buckley, but I watched his show Firing Line each week and admired the man for his intellect, his wit, and his dedication to keeping his program a civil forum where actual differences in political philosophy and contrasting views on public policy could be discussed. The difference between William F.Buckley and the current spoiled crop of right-wing hacks is that Mr.Buckley was a true intellectual who listened to his guests and posed hard questions to them respectively, artfully. It was part of Mr.Buckley's style that he would skewer his opponents with their own words, or catch them in contradictions they couldn't readily respond to, but the method with which he stood his ground and defended his conservative faith was masterful, brilliant, admirably civil. It's worth noting that Buckley maintained good relations with many liberals and progressives, including long-standing friendships with John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr . He had a shrewd wit, and I always enjoyed the story that when a new collection of his essays was published, he mailed off a host of free, autographed copies to a good number of his literary friends. As Buckley told it, he didn't sign Norman Mailer's copy on the title page, as is custom, but rather in the book's index. There, written in the margins next to Mailer's name, Buckley had written "Hello Norman! Regards, William F. Buckley."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

There Will Be Blood: the cult of the over rated


Tonight it's Oscar time, and the conventional wisdom has it that Daniel Day Lewis has a lock on the Best Actor award for his oxygen-hogging performance in There Will Be Blood, a film I was not thrilled with. Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel Oil wants to do something very epic and very different from what one expects from Hollywood, but the film's pace is glacial, nearly static, with it's visual scenes of wide open rocky terrains populated by goat farms, oil derricks and rusting tools arranged in such a way that we have the effect of the world's longest Flickr slide show.

It's obvious, to me at least, that Anderson's influence here was Terrence Malick's grand Days of Heaven, set in a similiar time and location; Malick achieved the feeling of an epic with his long takes without torturing the audience with his extended adulation of the imagery; the film was a mere 97 minutes in length, and the director still dealt with the character's within those huge vistas. The texture of the historical every day wasn't lost in gauzed recollection.Anderson settles for caricature leaving it to Lewis's overly studied performance as the Plainview character, who in Blood's disconnected scan, is losing his mind and humanity as he barks out stilted and exclaimed lines remindful of John Huston. One sees the rehearsing , not the seamlessness of performance that would have been a wonder indeed. It's almost as though he performed Plainview in this way so that he could have the line of the movie year, "I'll drink your milkshake!" If that was Lewis's intent, it is the only place where the film achieves an intended end.