Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man is perfectly positioned to be the first major hit film of the 2008 summer season,and for good reason: it's a fine and entertaining bit of swift, efficient entertainment. Film makers at times have the tendency to make their comic book adaptations a shade too serious but inserting subtexts and philosophical overlays that dampen one's desire to suspend their disbelief.

The wounded inner child issues of Ang Lee's The Hulk made that film into a very noisy tantrum, and Bryan Singer's attempt to link the Superman mythos with the arrival and eventual ascension of Christ made his Superman Returns the slowest moving boat in the channel. IM director Jon Favreau and screen writers Mark Fergus Hawk Otsby make the prudent decision to play this storyline like it were a regular Marvel comic book tale, a refreshingly two dimensional narrative that allows the writers to invest some appealing character traits and good lines of dialogue. Casting is splendid as well, with Robert Downey being a perfect as billionaire arms manufacturing Tony Stark who is kidnapped by terrorists and has a life-changing experience that compels him to build his Iron Man suit and hence undo the harm he has done with his WMDs. An especially fine touch comes with Stark's irritated banter with the workshop robots who assist him in the suit's manufacturing, and in the appropriately destructive trial and error shake down cruises the new weapon requires.Downey applies all his native charm to make Stark seem a playboy with a shrewd sense of irony who's paradigm shift to become a Good Guy doesn't dry up a ready wit. This super hero can run his mouth as well as his engine. It is a nice distinction from other such efforts that this a super hero who might require a AAA card in the event of a stalled suit of armor.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Leslie Scalapino, the Laureate of Close Inspection

It's Go In Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006
Leslie Scalapino
(University of California Press)

Laying out a poem like it were a trail of breadcrumbs a reader would to the more giant feast of The Point Being Made is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others assembling stanzas that are easily grasped, shared, written out in a fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Difficulty or the second look, beyond the festooned surface, is not for this audience, which wants, one thinks, poetry to be a prettified version of obvious literary sounds.Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception to the exclusion of details not fitting a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of generic representation. Her work as well as an inquiry on how we might exist without them.In a series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most interesting poets working, an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction, and autobiography apart. It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing.

The distinction blurring is not a project originating with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burroughs's cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial being moved up and down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. The work is fascinating, interrogations that wrestle with the act of witnessing. In the best sense of the comparison, her writing has traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated, when she had considered the Cubism of Braque, Picasso, and Leger and sought an equivalent in writing of the effects they achieved in their painting and sculpture; a disassembling of the usual way that orders visual experience the effect of which reveals each perspective at the same time. This simultaneity of witness presents problems at first--head-scratching isn't an unusual response to first-timers even these days--but the beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein is that it allows for things that are normally hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering, svelte detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints are removed, and it becomes a huge space filled with objects of infinite shape. Stein, though, was principally intrigued with the visual, and Scalapino's writing concerns itself with an investigation of one's own perception; there a sense of frantic and sharply applied cuts in a film , different angles juxtaposed against one another, ideas revealed in contradictory shades of light. The poet pauses, repeats a phrase, restarts the narrative from the beginning, jumps to the end and then inserts the middle section. The jump cutting,the shuffling of details, repeated, reworded, the same scene addressed in all conceivable tenses--it's all dizzying, remarkable. 

There is a fracturing of narrative flow, a rephrasing of what was formally said, a studied trek through a temporal sequence of events full of incidental images, smells, and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to the phenomenon, to personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting its habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses. Her poetry examines the canvas on which one draws their conceptualizations, a worrying presence on the margins of consolidated personality ever aware of the filters one applies over the phenomenon.I haven't excerpted any of Scalapino's work here because the formatting of this blog wouldn't do justice to the arrangements of her lines on the page; the spatial arrangements are crucial in many of her poems for each sliver and shaving of nuance to fully work. But there are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"HEAT", a movie by Michael Mann

I've seen director Michael Mann's three-hour masterpiece Heat four times, thanks to HBO and Netflix, and a recent review the other night has convinced me I ever was of its greatness. Maybe it's just a guy thing where the typical male obsessions, like guns, cars, violence, are elevated to potentially embarrassing levels of reading, but the ironically named Mann has the relaxed style to pull off the task. "Cool" and "style" are important words to remember. It's a heist film as tragedy, and it's particularly arresting to seeing the un-bottled rage of Pacino's dogged cop contrasted with the coolly methodical criminal of DeNiro set against the vast, cluttered, overlit loneliness that constitutes Mann's idea of Los Angeles. Mann is in control of his materials, and his decision to limit the amount of shared screen time between his top-billed stars was wise indeed; rather than a conventional vehicle plot geared to accommodate big stars in uninteresting situations, we get ins to study in distinct, and not-so different contrasts as the competing personalities and their agendas head to an ending where only one, or neither of them is standing. Mann, at his best, gets the hard-boiled genre where all a man has going for him is his professionalism and the personal code that comes with it, and Heat, to me, is an intriguing extension of the style.

Some critics were alarmed by what they felt was Mann's reluctance to have a feeling for human relationships –we are in the country of stoic individuals conducting themselves by codes of honor and conduct that places weight on the action, not words and their adjectives--the movie is about human relationships reduced to the occupations that command everything; emotional attachments are a luxury the characters, cops and crooks alike, cannot afford. This is a given in heist dramas, but tiny, really, has been done to show the devastation that The Life has on the personal level. Pacino has grudgingly accepted the isolation his work has forced him into and pursues DeNiro without let up, whatever the cost to himself or those around him. DeNiro's character, in turn, has a code that says, in effect, that someone in the life needs to be ready, always, to abandon whoever and whatever is around them the minute they know the "heat" is around the corner; the tragedy is slowly set into motion as he violates his own code, his rules for existing in the life he's chosen and attempts to take his girlfriend with him. His end is inevitable. For me, Heat's success is how Mann expands the minimalist conventions of the narrative line and examines the irrevocable ruin in human relations that the characters' choices result in.

I don't know about the characters being unrealized since I think this is in the tradition of Hemingway wherein blatant introspection is nil. Still, much is conveyed through a series of small details, glances, scars. Perhaps you don't see it, but there's a lot that is said between the lines here, and the acting--Jon Voight is particularly effective here with his restraint, among others--creates a tangible feeling of emotional attachment being hammered into silence by a rough trade. The bit with Pacino's daughter is the least convincing thing in the film; my impression is that Mann had four to five hours of film he had to edit to an hour. This is obviously a truncated storyline that should have been excised from the film. But it's a flaw I can live with. Mann has been taken to task for not making his case about alienation by subtler means, without resorting, as one critic wrote, "….to extremism because the vast majority of people never get so mesmerized by their jobs that they lose their humanity the way De Niro does." The complaint, of course, is that Mann loves the build-up to a grand explosion of feeling where only a character's capacity for ballistic reaction can satisfy the need. Mann, though, I think is well in the tradition of dramatic tragedy, as DeNiro's character's, master thief, thorough professional, a planner who makes no mistakes in his agendas, assumes that he can defy the odds against getting caught and thus assumes his carefully articulated professionalism will shield him from unlucky happenstance. He is a sufferer of unwarranted pride, a carrier of hubris who claims credit for all that great around him. The tragic form demands that the Universe correct itself; since one thing corresponds with everything else within the dramatic frame, equilibrium must be reestablished.

Heat is a tragedy, and tragedies require extremism. There is no more extremism here than you'd find in Shakespeare. This isn't saying that Mann's work here equals The Bards, but only that the outsized action we witness is in perfect scale with the tragic form. It operates at the appropriate level. Heat is a movie, and movies generally demand "extremism." Films are required to be "larger than life," perhaps, but "extremism" here is a general requirement of both tragedy and the noir aspects Mann is working in. The conventions of the narrative style don't allow for the middle ground, the kind of emotional richness reserved for the world's civilians, with straight jobs that have regular hours. The minimal and the maximal are the options in this case, and Mann does what I think is a credible job of getting something operatic from this story of two men, bereft of other human satisfaction and nuance, plunge ahead to an inescapably lousy ending. The scale of the Heat works beautifully. 

The Wire, as I said, is one of the best television dramas ever, period. It comes from writer/producer David Simon. His book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets inspired the edgy, quirk-ridden genius of the late Homicide: Life in the Street, produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. Simon has a genius for getting the stories of all involved just right. Under his direction, he creates complexity, grey areas and flaws, and other gripping nuances in characters that make his unique style of crime fiction fascinating, arresting, and moving. The distinction between The Wire and Heat, as you've alluded to, is the difference between TV and movies as forms; a continuing weekly drama can develop characters over time, and layers can be added without straining credulity. Movies, even long ones, have to be more efficient in how their characters and plot mechanisms are deployed. In any event, I think both projects are fantastic pieces of work. 

I have an affection for some films that have intractable flaws, along with the works of odd and flawed novels and messily writing poems. There is much I find to like and admire in Apocalypse Now and Heat, enough, indeed, to make them worth initial and subsequent viewings. A good deal of what these two long and notable films deal with is an idea of a character's humanity getting wrapped around a Big Idea, whether it's seduction with origins ideological or professional. The drama, which I do believe is convincingly put across as a felt experience in both these films, comes as characters find themselves making decisions to finish the tasks and duties they've set for themselves, no matter how profound their regret and misgivings are. Style, of course, has much to do with how watchable these outsized actions are, and both Coppola and Mann managed watchable movies that caught, manipulated, and sustained their respective tones. Heaven's Gate, though, I found singularly unwatchable, the problem is that Michael Cimino isn't a particularly interesting chronicler of people's lives as they move toward their destinies. Vincent Canby called worse than a forced tour of your own living room, and I'm not one to argue. The Deer Hunter, in turn, was pretentious, vague, structurally incoherent from the get-go. This aggravating movie was like someone continually clearing their throat to make an Important Statement but never delivers anything the least bit edifying.

Getting human beings as "they actually are" is a conceit and is an impossible task. Characters in narratives, regardless of genre, are all ideal types. The question really needs to be whether you appreciate a particular director or writer's creations in a terrain more or less created out of whole cloth. Different genres have different givens as to what sorts of nuances and backgrounds characters have; this leads us to stereotypes, of course, and what we respond to is how well someone might avoid the obvious and give us new wrinkles, twists, turns, and habits of mind. David Simon is terrific at this. Mann, in turn, has his moments too.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Abundance" by James Longenbach:Less would have been more

James Longenbach writes his poem "Abundance" as if he wanted to direct a Hitchcock movie. As with the Master, the poem opens with flurry of cross cutting of images that shape the narrative to come; a man on skies crossing a freshly frozen lake, a shot of a clock or watch to tell us what time it is, a cracking in the ice the man doesn't see, a flash of open water to the north, the man sliding off the ledge, never to be seen again, a crowd at the shore, watching, shocked, hands over mouths, heads turned.
It's too much to hope for the audience to follow the shifts of perspective as this poor loner vanishes under the ice.

The omnipotent perspective that conveniently gives us the back-story, the crucial event and the sad result that the first person narrator lays out has a journalistic affiance that seems like a suit case that's too well packed. It may well be that Longenbach wants to give voice to someone who's had time enough to process their grief and absorb the shock and comes to speak of the odd tragedy in a tone reflecting a mind battered with bad news, but that is not how it comes off. Rather, it has that filmic quality, which would be urgent and compelling had this been a movie we were watching, but it is, instead, a poem we're reading, and the admittedly deft use of the quick edits is more like someone desiring to dispense with the set up so they can arrive at the "poetic language", the portion of the poem where the reader is meant to oooohh and ahhhh. There is a bit of button pushing going on here, like a template for a romance novel; insert your emotional response here.
The center of the poem, the stanza one might point too if they had to demonstrate why this is a poem at all and not merely a sequence of clipped prose, is the wondering of the meaning of it all, the mystery of a man wearing skies while crossing an iced-over lake, the unknowable facts motivation of a man who knew better than to walk over a lake that had been frozen less than 48 hours:

Immediately the gossip began.
Why did a man who'd lived on the island all his life,
Who knew enough to unfasten his skis,
Cross ice no more than forty-eight hours old?
If the wind hadn't kicked up,
If anybody could have thrown that far,
If there's been no ice, if there's been enough—
All-seeing stars that never sink beneath the northern pole,
Whose orbits embrace heaven, circling the earth,
My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.
Fire shall burn, earth grow,
Water shall wear a covering,
Locking up the sprouts of the earth.

I can’t say that I’m surprised that the man who made the fateful journey across the ice is a poet, an assignation that , by association, should make the mystery Longenbach wants to be the poem’s center seem even more mysterious, ominous; this feeds into the notion that the poet is an oracular figure, doing quizzical things, saying cryptic things as they ply their hyper tuned sensibilities to the sounds and slight glimpses they pick up behind the veil between the world as it’s merely seen and the world as it really is. The notion goes further in that there is a fatal attraction, of a sort, operating here, the man , the loner on the island drawn to travel to neighboring islands when the lake freezes over, working on a hunch , the inspiration of which is beyond his grasp but one that he honors none the less with activity that baffles others.

top heavy with introduction and weak on resolution and what happens is a page full of several ideas that not aligned in an associative order. The last lines , though , are a perfectly drawn poem, a minimal concentration of images that set up, imply, suggest, and remain mysterious.

My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.

This works for me, having both the abruptness to have you wonder aloud “what the hell” and yet containing enough detail where you can supply the missing details, as one would do with WC Williams.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

If Hillary can't withstand Olbermann's metaphor, why should she be President?

There's understandable concern that the longer Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle for the Democratic nomination for President, the more it will help the Republicans in the November election; the longer the tussle, the harder it becomes for the Democrats to pull their act together and present a United Front with a plan for a Better America. But it's not enough, it seems, for Democratic politicians to pile on each other, it seems that Democrat -friendly pundits have to start smacking each other around in like fashion. Salon editor Joan Walsh, a smart woman and a welcome addition to the cable news cadre of Rotating Commentators, took a vague, niggling exception to a remark made by MSNBC's Keith Olberman regarding the attempts to have a party elder meet with Hillary Clinton in private to persuade her to drop out of the campaign. Olbermann subsequently apologized for his metaphor on the air, which subsequently set off a round of comic liberal self-examination. One wonders if somebody remembers that there is an election to win.

Keith Olbermann is one of my favorites if only because he was the first anchor on cable news who didn't cave in to the talking points of The Right Wing Noise Machine and rather talked back in terms they (and his audience) understood, loudly, clearly, emphatically, and armed with documented facts and precise, exact quotes, presented in context. It's little wonder why GOP activists dislike him. He might have been harsh with Hillary Clinton, but it's not as if she hasn't merited the scrutiny; her misleading statements about her record of public service, her flip flopping on issues, and her husband's ill-advised introduction of race into the debate are matters to be parsed and critiqued. It's ridiculous to take umbrage with Olbermann's metaphor, since the outrage is nearly a parody of the hypersensitivity of certain liberal constituents whom Rush Limbaugh takes so much joy lampooning. Hillary Clinton is wants to be President of the United States, and she claims that she’s ready for the job, whatever the job takes. If Joan Walsh thinks that’s true, she should stop fretting whether Olbermann’s remark was sexist and resist the urge to make women candidates a Special Class, exempt from the rough and tumble anyone else interested in the office has to suffer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Harmless Poem": powerlessness and transcendence

There are days that start that with a bad mood, a sour disposition, a curse on the breath as you leave the house to make your living, and most of us are lucky, most of the time, that these bad starts abate and a lighter view comes over us as we interact and engage our encounters on their own terms, not how we wished they were.

There are those days that start bad and stay bad, when each and every small thing that hits a sour note on what we demand be a perfectly tuned keyboard just grates at us, sends a falling current down the spine. The day becomes a down escalator down a bottomless shaft for the rest of the day and into the night , and the litany of those who have sinned against us, the material things that impeded our path, slowed our advance toward a short sighted goal-- the stop lights , the traffic signs, the intruding phone calls of people who need help, the cigarette smoke and the barking dogs-- all become a conspiracy to lower our spirit, to distract us from grasping whatever it is that is just beyond our reach.

It's a bad situation and I am glad they don't haunt me as long as they did when my certainty about how the planet ought really to spin caused me nothing but arrogant exasperation. In my experience, the especially dispiriting part of these bad-mood binges, these black holes of being, was that there was nothing tangible I could name , no incident nor reciept of bad news, that would have triggered a unified field of gloomy perception; the senses that a mysterious God had given me to learn about and get by and be creative in the world were now the source of an unlimited number of soul-killing annoyances. How things, looked, sounded, felt, smelled were my sources of torment.

My mood was such that each person and thing by simply and dutifully existing as they were, unmindful of my presence (and certainly unaware of my unease). You guessed it, I was full of my own presumptions, nothing seemed worth doing, there was no point in going on. This was nothing to laugh at because I had no sense of humor. To those in the know, these were the symptoms of forgetting Rule 62.

What appeals to me about Stuart Dischell's poem "Harmless Poem" is that it contains the sort of rolling, incantational swerve of a powerful prayer that beseeches something greater than the speaker's wits can muster on their own for a relief the bondage of self to have a sense of humility and the attending sense of humor restored. I've no idea what inspired Dischell to write this poem, but it does sound like someone attempting to lift himself from a grossly generalized negative world view by admitting the absurdity of his complaints of objecting to people, places and things for being merely what they are. The poem is well paced, arresting , with a mounting set of things and their faults listed in increasingly surreal depiction,

Forgive the web without its spider
The houseplant with few or many flowers
And the stars for hiding in the daytime,
Forgive astronauts for distance
And surgeons for proximity,
Forgive the heart for the way it looks
Like something a dog eats from a pan,
Forgive goat-gods and wine-gods
And the goddess bathing in her pond,
Forgive the sea for being moody,
The air for its turbulence, the stomach
For its vomit, forgive the insistence
Of sperm, the greeting of the ovum,
Forgive orgasms for their intensity
And the faces they make in people's faces,
Forgive the music of liars, forgive autumn
And winter and the departure of lovers.
And the young dead and the persistence
Of the old, forgive the last tooth and hair.

This is a chain of association of a mind that gathers up the evidence of offenses, makes notes of things and the results they get and makes the connection to the next link that is effected and made to make fragile concept of harmony shakier still. This is the confession of a man admitting that he is powerless , after all, over what gives him aggravation and that his life is unmanageable in the cumulative misery these otherwise inconsequential irritations give him.

The title seems more ironic than anything else; what it implies is that the "harm" we all need "less" of is the result of when we pass constant judgement and create for ourselves an ongoing condition that culminates in deeper depressions, more anger, poor decisions, meaness for its own sake, and the poem's entreaty is for relief from this toxic turn of mind. I sense someone taking deep breaths as they speak these words, and fingers grasping rosary beads. Dischell is smart to compress the process to the concluding prayer, the litany like entreaty the poem is modeled after. This is the fabled by very real Moment of Clarity, when one realizes the exact nature of their wrongs as they are and is able, for a moment, capable of getting to a personal truth unobscured by defense and denial. The truth is this; nothing in the world will sit right with him until all his forgiven and accepted as being exactly they way are.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Robert Pinsky blows his nose

Former Poet Laureate and current Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky recently caused a stir , a small one perhaps, with a column he wrote for the online magazine’s Culturebox department where he offered up a Poetry Frequently Asked Questions. He gave a number of questions it seems the mildly interested have asked him over the years such as why don’t modern poems rhyme, why are they so hard to understand, or why don’t contemporary poets write about politics and current events? The selected questions tip Pinsky’s hand, and his own replies are terse, as he prefers to instead quote a poem at length to clarify his point or contradict an inquisitor’s assertion. The feature read like it was Robert Pinsky giving everyone the rasty raspberry with his version of Frequently Asked Questions, and the sarcasm and condescension of his replies and example poems reflect someone who is tired of being kicked in the groin each Tuesday for his selections. It's time for the poet to move on, or if you prefer, to move forward to other projects where he hasn't such an opinionated readers who are more than willing to flip him the bird and eviscerate his often quizzical selections . Pinsky tipped his hand answering the final question, a one word reply that sums up a few years worth of bottled aggravation:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


The abuse the former Laureate has received is due more than his idiosyncratic choices; his refusal to engage the criticisms from PoemsFray commentators has put him at a remove. His silence is imperious, detached, reeking of contempt. When he was writing his Washington Post column about poetry, Pinsky could write lucidly , and concisely, on a topic and specific poems, and more than one of us at the PoemsFray had hoped that he would offer prefatory remarks to his weekly selections. Not to give away everything before the poem could be read, but with enough context and insight into style and technique that could well have been a launching point for more varied thinking on the board. But remark he didn't, and from anyone can tell he gritted his teeth , waiting for a chance when he might have his turn at the microphone. Yet even here he pusses out; it's worth remembering that what he presents in Culturebox is what he thinks are the most frequently asked stupid questions that have come his way, queries given him by legions of straw men to whom he gives poems as a way of saying "fuck off". We have, in effect, an editor who really can't understand the resentment he's created, cannot (or will not) talk with the posters, and gives vent to his congested anger in a messy, unsightly spectacle. Yeah, maybe he should go on to the next project, the next appearance on The Colbert Report. The point is that he should probably be someplace other than on Slate.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The sublime and the hurried

  • Swift narratives that both cover ground and supply both the pace and blitz of rapid, time-constrained travel have their appeal; everyone loves a cliffhanger, and it's a sweet thing when the story leaves the expected and begins and ends with qualities that are distinct and opposed, violence and kindness, but which are linked. Michael McGriff’s poem [the line between heaven and earth]is a minor pleasure because he shows that he can give a sense of a cinematic timeline as he shows us a journey that begins with a brutal and unflinching slaughter and evisceration of a bear and what processes the removed gall bladder goes through to emerge, in the end, as a cure of a kind, that blandly presented item that eases discomfort and, we assume, exists entire free of violence. 

  • It works because McGriff has the wit to show the procession from raw animal guts to a palliative that will soothe a child’s fever. The imagery is concise, telling, and free of editorial conceit or metaphysical conceit. As with a camera lens, this poem observes the determination of a poor man to prepare a folk cure for a child's discomfort, the virtual act of faith, and taken with no evidence nor guarantee that it will have the desired result. The line between heaven and hell begins in the heart of the person willing to soil and foul themselves with bloody work, which intends and follows through in their effort to comfort another human being. 

  •   The line between heaven and earth ******glows just slightly when a bear's gallbladder ******is hacked out and put on ice in California: ******the line between heaven and earth begins ******with a ginseng root and ends in an anvil: ******the gallbladder rides in a foam cooler ******on a bench-seat in a pickup heading north: the line ******between heaven and earth carries a crate of dried fish ******on it's back: The man driving the gallbladder ******used to sell Amway and sand dollars blessed ******by Guatemalan priests

  •  This is thinking that believes in the cause and effect relationship between the earthly and the supernatural, and fittingly, the flow is fluid, serpentine, with the sure slither of hissing tires coming up a wet street; less than McGriff concerns himself with locations as he instead focuses what is nearby, in suffocating proximity, such as ice, a foam cooler on a bench seat, a man who used to sell Amway and shoreline contraband. The poem is suggestive of place, and this is a style I wish he’d maintained. Unfortunately, he saddled himself with a title that promises large significance and revelation. Still, there are no Blake-like metaphors geared to tear apart the thin veil that divides the realms from one another. There is no adequate irony either to make a diminished expectation pleased with the result. 

  •   into the mouth of a child ******whose fevers grind the teeth of rage: ******this is how the stories of all miracles begin.

  • Alas, a mere summing up in pedestrian terms, a moral of the tale delivered as if the reader were in third grade, grappling with the simplified versions of Aesop’s Fables. The subtext is not so disguised as to make the poem an inert collection of ossified cleverness, nor is it so obvious that one might yawn upon seeing the resolution telegraphed so far in advance. Mcgriff, had he maintained his delicacy, would have had a piece where the reader would be allowed to parse the ambiguity and arrive at conclusions that might surprise them. As happens too often, the poet started looking for the exit before engaging with an ending that fit the surefootedness of his initial images and lean flow. McGriff furnishes his own spoiler and hadn’t the confidence, this time, to let his subject—that acts of kindness and charity are linked intimately with the genuine evil of existence—emerge unexplained but in full context, with resonance and that bit of mystery that makes many a spare lyric linger in mind than would the details of a sermon or a presidential speech. I'd have been more satisfied had McGriff left us with images of striking contrasts, like the animal entrails, the hammered anvil, the child taking the grimly created cure, and allow the reader the chance to discern the line between heaven and earth, the juncture where miracles happen, is in the instance when something caring and noble arises from relentlessly mean circumstances. He needn't have given us the marginalia from his first draft; we would have gotten it after all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Recently from NetFlix: Cinderella Man

A friend of mine commented a couple of weeks ago that in a time when what we consume in popular culture is so prefabricated , formulated and test-marketed until all potential joy is legislated from it's predictable husk, we tend to praise any movie, band, play, novel as "brilliant" that displays anything resembling a heart or half a wit about itself. Other superlatives come into play as well, like "great", "genius", "masterpiece" and all the rest, and the over rating of perfectly ordinary albeit respectable entertainment goes on. It's a sad and sorry cycle, especially in the case of the movies where the critic's assessments are most readily consumed by movie goers and used to pick the flick to while away the dark with. It's a sad time for anyone who wanted who wanted to write about movies because those that influenced--Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, James Agee--could think cogently about films in their essays. The paragraphs too many critics are dis spiriting; every other sentence reads as if it could be taken out and plastered in the ads as fully servicable blurbs, heavy on adjectives, empty of ideas.

It's a classic case of setting up great numbers of folks for disappoints aplenty: perfectly fine motion pictures like "The Interpreter", functioning perfectly well as classic B movie genre pieces, are saddled with overpraise and hyperbole , written by critics suffering , perhaps, from "irrational exuberance" for a movie that was marginally better than the swill too often served up on big screens. Critical reasoning is out of whack, and films that are fine and dandy without being profound , edifying or in anyway "brilliant' beyond their professionally executed duty to entertain well are not given a proper reading. This makes films age badly.

"Cinderella Man" is certainly a fine B movie project by all involved, and there are plenty of compliments to dispense to all involved here, particularly in the continued fine work of Russell Crowe. He continues to reveal previously unseen nuances in his performances, and here is perfectly fine as a decent palooka who through what's portrayed as a humble Will-to-Power rises above his poor prospects as a fighter in order to provide for his family.Nearly everyone in the film is a decent personage--damn decent, you could say--and it's a compliment to director Ron Howard for not letting the storyline sink under the accumulating bathos. It's perfectly played, laid out, absolutely symmetrical in the way it arrives at the conclusion in which the power of contender Jimmy Braddock's selfless love wins out over the brute strength and Vesuvian rage of heavyweight champion Max Baer. There is a tug at the heart, you choke up a bit, you fret and cheer and applaud with every glove that land's on Braddock's face and every connection he makes with an opponents chin, nose or ribs. Fight movies are the only genre where the skillful director, armed with an able script and smartly placed cast, can make the button pushing moves plausible; Clint Eastwood's recent "Million Dollar Baby" is another example of the human situation being reduced to a few determinist particulars the hero (or heroine) must rise against so that the invisible quality we call Human Spirit can become a plausible thing for us to respond too in ways that are no longer abstract mouthings.

My preference between the two films, though, goes with Eastwood's drama: it veered unexpectedly (but not implausibly) from the underdog storyline and presented an unvarnished tragedy in the making; the situation of "Million Dollar Baby"'s characters was problematized , and the personalities of the characters became intriguingly complex as the issue of assisted death arose as a plot point. As someone has said, everything in the world of "Baby"'s characters changed in minute, leaving the issue of Human Spirit and unconditional love more complicated than whatever cliches that would come trippingly and unthinkingly off a fast, glib, idea-free tongue.

"Cinderella Man", of course, has no such complications, and stays the course towards what is a classic Hollywood Ending:the good guy wins the fight, makes good on his debts, lives a productive and decent life in the glory of American hopes and dreams; what makes it work is Howard's particular genius for narrative rhythm and momentum--the storyline moves ahead with a leisurely swiftness that stands in contrast with Eastwood's remarkable ability to take his time and dwell on scenes without dragging in his direction. This is not, I don't think, a great motion picture--I'll hold out for the superior "A Beautiful Mind" by Howard--but it is a very good one, a finely crafted and engaging bit of professional film making from a Hollywood director who remembers when Hollywood itself made the best movies in the world

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A poet in the lower case

It's strange to go through old bits of writing and see again what you once thought was simultaneously cutting edge and timeless. This isn't the sort of thing I pursued in my writing life, and have vacillated between degrees of difficulty that at least read well, but I can't quite dismiss my time attempting to write within the self-critical confines of Language poetry as being a waste of time; it was , in fact, terrifically instructive, not least of which was to direct me toward my strengths and away from my weaknesses. I also have a real fondness for some of this en-jambed lines and marvel at the language's capacity to snap back into usable form after being tortured and twisted by willfully abusive wunderkind.

But overall, I couldn't see writing a poetry that only a brief coterie of associates and a thin scaffold of masters might appreciate. I read this and recognize that the non-sequiturs have there origins in actual conversations in which tempers flared and love affairs commenced, and that the puns are jokes I used to share about texts, authors, gossip, local landmarks, pop culture references, all mixed together in a way in many attempts to dislodge the master/slave relationship we thought existed between writer and reader. The words to describe the appearance of things that compose an imitated world are the subject of the Language poets; the variant commodity fetishism that links a unified idea of poetry to a consumer reality is reduced to non-sequitur, babble, a distracted murmur of people standing in line.

The problem, though, is that that audience for whom the pieces were intended has dispersed, moved on, or died as tends to happen in the unexamined life, and the poems and texts I produced emulating Language poets are homeless, so to speak, sans an audience to confound and taunt. People just stared at me at the readings where I dared trot this creaking experiments and attempt to perform them; imagine a room full of confused dogs staring at you, heads tilted the side, waiting for the biscuit of wit you don't in fact posses. But by this time my appreciation for the Language writers I was coming familiar with --the multi-tracked universe of Ron Silliman, the satiric inversions of Bob Perelman, Rae Armentrout's crystallization of the fleeting perception that would usually escape a sentence's ability to make lucid--only deepened in an appreciation for the rigorous pioneering their aesthetic undertook when no one would really shake up the post-Beat/New York poetries. But what they had started was there battle to put forward, not mine, and as I began to develop something resembling a mature style--when the poems were "more hits than misses" as poet Paul Dresman told me-- I resigned myself to being an unusual sum of all that I liked in poets in their work, someone at the margins of the scene I was nearest who's influences were clear but whose application of styles had grown beyond emulation and formed something natural and original, something my own. I was content to be a good minor poet, unknown for the most part, but satisfied that what was on the page with my name on it wouldn't embarrass nieces and nephews after I was gone and perhaps some future professors might find some poems that were actually satisfactory in estimations other than my own neurotic rethinking of my own worth as a writer.

Unlike Cage, extended silence bothers me tremendously, and over the years I've opted for a style and strategy that at least invites the reader to interact with. It's not inaccurate to say that I found my subject thirty years ago, but only fifteen or so years ago did I find the consistent, flexible voice to give it life. But I am grateful for the fifteen years of poems that don't make me wince and which have brought a nod, a laugh, a tear to some others and which made me feel as if I was actually connected to a greater chain of circumstance that fended off the desire to wallow in the kind of EZ alienation that is our culture's chief curse and cheap excuse for doing nothing to make this life better. It beats putting a gun barrel where it would do the most harm. Breathing, says all good poetry, beats not breathing.