Saturday, May 30, 2009

At least play some better music

Last Friday night, noise, random bleats of bass lines and cursing twenty-year-old males drunk in apartments by the Pacific Ocean, burning away the night with tequila and swear words. It's all I can do from climbing the stairs and slamming a fist on the door, screaming a rude word from the many I know, demanding quiet, silence. Pacific Beach, just south of LaJolla, is the party town of San Diego County, a collection of streets that are a characterless grid of box houses and gross condominiums that crowd the shoreline of rock and gravel that have replaced what used to be a white sandy beach. Drunks, homeless and crazy people stack themselves on top of one another in this peninsular wedge, and between those moments of relative calm and sanity, there is always something to contend with, some vague threat that dogs you into your sleeping hours. The nighttimes becomes a noir cliche. You walk past businesses lit up with flickering neon lights spelling out words like "LIQUOR" and "LAUNDRY" or "CHECKS CASHED" in deadpan, sexless fonts, you're absorbed by an unblinking darkness, instinctively crouching, shooting a side glance at the alleyway you're treading past, past a dumpster caked with the smear of bar closings and unfinished meals. The dumpster is pressed against a cement wall honored with graffiti words of alien neighborhood lingo and concert posters that have been torn, pissed on, as forgotten as the musicians of the bands they advertise. The hiss of tires arises from a grove of trees whose branches form a canopy over the black street your walking, there is the rapping tap of footsteps not your own. A car door closes with a faithless slam. Tommy James coos over his hanky panky as the car cruises, all headlights white, red and blurred. None of that. I'm not in the mood to have my face punched in, though most of the time these amateur drunks defer to my gray hair and the grit in my voice that reminds them of their dads, no doubt, and fall quiet after some apologies and other gestures to restore the eternal serenity that was formerly part of the weave of darkness. Instead, I look at my watch again, and again it says that it's after two in the morning. I look up to the window where the voices are coming from. Screams, goddamned screams, names against dad, something about a goddamned fucking piece- of- shit table being broken. My neck hurts as the voices climb an octave and break on the weakest syllable; this is the border between hysteria and hilarity. The wind creeps along the sidewalk along the courtyard I stand in; I'm wearing no socks and my feet are cold, numb by now. One of these young men is crying. Shadows cross the room, silhouetted against the drapes. There is that flat, smacking sound of someone doing a high five with their best buddy who doesn't quite have the knack of pounding the flat of their palm against the calloused palm of another. Sometimes I wonder why I quit drinking if what's left for me is to listen to the results of other sons of jerk offs squander a good buzz with clotted rage and self-pity.

They could at least play some better music.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Diane Wakoski kicks out the jams

Nothing clears the sinuses faster than a choice blast of an angry woman's tirade, especially someone who can write sentences that way a butcher wields a knife. Witness this from poet Diane Wakoski , from her 1988 collection Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987:

Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch .
for my motorcycle betrayer
God damn it,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
old man;
you've stepped on my shadow once too often,
you've been unfaithful to me with other women,
women so cheap and insipid it psychs me out to think I might
be put
in the same category with them;
you've left me alone so often that I might as well have been
a homesteader in Alaska
these past years;
and you've left me, thrown me out of your life
often enough
that I might as well be a newspaper,
differently discarded each day.
Now you're gone for good
and I don't know why
but your leaving actually made me as miserable
as an earthworm with no
but now I've crawled out of the ground where you stomped me
and I gradually stand taller and taller each
I have learned to sing new songs,
and as I sing,
I'm going to dance on your grave
because you are
under the earth with the rest of the shit,
I'm going to plant deadly nightshade
on your grassy mound
and make sure a hemlock tree starts growing there.
Henbane is too good for you,
but I'll let a bit grow there for good measure
because we want to dance,
we want to sing,
we want to throw this old man
to the wolves,
but they are too beautiful for him, singing in harmony
with each other.
So some white wolves and I
will sing on your grave, old man
and dance for the joy of your death.
"Is this an angry statement?"
"No, it is a statement of joy."
"Will the sun shine again?"
because I'm going to dance dance dance
Duncan's measure, and Pindar's tune,
Lorca's cadence, and Creeley's hum,
Stevens' sirens and Williams' little Morris dance,
oh, the poets will call the tune,
and I will dance, dance, dance
on your grave, grave, grave,
because you're a sonofabitch, a sonofabitch,
and you tried to do me in,
but you can't can't can't.
You were a liar in a way that only I know:
You ride a broken motorcycle,
You speak a dead language
You are a bad plumber,
And you write with an inkless pen.
You were mean to me,
and I've survived,
God damn you,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
old man,
I'm going to learn every traditional dance,
every measure,
and dance dance dance on your grave
one step
for every time
you done me wrong.

What's remarkable is that there is no submerged meaning here, no symbolic hints at the author's
ongoing despair and struggles with a festering hurt. Wakoski has no time for that, addressing her
anger directly, doing everything except naming name a name. This is a knuckle sandwich of a poem, and Wakoski is one of the few poets whose dedication to getting her emotional currents rightly expressed in her work I can bear to read at length. Over anything else, she is a choice poet, and better, a good writer. "Fun" might to egregious a word to apply to her, but there is that element that draws one to read her again. And again.

Motor Cycle Revenge Poems was one of the five essential collections an aspiring undergraduate poet had to have at my school in the late Seventies, and Wakoski's collection holds up well because it was outside the whimsy and cant of the Sixties counter culture from which it sprang and dealt directly with things that were unspoken for women writers, unbridled anger. There was no flower power, there was no easy sex or sandalwood and black light posters, this was a woman's rage tempered and honed by style that only sharpened the wit. That razor's edge could slice and dice her motorcycle betrayer as fat or as thinly as she wanted, and list the crimes, the sins, the absolute arrogance of being the clod-thickened, presumptuous male. Tellingly, this collection dove tailed with the emergence of feminist activism, when women involved in the movement announced that they were not going to make the meals and run off fliers for the next Black Panter legal fund raiser. Wakoski touched a nerve,lit a fire, she let the dynamite shack explode.
I always like a poems by a woman who ends a dedication to a former lover with the deepest hope that he fall off his motorcycle and break his neck.

I would assert that Wakoski found conventional poetic styles insufficient for the amount of resentment she needed to express and instead found a way that made unfiltered anger a true poetry. This is not an artless diatribe, a sustained screech or mere primal howling. It is writing, through and through, and what she does here is in an idealized vernacular, the voice of someone who has had no voice other than wimpering submission to a man's will and whim finding one over time and submits an articulate, white hot indictment of the man (or men) who did her ill. There is rhythm her, wit, and the anger is crystallized, etched in acid, phrased in cadences that are memorable and ring true. It is a monologue, and could be in a contemporary drama--Edward Albee wouldn't mind calling these lines his own had he written them.

Poetry makes nothing happen

Poems about poetry, or PAP , are going concerns I pass up most of the time; in it's current and most pervasive form, PAP demonstrates the demon-hearted worst of what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude, a dominant poetic legion that are conservative in what and how a poem can mean. Not the least of the vain traits are a particular obsession to compose poems that cannot beyond the craft as a subject matter. What's worse is when the poets themselves place themselves at the center, writing about themselves being poets, struggling to find the right word. There is something about the latter that makes you think of one of Graham Greene's troubled Catholics who is so obsessed with making real events cohere with Church dogma that they miss the world entirely. So with the poets who write about themselves as poets--
high priests of a sort documenting the development of their metaphors writing about a world that, as they render it, is as interesting as an empty can. Basil Bunting assumes the persona of a business leader who has had it with the scribblings of the poetic class; in screed Evelyn Waugh would have envied, he might have joined Silliman in spirit against the professional bard who does nothing else but sharpen his or her pencil and fills up a waste basket.

Bunting, though, was writing as a poet who was just a tad sick of hearing those with no kinship to literature opining as to it's social worth. He does , though, manage in lampooning both points of view, in my skewed take.

What The Chairman Told Tom
by Basil Bunting
Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You don't sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that's opera; or repertory -
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week -
married, aren't you? -
you've got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I'm an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it's unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They're Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

This follows up on Oscar Wilde's assertion that "All art is quite useless". But where Wilde would decree that that was the glory and significance of art--that humans have a need for beauty and harmony in order to engage the sense that would other would be limited to the drudgery of foraging and merely getting by--Bunting plants us smack in the middle of a rant by corporate head for whom profit is the end all and be all. Bunting's little survey of the others in the room outlines their hobbies as well as their useful , real world skills, with the emphasis being toward those paper shuffling tasks that can bring a pay check. The one being addressed, the poet, Bunting himself we imagine, is seen as having no marketable abilities, nothing that can benefit an employer, nothing that can make a dollar in the marketplace. Poetry is confusing, nasty, incoherent, a self indulgence, and the poet who takes himself or herself seriously is an unfinished citizen, barely human to any niche-ready degree. Bunting's satire is full of the harrumphing windbaggism of the Babbits of the world who, again in Wilde's phrasing, "know the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Ruth Padel quits an esteemed Chair at Oxford for some dirty tricks she performs against a rival, Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott. What learn again what we already knew, the gods have clay feet.

I'm not surprised reading about the shenanigans among the tenured poets at Oxford, since even on their best days poets do not advance beyond the level of being human and humans, we all know, have basic instincts they, at times, act upon ill-advisedly using. What is surprising is how stupid these folks are in our era of digital communication, in which virtually everything one has written or said is retrievable through a few well-targeted clicks through the Google search engine. It is , perhaps, that these folks, dually gifted and cursed to make language do extraordinary things, have applied their toddler -like desires with the rhetoric of good intentions or higher purposes.

Walcott, through one account I've read, seemed like he was attempting to convince one female student in his class that making love with him would be the perfecting of the epiphany he was attempting to help her achieve. The student rebuffed and Walcott, the esteemed (and over-valued) Nobel Prize winner acted venally by giving her a "C" for her course work. Padel, of course, wanted the position she and Walcott were in contention for and sent off her emails to the press, citing , in her remarks regarding her resignation, that she was acting upon student concerns regarding Walcott's lecherous extracurriculars. No one was buying it, of course, and the matter was clear--what had been a squalid matter of a professor's alleged sexual misconduct became even more squalid by a rival's attempt to take advantage of the mess. Her action is even more loathsome for the fact that the indiscretions Walcott is reported to have had are not recent but many years ago, one in 1982, the other in 1992. Padel's self seeking reveals her to have the instincts of the village gossip, wallowing in rumor and innuendo for their own advancement.

The tragedy, picayune as it is, is that becomes virtually impossible to regard these writers for the artistry and scholarship that made their reputations--one can only think of them as pathetic , ego-driven characters who's respective levels of brilliance did not deliver them from goonish behavior. It's comic, really, to see writers of god like abilities with the language act like weasels when it comes to their crotches and their careers. It might be a good thing that professional poets be made to stand in the corner along with the shamed presidents, deposed kings and celebrity screw ups who've relinquished their right to be taken seriously.

Arise and Write

Lew Welch is credited with having remarked that one doesn't write unless they're not good at anything else, a sentiment describing writing more as process rather than discovery. The myth of writing, that of determining truths, set in place, that will not diminish, change, or expand upon our writerly consideration of a set amount of data, can frustrate one who wants to nail their reality into neatly arranged contexts, like suits in a closet.

This poem under here, is what we do after we've survived our hubris and accept existence as something that is in flux, changeable, subjective in localized meanings, a phenomenon that will always vanquish expectations, and how we re-define our reasons for taking pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
It's similiar to shrugging off the disspointments and disgust with the failure of oneself to conquer the world and continuing with what one has been doing, which is to say that one returns to living ,but with an increased degree of involvement; less of figuring out the world and more of figuring out how to live in it.For all the benefits we claim for poetry--spiritual uplift, blunt truth telling, political anaysis, reconfiguring the language--I tend to think that poetry, above all, is a practice that keeps us focused on what's in front of us, what's actually in front of us.

All the qualities are there--irony, wit, enlarged emotion--but what's pertinent in the matter is that is a form that helps us admit that we may not know what life is all about, but we can at least know it's changing shape and appreciate the bends and turns of each odd nuance.

Arise and Write

Every which way but
into the sleeve of the jacket
now too long and longing
as the arm
drops toward the dressing room floor,
one leg longer than the other
and pants a size too small,
it seems you were invaded
and raided and all the faded
jeans and things that are
what you require for work, lunch,

all the points between appointments of
blue pencil marks, remarks in red pen

displaced, asea in unknown pockets
in a pile of pants and shirts
unwashed like mythical masses
arriving at the docks
after passing under
the grey lady’s armpit
and the light she carries, home fires for everyone,

Nothing makes sense
but that doesn’t matter
when work is the word of the day
and the word is first
when you thirst for a drink
and think you have no dimes
nor quarters for the soda in a can
or water in a plastic bottle,

you just hit the throttle and
plunge ahead into the brand new day
full of traps and fortunes
and the terror
an angry typist can bring you

or an empty page
taunts you with,
you rise, you shave, you
put on your cleanest dirty shirt,
you move on,
the streetlights are still on,

the bus is late
and deadlines are all
you have to live on.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An exchange on Bukowski and Eliot

Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of ...Some remarks from Barry Alfonso, writer, scholar, college chum, in parentheses. He was responding to an earlier post, The Tedium of Bukowski.Barry is, I need to say, one of the smartest scribes on matters of literature, culture and music, and that world needs more of his brand of nuanced clarity:

BA:Mostly, Charles Bukowski must stand guilty of the primary charges you level against him. I would question whether he truly prostituted his talents – there is something obsessive and nearly pathological about his concentration upon his themes and (I suspect) widening his subject matter would’ve been the true act of selling out. On his spoken word album Hostage, you can hear him snapping back at his bum-bating audience in an act of both self-exaltation and self-abasement. He allowed himself to be everyone’s pet wino and rages at his captors even as he allows them to pet and tease him.

TB:Vincent Canby once described Heaven's Gate as being, to paraphrase, a forced tour of your own living room, and in that vein I think that after we've gotten well acquainted with the contents and results of Bukowski's chosen life and have gone through our phases of admiration and praise for his integrity, we have the author continuing to go on and on further still about his drinking, his hangovers, his loses at the break, his broken heart, his bittersweet take on the daily grind. His poems are in a minor key. It's ironic that a writer who projected the air of wanting to have nothing to do with people couldn't help but fulfill audience expectations.

BA:But what I REALLY want to remark about here is your comment that young people continue to love Bukowski for his near-total nihilism. Complete negation of all values except grim survival and base self-indulgence is one way to term his philosophy. But I would also say there is an astringent quality to his work, an attempt to scrub away things false and unnecessary, akin to the Clorox used to bleach out piss and vomit stains from a skid row hotel.

TB:I'd say that "astringent quality" and the principled refusal to buy into a Big Lie are best evidenced in is novels, like "Ham and Rye" and "Hollywood", where there is less chance to sneak out of a scene on the slippery ellipsis his sort of free-verse poems provide him. Biographical detail and a sure eye and ear for making something artful, humorous and moving from a life of squalid fact forces him to finish a scene and develop a story. It's his poetry that presents the problem, mostly because it's these things by which his reputation is made and through which his readers, old and more recent , know and remember him: a one and half dimensional character who reiterates variations of the same monologue. You can make the case that his poems are appealing because of their bare-light bulb nakedness--a harsh light thrown on the tawdry, tacky, pathetic skid row of emotion that lurks in the looming shadow of corporate versions of American prosperity--but by my thinking Bukowski's repetitive themes and outcomes constructed another sort of false front, albeit one less crushing than the weight of a collapsed financial system. He goes on as the fatalist, on and on about how he cannot escape basic intractable facts, but he made a reasonable amount of money from his writing and could well afford to do something things other than exist at a minimal level and continue to wallow in a misery he nurtured as though it were a prized animal.I wouldn't say that he was dishonest--that's too harsh--but I think he lacked a courage to try something different as he aged. He suffered the consequences for his failure to change; he became predictable and without a fresh insight , the feeling he might have surprised himself.

BA:I will go a step further and assert that this commitment to the absolute minimum of what it means to be human is far, far more moral than, say, the philosophic assertions in the work of T. S. Eliot. Eliot used his erudition and great stylistic gifts to support a world-view of sweepingly negative and unwholesome dimensions. By mocking modernity and extolling an imaginary idealized past, this para-fascist did far more damage to the values embraced by the literary-minded than anything Bukowski could ever hope to do.
Eliot is frequently condemned as an anti-Semite (which he appears to have been), but his even greater crime is to slash away at the values of democracy and individualism in the service of submission to empty authoritarian symbols. In one of his critical pieces, Eliot condemned “the myth of human goodness which for liberal thought replaces the belief in Divine Grace.” This is not nihilism – it is worse than that. The fact that this arch reactionary used the techniques of modernity against modern society itself makes him all the more destructive and, in a real sense, hypocritical. By celebrating a pseudo-theocratic Shangri-La, he set up High Church so lofty as to make aspirations to progress and social improvement by mere humans seem futile. Bukowski’s bleakness is something for the reader to internalize and pass through – it can be recognized for the street-level, hard-knocks musing that it is. Eliot – the high brow snob who probably never puked on his shoes in his life – dishes out something that sticks in the mind far more insidiously.

TB:Eliot is one of the less-appealing poets I can think, in terms of what I can draw from his personality, and his antisemitism is a loathsome thing one cannot ignore, but we're confronted with a nest of conservative, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic vileness as regards the generation of poets he came up with , so one go to the work itself and find what there is in it that transcends (ugh, what an awful and nearly bankrupt word) their worst habits of mind and stands out as something that assigns a clarity to those unnameable shifts in mood and tone that would characterize a historical moment. Eliot, I think, does this well enough and gets across the pervasive soul sickness and profoundly alienated response resulting from the accelerated expansion of technology into economics, the home, the fighting of war, matters that those philosophers from the right and left were attempting to comprehend and do something about. Eliot the critic has been a hodgepodge of notions that argued quite against his own innovations--he longed for an orderly world where everyone simply did as they were told in their assigned life stations while they blessed and brilliant left to do their bit unfettered and undeterred—and it's noteworthy that he couldn't quite come up with a theory of literature or culture that could sustain itself beyond its parochial set of assumptions about The Fall of Man from Grace.He wants to lay the blame on democratic institutions and longed for a charismatic personality in politics to assume the force of Christ, less for salvation than to enforce an order on a chaotic planet.

He was a pruned up little fuck of a human being, of course, but in his poems, not his theories, we get his genius in full play, where he vents an honest vision of the disconnected and splintered feeling Modern Times forced on bulging populations. His poems were subjective, yes, but this was an element that had been ignored and overlooked or otherwise discounted as indulgent by many a poet taster of the time, and it was Eliot's general intent to give voice to the "rhythmic grumbling" , a voice that struck a wide cord of recognition among a growing body of readers. So that's his worth, found in the poems, "The Waste Land", "Ash Wednsday", "The Love Song of J.Arthur Prufrock", and so on. It gets said at times that if one talks long enough , they will happen upon some language that's free of an unmentioned agenda and express something resembling actual speaking truth to power. That is what Bukowski and Eliot have in common, having a body of work that contained the stuff from which a reader can know something about a world that will not conform to their expectations. My basic point is that Eliot had the larger gift and less in his actual poetic work that betrayed itself.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Control Freaks,Rowdy Hooligans and the man who cannot hold his tongue

The evidence is in , overwhelming, conclusive, as irrefutable as sun spots and as damning as stains on a pair of white slacks; I love to hear myself write. The same goes for talking, actually talking, of course, but there is that thing about writing long sentences, windy paragraphs, dealing in abstruse associations , indulging in obscure metaphor that seems all the more empowering. In this sphere, the writer, the keyboard, the monitior filling up with words in search of a cluster of ideas worth chasing down and embalming in generalities, gives me the sense of knowing what I'm talking about. Truth be told, I rarely know anything for a fact, and the entries on this blog amount to gusty guess work and bluster as often as not. But the key is this:it's fun, it's entertaining, no animals nor natural resources were harmed or burned up in the pursuit of my prolix muse.

I sometimes imagine selling someone a book where I work about the cultural highlights of the town I live in, San Diego, and my imaginary customer would ask me what the big deal is with Apollonian and Dionysian drives battling it out in the smallest interstices of the culture. It’s like the world was really little more than a huge red light district and free fire zone, with the older instincts, the ones for order, rules, traditions and institutions charged to protect the faintly described freedoms we have in a struggle with the forces of the rowdy, the raucous, the dis-repecters of orderly conduct who desire to upset a given procession of society in order to allow their own vague notion of liberty to rise from the confining murk. At this point, after putting the book and receipt into a recycled bag and giving this mythical customer and truth seeker their proper change, counted back to them from the bill they tendered, I would rub my knuckles and scratch my chin, perhaps lowering my glasses down my nose a bit, looking over the rim to allow my eyes to stare off on the shelves of books containing the world’s knowledge just in the background, and then begin to speak. This would be my version of conflating everything I’ve read on this odd subject, conflating ideas with constructs they don’t belong to, making stuff up as I go along. But ho!, what fun, what exhilaration thinking on the calloused balls of one’s feet.

Nietzsche’s Apollonian drive is a desire to find order in a confused, chaotic, and cruel world. It is the mother of all control issues, an insanity of over organization that compels the spirit to quell the spontaneous spirit and instead attempt to keep everything in its assigned place. Half the work is creating categories and new places for the finite groupings of worthy things and excluding newer, suspect ideas, ideas and tendencies unproven and likely to be fraught with danger. Risks not worth taking with what works are avoided, efforts to expand beyond the granted wisdom is suppressed. It's a conservative notion that argues that civilizations are built upon the foundation of unchanging truths about the nature of man, and that the culture that's been created is an accurate representation of everything that is best in our nature. It denies change, and it is an institutional inclination that seeks hegemony in every aspect of life. Order must be maintained regardless of everything. Nietzsche found that life and faith in this state of affairs was the worst sort of slavery.

Contrarily, the Dionysian drive, desires to break down that artificial order. Nietzsche had great fondness for those institutions that reinforced what he felt was the codified falseness of culture, but he was inclined by instinct to favor the Dionysian impulse to make the old order a smoldering ash heap, at least metaphorically speaking. The Dionysian drive was an attempt to describe what instinct must be present for a human being to free themselves of lies, babble, cant and religious and political crudity and position them to witness truth, and create meaning relevant to their existence. It is an impulse to take something very orderly and beauty in all it’s unmarred elegance and then destroy it, smash it, make it as unappealing as aesthetic object as it was in its formalized existence. Marcuse was a Hegelian who had an idea of the movement of history toward some great purpose that was only being gradually revealed to us. Not exactly the Dionysian sort, which is a spontaneous effect occurring among individuals. Nietzsche had little patience for the fate of masses of people, or to restoring them certain rights and qualities liberal philosophy argues are universal; these are sham arguments, he argues, and focuses instead on the sensual experience of the individual, unbound by convention, living beyond the narrow view of existence and possibilities in it. Nietzsche’s is a precursor to many of the rapturous and unruly strands of modern thought that embrace contradiction, irrationality and refute the knowability of invisible and undisclosed meanings and likewise mute ethical laws, and his cranky and provocative views makes him a hero of libertarians, who habitually regard themselves enlightened beyond the comprehension of society. Stalin was not a Dionysian; neither was Hitler. They were monsters.

Does Marxism and Communism, with their materialism and anti-intellectualism arguably "Dionysian” or at least anti-Apollonian, the same thing? No. What Marx has in common with Nietzsche is a dominating idea that the way things are in the world are false and oppressive, and that there needs to be a radical change of venue in order to attain a natural state of being through which individuals can fashion themselves , unencumbered by creaking hegemonies. Beyond that, similarities fade. Marx did foresee a withering away of the State, it was only through a long period of presumably enforced reorientation through the dictatorship of the proletariat; in any event, this meant consolidation of power, economic strength, and coercion of all kinds. Marxism as theorized is rich in insight, and offers a cool sociological analysis to material relations better than breathless Idealist philosophies, but as an applied political method, it became a cumbersome, slow moving contrivance that could not accommodate social experimentation or diversity. Free market systems, I think, are closer to being Dionysian in nature. Ruled by an instinct for profit, it is about as anti-intellectual force that you might mention, and in fact seems to thrive on creating chaos, and like creating order from the mess that it cannot help from making. Nietzsche , Classicist he is, insisted that a balance between The Dionysian and the Apollonian was what should be achieved and maintained, a conservative, disciplined instinct blended with an spirit of adventure, innovation, self-definition. The superstructure of one makes the experimentation of the other possible, workable.

At this point, it would be my luck to have the customer introduces himself as the Chairman of a philosophy department in some small liberal arts college in the Midwest who’d then dismantle all my assertions, letting the air of out all my tires. Or have the client nod rapidly , trying to supply me with a clue that he was in a hurry. Or they would just smile and thank me and join a wife or a fiancĂ© outside for coffee, leaving me with the
sudden sinking feeling that I’d just spoken long and with a certain freelance adherence to the facts and why was it that I couldn’t simply answer that there are things I know about ,and others that I can only guess at? Yes, I love hearing myself talk.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death and Birth

There's not much in the way of ornamentation in Elise Partridge's "Last Days" , but rather a stark clarity. Time itself has become an irrational quality as one witnesses the agony of a pregnant friend's struggle with and eventually to cancer. There's a gritty,surreal tone in this poem, a feeling that things happened too fast, in retrospect, like a film full of maddening jump cuts, and at the same time lingered long and hard on the details leading to the inevitable tragedy. Partridge's writing is clipped, stripped to the particular items that make this framing an arresting depiction of waiting for the end, holding on to the hope of a distant miracle.

My friend, you wouldn't lie down.
Your wandering IV pole
glided with you, loyal,
rattling on frantic circuits;
crisp pillows didn't tempt;
round, around, around,

guppies cruised the lobby tank,
flickering sunrise-slivers
all guts, mouths urging, urging;
tube-lights buzzed like bees
over your pale shoulders;
you wadded your mauve gown,

yanked on flame-red sweats
matching the bulbs you glimpsed
blazing that Christmas week
through nearby squares downtown;
all through the bluish hours
the night janitor's mop

swung drowsily over the lino,
the nurse tucked one leg up,
barely a monitor blinked—

It would seem to me that any of us who've waited hours and days in hospital corridors and rooms
visiting grievously ill friends and family will grimace and wench, perhaps, at the atmospherics Partridge captures here; there's a feeling of cheap Polaroid snapshots that contain the routines of the hospital, the shuffling rituals of patients and staff going through their rhythm places in the giving and reception of care. What strikes me in the first few stanzas is how well she gets the feeling of a moment stuck in place, not frozen, not still, but stuck, as is a film loop where the same set of motions are repeated, repeated, repeated and all the narrative making possibilities one has to lend an internal coherence of the fatal emerging facts are exhausted.This part of the poem is merely about the waiting, the labored calm that falls over you while you anticipate the arrival of a bombshell, the last facts that confirm that some significant part of your life is about to dramatically.

But not melodramatically. Control of emotion is the mark here, a restraint that is still palpable: the world is coming apart at the seams and all one can do is fix their eyes on those still things and situated rituals--guppies in an under-lit lobby tank, a janitor's lazily dragged mop-- that one notes and magnify , enlarge as if to drown out the impulse to break down or rage against the cruelty of the immediate and infinite worlds. There is a rapid heart beat behind these lines, a mind racing against it's impulse to despair.

There is the need for deliverance, though, and the poem is not without hope: the stricken mother is sedated and her baby is delivered via C section; the child is fine but the mother does not come out of her unconscious state.

you dueled to stay alive
until she could be born.
The doctors that last Tuesday
said it had to be now
and wheeled you off, upright.
Her shivering two red pounds—

you never got to cup them.
Did you even hear her cry?
Only two days later,
your gray eyes glazed, stuck,
a cod's on melting ice.
What could wrench you down?

There is the bitter irony that the mother's cancer makes two miracles occur, the mother released from her terminal condition into the painless realm of death, and the child, freed from a diseased body that might have claimed her life as well. Blessedly, Partridge doesn't attempt to wax poetic or philosophise about the unknowable qualities of death, resists the buffering metaphor to lessen the bare facts of her friend's passing; rather there is something else happening, a piece of poetic perception, if not the miracle we would normally expect--the mother and the baby daughter pass each other, one going to her death , the permanent darkness, and the other coming into the rude and lively light of day. This is a beautiful parallel construction, a superb and effectively conveyed accounting of a tragedy that contains the simultaneity of the book-end facts of our existence, life and death.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A.Poulin Jr. on Radiators in the Dark

The late Al Poulin Jr., poet and publisher of the esteemed BOA Editions, gave a reading where I worked and struck me as the sort of man who, like, likes to consider the magical elements of every day and the mundane world unseen but who hasn't the time for a language that clouds the sensations, not clarify them. It's a fanciful musing to come across, how those sounds you hear only when there is nothing else in motion seem extraordinary and odd; rather than consider the noises as merely the natural sounds a structure makes as its framework shifts or sags due to the demands of gravity and its own weight,. Or, in the case of this poem, the knocks and hisses, and muted clicks a radiator seems to make only when the lights are out. I rather like the language and don't mind a reference to "In unlighted corners, angles/opening to blank space,--" and, in fact, see the description as purposeful. The noises Poulin speaks of seeming unusual and resonate more in the imagination because there is no other sound to blend in with--they resonate in those blank spaces, the knocks, squeaks, and hisses in the dark resonate longer, more profound, with more texture. It makes me think of those sketchy memories of being in the house, in bed, the house entirely dark, imagining every squeak and creak and groan of the night being the passage of creatures from another realm who passed between dimensions in those hours when all were supposed to be asleep. Poulin's lyric is an adult fixation, sure, but he shows this is a habit that hasn't been entirely relinquished to adulthood.
The Angels of Radiators by A.Poulin Jr. Every night when my wife and daughter are asleep and I'm alone in this old house lost in landscapes somewhere between the points of stars, my furnace fails like heaven. The water that will turn to steam and turn to heat and rise as grace runs out. In unlighted corners, angles opening to blank space, radiators, cold and white, are silent and dead angels, incarnate where they fell. Every night, every winter, I have to go down cellar, turn the valve until the gauge is full of water once again, until the furnace starts to rumble with its resurrection. Then the house begins to move, and through the winter night that threatens us like Hell, by God, the pure spirit of the fire roars blue, veins ring, and radiators, a whole chorus of Dominions, sing and dance wild alleluias warm as spring.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bob Dylan sings for you

No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese directed five hour documentary on Bob Dylan has finally aired on PBS after much advertising and hype, and those fans eager, as always, to hear the songwriter talk about his music and his life free of evasion and tall tales are treated, again, to another example of how closely Dylan wants to control the public's perception of him. He was, admittedly, quite a bit more forthcoming to questions than he has been in the past, but one never senses that Dylan wasn't done being cagey with his answers; considering that Scorsese himself was brought in late to a project that Dylan's company had been preparing for seven years and that it was Dylan's own employees asking him the questions , it's doubtful we heard everything he had to say about his affairs. Chronicles, his memoir, was a best seller, and it is a publisher's desire to save the best of the rest for the sequel. In the meantime, the trade paperback edition has just come out, and sales are brisk.

The audience is a curious mix, being primarily baby boomers who want the inside skinny from the man they might well consider the last vestige of authenticity (whatever that is) an American performer has demonstrated, and young people, from teens to those just entering college, either late admirers or the merely curious.

I am , for the moment at least, sated with all things Dylan, and hope that my fellow Dylan obsessives feel likewise gorged. I am a strict diet of Bud Powell cool-period Miles Davis. There is little new information in the Scorsese assembled documentary, but there is plenty of rare footage to feast on, all of which gives us a way of studying the history of Dylan's vocal affectations; one might say that he film is Biography of a Bad Singing Voice. Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Irish laborers, blues groaner, gospel exciter, drugged out whiner. Of themselves, the qualities are slurred and nasal, harsh and authentic, as it were, to the degree of being nearly unlistenable. His rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" from an old tv clip wasn't at all pleasant no matter how I try to approach the sequence.

Yet there are wonderful transformations with that voice, when he began writing his own material, his own lyrics. Vowel and voice met and a sound was made, dramatic, effective, beautiful in a new way. His performance of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the Newport Folk Festival was riveting, vocally masterful. Nasal, howling, pinched, but asserted, shaped, honed. This wonderful song couldn't have been performed any more effectively with a so called "better voice". I would say that Dylan is an especially bad singer, but I would also insist that he is an absolutely brilliant vocalist. No one could dramatize a lyric like he could. What he does with a lyric is something other than render cozy rhymes against assuring melodies as sweetly as possible.

There is a point in his career, when he eased off topical songs and moved toward more expressive, metaphorical, "poetic" lyrics that his voice became something wholly new in pop music. It's not far off to maintain that what Dylan did vocally between Another Side of Bob Dylan up through John Wesley Harding literally forced us to reconsider what "good" singing was really was.

It was Dylan more than anyone else in pop music history who gave license to the singers-of-limited means to take the microphone and create an emotional experience with vocal qualities that were less than perfect. That is fitting for songs that dealt squarely with less than perfect realities, and this an achievement no less profound than any other Dylan has wrought in folk, rock and pop music.