Friday, June 29, 2012

HOSPITAL by Charles Webb

The poem "Hospital " by Charles Webb is a perfected bit of crafted babble, a three note mantra spoken and sung by someone doped up and being wheeled through institution corridors, from one room to the other, meeting employees in variations of the same work clothes running tests, taking samples, adjusting lights and dials on machines, writing items on clipboards and inputting data into computer stations, smiling, whistling pop tunes under their shallow breathing. It is a delirium and the mind, of course, is not out to lunch but aware of and making note of everything that is going on--the curse of it all is that the mind cannot finish a sentence, complete a thought, find a frame or a metaphor to contextualize an experience that is sufficiently unreal and dreamlike. The mind, though, can sustain a rhyming, punning set of extrapolations on what the deeper mind registers and finds dreadful.

Charles Webb manages to maintain that balance between an indecipherable cleverness, nearly falling with great weight and speed into resolute incoherence, but this, as I take it, being the record of a drugged up mind or perhaps a mind suffering an organic derangement, this is the struggle to remain at or near the surface of consciousness. This made me think of those many times I had in the hospital while younger, about to go under the knife, after the needles and the ether had been applied--the world was recast as one fish eyed lens and the soundtrack was such that it reminded me of slowing down a turntable and then increasing the speed again quickly.
“ Hospital “ as a swaying, visceral rhythm that is not always pleasant--panic, giddiness, elation, more panic follow one another quickly, seamlessly, without pause or explanation. This poem is an achievement, a successful evocation of sensory overload.
The Supreme Court surprised everyone by upholding most of the  contentious Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and needlessly to say Democrats are ecstatic and harshly conservative Republicans are  popping their veins and turning red in the face with the kind of raging mania you thought only comic book villians could muster. It is a lot of work to stay that angry and so blind sightedly dedicated to depriving millions to affordable health care as matter of dubious principle.  That dedication suggests mental illness more than rationally applied principles; I never thought it made economic sense to to allow people to get sick and land in emergency rooms where the rest of us have to pay  for their visit with higher insurance premiums. I would guess that  conservatives, at least those who  know have the natioanl megaphone,  consider Meaness as a sport they excel at.  My hope, our collective hope, is that voters see through all the malarkey and smoke that is being blown our way and that we deprive them of their arena.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fiction for fugitives

"Looking at this thing makes my neck hurt" Bonerface said, looking up

to the top of the Watertower he was standing under with his friends, a loose conferderation of high school buddies, musicians and other semi-employed types who were now in their early forties, years from their graduation date and year boo predictions, standing under a Watertower in the middle of a public park, a spot that had become a hang out for no other reason other than convience to homes and jobs , basic, bonehead familiarity, and the fact that few of these guys ever gave up the idea of being on some kind of cutting edge where street credibility was everything. Middle aged men with nothing else to do but wait out the duration of their drug of choice before they could go home, or to work, which ever they individually remembered they were in line for.

Bonerface rubbed is neck and took a long toke of a joint of skunk weed  that was being passed around. Ferg took the joint as he looked up as well, studying the underside of this huge Watertower, a large vat supported by six supporting legs that were as wide as small houses on chopped up lots of land. An ache developed in his neck, and staring at the criss-cross pattern of beams, joists and joints in a murky , rain-drenched dark made Ferg feel profoundly powerless in the center of his stomach. The earth seemed to move away from his feet;gravity seemed suspended. He passed the joint along without taking a hit and looked at Bonerface, who was now playing an invisible guitar. Fingers scurried along unseen frets, notes plucked out the air with a sound that came up from under the street, the mission of the muse to make this park electric, electric,

Bonerface sang something to ease the pain in his neck

"dDEedeeeeeeeeediddly GREUndelliddlybomp!bomp!Bomp! wheeddly wadiddddddddddddididididididididily WHAmzitridddddddddley wheedlyWHammylidlle dlalotta BOMP BOMP!!!"

"Nice power chords" said Grelb, a friend who actually finished a year of college who made a half a living selling record reviews to dozens of adult magazines , titty mags and fast beats, he liked to joke, "nice runs and scat shattering sonics there, and the chords come nicely placed, "BOMBgoddamnedBOMP, and that opens up the rest of the night, the stars above to a terrifying extreme of get down…"

Bonerface shrugged , sang more riffs, this time something that resembled Hendrix , if Hendrix played marches.

"Good for the pain the neck" said Ferg.

"Whatever" said Grelb" because you know one of these days one of us is gonna get married, get a real job, or just die from so much hanging around doing nothing but living on little else but minimum wage and alcohol, and wher will that leave the rest of us, under this Watertower…."

"Beats the willies outta me" said Ferg, "You move on, I guess, you see better movies. Better yet, you become a movie yourself. You may still die at the end, but at least it's a death that means something, hokey though the moral may be…"

"You shoulda been a film critic" said Grelb, "you have a way of filling the air with sentences that evaporate quickly after sounding so pleasant after you said them…"

"Anymore whiskey?"

"Yeah" said Grelb, producing a bottle from the picnic table where the small felllowship did their weekend drinking. He handed it to Ferg.

"My neck still hurts" said Bonerface,"I mean shit, that thing is tall…"

"You need to stop looking up like that" Ferg muttered, "we been coming here since we graduated, off and on, and you still have to stare up at this thing the minute you take your first punch offa bomber?"

"My neck hurts".

"I'm gonna be sick" said Grelb.

"Pussy" said Ferg, " call yourself a son of Irish pride? Go ahead , be sick…"
"Cut some slack, her, Ferg" said Bonerface, "it's not as if you haven't been the one broadcasting their lunch recently."

Ferg rubbed his jaw, reached into his pocked and fished out a smashed back of Camels. He took one out of the creased pack , jabbed it between his lips and lit it with the last dry match he had, cupping the flame as it seared the cigarette tip. The burning end glowed in the dark, highlighting the counters and lines of his palms. The smoke felt good as it seared his throat. A good burn, he thought, burn away this bullshit.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


The Guardian on Facebook:

Brilliant as she has been , Joni Mitchell has also had made nearly as much music that is, shall we say, in equal measures underwritten, bombastic, pretentious, just plain pretentious. She coveted the sobriquet "genius" more conspicuously than any pop star I can remember--even self mythologizer Dylan rejects the
application of the word to his name and has suggested , in a sense, that his
most arde

Mitchell is an intelligent artist, but she is sorely lacking at times in subtler ways of looking at things; there are some things that are obvious to others that simply hasn't the humility to make note of. She complains of Dylan's lack of authenticity when the whole notion of art and being an artist is based in large part on creating things that are inauthentic; the very words "art" and "artist" are intrinsically linked with the word artificer, a term that means, in general, some designed, made by hand, an unnatural addition to what is already in place. She bemoans the lack of authenticity and forgets, perhaps, that she, Simon, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, poet-songwriters of the Sixties, were storytellers more than anything, fictionalizing their feelings, their politics, their biographies in the interest of a good yard, a good line, a good insight. Authenticity , I would argue , has more to do with feeling that a writer succeeds in creating, not the emotion he or she in fact feels. She is grumpy, to be sure, but this will not suffice as a justification for her ire. She is famous and cranky and frankly it's a tedious dirge she replays every chance she gets.
nt fans should get lives beyond their record collection--and she has produced albums that have tried to force the issue. Her stabs at art song, serial music , jazz material , and feminist surrealist have given us mixed results at best. The fatal flaw in these ambitious efforts were that the worst elements of them were so impossibly precious and self important that they summarily dwarfed what fresh ideas she might have had at the time. Her on going arrogance and bitterness leaves a bad taste.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

“Forbidden City” by Gail Mazur. - Slate Magazine

“Forbidden City” by Gail Mazur. - Slate Magazine:

We have a perfect alignment of opening phrase , "Asleep until noon I' m dreaming..." and the contents of a the sort of dream that occurs when you force yourself to slumber long after the body and brain have had the amount of rest they require. For me, a long time believer in my right to sleep in on days I have no obligations of work, family or friends, I wake up in starts, clutch the pillow tightly and and close my eyes into a squint to block out the light straying through the curtains. 

The dreams that come are not depictions of happy places, serene surrealism or the wondrous unfolding of secret meanings; the brain has already kicked in with an agenda of things to be done that day, to be considered, and because I've chosen to sleep longer against the common sense limit, the thoughts express themselves in images where dark secrets and social anxieties and unresolved items of self-acceptance and the like create perplexing scenarios. I wake up feeling drugged and battered about. I slept in and paid the price of remaining in dreamland by being made to witness the locks on the various compartmentalized open up and see the unconsidered and undisclosed contents emerge and perform dramas and comedies of antic proportion. 

It's a disturbing experience, and there is nothing I want more than a strong cup of coffee to pull me from the powerless wallow in my pool of imagistic uncertainty. This is , in effect, is the filing system of the unconscious mind, attempting to classify and  categorize what the errant napper has decided to put off until tomorrow. The brain , though, does not forget and it does not forgive procrastination, as what   we have ignored in our waking lives will visit us again at those hours when are supposed to be recharging our bodies minds and souls and that mind, irritated to be sure, will nag us until we wake up, exhausted. 
Mazur's poem has that feeling, a jet streamed slide into a play that amounts to an accumulated series of anxieties involving a relationship that has become deadened; the structure is unsound.

Friday, June 15, 2012


 Seems that we all have rocks in our head, or at least the idea of rocks, notions of round hard things that can damage us if they strike,  solid masses of earthen material that defy our ability to out think them. Stupid rocks. Ideas get in the way of things, a tenet shared by flightier versions of zen and more solid versions of a modernist decree. The essential point is that one cannot know anything about rocks until they retire from the debating society: all the focusing on how tight one's theory is as it clashes with the dense physicality of reality is like taking a trip only to worry about the contents of the luggage. You can win the argument and walk away with nothing but a fleeting smug satisfaction that your designs held fast. Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Pebble" offers us a picture of the title entity as something that is gleefully self-contained, caring less about the content of our arguments or the character that makes them.


by Zbigniew Herbert

The pebble 
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardor and coldness
are just and
full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

---Peebles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

An interesting contrast for this poem would be Paul Simon's song "I Am A Rock", recorded when he was in Simon and Garfunkel; the most notable difference between the lyric and Herbert's poem is that Simon, at the time, was suffocating in his mannered seriousness. 

 I Am A Rock
by Paul Simon

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don't talk of love,
But I've heard the words before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

 Simon eventually became a solo artist and shed the freshman composition overreach of his earlier poetic style. He developed a consistent sense of humor and revealed a superb sense of irony; best of all he pared back the dried garlands of creaky literary language from his work and was able to convey his subtler points in a fluid tongue that was informal, direct, understated. He decided to abandon Big Themes--Alienation,  Despair, Inability to Communicate--and instead take what was in his own backyard.  But he did write some grandiose statements while he was a serious younger man who hadn't yet learned to live life like it were a loose suit. Everything was so damned important, so damned serious. How serious he considered it seems nearly comical in retrospect.His desire to be a rock was the extrapolated angst of a teenager who had been hurt in love and is aghast at how cruel the world has turned out to be, It is, if we recall, a young man's first experience of having his idealism betrayed by an intrusive and uncaring world. "..and a rock feels no pain" is what S and G sing in the refrain and it comes across as whining and a wallow. Teens like myself, sensitive and eager to experience the bigger world in a hurry, related to this paean to self-pity; it is a song I have been embarrassed to admit to ever liking. It seems like only a modified version of the typical Bobby Vee or Gene Pitney three-hankie wounds of the heart that held the music charts not long before.

Herbert, in contrast, has his rock, his pebble more precisely, seem like nothing less than an entity unto itself, neither representative of anyone's anger nor a metaphor for anyone's bad experience. The pebble, in fact, is offered up as an example to be noted, studied, emulated in some sense;

The pebble  
is a perfect creature  
equal to itself  
mindful of its limits  
filled exactly  
with pebbly meaning  

"...filled exactly with pebbly meaning. " This goes along with a notion from William Carlos Williams' idea that the thing itself is its adequate symbol. This was something that I had heard by way of Allen Ginsberg in a broadcast some years ago, and it stays with me because it really does get to the heart of much of the modernist poetry aesthetic, which was to cleanse the language of the freight of a several hundred years of metaphysical speculation and restore the image of the thing as something worth investigating in itself. Herbert presents us with an item that is minute and already perfect, complex and intriguingly self-sustained; it is a mystery for us to parse on terms outside our egos. His is a poem that invites a reader to discover the world with it mind that we have to abandon our filters and templates and formula paradigms that gives phenomena an easily classifiable meaning.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


I posted this originally in 2010, and thought it appropiate to republish now in honor of  one of the great storytellers, the late Ray Bradbury.-tb

It was my good fortune to happen upon a Ray Bradbury panel at the 2009 ComicCon in San Diego,where the Master himself was taking and answering questions from a large, adoring crowd. It was , of course, a love fest for one the pioneers of fantasy and speculative fiction, an appreciation for a writer many of us have a lifetime's relationship with this imagination. For all his work in pre-Code horror comics, pulp fiction magazines and paperback books, considered for years to the be the Red Light District of Literature, his oeuvre is one those rare productions that have proven to be something everyone else, from critics to mainstream media, have had to catch up with. The callowest of lit-crit 101 pronouncements are applied here: does the  work have legs, and do you marvel at the style and techniques the writer used to move you along with the narrative . A good writer  is able to overcome a reader's objection to fantastic tales; the writer who's work remains current is the rare breed who's tales transcend the genre from which they originally sprang. So one learns how to get  adult" about those pulpy fantasies that gave you pleasure when you were a teen, someone still learning about the world through the stories one heard.You have to say that you did a fair and accurate summary of Bradbury's career and a fair estimation of his work. If you’re a good genre writer and you stick around long enough, you have a very good chance of having a host of recently minted book critics and biographers elevating you the higher ranks of Faulkner or Twain.
It's happened a dozen or so times , particularly in the mystery/crime arena with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Sometimes the shoe actually fits, given that Chandler and Hammett were both innovators of form who had their lyric flights and coolly compressed melodramas informed by a tangible and subtle played romanticism.

Others have been less believable, as in the case of Jim Thompson, who is genuinely creepy and entertaining, but lacks music and wit, or James Ellroy, who mistakes intensity and encroaching unreadability as requirements of writerly worth. Elmore Leonard resists the temptation to let critics and upper echelon authors seduce him with praise and a general invitation to take his work more seriously; he is the kind of professional you most admire, someone who continues the work, writing one brilliantly middlebrow entertainment after another.Would that a few of our "serious" authors adopted the work ethic and wasted fewer pages and less of our time with their reputations.Some writers literally beg to be taken seriously; they implore us to read their novels deeply and let the philosophical conflicts resonate long and loudly.Has there been a John LeCarre novel that hasn't been compared to the world weary speculations of Graham Green's ambivalent attaches and minor couriers wrestling with the issue of Good versus Evil under a shadow of a silent Catholic God? Has there been a discussion among fans of James Lee Burke that didn't slip into a tangent about the American Southern tradition, with Faulkner's and Flannery O'Conner's names repeatedly dropped like greasy coins? It's not such a bad thing, though. LeCarre and Burke are fine writers and do manage to provide a complex settings where the moral battles take place in their work. Their presence in the high rankings needn't make anyone squeamish.

Stephen King, try as he might, will not remain on the top shelf no matter who places him there. He is the master of premise, one great and magnificent idea after another, but then he goes soft in the head and rushes through his novels with flights of illogical that even excusing them as part of a horror novel's delirious nature cannot excuse the slip shod execution. Bradbury? He is very good, sometimes even brilliant in all his amazing convolutions, and I think it would do everyone a great favor to not burden him with the weight of "literary importance". There are issues and morals and philosophies galore slithering through the paragraphs of his stories and novels, but Bradbury above all else is fun to read. I think it's enough that he be admired as craftsman with a slight touch of the poet. Bradbury, however sage we might wish him to be, never shed the basic rule of all professional writers go by; you need to be read by an audience that wants to be entertained.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sea Gods

 It's been an occasional pleasure of mine to collaborate with a visual artists, their vision, my poems interpreting that vision. An old friend, Jill Moon, created this sculpture for the city of Ocean Beach, California (with able assist from Matty Welch). This poem I devised when I viewed while in OB to absorb some good old fashioned community  counter culture vibes is my perhaps sad attempt to tell a tale that has less to do with Jill's sculpture than whats' been rattling around my empty can of an imagination. In any event, that piece inspired this piece. I hope you enjoy both.

The same old gods guard
the parking lot by the sea,

winds make the clouds over the
horizon darken, the ocean seems to boil,

ships no longer need sails or sextants
to make their way around the globe,

it is the day and night of the satellite,
reading the ruins of the earths hard face,

tankers full of oil, the promise of
brown skies and asthma,  inch toward land,

sea gods with tri-colored scepters rising from
the foaming surf to part the waters,

refineries on the coast line hum with  the making
of canned fury, a promise of  more jobs in

valleys choked with brown air, full of cars
going to that parking lot by the sea,

to visit the sea gods in crowns and fins
and draped in a kelp that carries a memory

of  fish that swim elsewhere now, or not at all.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

God's nod

"The Buddha was silent  about the existence of God".

Likewise, God is also silent about the existence of God. Unfortuately, not everyone agrees; to have silence be a key to any metaphorical doors that might open up and reveal a metaphysical superstructure of even further quiet and calm is simply too much.Their God is a busy multitasker, making decisions, running the Universe and beyond. It's heresy. Interesting that's these people who make all the noise regarding his greatness and kindnessI am something of a terse Kierkegaardian: i arrive at something that feels like proof of His/Her existence when I stop wading through murky theological concepts and take an action with whatever reserves of faith that I have. An act of faith. Whatever the results happen to be are not so much God's  will for me as much as it is the next thing he wants me, all of us, in our own ways, to attend to. I  suspect that even God does not the  know the outcome of the actions we take. He is there, though, to offer to turn up the light in our search for an inspiration.  All we need do is ask . And be realistic enough that God will not answer us in ways resembling a bungled sign, a letter, phone call or email. The occasional hunch or inspiration, yes. Everything else  is too flashy.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Post-Literacy or Super-Literacy? | Quarterly Conversation

Post-Literacy or Super-Literacy? | Quarterly Conversation:

Daniel Pritchard does a fine overview of Douglas Glover's new tract," Attack of the Copula Spiders", an polemic that seems, judging from the examples cited in the review, seems to be the exhortations of yet another language-police blowhard . The basic premise is that although there are more of us buying books or book related products, that despite the fact that more books are being published and purchased in the the various media than ever before, the sheer volume of words between covers has made our sense of how to make a sentence work most effective has lost it's musculature. Our syntax has gotten flabby.

The short and  the expected of the book is that    he desires a return to when writers and critics cut to the quick and made a sentences connect like a sock in the jaw. For all the heat Glover tries to generate , though, there is a lack of even the lightest wisp of smoke. Most of us will be better writers, for sure, if we learned the basics and studied those writers who revealed techniques that created an expressive and most memorable style, but the simple fact is that most of us who are otherwise competent with words, construction of sentences and the compositional fundamentals that come with that are not very expressive or memorable in our lives as writers.

 Most of us are average, routinely fluid in the mechanics, but otherwise tone deaf to the fickle element of style, the quality that makes technique in something become artful, elegant, forceful. In short, I suspect Glover realizes the obvious point that quantity diminishes quality and wrote this grumbling tract so may hear himself grouse. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dolly wants to kill you

"The Home" by Kathryn Levy. - Slate Magazine:

This poem attempts to tell its tale from within a nightmare in progress, the effect being that the verse here, with its rococo imagery and colliding associations between abuse, violence and gossip among dolls and a government's unjustified , illegal, irrational war of choice, is itself incoherent.  

For rhythm and sound and general imprecision , Kathryn Levy's poem resembles the worst traits of the otherwise redoubtable Joyce Carol Oates; this is the say that there is an overwhelming strain of professional victimhood, that those harmed in violent communities, whether doll or actual, or who suffer due to occupying armies, drone strikes, destruction of destruction of infra structure and the local economy, have in some sense volunteered for their pathetic stations, that the unstable social forces around them have conjured up a seductive, pervasive and persuasive rhetoric with art, news coverage, entertainment, class envy and saturation advertising that great sacrifices are required for the righteousness of our way of life to survive and to again flourish mightily as it is claimed it had in some hazily described Golden Age. 
I am not a fan of the poem--again, Levy's tone is neither rhythmic or smooth nor effectively jagged as, say, Robert Creely's "I Know a Man" turns out to be.  There is no entry way into this poem; while there is an attraction for works that do not announce their meanings,are opaque and obscure, one would usually prefer the works to have a style and and arrangement of contradictory elements that would create atmosphere, at least. One would expect a poem trying to suggest a set of ideas that it doesn't want to say outright to be suggestive.

 This would be a means with which the central themes of useless sacrifice and petty rationalization of torture to be connect with a larger pathology in the culture. I do like the presentation of dolls as something on which the nascent characterization of adult behavior by young children are projected upon, and I like the underdeveloped link with war and wanton, rationalized destruction; this is a world where metaphysical certainty, the argument that there is an immutable meaning to our visible world and events in them, are instead improvised, variations on a theme that is less melody than slippery rules in a children's game. The best we can do is read this and admire what seems to be the author's thinking and wonder how a better poem would have done with this insights.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fuhgeddaboutit - Oy vey! -

Fuhgeddaboutit - Oy vey! -

Chris Matthews, chief bullhorn at MSNBC, is a pundit who has his faults, but even at his worst moments serving up bombast and belligerence he remains a better man that Salon's video commentator Frank Conniff. Conniff is billed as a comedy writer. Fine. But beyond the fact that he appears to be a cheeseburger shy of a heart attack, he is remarkably unfunny, at least as far as his performance . Watch this video and determine if this guy, a paid professional, is actually any funnier than you and your buddies when you're on your second  twelve pack cracking wise during an interminable half time act during the Super Bowl.  His face seems wedged into the camera lense, stuck by way of cheese fries and fattened, sagging flesh. There is a reason comedy writers ought to remain in the conference room,  trolling porn sites and rubbing one out on an old copy of Vogue.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

You can say that again, but louder

David Vann, Wes Anderson, Philip Glass: In defense of artists who always return to the same themes. - Slate Magazine:

There has been something suspect and cheap shot about critics who dismiss a new work by an established novelist/poet/film maker/playwright as merely a product of an imagination of someone who was "starting to repeat themselves." The gripe, understand, wasn't that the artist's work wasn't , to some degree, repetitive--any artist worth paying attention , I think, will repeat themselves in theme, technique, flourishes, psychological texture--but rather that the naysayers assumed the charge alone sufficed as criticism.

Well, it  doesn't suffice at all, not hardly. It seemed the reasonable and obvious thing for the would be critic to discuss how a particular work falls short of  the best art the supposed artist can make--usually a reviewer, in this regard, would begin a review with praise for earlier novels, poems, plays, films, et al--and proceed through a discussion of what the artist has done with the standards he or she  has established for themselves:  has the fictional universe expanded or contracted to effective or defective degrees, has any trope been reworked or modified or needlessly included in such a way that it adds only noise and clutter to the work, is the work under consideration not varied enough from previous novels, poems, plays, films et al to not seem like anything more than an exercise?

 All these are matters of discussion and all these require a bit of digging through the text and investigating the metaphors , similes and associated language constructions for what's coming undone structurally and what contained therein is putting the consumer to sleep. Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster, two writers who are maddeningly repetitive in their themes as they are prolific in their issuing of new novels , have both established respective clusters of author habits, narrative schematics and verbal habits--Oates loose limned, italicized and frantic in a series of meditations on how violence becomes an ingrained element in complex emotional dynamics , Auster terse, enigmatic, sparing with qualifiers, calm in tone amid an ongoing dissolution of a main character's metaphysical surety--and each has produced more than a few books that ought to have been remained in the drawer of their writing desks, in my view. Yet each also publish, with some frequency, books of particular brilliance, expressions of a peculiar genius that comes only through an obsessive working and reworking of a set of narrative devices, tones and voices .

 One could say, of course, that worthy publishers and good editors of days gone by could have spared us the mediocre work and provided with us only with the masterpieces, such as they are, that we needn't have had to withstand those novels that seemed more like warm up exercises.Perhaps. But the responsibility of criticism,  at least the criticism that appears in newspapers, magazines and on popular internet books and arts sites, is to interrogate the style, substance and argument of a particular book and to judge it against other work, both by the author and his  contemporaries. Review the book, in other words, and be thankful that we have writers who have things interesting enough to read and debate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On Longwindness

 "I can assure you, sir, that these things really suck!" -- Don Van Vliet,when selling a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley

You're not a drone for not being drawn to Don DeLillo; he either appeals to you or he doesn't, as is the case with any other serious (or less serious) writer who wants to get your attention.
The charges that DeLillo is tedious, wordy and pretentious, not necessarily in that order, are themselves tedious and , it seems, levied by a folks who either haven't read much of the author, more likely, put forward by a host of soreheads who use DeLillo as a representative of a kind of fiction writing they dismiss wholesale. I'm not an easy sell when it comes to be seduced by writer's reputations--my friends accuse me of being too picky, too "critical"--but I've read most of DeLillo's fifteen novels since I discovered him in the early Seventies; if I didn't find his writing brilliant and vibrant or found his narrative ruminations on the frayed American spirit engaging, I'd not have bothered with him. DeLillo is a serious writer,  sober as a brick, but he is not pompous.I always marvelled at the economy of his writing. 
He does write long sentences in parts of his novels, but they are so precisely presented they seem positively succinct. And that, I think, is a large part of their power.
Power and purpose are the things that make a long sentence of fiction a thing of wonder;good sentences are like pieces of great music that you read again, listen to again. The Godfather of the terse, abrupt phrase, Hemingway could, when he chose to , compose a long sentence that had the advantage of serpentine rhythms snaking their way around a nettlesome gather of conflicting emotions and sentiments, but still had a wallop of an adroitly worded police report. The longest sentence he ever wrote, 424 words in his story
"The Green Hills of Africa" is cinematic in its sweep:

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student's exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing---the stream.

I think there's a clutch of  otherwise smart people who distrust and actively dislike anything that suggests elegant or lyric prose writing. John Updike, who I think was perhaps the most consistently brilliant and resourceful American novelists up until his death,was routinely pilloried for the seamless flow of his perfectly telling details. If one cares to do a survey, I suspect they'd find the same caustic template levied at other writers who are noted for their ability to detail the worlds they imagine in ways that make the mundane take on a new resonance. Nabokov, DeLillo, Henry James,  Richard Powers have all been assessed by a noisy few as being  "too wordy". The sourpusses seem to forget that this fiction, not journalism, that this literature, no police reports.
The secret, I think, is that a writer possessed of a fluid style manages to link their  mastery of the language with the firm outlining of  the collective personalities of the characters , both major and minor. The elegance is in service to a psychological dimension that otherwise might not be available. The thinking among among the anti-elegance crowd is that writing must be grunts, groans and monosyllabic bleats, a perversion of the modernist notion that words are objects to used as materials to get to the essential nature of the material world. Lucky for us that no one convincingly defined what "essential nature" was, leaving those readers who love a run on sentence with more recent examples of the word drunk in progress. I don't mind long sentences as long as their is some kind of mastery of the voice a writer might attempt at length; I am fond of Whitman, Henry James, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carole Oates, writers who manage poetry in their long winded ways. That is to say, they didn't sound phony and the rhythms sounded like genuine expressions of personalities given to subtle word choice. Kerouac, though, struck me as tone deaf. After all these years of complaining about his style, or his attempts at style, the issue may be no more than a matter of taste. Jack Kerouac is nearly in our American Canon, and one must remember that the sort of idiom that constitutes literary language constantly changes over the centuries; language is a living thing, as it must be for literature to remain relevant as a practice and preference generation to generation.

A poem about baseball in Detroit, yay!

I do not follow sports, cannot sit through series undertaken by home teams against enemy ensembles, will not memorize stats regarding any player's historical record of success or failure in their professional game playing. I did, though, take great joy in sometimes watching the Detroit Tigers.  The D is my home town, and home towns rule, no matter the logic. A poem:

D- Town after the '06 Series
No one saws that we must
stay here , grasping at empty, reedy straws
for something to talk about
when another ball hits the glove's webbing
and hops defeated to the trampled,red grass.

We should move to the exits
and back to the hotel
and go back to the arenas
where we don't wave blankets
but do toss octopus filets on the ice
we hope will gum up the blades
of visitors to our berg
and tell them that
all we do is puck around.

The last Taurus
rolls off the line
and into the street
in hopes a buyer
will drive it into the sunset,
flipping the bird in the rear view
as wheels come off each parked car
under the shadows of these
tall, empty buildings,

We say yeah, we lost,
and we can't afford
to give a flat tire
about it,
we make sure it gets shouted
that that's all
in the game
as we measure our pain
and relish plain facts
that bad news and broken bones
are as constant
as the weather,
our newspaper is printed on leather
and we'll huddle
in old Cork Town Taverns
over Strohs and
black and white photos
of dead Irish mayors
when oh when it was ever good
as they say it used to be.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suck Hard For Best Results

Classical allusions in modern poems are enough to drive a good man to drink a dozen soda pops and belch until the sun comes again to the garden of night with a rosy-fingered dawn. That is to say that a smart allusion might, just might make a poem snappy and perhaps provide a deeper echo of response after an attentive reader finishes a third or fourth reading. But you need to choose your references smartly and be smarter about where you position them. Otherwise, it becomes comic opera, overdramatic, crucified by self-importance.


Most days that summer your old dog came up, 
in the searing heat, with a failing heart, 
from your place, the half-mile uphill to mine―

up the steep rise, past the pastured goats, on
the buggy trail that swerves through blueberries.

As you pointed out, The Odyssey
is full of tears, everyone weeping
to find and lose and find each other again.

Spent, he struggled the last two hundred yards, 
ears low, chest heaving. Hearing
the jangling of his tags I knew the gods

had chosen me to praise him for his journey, 
offer food and water, a place to sleep.

I would admit that it's not uncommon to have the incidentally tragic in your life to remind you of something that you read years before, but you have to ask the question as to why the poets need to bring it up at all. It becomes an offhand way of name dropping the title of a canonical text into a poem that attempts the small significance of a dog growing old and eventually passing on. Perhaps there is no credible way of writing about something this minute without coming across as pretentious, sentimental or pompous. Becker does us a service by avoiding a deep wade through the bristling thicket of obtuse reference, but even this light toe-in-the-water approach, to mix metaphors, is off-putting for the reason I object to poets habitually referencing that they are poets, poetry in general, or titles from their private library. It has them thinking about what they've read rather than ponder an experience they are having and, for me, that is a tendency that entirely misses the point of this kind of small commemoration. The prospect of reading someone who is self-critical enough to doubt that they are genuinely generous and giving with their fellow citizens and creatures is seductive enough as is, as this kind of reflection can indeed go to the general notion of the alienated individual in communities that are becoming increasingly fragmented, complex; one comes to wonder whether the virtues or those about them seem to have are genuine and without effect, or if they're mostly performative, i.e., good manners and thoughtfulness put forth merely as a means of easing through a day with the least social friction. This reflection, though, is very expressible without the insertion of The Odyssey or the use of an obscure word for the title. I venture to say that what Becker's poem accomplishes is not clarity, the isolation of a fleeting sensation in original, fresh language, or revealing a worldview different from the reader's own. It comes across as rote behavior seen in far too many poets who cannot step outside their conceit that they bear the title of "poet" or worse, "intellectual" and refrain from making their subject matter dreadfully, boringly entombed in literary reference. I would be impressed if someone could ponder this self-doubting in a way that makes you think of someone actually in the world, pausing due to a strong and almost overwhelming rush of feeling that defy bookmarking. Becker had the reference to the Odyssey at the ready prior to this poem being written, and this, in effect, makes this poem dishonest.

The basic problem is the sheer absurdity of this enhanced recollection--someone feeling the pain of self-recrimination because they didn't accord an old dog the same dignity as a friend or relative who, quite suddenly, ascends to nuanced and footnoted heights of existential despair. Becker manages to serve the stereotypes of poets as people who are so improbably sensitive to the capriciousness of existence that their sadness exceeds mere suffering and instead becomes epic. This is the poet immobilized by their grand response to situations, feeling deeper, harder, more elegantly than do non-poets; this makes the poem practically useless as a vehicle to jolt a reader into thinking about experience in another way. On the same subject, Michael Collier takes the same tale in his poem “Argos” and smartly deals with the story itself; the tale is made fresh, lively, without being subjugated to the service of a trivial whimsy.

If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry, 
that the god-loved, god-protected hero 
when he returned to Ithaka disguised, 
intent to check up on his wife 

and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom, 
steeled himself resolutely against surprise 
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed, 
ready for revenge – then you read Homer as I did, 

too fast, knowing you’d be tested for plot 
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre, 
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos 
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow. 

Reading this way you probably missed the tear 
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos, 
who’s nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop 
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not 

a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise 
of death and destitution, is more like Ithaka itself. 
And if you returned home after twenty years 
you might weep for the hunting dog 

you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage 
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact, 
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more. 
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely 

but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure 
with your plan. Now the past is what you study, 
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop, 
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.

I much prefer the Collier poem and thanks for posting it here for contrast. It works wonderfully, it flows, it achieves a wallop in a flowing, unpretentious language due to, I believe, Collier's decision to deal with the tale and its moral ambiguity directly, in a contemporary tongue. Rather than treating the tale as gratuitous texture to some small event that cannot sustain the allusion, Collier's narrative world is whole and integrated. He assumes the logic of the standard tale and provides it a lightly applied modern dimension of articulated alienation, in scale, never dwarfing the dynamics with a blundering reference to other literary adventures; the tale and its already problematic contents are left intact.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


When I was done clearing my throat
hit and runs ceased being daily activities
and bullets left their chambers
to slide back into the box that borne them.

After the end of the world
home sales picked up
as if everyone desired a roof
that kept out rain 
and false advertising.

 Each time the flag waves in slow motion
while an unknown orchestra
strangles the national anthem,
I stand tall where ever I happen to be
and salute whatever floats just 
above my head;

Tonight it is ceiling fan
that hasn't had a spin
since two and half car wrecks ago.

Ape shit

There is no place
for the books you purchased
with the last of your change
and remaining pocket lint,
you've sent your last dime
to a cause since drifting toward a cliff
where white caps break
below on a beach
of black sand that glistens
like diamonds under the moon,
all that remains of your wits
are the shavings
on the table
next to the coffee cup
and pencil sharpener.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Myth as theory

Myths, as well anyone can describe them, are working elements of our personal and social psychology, and whose elements are "modernized"-- better to say updated -- as a matter of course. Declaring a goal to make them relevant to the slippery degree of modernist convention sounds is an insight best suited for a Sunday book review. Jung and Campbell are ahead on that score, and Eliade certainly stresses the relevance of mythic iconography strongly enough: current gasbag extraordinaire Harold Bloom advances the case for mythic narrative ,-- borrowed in part from Northrop Frye (my guess anyway) -- in the guise of literature, constructs the psychic architecture that composes our interior life, individually and as member of a greater set of links: the stuff helps us think ourselves, personalities with an unsettled and unfastened need for a center aware of its adventures in a what comes to be , finally, an unpredictable universe.

Bloom argues, somberly, that Shakespeare is the fount from which mythic forms find a contemporary set of metaphors that in turn became the basis for our modern notion of dramatic conflict, and argues that Freud's genius lies not in his scientific discoveries, but for the creation of another complex of metaphors that rival Shakespeare's for dealing with the mind's nuanced and  curious  assimilation of experience, the anxiety of influence in action, as process, and not an intellectually determined goal to navigate toward.

The point is that modernization of myth is something that is that is already being done, a continuous activity as long as there are people on this planet...

An associate was recently doing his best to demean and diminish the status of literary critics at recent pot lock I happened upon. He pointed me towards a computer monitor and told me the address of his book blog. His most recent post was basically the same rant he was delivering at the party I quote him thus:

Academics determine what is taught, but they do not determine what is "literary". Literary, like language, is determined by use.
Use by critics among others, I think, not the general readership alone. Books can have an extraordinary appeal to a vast public, and it is among the critics tasks to study what the basis of the appeal might be, and then to make distinctions among the elements, to give or detract value to specific works, their genre, and techniques. A concept of "literature", a kind of writing that does the reader a tangible good with a malleable knowledge that can be applied to one's life with good effect, is a creation of a university system where critics had to justify the systematic study of poetry, fiction and drama. The literary criteria have since trickled down to the larger, popular discussions among the public, not the other way around.

Academics hardly try to eliminate works from the ranks of literature: more often than not, the aim is to bring works into the fold, though no one, whatever degrees they do or do not hold, will ever be convinced that the mass and popular use of Danielle Steele will confer upon her literary qualities that will have her stock rise amongst academics, critics, what have you. This is an activity that comes from a critical discourse that makes such a conversation possible beyond a popularity contest. It’s not that the best criticism claims to create the things that makes writing ascend to greatness, but only that it gives those things names that make them comprehensible to a larger, curious audience. But the terms are not locked, not fixed: literature changes given the changes in the world its writers confront, and so the terms of discussion change to, lagging, perhaps, a bit behind the curve. It's less that descriptions of literature fail, but instead are forever incomplete.

Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex story telling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single , intangible supposition. Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that is resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect.  A goal of criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness, but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeeds or fails in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written.