Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stop being stopped up


Grey and grousing poetry readers, by whom I mean writers of poetry without book contracts or publications of note who happen to be in the early stages of seniordom, say, 60-63 years old, like to stick to a talking point that poetry is dead. We've all had this conversation to the point where we can mount the arguments on either side of the proposition, yay or nay. There is too much bad poetry out there the self-selected judges would say, there are too many writers who have gleaned the wrong lessons from poetic tradition and give us, the readers, eager of eye  but shy of purse, a third or fourth rate renditions   of ideas of past , more brilliant generations. Do you roll your eyes when these complaints meet your ears?

 Do you wish the live complainer in front of you were a web page you could close with a left or right click of the mouse? I wouldn't be surprised if you've had similar encounters and reactions and share a distrust , distaste for and have allergic reactions to blanket statements , regardless of subject, whether it be art, politics, food, or music, or the kind of person you are attracted to.

The cure for the negativity, if there is any, is to push ahead and stay keen on the search for new poems, new movies, new books, indeed,new friends who can brighten your life and make you a smarter , better person by benefit of having conversations with them; that would be a stream that flows in two directions , and that is the miracle of that happenstance. Whitney Balliet,  jazz critic for the New Yorker from 1951 until  2007 (a very long time to be the one commenting on what musicians are creating in the moment and never to be heard quite the same way again) collected a book of his essays called "The Sound of Surprise", a title that beautifully summarizes the art of jazz improvisations and which , at least for me, crystalizes a particular philosophy I am trying to cultivate as I edge into the aforementioned  zone of elderhood, the capacity to be surprised.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

 Now, it is fine to create entertainment, but the highest form of communication is undoubtedly that which can express the broadest concept (or the most concepts) as effectively as possible.The height of literature is, therefore, the same. This isn't meant to imply that  entertainment is neither Art nor valuable, but that is inherently a weaker or more limited form of literature. Simply  stated, merely entertaining people is not the end of literary aspiration by a long shot. I am trying to define and defend the most complete and efficient literature: that which can express the most most effectively or complexly. This means that there are, buried within the uncertainties, objective principles of literary art. Aesthetics, briefly, can, rather than an inquiry, be a artistic doctrine or principle. There were, in fact, several aesthetic movements. And finally, I should argue that hedonism is very much a part of the Western culture: that the freedom of doing one's own thing, or the illusion of it, is the general propensity of this society, yours and mine. It has been a long time since Emerson wrote of his ideal man, a man slave to his impulses, but that ideology has buried itself deeply in our culture.  We think that we've woken up from the retrograde slumber, but  we notice, in some sense of   collective twitching, that our dreams are filled with the likes of us facing open windows overlooking drive in theatre movie screens that emit the sound of thunder and the rattle of buildings being battered  by high winds, and yet no images appear on the flat surface of the white leviathans.

Harmonica playing can be dangerous


I worked in the carnival during the seventies, one of those guys in an orange shirt in a line up game covered in checkered and striped tarp and festooned with dusty stuffed animals who badgered you to play and win your girl friend "the big one". What a tale that is. After work one night in Costa Mesa, a bunch of us gathered at the "carnie entrance" to drink beer, bullshit and do whatever drugs were on hand. I usually played my harmonica, someone with a guitar would usually show up and a jam would ensue, which the other carnies, the lumpiest       of the lumpen, enjoyed quite a bit.

One night, though, I was playing  as usual, after work, kicking a slew of Butterfield and John Sebastian riffs, when I saw this large, beefy ride jock (the guys who operated the carnival rides) saying something to me. I leaned closer and asked him to repeat, and he repeated, but I still didn't understand him because I went back to riffing on the harp. I leaned closer still, turning my good ear toward him. He staggered a little , gave me a stare that would make fish float to the top of the lake, and croaked "how'd you like that thing crammed up your ass?" I set my beer down and pocketed the harmonica and then left through the carnie gate back toward the motel room.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Strictly speaking, the blues

I am blues musician because I am a professional grade blues harmonica player who plays mostly blues music. I am not a "bluesman", however. That term is covered in so much mythology and wishful thinking that it has come to represent qualities and essences that are intangible, inestimable, and vaguely metaphysical. That is to say I think the term "bluesman" is a little pretentious when applied to most good, honest musicians who specialize in blues styles. I am a blues musician, verifiable in fact, not dependent on someone else's criteria. The definition of "professional" is slippery, and perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it.

 That is why I qualified my remark with the attending term "grade", meant only to say that I am good enough to be paid for playing the harmonica if I wanted to go that route. Alas, I do not have a recording contract, but the world is full of working harmonica players as good as or better than I who are similarly unattached to a record label. That fact does not diminish their professionalism, nor diminishes their skills as harp players. I would say a professional grade blues harmonica player is knows the changes, knows the key differentials, gets the tone and emphasis right, and is able to fall back, accompany, or lay out altogether when he or she is not taking a solo; this is to say the professional grade blues harmonica player listens to what the others in the band are doing and adds to a quality musical experience, not dominate it. 

Mostly, though, the professional is paid, and the amateur is not, strictly speaking.

The path will be cleared

I do believe that one can learn the feeling and the craft of the blues and make legitimate, moving, innovative blues music mostly from listening to recordings and attempting to emulate what's being heard. Unlike a good many graduate students who attended college the same time I did, I believe in the metaphysics of presence, which means, simply, that great music, great art, great novels and the like embody the virtues and nuance of the artists who made them and that those qualities can be transmitted to others who are likewise interested in expressing their emotions and experience in ways more beautiful than snippy complaints. I can only speak of my own experience, of course, but once I heard Butterfield, my choice was made for a life time. What is essential for a blues harmonica player to get to the level of conveying great emotion through an original take on familiar blues structures is to play, play, play and play again; if the student is determined , the path will be cleared.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The blues aint chump change

Change is the only possible constant in this universe, and those things that humans create that have the capacity to change have the capacity to survive, flourish to some extent, and remain expressively relevant to modern experience. Blues, like any other art, cannot remain fixed, in stasis.Those "traditional" forms of blues that well meaning players attempt to preserve and often preach the absolute virtues of, were themselves inventions who took their inspiration and building blocks from older forms that preceded them. It's desirable to listen to, appreciate and perform older blues styles as a means of staying clued to what an older generation of musicians can tell us, but it's folly, I believe, for anyone to insist that the best music peaked there and , in fact, stopped developing.There are only so many kinds of narratives we have in this current life, not so different from the experience of generations before us and, I suspect, hardly so alien to what a younger generation will come to live through. Conditions change, though, economics, the influx of new cultures and ideas, politics, technology, all these change and inform and influence the blues players who are learning now, or who will learn. Change is the only constant, change is inevitable, and those institutions that don't have the capacity to absorb change and grow as a result will turn into a creaky, crumbling artifact. The blues is about life as it is lived and felt, present tense. As long as there are players who feel, cry, laugh hard and feel deeply, I am fairly sure the tradition of the blues will continue to thrive. It won't be the same, of course, but the point is that the history of the blues will ask you this: when was it ever the same?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Johnny Winter, RIP

Johnny Winter Dies At 70, Blues Legend Was On Tour In Europe:


It was easy to play the cynic when first confronted by the fact of Johnny Winter when he appeared on the national music scene back in in 1968. It was an era where one of the ironic novelties that happened to be a money maker for record companies and concert promoters was white guys playing the blues. Bear in mind that it wasn't all a gimmick, as time has shown that some of the early Caucasians taking up the black man's art form were legitimate contributors to the tradition. Still, it was a gimmick and it still was a money maker, a lure for the larger rock audience, and it was easy, too easy to dismiss Winter as a contrived, the ultimate White Guy Playing the Blues, an albino. This had the makings of an Al Capp caricature. And then there was the witnessing, the revelation.

 I saw Johnny Winter at the Detroit Rock and Roll revival at the Michigan State Fair Grounds in Detroit at about 1969, and what he did was transcendent; vicious, slashing slide guitar, fast, fluid , wickedly insinuating slow blues, manically accelerated boogie and shuffles where his swarming notes attacked from all sides and showed a musician who had learned his lessons from the master guitarists he learned from--T Bone Walker, Freddie King, Elmore James--and combined it with the volume and electronics of rock and roll and in doing so made it his own. Winter was singular in his devotion to blues and roots music, he had an aesthetic that basically to serve up music that was raw, honest, unadorned, the basic elements for his guitar work, which was, often times, simply stunning its speed,  rawness, the occasional bit of delicacy.

 And always, its ability to channel emotion, to lift the spirit from the greatest pain, to make you want to dust yourself off and pick up a guitar, a harmonica, to sit behind the drum set and get into the groove. Yes, Johnny Winter could play the guitar, that was all he had to do. Few ever did it so well and I doubt very much few will ever match him as a distinct voice in a    genre where duplication of traditional licks is the norm. Johnny, thank you.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

IN OUR TIME, part one

Fifty years after the death of Ernest Hemingway, a curious reader still has to hack their way through the thick foliage of bluster, posturing and self parody that remains a strong part of the late Nobel Prize Winner's legacy. I came across Hemingway originally after I discovered Norman Mailer's collection of essays, "The Presidential Papers", and in my growing obsession with Mailer's brilliantly self-declaring sentences I made note of his own obsession with both Hemingway's style and philosophy. In pursuit, I purchased a couple of the author's books and sought what had made Mailer a conflicted partisan of the man's approach to writing; what I found was something else altogether: a crow in a tree with a machine gun.

Monday, June 23, 2014

They left us hanging on.

Man oh man, what a band. Vanilla Fudge was a band of  competent musicians who came up with one good production, their inspired production of "You Keep Me Hanging On". It was an inspired move to slow down the Supremes' most jacked-up hit . Instead of the ringing -telephone shrillness of the original, this became instead a mock-fugue, building tension and releasing it effectively erotic explosions. 

Sometimes I still thrash around the living room with this song in my head, miming Vince Martel's clanging power chords with broad sweeps of my hand. VF's arrangement of this song became the standard approach for the most part; Rod Stewart did a credible take of his that borrowed heavily from the Fudge's initial recasting.

 Sadly, though, the band relied too much on that one idea, too often. Their songs, original or reinterpretations, tended to be dirge like and down right pompous, dullsville , a drag. And their album "The Beat Goes On" beat Yes to the punch , producing the single most pretentious and bombastic concept album years before the British band mustered up that three disc Hindenburg they titled "Tales from Topographic Ocean." Vanilla Fudge has a mixed legacy, but the one thing they did well, the storm and thunder that comprises their version of "You Keep Me Hanging On", they did brilliantly. It is a thing forever and so few of us accomplish that even in our most inflated fantasies.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

This Poem makes me think of no poem in particular

This poem makes me think of coming back late from a party in the late 70's and discovering that the phone has been off the hook for a least half the day. To this day I wonder who might have called, what good news or ill omens they might have had to tell me, what my  life might have been like if I left the phone on the hook, had been home to pick up the receiver as the  ringing filled the apartment with its clanging sonata of anxiety, if I had only  scraped together the coin to buy a Radio Shack answering machine. Those of of us with nerves even the sniffling drivel of bad poets at sparsely attended open readings cannot rattle know the anxiety of the phone off the hook, the screaming, whining, whirling sirens of hell filling an empty room from shag carpet to cob webbed ceiling corner, satanic variations within the monochromatic scale, bristling fingers on a blackboard amplified with Glen Branca's Fender Twin Reverb, a sonic variety of nerve gas that is nothing less than the hungry ID demanding more pie, or that you bake one right now if no slices remain. 

This  poem is sound intended to kill appetites and interest in community affairs; all one needs are books from which to paraphrase metaphors and contextualize the evidence of one's life until there are only footnotes and marginalia where a pulse used to be. There is the scraping of fingertips across a page of paper irritating to the touch, there is a click, a rattle in one's throat as instinct commands you to say something to void the emptiness, but there is only phlegm, a congealed incoherence suitable for a celebrity wedding. This poem is a compost heap of vowels and their modifiers that was left in back of the garage in the wan hope that they'd be rich with meaning by the time spring air altered the way clouds form on the morning and evening horizons. Often enough we write things down so we would have ad libs and occasional poems to utter when the plumbing groans and the siren rhyme of the cold water streaming to tub and basin obscures the pleasant voice of a lover you remember through the concrete of missing minutes in the day.  
 
This poem is like that noise, a constant string of phrases that are a constant noise textured with static and prickly heat. I would prefer to listen to someone continually busting open the Velcro fly on their old Members Only jacket. I imagine the being someone who would find placing his thumb on an old record turntable to be great fun, a reminder to himself and a warning to the world that entropy trumps ambition, needless ejaculations of fear and panic beat a massage and after dinner sex. 



This poem is finally about itself, not who ever he might have been addressing in whatever simulation of a life there is on the other side of his apartment door; we cannot, of course, escape the prison house of language, but there is a point where self reflexivity is merely a dodge, a distraction that we have yet another poet who is tone deaf to the art of collage, cannot construct an ear worthy pastiche, is unwilling to abandon the disguises and borrowed phonics and consider his future as an author of writing with uneven line breaks. This poem is the test pattern staring at you after you come out of a black out. The national anthem has been played and the stadium is empty, like this poem.

Monday, June 16, 2014

SIMPLE GRACE

Simple grace
would do the trick
if there was anything
simple about grace.

I've tried drinking soft drinks
perched like an ill bird on a limb, but there is
as much spill as thrill
as the horizon teeters
and telephone poles
out number tree tops
of likely places to land.

Walking on glass and hot coals
likewise get me nowhere near the center of things
where all the tension is released from my muscles,
the headaches abate, and my appetite returns.

You asked me once
what made me happy
and i imagined
an empty glass and
 calendars stacked in the attic
next to the noise makers and paper slippers.

Your eyes, i said, your eyes
make me happy, the blue and green pools
i fell into when i lifted my head from
books, magazines, airport novels,
when i turned my face from
the television
and saw you writing letters,
talking on the phone,
staring out the window
to what might over the hill,
the tree tops, imagining who makes their way home
and pays what's come due
'though the world seems
to dissolve like
sugar wafers dipped
in
Where was the grace we wanted,
walking between bullet streams and falling bricks to the end of the day
where ever after
was a calendar without pages?

On the other side of the street,
a bike chained to a bus stop signed,waiting for its master
for as long as it takes.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Emily Nussbaum: The Shallowness of “True Detective” : The New Yorker

Emily Nussbaum: The Shallowness of “True Detective” : The New Yorker:
HBO's first season sensation "True Detective" is old news by now, but one of the wonders of the internet is that old news items don't simply vanish as they did back in the days of print. Scanning Google for some news on what the  second season of TD might contain, I came across Emily Nussbaum's negative review in last March's New Yorker. As the show has had magnanimous praise from critics high, low and middle, her sour take was an oddity, for me at least. I read  with interest, and she has some points that needed to be made. Briefly, though, EN overplayed her objections.I was nodding when she making her point, but the objections seemed rather conventional. She objects to dead females and shallow naked females, and I can see her point, but the world these two guys are weighing into isn't a pristine , serene paradise, it's ugly, insane, full of the kind of carnal vice and exploitation she is objecting to. I think she is just being a scold.

 And she thinks that Rust's quotable nihiilst philosophizing is trite and premium baloney; I wouldn't argue against that, but this is a television drama, not an ethics lecture, and if Rust's declarations don't hold up under interrogation by professional philosophers, too bad for the philosophers, as that would be a blatant case of missing the point. The point, I submit, is entertainment of a high degree, which True Detective provides.Also, EN is upset that the show is really only about two characters, Rust and Marty, and that it is not an ensemble piece; I submit that good ensemble work requires a more open ended format, a longer season, certainly, and of course, multiple seasons for complexities and interactions of the characters to come to satisfying fruition. This show is a short novel, a James Cain/Hammett/Jim Thompson tale that is terse, sweet, complex in it's compact utility; creator and writer Nic Pizzolato's decision to focus on the the lives of two unlike detectives in the course of their involvement with the case is a smart one; he is getting a good amount of  plausible narrative complexity and nuance from the two of them. It's a smart creative decision.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Crude Hangovers

Sandwich Notch Road, Two Days Before Christmas
John Evans

 On dirt roads
with good friends
the names come back all at once.
with good friends  the names come back all at once. with good friends  the names come back all at once.No one I know  who lives without deep sorrow.  No one ever  really finished with desire. The soft animal of my body  does not love  what it has learned. How could it? I wind constantly  the fragile timepiece of another life.No set hour.  No luck.  No path  that doesn't eventually double back. Wanting to live  after your death  is like waking  in an empty room:  too much space. All day I sleep off  the crude hangover. .
I like this poem in theory , as it satisfies my current interest in poems that have a sparer, even skeletal structure, but Evans could have done something global here. What it does with the localization of grief--the stunned incredulity, the trudging past familiar and unfamiliar things--works well enough, but it seems to stop short. In fact, it stops right at the point when there's an opportunity for the narrator to make caste some lines of the world at large, in this time of grief, seeming spectacularly irrelevant:
Wanting to live
after your death
is like waking
in an empty room:
too much space.
I love this analogy because it hints at the seeming futility of our desires and goals when the worst thing finally happens, that the petty, homemade philosophies that gave us comfort and a sense of continuity through a chaotic world are flimsy premises once the unavoidable fact of death encroaches on one's most intimate sphere of association. This could have been a spare, concise King Lear moment, where a few lean stanzas describing the tone and mood of the universe after the bad news is learned and being processed could have brought a deeper, icier sense of psychic remove. It's not that Evans needed to add an onslaught of language to expand his view, but one does get the feeling that he was just getting warmed up before pushing his wits to another set of consideration; the entire poem reads like a set up that ends unconvincingly. Evans follows up his rich metaphor of comparing of living beyond your time to waking up in an empty room with a sign off that is quick and cliché,
All day I sleep off
the crude hangover.
There is, to be sure, the suggestion that the narrator sought a temporary death through an aggrieved drinking binge, that he wanted to blot out and remove an accumulating mass of emotion that will inevitably overwhelm him and that this fits in neatly with the previous image, but it is cheap disservice to an evocative phrase. There is a point where the vocabulary could have expanded, swelled just a bit, that the metaphors could have gone beyond the tics and aches of the narrator's hangovers and dulled senses and demonstrated the external world at large, pieced together by senses that are deranged with sorrow.

I suspect Evans submitted these poems for publication too soon. While I like the style of the poem, it seems tentative; where he presents an interesting springboard to some inspired metaphors, he stops and this, I think, is the poem's failure. In the two poems you present, he is a bit more talky, and he edges closer to monologue, to prose, instead of poetry; they remind of the leaden open pages of Rick Moody's overwrought, hand wringing novel Purple America, a string of run on misery that irritated me rather than feel sympathy for the man who must know care for his aging mother. 

Evans, I suspect, is still too close to his material. I am a fan of ambiguity in poems and I rail against the idea that a poetic narratives , by necessity, be a righteously crafted thing that is a finished product, self contained, which ties up the loose ends of a poem tidily the way a situation comedies end with a episode concluding laugh line. I think Evans is obliged to be honest to his emotional progression and leave this story unfinished; otherwise it merely becomes another Lifetime movie of the week. What I didn't like was the convenient, easy, lazy bit about recovering from a hangover; it does not sound earned. Hence, I wanted more from this poem; it was building credibly, and then he stopped at the point when I think he should have pushed further. The poem is premature, I think; he should have set it aside and come back after some days had passed.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

No More Songs, a song by Phil Ochs

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his last album, the ironically titled "Greatest Hits". Ochs had taken, late in his career, in dressing up in a gold lame suit and famously told a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, and that that wouldn't have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara.  Ochs, who was a deep romantic in the belief that Great Men with Great Ideas can change the world for the better and who was likewise an alcoholic and a man who was prone to given to depressions that became deeper as he grew older, seemed to be writing a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships. Ochs did, in fact,  take his own life in 1975.


Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone

And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it's time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he's dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called "Upbeat", hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubblegum rock and pop-soul bands who performed bad lip sync renditions of their regional hits songs. The DJ knew enough about Ochs to know that he a protest singer by trade and mentioned that with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt by the US and North Vietnamese Government to end the Vietnam War, the otherwise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said that he hoped for the best, and then performed "No More Songs" live, on acoustic. I remember this being one of the few songs that made me haunted me and continued to haunt me for decades. At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet, someone who could easily be the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath , writers of odd mental activity that they were compelled to write their demons into verse form in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls, a project, it's been suggested, is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without means to grow stronger and find hope and sunlight. It's been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one's own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was the means by which a poet of this description achieves their reputation and legitimacy as a poet. This was something that had repulsed me when I was studying 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality and every sensation this skin we have has us subject to. I didn't read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one's preferences as an arbitrary standard each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, it manifested its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence, and it was under no requirement to make our lives better,  let alone save our selves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone's fate is their own and no one else's. Most live more or less normal lives, where ever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just....doomed, in some respect. Again , I am reminded of Harold Bloom's assertion that literature's only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world,  the quality of being nothing more nor less than human, struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ELISE PARTRIDGE REMEMBERS EVERYTHING BUT...

The Art of Noticing | Robert Pinsky Poetry Forum:

Elise Partridge’s sparse poem “Chemo Side Effects:Memory” , is a telling verse of someone trying to remember the precise word to describe the slightest detail of the slightest thing and feeling as a result the mild dread that a part of themselves has gone away, vanished as would nameless leaves in a stream rushing toward a storm drain. Her language is crisp, brittle, but there is a power in the skeletal telling that more robust rhetoric would merely have blunted with their compounded comparisons; Partridge has something here akin to an artist sketch pad, getting the essence of a situation, in this case a memory lapse and a growing alarm, in a few confident strokes. It is , perhaps, a skill garnered from years of writing verse with the linguistic cleverness and gusto younger writers feel they need to do, to transfer their book reading into the tight corners of their as yet unexplored lives. Partridge’s poem here reads like someone who knows the world they have defined, formed, created to their satisfaction ; the task of this poem is to observe the poet finding her place in the world, to remember the names she had given the animals, the places, the things of her life.
What we observe, of course, is something like a comedy, where the protagonist is frustrated in their task and gropes about the clutter , real and recollected, in hopes that the object, the word she wanted appears suddenly, magically,like a bright, shiny coin . It’s a touching sight to imagine, not without humor:Where is the word I want?
Groping .
in the thicket,
about to pinch the
dangling
berry, my fingerpads
close on
air.
I can hear it
scrabbling like a squirrel
on the oak’s far side.
Word, please send over this black stretch of ocean
your singular flare,
blaze
your topaz in the mind’s blank.
Thinking, remembering , the pleasure of the poet,the reader, the talker of long phone calls and timeless coffee chats, the effortless act of bringing together experience,reading, emotion into new forms and communicating new ways of witnessing the world in the community of one’s imperfect compatriots, is now work, labor, Something that was always at the ready in the notated folds of one’s mind is now missing or renamed, misplaced somehow in the archives of one’s interior life. One’s brain has become a over stuffed closet where all manner of incident, sorrow, joy , growth, frustration has fallen out of their boxes and now overlap one another in an avalanche of obscuring imagery. But there is bravery inspite of this, the sort of reaction to fear we don’t speak of that often, that of making the brain behave as we think it should, however in vain our efforts seem to be. Partridge gropes for that thing she cannot name nor tell you what it means; this is a search for the Golden Fleece, the Gold Urn, the unnamed thing whose connection to a supposed metaphysical order, would reconnect the searcher to their path, the point they were trying to make, the directions they were trying to give, the emotion they were attempting to express. This is is Calvinism on the intimate scale, the thinking that if we continue the search and beseech the elements with urgent humility, magic realism will take hold and what is causing pain and anguish is massaged out of countenance .
There is much here to discuss , I think, but I will say that I am in awe at how sharp a scene Elise Partridge has drawn with such a superb word selection and construction of phrases. There is modern jazz here, Miles Davis/Chet Baker , confident masters of their craft who know when to leave spaces, silences, who know how to build toward surprise.
I could always pull the gift
from the lucky-dip barrel,
scoop the right jewel
from my dragon’s trove….
Now I flail,
the wrong item creaks up
on the mental dumbwaiter.
No use—
it’s turning
out of sight,
a bicycle down a
Venetian alley—
I clatter after, only to find
gondolas bobbing in sunny silence,
a pigeon mumbling something
I just can’t catch.
There is among other elements a dream quality to Partridge’s poem, a flickering tableau that seems to shake, vibrate and spin the harder the dreamer tries to slow the activity and locate a center of their thoughts. This has the effect of picking up a thick, large format magazine and concentrating on the fleeting images and text while they speed by as you fan through the pages as you would a deck of cards. The poem goes from being a stuttering, hesitating description of frustrated intellection and evokes something larger, quietly horrifying as one accepts the fact that everything runs down and and everything gets lost and that everything, at the end of their use, are isolated .
The last stanza, with it’s image of things and meanings being just out of reach, the “pigeon mumbling something / I just can’t catch…” is reminiscent of the kinds of dreams, the melancholic fabulation of our lives that takes place after we drift into the thorny wilds of napping, where we are young and searching for answers and yet burdened with several decades of memories and experience; we ask the strangely familiar things in our dream state presence who we are and the name of the place we stand, but the characters, whether family or, in a tip to Lewis Carroll it seems, pigeons who can’t clear their throats and speak clearly, all with hold the information, they are mute.
The poet’s tone, calm and vaguely bemused, and her language and phrasing, which is elliptical yet precise, musical yet aware of how silence and pauses can mold cadence and provide the power of to the bittersweet nuance of Partridge’s punchlines, work splendidly toward creating a dread just under the calm surface. But she struggles on, soldiers on, and realizes that what she is doing isn’t a destination at all, but a journey; she responds to the blockade by writing a poem that is made of the things that she came across in her determined search for that precise word that would have nailed what she had initially started out to say. She had taken a detour and wrote a narrative , another chapter in a story she is done yet done with.



There’s an understandable desire to have the poem speak to us in full sentences, but there is something to be said for half-sentences and the barely articulated; in a far less grim comparison, the poem reminds me of a police procedural in which we see the detectives looking at a bulletin board full of snap shots of the victims and the suspects, newspaper clippings, photostats of canceled checks, seemingly random things linked together with circles, arrows and yellow post-it notes giving us bits of a linking narration. What intrigues in that image, as in the poem, are those key items that are missing. In this instance,there what I feel an intensive effort to go back to the moment , the very instance, when her idea, the notion she was about to speak, eludes her ready grasp and she does a quick mental rummage of the memory, rummaging clumsily among the associations that arise and distract on her piecemeal groping for the right term.

A large part of why this poem appeals to me is because it creates the idea that as she comes across an image of her past , the contexts and sensations associated with it announce them announce themselves like emphasized photo captions. At some point she is off her determined search altogether and finds herself instead following associative string of personal icons and finds herself entranced, perhaps, but the murmur of the descriptive words, presenting themselves in a what it less a stream of conscious than it is a rough, fast ride on the rapids. The narrative that forms is piecemeal, seemingly related, people , places, things and the reflexive grasping for parts of the anatomy twirled and twined and otherwise spun together in a rush of sensation that reveals nothing, finally, other than all the compartmentalized detritus we have organized and placed in the mind’s cold storage easily enough becomes chaos and clutter again with the right provocation. Partridge’s intention, I think, is not create meaning or provide a comfortable lesson to be derived, but rather the sensation of an experience that, by definition, defies language’s ability to fully express.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Get down and brood


Funeral
Roseanna Warren


In church, you lay in a casket open to your waist
as if you were in a ticket booth tipped over on its side,
selling tickets for an unearthly show. Your domed, bald
head, smooth cheeks, globed eyes, and modeled chin
were frozen into ideal shape as by Parmigianino.
You, in life all smiling quickness, now slept severely.
You had completed your lesson plans, handed back all corrected assignments.
Your hands rested one atop the other on your chest
guarding your final assessments. We shuffled by but you ignored us
as you ignored the massed bouquets and the preacher's manic grin
when he declared that Heaven was a retirement home
with plenty of vacancies. In the graveyard, they had closed you up.
The undertaker flicked at your gleaming mahogany coffin with his hanky.
The pallbearers placed their red and white carnations. The prayers
went on, and then they didn't. We left the box
on a gurney perched over a green rug atop the grave. We were not to see
you descend. A train chugged by
the full length of the country graveyard by the stone wall and the line of oaks,
freight car after freight car huffing with afflicted lungs
hauling behind them a long, ribboning wail.

When in doubt, find an unnamed person to talk to and address them as "you" through out your poem, taking care to make sure that this person is deceased . Emphasise the ritual and the props of a funereal send off, imply in tone that you think the prayers being said aloud sound pro forma, unfelt, lifeless as a voice mail entreaty.

Toward the end, as the funeral slowly winds down and the mourning procession passes the departed, introduce yourself with a third person pronoun and vent just a little about the deceased and how it came to be that your dead friend was someone  you thought of a soul mate, a confidant, someone you could confess your worst thoughts to and not judged or held accountable to a moral philosophy both irrelevant and absurd to your way of being and doing. Then confess your worst sin, that of viewing them as an intimate who betrayed your  trust  you know not how; regardless , you are they did and  your soul will not be satisfied until  you have thought, uttered, wrote and disseminated the articulated poetry of dull-witted rage that has been stewing. Make videos explaining all this and post it to You Tube.

Twitter yourself stupid with 140 characters of rancor and bile. Text people you don't know and threaten to disrupt what remains of their must see tv if they don't get their goddamned shit together and stay the course, maintain, obey orders, leave you alone, stop ignoring you, or  whatever else you can imagine .  Demonstrate at last that language fails  you and your  ears and eyes are lying to you in capital letters. Realize  you have no friends , finally, and this makes for the best of all worlds you put the effort into create. Wonder why you     are still unhappy and who's to blame for that.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

More often than not I defend the "well made" poem if said poem has some things going for it , like a solid construction, an ability focus imagery in a fresh and sparing way that gets across experience and a sense of the irresolution of one conflicting responses to situations written about, either past or current, in an execution that takes one by surprise, leaves you breathless, if only for a second. Like it or not, those poems, scorned by large sections of the post-avant gard who write more "difficult" work ( a worthy endeavor provided the writer has a command of the diffuse material they are trying to deal with, uh, diffusely), are themselves not easy to write; one may speak of technique all they wish, but there is an innate sense, I believe, of knowing how start, what to build with and, most importantly , when too quit, lest one kill a good idea for a poem with the lack of confidence overwriting suggests. Billy Collins has come in for his share of jabs and jibes because of the middlebrow accessibility of his work, he is a poet who has a certain mastery of the everyman voice who writes poetry "for the rest of us" ; his is a poetry is a body of work that forces the reader to think about the world they're already familiar with in new ways.

His is the world of the banal, the small, the incidental, the vocabulary of twitches and tics , but this remains a realm that needs to be written about. Collins is the man to equal the challenge in inspiring a reader to interrogate routines and schedules that guide their journeys from desk to mailbox and back again. Billy Collins, in fact, is the perfect "gateway poet"; when I worked at an independent bookstore for some years in San Diego, several customers over several years expressed a desire to read something more daring, challenging, "edgier" than what the former U.S. Poet Laureate was offering. I navigated them to Thomas Lux, comparable to Collins for clarity and readability, but darker, more ironic, a poet who explores the unintended results of one's best efforts to assert their will on the world.

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

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

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

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

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