Saturday, March 30, 2019

DORN



There comes the occasional need to clear the poetry that becomes waxy sediment in one's ear by returning to an old standby, a dependable set of poems that fired an imagination decades ago that can still inspire one to think imaginative writing is indeed the method with which one can "break on through". This isn't a slight against anyone I've been reading, though there are hills and dales in the perpetual reading list I keep; it's just that I want the gravity and grit of sentences that distinguished themselves from the common expression. So I go back to Ed Dorn, introduced to me by poet Paul Dresman back in the late Seventies, particularly his epic poem "Gunslinger". Equal parts myth-making,satire, phenomenological investigation and an expansion on the Charles Olson projectivist project that twined style and diction, personality with the physicality and accumulated history of region, some of what Dorn was up to now reads psychedelic and out of sync, of its time, the Sixties, but there remains beyond the dated lingo the verve of a writer that understands the absurdity of all manner of defining rhetoric and which finds purpose in exposing what's under the cornerstones of dogma. The warning sounds again and again in Gunslinger against someone finding themselves described at all; set in a West of the imagination, where one can start over and start again potentially as many times as the imagination permits, being described imprisons one in another person's frameworks; you become what they think you are. The late Ed Dorn wrote a masterpiece with "Gunslinger", an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorn's narrating inquiry into the nature of the search. A masterpiece. Giddy stuff, this, but Dorn is brilliant at the stretch. He gets it done. One finds solace too in is shorter poems. Some are plain-spoken knockouts:

IN MY YOUTH I WAS A TIRELESS DANCER

But now I pass
graveyards in a car.
The dead lie,
unsuperstitiously,
with their feet toward me--
please forgive me for
saying the tombstones would not
fancy their faces turned from the highway.

Oh perish the thought
I was thinking in that moment
Newman Illinois
the Saturday night dance--
what a life? Would I like it again?
No. Once I returned late summer
from California thin from journeying
and the girls were not the same.
You'll say that's natural
they had been dancing all the time.


Tom Robbins' wrote a blurb for one of Dorn's books (Hello LaJolla), "Ed Dorn is a can opener in the supermarket of life." He was one of the great masters of the Western Voice in the 20th century, a voice maintaining rural accents and wanderlust that has been subdivided with Eastern conceits and European irony; his epic poem Gunslinger is something of a post-modern masterpiece after the pomp of Whitman and Charles Olson have worn away; the student has an expansive persona as well, but it is zany, frantic, engaged in constant conversation with the variant dictions he contains within himself. Moving on to the next thing, as you say, is what is always required in this personality; there's always something else to learn, emotions to feel anew, a new dance step to absorb, a new direction to take over all. I like this because Dorn has a way of interrupting himself and getting to what it was he really wanted to say without the initial lines being a waste; one appreciates the mastery of the bold strokes, the odd alignments. One appreciates, as well, his relative brevity. Ed Dorn could take you a journey in a poem and leave you at the side of the interstate in the middle of nowhere, wondering what just happened. I mean that as a compliment.If anyone cares to read it, a poem I wrote for Ed Dorn can be seen here.



Sunday, March 24, 2019

THE ROOSTER KING by Jay Hopler

Jay  Hopler's poem The Rooster King seems at first like a paean to the good sport of chicken righting, but one detects an increasing exaggeration of the terms until a certain falseness of claim is exposed. In the early lines, one is attracted to the cocksure bravado of Hopler's language and quickly appreciates the parody of athletic boasting and promotion that has long made professional sports just a much a matter of running one's mouth as it is with the combined assets of agility, speed, instinct, and determination. One might imagine this as an old forties Warner Brothers barnyard cartoon featuring a caricature of Muhammad Ali strutting around in the background amid the rain barrels and the hens while a Don King lookalike flaps his wings (if not his gums) about the legend and good graces of his man rooster, The Rooster King.Hopler seems to have absorbed his Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, as well as the more recent waxing about boxers by the late Norman Mailer and Joyce Carole Oates, as his writing has a high, cultivated lift to it's boasting, the myth-making that wants to convert something that is merely a few suppressed coughs from being mere thuggery and criminal enterprise into a tale of heroism, reaching the implied conclusion that some poor, hapless soul--or rooster--has had their character in the fires of tribulation and has made their brute aggression and ability to ignore pain into an art.

Like a cut throat and doesn't


………………………………….............Bleed. And when he bleeds,
He bleeds whiskey—Fighting Cock: 103-proof Kentucky Straight
Bourbon—the light of the world.
The light of the world:

Ruined. Magnificent; ferocious, gorgeous—
So what? You think he's afraid of fire? He wasn't born; he was forged.
He's the napalm love letter, the sweetheart
Carpet bomb, the 1967 Pontiac

With a straight-6, single-barrel
Boot in the face. No ram unto
The shackle, this bantam assassin, his death-red hackles flaring like a funeral pyre.

He's the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Wound 'round with barbed wire, the crucified
Christ tattooed on the back of a contract killer.
It's argued that the poem is a play on the sufferings of Jesus, but Hopler's intentions are grittier, I think. The pain and suffering of Christ on the cross is a plausible scenario, but Hopler intended a narrower reference, I think. The gospel accounts of his death are not all that reliable as an accurate historical record, with the elaborations of his story purposefully elevating the tale to sanctified mythology that demands that we regard Christ as a man of destiny fated with enacting an absurdly convoluted Plan to make humankind worthy of God's love. All things considered, I suspect the actual Jesus had as much choice as anyone else had when confronted with a situation as to flee from danger or face his accusers. The boxing analogy is apter, I think, and even a gladiator comparison is a closer fit to the level of metaphor Hopler is successfully attempting. Roosters, being animals with only instinct to push their actions, have no choice but to battle; boxers, the poor men who try to make a living with their fists in some vague hope of achieving, have no choice but to battle because brawn was their only resource. What I read Hopler as doing is deconstructing the layers of heroic mythic association on the idea of brutal spectacle being somehow honorable and necessary for the social and political cohesion of the populace by applying the meme to an absurd example, a battling rooster. For all the fanfare the pitchman can muster, it never eludes us, not for a second, that what he's extolling is a bloody, awful event. The attempt to graft a grand narrative to the cockfighting exposes the lie of battling skill and that more often than not the results are determined not with skill or guile or flashes of pugnacious brilliance, but rather with raw, unforgiving, unyielding. He who is bigger, stronger, faster wins the fracas.

Hopler does a sweet balancing act here between heaping on the hyperbole and maintaining a straight face as he ramps the praise and the qualifications meant to soften the audience's perception of the frenzied, gouging agony before them. Each stab, peck, talon rip and snap is valorized, connected by association to great battles, hero's funerals, the spirit of invention that forges raw steel into classic automobiles; the declarations become precarious and unsustainable if questioned an iota. One only turns up the volume of the pitchman's incantation and seeks to enter into the illusion that the banal bit of fatal sport betting is a History in the Making. Hopler understands it seems, the vanity the pitchman is speaking to. The rhetoric, though, isn't for the nominally honored Rooster King, nor does it have anything to do with the skills or extraordinary qualities the toastmaster makes claim for; rather, the tale-telling and accumulating myth-making are for the audience's sake, a sales pitch voiced in such a way that it dually obscures the meanness of the activity and creates the illusion that the creature is there, prepared for combat, by some manner of free choice. It's a rhetorical zone that is impermeable to logic, and it is banter that is kept up without pause, to concoct a dramatic narrative over the bare facts of the situation--that these birds, and the analogous boxers they're standing in for, have no choice in whether they fight or not. Whether through the repetitive causation of murderous behavior modification, or the grim forces of economic survival, the fighting, the killing has nothing to do with glory, legend or principles: the goal is for one of the combatants to not ring the arena alive.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

THE DIRT NAP OF LITERATURE

My slight bit about Derrida is that his central contribution to the analysis of literature was creating a rhetorical means by which a generation of coming literary critics were relieved from having to discuss a book in a way that shows that they've actually read it. I've struggled with Derrida's work for several years, and have absorbed quite a bit of writing by him and about him and his ideas, and evasion of the book, the author's concerns, seems more the game rather than explication. Many times when one thinks they've come upon an oasis of actual discussion in this varicose discourse , both Derrida or an apostle one might be reading makes a hard turn, left or right, from whatever metaphorical road or river you might have been traversing; in any event, every side road, alley, tributary and inlet was wandered into and prated about until exhaustion drove the reader from the chair and desk they sat at, not convinced of Derrida's and deconstruction's vague premises, but rather resigned that this was a peculiar literary mafia who had no intention of treating literary work like it had an intrinsic worth. Derrida and his supporters argued otherwise, in their few moments of assertive writing, and maintained that deconstruction is intended to reveal a multitude of interpretations by demonstrating what contradictory positions compose a nominally "authoritative" texts. It's a grand project on the face of it, an investigative premise intriguing enough to be worth a try, but the results of twenty plus years of post-structuralist theory applied to an arbitrarily termed "canon" produced not clarity, nor comprehension, but only more confusion.

One understands why Harold Bloom, a former proponent of Derrida's method, tired of the nihilistic wallow of post-modernism and turned his attention again to a more fruitful mission of literary criticism and the attending philosophical/religious digressions, how literature gives a reader and a culture a malleable interior superstructure one filters raw experience with. Derrida's accomplishment , I think, was to take assume an array of philosophical tropes available from credible philosophy survey course , add his own egregious seasoning to the unpalatable stew, and turn what used to the sort of infinite prattle of the cocktail party poser into book contracts, tenured positions, and all the other perks of being a celebrity intellectual. It's significant about Derrida's contribution to literary criticism that his name rarely, if ever, arises when useful quotes about authors and their books are the subject of a conversation. This is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins is a twofold irony, the literary critic with nothing useful to say about what they've been reading, and an incredibly bad writer as well. That such an awful scribe makes such a dent in the upper reaches of the culture ought not to surprise us, just as the success of Jackie Collins no longer distresses mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune. My principle misgiving with Derrida's ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to be clearer with his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on.
Baudrillard, certainly, has taken the opening as a chance to advance his brand of tight-lipped
solipsism that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devisings, that apathy is as effective and meaningful political gesture as any any collective might take on. Since no definitive or authorially fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism, pollution, et al, so the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead. This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact, reinforces such paranoid mindsets which need to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong no longer distress mainstream book reviewers. Often times talent and ability have nothing to do with an author's good fortune.
My principle misgiving with the ideas was his insistence that one cannot argue a point with
certainty; there is a lot more to his arguments, subtle, abstruse, and obscured with every evasive trick of the tongue and pen he could muster, but this cluster of notions is at the heart of his life's work. I'm willing to grant that Derrida's intentions were all for the best--that he would expose how the production of meaning, and with it a hazy notion of "authority" comes from a socially constructed set of binary oppositions which, of course, entrenches in constrained ideas about reality-- but his failure to clearly outline his method and aim, and more useful in how readers and citizens can configure a discourse that might lead to ways of ridding the world of its internalized malfunctions has given us instead a sort of relativistic nihilism that advances the severest reactionary premises with what to do with the planet we live on. Baudrillard, certainly, has taken the opening as a chance to advance his set of tightly quipped solipsisms that insist, at the heart of their gnomic devisings, that apathy is an as effective and meaningful political gesture as any collective might take on.
Because definitive or author- fixed moral argument can be made against racism, genocide, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism, pollution, et also the thinking goes, one may as well go about their way in this existence unmindful of what constitutes ethics or responsibility, and fulfill such base desires and impulses that give that transitory definition to one's existence, a fleeting sensation of purpose to be replaced by another fleeting fleet sensation, and so on, until one drops, spent, exhausted, dead. This encourages apathy in the pursuit of truth, I think, and in fact reinforces such paranoid mind sets which needs to witlessly demonize whole sections of a society's citizenry as "other" and "evil". Racism and homophobia are allowed to thrive in the absence of the ability to make a principled statement, to have a debate, to reach a consensus about what constitutes an idea of right and wrong

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

SOME WORDS ON MEGHAN O'ROURKE'S POEMS

M
eghan O’Rourke, who has worked as poetry editor for The Paris Review and as a cultural editor for Slate, is also a poet with unique ability to get a nearly intangible notion, an inexplicable sensation into words. Giving voice to hunch, making the half-idea a textured, tangible thing, hers is poetry that completes sentences we cannot finish ourselves. Precision and morphological accuracy aren’t the points, and the words themselves, the images they create or suggest, are more like strands of half-remembered music that is heard and triggers an intense rush of association; any number of image fragments, sounds, scents, bits of sentences, suggestions of seasonal light in a certain place, race and parade through the mind as fast as memory can dredge up the shards and let them loose. Just as fast, they are gone again, the source of quick elation or profound sadness gone; one can quite nearly sense that streaming cluster of associations that make up a large part of your existence rush onward, going around a psychic bend, scattering like blown dust in the larger universes of limitless life. All one is left with is memory of the sudden rush, the flash of clarity, and the rapid loss, the denaturing of one’s sense of self in a community where one might have assumed they were solid and autonomous in their style of being, that nothing can upset the steady rhythm of a realized life. O’Rourke’s poem “Two Sisters” is a ghost story, or at least the attempt to write one; the narrator is struggling to find the words to describe what was lost with the passing of a sibling;

When you left, a world Came.

Rain, A morning, a weather That wouldn’t end. 
The windows closed like stitches. 
Fingernails grew; nothing to pick at. 
The tent of our mother’s body went Wet around me and clung.
The wind tore through me.
I breathed with two split lungs. 
When you left I stayed, I shook! 
Like an instrument about To be played by the long, 
Liver-yellow Fingers of the sun
O
ne is less autonomous than the myths of hard-centered individuation has us believing; we come from a body into a world full of sensation and assault, we experience ourselves through the presence and shared skin of family, and when their loss, we have a gap in our footing that is never filled, never replaced. O’Rourke’s narrator feels the intrusion of a world that had been formerly kept a requisite distance now running riot through her senses. The rain is constant, unending, driving her inside herself from an external existence that is hard, cold, chaotic. The body feels hallowed out, breathing is a chore, a burden, as if taking in breaths for two bodies with one set of lungs — The wind tore through me. I breathed with two split lungs — our narrator is shaking with a profound and only momentarily clear vision of what her relations have been and what they meant in her life. And now that is gone.

When you left I stayed, 

I shook! Like an instrument 
about To be played by the long,
Liver-yellow Fingers of the sun
A
natural storyline emerges, and this is what we use to remember and mourn the passing of a sibling. Because the imagery is fragmented and sudden, and because the associations between them are sudden and only partially outlined, I get the feeling that these are qualities that come in a rush, triggered by some random thing — scent, sound, a phrase, a particular sight — that would cause the mind to briefly erupt with fast, overpowering emotion. It is the indefinite quality that attracts me to O’Rourke’s slim poem. Elliptical as the elements are, the style does work at times, if only for a striking image or two; there are times that something affects you and you’re able to isolate the reason, or even identify what internal matters a poem, a picture stirred. I don’t know precisely what having to breathe with two split lungs means, or what was she was driving toward with the final stanza where she is about to be played by the “long, liver yellow fingers of the sun”, but they do suggest a lot. They are perhaps lacking in information, but are rich in what they suggest. But again, it’s not as if one should linger too long over them, since this reed-thin piece is nearly non-existent as literary product. I imagine that mental flash, as if I light had been turned on and off in an otherwise dark room; what you remember are contours, suggested tones, all gone in an instant and barely registered in memory, I think it goes a little deeper than that, of course, but mostly what I like about the poem is not what it says at all but rather what it attempts. This is the art of what was almost said. O’Rourke avoids the requirement of confession to awkwardly confess grief in a long, gasping rant centering not what was revealed, but on what was merely glimpsed, for a moment. There is here a feeling that some profound knowledge had been suddenly bequeathed and just as suddenly removed, and how she gets this feeling is through the minimalism employed. She is crafty about the words used, and where they are placed on the page. In some ways this is less a poem than a totem of some kind.Meditations on a Moth” is a sexy, slippery poem about New York at night spoken from the viewpoint of an insomniac dawn patroller who is the midst of an endless argument with herself. It’s an interesting marriage of personalities noticeable, appropriately enough, in two poets associated with the New York School, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. It gets a sense of the mystery a city nightscape gives to us; every shadow is a primal formation, beasts and monsters and knights vying for the good of the innocent. This has that street level feel O’Hara’s best work has, the vista of a pedestrian walking across congested streets and between buildings, noticing every bit of impacted urban space and detail and the frayed sense of loneliness that permeates everything that glitters and shines and makes noise in the city.

W
hat goes down stays down, the street at three a.m. a fantastic absence of color. Outside the studio window the sound of a river sliding along its dulcimer bed, aquifers and accordions and Alcatraz. This has the stark clarity of a high contrast black and white photo, and all that’s needed is jazz on the background, a set of footsteps coming up the way, loud as they tread on wet cement, O’Rourke’s narrator here is someone who sounds as if they’re noticing the small matters of city life against her intentions; things get noticed that would otherwise have remained under the radar.

Here look No, look.

I am trying to rid myself of myself; 
to see past the familiar clouds. 
All evening drums rumble in the park.
The mafia reconvenes when the cops leave.

T
his is a micro world where matters are changed forever because they were noticed, noted, given names and assigned places on a mental map of where more things are; they have entered our consciousness. Though far more colloquial than Ashbery has ever been, O’Rourke shares with him (in this piece, at least) an abiding obsession with the unfiltered perception of things and objects of this world, an interest in the phenomenology of the mundane. There is in Moth, as in Ashbery’s central (and long) work Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror a musing on what is encountered on the journey the next day, concrete, specific and unadorned details on matters large and small in their seeming exactitude, and then an argument with the perceiving self, a string of associations drawn from personal history or other encounters, a survey of responses to place and things that are finally the meaning a specific place or people’s lives can have. O’Rourke’s question sounds rhetorical since she might as well be asking why it is that she’s seemingly lured to the streets in the far reaches of the late night/early morning. The activity here is no less neurotic than what a ritual-locked specter would suffer from. This wonderfully condensed musing on what over-alert senses bring to you on dark, wet nights comes from the sort of agitation of the soul that is too familiar with the terrain, and one finds themselves wrestling with ambivalence, to make the move to new climes, or to look further and harder at where one has been for years, seeking another nuance of light or angle of skyline that rewards the soul just a little more than the agony of not changing punishes it. I like the Robert Stroud reference, and my guess is that this is something going through O’Rourke’s mind when she wrote this. Fortunately, she left the reference oblique and mysterious, and let the vaguely evocative syllables give the poem’s musicality just a passing clang of dissonance. I see it as a color as well as tone like it were a layer of the point that one barely notices, if at all, once the other shades and hues are applied and worked in, but which gives the finished a look and allure that might otherwise be absent were it not there at all. O’Rourke’s language, vivid and filled tangible things, maintains the sealed meanings of these things all the same. She resembles another poet, Elizabeth Bishop, for her skill at keeping the inner workings of mind private in a public sphere. Suffice to say that I think O’Rourke, in this poem, has composed a verse as good as the writers I’ve mentioned already, less because she meets their standards or thinks as they do, but more with equaling in originality, style, and mastery of technique and material. It’s a rare event when a poet can write in a surrealistic mode and not have it read like a studied classroom assignment to mimic a past master, or a stiff parody of a style whose signifiers are lost on contemporary audiences, yet O’Rourke’s mastery accomplishes just that, a fresh set of images in arresting, nerve-rattling stanzas. “Descent”, prefaced with “After Apollinaire”, gets the pulverizing velocity of a drug addict’s degradation.

“Descent” 

after Apollinaire
I was born a bastard in an amphetamine spree,
lit through with a mother’s quickenings, 
and I burrowed into her, afraid she would not have me, 
and she would not have me, 
I dropped out down below the knees 
of a rickrack halterdress, sheeted, 
tented knees, water breaking, linoleum peeling,
and no one there to see but me, 
I woke on the floor as if meant to put her back together,
to try to hold on to her 
like a crate to a river, as if I’d been shipped down 
to stand straight while 
in the misgiving 
she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks floating down a river and a dog who couldn’t swim and I could not swim, 
I slipped from her grip in a room 
where two orange cats stared like tidy strangers 
at a world of larger strangeness,
and I had no name.
I was there at her breast 
and I thought I could see her, 
the swag of her hair, the jaw, 
the fearing, but I barely saw,
I went sliding down the river from a house
in which it was sweet to sleep
and the cool of the sheets was never cool enough, 
the imprint of the bedded bodies two geese diving at once.
D
escent “ is an update of the myth of dead souls crossing the river Styx, lovingly and pun-fully alluded to (“she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks /floating down a river and a dog who couldn’t swim/and I could not swim, I slipped from her grip/in a room where two orange cats stared like tidy strangers/at a world of larger strangeness,/and I had no name”)This is also an expanding of the Rolling Stone’s fuck-all anthem “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, Mick Jagger’s succinct catalog of hard knocks, fights, poverty and gleeful nihilism fleshed out into a jittery, theatricalized speech. There is the danger that some would take this poem as glorifying the speed freak’s life of curbstone squalor, but there is an element of this debacle that attracts us all, users and those who would condemn it, and O’Rourke, less presenting this as romanticized diorama where each broken brick and bit of torn blue jean is studiously arranged than as a mis-en-scene that gets the feeling of the rush. There is empathy here , but no desire to join the descent.

Monday, March 18, 2019

SPRING COMES TO OHIO by Joseph Campana

Odes to Spring are usually those bits and ditties where the earth is celebrated for the miracle of life itself, that despite what turmoil one is confronted with, fresh starts can always be had. It is one of the persistent cliches of literature, I suppose, but there is always room for another take that is less hopeful, downright depressed in fact, as one can read in Joseph Campana's poem "Spring Comes to Ohio", featured this week at Slate. It doesn't work as a poem for my taste--it seems more of a stream of conscious ramble from a novel when an author artfully enters a character's interior life-- but it does give a sense from a young man's point of view as to how the sunny and the colorful can excite an urge for violence. This is a poem of submerged, sublimated, passively enacted revenge against the sunnier season that makes the world thaw from it's hard, icy encasements and to bloom and become green under a nurturing, breezy air. One is invited to inspect the world one had known as grey and cold and to see what was buried under all those layers of ice and slush; seeds grow and produce flowers, lawns grow and become long and green. But one thing conflates into the other and some disguised hurt associates the sunny disposition, the natural activity of nature renewing its life cycle with an awakening of some trauma that had been inert, hibernating. There is the feeling in the description of this skewed landscape of someone gritting their teeth while they pull the stitches from a recently mended wound


All the evening flowersare coffins bursting with possibility. Why not pick one, why not let your sorrow sink into the dirtwhere it will die? The firstgesture is the hope that itwill die before you willor that you will learn toread it like a book. Come read, come to the flower beds and the mowed-downfields where the heads ofyellow soldiers burst inthe grass. If anyone evergave you something, thatgesture of fading beautywas the first sign thatthe price of generosity is the flower that wouldrather not be ripped fromits heart

Young boys are flowers and flowers are things that are planted in place and at the mercy of whatever rogue set of fingertips chooses to pick them at random, and with the author adroitly altering the point of view to simulate a child's reality-bending fantasy. Dandelions are soldiers being vanquished brutally with a decapitating lawn mower; the violence is senseless, the very things that we are invited to inspect, to read remain secrets only a skilled therapist can interpret and disarm. But the meaning of it seems clear enough, which is that the world, in the traumatized narrator's view, is a series of layered appearances, one hiding a secret, power thing or fact, with the reward being only pain and punishment for the curious.


Come read your heartwhich has shriveled into a flower recedingbefore night. If the sunever will come back herethe first thing you'll do is reach right out to touch


This poem sees the seasons as a serial sucker punch, winter is the time when betrayals, fights and other states of disagreeable experience are put in stasis and the young man return to their homes to nurse their wounds, shore up their psychic armor, prepare for the coming thaw; when the thaw comes, the pain starts anew, one may fall for the old trick again and experience the stabbing sensation of recollection. Something primal kicks in, aggression grows that becomes a lifetime habit. The reflex is that this life exists only to torment us, and one must proceed with a determination to carve it up, engrave one's name on the soil, to have the planet yield to one's will or be devastated.





Thursday, March 14, 2019

2 POEMS FROM TRACI BRIMHALL



"Through A Glass Darkly"  is a title suggesting a tour of dark, depressed places is upon you, and poet Traci Brimhall does an effective job of bringing on the bleakness. This poem is effectively hermetic, an evocation of a consciousness that is incapable of dealing with the external world. The world is treated as if it were nothing but a continuing series of loud, violent sounds coming from the other side of a lock, if infirm door; there is nothing described here that is actually seen or observed, with Traci Brimhall's slippery similes giving evidence to a mind that cannot stop processing the sounds it hears, the odors it detects, the shadows it forces into murky configurations. We might say this brain cannot turn itself off, to cease speculating and reinterpretation the world beyond practicality and arrive at the common agreement we collectively and loosely refer to as "reality". As the world does not settle in and reveal itself, the paranoia rises. Brimhall does a quite a good job of making this seem as if the universe this person habit-ates is in a continuing conspiracy, constructing a plot that is infinitely complex and geared to singularly sinister purpose.


The last time I visited, 
............you said you trapped a dead woman in your room 

who told you to starve yourself to make room for God, 
............so I let them give your body enough electricity 

to calm it. Don't be afraid. The future is not disguised 
............as sleep. It is a tango. It is a waterfall between 


two countries, the river that tried to drown you. 
............It is a city where men speak a language 

you can fake if you must. It's the hands of children 
............thieving your empty pockets. It's bicycles 
with bells ringing through the streets at midnight.


You could say that Brimhall goes a simile too far to invoke this series of a nightmare, similar to an old comedians adage not to do three jokes in a row on the same subject. Twice is placing a stressing emphasis on a conceit, an idea that might otherwise get lost, three times becomes a lecture; in this sense, the final analogy Brimhall deploys, the bicycle bells chiming through the streets at midnight, nearly derails the poem's half-awake surrealism. Beware the additional flourish, the needless decoration, the detail too many, especially if your writing prior to that moment was tight, concise, effective. Quite beyond the readership getting the point, one risks revealing a straining for effect. Still, what the poet does here is admirable and there's much to be said for the decision to tell the patient's tale through the accounting of a witness who themselves can only relate the narrative scheme based on what they've seen, what they've heard, what they've been told by the patient. The narrator can only relate with the information that is at hand, the intimate details that have had time to play on the senses and resonate in larger pools of association; there is a sense of the narrator attempting to comprehend the interior life of the patient being visited, as if a key will appear if the imagination cleaves with the right set of references and provides a clarity that would other wise not be known. The tragedy of the poem, though, is that language itself, alone, cannot provide clarity, liberty, the full balance of self-actualized well being, as there are those things and issues, schizophrenia among them, that cannot be changed by linguistic wit. Metaphors only generate more metaphors and the only thing that changes are the nature of the metaphors themselves.


The poem ""If Marriage is a Duel at  10 Paces" by Traci Brimhall is less a ritualized settling of grudges than it is a supremely phrased and acidly etched sequence of couplets lampooning the hackneyed metaphors that are applied to timeless institutions.I n this instance absurd comparisons between marriage and something other. Brimhall seems to draw from a period of having to listen to platitude-dripping testaments from husbands, her own and likely the remarks of other nervous men, who needed reassurances about the stability of the contract with bromides and sage cliches that were a form of emotional blackmail. Brimhall takes up the game and posts her own thinking, mimicking the analogies and interrogating the logic; every statement contains it own contradiction and counter-argument."


"If marriage is a war for independence, I’ll find a feather 
for my cap and shoot you from your horse. Darling. 
If it’s a hunt, salt and cure me. If it’s a plague for two, 
my dear, let’s quarantine ourselves in the cemetery wearing 
aprons and snakeskin belts. Let’s disfigure each other 
with praise. My beautiful. My fugitive..." 

There is tangible anger at the entire "'til-death-us-part" solemnity of the wedding vow, which sets the poet up splendidly for an extended takedown of the premise. There is, of course, the issue that this only one side of the story and what we lack is the complexity that would make this poem even more dynamic; honestly, that does not bother so much if for reason that Brimhall gets the tone and the poking-finger earnestness of the stream right. The story that happens off stage, that is unmentioned during this narrator's confession of resentment, is palpable, conspicuous by the lack of reference. Anger, frustration, bristling irritation has given the tongue or at least the mind, an articulation it may well not had seen before. The strength of this power, its power, in fact, is that the poet simulates the verbal dexterity a long-brewing dissatisfaction can give you and which comes out in one especially articulate explosion of well-turned sarcasm. Reading this made me think of those times when I had entered someone's living room by invitation only to get the sense that there is a narrative under the subterfuge of polite chatter and mannered hospitality, that at any second the lid might blow off the pressure cooker. This poem is one of those moments when it finally does.This is a caustic rant and it would be a fitting speech for a character in a yet to be written play ; the wife, fed up with years of her husband's laziness, stupidity, infidelity, financial irresponsible and an over-reliance on the easiest phrase that comes to mind when justifying his onerous acts, responds at once with bazooka and blow torch. There is the neat, efficient trick of mocking with great exaggeration while revealing the harm cliches, evasions, and lies cause, as in "let's disfigure ourselves with praise..." While the truth sets you free by liberating you from falsehoods that coerce you into making amazingly bad decisions, lies mar the landscape, destroy trust, create unhappiness for all those involves, makes it a requirement that one carries equal amounts of dread, self-loathing and resentment under a cracking veneer of calm resignation. Brimhall's poem starts from the point where her narrator seems to have dropped the last dish to the floor, stands straight, hands on hips, and begins a thorough dismantling of each lie she participated in. This is a powerful poem, unusual, punchy and full of a crackling good wit. This is a warning to readers to not flatter their spouses with the foul essence of stale sentiment, promises and vague assurances that destiny will be great if you just stay the course. Talk long enough and you will create the verbal rope that will coil around your neck even as you speak the words, or someone speaks them back to you.t

UNINTENDED RESULTS IN THE POEMS OF THOMAS LUX

Poet Thomas Lux fairly much defies description, combining the plain speak of diligent journalism and the eloquence of an otherwise taciturn poet who will use a word or phrase that takes a contrary turn other than where you expect it to go. He is the Poet of Unintended Results, a storyteller very much in the John Cheever mode where the omniscient narrator begins yarns of folks with ambitions, intentions, desires for all manner of things making their way through their routines, only to have them interrupted and , as a consequence, find themselves to the larger world ,with what were once nuances and pesky inconveniences of fact now looming over them in a crazy state of I-Told-You-So.
RENDER, REND
 Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
 bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
 it down, skim, and boil
 again, dreams, history, add them and boil
 again, boil and skim
 in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
 the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
 by the pencil sharpener
 who looked at you, looked away,
 boil that for hours, render it
 down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
 the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
 and sperm, and a bead
 of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
 as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
 the fire, boil and skim, boil
 some more, add a fever
 and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
 to add guilt and fear, throw
 logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
 two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
 used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
 it down and distill,
 concentrate
 that for which there is no
 other use at all, boil it down, down,
 then stir it with rosewater, that
 which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
 which you smear on your lips
 and go forth
 to plant as many kisses upon the world
 as the world can bear!
 bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
 it down, skim, and boil
 again, dreams, history, add them and boil
 again, boil and skim
 in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
 the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
 by the pencil sharpener
 who looked at you, looked away,
 boil that for hours, render it
 down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
 the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
 and sperm, and a bead
 of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
 as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
 the fire, boil and skim, boil
 some more, add a fever
 and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
 to add guilt and fear, throw
 logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
 two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
 used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
 it down and distill,
 concentrate
 that for which there is no
 other use at all, boil it down, down,
 then stir it with rosewater, that
 which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
 which you smear on your lips
 and go forth
 to plant as many kisses upon the world
 as the world can bear!
This is a poet who witnesses human experience and of life itself as a process that goes on regardless of the fine personal and community philosophies, we’ve written for ourselves to abide by. Life is a raw force that will continue to pulse, change, destroy and create anew regardless of how well can describe it. We can describe life’s circumstances, we cannot control them. But there is a heart in Lux’s work, a sympathy, that sense of the struggle of humanity trying to create meaning in a world that defies logic and yet remains a species that continues to dress the world in a wonderful cosmology of expectations. There is wit, dark humor, tenderness, a wonderfully terse lyricism in Lux’s finest writing.
I once told Thomas Lux that I considered him “the Poet Laureate of Unintended Results”, a description he rather liked. He took it for the compliment I intended it to be because ,I think, he understands that the “unintended results” that make up the material of his work allows him a way to achieve any number of effects — comedic, dark, tragic, bizarrely funny or horrifyingly sad, he is a body of work that investigates the latter-day consequences of hubris.
What I mean, of course, is that what Lux specializes in is the detailing of plain facts and events of matters we can recognize, with a protagonist’s attitude conspicuous and anticipating a set of desired results as their agenda is set out, only to find himself (or herself) confounded and contradicted by interventions that change the meaning of everything. The beauty of his style isn’t that he starts with an abstract, clouded inference toward an infernal contradiction, then working his way to clarity from which one might suppose the characters should have started. He reverses it and starts off simply, clearly, adding layers of incidental detail, skipping over days, years, through significant events and celebrations and attending tragedies, bringing the reader (and his character) to a situation where nothing is like what they thought it would be. It’s a beautiful technique he’s developed; he may be one of a handful of poets who understand irony as an effect achieved through a carefully moving around of narrative elements that come into conflict.
A LITTLE TOOTH 
 
 Your baby grows a tooth, then two
 and four, and five, then she wants some meat
 directly from the bone. It’s all
 over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
 in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
 talker on his way to jail. And you,
 your wife, get old, flyblown, rue
 nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
 are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

Beautiful. The image is on the tooth, the joy of watching a young child being able to eat solid food. The next you know she’s eating meat from the bone and learns the language to make her mischief , and before it’s all over, late at night, you realize you’re old and tired and you wonder what happened when you were young and at what moment did your baby start developing the skills to have a young, vital life you can hardly keep up with. I love the last line, the second half when what was a simple memory that leads through a fast-forward to the current moment: “…It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.” The shock of recognition, you could say. You wonder where your youth went and then see it in front of you, on your child’s face and in her arms and legs, full of the energy you gave her. The implication is clear; we don’t lose our youth if we’re lucky. We just pass it on. The open-ended quality is the beauty of the poem. It does imply that it will be the formerly teething daughter’s turn to do all those things now that she is taller, full grown, almost an adult. But I also like that it’s suggested and not spelled out. The resonance of the last sentence “Your daughter’s tall” comes at us as revelation, the startled response to a bright light coming on in a dark room. It’s a sentence that ends the poem and yet demonstrates how this small moment is profound in that it summarizes a life that has been and forecasts a life that is yet to be lived at length. The poem continues off the page, something like a conversation you’ve been listening to as you walk the street and then the people you’ve been following turn the corner or enter a building, cutting off the discussion in mid-sentence. One can only imagine the possibilities that might yet emerge from a host of plausible guesses, and this inconclusive quality is what makes this a fine poem.
The ease with which he’s able to merge plain speaking with unaffected turns of phrase, dark irony with darker humor, hard realism with lyric sweeps which make me pause in my own work and consider the next line I’ll write harder than I normally would. Great poets inspire that. Lux is one of my favorite poets — I can’t think of anyone else who crafts a free verse poem with better care and intriguing twists of perception that he does.,He is exactly the poet people should read when they want more from comprehensible poems than Billy Collins’ unceasing tours of his neighborhood He will show you how matters invade expectation and undermine a grand view of how one’s life is working through the weeks.
 
 CUCUMBER FIELDS CROSSED BY HIGH-TENSION WIRES.
 The high-tension spires spike the sky
 beneath which boys bend
 to pick from prickly vines
 the deep-sopped fruit, the rind’s green
 a green sunk
 in green. They part the plants’ leaves,
 reach into the nest,
 and pull out mother, father, fat Uncle Phil.
 The smaller yellow-geren children stay,
 for now the fruit goes
 in baskets by the side of the row,
 every thirty feet or so. By these bushels
 the boys get paid, in cash,
 at day’s end, this summer
 of the last days of the empire
 that will become known as
 the past, adios, then,
 the ragged-edged beautiful blink.
 
 An agrarian scene, we assume at first, made dense and surreal with Lux’s painterly descriptions, but there is something subtler, deadlier underneath. This poem for me addresses invading armies, albeit disguised in fruity metaphor. Overwhelming forces invade homes, destroy homelands, cart off citizens and vital resources, and then are gone when use is exhausted, in a blink that Lux fuses with Yeat’s “terrible beauty”. This poem has more to do with the metaphorical devices nations and electorates will use to distance themselves from the real damage their country inflicts for some greater, glorious good. Suffering is discounted, and the blood on one’s fingertips is said to taste like honey. This is a provocative poem from Lux. He's is so skilled with his language that it gets scary. Of all the poets with a realist bent, Lux I think is the one who is truly subversive of his own and, by extension, his reader’s assumptions of the world. It is a neat and meaningful leap for him to go from a narrative that mimics, shall we say parodies Hemingway’s hunting persona that reveals , at the end, a bizarre twist in Papa’s Romanticism masculinity, equating the resemblance of the monkey’s small hands with those of children, and fantasizing in the last instance that monkeys “can be taught to smile.” 
 You smile, indeed, you chuckle, you get the joke and wonder how on earth he came up with this unexpected yet fruitful turn, and then there is the additional, delayed realization that what Lux has offered up is a brief and cutting critique of hunter mystique. Rousseau himself would shiver at what comes up with. Lux is one of our best.
 
 Refrigerator, 1957
 
 More like a vault — you pull the handle out
 and on the shelves: not a lot,
 and what there is (a boiled potato
 in a bag, a chicken carcass
 under foil) looking dispirited,
 drained, mugged. This is not
 a place to go in hope or hunger.
 But, just to the right of the middle
 of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
 heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
 shining red in their liquid, exotic,
 aloof, slumming
 in such company: a jar
 of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
 full, fiery globes, like strippers
 at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
 the only foreign word I knew. Not once
 did I see these cherries employed: not
 in a drink, nor on top
 of a glob of ice cream,
 or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
 The same jar there through an entire
 childhood of dull dinners — bald meat,
 pocked peas and, see above,
 boiled potatoes. Maybe
 they came over from the old country,
 family heirlooms, or were status symbols
 bought with a piece of the first paycheck
 from a sweatshop,
 which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
 handed down from my grandparents
 to my parents
 to be someday mine,
 then my child’s?
 They were beautiful
 and, if I never ate one,
 it was because I knew it might be missed
 or because I knew it would not be replaced
 and because you do not eat
 that which rips your heart with joy.
 
 Like Don DeLillo in his novels, Lux gives the history of a consumer culture’s love affair with the objects they purchase and attach their happiness to, only to fall out of love when a wire is too frayed, a motor stops running, or a newer, sleeker design replete with more gadgets hits the showroom floor; so much history, family is contained within this refrigerator, memories that grow faint as children grow, parents die, people move to places out of town. A poignant picture this is, a deserted refrigerator on the back porch for years, something you pass daily, perhaps, knowing there is history and stories attached to its existence as a working machine, all of it unknown and unrecoverable like singular drops of rain into a stream. “So You Put the Dog to Sleep” is one of my incidental favorite poems of the last ten years. In it Lux categorizes within a routine, if excruciating ritual of middle-class life, the skewed habits of mind, suggesting here the weirdness John Cheever could get at with his tragi-comic stories about New York suburbs. He additionally subtly indicates how we handle the minor tragedies in our lives.

SO YOU PUT THE DOG TO SLEEP
 
 “I have no dog, but must be
 Somewhere there’s one belongs to me.”
— John Kendrick Bangs
 
 You love your dog and carve his steaks
 (marbled, tgender, aged) in the shape of hearts.
 You let him on your lap at will
 
 and call him by a lover’s name:Liebschen,
 pooch-o-mine, lamby, honey tart,
 and you fill your voice with tenderness, woo.
 
 He loves you too, that’s his only job,
 it’s how he pays his room and board.
 Behind his devotion, though, his dopey looks,
 
 he might be a beast who wants your house,
 your wife; who in fact loathes you, his lord.
 His jaws snapping while you sleep means dreams
 
 of eating your face: nose, lips, eyebrows, ears…
 But soon your dog gets old, his legs
 go bad, he’s nearly blind, you puree his meat
 
 and feed him with a spoon. It’s hard to say
 who hates whom more. He will not beg.
 So you put the dog to sleep, Bad dog.
Cheever might be the best writer to compare Lux with, as the two of them have established the elegant yet clear-eyed tone of a narrator who can affectionately, intimately describe the conditions and contexts of the scenarios and yet remain seemingly detached , uncommitted, reserved if only to not break into laughter or tears as to the outcome. With “Dog” the situation begins with love, affection, an owner’s dutiful care for his pet in exchange for the animal’s unqualified love and loyalty. Later, as the dog grows older, his love and loyalty turns into dependence as he ages and becomes infirm, while the owner’s affections sour into resentment. It constructs how thinking is geared to allow us to dodge guilt. As with farts, missing homework and soiled carpets, blame the dog for his own demise.