Wednesday, January 8, 2020


Typewriter And Laptop
The Unwritten History of Prose by T.R.Hummer is a poem sussing through various ambiguities about the competing provinces of Specialist Languages. The upshot of the poem is that the jargon of each linguistic stronghold bleeds in the common parlance in a big way, one is left wondering, if they stepped back long and far enough from the tropes one routinely uses to discuss their lives and their relations, that one's self-description of being-in-the-world is far more fractured than they thought. Of course, we are a species-being, but the conditions of behavior and purpose are subject to tweaks and adjustments from the experts--scientists, ministers, doctors, lawyers--who act, shall we say, in a profound spirit of self-interest. Whether it's enlightened or not depends on where you had your money invested, if you had money to start with. Fitting that there is a poem about prose, as a form, given the surfeit of stanzas about poetry or, more galling, poets talking about being poets. The difference is striking, and considering them, you can appreciate the reasoning poets, good ones, would consider themselves a stand-in priesthood, the antenna of the race; poetry is the manifest destiny of the soul, an expansionist form that conspires, contrives, conflates the matters it chooses to deal with into a unified field theory of how the universe operates solely to make us feel a select schedule of moods. There is, perhaps, a theological assumption here, that just as there is a plan, with protocols, God intends for us to have to arrive, or not, at the off-world point of this life--remember the phrase everything is exactly the way it ought to be in God's universe --poets treat the human experience as if were a fixed menu written in a language only they could read and order form; if the crow was what they ordered, the crow was what you ate.

Prose would be more concrete, pinpointed, appreciating the density of the concrete and the earthly essences that went into making all these things adhere and form other things that are made by man; poetry is the tongue of God whispering his will into our ears, the prose is the rumble, and logical result following the fall from grace, a post- Babel of competing certainties, voices of conviction basing their expertise only in what can be measured, quantified, molded into a tool, a machine, a city of man-made things, enterprise divorced from sacred intention, unmindful of consequences that cannot be felt until every enterprise is exhausted and each resource is depleted. The prose is the language of progress, capitalism, and the rationale for moving on to the next thing, creating another catastrophe based on unbound hubris.

I rather like this poem; it says prose is the medium with which we say, "here I am, this is what I did, these are my explanations of my actions, my apologies for each and every failure." In the beginning, there was the word, and in the end, there will only be the rubble of a civilization of things created from concepts those words delineated. Perhaps, in the end, there will be only the fragments of prose bits that survive, half-phrases, intriguing references and terms torn from context and historical fact, mysterious combinations of phrase that become, ironically, poetry all over again. A new Eden might yet arise, and we might again be a tribe collectively guessing the meaning and purpose of the sounds we make with the scraps of language set before us. Years, another poem by the intriguing T.R.Hummer, continues that poet's fascination with the promises and evasions of prose, the language of certainty in an existence that adheres to no protocols that have been spelled out, literally. We could say that the best aspect of having a written language is the poetry that results in discovering that things and events are never as they've been described and defined.

Years ago, the story begins. Once.
In such-and-such a place, some season or other,
A stranger, two lovers, disaster.
She wants to close the book, but constellations
Of narrative structures interlock: gunfire
In the street, explosions at the embassy,
Betrayal, failure, decades of grinding hopelessness.
How long ago he died, his face pages vanished.
And she, dedicated reader, carries out sentence after sentence,
Her knowledge of the end complete, her execution certain.
The story begins and never ends, as this tale and countless others like it are recast and retold; different actors have similar circumstances. Hummer gets ahead of the tedium that self-awareness of narrative form can create but chip away at the didactic and getting to the good parts, the bits of unexpected circumstance that make a familiar narrative compelling, only they are not so unexpected. This poem might be a highlight reel or someone fast-forwarding a favorite DVD for those scenes that resonate the most; the condensing of the particulars itself has an exhilarating effect. I think the last lines --
 And she, dedicated reader, carries out sentence after sentence, / Her knowledge of the end complete, her execution certain -- because it suggests a pun, a reflection of the words we use to recount and recite a plot we know very well, and also something akin to a sentence one is fated to live through, to a willingly subscribed to circumvention of one's time where one's actions are plotted out in advance.

It would seem to argue that we are only at ease using our own willpower when we are secure in the belief that we're constrained by a grand narrative where outcomes are premeasured and assured, despite our efforts to violate form. You are left to consider whether willpower is an illusion in this instance or if the violation of form is disregarding the grand narrative and that we have willpower? As with the kind of ambivalence Hummer connects with, the matter is slippery and does not rest either in or outside the distinctions; the boundaries are permeable. Will power, nee Free Will, exists indeed, and we live with the knowledge that we have the ability to go beyond implicit and tacit boundaries and create unpleasant consequences, but we chose not to. Most of us don't, in any case, and will use a sounder judgment. Most of us wouldn't take a gun to traffic court to settle a dispute involving a ticket. This notion is fluidly referred to as 'sanity,' and there is a comfort knowing that one's fellow citizens stay within the boundaries. But there is ambivalence about those margins we stay within; there is an attraction to an existence where the Rule doesn’t apply. This seems a strong reason why we valorize and apologize for those artists, poets, and writers we regard as artists, the usurpers of the norm. If they would otherwise be an unmannered assortment of louts.

Hummer's interest in written language as the subject matter comes from the perception that human personality (in our culture at least) thrives on the notion that we're creative and groundbreaking creatures who can redefine themselves, as individuals, anytime it suits us, but that there is a virtually unspoken need to know that there are limits to how far we can stray from the script we're handed. It knows that we could break through the fourth wall and create all sorts of chaos for ourselves and our fellows, but that the host of us choose not to; we ascribe this to Free Choice, but for me, Hummer has a darker theme, that of Fear Itself. The dread of an existence stripped of meaning, of limits, keeps us in check.

T.R. Hummer's Trio of Doom

Image result for tr hummer
T.R.Hummer has Three Poems posted today in Slate, which delighted me to no end. This is a trio of swirling rhymes that will not stand for being mere decorations on that tall, swaying tree called literary style. Hummer has the musical sway and swing of Edgar Allen Poe, able to digress, elongate and contract a phrase at will, finding a tonality of both everyday things and historical memory. This has the snap and splintery detail of what Tom Waits does with his lyrics, but in this case, the author is more a witness than a persona recalling a location changed by time, personalities who thrived in the wallow of their eccentricities and who are now gone, replaced by urban professionals and Lego style architecture.

Hummer's trilogy addresses a set of conversations where it seems that the sweep of events and the acceleration of change, complicated by encroaching generations younger and hungrier than older denizens, all wind up in the dustbin, not swept by rather dumped, or pushed, as in off a cliff."Imperial" nicely echoes and paraphrases "Richard Cory" but rather than suicide being the inevitable curse, we have a personage of fame, wealth, prestige denied the right to be fully human and full of complexity; he is in a cage, in a sense mummified, locked up in symbolism, turned into a commodity of hope for a citizenship that he is by birth obligation inflexibly beholden to."Prince Albert in a can" becomes not a joke but a description of what someone's life has become. "Pandora Jackson" , In turn, is the story, spread over generations and variations of Diaspora , of beset upon peoples wandering the map for new homes, places of security where they may, in turn, thrive and build communities;  but all are uprooted again, leaving only the withered ghosts of the means of getting there, railroad tracks, maintenance equipment, box cars still and void of voices , We are crowded along until again we are either lifted again by Biblical promise, the Rapture , or left behind to scrape by in the hallows of the emptied cities and towns, subsisting until history itself is forgotten.

"Bloodflower Sermon" concerns the dark fact the homeless millions in our communities, but speaks finally to the supposition that the light of virtue, the light of truth,  leads us not to  Heaven but merely rids us of the veils of self-constructed mythologies we've sustained our daily lives with the clever rationalizations we've decorated the walls of Plato's Cave and shows us for what we really are, instinct-driven creatures given a gift of free will with which we could do great good or worsen the state of things of the planet, The echoes Delmore Schwartz beautifully, succinctly; Hummer suggests that in the raw state of nature, bereft of things and self-assurance, we find ourselves waiting to be judged. It is a calculus we dread, a trip no one truly wants to take.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Poetry of Slaughter

The small yet dread thought most of must struggle not to give an ear to as we pass the supermarket meat section is exactly how did all those fine sides of beef, ham, chicken, turkey, lamb get to where they are, from animal to shrink-wrapped packages kept cool under glass or dangling from hooks, ready to consume. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb among other books, phrased it well in speech I saw him give in the Seventies at an Earth Day rally, declaring that Americans are willfully ignorant of the costs involved in the manufacture of prepared food; as we roll our carts down the aisles, we assumed the shelves "are restocked by God." Ehrlich was speaking of the economic costs and how the waste was straining the resources the planet has to sustain life, but on a less alarming level there is the refusal of many of us to face the truth that animals are killed, slaughtered in cruelly efficient ways in order to speed the delivery of the meat to the grocery shelves at a reason for the hope of garnering a reasonable profit. Norman Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, gives an especially focused account on the mechanized brutality afflicted on the gathered cattle:

Well the smell of the entrails and that agonized blood electrified by all the outer neons of ultimate fear got right into the grit of the stockyard stench. Let us pass over into the carving and the slicing, the boiling and scraping, annealing and curing of the flesh in sugars and honeys and smoke, the cooking of the cow carcass, stamp of the inspector, singeing of the hair, boiling of hooves, grinding of gristle, the wax papering and the packaging, the foiling and the canning, the burning of the residue, and the last slobber of the last unusable guts as it went into the stockyard furnace, and up as stockyard smoke, burnt blood and burnt bone and burnt hair to add their properties of specific stench to fresh blood, fresh entrails, fresh fecalities already all over the air. It is the smell of the stockyards, all of it taken together, a smell so bad one must go down to visit the killing of the animals or never eat meat again. Watching the animals be slaughtered, one knows the human case--no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there. So be it."

Upton Sinclair, before Mailer, wrote about the splattered ugliness of the slaughterhouse in The Jungle, and in both books the point of the acute depictions of grizzly meat processing is to reveal what it is that we are shielded from and what we continually deny, that there is violence, death, what activists would call murder involved in each steak, hamburger, and hamburger we buy or make for ourselves, that our feeding on meat to both sustain ourselves and enjoy, as a residual result, as an aesthetic experience, is inextricably linked to death. An old equation, perhaps, a faint point to make, but the intent with Mailer and Sinclair's writing was to connect their readers with the thorough unpleasantness of food production, in short, disabuse them of the idea that where the delicious preparations come from is none of their concern. Disgust was a probable goal, outrage another, all with the hope that a headlong stare into the abyss would enable consumers to make better decisions about how they want to live. An experience like that does change lives. I was talking to a friend last night about Thanksgiving, and he told me about how, as a boy of nine, he went with his parents to aunt and uncle's farm for Thanksgiving and, after being allowed to play around in the farmyard and the barn with his cousins, saw his uncle bring the turkey into the barn, place the neck on a stump like we've seen in cartoons, and lop the creature's head off with an ax. The turkey flailed and ran around a bit before keeling over. That night, my friend said he couldn't eat the chicken. For what it's worth, he became a life, long Democrat. Kimberly Johnson's poem "Marking the Lambs" fairly much covers this territory, highlighting narrator, sounding as if recovering from a dull shock to the system, recounts the subjugation of the lamb. The effect is something like a camera zooming in with suffocating close-ups of struggle, carnage, and turmoil, with a narration that itself is distanced and dazed, yet putting together a sequence from the jerking commotion

As crickets geiger-up for spring, we corralthe ram lambs. They stutter and dense against the fencewheezing for the ewes. Down wince,down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,knee to sternum. The banded tail will blackto wizen, prune off easy. But marking is all trespass:thumb the soft belly to pop the scrotum out, then lunge and turnthe mind away, teeth working, working, to snap back and spit

This voice is fractured, given to half phrases and short bursts of detail, given to obscure and unexplained usages (They stutter and dense against the fence wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,knee to sternum. ) leavened with inner rhymes
that rise when the description of the carnage threatens to take on momentum and overwhelm and give the lie to whatever holiday spirit a waiting family used as a pretext to gather together. Johnson, though, does not preach, nor proclaim, nor climb on a soapbox to dispense a moral lesson. The horror, the disgust, the aforementioned outrage, is buried, repressed. What the poem lacks in an obvious explicit philosophical/moral point (which some readers would prefer ) is made up in power, as witness the narrator's attempt to consume and enjoy the flesh of the creature she subjugated and mutilated :

I try not to taste but I amall mouth, all salt blood and lanolin. I heartheir bleatings through my tongue.

The poem is called "Marking the Lambs", a practice not of slaughtering lambs for food but rather a hard scrabble bit of anatomical clipping and slicing to ensure the lamb's health in the production of wool. Johnson,though, makes what I take to be an associative leap and becomes weary with the violence visited upon the meekest of animals. Clothing , food, good times, all enjoyed from the privileged position of uninterest. Awareness of how the pantry and the closet become so well stocked changes our relationship with the things we purchase; we can no longer be nonchalant about it. This had to have the loneliest dinner table this narrator had ever sat at, before a table of ridiculous bounty and a family acting out the spirit of Holiday joy (and I am assuming the poem is inspired by Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons past and present) with the taste and sounds of the sacrificed lamb protesting it's coming demise all too recent and vivid to deny. It's a moment when one realizes that the Great Chain of Being we muse over after hours in cafes or in discussions of vague spirituality is, in fact, a Food Chain, each link unbreakable and forever. 

What we eat comes back to back to be that Thing That's At Us, which we tried to assuage with poems as skilled and powerful as Kimberly Johnson's.


The late Al Poulin Jr., poet and publisher of the esteemed BOA Editions, gave a reading where I worked and struck me as the sort of man who, like, likes to consider the magical elements of the everyday and the mundane world unseen but who hasn't the time for a language that clouds the sensations, not clarify them. It's a fanciful musing to come across, how those sounds you hear only when there is nothing else in motion seem extraordinary and odd; rather than consider the noises as merely the natural sounds a structure makes as its framework shifts or sags due to the demands of gravity and its own weight. Or, in the case of this poem, the knocks and hisses and muted clicks a radiator seems to make only when the lights are out. I rather like the language and don't mind a reference to "In unlighted corners, angles / opening to blank space,--" and, in fact, see the description as purposeful. The noises Poulin speaks of seem unusual and resonate more in the imagination because there is no other sound for them to blend in with--they resonate in those blank spaces, the knocks, squeaks and hisses in the dark resonate longer, deeper, with more texture. The makes me think of those sketchy memories of being in the house, in bed, the house entirely dark, imagining every squeak and creak and groan of the night being the passage of creatures from another realm who passed between dimensions in those hours when all were supposed to be asleep.Poulin's lyric is an adult fixation, sure, but he shows this is a habit that hasn't been entirely relinquished to adulthood.

The Angels of Radiators
by A.Poulin Jr.

Every night when my wife
and daughter are asleep
and I'm alone in this old house
lost in landscapes somewhere
between the points of stars,
my furnace fails like heaven.

The water that will turn
to steam and turn to heat
and rise as grace runs out.
In unlighted corners, angles
opening to blank space,
radiators, cold and white,
are silent and dead angels,
incarnate where they fell.
Every night, every winter,
I have to go down cellar,
turn the valve until the gauge
is full of water once again,
until the furnace starts
to rumble with its resurrection.
Then the house begins to move,
and through the winter night
that threatens us like Hell, by God,
the pure spirit of the fire roars
blue, veins ring, and radiators,
a whole chorus of Dominions, sing
and dance wild alleluias warm as spring.

Thursday, January 2, 2020


On Bukowski: He was either the best poet in the room or the worst. I don't mean that as a way of saying that the quality of his work depended on your tastes. Literally, I think Bukowski wrote poems that were so breath- takingly brilliant in their directness , language, and method at getting to a fact of human experience you hadn't come close to arriving at that he was a superior poet by any means I can define the term with. Alternately, he relied on his public persona so much that he was often running on fumes at best, rehashing his heart aches and downfalls with the arrogant laziness of a great talent who's stopped trying to be good. He could convey genuine pathos with the skid row realism he favored, and he could also indulge in alcoholic self-pity shamelessly , grandiosely, announcing himself a poet who was born to drink because he was born to feel too deeply. That kind is stuff is jive and I think he was best when he forgot the pose he was trying to present and instead told the tale, caught the cadence of the ache, genuinely crystallized a state of long term loneliness. When he was good, he had no peer.He was maddening, and having the best and worst qualities of a poet makes him a force a poetry lover cannot ignore.The basic problem with Bukowski wasn't his work, which, as far as it goes, ran hot and cold in between deadpan sublime and flat-footed bellyaching no worse than any other good-not-great poet, but that became, for a period , so wildly popular and became the only reference a large audience could think of when they try to recall a poet they like. Quantity changes everything, meaning more production means increasingly slapdash work, but in this instance a larger audience took Bukowski from the niche readership for which the earlier poetry and pose rang true, and wedged him into the big spot light where the newer poems became parodies of older victories on the page.That phenomena hasn't helped his reputation.