Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Mercy Seat

I’m more than two-thirds through The Mercy Seat, Norman Dubie’s collected & new poems. I was looking forward to reading Dubie more closely, being somewhat familiar with his work beforehand, from stray poems read in magazines and/or anthologies. Perhaps it’s because of my tendency to get deeper and deeper into a writer all at once, however, that I’m somewhat disappointed. Or rather, that Dubie disappoints me.

Reading myriad poems in one mental gulp dilutes their impact, and points out certain stylistic drawbacks that he exhibits, especially in work up through 1990. (I’m not beyond that point yet.) One thing I noticed almost immediately is the annoying tendency he has to end his poems with a final, stand-alone line. I’m not talking about what the line is saying, by itself or in context with each poem as a whole, but Dubie’s laziness in repeatedly opting toward that stylistic decision. (I just randomly opened the book, and counted. Out of twenty-five consecutive poems, eight ended that way; that’s a third.) This is, perhaps, not the most damning of criticisms, but as I digested these poems in large doses, the pattern not only distracted me, but cumulatively, and repeatedly took me out of the work. The Mercy Seat’s poems aren’t noted as being in their original sequence, and instead are grouped according to years; I assume they may be ordered differently than upon first publication. Nevertheless, placing them together in this omnibus edition puts them in a new light, and under cumulative scrutiny this stylistic tic of Dubie’s bothers me. Asked why, I’d say, generally, that I see numerous instances here where that last, lone line could be absorbed by the preceding stanza without diminishing its power, or drastically altering its meaning. In fact, I see only how such absorption would improve the poems, by not drawing attention, again and again, to the last line, as if that were the poem’s, and Dubie’s point.

I do admire the craft of these poems, and Dubie's grasp of voice, even if the voice doesn't waver much, if at all from poem to poem; differentiation, for him, appears to be in the particular details of each persona. One other criticism would be the poems' utter lack of humor. Sure, humor is hard, and maybe Norman isn’t much of a chuckler – at least in print; he could be a hoot-and-a-half at parties. But the dearth of any comedy, even black, made these poems not just "heavy" but heavy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Real Sofistikashun

I'm about two-thirds of the way through Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland's swell collection of essays on poetry and craft. Some chapters are giving me a sense of déjà vu, and while I can't confirm it – being, by necessity, less of a pack rat since our move to smaller digs two years ago, I'm unable to keep as many piles of periodicals around for casual perusal as I'd prefer – I'm confident I may have eyeballed them previously in APR or The Writer's Chronicle.

Reading Hoagland's essays in big gulps is doable, but not recommended. I drove my special lady to an appointment with her “aesthetician” recently. It was a snowy night, streets slick with ice and slush, and she eschews being behind the wheel of her trusty Toyota on such occasions if she can avoid it. Since it was not a teaching day for me, but a 'work' day, I offered to chauffeur her. Recently purchased, I brought Real Sofistikashun along for the ride as well. While my gal was off being coiffed, I parked my ass on the salon's semi-comfortable sofa and dug into the opening essay, "Altitudes: a Homemade Taxonomy." It establishes the tone Hoagland is to maintain for the duration, which he describes in his foreword as “neither academic nor exactly for the reader off the street.” True enough: you need to come to these essays prepared, but whether that preparation involves cases of canned meats, flashlights, first aid kit, batteries and water, or just a few candy bars, is up to individual discretion. If opting for the latter, however, you are likely to waste time traipsing to the corner store, stocking up on little things that could easily be tucked away in advance for emergencies. Hoagland's style is breezy yet rigorous – he gives you examples and cites to follow his train of thought or theoretical point, but after five or six chapters, the sheer ambition of each argument begins to weigh heavily upon the reader's brain. So it was as I slumped there, flanked by spritzers, shampoos, the tremor of trimmers, hiss of curling irons and incessant clipping of shears. Giving my noggin a much needed break, I closed the book, and switched to lighter reading – this month's Italian Vogue.

Be that as it may, I especially enjoyed Hoagland's thoughts on “the slipperiness of metaphor.” As he says, “Effective metaphors are always more complicated than we suppose,” and his essay on the subject is less an argument for any approach or school of thought than it is an examination of metaphor's metaness. While I don't agree with every point he makes – for example, Laura Kasischke's “A Long Commute” effectively illustrating “the fantastic elasticity” of metaphor – I don't have to: these essays sink or float by virtue of the overall thrust of Hoagland's thinking, and not sundry examples.

Here's hoping Hoagland's thoughts on “fear of narrative” and the power of meanness measure up to my expectations – entertaining as writing, useful and practical while writing.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly

Denis Johnson’s latest book, Tree of Smoke, a Vietnam novel more than a decade in the writing, won the National Book Award last year. I knew of Johnson from Jesus' Son (the movie, not the book, though I was aware of the latter before the former), and had read a lot about him, though nothing by him. He keeps a low profile, and is not the most prolific writer. I had an idea what the poems in his collected and new edition, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (published in 1995) might be like, and I was right, though my preconceived notions may have been somewhat undercooked.

Johnson's poetry has a lot of sadness in it, mixed with ennui – to me, an odd combination, or perhaps difficult to make interesting. I found him very easy to read, which here is a good thing. (In a different poet, this wouldn't necessarily be the case.) His language flows smoothly and easily, but I was sometimes taken out of the poems by his use of the lowercase “i” instead of “I,” which, this side of e.e. cummings smacks of affectation. (Come to think of it, it does in Cummings, too; this disappears in the later poems.) I also admit to being biased against poems about poetry, or poems that talk about poetry in an outright way, such as “Falling,” which begins,

There is a part
of this poem where you must
say it with me, so
be ready, together we will make
it truthful...

Poetry as the subject of a poem is, to me, as difficult to make work as movies about movies, or songs about songs. I have no qualms with songs about movies, or poems about songs, but when I'm inside a poem I like to get lost in it, and not be reminded of where I am – a kind of willful abandon. Johnson certainly doesn't go overboard here, but I believe jettisoning all the references to POEM or POETRY would not detract from the core of whatever Johnson is trying to get at.

In the end, I enjoyed The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly and would look forward to reading more of Johnson's poetry. He's also been a playwright, so even considering the massive critical success of Tree of Smoke, one can hope he returns to his apparent first love as a writer.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

David Breskin's Fresh Kills

As someone who has been referred to as a “renaissance man” before in print, I read David Breskin's Fresh Kills with interest. Here's someone who, like myself, has a few pokers in the fire, and some of them rather closely parallel my own fire pokers (music producer, journalist). Perhaps this is less unusual nowadays in our 21st century multitasking mode, but most books of poetry I grab off the shelves have biographical notes limited to the realm of literature, and academic credits. Breskin obviously gets around, and I like that right off the bat.

But I'm not as convinced by his poetry once I get into the book. Some of the earlier poems in Fresh Kills have a quasi-hipster, staccato style that feels forced to me:

The maid spanks her lord like clockwork.
Bring me the sweat of Scottie Pippen, bankers
and brokers, meter maids. Analyze skin
for its content of wind. Excuse me, while
I kiss the skull.

That last line is especially painful, being a pun on a lyric from Jimi Hendrix's “Foxy Lady.” I don't like it for what it is, and I don't like it for what it's trying to be.

Of course, my main gripe when reading poetry reviews is that they can excerpt what they want, and use that slice of writing to promote or demote the poet. It's a trick that works both ways. But with Breskin, and most of the poems in part one, I find this tendency of his to be annoying. To his credit, by part two things improve, which tells me (a) he had a definite theme in mind for each part of Fresh Kills, which I can respect even if I feel it fails him at times, and (b) that he is a poet I would like to continue to read. When he turns away from a more fragmented style that appears to address – urban alienation? Upper class complacency? – and toward more direct and emotive poems, I feel him, and I feel for him.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On Robert Frost

I had read very little Frost prior to a twofer I just picked up, including A Boy's Will and North of Boston. Certainly, the classic poems are unavoidable – “Acquainted with the Night,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” “The Road Not Taken” – but considering my own development as a poet, I had made some kind of shadowy and half-thought-out pact with myself early on not to pay Frost that much attention. (Even though I went to the University of Michigan with a blood relative, Gordon Jay Frost.) Somewhere along the line, however, I decided that I needed to revamp that pact, and look more closely at his work. This was due to a combination of reading about Frost (the man as well as the poet) and discussions with fellow poets and/or readers.

Most recently, it was Paul Muldoon's essay on “The Mountain,” in The End of the Poem that got my juices flowing. Muldoon's book is pretty daunting, both in heft as well as depth of analysis; despite the chatty nature of these collected lectures, Muldoon hits his topics at various angles, drawing on myriad, sometimes disparate sources. I admire the approach, but I'm barely a quarter of the way through the book, which was a gift two Christmases ago. This is because I like taking my time and enjoying the writing, which I return to between other bouts with books, magazines or periodicals, and also because I must take my time. Ordinarily, I'm a fast reader, and have to make myself slow down, but here I am literally forced to read slower, owing to the incredible amount of information and opinion Muldoon packs into each piece.

Without dragging myself back into the fascinating mire that is Muldoon's essay, let me just say that it was reading the reprinting of “The Mountain” preceding it that really grabbed me. I knew some, but not all of the poems Muldoon chose to address, which was part of what attracted me to the book; and for those I didn't know, I read them right before getting into the essays themselves, rather than ahead of time. I was stunned by “The Mountain,” which struck me, perhaps initially in the context of collected lectures on topic, as quite unlike the Frost I (thought I) knew.

A Boy's Will was more 'that' Frost, the one I 'knew' when I made my earnest, if short-sighted pact to sidestep him in my own development. (I'd gotten into Williams by then, and he seemed a more stylistically as well as philosophically valuable replacement.) These poems sound to my ears anachronistic, even for 1913, whereas, for example, Arnold's “Dover Beach” sounds like a 20th century, rather than a 19th century poem. What amazes me, though, is how much of a step forward North of Boston seems, published only a year later. Perhaps it's the length of many of the poems that initially sets them apart, physically, from the prior volume's, but of course it's more than that. There's something kind of precious and quaint about A Boy's Will, that North of Boston completely eschews – as if Frost had undergone some kind of physical change that in turn underpinned the topics and even tone of his writing at the time. I know this is very elementary thinking, but it comes from the gut too and I look forward to delving more deeply into these two books, as well as more of Frost's work.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ai's Vice

It amazes me that Ai isn’t read more frequently. When I was an undergraduate, I don’t recall (m)any references being made to her work by professors or fellow students, and among my current crop of poetry cronies, her name just doesn’t come up. This only affects me positively, since, as much as I do read poetry reviews in search of new source material and try to remain neutral in doing so, no matter how the writer succeeds at swaying me one way or another, I am acutely, perhaps perversely aware of current trends. Therefore, the ’fact’ of Ai’s faint blip on the contemporary poetry radar only encourages my further exploration.

I have a suspicion that she somehow falls between the cracks of two camps: too pulpy for academics, and too plebeian for poetry true believers. Not that she isn’t ’smart’ – she obviously is – but because of the deceptive ease with which her work reads, she is underrated and underestimated. Her approachability may be misleading, yet it’s a major asset considering the dark subject matter of Ai’s poetry.

I’m basing this opinion on Vice, her 1999 new and selected (a National Book Award winner). She has only published one book since, Dread, in 2003, which follows Ai’s trend toward single-titled tomes. Some readers swear against selected editions, but even here, in an arguably limited context, one observes Ai’s development as a poet and, more than that, a poet obsessed with working out her craft almost exclusively through dramatic monologues.

The earlier poems in Vice are blunt, terse, and photographic, rife with stark images of geographical extremes – an emaciated and humid southwest, bone-dry farmlands, blizzard-blown Alaskan bars. None run longer than a page. They are also impersonal, with characters known simply as he, she, we, you; the man, your brother, my woman. Only "Cuba, 1962," bothers to name one, and she’s a corpse. Juanita’s fate is worse than death – discovered, "lying face-down in the dirt" by her farmer husband, who chops off her feet, because "what I take from the earth, I give back "– yet the poem is also cruelly poignant:

Whomever tastes my woman in his candy, his cake,
tastes something sweeter than this sugar cane;
it is grief.
If you eat too much of it, you want more,
you can never get enough.

Impersonal, but not dis-personal. A neat trick, both cleverly effective in character or execution, and precise in procedure.

With her second book and onward, the scope of Ai’s poems widens, and the work itself expands to encompass more complex narratives, stretching over many pages. "Killing Floor," the title poem of her sophomore collection, begins a long fascination with historical figures, here Leon Trotsky, elsewhere writers (Yukio Mishima), celebrities (Lenny Bruce, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean), politicians and power brokers (General Custer, the Kennedys, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover), psycho- and sociopaths (the Atlanta child murderer, the rapist of a hospital-bound comatose patient, a Gulf War vet suffering from post-traumatic stress). Suffice it to say, these are not cheery portraits or puff pieces, but eviscerations, exclamations, odes to entropy and existential crises. Ai doesn’t change style or tone so much in these poems, but I admire her craft and subtle fluctuations in voice, the unflinching way she puts a cracked mirror up to society and watches it pander and preen.

Back in business

I started this blog way back when, in lieu of, or perhaps as an adjunct to my homepage. Now that I have multiple pages out there, why not add another, I ask myself, that perhaps focuses more on my poetry and writing, and less (if at all) on the musical stuff? Thus, I am back.

Let's see how long it lasts ...

Fingers crossed.

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