Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shane Neilson's Will


“The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.”
--Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

The epigraph to Shane Neilson’s 2013 Will alerts the reader before the first short story that there’ll be more than a few autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or attendant studies among the set of eighteen. Neilson, a physician, wastes no time. “The Entirely Beautiful” is the most harrowing story in a collection mass-tattooed with medical blunders, emergency chaos, angry reaction, and painful reflection. This is a good choice in sequencing. If you can get through story one (better, if you enjoy it), it’s a good bet you’ll move through the blood and anguish with eyes wider than an initial, indifferent perusal might have gained.

Though the operating room and palliative care facility make for a lot of the settings, medical care is also backgrounded and foregrounded  outside the hospital. “Gorblimey!”, one of the compilation’s best, a speculation on poet-physician John McCrae, is a crafty mix of risque, ad hoc, soldier-bellowing song lyrics, aphorism (“Poetry is no ounce of cure, words won’t cleanse my lungs.”), and dramatic ambivalence.

Neilson can take off the scrubs, though, and travel to the hockey rink, with “Fucking Shit Ice”, a gamey insider look at the minors with a ringer, his friend, and his coach; a terrifically funny (and wistful) “Prawn”, about a beleaguered high-pressure inside salesman with admirable ‘fuck you’ ethics; and the ambitious “The Great Newfoundland Novel”, a boisterous phantasmagoria featuring a forlorn Nabokov in the snow and mist of Newfoundland.

Neilson shows a surprisingly refreshing tactic of burying any didacticism within the action of the narrative framework. The violent and drunken father; the superior medical superior: in less patient, or more reactionary, hands, these characters could have been a short road to caricature and easy damnation. But the invested author makes us look at them, difficult, at times, as it is, with concern, if not empathy.

A terrific collection that, I'm sure, will reward future readings.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Jason Guriel's The Pigheaded Soul

Collections of poetry criticism, dormant for a spell in Canada, have erupted in the past two years. Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism, James Pollock’s  You Are Here (both reviewed on this site), and others I’ve yet to get to have provided context on, and assessment for, contemporary poets, as well as needed looking glasses into the hours-only shifting sands of poetics. Jason Guriel’s The Pigheaded Soul, published last year by The Porcupine’s Quill, is another compilation, a generous roll call of thirty poetry reviews, essays and retrospectives, journalistic “atmosphere” pieces on poetry readings, a memorial, a music review, a thematic review of two novels, a general review of poetry within prose, and a review of an essayistic compilation of poets opening up on pre-poem impulses. I’ve given my opinions on Daryl Hine, Eric Ormsby, Anne Carson, Dennis Lee, and Don Coles in the aforementioned books by Starnino and/or Pollock, so I’ll just mention in passing that Guriel’s take on those poets shares evaluative force and specific, similar criticisms with those other assessments (Hine, yes – Ormsby, yes – Carson, mostly yes – Coles, yes – Lee, “Godno”.) And because of the breadth of the compilation, the unkind math involved in the undeviating sweep of the clock’s second-hand, and other books piling up like cordwood in October, I’ll have to severely limit my engagement with the essays to several choices. But I’ll back up.

Surely Guriel’s most provocative contention in the introduction is his Kleinzahler-aligned applause of poetry as “[e]ntertainment, escapism – these are feats enough”. Rather than expanding in a joyful explication his definition would warrant (two previous quotes from poems of Sarah and Coluccio don’t support his argument, the first example clever but slight, and the second, in lockstep iambic tetrameter, a shopworn consideration of the writer’s wish for the everlasting freshness of his words), Guriel settles back into the role of scold after a momentary half-smile. His next sentence is a botched, slumberous variation which, even were it a sardonic aping of the self-appointed vatic emphatics, assumes too much – “[f]ar too many readers of poetry prefer to flatter themselves with the splendid thought that the thoughtful work they read (and write) is food for thought”. Well, I’d submit that that extreme is equally countered by its opposite: poem as joke, as cool persona, as ironic elbow-to-the-ribs before the channel change. There are several problems with Guriel’s assertion but, for time considerations, I’ll limit my response to the main one: it’s a lie. Shakespeare, of course, created mouthwatering rhythms from diction frequently his own (neologists aren’t cute, they’re ambitious). But his plays have also been hotly debated for their political meanings, their psychological and philosophical insights, their moral knots and revelations, and their emotional ambiguities. Milton was a great thinker, and not just in his urgent political tracts. Dante was no slouch, nor were Blake and D. H. Lawrence. More recent examples? Lesser lights, sure, but I learned, as a sprout, when indoors, more about human nature and grace from Layton and Gustafson than when reading historical overviews or cultural op eds. Of course great poetry doesn’t need complex thought. And thought without a joy in its encapsulated language is stillborn. But thought doesn’t, willy nilly, cancel out entertainment and delight.  And at the outset, just to posit this forced choice is false. Thought, as Guriel often derides that  word or procedure in poetry, means, for him, messaging, or more accurately, bald or simplistic or hectoring messaging. Get that baby out of the bathwater! But I go on so, so I’ll go on.

I’m lukewarm or cuke-cool on much of the poetry of Kay Ryan, so I was eager to read Guriel’s take on her poetry since he thinks her (I believe) North America’s greatest living practitioner. In his book’s titular essay, the conceit is ineffectual. Written from the perspective of a reviewer in the 2030s, anything said could just as easily be made clear now, especially so since the Guriel stand-in loves to praise his case study by the contrast of beating with a ruler her unworthy contemporaries. The Ryan promoter tells us all poets are now Ryan-influenced, “so much so that her concise, linear style ... is the default setting for versifiers”. Guriel, later, has fun with that “reality” when he cites a poem by a Frank Hoaks in The New Yorker (the reviewer shows a welcome consideration in tipping his hand). In its skinny lines, aphoristic ambition, gear-shifting enjambment and last-word rhyme, Guriel may be gently pummeling acolytes trying to make a name for themselves riding the jacket flaps of the great, but his exercise, though a pale imitation of a Ryan poem, nevertheless undercuts some of the limitations of the California poet. Ryan -- and Guriel surely must love this about her -- is transitional about meaning, preferring, in step and often, to shift from the concrete to the general in the closing line or three by way of ironic juxtaposition. At her best, as in “Against Gravity”, Ryan delivers the shock from a vague appreciation of perseverance to the ominous specifics of “Because we’re glad some mornings,/and buoyant, as though we had/no bombs or appointments”. In other poems, “Half A Loaf” being a good example, Ryan’s beguiling, casual metaphorical horror of “The whole loaf’s loft/is halved in profile,/like the standing side/of a bombed cathedral” ends in the deflating and unnecessary “I say do not adjust to half/unless you must”. At her worst, Ryan has the contemporary disease – no different than a legion of other versifiers filling out the requirements of one-issue-and-out litzines – of vagueness masquerading as profundity, as in “Miners’ Canaries”, where “Something is always/testing the edges/of the breathable -- /not so sweet, not so yellow,/but something is always/living at the wrong edge/of the arable; something/is always excused first”. I’m writing a bit of a review of Ryan’s The Best Of It myself, but I’d hoped that Guriel would’ve focused more on a review-proper, on the specific charms or revelations of a poet he reveres, instead of setting down a three-page biographical preamble and a concluding two-page hoax, critical history, and future speculation. The middle half deals with poems, but mostly summarily, in overview, though when he does delve into a particular poem, her “Turtle”, I couldn’t disagree more with the interpretation, in which the reptile’s movements somehow demonstrated her “advocacy of underdogs of all stripes”. This may be true of Ryan, when considering her prose and her personal life. I wouldn’t know. But the poem – the only consideration – is a different animal. Though Ted Hughes and D. H. Lawrence wrote excellent poems of beast and bird, they could also arrogantly draw thought bubbles above the heads of their illiterate studies. Ryan’s “Turtle”, unfortunately, belongs to the latter set, with its, “She lives/below luck-level, never imagining some lottery/will change her load of pottery to wings.” But change is a human hope, and hope is made possible by an awareness of past and future. Animals don’t have that capacity, which can be a curse, but in this case surely a blessing. The turtle doesn’t need the poet’s misplaced compassion – (Who knows, from the poem’s last line, not quoted in Guriel’s essay, that the turtle is “chastened”?) – but maybe the reader chancing upon Ryan for the first time, via Guriel, does.

When Guriel wants to, he can dig into the guts and grace of a particular poem with an insightful revelation and assessment. Multiple essays in The Pigheaded Soul demonstrate this. But the practice is sporadic, and one almost always gets the sense that the microscopic view is just a researcher’s required footnotes, a dispassionate accommodation to the exigencies of the reviewer’s job description. His prime passion, as I’ve made the point, is the overview, including the historical placement, the (sometimes) willful and cross-genre comparisons, the insights gleaned from an author’s life, away from and at the writer’s desk. This is all quite interesting, but (asks the reader, and certainly the author under consideration), what about the poems? Well, if you’re looking to be enlightened on the poetry of Charles Bernstein in Guriel’s essay “Words Fail Him”, on that American language poet and guru, you’re out of luck. The procedure mentioned above is amplified. Clocking in at twenty pages – the longest word count of any essay in the book – it’s apparent the topic (not, ever, just the poems) is an important one for the reviewer. Guriel instigates the attack with a bewildering medley of meta-analyses. A high school friend’s poem is endearingly mocked (“This/is/a/poem.”). Language poetry is then castigated by its very definition. Other language poets are mini-critiqued (Hejinian, Perelman) by way of one poem-fragment apiece. A reactionary and silly defense is made for poems that dare to appear unthreatening on first read: “But what’s so bad about kicking back with a poem that conjures the illusion of a speaker serving up a clear message in a linear way? (What’s so bad about a good read?) And why do these curious peoples, the Language poets, want to take the reader by the lapels and jostle her so?” To the last question: I don’t know, maybe they got (and get) tired of poems that “entertain” and have nothing to say? Guriel’s welcome to his preferences, of course. We all have them, and it’s best (and credit to Guriel) to admit them. But there is so much that is assumed in the above quotation, I’ll try to be concise with my response. There’s nothing wrong with a good read, of course. Maybe others (and I’m one) are entertained, at times, by non-linear writing as well as “clear message[s]”. (I thought Guriel was against messaging?) An antagonistic my-team-or-nothing view seems not just narrow-sighted, but narrow-minded. And in an age of exponential distraction, the poet’s initial job (essentially, to get noticed) is as hard as it’s ever been. A little lapel-shaking ain’t necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t always mean that a poet’s doing so in bad faith. If it seems I’m far from any Bernstein sighting, I’m just following Guriel’s lead. Nothing yet on the poet’s All the Whiskey in Heaven, Bernstein’s large Selected. But at least we’ve thrashed through the underbrush and are now within range of the perplexing, though not-so-rare, black wildebeest in the clearing. Responding to an early essay by Bernstein, Guriel asserts that “surely there are those who aren’t much startled by the [language poems’] disruptions, having encountered them before”. He fixes on this point, with minor variations, throughout this “review” of Bernstein’s 2010 Selected, his most forceful point being that the reader must first be transmitted into reverie before any startling can occur. But these words – startle, jostle, disruption -- have to be used with great care. (Bernstein – and the language poets – get sympathy, from me, here.)  It’s true that in their fractured syntax, grammatical tricks and subversions, lack (at times) of referents, disjointed narratives, harsh shifts in tone, a Gurielesque prosecution of opacity and willful disdain for the reader may make sense. But each reader has to account for his own experiences. After the initial “jostling”, the effect of Bernstein’s poetry, for me, isn’t one of confusion or frustration, but of play, of seeing how it matches with meaning and emotion. I can’t do that yet, though, because the reviewer is still haranguing all language poets for the supposed sins of their forebears. All language poets are alike, apparently because one passage of a 1994 Bernstein poem is “similar in sound” (yes, that’s the finely-tuned exegesis) to that of a Jackson Mac Low 1964 fragment and a Gertrude Stein poem-snippet of 1914. But this is ridiculous. The poems are quite different in structure, rhythm, and tone (I’m not typing them all out here, and for illustrative purposes, they can’t be excised. Pp 236-7, though.) Guriel finishes his preamble with, “his gumming up of grammar, his juxtaposition of words that are a typewriter’s slip away from one another: these are reliable licks in a repertoire, the ones you play if you want to count yourself part of Official Avant-Garde Culture.” This is unfair, based, so far, on one Bernstein poem-fragment. But now, the review of the Selected itself begins.

Guriel states that Bernstein’s “subject matter is usually the opacity of words” after stating that it’s “not the transcript of a coherent voice with something on its mind”. This contradiction, amazingly, trumps itself in the next paragraph, where Guriel lists several meanings apparent throughout the Selected, including, “wary of walls and boundaries”, “looks askance at the corporate world and the myth of the self-determining individual”, and “not without a sense of humour” (the double negative here is a grudging, faint-praise nod to one of Bernstein’s strengths). I mentioned earlier that Guriel is at his best when investigating an actual poem, but even this is overstating the case. He’s most concerned with parsing poem fragments, as evidenced by his handling of a section of Ryan’s “Turtle”, already explored by me in that essay. (All Ryan’s poems are short, so a full-poem quotation would have been easy, though it also would have shown how his point was compromised.) The best demonstration, though, of Guriel’s missing the forest for a glance at a pine needle begins with his perusal of Bernstein’s first poem in All the Whiskey in Heaven, “Asylum”. It’s not an auspicious start. Bernstein’s “rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, plants//in line” is criticized by Guriel for its missed connection of not just “in line”, but  “words in a line – a line of poetry!” (Italics are in the original text.) Guriel continues: “Bernstein borrows some images from Goffman, of bounded spaces. But he also cracks wise with a pun, reminding those of us bookworms who might otherwise relax into the reverie of reading that the images, far from being firm representations of the things of the world, are made of words, words, words. ... He leaves his sentences in tatters, ironically enough.//In other words, it’s hard to get a grip on “Asylum”, which is always unravelling.” Flabbergasting. Remember, this is the conclusion Guriel asserts after quoting less than two lines of a 16 page poem. Yes, those lines are also lines in poetry. Even the most representational of poets realizes (or should) that their words are just manipulations of reality, messed with, loaded with multiple or ambiguous meanings, ordered in syntactical originality, presented with an organic feel for nuanced tone within the temporal shifts of the whole poem. What is Guriel actually arguing (or arguing for) here? Bernstein’s aim, even in this small sample, is fairly easy to decipher. Guriel damns the sentence tatters as “ironic”, but it’s Guriel who’s obtusely ironic in not recognizing Bernstein’s fine mating of style with content (the disjunction – not breakdown – of language with the mental states experienced in a 1976 mental institution, as they were called in pre-politically incorrect times). If one can’t be circular, oblique, and grammatically challenging, in this context, then I’m not sure when a non-linear approach would be accepted. The further irony, though, is that most of “Asylum” is fairly easy to parse. But one wouldn’t know that with only Guriel’s essay to go by. The poem gathers in condemnatory strength and anger, convincingly so. Guriel’s introductory slam of Bernstein’s nothing “on his mind” vanishes in poem one, with “booing, tray thumping, mass food rejection/mutinies; but these/plateaus of disinvolvement/broken (as they/disciplined, moralistic, monochromatic/sponsor an ideal” and “lectures, art classes or woodworking classes, card playing//industrial alcohol, nutmeg, or ginger//of dead sea in//vivid, encapturing//outside. This//sharp smell of fresh air//pass//the loss of failure//circles from which” (The last quote closes the poem, although closes isn’t the right word.) Guriel’s attack continues, though, seemingly oblivious to the dramatic narrative: “Perhaps, then, that’s why the poem is so fragmented: it’s fomenting an uprising against the institution of grammar!” Or perhaps Bernstein is making the case for rationality transitioning into its insane paradoxical bed partner, and its use in all sorts of oppressive behaviour, backed by the state and the good housekeeping seal of approval. This is, after all, what kicked off the high-modern hijinks of a more difficult time in engaged meaning with poets, novelists, playwrights and painters. “A war to end all wars”, and the like, have a tendency to anger and disturb. Guriel continues, in his next poem-“review”, this of Bernstein’s devastating social scorch, “Standing Target”. Here, and finally, to his credit, Guriel allows for four fairly extended passages of the twelve-page offering, after which he summarizes, in part, “these creeps [are also] associated with the most criminally banal examples of language in Bernstein’s poem. If only little Charlie were left to his own devices and allowed to play freely in the muck of pure language -- instead of being harangued into ‘organized games’ where he has to side with a team – he might avoid a career in advertising or, worse, turning out like like DeMotte [the corporation man mocked earlier in the poem]. He might become a Language poet, given to explosive outbursts.” Now, this is a curious conclusion, this ad hominem sneer. First, Guriel is bending backwards to find meaning, interesting on its own for someone so averse to even care about meaning (generally) in poetry. So why he’d try even harder here is revealing. Is it because Bernstein’s politics and social concerns are antithetical to his? He references them quite a bit throughout these twenty pages, the “left-wing axe to grind”, among other biographical fixations. I have an issue, too, with much of Bernstein’s politics (not so much with the particular direction, more so its simplicity), but one needn’t care about pinpoint advocacy to feel compassion for one’s own (and others’, of course) experiences growing up in a school system rife with do-gooding half-wits, malicious drones, and other psychologically stunted stooges of administrators who get their coin by the sequestered robotic Spock-lite (not the sci-fi one) parameters of condescending report card-ese. It’s a widespread North American concern, a critical one, even one changed for the worse since 1980, if journalistic and academic and anecdotal accounts are indicators, and certainly nothing that warrants a cynical and misguided putdown on the putative petulance of a still-infantile Bernstein. But the focus on Bernstein’s insidious program continues through to the end of the long essay: “Thank You for Saying Thank You” is an “anti-poem”. I hate the too-easy, sneering anti-poem, as well. But does Bernstein’s poem qualify as one? No. It’s an anti-a-particular-kind-of poem, a different matter altogether. Guriel, through his long compilation, sneers as good as Bernstein ever gives (and if Bernstein is “a little too hot”, then Guriel is much too separated and cool) when critiquing, holus-bolus, avant-garde poetry. Why shouldn’t Bernstein get the same allowance for castigating the paint-by-numbers emotionality of a prefab lyric in fifteen precious lines? One could argue, as I’ve done, that bald poetics should remain in essays, not in poems, much like the government should stay away from the pulpit (or more accurately, the choral bench), but the sentiments expressed in “Thank You for Saying Thank You”, the target of which is poetry of positive reader-regard, “like kite/flying and fly/fishing”, are on the mark, and, ironically, something I’d think Guriel would applaud in a different form, perhaps even in a different mode. His response, immediately following the bizarre, “[i]t reads like the venting of someone who was jilted by a New Yorker poet”, which itself is deposited immediately before the following quote (though this latter is to a different poem in the book which Guriel doesn’t reference) reads, “it’s no great act of iconoclasm to snicker at some neo-Romantic who goes looking for his soul in ‘the song of a minor bird’ or who objectifies women. I mean, who doesn’t hate that guy?” It may not be iconoclastic, but it’s also not hiding behind criticisms of the dead. “Thank You for Saying Thank You” was written in 2001, and it’s a timely response to much of the most popular (and critically lauded) poetry of the 90s, both in Canada and the U.S., the poetry of sincere, inoffensive, even-tempered coffee table books. A few pages later, we’re treated to another sarcastic excuse for exposition: I don’t go for the anaphoric monotony of “Let’s Just Say”, but there are a few good lines, one of which Guriel shits on in a typically superficial phrase. Bernstein’s line? “Let’s just say that I encounter myself not in the mirror but in the manure.” Too pat? Maybe. But does it earn Guriel’s, “the speaker has shit on his face”? Even if we only interpret the line on its surface, it’s obviously figurative, emphasizing that one’s deficiencies are more instructive than one’s delusional self-regard. (One typically postures, and puts on make-up, in front of the mirror.) But “manure” also grows what we need to survive. Is that such a stretch for a critic who’s also a poet? Again, I don’t think the poem works, but the snide and empty assumptions, “Here are some of [the lines], should you care to concentrate”, don’t illuminate. Guriel is now in the homestretch. “[R]eaders have adjusted to poetry shot through with disruptions; indeed, they fairly expect them”. Which readers are these? Other avant-garde readers, perhaps. But doesn’t the opposite point hold for Bernstein, then? Don’t readers of the anecdotal or imagined lyric expect, in a history far longer and more deeply entrenched, that minor epiphanies will arrive, in the last line of the half-page, with a slightly sad or slightly smiley expression? And aren’t reader expectations, however superficial, separate from the procedures and qualities of specific poems from either camp? In other words, are poets responsible for the complacencies of their readers? This is all too easy, this macro-dumping on avant-garde poetry. I’ve expressed my disgust with a lot of it, in reviews of specific books, and in proactive poetics. But that’s the point. Books should be reviewed for what’s between the pages, not as soldiers in a long line of casualties in an ongoing war. It’d be nice if Bernstein’s poems, delightfully various and rich with sound, feeling, and sense, could’ve gotten a deliberate airing in the expanded word count. But Guriel has formed an opinion on avant-garde poetry, and has framed his argument with misconstrued examples from several poems. God knows, if that’s the route one takes, it’s easy pickings: pretentious nonsense like “Virtual Reality” won’t win Bernstein many new converts. But Guriel’s also failed to note, never mind comment on, other worthy poems, and lines of poems in All the Whiskey in Heaven. There’s the effervescent (in part) “Dark City”, with its wonderful, “She that peeps through a hole will kiss/the wave that troubled her”, which, aside from its delightful rhythm, also makes a case for following one’s obsession, not getting psychoanalyzed out of it. (An aphorism similar in sentiment comes four lines later with, “A stumble may/prevent a fall but a fall guy’s/my kind of man.”) There’s the songlike “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” ‘s “Don’t dance with me/’til I cut my tie/Cut my tie, cut my tie/Don’t fancy me ‘til/The rivers run dry/& a heh & a hi & a ho”. There’s the great success, of “Report From Liberty Street”, in balancing tones – puzzled, wondrous, rational – of (then) recent post 9/11 with its near-finish challenge (which shouldn’t need to be voiced, but is needed), “The question isn’t is art up for this but what else is art for?”. There’s the sublime poem, “Mall At Night”, which I’ll quote in full:

“There is no shade in the forest
when we beat our wings against the moss
& tear the petals off the spruce
revealing what’s never said but
spoken, companion to discordant facts
stacked three foot high above the drawers
clogging corridors. Consonance is this
world’s only comfort, stony stare of
stars on bleary night, awake enough
to lose a dozen threads, invent a baker’s
dozen more for recompense. The gravel
does not hold, the road beyond repair,
yet closer to, by far, than dusk’s approaching
glare.”

None of the above plays superior tricks with “gum[med] ... grammar” and pretzel syntax on readers, so Guriel’s assertion – “whenever Bernstein appears readable, whenever he resorts to traditional devices like alliteration and rhyme, he’s likely having us on” – is pernicious, even if mistakenly formed. Guriel finally throws his hands up in a concluding biographical attack, which, again, reveals more about Guriel’s distaste for an entire poetic movement than it does in enlightening the reader on actual poems from this one card-carrying member of “Official Avant-Garde Culture”. After listing Bernstein’s accomplishments as decided on by the word community, Guriel states, “Language poets, we might conclude [we might conclude?] lead an ascetic existence early in the life cycle, but later grow fat and happy. More power to them, I say! Still, I wonder what Bernstein’s younger self would make of all that power?” This is the best howler yet. The cynical tone (and the passive-aggressive one), the assumed cynicism of Bernstein (he was a starving poet, an ascetic, with the paradoxical hope, all along, of breaching the ivy walls of ... of what, exactly? Poets have “all that power”? And if others choose to fete Bernstein with titles and fitting adjectives, that somehow, in itself, reflects poorly on Bernstein? What’s he supposed to do? Be churlish, a boor behind bad grammar? And if he does, wouldn’t he then be mocked by Guriel for chasing further notoriety as a reverse revolutionary?  Words fail him, indeed.

“Kevin: Yeah, you ever hear the one about the middleclass idiots who sort of spend all their time analyzing their own emotions and writing bullshit poetry, you know, that we’re supposed to read? I mean, as if we’re fucking interested.

Band (laughs): That’s a good one.”

-- Dexys Midnight Runners

The above quote is taken from the prefatory set-up to Guriel’s essay on the novels The Anthologist by Nicholoson Baker, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. The essay itself is called “Lovable Losers”, and the top-heavy thematic approach allows its author the opportunity to make all sorts of pronouncements – some mildly sympathetic, others withering – about the psychology of little known or unappreciated poets. The conversation lead-off, from the 80s band (I assume Guriel is transferring it from a rock bio or article), is interesting in how it ties into Guriel’s thoughts. Dexys Midnight Runners were pulling in more green than what the fictional first-person narrator of The Anthologist would have seen, he of the not insubstantial debt and odd job undertakings, so I’m not sure who the “middle class” dig is aimed at. And it’s sure not aimed at any of Arturo Belano’s or Ulysses Lima’s acolytes and lovers, those who spend more time dreaming in the guts of fire hazards than combing their hair for job interviews. I also wonder which incarnation of Dexys Midnight Runners this story is taken from. A later version – 1985 – would have seen Vincent Crane on its roster, the manic-depressive and brilliant organist/lyricist who wrote many of the tunes for the underrated, early 70s Atomic Rooster. Those lyrics, embedded in powerful funk/blues workings, often dealt with suicide, alienation and social deception. One or both of the formative Kevins in DMR may have ho-hoed about losers dripping blue tears onto endless pages, but I can’t imagine Crane participating in it (he committed suicide just four years later), and when you’re chasing that “fat and happy” zone (Guriel’s assessment of latter-day Bernstein), it’s doubly rich to note DMR’s constant image and musical makeover in trying to cash in on that ever-elusive second hit. But the charming, intelligent, quirky, and passionate (about poetry) Paul Chowder, he of the fictional wordsmiths, isn’t angling for a new style, or promoting what’s he’s already written. Guriel’s introduction to The Anthologist is concise. Mildly respected, once-known poet, procrastinates while trying to start an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry, girlfriend leaves him, mundane life details take on melancholic significance. OK, the latter isn’t mentioned by Guriel, but that’s because it doesn’t fit his theme. But let’s get to the poetry. Chowder’s an odd duck, a prosodist who disbelieves in the existence of pentameter (it’s tetrameter with a rest), and free verse. But he’s not a simple grouser of contemporary verse. Despite its apparent “unruliness”, Chowder enjoys the poetry of Robert Hass. He enthuses over lines of verse in chestnuts, sure, but his comments can’t be consigned to the bins of cheap augury and laughable vagary. Nor can his commentary of extra-poetical matters. But perhaps most endearing are the speculations on the gulf between a canonical artist’s influence and the odds an unknown has of matching it (call it fame if you like). “One day the English language is going to perish ... and it will become a language like Latin that learned people learn... American poetry will perish with the language; the sitcoms, on the other hand, are new to human evolution and therefore will be less perishable.” Like the “losers” in The Savage Detectives, the obsessive artists are depicted with more than a hint of sympathy. Guriel states that a huge reason for the popularity of The Anthologists can be understood “because it enabled that most satisfying kind of voyeurism: the prolonged peek at oneself.” But this is superficial. Yes, artists can see the broad outlines of envy, self-pity, struggle, petty jockeying for political position via  movements and fads, but Chowder is a unique creation and, (once again) I find Guriel’s descent into a possible autobiographical link to be barking up the same tree long after the cat’s skedaddled, unaffected and oblivious: “It’s possible that this Paul Chowder character is little more that a special effect: the lifelike avatar of an amateur enthusiast named Nicholson Baker, who writes a stylish novel but hasn’t much of a clue about poems.” Or it’s possible that Baker knows a great deal more than he’s letting on with his fictional character, and that he’s plotted out that character consistently, painstakingly, so that his monologue matches that vision. Guriel gets a little closer to the bone with his conjecture that “Chowder may well be intended as a parody of the middle-aged curmudgeon, out of touch with recent doings, but are most readers – the ones who know little about poetry and just want to read the new Nicholson Baker novel – going to get the parody?” Why not? Despite the occasional concentration of prosodic exegesis, Baker’s narrative is of a piece, and makes a cohesive statement about individual perception, paradoxically unique while getting stuck in past resolutions. (Chowder obsesses over poets’ biographies, as well as their evaluative rankings.) The Anthologist is an enjoyable novel, a delight to read aloud for its unaffected tone and  its loopy insights. And again, who cares, besides Guriel, that it misrepresents the actual poetry world? The character is not supposed to be all-knowing. In fact, the point of his misreading of the current scene, and that he’s not up to date on publications and journals other than The New York Times, is that he’s a hidebound traditionalist not just in verse but in life. Afraid of taking on new challenges, within a relationship or on the job or in the community, his cluelessness about much contemporary verse or different communities and schools can be understood in this wider context. The uplifting ending is unconvincing, too easy, after that entrenchment, but the compassionate tone of the novel makes it unsurprising. Guriel wanted muck and fire. But that’s not the character, or the novel, Nicholson wanted to create. And he didn’t need to. Others can fill in those blanks.

I don’t have a copy of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives at the moment, but, once again, I take issue with Guriel’s view of the novel, to say nothing of his extraneous assessments, though it’s less of an issue than was the case for Baker’s study. Guriel praises the prose for “putting a lot of stock in the power of the good old human voice at its least rehearsed and most conversational.” But the welter of voices in the long, first-person, middle-section reportage, coagulate in an amorphous jello of mediocre taste and texture. I get that poets, even good ones, often flatline their speech with the best (or worst) of one’s literary-despising or literary-indifferent acquaintances, but out of the eighty?, a hundred?, different narrators, most all involved as poets, painters, editors, publishers, curators, university students, journalists, one would expect more than a few startling (there’s that word again) figures of speech, similes, syntactical felicities, slang-slinging, cussing of originality and cultural wit. (Guriel, with others, has attested to Natasha Wimmer’s excellent translation, so that excuse is off the board.) Ironically, Guriel follows up his previous quote with, “[f]ortunately, one can only imagine the purple prose a Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, presented with the same material, would have slathered on”. But what’s wrong with using a Michaels-like voice to lampoon pretensions of some of Bolano’s characters? It’d be entirely believable: young, impressionable poets trying, through strained, overly-ambitious, high-flown diction, to create a name for themselves in the crowded din of Mexican poetastery. (Many of those young people talk with the same elevated self-importance as they write.) Not Bolano’s aim, though, apparently. There’s been much praise for Bolano for the humour in The Savage Detectives, but the overwhelming emotional residue is one of sadness. A heavy, hopeless sadness. Guriel notes the “underdog” nature of the visceral realists (as well as their counterpart in Chowder), and he “got caught up in the sheer adventure” of the realists’ quest to track and find the elusive Tinajero, a fantastically obscure poet whose one extant poem the young dreamers have elevated into a mythical document. I, unlike Guriel, don’t much care about poems or songs that may or may not have existed, but I agree that the chase itself was fun. Well, for at least a hundred pages. Now, I have to state – I often enjoy long novels. Some of our greatest canonical works, of course, cross the 500 page-plus finish line. But The Savage Detectives covers its terrain many times, then backtracks, and (despite the change in locations) takes us on similar tours. Buried underneath billowing exhaust and dust are some narrative gems, especially when Bolano allows his storyteller(s) to breathe for more than three pages. Perhaps Guriel got sidetracked, too, because he fills the middle of his review with detours into the worlds of Joyce’s Dedalus and Nabokov’s John Shade. Interesting comparisons to the core work, and Guriel’s insight is excellent – “Dedalus and Madero [SD’s introductory and concluding narrator] share a fantasy: they want to possess an oeuvre, without having to give much thought to what it might consist of” – but the exclusive focus on the poet- theme leaves out the many other concerns and obsessions of Bolano: the career-climbing word-related professionals who manipulate language to their benefit; an enlightenment fantasy of language that substitutes, ironically, for the beatific promises of organized religion (well, maybe that ties in with Guriel’s consideration); the traffic between words as charm, and sexual desire and decay; and the disagreements, even violence, between wage-earners and their poetic parasites. Guriel’s final line, as a faint damnation or faint approval of the two novels – “We’ve had a lot of fictional poets who are easy to love; we need more who actually deserve it” – is praiseworthy, but problematic. Are only successes worthy of love? And how do we account for a successful artist in fiction? By popularity, subjective evaluation (good luck with the narrative arc on that one), strength of personality?

I’ve read other works which are the focus of The Pigheaded Soul, but, as mentioned earlier, have had to limit my selection in what I’ve engaged with above. It’s certainly unrepresentative of my evaluative decision on the book as a whole. Guriel, despite my earlier condemnation, shows a deft touch when burrowing, for three pages, into one poem, “Play”, from Suzanne Buffam’s excellent 2005 Past Imperfect, patiently triggering Buffam’s word choices and sonic manoeuvring into the childrens’ psychology during the game. His fond and slight mocking of the Griffin Prize extravaganza, in the role of cultural gadabout, is amusing and occasionally noteworthy for its puncturing of subdued Canadian pomposity. (Yes, I’m aware of the oxymoron, but the tag still fits.) And it’s heartening to read about a little love shown once more for the Wordsworth-lite verse of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman who, at least, gets the occasional nod decade to decade from the academic set. Guriel’s most important attribute, however, is his writing: concise, with creative turns of phrase, surprising and apt lexical choices, skeptical, allusive, unstuffy and unafraid to stick his neck out with evaluations (Heaney’s The Human Chain doesn’t make the grade), and wide-ranging, Guriel is foremost a curious reader who’s arrogant enough to believe his opinions matter (reviewers, in general, need more of that arrogance). That I disagree with him on many of his assessments isn’t all that big a deal. At least I know where the man stands. Can a reader of criticism ask for anything more important?


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Alissa Nutting's Tampa


I dislike almost every online review I’ve read of this novel, pro or con, thus providing my chief stimulus for this consideration.

Tampa, because it’s based on the actual lurid adventures of a female hebephile, got a lot of coverage, much of it focusing on the sociological issues and legal ramifications weighing on the narrative like a 60000 lb elephant expanding with each ingested and titillating doughnut while among several innocents trapped in a rec room.

The novel’s advocates: Nutting bravely shines a light on the often overlooked crime of women in power sexually abusing young males. She reveals the hypocrisy in a society which still considers a fourteen year-old male student to be the benefactor, not the victim, in this scenario.

The novel’s detractors: The sex scenes, which extended to the way the book was marketed, were damning in that they ironically set out to excite the reader, thereby adding to the bottom line of both author and publisher. (Duncan White’s review in The Telegraph was particularly adamant with this criticism.)

To the advocates: the big picture 60 Minutes-style overview is reductive, obvious, shallow, and unimaginative. Of course Nutting is pointing out the hypocrisies and sententious blather of the mouth-breathing boob tube enthusiasts, the boasting idiocies of the jock culture, the silence or downplaying or oppositional stance from female sexual-abuse support groups. But that’s a muted grand issue and, in that wise weighing of proportional characterization-within-theme, it shows a real and rare skill in a book fighting its way within a literary world – from author, reviewer, award-giving panel, and reader – frequently consumed by ideological positions of moral uplift that conflates a book’s worth with its potential for social change.

To the detractors: the sex scenes are indeed covered with a rancid motel 6 oil of pornographic spew. That’s the point. The first-person criminal sociopath described her experiences in A into B geometric, goal-scoring terms because that’s how she experienced them. The reader isn’t welcomed into a world of bad porn, but one of the psychology of desire without emotion. This is particularly well done because the predator’s demeanor with Jack is smooth, accommodating, encouraging, even laudatory. And it’s this frightening duplicity – everything she does is as a means to sate, temporarily, her sexual addiction – that shows what Nutting is about with her lead, both in and out of the bedroom.

Another negative position taken by the novel’s critics focuses on the improbable plot points. I don’t know. Have any of these people read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? I’m assuming they refer to the (spoiler alert!) father’s sudden death, or to the courtroom scene. These aren’t everyday outcomes, but there’re many stranger events happening every day, and you don’t have to read the Enquirer’s 86 lb front-page kitty to discover them. I thought the plot, though baggy at times, propulsive and dramatic.

Finally, both pro and con reviewers remarked on the writing. Either it was wonderful or awful. I found it was frequently wonderful and awful, sometimes on the same page. Here are two quotes from page 102:

“Suddenly all the panic inside me that had recently drained gushed back in full force.”

“He took a seat on my desk, his pants rising up to reveal trouser socks patterned with rows of tiny rainbow-trout icons.”

Nutting overwrites, and her syntax is often awkward (though the latter deficit isn’t lowlighted here). But she also has a delightful lyrical facility, an imaginative wit and dark humour integrated with emotional seamlessness. Since this is her first novel, and since her faults are repetitive ones, the publisher has to bear a large responsibility for the stylistic failings on board. So – it’s not poorly or expertly written, but is wildly uneven. But I’ll take a wide variation to get to the talented phrases and sentences, rather than endure a competent but talent-challenged and even-keeled experience.

I don’t have time to remark on the other fine psychological investigations Nutting digs into in the book. (The criminal’s reaction, (another spoiler alert!), now behind bars, to her husband’s anguished questions, is devastating in its cold, banal first-person assessment and off-topic trivial concern.) But I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking that a shocking book is praised and denounced for invalid or misconstrued reasons.



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Philip Roth's Indignation


Philip Roth’s follow-up to Exit Ghost, 2008’s Indignation, sees the workaholic turn up the heat while dealing with the same obsessions: sex, alienation, and death. Especially death. For those who’ve yet to read the short novel, beware of reviews – online reviews, anyway – that sabotage the narrative through giving away important plot points, including one structural surprise, that can be anticipated to some extent, but nevertheless have to experienced on first reading for best effect. The New York Times’ Kakutani is the worst culprit for this. But whereas the protagonist of Roth’s preceding novel was seventy-one, Indignation’s intense first-person narrator is just out of his teens and trying to complete his first year of college. The outside world is always present – the ramped-up Korean War – as are Marcus’ parents, though the young man, at Ohio’s Winesburg college, has left them back in New Jersey because of his admonitory, overbearing father.

I’ve only read eight or nine of Roth’s twenty-nine (+?) novels, but I’m sure there’s a lot of standard fare here. College life, sexual awakening, the exotic shiksa, rebellion of all sorts, self-definition. Unlike others who felt the structure was both shoddy and clipped, I thought the transitions and amalgamations of the larger worlds (college, war, politics of both) were handled intelligently and, just as importantly, raised a number of points which transcended Roth’s irritating propensity for didactic verbosity (though at times that didacticism was handled humorously and with purpose, as in the central set-piece between a smug and patronizing Dean and a nervous yet defiant Marcus). I’d develop this line of thought a little further, but it would come at the expense of narrative explanation, so I’ll just plug the book and leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jerzy Kosinski's The Devil Tree


Jerzy Kosinski’s career makes a farce out of the notion of artistic progression. His first novel, 1965’s The Painted Bird, is the most talented and realistic literary horror novel I’ve yet read. His last, 1988’s The Hermit Of 69th Street, is a dislocated series of private pleas and belligerent defenses. 

His second novel, Steps, is a series of thematically linked vignettes, and the revenge the protagonist was unable to formulate and enact in The Painted Bird was dramatically rendered in that novel’s follow-up.1973’s The Devil Tree is also structured in brief episodes, but as a fractured narrative. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between shocking action and lacerating interior criticism doesn’t work organically, or with any narrative momentum. Repetition dulls the more lurid effects, and one already gets the sense that Kosinski has played his best hands early in his career.

I believe it’s at least partly circumstantial. By 1973, burrowing into self-exploration had morphed from a psychedelic game into a painful picking at scabs. Kosinski’s forte – psychological revelation under extreme and sudden violence – had given way to this much different obsession, and Kosinski couldn’t find a way to successfully transform the two directions in a unique vision. Worse, Kosinski’s amoral anti-hero, Whalen, had already been done more convincingly by a number of authors before the 70s, including Camus and Dreiser in different modes.

But the fearless chronicler of hypocrisy, upper-class coldness, and perversion still knocks it out of the park in several episodes, including one in which Whalen’s father fires his loyal servant of twenty years for changing the blade in the master’s razor one day too early.

As for the charges of plagiarism directed at the Polish emigrant, it’s no wonder revenge played a part in most of his stories. After surviving World War II, only to land in a free country rife with jealous orchestrators of the unfounded, cowardly attack (though some of those pipsqueaks also originated in Poland), Kosinski could only lash back in his art. Unfortunately, his most open attempt to settle the record came when his mental health had already plummeted. Though he had been fighting his demons longer than the first of the personal literary attacks took hold, his last novel was a narrow, emasculated response to his accusers. The Devil Tree’s original epigraph, also appearing in the novel’s last pages, is scarily accurate when turned on Kosinski: “the devil, getting tangled in its branches, punished the tree by reversing it”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost


Christopher Hitchens' review of Philip Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost is funny and brilliant.

That said, and granting many of the damning points made, I liked the book quite a bit more than him. First the agreements:

The sassy shiksa still drives Roth/Zuckerman to lusty agony (emotionally only, that is --the protagonist is impotent after prostate surgery), though Roth's eros-thanatos dialectic has been debased. No one gives a damn about literature, especially not the young upstarts talking half the day on their cell phones -- grumpy old man makes visit to New York city after decades-long absence. Jamie’s dialogue with the “seductive” Zuckerman is stilted and unbelievable. And the conversations – all characters expatiate joylessly – are boring and repetitive.

Yet Roth paints a few bulls-eyes, as well. Hitchens, surprisingly, adds no word on the largest concern in the novel: the traffic between respect for privacy and the desire (right?) for the public to go after, and discover, secrets, whether they’re cheap and dubious or pertinent and spiritually revelatory. Zuckerman, in this light, and despite his morose obsession with writing and (as the novel progresses) desperate plea to Jamie to resuscitate his soggy organ, attacks the public’s insatiable appetite for trite journalistic detail concerning their faddish heroes. The irony is that Lonoff, Roth’s mentor, has been forgotten, anyway, but as Zuckerman has it, that’s not the point. Dignity doesn’t depend on whether or not the public cares for the degraded presumptions, only that they were made against the dead’s inability to defend them. One can see more than a little fear in Roth’s own life and work here. Zuckerman’s hatred and envy of the young, strong, and charismatic Kliman is palpable.

The Amy Bellette character – with brain cancer in its final stages – is well done and quite an achievement. She’s drawn sympathetically, hard to do while unflinchingly dwelling on her physical ruin and mental collapse.

Roth also aces class hypocrisy, having Zuckerman catch Jamie’s complaint about the use of the word “underprivileged”.

“SHE: I don’t like that word.

HE: Why?

SHE: Well, what does it mean? Under privileged. Either you have privilege or you don’t have privilege ...

HE: You were yourself  so privileged. One might even say overprivileged.”

Jamie had earlier struck out in rage and disbelief during and after George Bush’s election night second-term win. Yet she’s the beneficiary of old Houston money – (her father was friends with Bush Sr.) – which put her in the connected schools right up the line, which then allowed an acceptance of her neophyte effort in the New York Times despite the fact she always seemed to be too afraid (after 9/11) to work at all.

And on that always prickly and complex class speculation, Roth, in a curious structural choice toward the end of the novel, crafts a sedate and admiring introspective eulogy on the late George Plimpton. The aristocratic New England editor and essayist wasn’t slumming, as many (Mailer included) criticized, when the author of Paper Lion and Out Of My League tried his hand at exhibition play with the pros of football, baseball, boxing, and golf. (I’ve read, and delighted in, all of his sports ventures and would select The Bogey Man as Plimpton’s best.) Remarkable that one so privileged could create such a sympathetic picture of the borderline roster players in all those sports. Roth’s point is that Plimpton’s talent and compassionate observational powers were so advanced he could overcome those charges with in-depth adventures in class contrasts, not hypocritically sucking up to the disadvantaged nor boasting about the stars.

But how does that tie in to Roth’s main narrative? Well, it’s a damnation of Zuckerman (and by extension Roth) since – PLOT SPOILER! -- the writer is reduced to sour personal defense among his own kind -- fellow writers -- which can only be “won” by having the first-person narrator denying Jamie in his own alternate narrative in Exit Ghost’s final page.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War and Other Poems


“What should the war do with these jigging fools?”, said Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And he was the good guy! The fool’s representative? The poet. It’s important here, and subtle, as is much in Shakespeare (easily overlooked during bombast or mellifluous speech), that the poet is present, yet Brutus speaks about him to Cassius. And why not? The poet is known to the Imperial generals, but is not important enough to bother with. This is also the status of the poet (and artist in general) today, as Anis Shivani well knows.

In My Tranquil War and Other Poems, published in 2012 and ten years in the making, the Pakistani-American’s rhetoric is longer and wider than a Houston freeway. (There’s a you tube car cam video showing a driver’s entrance into the squalid asphalt-and-concrete maze that is Houston that’s at once frightening and banal, fixed states that Shivani also implants in a cumulative overdose throughout the volume.) The numbing fear and enraged impotence one is assaulted with, in poem after poem, is the result of increasingly sophisticated international political systems married to an amazingly naive liberal ideology.

Shivani’s first poem, “Harold Bloom’s Old Age”, acts as a transitional introduction. Composed as a sonnet (appropriate that it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, though with a twist), the turn achieves what every good sonnet should: a surprise. But surprise isn’t quite the right word. The tack-on couplet can be seen as a sarcastic swipe at Bloom’s footnoting self-importance, but there’s a further shock, and a queasy aftershock ( a 7.2 to a lingering 3.8), that Bloom’s ordered world is gone, and has been gone for over a century, “as each day I’ve murdered my sad Macbeths”, a terrifying modern abstract metaphor for suppression of grief based on collective guilt. We can still plunder the canon, but we resurface (or should) with an awful reminder that the same humanism, however talented, has today been neutered, (often justifiably) derided, or (most often) ignored.

Political poems are notorious for their propensity for propaganda or sentimentality, the worst of them combining both features in equal measure. (Read any essential Bush Jr. poems lately?) But contemporary examples exist. Robert Bly wrote some angry and affecting anti-Vietnam poems when he bothered to temporarily jolt himself out of a decades-long search for spiritual mentors in forest ponds. But almost all options have been pulled from under the poet’s aesthetically pleasing rug. Anger either gets you ridiculed by the academics or profiled by Homeland Security. Arms-length irony has long been an ineffectual boring reflex. Humanism (again), is naive if not hypocritical, and has also been co-opted, anyway, by the phony-holy purveyors of priestly consumerism. So what’s left? Well, as I remarked in a different post while quickly running through the origins of surrealism, as a preface in a review of Stuart Ross’ You Exist. Details Follow., it’s always puzzled me why that mode hasn’t undergone a renaissance. But on further thought, it should have been obvious: post-poststructuralism has shattered and dispersed a creative and passionate response into a Chinese doll of meta-meta-meta pay for academics and their ambitious students who couldn’t give a flying fuck about poetry.

Shivani, despite his pessimism, is no quitter, though. A disjunctive rage, for as much in what’s in view in the mirror as out the window, persists. In “Modernism on File: Writers and the FBI”, “What had happened to the ‘pure and lyric dreamer’ in the futuristic forest?” gets as much thought as “[t]he direct object of those readings was to unearth seditions”. A little more consideration shows those seditions overseen not just by the FBI, but by the “critic-spy” (wonderful double meaning, politically, here). And, as is adroitly deployed throughout this volume, black humour surfaces, this time briefly, like a hangman slipping on a wet platform while holding the noose: “Just because paranoids have real enemies does not mean they cannot also be paranoids”, which is also, of course, another take on an established joke that I shouldn’t have to repeat. (The original is still funny because it’s true. Many tin foilers are still laughable, but some have become prophets.)

Liberalism’s naivety has always been a bigger cause for anger and disgust, with me, than its see-saw partner, imperial consolidation and defense, if for no further two dozen reasons than its infuriating sanctimony, intellectual bankruptcy and cowardice, entrenchment, sentimental persuasiveness, rampant advocacy, and sickening superiority. Not to mention (did I just mention it?) its blithe optimism and complacency. And on that latter flat note, Shivani’s hilarious and timely poem, “Billy Collins Confronts a Herd of Mexicans Caught in a Trap”, is part ironic fable, part suburban nightmare, part liberal mystery. It’s a full two pages, but here’re a few snippets from images and psychological poses which are captured wittily and with exquisite voiceover bafflement: “standing at the edge of my unmade bed in clarified mystery”, “I like to arrest the world in its act of entrance,/before it makes a case study of me”, “Perhaps the return of my next-door neighbor’s cocker spaniel,/delivered from the place lost dogs survive in limbo”, “Perhaps my editor, shown from afar, missing her tempo.//’Stand back!’ citizen Collins was ordered.”, “I would not have my answers.”, “What kind of a morning was this?”

Forms are matched to subject and tone in effective conjunction throughout the collection. “An Address to Walt Whitman after Reading the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass” is a galloping long-limbed rhetorical filibustering stump speech that, though it overreaches in its national condemnation, nevertheless is reminiscent of the Master in its sweep and drive, its spill and out-of-bounds passion. In “When Dean Young Was Young” (I love the title’s additional meaning, and don’t take it as an abnegation of identity, but as a considered acceptance of confusion) the channel-surfing images and caroming non sequiturs ape Young’s brilliant creativity, though don’t approach his impulsive enjoyment. Djuna Barnes gets a formal, terse appreciation as a multiple transgressor brought up to date as ironic icon. And the personal Cold War fatwa victim, in a wonderfully inventive and funny “Salman Rushdie Detained (and Deported?) by Homeland Security”, is the cause for further confusion among the birdbrain minions of obtuse bureaucrats, who, in first-person Keystone Kops holding-cell officiousness, regale the unfortunate author with, “Is there not/for Christ’s sakes, a fatwa against transporting barrels of/homemade secretions, which you call the poet’s muse, prose-/writer though you may be. Acchoo! Bless you!”

There are many other audacious successes throughout My Tranquil War and Other Poems, successes in packed content within severe formal constraints, as well as sonic repetitions and variations both within each poem and with the originating subject across multiple poems. I’d like to choose, and close with, one of them, “Ghazal: War”, an incredibly wise consideration of the book’s two intertwining themes. The classical ghazal signature, in the final couplet, is sobering in its self-laceration, but also condemnatory of us all, master or  slave.

GHAZAL: WAR

We think of the thirties, expectant in the squiggly room of war,
as unrepeatable: never again that prearranged doom of war.

Hamadryads lounge in kilts – there, soldiers cleaning guns –
the obscene sceneliness inspires Parnassian boom of war.

Among kings and kingpins, logomachy is the timely art;
they say no sensuality overwhelms the wordy perfume of war.

In the narrow straits, the oil tankers have been quickly reflagged,
the reticulum of allegiances rewoven to the womb of war.

The secretary of state, in her hour of fame, brings the charts.
Her periphrasis disguises the revealed nom de plume of war.

O known and unknown soldiers, Samadhi, in sleep, is yours:
eternal sleep, where seraphs fly on the witch broom of war.

It is never too young to die for the homeland, never too gory.
At home, weaklings are enlivened by the purple plume of war.

You, Anis, logrolling joints, stare into the abyss of your Hallux.
In the closet sits your effervescent self, the bloodless costume of war.