Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Claptrap: Notes From Hollywood by Stephen Gyllenhaal

clap·trap n

pompous or important-sounding nonsense (informal)

Never have I struggled so much when reviewing a book as I have with Stephen Gyllenhaal’s first collection of poems, Claptrap: Notes From Hollywood, just out from Cantarabooks. Mr. Gyllenhaal is already well-known for his work as a film director. What is less known is he was an English major at Connecticut's Trinity College and, in keeping with American literary tradition, has continued writing poetry while meeting the demands of raising a family and building a career. I was rooting for him when I opened his book.

I still am. Even after being somewhat taken aback by the substantial introductory material to his book: a Foreword by Hugh Odgen, Mr. Gyllenhaal’s professor and mentor at Trinity College; an Editor’s Preface by Cantara Christopher and Michael Matheny; and an Introduction by Jamie Lee Curtis. I’ve never seen such an abundance of praise inside anyone’s first book. In addition, both the Editor’s Preface and the Introduction implied most poetry written in America today isn’t really very good, and Mr. Gyllenhaal’s poems are the exception to the rule. That assertion raised the bar pretty darn high for my review. As both a contributor to and a reader of The Great American Pinup, I would assert there is plenty of outstanding poetry being written in America today.

That being my opinion, I couldn’t help but react strongly to the editors’ statement that “Poetry in America is no longer the distinguished art it used to be—it’s never read, hardly taught, and almost never practiced with any sort of discipline. Yet people keep stumbling to write it.” The editors related a story of helping edit a recent issue of North American Review. “Now, for those of you who think it’s easy to read through a stack of unsolicited poems and come up with five or six that are at least halfway publishable, think again.” My resistance to Mr. Gyllenhaal’s book was becoming entrenched.

What I discovered while reading Claptrap, though, is a poet in love with language, a love that shines at the heart of every poem. Mr. Gyllenhaal enjoys wordplay, which makes his writing fun to read. The poems are wide-ranging in their subjects—parenthood, family, and social justice among them—and style. Some are improvisatory, some painstakingly crafted.

Mr. Gyllenhaal’s poems are most often self-referential, anecdotal, and drawn from his everyday life. He expresses concern about his relationship with an openly antagonistic neighbor—and his noisy “5am” struggles with his garbage cans—and muses about the world seen through the windshield of his automobile while driving “down Wilshire Blvd./just west of Rodeo Drive.” Hollywood is Mr. Gyllenhaal’s town—the place where he lives and works—hence the subtitle—and Hollywood is a character in this collection.

No book making reference to Hollywood would be complete without making reference to its luxury-car culture, where a woman’s beauty is described, in the poem “Democracy,” as “all past benz/and maseratis.” Hollywood is also a town where wealthy locals are suspicious of a GMC pickup with a “rattling tailgate.” In “Photosynthesis,” the speaker’s suspicion gives way to envy for the young men in the old pickup when he reveals, “Oh, to be that kind of young again/when every oyster spreads its legs for you/and the nails you hit on two by fours/sing out your praise.”

In “Careful There, Pardner,” Mr. Gyllenhaal surprises the reader with revelations about his—and therefore our—ability to jump to conclusions about others. The speaker sits in traffic and, with time on his hands, prejudges the man in the Caddy ahead. He imagines him taking offense to an ad on the side of a bus showing “a joyful black boy billboard prince.” The speaker sees “A Jesse Helms stiffness in the neck,” “fighting/for his Ronald Regan California,/the John Wayne of it all.” The poem ends with him driving by to see there is no angry white man boiling over in the Caddy, but rather “the man/instead/is black/and old/and content.”

While I enjoyed these and other poems for their wit and irony, they never drew me in completely—never convinced me that the writer had a real stake in them. In contrast, Mr. Gyllenhaal is at his best when he writes about subjects closest to his heart, and at the heart of Claptrap is an elegantly choreographed Shakespearean sonnet that I absolutely admire and adore.


It’s the tiny space between my words to you,
the hesitations that were never there before—
I just can’t find an easy way to say what’s true
and touch this thing that reaches to our core.

The beauty of what’s you I knew when you arrived
in blood and tiny fingers, reaching blindly at it all
for I was father to your joy that you’d survived
and blossomed, one from two, into this flesh to call

your own and grow as I began my fall to here
and you so far more than I’d ever dreamed
rose tall, my dear, which makes it all too clear
to me, if only I can see and hear between

the hesitations, words and nearly endless breaths:
to have joyful births, there must be joyful deaths.

When Mr. Gyllenhaal writes about his family his poems ring true. The depth of his thought and feeling is apparent—even when he offers a clever bit of wisdom in “Birth Announcement.”

Birth Announcement

Learn to stand apart,
keep a clean slate,
be pretty:
honey catches flies.

Roll up your sleeves
be a mule to the wounded:
you’ll never
lack for friends or work
or have to consider
that nothing’s here for you.

James Dickey was asked if there was any value in reading a review of one’s own book—or were book reviews only of value to prospective readers. He said the review is only valuable to the writer if the reviewer takes the time to get inside the work, look at it from the inside out. I hope I succeeded in looking at Mr. Gyllenhaal’s poems from the inside out. They are written with care and consciousness and, while Claptrap has its flaws, I hope I’ve responded in kind.

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