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.

Monday, September 18, 2006


In the following listing the publication dates are mismatched with their versions. Can you arrange them properly? What number 1-21 in the right column matches with A? With B? And so on…

Good luck!

P.S. If you have additional versions of 32 on your shelf do post the version, and the pub date /publisher here—or send it to me via e-mail. Either way…


1969, Vintage: A Division of Random House, The Poems of Catullus, A Bilingual Edition translated by James Michie


Please, Ipsitilla, sugar,

my doll, kid, baby, please

tell me to come this afternoon;

contribute to my ease

by letting no one lock your door,

by staying where you are; what's more,

get set to soothe me, as I choose,

with nine uninterrupted screws.

Whatever gives, don't make me wait:

I'm lying, filled with all I ate,

watching my tunic stand up straight.


1957 Ann Arbor / University of Michigan Press, Catullus. The Complete Poetry, translated by Frank O. Copley


Please, my love, sweet Ipsitilla,

My darling, my own clever girl,

Command my presence at siesta

And if you do, help by ensuring

That no one bolts your outer door

And that you don't go out on impulse

But stay home and prepare for us

Nine uniniterrupted fuctions.

In fact if you're willing command me now.

I lie back after a large lunch

Boring holes in tunic and cloak.


1966, Penguin Classics, THE POEMS OF CATULLUS, Peter Whigham


Call me to you

at siesta

we'll make love

my gold & jewels

my treasure trove

my sweet Ipsithilla,

when you invite

me lock no doors

nor change your mind

& step outside

but stay at home

& in your room

prepare yourself

to come nine times

straight off together,

in fact if you

should want it now

I'll cone at once

for lolling on

the sofa here

with jutting cock

and stuffed with food

I'm ripe for stuffing


my sweet Ipsithilla.


1991, Oxford University Press. World Classics, THE POEMS OF CATULLUS, Guy Lee

4. please, Ipsithilla

my darling, my delight

tell me you'll be home

when I come in the hotly still of noon

tell me and if you tell

be this much kind to me

no lock to block the door

no note "gone out back soon"

stay home and make you ready for me

nine times to feel the pulse of love.

what? you'll be busy?

then tell me now

for I lie full and flat, and feel

love knocking, beating at my passion's door.


1959 Bobbs-Merrill, ODI ET AMO, THE COMPLETE POETRY OF CATULLUS, Roy Arthur Swanson


Dear Ipsitilla, my sweetheart.

My darling, precious, beautiful tart,

Invite me round to be your guest

At noon. Say yes, and i'll request

Another favour: make quite sure

That no one latches the front door

And don't slip out for a breath of air,

But stay inside, please, and prepare

A love-play with nine long acts in it,

No intervals either! Quick, this minute,

Now if you're in the giving mood;

For lying here, full of good food,

I feel a second hunger poke

Up through my tunic and my cloak.


1979, Johns Hopkins, THE POEMS OF CATULLUS, Charles Martin


I entreat you, my sweet Ipsitilla, my darling, my charmer, bid me come and spend the afternoon with you. And if you do bid me, grant me this kindness too,

that no one may bar the panel of your threshhold, nor you yourself have a fancy to go away, but stay at home an have ready for me nine consecutive

copulations. And bid me come at once if you are going to at all: for I'm on my back after lunch, thrusting through tunic and cloak.


1894 Catullus. Carmina. Sir Richard Francis Burton. London. Smithers.[VERSE]


Please, please, please, my darling Ipsithilla,

oh my delicate dish, my clever sweetheart,

please invite me home for the siesta--

and, supposing that you do invite me, make sure

no one happens to bolt and bar your shutters,

and that you don't, on a whim, decide to

go off out: just stay home and prepare for

us nine whole uninterrupted fuckfests.

Fact is, if you're on, ask me at once, I've

lunched, I'm full, flat on my back and bursting

up, up, up, through unershirt and bedclothes!


1894, Catullus. The Carmina of Caius Valerius Catullus. Leonard C. Smithers. London. Smithers.[PROSE]


Please, my sweet Ipsithilla, my delight, my charmer: order me to come to you at noon. And if you should order this, it will be useful if no one makes fast the

outer door [against me], and don't be minded to go out, but stay at home and prepare for us nine continuous love-makings. In truth if you are minded, give the

order at once: for breakfast over, I lie supine and ripe, poking through both tunic and cloak.


1913-2005, Harvard University Press, Catullus, tranlated by F.W. Cornish, Loeb Classical Library .[PROSE]


I’ll love my Ipsithilla sweetest,

My desires and my Wit the meetest,

So bid me join thy nap o' noon!

Then (after bidding) add the boon

Undraw thy threshold-bolt none dare,

Lest thou be led afar to fare;

Nay bide at home, for us prepare

Nine-fold continuous love-delights.

But aught do thou to hurry things,

For dinner-full I lie aback,

And gown and tunic through I crack.


2005, University of California Press, The Poems of Catullus, Peter Green


I beg of you, my sweet, my Ipsitilla,

my darling, my sophisticated beauty,

summon me to a midday assignation;

and, if you're willing, do me one big favor:

don't let another client shoot the door bolt,

and don't decide to suddenly go cruising,

but stay at home & get yourself all ready

for nine--yes, nine--successive copulations!

Honestly, if you want it, give the order:

I've eaten, and I'm sated, supinated!

My prick is poking through my cloak & tunic.


1946, The Poems of Catullus, W&W Norton and Company, Horace Gregory


O Mellow, sweet, delicious little

piece, my Ipsithilla,

I love you dearly.

Tell me to come at noon

and I'll come galloping

at your threshold.

Let no one bar the door today

but stay at home, my little one,

to fit yourself for nine long

bouts of love. And if you're so inclined,

call me at once;

my morning meal is over

and I reclining


my tree of life (your bedfellow)

has risen joyfully tearing through my clothes,

impatient to be at you.


2004, Catullus, Poems of Love and Hate, Bloodaxe Press, Josephine Balmer


List, I charge thee, my gentle Ipsithilla,

Lovely ravisher and my dainty mistress,

Say we'll linger a lazy noon together.

Suits my company? lend a farthing hearing:

See no jealousy make the gate against me,

See no fantasy lead thee out a-roaming.

Keep close chamber; anon in all profusion

Count me kisses again again returning.

Bides thy will? with a sudden haste command me;

Full and wistful, at ease reclin'd, a lover

Here I languish alone, supinely dreaming.


2002, The Complete Poetry of Catullus, The University of Wisconsin Press, David Mulroy


My sweet Hypsithilla, my delight, my merry soul; bid me, like a dear girl, come to you to pass the noon. And if you bid me, add this, that no one bar the gate, that no fancy take you to go abroad, but that you remain at home, and prepare for us no end of amorous delights. But if you agree, summon me immediately, for I am lying on my back after dinner, full, and pampered, and am bursting my tunic and my very cloak.


1866, Stanza 41, Address to Priapus, Algernon Charles Swinburne


XXXII The Rendezvous. To Hypsithilla.

Kind of heart, of beauty bright,

Pleasure's soul, and love's delight,

None by nature graced above thee,

Hypsithilla, let me love thee.

Tell me then, that I shall be

Welcome when I come to thee;

And at noon's inspiring tide

Close thy gate to all beside.

Let no idle wish to roam

Steal thy thought from joys at home;

But prepare thy charms to aid

Every frolic love e'er play'd.

Speed thy message. Day goes fast.

Now's the hour; the banquet's past:

Mid-day suns and goblets flowing

Set my frame with passion glowing.

Spend thee, wanton, fair and free!

Tell me I must haste to thee.


1871, The Poems and Fragments of Catullus, Translated in the Metres of the Original, London: John Murray, Albemarle Street; by Robinson Ellis


My Hypsithilla, charming fair,

My life, my soul, ah! hear my prayer:

The grateful summons quickly send,

And bless at noon, with joy, thy friend.

And if my fair one will comply,

And not her sighing swain deny

Take care the door be then unbarr'd,

And let no spy be on the guard.

And thou, the aim of my desire,

Attend at home my amorous fire.

Prepare to meet repeated joy,

Continued bliss without alloy;

Dissolving still in thy dear arms,

Still raised by thy reviving charms,

To onsets fresh of sprightly pleasure,

Tumultuous joy beyond all measure,

But dally not with my desire,

Nor quash with thy delays of fire,

Bursting with love upon my couch I lie,

Forestalling with desire the distant joy.


1887, Erotica. The Poems of Catullus and Tibullus, and The Vigil of Venus., London George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, Walter K. Kelly [PROSE]


What broke off the garlands that girt you?

What sundered you spirit and clay?

Weak sins yet alive are as virtue

To the strength of the sins of that day.

For dried is the blood of thy lover,

Ipsithilla, contracted the vein,

Cry aloud 'Will he rise and recover,

Our Lady of Pain?'

Cry aloud; for the old world is broken:

Cry aloud, for the Phrygian is priest,

And rears not the bountiful token

And spreads not the fairly feast.

From the midmost of Ida, from shady

Recesses that murmur at morn,

They have brought and baptized her, Our Lady,

A goddess new-born.

And the chaplets of old are above us,

And the oyster bed teems out of reach,

Old poets outsing and outlove us,

And Catullus makes mouths at our speech.

Who shall kiss, in thy father's own city,

With such lips as he sang with, again?

Intercede for us all of thy pity,

Our Lady of Pain.


1887, Erotica. The Poems of Catullus and Tibullus, and The Vigil of Venus., London George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, Walter K. Kelly (Lamb's verse version)


Be a sweetie, Ipsithilla,

joy and charm personified,

invite me to join in your afternoon nap.

But merely inviting is not enough.

Make certain that nobody locks the door.

Resist your desire to wander the streets.

Stay in the house and prepare to engage

in nine continuous copulations.

If this is agreeable, tell me at once.

I'm lying on my back, digesting my lunch,

and boring a hole in my tunic and cloak.


1887, 1887, Erotica. The Poems of Catullus and Tibullus, and The Vigil of Venus., London George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, Walter K. Kelly (Anonymous version)


An Afternoon with Ipsitilla

Please, please me, dear Ipsitilla,

my own sweetness, my so clever,

invite me in for siesta

and I'll come -- but at your leisure.

Don't block your passage, fold down flaps,

slip off out for other pleasures.

Hold on, get set, let's fill the gap:

nine full-time, full-on, fuck-fuckings;

just say you're game, just say you will,

you see I've eaten, had my fill,

yet still my lunch-box is bulging.


1996,The erotic spirit: an anthology of poems of sensuality, love, and longing, Shambala Publications, Inc., Sam Hamill


Ipsithilla, baby girl,

Sugar, honey, let me curl

Up with you this afternoon,

Tell me that I can come soon,

Tell me none will bar your door,

That you're not busy, and what's more

That you will wait for me and choose

To give me nine successive screws.

Oh, don't delay, don't make me wait,

I'm resting, stuffed with all I ate,

Feeling my pecker stand up straight.


1970, Catullus, The Complete Poems for American Readers, E.P. Dutton & CO., INC., New York; Reney Myers and Robert J. Ormsby


Please darling, dear Ipsithilla,

All my pleasure, my only attraction,

Order me to you this afternoon.

And if you do order me, please arrange also

That no one shall get in my was as I enter,

And don't you go off either at the last moment.

But stay at home and organize for us

Nine copulations in rapid series.

If there's anything doing, send round immediately;

For here I am, lying in my bed;

I have had my lunch, the thing sticks out of my tunic.


1966, The Poetry of Catullus, Viking Press, C.H. Sisson


My lovely, sweet Ipsithilla,

my delicious, my passion,

call for me this affternoon.

Please send for me so I may come

without question,

And don't sneak off as I enter.

Stay, and wait, and dream up

nine different kinds of copulation

to keep us entertained.

Send for me here, after lunch,

wher I'm supine on my bed

with my cock peeking out from my tunic.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

JOSHUA CLOVER—The Totality For Kids

Reading a book by Joshua Clover is like being stuck in a room with a very intelligent guy who is always talking past you. You are always scrambling to catch up with the last thing said. I get this feeling very frequently from my brother, Dante Schnickelfritz, a self-taught computer geek/expert. When asked for some technical advice, Dante hurtles into variation after variation of possibility, each with its own separate intrigues and technical details. You get the whole picture and more, until one is almost reassured that, given the expansive territory one’s problem may occupy, the seemingly little problem has universal implications.

Clover’s area of expertise is not computers, however. He is an expert in “the image,”and he traffics in these to such a great extent that I suspect many a poetry consumer becomes overwhelmed the way one can become overwhelmed by piped-in music at a department store. Too much stimulus. Can’t buy anything. Ahhhhh!

Perhaps I am just comforted by the presence of very smart people talking passionately about what inhabits their world so that I am not put off by this. It makes me feel at home. More than that, intelligent people talking in a room seems to be an act of courage. People exercising their own thoughts and intelligence and not conforming to some punitive authority seems about as bold today as praising the virtues of Communism during the McCarthy witch hunts. In fact, one can almost picture an official these days retracting a statement made during a Senate hearing because it was made on the basis of its being intelligent.

General Abizaid was in Baghdad on Thursday to meet with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the American commander in Iraq. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said Iraq was not near civil war, in contrast to comments he made in Senate testimony in Washington this month, in which he said that sectarian violence in Iraq was the worst he had seen and that a civil war was possible. “I think there has been great progress on the security front in Baghdad recently,” General Abizaid said Thursday, according to Reuters.

But I digress. Clover’s intelligence announces itself passionately on the page even while it is being denounced as “icy” by those who purport to have the greatest hearts in poetry. They can’t “feel” him out there being passionate about his vision of the world, a world that includes a lot of damn fine thinking to be used as a tool to access his complicated vision. It is a vision of the world filled with absurd beauty as it is filled with those barely able to grasp the magnitude of this kind of beauty. So, the speaker is talking, articulating through juxtaposed images and rhetorical horseplay, a world that looks a lot like “the city” with its nonsensical juxtapositions that have been brought forth by the play of capital. Is the Clover poem an instance of the author holding up a mirror to the city itself.

“How does the city get put together?” is what Clover seems to be asking again and again in his own constructions. He is meticulous about the image of this city he presents. We venture into the weird interstices with him. Does this make Clover our strange travel guide, our own private image geek who rewards our following him with stale bread crumbs that are difficult to swallow without our holding them in our mouths for a while?

Exhibit A.

Here we see Clover in his bio pic for the book jacket. He appears as the great modernist seen brooding with measurable intensity. Yet Clover is more likely to appear in person in a bowling shirt or a baseball cap, part of the great sea of the unwashed. [Just for the record, I do believe he showers regularly.] But in this photo he exhibits truly perfect placement of the hand on the temple. One almost feels (there’s that word again) subatomic particles of thought colliding with the camera lens. I make fun of this photo only because I suspect its mock seriousness is making fun of us (who might take it seriously). More precisely, I’d say he is letting us in on the joke if only we take the time and spend the precious amount of careful observation we possess). Such is the case in the age of the image. The observer has to bring his/her own punch line. We are tethered to the spectacle via a communication game.

The irony of this image does mark Clover as someone who is heavily invested in the image, who is willing to quickly deconstruct the meaning and value of the image that aspires to power. He understands the power of the image to transform, and he is willing to take the “industry of image” head on . . . well, maybe he slightly parries.

The parrying he does arrives in the form of the rhetorical sleight of hand he employs. As readers we come armed with certain conventions in the language, certain natural turns of phrase that exist. Clover will not permit us to use that kind of easy pass to understanding. He keeps that mechanical engine in the language from running too smoothly. However, he does not leave this engine to rust in the fields. He undermines meaning at the same time he circumscribes it at a different level. And the language is formed with a Tender Buttons-like accuracy. That is to say, the ear is here.

But like intelligence, this kind of playfulness is not the preferred strategy of the day. We live in an age of high seriousness, where people are “all business.” Play in the days of Katyusha rockets, heavy water plants and IEDs (all serious as a pitchfork) comes off as an abomination. If not irresponsible [Are we not the guardians of freedom in the world?]. If this notion runs counter to your sensibility, ask yourself when you heard yourself telling a good American joke. Ya’ know . . . there were these three Americans that walked into a bar and . . .

Bulletin. Bulletin. This just in: One might have reason to believe that the bio pic is modeled after a similar pose struck by Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project serves as an important influence on The Totality For Kids. Benjamin's project as flâneur is very much aligned with Clover's strolls through the imagined space of the city.

Clover’s project is very close to the surrealists without quite going to the extreme of the situationists who seemed to ad hoc everything in the moment. {this said, Clover’s notion of rebuilding the city in bricolage fashion is very much like the notion of Unitary Urbanism that the situationists put forth in 1960). This improvisation is exhilarating but it taxes even the most willing spectators. The Totality For Kids is put together with more precision. There is mortar between every phrase.

Like many a postmodernist after Pound, Clover’s poems are organized as if a series of walks through the city, each time settling on some curious detail of the place and remarking on the history of its construction. It is a teleology of the city. Why is there what there is?

One such poem that almost explicitly takes this theme is “Valiant en Abyme.”The frame within a frame aspect of the title (en abyme is a visual arts term where the design of the whole is contained within a piece, ad infinitum) reinforces that each sentence is a short walk that keeps repeating itself within the larger walk that is the poem itself.

Valiant en Abyme

Our grand peregrinations through these temporary cities,
These pale window box poppies of the laughing class,
Drifting as if time came in the same long dollops as starlight,
Resemble an epic journey as a coffee bean resembles a llama’s foot,
Though the kitchen table may be far from the desert
It’s near in spirit, a yellow oasis before the wind
Starts its restless sweeping of white-flower dust across the lintel,
Marking the fine edge of things like children asleep
At the opera, piled up near the door, summer passing
On its way out. Prince Valiant vowed to sew the horizons
Into a single idea, to put on the blue dress of distance,
Looping past rivers and mountains as one leaps from bed
To bed to make loneliness lonely, the suburbs were for him
A relief, a pageant of calm desire where he settled,
All the king’s horses grazing on forsythia out back
While the evening tilts back out of the night, a kindly drunk
Uncle, and asks you to stay. Was this the end of traveling?
Or just a change in the story over time, as for example how
Tous les chevaux du roi became Josie and the Pussycats
From one version to the next? So all heroes are deranged
By something quite common yet unexpected, a constellation
Redrawn and named again though the stars
Above the porch don’t shift but seem to sink
Through winter’s pitcher of noircotic ink,
Leaving a single streetlight that burned happily,
Thinking it was the sun, after all it was the day
Of the night and turned the world around it,
We were good sentences and forgot where we started.

Of course, the last line suggests that “to obey the walk” is to somehow forget where one started. This last statement is hard to read with regard to tone. I am not sure if Clover is mocking this blind obedience or rather suggesting that the accomplished walker achieves an immediacy with his/her surroundings. This dual valence in the poem is also reflected in the nature of Prince Valiant himself, who though full of valor, moves out to the suburbs which Clover suggests killed a sense of curiosity about the world because everything was so conveniently located.

But I like this poem mainly because it mentions Josie and the Pussycats. Forgive me, I suffer from nostalgia for the endlessly repeated backgrounds of Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

So much goes on a poem like this too. It is its own city. Neologisms like “noircotic” appear. Finding a phrase like “all the king’s horses” and then a few lines later “Tous les chevaux du roi” is like finding a wrapper for a snack item flung on the ground on one street corner and then finding a wrapper for the very same item a couple of blocks later, only all the words are printed in a different language. The interior of the kitchen table comes into view, and nature (stars, the sun, rivers and mountains and white flower-dust) are fixed in the visual field as well.

Many architectural details appear in the poems of The Totality For Kids: facades, windows, doors monuments, walls, glass frontage, verandas, gates, steeples, passageways, stairs, etc,. These give clues that the imaginative space Clover enters into is a citified one. But it also reminds us how constructed our mental spaces are as well as our physical ones. In many instances the move in Clover’s poems towards talking about sentences as though they were construction projects that frustrate the contractor as well as the inhabitant is also a reminder of this. The artifice of Clover’s oeuvre is everywhere.

And I can imagine a certain kind of reader who is put off by this in his work. Such a reader might ask what is authentic, what is to be earnestly grasped and internalized from such a display. The short answer might be: nothing. All is a chain of signifiers, a dance of referents. But this would be too glib for such a reader. Such a reader wants to have something about human experience revealed to him/her. One might offer confusion as a possible human experience that Clover is exploring. However, I suspect this is not the kind of experience that such a reader would be interested in accepting commentary on.

Perhaps the key that would turn the lock for those who seek the experiential from poetry would be that Clover is exploring the nature of data overload, the experience of having one’s mental faculties dulled because of simply too much input. The server crashes from too many simultaneous hits.

Many times I find myself parsing a line several times like I’ve hit some processing snag that makes the cursor on the screen freeze up, unable to move forward. Too, though, I admit the kinds of computing metaphors I have been using might be hollow for those who, in poems, want more from them about how they react to important life events. They might say that how one emotionally reacts to one’s media diet is an important and interesting phenomenon, but it does not define their life. Yet, the reaction to the mediated environment is extremely important for the informed, curious and mediated citizen. Clover is, in some strange way, chronicling the emotional life of an informed citizen, one whose each and every act is not divorced from being a political act. Even the walk through city is political, especially the walk through the city.

Where the gaze falls is a political event. As Clover’s speaker lets his gaze wash over the items in his poems, we, as readers, are invited to feel his emotional reactions to them. Sometimes they are snarky; sometimes they are so incisive as to be tinged with a sense of regret for having had to and being able to articulate them. These kinds of reactions might not be what are commonly referred to as “emotional,” but they do qualify as emotional even if the wincing and the turning away and the wide-eyed horror are the only kinds of behavior one might see from such a tour down the street. If one missed these kinds of “looking” behaviors, one might only think that the speaker was merely “thinking.”

The cover of The Totality For Kids features a kind of Merzbau-influenced structure that might seem the perfect playhouse for a band of juveniles bent on playing tag indoors. It looks like it was put together by a planning commission of ten year olds. In reality it is a model from Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon series, where he imagined urban renewal based on a space’s use value, its value as a locus of participation rather than its value as commodity.

Clover is adamantly opposed to his language being commodified, much like the Language Poets were. However, unlike the Language Poets, he is not willing to hold up language as the only aesthetic artifact to be discussed. He believes that language maps onto reality. It’s just that that reality is messy. It is fragmentary, hallucinatory, paratactical, prone to slippage of the memory. A poem, then, is constructed much the way the memorial at the former Trade Center Towers has been. It proceeds in fits and starts with many different interests contending for control over the final product.

Clover provides insight on his process in an interview with Chicago Postmodern Poetry when he says:

There are numerous ways to access a promising phrase: reading, thinking, running your mouth. I tend to run my mind over such a phrase for a minute...and then it slips away. A while later, sometimes much later, something else -- an experience, a sensation, another phrase -- calls up that first bit of language, and now there are two things that seem to be somehow part of a complex. That's often when I get the sense that a poem might be beginning. You get past the beginning and into the poem when you find the rhythm that lets you extend substance into space.

The “substance into space” comment lends credence to the notion that Clover’s poetry is the first made explicitly for the building trades.

One of the poems that has appeared frequently in numerous sources isCeriserie. Ceriserie is a term that has mysterious origins for me. I believe it to come from the French for “series series” or a series of series. This, indeed, would explain the structure of this piece. The arc of meaning that jumps across the colon in each “line” is quite often oblique, for example:

Fire: The number between four and five.

Gold leaf: Wedding dress of the verb to have, it reminds you of of.

The poem is reminiscent of Harper’s Index. In that setting the facts become absurd and astonishing at the same time. They become wonders in the art of measuring, the quantifiable run amok. After reading such a list, one realizes that there is no more core data, only the extraneous fact that, when ripped from its context, provides a semblance of insight into our present age. There is not enough to fashion a belief system from the pieces. Yet from these pieces Clover tries to weave a new form (just as city planners must try to forge a city from the shards of the past and a plethora of new building materials).

Is the “series series” a new form for the age of the sound bite (byte?) when the fragmentary substitutes for the fashioned narrative? The fervid associative leap for the refined tautological trope?

One of presumably many pieces in The Totality For Kids that employs the cut-up technique [it’s hard to track down all the sources/samples, and I am not big on that kind of thing] is “Their Ambiguity.” Clover sets up long blocks of prose-like sentences, triple spaced, supposedly culled from Situationist movies, that are constantly digressing from one line to another, yet the swirl of these lines centers around the decontextualization of words and the role of the subject within the drift of the city. Though an I never appears in the poem, a “revolutionary sweetheart” serves as a stand-in, a revolutionary rebuilder of the city and the city of words.

Clover inserts a countertext that runs between the lines of the triple-spaced blocks of prose. In the .mp3 above you can hear how these lines (read by the second voice) are contrapuntal utterances that sometimes underscore voice 1, sometimes undercut voice 1. In all, the piece is a well-developed venture into Situationist detournement, where the bits and pieces of verbal driftwood are assembled to form their own milieu . . . because in that milieu words take on their ambiguity.

Or in Clover’s words from the same Chicago Postmodern Poetry interview:

we're past the moment of choosing between the lyric tradition and the discursive, langpo tradition and that, rather than acceding to this calcified binary, we have to outmaneuver it. However, this does NOT mean simply synthesizing the two, or groovily accepting them both as human activities: the incorporation of vivid, oppositional traditions into a capacious, can't-we-all-just-get-along aesthetic IS the practice of the dominant lyric tradition, and to play it that way is in fact to choose sides.

“Their Ambiguity” is not a synthesis of two apparently divergent dominant trends in contemporary poetics today. “Their Ambiguity” is trying to flank both of these trends and head out into open space, into the open space of the city, where it can tend (contend?) the hegemonic force of its age.

In “The Dark Ages”Clover provides another aesthetic statement about the poem that may have skipped over those who did not attend the class in advanced surrealism like Clover did, when he says:

In poetry the line is something like a lamp-lit way onto which you have just turned, nodding lilies and a couple of desperadoes under the eaves.

More perambulation on invented streets. As for my habit of walking, I often feel compelled to turn off into the dark alleys that rise to greet me before I arrive at the last period. I do this not out of disgust or paranoia that Clover is belittling my idea of what a poem should be. I do this because I am curious where the little stations of its nouns and the public transportation of its verbs will allow me to go. I do this because in one of those dark tunnels I may befriend a rat.

This gesture on Clover’s part I read as a friendly one, and I am puzzled by those who raise their defenses to him and his work. Perhaps many readers feel exposed to his critical eye. The kind of American he sends up may be them! Others would like him to reveal more overtly biographical information. This failure to reveal slights them, and his work is reduced to that of a savant-like verbal automaton. But as mentioned above, is not his continual glance and bemused stare an invitation to play your own game of looking? Perhaps his work is not acknowledging the ready-made palette of human emotion, but in offering up his glances is this not a call to the reader in how his/her gaze can transform his/her emotional life?

I have questions, however, of my own about Clover’s work or perhaps not about Clover’s work so much but about walks through the city themselves.

Why are walks through the city always so fragmentary?

Though walks through the city are spiritually replenishing, is there any reason to believe that one is easily distinguished from another?

Does a walk through the city ever enter upon an urban pastoral, where the squirrels are sucking the juice out of the fallen oranges in the park before any human has awakened?

If one is innocently followed on a walk through the city, does this change the nature of the walk?

If one walks through the city with a dog, is the dog leading you or are you drifting along the dog’s paths of scent?

Is there a scratch and sniff version of the city?

I must admit when Madonna Anno Domini came out in 1997, I read it, and I was immediately smitten, taken in by the intelligence and ambition of its author whose verbal agility and display was without question able to serve as spectacle. One is turned on to hot guitar players in just this same way.

With The Totality For Kids I was less taken immediately, but this is probably because I am less prone to idol worship these days. However, as I lived with the text I began to see that it was informed by the maturity of its project. It was not just a book comprised of “killer poems,” but a book that painstakingly set out to portray a politics through its poems. The world-view in The Totality For Kids is both sharply critical of a city’s space inscribed by the ruts of capital, and it is wildly idealistic about building a future city concerned with cooperative use-value à la Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti. It is visionary on the scale of Pound (even though Pound was something of a flatulent didact and never referenced cartoons in his work). To encroach on the visionary is one of the highest goals that poetry can aspire to. Perhaps it is this vision which unnerves many readers and listeners even while Clover’s torch is leading them out of the predicament of the modern.

With The Totality For Kids read it once, you’ll admire it. Read it twice, you’ll love it. Read it three times and you’ll begin to organize a movement to undertake its vision (which would mean, of course, muttering strange and obscure things in public—a time when, as Clover states in “Their Ambiguity,””When a poem by Mallarmé becomes the sole explanation for an act of revolt, then poetry and revolution will have overcome their ambiguity”).

Monday, September 4, 2006


Dear Richard,

Just as I finished reading The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press, 2006) a new friend confided that he’d learned a secret about his father—a secret that shook the foundation on which he’d built his life. He said he wanted to write about it, but didn’t know where to start. I recommended your book. In particular, the poem “After the Funeral.”

After the Funeral

That night, again, I dreamed you were leaving,
but this time I was older, and when I walked you
through the marketplace, and you put down
your suitcase to embrace me, I drew
the silence of all the years you’d been dead to me
around my grief. I wished you gone
and you were. In photographs, I see you
feeding me, your face younger than mine now.
In one, I’m a small bundle on your shoulder,
and the flat of your palm is the world against my back,
teaching me to let go of what is useless. You
have been useless to me. You never knew
the red shepherd I threw my Frisbee for.
In my mind, I matched him stride for stride,
and when he leapt to snatch the floating disc from air,
he called to me and we sailed off, a boy
who could run with wolves, a dog with language
and the gift of flight. I named him Larry,
after you, but true names are secrets,
so I called him Joe.

The metaphorical image of the boy playing Frisbee with his “red shepherd” is poignant and heart-breaking. The poem expresses the paradoxical feelings one has about a loved one who has betrayed them, feelings one will struggle with for a lifetime. The various manifestations of these feelings are well-represented in the poems “Again” and “The Silence of Men.”

I also appreciate the tenderness the speaker shows himself in “After the Funeral,” despite the pain he’s suffered because of his father. This tenderness towards oneself allows, it seems to me, one to feel real empathy for others. In “What I Carry with Me” you write about a friendly conversation between a Sikh cabbie and his Jewish fare, and the tension that rises between them when the cabbie is told the fare’s wife is Muslim. At the end of the ride, the speaker/fare transcends the incident, saying “and because I could imagine/surviving deaths that transformed me//into him, I tipped the driver anyway,/and he said thank you/and I wished him peace.”

This empathy makes authentic your many fine persona poems in this collection, such as “Rachel’s Story” and “Ibrahim’s Story.” In the first, you write in the voice of a female Holocaust survivor, wondering how it was she lived when her daughter and son died: “I’d chosen life. Or had it chosen me?” The second poem is spoken in the voice of a Palestinian man, living in exile in Bethlehem, nostalgic for the times he shared Erev Shabbat dinners with his Jewish friends, “in the years before there was a Jewish State.”

You’ve explored varied and difficult terrain in The Silence of Men and this reader is grateful for your courage. Throughout, I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (Paris Press, 1996), in which she wrote:

“A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response. This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too—but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.”

As I was preparing to post this piece, I received an e-mail from the friend I recommended read your book. He had this to say: “I LOVE IT!…his ability to communicate feelings is precisely what I’m hoping to be able to do. It’s great reading.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and thinking about, your poems.


Sunday, September 3, 2006


Some times I scare myself:

On August 14th from a remote locale in Hawaii I post SOME NOTES ON DOING IT YOURSELF: OHMER'S HARDWARE & JACQUI NAYLOR'S THE COLOR 5 where I predict Jacqui will be signed by a label, leaving us and her own label for uncharted but more lucrative waters

On August 18th BMI runs a story, Jacqui Naylor Performs for BMI Staff