Monday, January 15, 2007
JEAN-PAUL PECQUEUR—THE CASE AGAINST HAPPINESS
At first I was almost sure that the speaking persona behind Jean-Paul Pecqueur’s The Case Against Happiness [Alice James Books, 2006] was a good dancer. I was never more sure of it as his verbal flourishes suggested he belonged more on the nimbleness side of the spectrum of American poets as opposed to the side full of conviction. But as I read on, I became aware that to be a good dancer it is important to avoid indiscriminate bouts of syncopation (that might throw your partner off). Yet Pecqueur is so nimble as to throw off his rhythm at any moment by incorporating ad copy, philosophical claims and their summaries, bits of talky conversation, bumper stickers, as well as a host of quirky but well-wrought images. It’s this kind of adherence to the interruption of a groove that lends me to think his off-kilter movements might make him hard to follow.
Then again, as I read further, it was clear. He was a good dancer; he was doing a dance with the idiocy of our age.
The main idiocy that Pecqueur sends up repeatedly in The Case Against Happiness is the American insistence on being satisfied, being gloriously happy, even happier-than-thou. This polite smugness is what Pecqueur holds in the crosshairs on every page. But his critique does not move forward through frontal assault. That would, after all, be in bad taste. Rather, Pecqueur manages to circle around his target by referring to the good fortune of middle class Americans to be awash in the absurdity of their project—life amid the dazzling array of mental stimuli, yet all of them serving as nothing more than slight diversion, something, yet again, to make the middle class happy. Pecqueur’s speaking persona is always moving in his poems. One line launches itself from the previous line, often in very oblique and non-standard ways. Through this constant movement he is able to thrust and parry at the heart of the American middle class happily trying to take itself seriously. For this, he might earn Tony Hoagland’s label of “skittery” [see Hoagland’s essay in Poetry], except that Pecqueur’s forays from line to line differ in an important manner than the kind of poet Hoagland takes issue with in the above essay. That main difference is that Pecqueur’s turns of phrase are coherent. They move oddly, but they move forward from the ground of the previous line’s utterance. The “skittery” poet that Hoagland objects to seems to move, often in grotesquely wild leaps, out of nervousness or distraction. Therefore, Pecqueur is less nervous than he is apt to track down his careening imagination, an imagination that finds him contemplating matters of some erudition as well as more quotidian fare. Strangely enough, there even seems to be some sort of personal life impacted between all the switchbacks and digressions.
If all writing, as one of my life-long writing influences has suggested, is the fine art of digression, then Pecqueur has made his digressions a fine art indeed. One of the most satisfying aspects of poetry is to watch a limber mind run and freely make its associations on the page, moving back and forth, starting in one direction, then darting in another. For those who aspire to this aesthetic of movement as opposed to the steadfast single frame poem, where the poet’s eye roves over the scene like it’s part of a Ken Burns documentary, reading Pecqueur will be an interesting time. If you’re the type of reader who asks himself/herself, “how did I wind up here in this poem?” Pecqueur may prove to be a bit maddening. There are very few directions in which his pen will not wander; however, one of the techniques he employs to help this kind of reader is to use short bits of conversational speech to reassure the reader that he is being talked to by a human, not being railed at by a mad assembler of an obscure text.
At the end of “Yellow Birds” Pecqueur builds to the following:
. . . For two lazy decades
dialectics of loss seemed just the thing.
Now military software shadow boxes
with every third tank-like car. Where
oh where leads artlessly to my oh
my Ohio, that Lebanon of the pastoral
scheme. Ever been there? Me neither.
Ever seen a live one? Yep, me too,
and I’m still paying for it, spitting bits
of faulty teeth into the offering plate
while the morning’s chainsaw chorus
chirps oh take me back to the backyard
garden’s potted delight where the house
sparrows squawk at the house finches
as the goldfinch flutters and cries. Wait! . . .
The use of “Where oh where” as a noun which then is echoed by “my oh my” and then augmented by appending “Ohio” suggests that these common expressions are nearly as substantive as any other common noun. After that little bit of verbal play though, Pecqueur opts for the conversational “Ever been there?” then he supplies the retort to an anticipated answer. Similarly, he incorporates “Ever seen a live one?” The same retort to a putative answer is applied. Then he is off on an extended rejoinder which includes some description of the speaker’s backyard. I suspect I don’t have to tell you that the poem ends far from that backyard. The odds and ends of conversational tone that Pecqueur incorporates is reminiscent of Hoagland himself.
Yet even Tony Hoagland is far from being the iconic bard of high contemplation and depth of feeling. The voice in a Hoagland poem is more of a man who has been put through the paces and is able to see the absurdity of life in all of the joy it inspires and all of the disgust. Similarly, Pecqueur takes on a similar role. In “Death Shall Not Define Us” Pecqueur’s persona addresses a salesclerk at a shoe store who seems to be taking the big questions a bit too seriously:
Instead, I tried to lighten the air / by assuming my favorite pose, / that of the ridiculous man thinking”
Pecqueur is the ridiculous man thinking in this book. He is also a wisecracking, jocular trickster who is not above putting sound before sense in his many turns and digressions on the page. Yet I do not mean to trivialize Pecquer’s voice as one that is just making fun. In the making light, there is also a sense that the speaking voice would like to take on weightier issues in earnest but that somehow he finds this perambulating voice more amenable to the project of striking his readers; he can be more incisive by being off-the-point.
What We Want When We Want It
The bumper sticker on my friend’s car
reads Visualize Whirled Peas
so I close my eyes and concentrate.
But all I can see through the grey snow
of dead ocular cells is me suspended
over my desk with its fine clutter of photos,
last month’s letters and party bubbles,
my eyes screwed shut. It seems
I am trying to concentrate, but the day
keeps casting me out, reeling me in.
Fill the thistle sock for the goldfinch.
Water the lava rocks. First coordinate,
then subordinate. If what you don’t know
cannot hurt you, then it must be impossible
to be hurt by anything at all, which sounds,
on the whole, like a pretty fine idea.
Like fifty-one push-ups before coffee.
Like quote-end-quote Now. Now
just place the needle in the groove,
the groove in the basket. Asked
what I wanted for my birthday.
Asked when I would finish the job.
Asked about the comma, the mocha,
the jaw pain which last week was chronic
today is mostly tragicomic, function
mimicking form like Matisse’s Dance
where all seems union, more free and perfect,
and bright levitation in the presence of flowers.
Asked where I wanted her to place the flowers,
I responded that everywhere would be fine.
In this poem Pecqueur quips that “everywhere would be fine, “suggesting that the hope and good feelings that flowers bring could be useful nearly everywhere. This intimates that the threat of darkness is fairly omnipresent in Pecqueur’s world.
The movement from line to line often is sustained by moving off a single word in the initial sentence, then picking it up again in the next and slightly shifting the aim of the sentence. One sees this with the pairing of “Like” and “Like,” “now” and Now,” the various instances of “Asked” and “flowers” and “flowers” near the end of the poem. I do experience from time to time an inability to undergo the synaptic transmission I should in order to thread some lines together. For instance, I don’t get how “placing the needle in the groove (a reference to old LPs) connects to “the groove in the basket.” Is there some fundamental premise of basketmaking I have overlooked? Oh well, color me stupid. Perhaps one day I will stumble upon the bit of wisdom that will allow this to make sense for me.
Then again, perhaps Pecqueur has placed a “macguffin” in the poem for those who like to be led astray by puzzles. To Pecqueur’s credit he has the courage in several pieces to forego a directly rational presentation for one that is ultimately sonic in its appeal. Many of these poems were not my favorite, such as “Tucson’s Classic Rock,””Enthusiasms Are To Research As Day Is To The Sublime,” and “How To Make the Case Against Happiness.” Perhaps, though, I just didn’t get and enjoy much of the sonic appeal of these pieces (the way I admittedly don’t plug into the blues very well). For some reason, sans any apparent insight offered to me, these pieces seemed half-baked. Interestingly, though, my favorite poem in the book was one that did rely heavily on sound:
then suddenly Patty not.
There were engines in the wings
then the noise receded,
drawing with it the racetracks
and hat racks and my Delaware
oh so unaware. I was the not-
for-profit sighing society
fussing about all the central authority
before one day Patty suddenly
then suddenly Patty not.
The day was hot. The year was 1989.
The modern age was sinking
into the parched soil of the Po-Mo world.
Fantastical things were growing.
Glowing breathing tubes for one.
Intolerance for intolerance.
A damned dodgy, doggy-dog world,
for decades, every time I awoke
it was morning — How Boring! —
until suddenly Patty suddenly
then suddenly Patty not!
Maybe I am just thrilled by the sound of instantaneous negation in a sentence the way I am thrilled by a French horn fanfare. But this poem seemed more fully realized in that it almost had a tinge of the experiential in it. Like Patty was some ex-fling who happened to meander into a poem and find herself its subject. Two pages later in the poem “Let’s Go” Patty appears again, suggesting to me that this is not just some poetry Patty who has been trotted out into the middle of a poem for the sound of her name. This Patty probably has some flesh and blood attached to her (though, like Hoagland, Pecqueur has a tendency to drop the first names of friends into a poem to achieve a sense of intimacy). Between the two poems, one gets a sense of a Patty who is powered by unthinking motive and someone who is so happy as to perhaps qualify for the term “perky” to be attached to her. It is in these two poems that I most vividly saw Pecqueur’s “case against happiness.” The kind of person that Patty is stands as the anti-Pecquer, one who is not going to think the bejeezus out of everything until the ridiculous magically appears. The Patty does not have this activity in her plans. In “Let’s Go” she is the one who is going, going, going, more specifically, going to look at some shoes.
To the credit of Pecqueur’s speaking persona, he does no condemning of the Patty. He seems begrudgingly willing to accept the Patty as part of the terms of love. Perhaps there is even a slight bit of admiration for the way of life of a creature so dramatically different than his own. One can’t help but detect a certain amount of frustration with the Patty too.
This is something that resonates with Barbara Ehrenreich’s article in the February issue of Harper’s entitled “Pathologies of Hope.” In the article Ehrenreich fulminates against the culture of false hope and optimism that she sees, the perfunctory cheerfulness that, if one does not conform by being absolutely rosy oneself, one is then excommunicated from the inner circle at work, in social settings, and among all support groups (in particular faith-based ones). For this reason, I am sympathetic towards much of Pecqueuer’s project in this book. The implied tone of suspicion about happiness is an interesting subject to broach in a book. Certainly it flies in the face of the good middle class value where happiness seems to be equal to one’s uncritical acceptance of the way things are; therefore one should just get on with it and set sail for the next task on one’s agenda. Pecqueur tilts toward an uglier reality, one that is not permitted in polite and casual speech, so he has found ways of obliquely burying the nastiness of the world with segues into absurdity and ridiculousness. This kind of rhetorical move is a survival strategy in a culture where you’re told to “keep it light.” Or else.
And then there is darkness, the counterpart to all the lightness and airiness and happiness that occurs and is alluded to elsewhere in the book:
We’ve Been There. Done That.
Most say darkness is a common symbol
meaning we cannot see our way clearly.
And this is supposed to get us somewhere,
to throw open some skygate, backdrop some cue.
They seem so sure of this I no longer know
just where I stand. Under what division
of the blue moon did Empedocles die
that I can hear a sad song and conclude
the radio is feeling la-la-la-lonely?
And can you blame me?
I’ve met machines designed to measure
the heart rate of the wingbeat of the dying
luna moth, machines guided by inner lights
projected from alphabetic satellites.
They were sleek and hairless post-human machines.
Meaning, forget about the Great Chain of Being.
Forget about the woegriefgloom of forgetting.
We are not links broken off Orion’s silver belt.
We’ve been there. Done that. We’ve boarded ships
piloting themselves across oceans portioned out
to the last molecule just as we have daytripped
over the sunburst the bountiful plains. So go ahead,
tell me again; say something I don’t already know
or couldn’t just as easily find out the hard way.
Like Dean Young, in a way, Pecqueur’s work is a representation of psychic life and its vagaries. However, unlike Dean Young, Pecqueur keeps his endings hard and does not resort to the kind of soft and fuzzy emotional endings that has earned Young the title of New Age Surrealist. I like this tendency more than Young’s soft landings. It reminds me that poems aren’t always meant to be expedient. The last two lines in “We’ve Been There. Done That.”require a bit of slowing to parse, and they make an intellectual appeal rather than boiling things down to a basic emotional impulse on the part of the speaker. This “hard ending” makes its case against happiness more effectively.
Not all of Pecqueur’s poems in The case Agaisnt Happiness dump on the reader. In “On the Way From Delphi” Pecqueur appears as truth seeker, searching for an oracle, and he arrives at a moment of joy in the spectacle of a young Chicana girl practicing her cheers in front of a surveillance camera. The absurdity of this moment strikes this reader as the perfect metaphor for the kind of strained cheeriness that Pecqueur is critically gazing at. But he does find his “joy” in this episode. It just seems to lack authenticity. Pecqueur ably points out that we are going through the motions of “the good life” just like the actors we see on TV.
On the Way From Delphi
I thought it was to be a lesson, something
you do, and then are done with:
as in, I have already done
the Three Modes of Truth, or Keats,
or please, just call me if you need
to work late, you know how I worry.
And even though I do not know,
have never really known, drifting
through days as though through cold
spectral flames, my hair curled,
my skin smelling one moment of cedar,
the next moment of cedar-flavored smoke,
and therefore am, like a precocious child,
constantly asking myself why
the dwarf irises have been yanked
from their snug beds, why those stars,
why this lacquered sky, that tedious
expanse of fuzzy muzzy nothing;
yes, even though the span between objective
and act is most often impassable,
I must believe joy is not impossible.
This morning, hours before the sun
began its sluggish crawl over the Rincons,
a small handful of shoppers converged
near the long run of empty carts
in the mega-market’s shadowy,
air-conditioned cavern of an entry
to watch a teenaged Chicana
practice cheers in the surveillance camera.
I can’t explain it.
No one knew what we were cheering for
yet this didn’t seem to matter
as if just inside those pneumatic doors,
once removed from the shallow lights
bordering the dormant parking lots,
we fleetingly became the actors we loved.
I have to admit I was cheering for Pecqueur’s contagious curmudgeonliness throughout the book. I, too, am tired of living in a culture where, stepping off from how Ehrenreich put it, one becomes intolerant of suffering because it’s just such a bummer. One self-improves and self-improves and self-improves so as to eradicate any kind of vulnerability. [And if one can’t acknowledge the vulnerability in oneself, then how will one acknowledge it in someone else?] But Pecqueur understands, unlike me, that you can’t attack false happiness by being self-righteously depressive. His poems are whimsy with an edge lurking.
All in all I was very much encouraged by The Case Against Happiness, and I found Pecqueur’s project sympathetic mainly because it took issue in a winning way with our generation’s current malaise about getting stinky about anything merely because this doesn’t suit its immediate needs or its long-term financial goals. Pecqueur understands though that to strike this discord he must honor the truth that America’s middle class must be entertained until its knuckles turn white. Meanwhile the rest of the world is airing real-time footage of turmoil in the streets.
Even President Bush said he couldn’t watch as Saddam Hussein slipped through the gallows. He could not watch the denouement of something he set up himself. Is there any more telling metaphor? Can there be much more papering over of the ugly truth with the pretty colors of our country’s most promising packaging designers?
I look forward to Pecqueur’s future work and wait for the video game of The Case Against Happiness to come out shortly. It will be the one where a player has to lambaste a smiling happy face on the screen with a critical pose via a few stock conversational phrases, some references to literary treasures, a modicum of technical language and failed romance, and a heavy dose of wit about what is read in the newspapers and seen on television. Pecqueur’s brand of nonchalant sarcasm is a delight, but I wait for him in the future to force himself to turn to the camera and be one of those actors playing out a grim and desperate scene. Let us hope he will soon feel he is allowed to do this.
Yet, asking him, in this day and age, to be a little more demonstrative in his rage would be a little bit like asking someone to drool on himself.