Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Yesterday evening in "A Conversation with the Artist." Botero conversed with Robert Hass, at the Chevron Auditorium in the International House at UC Berkeley.

So I don't have to cover the basics, the premises of why this standing room only experience was such a draw, so I don't have to expand on its massive popularity and why 1000's of people couldn't even get inside to see the conversation, here are a few links:

In the San Jose Mercury News: http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/states/california/northern_california/16574216.htm

In the Berkeley Daily Planet: http://www.berkeleydaily.org/text/article.cfm?issue=01-26-07&storyID=26178

In the SF Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2007/01/22/EDGC7N728U1.DTL

Botero's conversation with Hass has its lowlights. At the end of the evening the second "question from the audience" began as an acid induced rant by a character cut from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for being a loose cannon, and the question went down hill from there. But tolerance of the stuck-in-68 16 year old or 48 year old as the case may have it with their bumper-sticker-on-the forehead craziness was required.

Botero's and Hass' conversation was too meaningful and too important for me to get bogged down in the distractions of anti-intellectual, anti-rational leftist-by-color-my-clothing folk.

Botero calls art an "accusation." A claim one would supsect carried more humor than fire if one were to look at only his "popular" work: the rotund nearly comic figures he has found acclaim for. But when you hear him talk about how enraged he was by the reports and pictures of Abu Ghraib, a new meaning emerges.

He speaks of the United States as the one place on earth where torture would not only be not expected but he felt it is a place where it would be impossible to manifest. So when he, and he feels, the world saw th worlds model for compassion and human rights adopting the behavior of its antagonists he felt, as Hass put it, and I'm paraphrasing, as if the last light on the planet had gone out.


“If you tell a sad story in a bar,
people will laugh, and you
must feel better.”

Whenever I read a book for the purpose of reviewing it, it becomes a kind of Rorschach test of my biases and sensibilities. In the margins, and on any other surface left blank between the book’s covers, I scribble notes about those things that surprise me, inform me, move me, puzzle me, and sometimes perplex me.

On the title page of Jeffrey Franklin’s For the Lost Boys, I wrote, “Keen observations—Jeff has something to say—these are vignettes from his daily life—a wide range of expression and emotion—pleasant in their sounds, their poem-ness.” And about those lines about “a sad story in a bar,” I wrote, “See page 44. How true.”

For the Lost Boys (Ghost Road Press, 2006) is Jeffrey Franklin’s first book-length collection of poems. The poems are diverse in their style and his subjects range from family to travel to women’s lipstick. Constant throughout is a dexterous use of language and music.

Two poems that I think represent the best of Mr. Franklin’s writing are "The Gun in the Chair" and "Cookin' with the David Jones Trio." “The Gun in the Chair” leads us to a genuine insight into our human nature. Participating in such discoveries is a primary reason I read—and write—poetry. In "The Gun in the Chair," I felt led, with that sense of inevitability that is in a good poem, to the conclusion. A conclusion that is still surprising.


My first shot caught him cleanly
in the crease of his hip
as he lay on his side in a sniper’s pose,
a crippling wound at the least, probably
death, if paintballs were bullets.
I had chosen my moment,
ducked from the cover of warped plywood
nailed between aspens, and sprinted
through the close trees, crouching to pant
among the sagebrush of the open prairie.
Running hunched over the clasped gun,
I circled his position, pinned down as he was
by the pneumatic twap-twap-twap
of my partner’s fire.
I would like to say
I noted the Ming blue of the sky,
admired the patterning of the aspens,
their bark a creamy green khaki,
but instead I felt a quietly murderous joy.
He was, is, my son.
I had not wanted to join in this game,
the current war raging and open-ended,
he nearly of age. How could I be sure
he would know the difference I just
had forgotten? He and his buddies
cajoled me, but it was I who chose to play.
After all,
I had seen the gun, known to see it,
in the broken-off chair leg, its tapered foot
a nozzle, the two spindles, hacked short
with my father’s saw, spaced just right
for machine-gun handles, and I knew
how to make that sound with my tongue
like bursts of rattle-snake mojo,
then yell, “I got you, you’re dead!”
I would like to say
I yelled it once more when I saw
the unnatural splatter—pink blood!—
in the crease of his hip where he lay,
but the down vest crumpled there
softened the impact so that for an instant
he did not register the hit, as happens
to some in the heat of battle,
and I, I chose instead
to shoot him again
this time on the skin of his arm,
the welt a red-rimmed crater days after.

If I could understand why I did that
we might do without war.
I would like to say
paintballs are only paintballs
not bullets, but then
the chair would be only the chair.

I also read and write poems for the pure pleasure of language, and its ability to help us celebrate our lives. From that perspective, “Cookin’ with the David Jones Trio” is, for me, about as good as it gets. This poem showcases Mr. Franklin's skills as a poet and let's his personality shine through. His technical decision to arrange the poem in tercets performs both musical and metaphorical functions. All of which results in an homage to a father that can be physically and emotionally felt.


Life is fun when you’re good at something good.
—William Matthews

In Saturday’s kitchen in jeans,
Dad wound-up his wrist,
looping the fat yolks

into a pinwheel of yellows,
concentrating ease
into speed, and just let

go, let the greased
sockets of the wrist spin
on the elbow’s flywheel, let

the eggs, as if by their own
momentum, merge into
a smear of galaxy and rise

with the ring of the whisk to fine-
beaded froth. Last night,
the jazz trio’s pianist

urged the first few notes
from between his shoulders, listening,
eyes closed, for them

to alight somewhere far
away, then followed or
was pulled along like a man after

spilled papers, the wind
cartwheeling them now in overlapping
riffs, shavings of sunlight

tumbling across the emerald
lawn and down the rumpled
hillside into the shared-steeped

funk beneath the trees where
the bassman joined him,
approaching thunder felt

in the ground, in the bones, startling
a flung fist of starlings
from beneath the eaves of

the baby grand, a swoop
of notes dispersing, satin
shadows rippling across

hedgerow and rock-wall off
the fringe-lipped precipice,
the drummer’s snare and slash

of cymbals, the foot-pedaled
drum jumping hearts
into our throats and out

above the dazzling waves,
miraculous suspension, oh,
take me, let me go

let me hover in the wind’s
chamber, drift up and
eddy in a thermal, even

as horizon comes a sweep
of thunderhead, hot rain
strafing the city, its

soot-grimed cars riddled
with leopard spots, tenement
windows rattling prismatic

streaks, a whale’s moan
of sweet anguish from a thumb
drawn across the conga’s

skin, the arse-end
of a handle sliding down
the cymbal’s brass spine,

and ending when the eggs hit
the skillet, the sizzle buttering
our appetites for artifice made

natural, grace given back
by hands that thank. Thank you,
Dad, Daddy, Daddio.

Poems like these make For the Lost Boys worthy of attention. Naturally, not all its poems rang true to my ear. Sometimes, the ordinary event at the center of a poem didn’t quite measure up to the high language used to describe it, and more than one poem left me feeling let down by a forced epiphany. (I suppose these statements reveal my bias toward plain language and understatement). In the end, Mr. Franklin has something to say, and he says it well.

This is the second book from Ghost Road Press I’ve had the pleasure to review. As was the case with Steve Meuske’s A Mnemonic for Desire, the production value is high and the cover art, in this case a painting by Jim Franklin, is consistent with the book’s mood and feeling. Ghost Road Press can be proud of this book, too, as can its author.

Monday, January 15, 2007


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:

Patty Suddenly

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.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Garrett Murphy's CALL 9-1-1

The morning newspaper is brimming with opinions about George W. Bush's presidency and his Wednesday night speech. Reporters and pundits at NPR and AM Talk Radio offer their diverse and wide-ranging opinions. I know I should think enough is being said, but I'd like to add one more voice to the cacophony: the voice of the San Francisco Bay Area's Garrett Murphy.

I had the pleasure to hear Mr. Murphy read, with the incomparable Marvin Hiemstra, at the Oakland Public Library a couple of years ago. Mr. Murphy was a voice crying out in the wilderness, crying out at an urgent tempo, in a rapid-fire staccato reminiscent of Walter Winchell and World War II newsreels. I bought his book: Call 9-1-1 (Beatitude Press, 2004). It is a masterpiece of satire and social commentary.


While I was seated at home one day,
I got an idea for a new type of TV show.
The storyline went as follows:
The media of such-and-such a country
has been taken over by one cold-hearted
"big brother."
It saturates the populace with unquestioning
reverence towards authority large and small
under the guise of heartwarming "family values."
In this such-and-such a country
The school bully, for example,
has become the virtuous hero
of the dramas, the comedies, the court shows, the news
and even of all three branches of government.
And the populace is completely enervated,
they have learned to enjoy seeing humiilation
(even their own)
on a daily basis.
Shouting matches are the tonic of the day.
No "warm and fuzzy" with the schoolchildren here!
Whippings, beatings, slams on the walls
and tests tests
and more more tests
win the day here.
Police ride roughshod over those who are "different,"
be it by race, nationality, religion, or some other immutable,
and are subject to medals, promotions and veneration,
especially if they overreact and kill or maim.
Why, the country's own "caretaker"
is a schoolyard bully
come to extend the skills
learned on the playground
and extended to the city, county, state and nation
to the rest of the world
simply because "he can."
Now of course there must be a few
opposed to all of this,
but they shall not win!
These, you see, are the new bad guys
who are traitors of this such-and-such country.
All have learned to
(and to hell with the victims)
How's that for a new type of TV show?
I sent the idea to the producers of programming.
Surely they can see the numbers multiplying in their heads.

A few weeks passed before I heard from them.

Finally the response from them came
in the form of an envelope.
And I got the shock of my life as I read:
"Dear sir,
we regret to inform you
that we have rejected your proposal
for lack of originality.
We suggest you develop an imagination
or perhaps become a journalist,
for your work, you see,
as written as is,
is nothing more than a simple diary
of a very routine day."


Sunday, January 7, 2007


After burning up during the first two entries, during the third entry into the atmosphere of Lisa Lubasch’s Twenty-One After Days, I finally was able to penetrate and safely land in the little space that Lubasch had cleared for visitors to linger a while with her.

Make no mistake. Twenty-One After Days is largely about atmospherics. There is more ambience in this book than there is anything else. The reader is led through a nearly incessant collection of image phrases and physical details interspersed with phrases that express the internal thinking life of the author replete with its many twists and folds.

The accretion of these many fragments, sometimes demarcated by em dashes, sometimes by commas, presents a fairly wide associational palette. Yet in the end, I was struck by the speaker/channeler (because I had an odd feeling that the words were being delivered to the author as much as they were being willed into existence) as being primarily a householder. The items invoked never seemed very far afield, usually not beyond what is contained in a room or framed by a picture window. There is a lot of waiting and enduring going on.

Recently, a friend revealed to me that he “did not get being.” This, most assuredly, would not be the book for him. There’s not one car crash mentioned in the whole book. The book urges us on by hopefully offering:

but patience may bloom backward into knowledge — covered in nettles — and bannering spirals — and the sleepy eye is shaded

With this it seemed to me that Lubasch was encouraging patience on the part of the reader, for the mini-explosions of insight that a long wait seems to frequently provide. Lubasch is committed to this project of long, slow meditation and contemplation after the day has wound to a close:

luminous scatter — unaware — of other diverse events — their meager capacity — for astonishment — barren ideas — loosing themselves from — legitimate reception — and so content to stutter vaguely — inside a meaningless hour — of lapsing — and converging — the day beside us — shading — in the course of its contention — which has withered — which has turned

Perhaps Lubasch finds her mantra in the following:

all concentration being,
this internal movement,
towards beauty

However, this beauty that Lubasch evokes is a very private one, one that I presume many others will have difficulty in appreciating its attributes. One luxuriates with Lubasch the way one takes a hot bath or throws back a scotch or a beer or a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day. This reflective moment where the presence of your immediate physical space announces itself is the way of Lubasch in this book. She seems content in the little mental space she has carved out within her domicile. Or as she puts it:

from inside — as the mind is —
pulled — cordoning off a place —

Sit back and watch her watch herself thinking. This is not a spectator sport for amateurs. It is meant to entice all those other lovers of the contemplative life, lovers of those moments in the day that feel like a swallowed pill.

It is curious, then, why Lubasch decides to organize her fragments in paragraph form (in section 1 of the book instead of down the page butting against the left hand margin). Texts that align on the left hand margin tend to evoke more open space. They suggest that one should linger over them as discrete objects that warrant further examination. Running the fragments together as she does at the outset suggests denseness of thought, a flurry of contemplative activity that may result in a disturbance of the bathroom’s fragile ecosystem. It suggests a kind of colon blockage, perhaps from the incomplete digestion of the elements in the room or perhaps from too much sitting and thinking.

But Lubasch seems content to pursue the rewards of this mode of existence. For her, patience is more than a virtue. It is a way of engaging the world and allowing oneself to be thrilled by its minutiae. Patience is the way, the tao.

Though it’s uncertain
That force

Is amplified as envy, or as
Vertical growth
They carve out

Some paths more than others
While also shaking their heads, no and no
Almost always, within patience

The voice (not so much the physically present voice but that kind of voice which creative writers attach as a critical term to the uniqueness of spirit) also makes an appearance at the end of section 3.

the voice
rehearsing at its boundaries
in through the door and stops a wave clandestine forward through the door
and stops

it curls cuts into the rain running at its vision awkwardly poised against the wind
or balked at pressed against its circle

. . .

it curls cuts into the line
it cannot hear
a gesture vain abundance
of its heart

Here Lubasch depicts the interior voice in Twenty-One After Days as “curling”, an action which suggests that it is turning in on itself to produce a design like a whorled fingerprint. But not only does this fingerprint proclaim its own existence, it also seems to acknowledge that there is a lot of this curling going on. Its “vain abundance” is the heart of its project, its raison d’etre. Whether there is too much curling going on depends on the time, space, and culture that the reader is fixed in. Yet it is just this fixedness that Lubasch is intending to explore. The whorled fingerprint of her voice is left on all the furniture, and as one reads the book, one must decide whether or not to reach for the can of furniture spray to eradicate all the smudges.

I live in a house with 6-and 8-year-old boys, so not only are smudges tolerated, they are greeted as essential to one’s existence if sanity is preferred to a debilitating form of progressive madness. One tolerates mess and learns to call it magic. And out of this squalor comes the defining principle that Lubasch puts forth: mess suggests things going on, a busy mind’s passionate involvement with the world, whereas a tidy and measured presentation suggests a life organized by task.

With Lubasch we are decidedly off task. We are off task because the mind is busy trying to attach meaning, a logical framework to the world.

premises scattered — fitfully, the mind hastens — painfully compelled —along an observation — in various points — mark out time — bent — split — staged — they will not come to rest —

So it goes . . . the drama of cognition. Unexpected cognition. Via the tides of introspection. Yet somehow:

a meaning disentangles
from its own philosophy

Often in trying to keep up with the meandering phrases of Lubasch I am left with the distinct feeling that I am watching Jello harden. For those others out there who are also fans of colloid sports, you know that the best way to enjoy such a spectacle is to delay discrimination. One must let the mind blur over the course of events. To some this may seem like vacuousness, but this state of mind seems to be the point from which Lubasch’s project emerges. The more one is able to enter into that state of creative numbness, the more one attains Lubasch’s imperative in the book: to exist on the cusp of becoming other.

Of course, this is a process that takes some time. It proceeds in fits and starts. It is fixed, and it is not. It is wound, then unraveled. It’s force on a pressure point, then it is released. This kind of improvised dance occurs on nearly every page. She reminds her readers that she should not be asked to carry a stopwatch.

But the emergent fictive self and the dislocated self are surely Lubasch’s concerns. The quotation on page 60 from Deleuze’s Pure Immanence [“We will say of pure immanence that it is A LIFE, and nothing else”] clarifies the importance of the ineffable moment being spontaneously rendered into words. That is all there is.

During my attenuated theory-laden days, Deleuze was always my favorite theorist. In A Thousand Plateuas the metaphors he used for becoming appealed to the scientist foundation in me. I intuitively understood his description of the self as an outgrowth of the natural world. The nomad, the rhizome were very powerful and apt for me. However, I found it to be almost unlivable, at least not for very long.

The idea of searching in order to acquire “data” that would glom together at a key locus point did make sense, but it was hard to hold a conversation with someone based on that premise, especially if the person I was conversing with did not aspire to the same code. What, then, is the obligation to halt the search, the drift while one is trying to engage and communicate with the world? Should I become-intense/become-animal while I am ordering fries at McDonald’s/green tea at the co-op?

I searched Lubasch’s book for hints at the moral obligation one has to things within one’s “field” and outside of one’s “field,” and I found only one passage that deals with the other:

a promise grows — impure —
in the transfer —
to another —

it is — in its abjection —
reading its own hieroglyph — out of mourning — out of air —
understanding — only — identity —

it speaks — to an arrow — saying — “yes yes”—
anything to hear its voice —
repeatable — as a vacant room

I have a little trouble parsing this only because I usually don’t think of the dominant feature of a vacant room as “being repeatable.” It seems to be saying that sadness, dreariness, loneliness, difficulty weighs on another until it is taken up by that other. But there is no rumination on the duty and obligation to the other who comes into contact with the speaker/channeler. The solipsism continues.

Again, perhaps this is Lubasch’s commentary on drearily being locked into a solitary state due to sadness or contemplation so much so that the social world recedes in favor of a highly personalized one. One can’t escape oneself in such a state. This does not mean there is nothing to be gained from lingering there, waiting for the omnipresence of the world to spark a creative gesture again.

In the end, the primary focus of Twenty-One After Days is illumination, that moment in which the world suddenly sparkles in the eye of the beholder and a personal paradigm shift occurs. The thing that ultimately makes this project a bit confounding for me is that, in my experience, when “that moment of understanding” occurs, it is not greeted by phrases that are continually woven together, but by paragraphs that erect a structural lucidity before they once again dissipate. That said, I’m sure there are a myriad number of ways of experiencing illumination. Lubasch’s apparently never congeals into anything other than a phrase or image that is further scattered in the field.

Rightly, though, Lubasch has focused on this moment as the creative person’s initiative. One waits for its intrusion, and one trusts that it will come. Explaining this infatuation, this belief can be difficult to those who move through the world swinging from one willful motivation to another. At the end of the book Lubasch’s speaker/channeler is still waiting for “the plan” to arrive even as “the path of privacy burns out.”Being is always arriving, never quite there.

This speaker/channeler is admirable because of the way she insists on dwelling within that space that has her asking on the last page “Where is the excitement?”This is not easy to do either by will or accident in the age of what I call “the shiny package syndrome.”The voice of the speaker/channeler in Twenty-One After Days is the antidote to the madness of rushing around in order to procure what will sustain the self next. The book is half portrait,, half instruction manual of someone who, in the words of Lubasch, “in advances.”

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

BEST OF THE BLOGS (What are you? Nuts?)

It was the end of the year when I began this project/search to look for the “best of the blogs” so that I could ably assume the troubled role of tastemaker. Now it is the beginning of the next one, and I am no closer to settling the issue. Certainly the pronouncement about some past effort has no importance insofar as it does not make its mark upon the future. So while I straddle this year and the last, I will tell you what I mean by the “best.”

It is such a laughable feat that I undertake that I can almost hear that reader sobbing for the obviously poor condition my soul is in and my transgressions. I shall repent at tax time. Meanwhile I will persevere to deliver what I find online among the bloggers whose main emphasis seems to be the love of poetry. This means I am looking at blogs that put poems online (either as out-and-out published poems or as part of a review of a book or close reading of a single poem). I tended to veer away from those blogs engaged in literary theory or academic disputes about one thing or the other. Also, I discounted those blogs dedicated to the daily ephemera of the author. Many of these turn out to be the blogger’s private little soundpost to project onto the world or to air one’s grievances.

What I was really interested in was bloggers whose main interest was in delivering poetry in a satisfying manner to those who might stroll through the site.

My ranking really reflects my own desire to revisit the site in the future. It is a metric of my own curiosity if it measures anything.

1) Eileen Tabios’s Galatea Resurrects (1), (2), (3), (4) are all billed as “poetry engagements,” and this is primarily what makes them so delightful. Though the site is really an online publication dedicated to reviewing primarily small press poetry books, the dedication to the work is readily apparent. For anyone who endeavors to find that next gem from a little known press, this is the first place to stop. There is no historical context like in other high profile blogs. Just a lot of love.

2. Simon DeDeo’s Rhubarb is Susan is a compendium of “flash reviews” of poems written by a self-described “man from Chicago.” Though he does not always adhere to flash reviews, he does do the visitor to his site the service of quoting the entire poem he is looking at and commenting on. Much of the focus is towards small presses that feature experimental work (especially if the subject matter relates to science . . . as the man behind the Simon DeDeo persona appears to be a scientist . . . oh-my-god there’s a scientist running loose in the house of poetry!)

3. Kathy Kieth’s Medusa’s Kitchen is always an interesting mix of local Northern California poets’ work and the work of established poets from across the country or throughout the world (recent posts have featured Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen and Goethe. There is no era or geography she doesn’t like, but this is probably not the place to find work that is pretending to leap into some new poetic space. This is a space for good, solid, crafted work that often takes a thoughtful pose on the natural world. This site is often a good spot to check for a grounded poetry fix.

4. Paul Hoover’s blog is a great antidote to Silliman’s blog only because the posts there are more periodic and do not require a slavish acquiescence to daily opinion-making on poetry. While some might find this as not living up to the blue collar poetry ethic, I am always relieved that I do not have to wade through a month’s worth of posts to find something that is inspiring. The paucity of posts makes it easy savor them. Kudos especially to the focus on Nathaniel Mackey and Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai as well as Hoover’s own Edge and Fold, whose cover and contents I’ve found to be very satisfying given my limited exposure.

5. James Lee Jobe’s blog does it all. Often the focus is on local Northern California poetry, but just as often it is not. A two-week sampling of poetry posts finds poems by Norman Dubie, Bob Kaufman, Forest Hamer, Lawrence Ferlighetti, Bob Hicok, Robert Bly, Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca, Robert Desnos, Jane Kenyon, John Ashbery, Jean Follain and others. What is it with the inland empire of Northern California blogs to use the blogspace as an anthology/literary journal? The contemporary and the past poets live together in harmony. Where’s all the theory and the poetics? Where’s all the positioning of poets within a historical context? Nope. Just poems for people who love poems.

6. Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound (now temporarily and perhaps perpetually defunct) is a Canadian offering that is talky at times, but Queyras has sworn off her blog for the time being because she wants to connect back to the physical world. That’s a reason to check in to see how that project goes into the future. One wishes her a lot of brick and mortar happiness and even a glimpse at the moon from time to time. That seems healthy enough without becoming overbearing. Her tag phrase is “pissing people off since 1969.” I find that admirable. Queyras’s photos are punctuated by snippets of Jena Osman, Laura Sims and a link to Kenneth Patchen. Any blog that offers a little self-reflexiveness is worth taking note of, and there is enough of others’ work to make one hold on to its past even as it has renounced its future.

7. Another from Canada is Jon Paul Fiorentino’s blog Asthmatronic which provides a brief glipmpse at what is new and fresh in Canadian poetry. Fiorentino, like Queyras above, is part of the Coach House Press stable, and his work is satisfyingly edgy in way that many American poets who aspire to the edge are not. The blog is mostly a collection of outtakes from Fiorentino’s reading tour late in the year, but there is enough of the contemporary poetry scene in Montreal and the rest of Canada to make the blog worthy of a stop. There isn’t always poetry in great doses here, but there often is a lot of other cultural droppings: a link to a pop bad devoted to hockey star Dale Hawerchuk and a spooky You Tube video of a Japanese-made English instructional video. And just enough venom and vigor for the previous generation of Canadian writers.

8. Heidi Lynn Staples’s Mildred’s Umbrella is a bit heavy on the links to Staples’s own poems, which is kind of like a look-what-I-got-for-Christmas kind of thing she has going on there, but I’m partial to the Herb Scott piece she has posted as well as a short piece by Medbh McGuckian she has posted. Also, I like the fact that she addresses her readers as “bloggerisimo” as though one who passes through the site must be the biggest blogger of them all.

Well, I couldn’t quite come up with 10 poetry blogs that would fit the criteria I was looking for in particularly satisfying ways, so I resorted to what many others do, I resorted to picking some favorite music titles.

1. By far this year’s most inspiring and beautiful record of the year is Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst and other choral works. I can’t stop listening to it. Eric Whitacre is the 35-year-old choral composer phenom whose works have redefined notions of polyphony for choral music. This is unearthly stuff, but the best thing about Whitacre is that he is the only classical composer with a My Space site (for Eric Whitacre). Not only that but he has 18640 friends. Geez. That’s more than went to my high school! Swing on over to the site and listen to “Sleep.” If that’s not what you expect music to do for you, then I’m sorry for all of that. On top of all this, his librettos are taken from Rumi, Lorca, Cummings, Dickinson, and Paz.

2. OK. So maybe I’m a sucker for anything this guy does and maybe his “Romance of the Violin” made more of an impact, but there isn’t a violinist whose tone “sings” as much as Joshua Bell’s. Therefore, it is an obvious move for Bell to record “The Voice of the Violin,” where he adapts many operatic arias and other choral works for the violin. Just the inclusion of many of these pieces into the repertoire would be enough to be included in the “must-listen” category, but how Bell captures the intensity of his (and my) boyhood idol Jascha Heifetz yet makes the violin stay sweet and not sound stark is beyond me. Of course, there are many reasons why I should be drawn to Viktoria Mullova or up-and-comer Cecilia Ziliacus, but for some reason Bell remains on the top of the heap for me. Perhaps he is the undisputed heavyweight champ.