Tall, Slim and Erect: Portraits of the Presidents

by Emily Kiernan

Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents
by Alex Forman
Les Figues Press, 2012
131 pages / $15  Buy from Les Figues Press

 

 

 

 

James Monroe was the third president to die on the fourth of July. Franklin Pierce was arrested for running a woman over with his horse. James Buchanan carried his head cocked to the side like a poll parrot (whatever that is). These and other trivial-pursuit answers are drawn from Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents, Alex Forman’s compelling and often very funny book of short presidential biographies. With text appropriated from dozens of sources, Forman presents us with a surprisingly dishy view of our first thirty-seven leaders that, through her light touch, still manages to bring up some highly relevant questions about our expectations of history and our chaotic construction of public figures.

In his introduction to the text, Ben Ehrenreich characterized Forman’s effort as one to humanize the presidents, and the portraits are, indeed, deeply human, with a heavy emphasis on personal foibles and physical oddities. The Presidential body is essential to these portraits. Of course we might claim that the presidential body is essential to a great deal of political discourse—from Obama’s smoking and Cheney’s beat-less heart to that final dictatorial accessory, the glass coffin—but what Forman gives us is something different, not the body as symbol or the body as tool of power, but the body as body. Grant “had unusually small hands and feet,” Coolidge was “deficient in red corpuscles,” and while Washington’s famed wooden teeth don’t make an appearance, his pockmarks and bouts of dysentery do. The bodies depicted here are intimate bodies, embarrassingly physical, and not fit for public perusal—which makes it especially striking that this book is, in large part, a compilation of public perusals. Drawn from a few centuries worth of news, diaries, histories, speculations, Wikipedia articles, and gossip, Tall, Slim, & Erect is a distillation of the public gaze.

Making this formulation of presidential physicality all the more beguiling is the way the text is paired with images. Each textual portrait is accompanied by a photographic one of the Louis Marx presidential playset—a set of figurines the famous toymaker began marketing in the mid-1950’s. Each presidential body, so fully explicated and worked-over in the text, is reduced to a sixty millimeter plastic figure. The likenesses are fairly good, but there is a kind of necessary uniformity. Madison (our shortest president) stands sixty millimeters, as do Lyndon B. Johnson and Lincoln (our tallest). Taft, with his famous, bathtub-sticking rotundity appears only a bit thicker than anorexic FDR (who is shown standing, despite his polio). The faces are different, but the bodies are the same.  In effect, these presidents have no bodies, the pictures remind us, at least none that we can see through the haze of time and expectations. The president as person means something different and perhaps something less than the president as figure, and the attempt here to humanize is less interesting for its success or failure than as a catalogue of what it might mean to humanize a public figure. A president is, after all, a human, but one who has been so denatured by his role that we must embark upon these kinds of recuperative missions to see him as such. Do we become more human in one another’s eyes through the workings of our bowels or the oddities of our forms? Perhaps these are the very things we need to strip from our leaders in order for them to lead, fearful that too much body will leave them mired in the petty and personal. Or perhaps in confronting the truthlessness of history, these are simply the easiest elements to give back to our presidential figurines. Knowing about Truman’s bad eyes stands in for knowing what it means to be the man who dropped the bomb. Unable to comprehend the Cuban missile crisis, we muck around in the brain and bone of Kennedy’s head. Perhaps in our search for presidential humanity, we are just naïve phrenologists, asking the body for answers it does not have.

Ultimately, all these attempts to get a glimpse of the presidents as they were, as men, only serve to highlight the impossibility of sorting out truth from speculation. Forman’s selection process, wide-ranging as it is, cleverly sates us with a glut of information while withholding any means by which to judge its veracity or, more importantly, its meaning. There is a nine-page bibliography, but no attributions within the collaged text, so we cannot say whether any given tidbit is fromThe American Heritage Book of Presidents or from snopes.com. We begin to wonder if it matters. This is the biographer’s dilemma writ large; in the end it is not the words that are bafflingly contradictory, but the people themselves. Forman’s poetic and inscrutable bits-and-pieces portraits give us as much as any history truly can: a series of discreet and questionable revelations, a public figure in figurine.

***

A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernanwrites about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Her fiction has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Atticus Review, Cobalt, and other journals. More information can be found atemilykiernan.com

 

Composing the Decomposed: A Review of Amelia Gray’s Threats

by Molly Prentiss

Threats
by Amelia Gray
FSG Originals, February 2012
288 pages / $14  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’re in someone else’s body but you’re not really in someone else’s body, you’re in your own body, lying next to someone else’s body. “An embarrassment of childhood odor” – is it coming from your body? – steams around you, and you may or may not be wearing a fireman’s suit. This is what it feels like when Franny dies.

Franny: a large woman who wears five layers of lipstick and “smells like stones.” Franny: your wife. How she died, although you were there with her when she did, remains a mystery, even to you. A mystery: this is what it feels like to live.

This is also what it feels like to read Amelia Gray’s debut novel, Threats, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux last month. To read it is to succumb to the emotional torpor and physical disorientation that is life after the death of a loved one. This means: a fair amount of hallucination, an undertone of deep sadness, intermittent boredom, and shots of curious paranoia. This means: laughing out loud and worrying that you shouldn’t be laughing because, hello, someone died and life is sad. This means: being as confused as David (our numb hero) is when he receives the “threats” the book is named for, finding a terrifying note in the crack behind the mirror, not worrying about what it means, or else worrying a lot, wondering who the hell has left it for you, who might be out to get you, and if Franny might be – tragically, for that would mean she’s left you – still alive.

These are the mysteries that propel this novel, but then again, this novel is more about sitting still.

Sitting still in the house he inherited from his father (or moping through the surrounding snow in his bathrobe), David watches as the world as he knows it decomposes. This decomposition is both figurative – death as erosion of life – and literal. Ants have taken up residence in his bed, and he sleeps under stacks of magazines, papers, and his late wife’s coat. The garage has been taken over by swarms of wasps and a psychotherapist named Marie. “…a layer of dust and skin and hair particles [has] built up over the wood floor.” The threats only contribute to the grimness of the domestic landscape: “I will lock you in a room…until it fills with water,” one says. Or “My truth will cause atomic snow upon your sweet-smelling lambs and children.” As odd as they are bleak, the threats both mirror and derail David’s mourning and recovery.

And so it goes in the work and mind of Amelia Gray – mirrors, mourning, and magic; this stuff is literary quicksilver. In flashes of poetic prose, Gray deftly challenges the literary laws of perspective, plot, and pacing, and the novel reads like a photo album full of (intentionally blurry) snapshots that converge to create a broader narrative. In the thirty-fourth of her seventy-seven tiny chapters, Gray describes a photographic phenomenon that illustrates the very effect her form creates:

“Photographs of photographs tend to take on a strange quality of their own, independent of the subject they try to capture. The glass of the photo’s frame and the glass of the camera lens together offer an extra layer between the item and the capturing device, giving the air between them a darker quality. Of course, any dust on the picture frame or intruding natural light can further degrade the image. The resulting picture represents the murky edges, facial expressions blurred and unclear. The individuals in the frame are difficult to separate from the elements of scenery.”

The individual is part of the scenery; the scenery is part of the individual; David’s house is also David; “the house [is] a void.” And as he boards the windows of his house shut he muses: “It [feels] good to cover the place where people might either observe or enter his home interior.”

With Franny dead, David now has to exist in that boarded up interior. He has to know himself – the scariest part of being alone? – and we get to know a picture of a picture of that self. Blurry snapshot: David’s mother in a “Home for Women,” where it’s “warm as an incubator” and where his mother “often dreams of hatching from an egg.” Blurry snapshot: David’s baby sister drowning in a shallow swimming pool. Blurry snapshot: David French kissing Franny’s co-worker at the spa Franny had worked at, during a “freebie” acid enzyme mask, the co-worker in “optimistic deep purple” underwear, after Franny’s death. David: a beloved dentist whose practice had gone wrong somewhere; he misses “the smell of sanitized dental tools mixed with coffee.” David: no longer not the person he, or anyone, thought he was. David: totally suicidal?

Through all this darkness, there is something intrinsically suburban and light about Threats, which is interesting, firstly, because of Gray’s obvious, dark, and seemingly urban intelligence. The fact that David eats at Sizzler, for example, or that Franny gave facials for a living – we may have a hard time imagining Gray herself setting foot in a restaurant with a buffet, let alone understanding the mechanics of pore extraction. It is also interesting because the normal things (cul de sac, sugar cereal, terrycloth robe) are precisely the things the weirdness inhabits – it is the infusing of the “normal” with the weird that makes the book doubly weird.

“That morning,” Gray writes of the day Franny died, “she spooned the sugar into her cup of coffee and returned the bag to the pantry. She walked to the table and sat beside him. These things were as ordinary as ordinary. Missing them would feel the same as missing a chair that was not particularly comfortable or uncomfortable. Like missing a dinner plate, a door’s frame.”

And yet it is the weight given to the ordinary that make reading this book such a benevolently bizarre experience. That cornflakes or “freezer-burned meatloaf” exist in this surreal landscape is jarring and funny; the humor, here, is based on such unromantic juxtapositions, and also on a foundation of sadness (funny plus sad equals funnier and sadder). In New York City, David might be killed in traffic, wandering about in his slippers in the snow. In Threats’ special brand of suburbiahe simply decomposes into the house he grew up in.

During the more opaque stretches of Threats we may be forced to wonder if the novel is decomposing alongside David. We might even stop to ask ourselves if Gray can pull off in the novel what she does in her works of shorter pieces (AM/PM, Featherproof Books, and Museum of the Weird, FC2), works where snapshots aren’t forced to make sense together. And yet in this sort of novel, the sort where making sense is perhaps the opposite of the point, we must forgo the satisfaction of story. Edgar Allan Poe said “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Gray has stretched this advice to serve an entire novel; every sentence, every word even, of Threats is pitched directly at a central atmosphere. The atmosphere, at once bleak and tedious and eccentric, is the perfect place to float around and wonder: how could there be another? How could this mood be different? How could plot or purpose or plan exist at all, being that Franny has died?

***

Molly Prentiss‘ fiction and poems have appeared in Everyday Genius, Mudluscious, >kill author, Fourteen Hills, La Petite Zine, Hobart, Ilk, Switchback, The Heavy Feather Review and others. Her essays and commentary have appeared in We Still Like and YOU: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person. She was a 2010-2011 Writer-In-Residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and received an MFA from the California College of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, as well as on the internet at mollyprentiss.blogspot.com.

 

JON LEON & A POETRY OF CONTINGENCY

by Impossible Mike

THE MALADY OF THE CENTURY
By Jon Leon
Futurepoem Books, May 2012
88 Pages / $16.00 Buy from SPD

 

 

 

 

In consideration of the work of Jon Leon, it is necessary to consider Jon Leon, the poet, simultaneously as an apostle and a construction. Anna Kaven (nee Helen Emily Woods) ended up, at a particular point in her career as a novelist, changing her name from that which she was born with to a name she had invented for a character in one her own books—Jon Leon has always simply insisted on living as a character in his work, as the character in his works.

His poetry.

There is a level of both the inter-textual and the extra-textual interaction present throughout his entire oeuvré; something that becomes apparent throughout his career. As Dan Hoy points out in his case-study of Leon, there’s a particular overlap of reality with a poetic construction of reality:

“We mixed agitprop, erotic dance, and horror to construct a total environment of focused bliss.” Jon Leon, Hit Wave

I’ll risk substituting tropes here and suggest the above sentence from Jon Leon’s Hit Wavecould be taken somewhat literally as a nod to his overall objective (construct a total environment of focused bliss = enable and induce the experience of the impossible) and strategy (mixing agitprop, erotic dance, and horror = forming a triangulation of world, life, and nothingness).

 

The few reviews that I’ve bothered to read of Leon’s The Malady of the Century seem to locate its motivation in some sort of grotesque irony, a decadence, kitsch. This reading is a needlessly academic understanding of Leon’s work I think; a sort of insistent justification of the poetry as poetry for other poets. From Hit Wave:

I called TJ in the daytime, always before noon, to discuss with him the prospect of my gems, the possibility of elevating the word poetry to something with a little more suss. He alerted me to the fact that Poet’s Arcade was calling me “the world’s #1 non-academic poet.” “Poetry needs more readers and less writers” I told him. He agreed emphatically.

This is, perhaps, what Dan Hoy means when he tags his critical posts on the work of Jon Leon at Montevidayo with the tag “people who get it.” To read Jon Leon as poetry, to read it as kitsch, to read it as fiction, is to miss the point, to miss what’s exciting about it.

Intertextually, there is a world of overlap in Leon’s oeuvre. Hit Wave seems to be a core text (along with, I would say, Kasmir, which is not included as a part of The Malady of the Century) within the reality of “Jon Leon.” It maps out a career trajectory, and includes mentions of heaps of both chap-books and broadsides, texts. Some of these exist in the reality of our real world (as opposed to the reality of the diegesis of the text, where they all exist), and some of them might exist in the future. Hit Wave can be read as a structural guide, but then again taking it so literally might just be stupid.

Jon Leon’s career, thus far, has been based on a consecutive interest in a pure impossible glamour with the ephemeral, fleeting mobility of the invisible poet. Limited edition chapbooks released as PDFs of scans of text written on Hotel stationary pop up for sale and then disappear, never to be mentioned again. One of the chap-books included in The Malady…, which, as far as I know, never existed autonomously, is called Mirage—an utterly apt name for a fragment of Leon’s work. The contingency of Leon’s whole is fleeting. A crisis of faith, perhaps, lead to a limited edition cassette tape entitled “The Need to Exit the Self,”—which featured Leon recording himself musing on various things, crying, talking shit about Guyotat, and further—has disappeared from notice. The artist himself being in charge of his own website, constantly editing his own history. Is he lending himself to the idea of the artist-ghost, or has a dissatisfaction motivated this fluctuating body of work?

The nature of the texts lead us, as readers, to refuse to focus on technicalities, instead allowing the contingencies of what we know to feed us the gospel. And thus, I’d like to propose, perhaps, the existence of The Malady of the Century as a cipher to the first ‘movement’ of Leon’s gesamtkunstwerk. And by gesamtkunstwerk I mean reality.

Having read much of what’s collected in The Malady of the Century previously, albeit in disconnected bouts of encounters with black market copies, late night paypal transactions, and fugues of drunkenness, to revisit the works collected here in a single context, to read straight through, the trajectory is revealed.

The first line of the entire book tells us the only thing about Leon’s past we need to know:

A black God touched me today and I knew I was a poet.

The final poem of the book, ADULTS ONLY, completes, in its first manifestation, the entire life of the poet Jon Leon. The book is a life-story. There is both no outside and an absolute outside, suggested by uncollected texts such as KasmirThe Hot TubAlexandraThe Painting Show, and more. Jon Leon is a poet of contingency. His poetry is the only poetry of realism—and of course, by realism we can’t even bother meaning ‘realist’ in a historical-literary sense, no, that’s too naïve. Leon is not a poet’s-poet, he is a man in the world, and so we have to understand realism as it’s defined by the speculative realists at the forefront of post-Kantian/correlationist thought. In discussing the work of Quentin Meillassoux, Alexander R. Galloway defines ‘realism’ as such:

“…realism means quite simply that an external world exists independent of ourselves and our languages, thoughts, and beliefs.”

[clearly an idea such as that given above cannot be defended within the context of a poetry review, to take up arms against such an idea is ostensibly refusing what’s become an entire school of thought developed throughout the network of philosophers writing and working across the globe, Meillassoux’s book working as an inspiring launching point which finally allows us to move into our future, outside of the iron-clad grip of critical theory which, through to its death, still insisted upon the idea that there is no outside]

So if Leon’s book is a cipher, what is it that is being decrypted? Well, there’s several levels to address this issue from. First of all, I would suggest that the book works to decrypt and linearize Leon’s entire oeuvre. It’s a concession from a pin-up artist, a collect-call made to the world as a whole that has, up until this point, been missing out. It’s a mode of putting Jon Leon outside of Jon Leon (whose oeuvre almost entirely consists of self-published works).

Secondly, Leon’s book is a cipher to the idea that poetry is an hermetic, antiquated form that finds presence only within a hyper-self-contained zeitgeist of myopic poets, whether inside or outside of academia. It’s a revelation: reality television is nothing when Leon’s poetry exists.

Finally, Leon’s book works as a cipher to the nature of the world as we understand it. Leon, in an oft-quoted line from Hit Wave says,:

Why would people sell themselves short and not just live the life of pure creative glamour.

If there is a message through all of this, it is as given.

 

(!x==[33]) Book 1 Volume 1 by .UNFO

 

 

by Travis Diehl

(!x==[33]) Book 1 Volume 1
by .UNFO
Blanc Press, 2011
776 pages / $50  Buy from Blanc Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be clear: (!x==[33]) Book 1 Volume 1 is a reformatting of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The book itself, a conceptual work by .UNFO (a collaboration between Dan Richert and Harold Abramowitz) published by Blanc Press, acknowledges its source only obliquely. The publisher’s website simply tells us that this series “seeks to indexically lengthen the world’s most monumental texts through failed software operations”—that is, by filtering existing texts through the eponymous formula, redistributing chapters and paragraphs into chunks of approximately 33 syllables (rounded to the nearest whole word). On the book’s title page we find an innocuous url for a “0200601.txt” containing a (different) English translation of Mein Kampf archived by Project Gutenberg Australia. Indeed, the source text is apparent enough. We read the signature that follows the author’s forward, the table of contents, the recurring page header: MEIN KAMPF. It seems evasive, even disingenuous, certainly loaded, to characterize this project in such detached terms as a conceptual exercise, a “failed software operation”—the predictable imperfection, somehow poetic, of a system applied to lived reality. This instrumentalization maintains the willfully problematic stance that words are just words—stuff, material, to be shoveled around at will.

These are Adolph Hitler’s words, written in German in 1926, hastily translated by a New School committee in 1938, adapted for an artwork by .UNFO in 2011. The present iteration underscores the ability of a certain indexical “aura” to survive these various semiotic filtrations. In this light,(!x==[33]) prompts the reader to reconsider the ostensible amorality of the appropriations of the Internet age, the Internet being an ever expanding aggregation of text and images, a rhizomatic systems-based poem increasingly divorced from context.

In their hubris, the Nazis kept meticulous records—a damning inventory of their own atrocities. The almost literary precision of the Nazi bureaucracy (excerpts of memos on cattle cars, medical experiments, abstract lists of names and numbers) is appropriated by Heimrad Bäcker in his chilling book of concrete poetry, transcript, 2010. Bäcker condemns the Third Reich insofar as he renders their high crimes as material, even as they did the same to their victims. These abominably terse records return the sting of fact to supposedly “unspeakable” events; the dehumanization of information becomes unacceptable, itself tantamount to genocide. Similarly, Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, 1975, consists of poems composed of the testimonies of death camp survivors in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. The language is graphic, bureaucratic, but above all imbued with a truth factor by its proximity to an unspeakable crime (unspeakable—indeed, incomprehensible, despite the lengthy deposition intended to render it palpable to judge and jury).

Following Reznikoff, Blanc Press also publishes the Tragodía trilogy by Vanessa Place, a writer and criminal appellate lawyer specializing in sexual assault cases. This work consists of the court documents of Place’s trials reframed as her own poetry. Implicit in both books is an absence of judgement, a re-presentation of buried material that, like a courtroom, provides an impartial platform. Like Reznikoff, Place usurps the authorship of her client’s words; yet her appropriation also gives voice to the victim, piling tombstones upon the airy indifference of conceptualism. Rightness or wrongness, innocence or guilt, emerge as self-evident from the “facts of the case.” Of course, we are not so naive—every line break is a judgement in its way. Every aestheticization shores up authority—its ambivalence in this regard notwithstanding. While in some small way undermining the monumentality of his autobiography, (!x==[33]) does Hitler similar service by echoing his—his, make no mistake—his voice.

The equation (!x==[33]) is a logic operation in Perl script, where “x” is either true or false. Hitler’s text is held up for judgement, in some subjective sense, as morally tainted material; yet it is parsed by a computer program for which true and false are de facto and absolute: an operation of digital truth. While we might see certain chunks containing more or less than 33 syllables as “failed,” this is a human sentiment—and what’s more, an irregularity foreseen by the programmers. The “rewards” of a sustained reading of .UNFO’s book are few and beside the point. It is a conceptual work, after all—one that hinges on the realization that this is Mein Kampf,that book, the kind of text that tries the convictions of the defenders of free speech (for it is, after all, for all its historical importance, a book of genuine and pointed hate). For better or worse, Hitler’s book is a symbol even to those who haven’t read it; the ostensibly mechanized .UNFO text functions insofar as Hitler’s book has already been judged. Thus any condemnation of this book is already built into its program. It is a book designed to be damned. The .UNFO text is a structuralist gesture bordering on bad faith that predictably fails to overcome its material.

We live in the world of aesthetic genocide—and make no mistake, this darkest of human drives is not absent from our technology, from our art—from any attempt at order—even as totalitarian regimes are aesthetic at their core. Cold conceptual operations are not without their human cost. Abstraction serves to destroy the individual as idea, even before taking their body. In this way perhaps Robert Smithson’s A Heap of Language is truly, as Smithson recognized, a burial mound or ziggurat mortared with the blood of slaves, evilly imperious in its pretensions toward immortality. (!x==[33]) reminds us of the rhetorical morality that attends mass murder in this country, from Vietnam to the War on Terror.

But how to proceed from our knowledge of the subjectivity of truth, of the dangers of appropriation, and the escapism of the conceptual gesture, in a way that does more than acknowledge the existence of evil? Graffiti swastikas are fairly common in Europe, while in the United States their appearance makes local headlines. In academia and in art, such “over-codified” symbols often receive similarly punkish treatment under the guise of cold, transcendent logic. Consider also the way Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh use “Nazi” as a synonym for “Liberal.” It will be a very long time before the aesthetics of the Third Reich can be “used” without their previous instrumentalization overcoming their appropriation. Starting with such obviously loaded source material, the .UNFO authors’ various distancing mechanisms seem like little more than a cynical endgame, elegant and irresponsible as a swastika scratched on a bathroom mirror.

***

Travis Diehl is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared most recently inP&Co., Artforum, and X-Tra. He is editor of Prism of Reality.

Punchline

by Andrew Neuendorf

Punchline
by Nick Courtright
Gold Wake Press, April 2012
96 pages / $12.95 Buy at Amazon or Powells

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The title of Nick Courtright’s full-length debut suggests a book of jokes. However, the well-wrought poems in Punchline undermine these expectations. The joke is actually on all of us, the poet included. In Punchline, Courtight peers beneath the surface of the joke of existence, to see if he can better understand the comedian, the joke-writer, or the Grand Master of Ceremonies, if any of these exist.

Courtright’s revelatory odes to the mysteries of philosophy and science come right out of the visionary tradition, though they are filled with enough irony and self-doubt to avoid soapbox crankery (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In fact, it is Courtright’s embrace of the principles of uncertainty that give these poems life and beg us to re-read them, in order to be interrogated by them again and again. Courtright has the cold, hard stare of the soothsayer; it just so happens that everything in his world appears to be out of focus.

In the poem “He Does Not Throw Dice” (the title comes from Albert Einstein’s famous quotation on the nature of God), we meet the limits of human perception. Even if it were possible to break through the “lawlessness/ of the subatomic world” and discover a “wholly predictable” system of certainty, we humans are damned by our “short/ [….] attention span[s]/in regards to the unseen, or the unseeable.” Our only method of arriving at truth is a flawed one. The human mind is built too narrowly for the task at hand.

Maybe that’s not exactly an LOL moment, but Punchline is filled with the kinds of howlers that got men like Job and Arjuna into trouble with their superiors. Courtright is inflicted with a rare intellectual disease: he must know “Why?” but yet is not convinced there is an answer. The difference between Punchline and The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita is that, here, no god shows up to clarify divine law, to shout, cajole, or give orders. Instead, Courtright is left spinning his elegant guesses, concocting “thirteen explanations/for every way/ we’ve failed,” though he knows “no explanation for the thirteen explanations.” (“The Garden”) Anytime Courtright gives us an answer, he follows it up with more questions.

In fact, the punchlines in these poems are actually riddles, as in the book’s opener, “The Despot.” Here, humans “seek the face of God/ and find it/on the internet. Maybe/ the face of God was always there, in the sand itself,/ and the ant had access to it.” The twists and turns in these lines are masterful, mimicking the circuitous motion common to contemplative traditions. They also highlight a consistent theme of the book, the quest to unite macrocosm and microcosm. Above, ants are granted access to God made manifest in grains of sand (perhaps an allusion to Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”). In the book’s closing poem, it’s the mosquito’s turn:

Mosquitoes, despised by all it seems,
are harbingers of misfortune
dealt the hand of Judas—
should they have our mercy?

The poet of Punchline is always stepping carefully, not just in deference to the myriad small creatures of the world, but also in terms of poetic lineation. Grand, sweeping themes (mysticism, physics, mythology, cosmology) are crafted into terse lyrics, as if Emily Dickinson had revisedLeaves of Grass on her tiny desktop, under an ominous light.

Whitman himself appears in “Where I am Going, Where Have I Been,” (the title is a Joyce Carol Oates allusion) but in almost epigrammatic form:

Father Whitman made a point

to note how we shall become
grass,

and the grass shall become us. In others words,
remember:

with enough time

grass to grass, stone to stone, myth to myth.

At this point, we need not point out that Courtright is obsessed with circles, cycles, and strange loops, further evidence that seekers never reach an answer; they always find themselves back at the beginning. For example, in “Worry to Die,” he conjures the Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, and speculates that “we are all just snakes’ tails/ in the mouths of snakes.” Also, in “Fun with Agnosticism,” which uses the extinction of dinosaurs as the starting point for a meditation on the transitory nature of existence, we get the following vertigo-inducing insight:

Our chasing of the tails we’re attached to

is a good time, if dizzying,
and we can make some sense of it. If we’re lucky,

from above,
if we move fast enough

it seems our tireless, circuitous blur

is a perfect circle.

If there is a punchline here, a take-away point, it certainly isn’t the bombast and certainty of a Walt Whitman, who, in “Song of Myself” is confident that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars” and who knows, somehow, that he will survive death. Courtright isn’t quite so sure, and this makes his mysticism much more contemporary, informed by the post-modern condition and the wackiness of quantum physics. However, like Whitman, Courtright looks to the things of this world for proof, as in his title poem:

The Proof now
is the Proof then, 

in the ringtones of college students, the darning
needles of grandmothers

[….]

in the cockroach that is legion

over eternity—and in the certainty of the pious
who cradle a child
from within the fury of happiness

Though the events of this world might be unexplainable, they are the only evidence we have. According to the above poem, the “roadsigns of proof” we spot on our journey through life give evidence not of some careful design (which may or may not exist) but of “the abstract/ absurdity of living.” These are poems that insist on knowing the truth, and, yet, insist it cannot be known.

It is this gap in knowing that gives the poems in Punchline their space to breathe, and so, we should be grateful for ignorance. Nick Courtright is beckoning us to get in on the great cosmic joke. These are poems that render the mysterious imprecision of the universe with precision, and a good deal of wit and insight to boot.

***

Andrew Neuendorf teaches literature and writing at Des Moines Area Community College. His poetry and prose have appeared in such places as Northwest Review, Sentence, Quarter After Eight, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and An Introduction to the Prose Poem. More information can be found at www.andrewneuendorf.com

Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound

by Joshua Ware

Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound
by Jeff Alessandrelli
Ravenna Press, 2011
66 pages / $11.95  Buy from Ravenna Press

 

 

 

 
One of the first things readers of Jeff Alessandrelli’s Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound will notice is the fact that the back cover contains biographical material for both the author and Erik Satie; upon opening the book, the front matter contains acknowledgments from both men as well. The collection’s copy and front matter signal, it would seem, a playful engagement with identity and proper nouns. Specifically, Alessandrelli conflates himself, the speaker of his poems, and Erik Satie in such a manner that all three personalities become intimately entwined. The book’s first iteration of the list poem “A Game of Numbers” twice addresses this melding:

1. As we grow older our only investigation:
ever year searching for a sleeker, more
impulsive version of ourselves. (5)

8. As an adult Eric Satie became Erik Satie
to highlight his Scandinavian lineage.
Or on a whim. (6)

What we garner from these two excerpts is that we constantly search for identities or “version[s] of ourselves” that we feel best fit who we want to be, and changing our name is one way to highlight a particular transformation or “lineage” we want to occupy. So, when Alessandrelli writes, “the musician— / dream-thin and wizened— / farms sounds near a ripening / at the back of his head” (3), these lines could refer to either Satie, Alessandrelli, or both. To this extent, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound acts as a meeting between two artists, similar to the meeting that occurs between two men in the first iteration of the poem “Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound”:

the silence after each note passes
represents the agreement reached 

between them that afternoon,
explains why we know
the nothing about them

that we do.
Just that two men met one day
beneath the awning of an apple orchard,

and the dull smack of their lips
moving was the languageless sound
of their satisfaction with each other (9)

Indeed, Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound is a meeting between two men: a “languageless sound” that is an “agreement reached / between them that… / explains why we know / the nothing about them // that we do” other than the fact that they are mutually satisfied with one another. Why after sixty-six pages of poems, prose, and staff ledger do we know nothing of these men? Because “Erik Satie did not exist except for some scattered lines around the peripheries” (19). And how are we to know anything of a man based upon a few scattered lines? And how are we to know anything of a man who bases himself on the image of another man who did not exist?

A lineage based upon nothingness is not unique to Alessandrelli and Satie. In fact, as the first iteration of the prose block “On Blast” mentions, lineages based upon nothing occur all the time and frequently become national and historic mythologies:

Another whispers to the unblinking trees in the distance about Napoleon, who idolized Julius Caesar, about Julius Caesar who idolized Alexander the Great, about Alexander the Great who idolized Hercules, about Hercules who did not exist. (16)

But due to the fact that neither Hercules nor Erik Satie existed, how does Alessandrelli, or anyone for that matter, create an identity or a sense of self based upon nothingness? The answer resides in the imagination. In the fourth and final iteration of the poem “A Simple Question,” the poet informs us of a “supreme maxim, // one wholly unassailable belief ” (42) that posits:

it is only
the imagination 

that can resist
the imagination,

it is only
the imagination

that can withstand,
uphold, subvert

and resist
the imagination. (43)

The imagination, then, must be activated in order to create lineages from nothing, but it must also be activated in order to “withstand, / uphold, subvert // and resist / the imagination.” All this is to say that, yes, the imagination “upholds,” creates, and perpetuates lineages; but it contains the capacity to “subvert and resist” imaginary lineages others have created and preserved. To this extent, Alessandrelli’s imagination alters Satie to fit the “sleeker, more / impulsive version” of both Satie and himself, joining the two men in artistic communion.

To further explain the manner in which Alessandrelli’s Satie morphs into his ancestor who subverts and resists other versions of Satie, take the following excerpt from the author’s recentHTMLGIANT review of Adam Peterson’s book The Flasher:

I read 80% of Adam Peterson’s The Flasher in the bathtub, which seems entirely fitting. I’m not at all afraid to say that baths stimulate me in the same way flashing stimulates flashers. Baths compel me, they invigorate me, in some strange way they solidify my relationship to the greater world. The only difference between soaking in the tub and flashing is where one is solitary, contemplative, the other asks for a wider public, a larger stage. But both are— mysteriously no doubt—borne out of reverence for one’s place in the always-spryly grinning universe.

Alessandrelli confesses that baths “compel me, they invigorate me, in some strange way they solidify my relationship to the greater world”; then, in the third iteration of “The Veiled History of Erik Satie,” tells us that:

and getting out of the bath
Erik Satie often forgot to use a towel,
tried to put his shirt
on with his feet which is
the terrible and essential part
about genius: (56-57)

Alessandrelli overlays his penchant for bathing upon his Erik Satie. But that’s not all. In the his biographical statement and acknowledgments, the author informs us that he owns a Black Lab-Pit Bull mix named “Beckett Long Snout.” Later in his collection, the poet writes: “Erik Satie did not exist except for…a long protruding snout attached to a large black dog” (19). Not only does Alessandrelli’s Satie enjoy bathes, but he becomes part of Alessandrelli’s dog. This is not just a matter of the poet fashioning himself into the image of an late-19th-century composer, but the poet fashioning a late-19th-century composer into an image of himself.

In some regards, then, we can consider the identity manipulation in Erik Satie Watusies His Way Into Sound a love letter between two artists. Of course, “We love those best who we fleetingly / recognize and can just as quickly forget” (54), so it should come as no surprise that after recognizing Satie in himself and himself in Satie, Alessandrelli demands that we “Forget forget Erik Satie” (60). Once we forget him, he “is nowhere / to be found” (65), but we can take comfort in the fact that “Someone we can’t remember // once played such haunting music / on a broken piano // he dreamed was an” author writing poems about Erik Satie and what it means to be Jeff Alessandrelli.

***

Joshua Ware lives in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creelety, which won the 2010 Furniture Press Poetry Prize. Three of his chapbooks will be released in 2012: Imaginary Portraits (Greying Ghost Press), How We Remake the World: A Concise History of Everything (Slope Editions) co-written with Trey Moody and winner of the 1st Annual Slope Editions Chapbook Prize, and SDVIG (alice blue books) which he co-wrote with Natasha Kessler. Recent work has appeared in Barn Owl Review, Nano Fiction, esque, Hobart, and ILK.

Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years

by Alexis Orgera

Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years
by Chad Faries 
Emergency Press, 2011
280 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his 1958 book, The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes, “if we want to go beyond history, or even, while remaining in history, detain from our own history the always too contingent history of the persons who have encumbered it, we realize that the calendars of our lives can only be established in its imagery.” The Poetics of Space describes a philosophy of poetic Imagism (precision of imagination) coupled with, in part, a phenomenology of the home as (not just) mortar, 2×4, and stone. In my reading of Bachelard, our histories are only as real as the Images that embody them.

I was reminded of The Poetics of Space when I read Chad Faries’ memoir, Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years. The book is separated into a chapter-per-house-lived-in, each chapter begins with a street-and-town, a year, and some song lyrics—a soundtrack to the book that almost acts as white noise on which we can focus when the screaming and partying in the foreground get too depressing. Each chapter ends with “and then we moved.” The book begins at Faries’ birth in 1971 and moves its readers through a difficult–sometimes funny, sometimes grotesque–landscape of pick-up-and-go with his drug-booze-and-sex addicted mother, her family of women, and a wild cast of male characters, to 1981. Drive Me is not only scaffolded by the houses the author lived in before he hit puberty, but Faries’ houses exist in a space created by the coupling of memory and imagination in order to forge the memoired homestead. “Our whole house,” Faries writes early on, “was made of the shadows of others, and we sucked that gray light into our guts to push the total darkness away and claim everything as our own.”

To Bachelard, the shelter—in whatever form it takes—is the place through which we’re allowed to experience the world. The daydreamer (reminiscer?), Bachelard writes, “experiences the house[s] in its reality and its virtuality, by means of thoughts and dreams.” Faries’ recollections are many times dreamlike sequences—like the ascension of a Ford Falcon into a Florida sky—fostered by both reality and the speaker’s desire to escape it. The memoir takes its reader on a journey from house to house, sure, but these houses are many times just faulty shelters for the fucked up events that happen inside and outside of them.

To be sure, Drive Me is a book made up of memory-images and their underbellies like the car he rides in to Florida that flies up to heaven to meet its erstwhile owner or the chapter in the voice of a lost hamster circling a house backwards in order to rewind time and save Chad and his mother. In another scene, parked on a roadside in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (where Chad spent most of his early years) in a Ford Galaxy, Chad’s mom and her boyfriend screw in the front seat, while Chad, in the back seat, imagines another scene altogether—instead of being forced to watch, he gets a choice:

Mother and I had our eyes on one of the spruces. She caught a glimpse of it   out the side mirror as she tilted her head and held a breast in her hand, feeding it to Jensen. The tree was haloed behind an old rusty barrel like a fat angel in a faded church painting. There was a spaceship too, helping out with a spotlight, and some planets. The snow began to fall, but it wasn’t cold a bit. Mother peeked her head in the back seat.

“Would you rather watch this movie or get the hell out of here and snap the trunk of that tree so we can bring it home with us?”

And off they go into the woods arm in arm, leaving Jensen a cardboard cutout in the old Ford Galaxy. Scenes like this imbue Drive Me with a specialness that’s only born through the coupling of memory and imagination. A revision, so to speak, of experience-as-fact. The fact is that no story exists without both, and Faries’ story can’t exist without imagining a way out of it. But Faries’ narrative takes an interesting turn toward the back half of the book. What once was magic in the eyes of a child (as sordid as the accumulation of lots of drugs, lots of sex, and lots of fucked up grown-ups may have been) grows less and less glittering. Chad becomes more worried about being abandoned by his mother. He locks away the invisible Green Lantern ring that has gotten him through many a rotten moment. As he gets older, though still a small child, his world starts looking just a little more bleak.

One of the most affecting scenes in the book exists in that back half when, on a walk through a cemetery with his friend/older sister figure, Suzanne, they happen upon two of Chad’s neighborhood buddies, one of whom, LittleMan, has recently taught Chad to use the word cuntwith abandon. The two other boys wrestle Suzanne to the ground—the scene is graphic and awful, and the shock of it freezes Chad in a sea of contemplation until he summons his old superhero courage just long enough to yell, “Stop,” which does nothing except alert a neighbor who shoos them all away. No fanfare, no punishment. In this moment, Faries writes, “I realized I didn’t know what world I belonged to.” As Suzanne is fondled and humiliated—raped—the boy Chad speaks (squeaks?) out against the cards he’s been dealt. For my money, here’s the crux of the narrative, a crisis of faith.

I don’t actually have much sympathy for Mother as Faries portrays her—though I’m reminded occasionally that she loves her kid and that her kid loves her—but I do know the stronghold grip of Mother, how she tugs at your heartstrings, how she amazes then betrays you. And you, her. And I’m not sure this is a perfect memoir (what is that?); sometimes the houses themselves seem to buffet the book from its own greatness—but there are enough tatters and missteps painting Faries’ early years that maybe the circle can’t be closed gently, neatly. The strands won’t weave together into that perfect childhood home Bachelard imbues with “all the positive values of protection.” At one point, Faries recalls, “I was convinced I could live without Mother and didn’t need shit from adults anymore. Staring at the other house across the street, I remembered that the adults weren’t any different than boys and girls,” highlighting the messiness of discovery and assimilation of memory into adulthood.

Drive Me’s last chapter is in the form of a transcription of an adult conversation between Chad, his mother, some aunts, and a family friend. While one aunt tattoos the name of a woman—a lover whose ghost haunts the entire book—on Chad’s back, the women recount their versions of history, and his mother points out, “Well, I have memories too that are wrong.” In the end, calling all memory into question, the group waits frozen in time for a nonexistent phone to ring in the tattoo parlor. No tidy conclusions here.

Back at a rooftop birthday party circa 1974, toddler Chad—stoned because someone gave him a hit of a joint—watches his mother from a roof rail-cum-cloud vantage, “An omnipotent mother was puffing a cigarette, her breath a braid of smoke,” perhaps an allusion to the infinite poetics of space, that great amalgamation of memory and imagination, certainly recalling Charles Simic:

My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play.

For Simic the world doesn’t end, even after his flight over destruction. For Faries, beyond the music and mayhem, “after our bellies were full we all reveled in being lost, mistaking it for peace.” There’s some freedom in that, huh. Getting lost in the sky and making that your jungle gym.

Unknown Arts: A Book About Joyce’s Books About … How Many of Us Are Really Sure What?

by Ethel Rohan

Unknown Arts
by William Walsh
Keyhole Press, 2012
142 pages / $9.99  Buy from Keyhole Press or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown Arts by William Walsh (Keyhole Press, 2012) is a collection of critical appropriations sourced from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, and more. A book about Joyce’s books, Unknown Arts can be read as analysis, distortion, homage, and/or a work of art all of its own. It is doubtless a contentious book that will likely add fuel to the ongoing and often fiery debates around contemporary criticism, the imprint of influence, and the nature of creativity. Controversial or not, the collection is a valuable artifact that allows rare access into what are for many the impenetrable works of a literary master.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the many texts in the collection appropriated from Ulysses (1922), titled “Sunny Jim 2”:

Near the end, remembering king David and the Sunamite, he shared his bed with Athos, faithful after death. But thou hast suckled me with a bitter milk: my moon and my sun thou hast quenched for ever. There’s the sun again coming out. Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Under its leaf he watched through peacocktwittering lashes the southing sun. The coroner’s sunlit ears, big and hairy. A flying sunny smile rayed in his loose features. His eyeglass flashed frowning in the sun. The tip of his little finger blotted out the sun’s disk. Mercy of God the sun was in his eyes or he’d have left him for dead. WAS JESUS A SUN MYTH? By heaven, I am guiltless as the unsunned snow! It What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself, God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself becomes that self.

At just one hundred and forty-one pages, Unknown Arts is a relatively slim book, and yet attempts to condense and capture Joyce’s enormous and ambitious body of work—groundbreaking works written over decades and which forever altered the laws of literature. The unique and many challenges posed by Joyce’s work as source, especially in terms of language, structure, rhythm, and what to include and omit, seem insurmountable. An extraordinary undertaking, then, made all the more astonishing because Walsh’s mirror to Joyce’s unparalleled—and to some, inaccessible—oeuvre is most compelling, a collection that is at turns whimsy, absurdity, and the studied plumbing of Joyce’s works, and is always rhythmic and provocative.

Here’s an excerpt, a single sentence that runs for seven pages, appropriated from Finnegans Wake(1939) titled “Himself.”

… may bethink himself a thought, unless he happens of himself, at the very dawn of protohistory seeing himself such and such, so Shem himself, the doctator, the tragic jester sobbed himself wheywhingingly sick of life on some sort of a rhubarbarous maundarin yellagreen funkleblue windigut diodying applejack squeezed from sour grapefruice and, who always knew and do for himself one dandy time, nay, of a pelting night blanketed creditors, would not put fire to his cerebrum, would not throw himself in Liffey, would not explaud himself with pneumantics, refused to saffrocake himself with a sod, yet the Whole World taken part of himself for his Wife, kuskykorked himself up tight in his inkbattle house, there to stay in afar for the life, Nero or Nobookisonester himself, (this hambone dogpoet pseudoed himself under the hangname he gave himself of Bethgelert) the sames as he was himself and that, greet scoot, with an eachway hope in his shivering soul, …

Nonetheless, it is arguably disconcerting, disturbing even, to shrink and recapitulate a dead master’s greatest works. There’s an implied audacity and irreverence. We might say Walsh is imitator here and “glorying in the open shame” (to quote from Joyce’s erotic letters and not from Unknown Arts). Alternatively, we can also recognize how exhilarating it is that Walsh has dared to deconstruct, re-imagine, and make anew that which would be enshrined and made holy. Many will hail Walsh as an innovator who has created here something that, (again from Joyce’s erotic letters), is in the “spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored.” Perhaps only devotees of Joyce’s greatest works can truly appreciate Unknown Arts, but even a familiarity with the Irish master’s books hardly seems necessary to embrace this unapologetic collection.

Here’s a final full text retelling:

CONMEE

From Ulysses (1922)

Conmee blessed him in the sun. Conmee crossed to Mountjoy square. Conmee was wonderfully well indeed. Conmee was very glad indeed to hear that. Conmee was very glad to see the wife of Mr. David Sheehy M.P. Conmee doffed his silk hat. Conmee walked. Conmee stopped three little schoolboys at the corner. Conmee gave a letter from his breast to Master Brunny Lynam. Conmee smiled. Conmee smiled. Conmee walked down Great Charles. Conmee turned the corner. Conmee greeted them more than once benignly. Conmee smelt incense on his right hand. Conmee raised his hat to the Blessed Sacrament. Conmee thought of that spendthrift nobleman. Conmee began to walk along the North Strand road. Conmee saluted Mr. William Gallagher. Conmee walked through Clongowes. Conmee went by Daniel Bergin’s publichouse. Conmee passed H. J. O’Neill’s funeral establishment. Conmee saluted the constable. Conmee observed pig’s puddings. Conmee saw a Turfbarge. Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator. Conmee stepped into an outward bound tram. Conmee sat in a corner of the tramcar. Conmee liked cheerful decorum. Conmee supposed. Conmee perceived her perfume in the car. Conmee had finished explaining. Conmee saw the conductor help her. Conmee thought that. Conmee thought of the souls of black and brown and yellow men. Conmee alighted. Conmee stepped into the Dollymount tram. Conmee thought of that tyrannous incontinence. Conmee read in secret. Conmee drew off his gloves. Conmee blessed both gravely.

***

Ethel Rohan is Irish and she’s got the freckles, blue-white skin, and tattoo to prove it. Check her out at ethelrohan.com.