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EXCESS AND ASCESIS: TWO FEMINIST VISIONARY POETS

VOW, BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING

THE BLUE RENTAL, BY BARBARA MOR

____________________________________________________________

-“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

 Timothy 11 -12, The Bible, King James Version

-“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”

(“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back”)”

 -Horace (65-8 BC), Epistles I.X.24

Kristina Marie Darling created a domestic drama that unfolds in white space, an emptiness surrounded by a commentary in the footnotes.  It is a text without text, a Beckett-ian “texts for nothing” literalized.  Barbara Mor created a panorama, a historico-politico-paleontological rant against collective and individual injustices.  It is written with chthonic excess, with Whitman-esque long poetic lines set amidst the painted landscapes of the American Southwest.  Both Mor and Darling represent visionary feminist poetics; one spare and skeletal; the other a surrealist logorrhea.

Vow is about a marriage.  Rendered in short lines and esoteric marginalia, the bride faces the slow reduction and negation of her identity.  Unlike Mor’s work, The Blue Rental, Kristina Marie Darling’s work isn’t a frontal assault on violent male idiocy and its institutional tentacles (the state, the military, the corporation, etc.).  Darling works through small meditations on relics and debris.  At the bottom of the page she writes,

“Our house burns with light.  He is a shattered window overlooking a desert.  I am smoldering in a field of dead poppies.”

The images are distinct but unrelated, images of light and “a shattered window” (fragmentation), followed by an image of fire and desensitization (“dead poppies” – even the poppies, the flower that yields opium and heroin, body-deadening intoxicants, are dead).

Another recurring image is a “scorched altar.”  Reading through the book, one has to piece together the narrative from the fragments and clues.  Could arson be a cause?  Who set it?  Is the fire a cleansing act like a forest fire?  Or was it set alight to cover-up criminal activities?  The white space creates narrative silence.  It refuses self-incrimination, but also self-expression.  In The Blue Rental, Mor reduces the entire patriarchal enterprise of marriage and reproduction to a dismissive biological assessment:

Sin at the Origin of Earthly Life my desire that

shapes Evolution becomes His Curse,& when did

they respect sex breeding females like cattle who

thinks his little 20 second squirt of sperm gives him

the right to own Humanity

(from Hypatia)

Mor catalogs crimes against women with brutal and explicit descriptions.  The repetition of rape and murder made commonplace.  In her poem Hypatia, she traces this back to the atrocities committed by Saint Cyril and his Parabolans, hired thugs reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s black-clad enforcers of religious morality.

Luckily The Blue Rental isn’t all horror and solemn rage.  Tiny flashes of humor leaven the otherwise dour proceedings.  In one poem she traces the history of a mining town in the Southwest.  The denizens desperately cling to a vision of middle-class propriety while a deep pit spews out various and sundry minerals, machines, and liquids.  While Mor’s intent is to give a David Lynch-ian nightmare patina to ecocidal damage, the poem reads like an episode of the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale (itself owing much to David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, and Area 51).  If Thomas Pynchon has taught us anything, it’s that paranoia can be funny.  In another poem, three Mesoamerican goddesses end up working at Wal-Mart.  The unintentional humor make them no less profound or beautiful as poetic works.

“Once the bride enters, there’s no way out.” (Vow, “Appendix C: Misc. Fragments”).  Where Darling offers the reader bon mots and koans, verbal fragments suspended on the page surrounded by white space, Mor buries the reader in an avalanche of text, a chthonic mudslide of information, images, history, politics, broken bodies, and crime.  She gives us the American Southwest that negates the dominant patriarchal mythos of John Wayne, John Ford, and Western tropes.  This is the Southwest as overbearing capitalist force, seen by the female workers in the maquiladoras, the unending litany of murder victims that Roberto Bolaño writes about in 2666 (The Part about the Crimes).  Mor folds these crimes into a larger history of violence, rewinding the clock beyond the Conquistadors to the Hobbesian all-against-all of dinosaurs and trilobites.  While violence and consumption is an eternal verity, it is something all organisms do all the time, we humans have, in our short-sided attempt to rectify the ecocidal rape of the planet, erected artificial ideologies like vegetarianism and veganism.  While these puritanical dietary regimes offer the individual some modicum of moral superiority, it was John Maynard Keynes who said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”  The sad truth is that veganism is nothing but a prop to hold up one’s self worth.  And vegans being offended by the term “meatspace” comes across like an act of heroic self-delusion, akin to Christian Identity adherents who deny the Jewishness of Jeshua bin Miriam.

“I dream another me exists in the burning house, reading aloud from what I have written.  Broken glass.  A sad film.  The awkward silence.” (from Vow)

When they brought the horses i knew them   a crack in the

universe a fissure in mind look up the Milky Way divides the

sky into 2 hemispheres a brain 100,000,000,000 stars in

this brain a mythos in the sky  with a brain as mirrors  slow

transit of codes in the particulars of their eyes  they will say

they are not entertained by such discourse a memory where

they do not live or think they live  but the horse burst from rock

crevice in a sidewalk  all from Time returned little eohippus

dawn horse Dawn of mammals 53 million years Eocene in the

West   as their hands on cave walls opened mineral flesh and

it was there(30,000bce Aurignacian)evolutions later  and

all the beasts emergent from a stony hole or cavernous mind

dark and shining like night (from The Blue Rental)

Vow and The Blue Rental both act as visionary texts, railing against the nothingness that surrounds us and will eventually consume us.  Darling’s fragmentary meditation on marriage and domesticity literalizes St. Paul’s palaver for women to be silent and obedient.  Like a complementary text, Mor elucidates what St. Paul’s injunction has wrought upon women, civilization, and the planet.  Women treated like property or livestock or simply violated by men acting like predatory beasts.  Civilization turned into a free market capitalist frenzy to consume more and more, but with a belligerent ignorance at what constant growth and increased consumption mean in terms of limited resources and environmental damage.  And crunchy granola hippies chastising us to be simplistic and go off the grid (usually with unintentionally ironic Facebook updates) equally ignorant that a Noble Savage co-existing happily with Nature is just another myth White Patriarchy has erected.  While it may seem futile, at least Mor has the cojones to explicitly inventory the wrongs done by man against man, woman, and planet.  But it would be equally ignorant to chide Mor for not giving us solutions to the problems she points out.  The Blue Rental is a visionary collection of poetry, not a policy white paper.  Vow is visionary in its compactness and fragmentary distillation of marriage and domesticity, not an amicus brief on behalf of marriage equality.

These visionary poets need to be read, since their poetry needs to be experienced.  Both illustrate how words on a page can be a transformative experience.

les figues

 

OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS, ECHOIC

BY CHRIS TYSH

LES FIGUES PRESS, 2013

 CUNT NORTON

BY DODIE BELLAMY

LES FIGUES PRESS, 2013

chris tysh

1. Pins Ups: Covering the Classics

 “I realized early on that the academy and the literary world alike — and I don’t think there really is a distinction between the two — are always dominated by fools, knaves, charlatans and bureaucrats.’

                          – Harold Bloom in an interview in Criticism in Society (1987), edited by Imre Salusinski

 The literary landscape is a sensitive thing.  One has to be careful, especially if loaded words are used. Originality. Authenticity.  The Western Canon.  Les Figues Press throws a wrench into those hallowed notions with two new poetry collections, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, by Chris Tysh, and Cunt Norton, by Dodie Bellamy.  The first is a poetic re-interpretation of Jean Genet’s erotic classic, Our Lady of the Flowers.  (This reviewer counts Our Lady of the Flowers as one of his three favorite books of all time.)  Cunt Norton is a cut-up of the Western Canon of primarily English and American male writers, interspersed with pornographic prose.

With the rise of fan fiction, strange literary adaptations (Android Karenina, etc.), and posthumous resurrections of abandoned works (The Pale King, The Original of Laura, etc.), literature now seems to lack a certain something. Sacredness? Separateness? Specialness?  More draconian copyright laws?

Why? Who says so? Since when has literature been stuck in amber and impervious to creative subversion?  Ulysses, by James Joyce, and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis jump immediately to mind.  Even the Romans stole the mythology of the Greeks on their way to forging a global empire.  Perhaps the fetishizing of the Creative Work Innate Inalienable Unalterable Specialness (in caps, natch) is rudimentary to the dictatorial mind?  Just look at Samuel Beckett and David Mamet.  The way they control their artistic works leans a bit on the fascist side; dramatic interpretations the envy of every unreconstructed Stalinist.  Want to throw a spork into the Beckett Estate?  Adapt Waiting for Godot using female leads.

Happily, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, and Cunt Norton can both be seen as positive, life-affirming acts of artistic terrorism.

In addition to this fan-fictional democratization of literature, the phenomenon of covering a song isn’t exactly new. But that is music, and this is poetry. It’s one thing for Hendrix to cover Dylan, but for another poet to “cover” Jean Genet?  This is most confounding. Not since Jorge Luis Borges had Pierre Menard write Don Quixote has there been a more perplexing situation for literary connoisseurs. (I’ll delve into the particulars of genre theory in a later section.)

One sees this same debate in law.  Is the American Constitution an ever-changing, ever-evolving document that requires modern interpretations to meet the needs and challenges of a modern, pluralistic, secular democracy?  Or is the Constitution an Eternal Vessel of Truth and Morality that should be guarded by an elite magisterium of prayerful heavenly emissaries charged by God with keeping these Eternal Verities unchanged, unaltered, and unsullied by the poisonous tentacles of modernity?

Let’s put a pin in that.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, by Chris Tysh “covers” Jean Genet’s novel. The surprising thing is that no authorial gloss is overlaid.  No witty commentary or postmodernist machinery.  The Wind Done Gone it ain’t.  The more amazing thing is that Tysh has successfully distilled Genet’s novel, boiling down several hundred pages into 134 pages of crisp seven line stanzas. And Les Figues has formatted it so that there is a close to 50% white space.

What further complicates this creative strategy is that Our Lady of the Flowers is a poetic novel to begin with. It is a monument to gender fluidity, non-linear narrative, and public artifice; gender as performative to cite the oft-cited Judith Butler.  Genet renders the gutter queens, stool pigeons, murderers, and pimps are rendered in haunting prose.  Tones switch like gender, from hard-boiled street tough to gossipy queen, from sexually explicit to poetically lyrical. The artistic challenge seems daunting. Is it a “cover version” of Our Lady of the Flowers?  The answer: sort of.  But covers usually reinterpret the original source material somehow, transpose genre, etc.  Tysh renders the prose of the novel into poetry, although the transposition of prose into poetry involves a lot of distillation, since Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is far shorter than the original novel. So what does Chris Tysh call what she did?  The answer: transcreation.  In Tysh’s words, transcreation is:

“A cross-cultural communication between continents, languages, and temporalities, which prolongs the life of the original like a standard translation does, but at the same time ushers in a gap and a movement away from the generating cell. In ghostly fashion, the new poem is haunted by its French progenitor, while allowing itself to cross over into a totally new temporality and formal structure.”

It is naming this “gap and movement” with a term that seems so perplexing and infuriating to the Stasi of the literary status quo.  Chris Tysh’s transcreation attends to transcend the concepts of adaptation, parody, and the cover song.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is not the first time Tysh has “covered” a classic from the Western Canon. This volume is a sequel (of sorts) to Molloy: the Flip Side. The project’s third volume will involve a work by Marguerite Duras.

2. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (The Pornographic Version)

 Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

           - Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1602)

 Teddy Bass: (raising a glass) Gentlemen!  You’re all cunts.

                          -Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)

 cunt norton

Say it with me.  All together now.  Cunt.

Latin for vagina, the c-word still resonates with a thermonuclear power.  While basic cable has become the playground for the occasional “fuck” and “shit” (“damn” and “bitch” are now almost commonplace), “cunt” retains its power to shock.

Cunt Norton’s greatest irony emanates from the how joyous it is to read.  The cut-ups of the Western Canon and the pornographic move beyond its programmatic artifice and become a sort of liberation.  Words, liberated from the castrating idiocracy of speech codes and middlebrow propriety, fly and burn with a beautiful intensity:

Open thy temple gates and fuck my cock.  My poste adorne as doth behove, as thy chest I adorne with come.  Recyve my saynt with honour dew; drive it in any direction thou direction thou want’st til in humble reverence thou commest. (Cunt Spenser)

The delivery is graphic and the situation carnal, not at odds, but in concert with the genuine emotions and intimacy.  Patton Oswalt in his bit, Clean Filth, relates how “creepy, G-rated filth is way more disturbing than regular filth.”  Once cleaned up, it the G-rated filth sounds like something a serial killer would say.

            Cunt Norton also includes authors known for their vulgarity, including Chaucer, Whitman, and Ginsberg, further complicating its critique of literary pedagogy.  There’s an obvious reason I included the Hamlet dialogue where the tortured Dane prince makes a cunt pun.  Hamlet is held as the apogee of the Western Canon.  (Damn rightfully, I might add.)  But sitting alongside the monologues about being, spirituality, and death, the play slathers on the sex and violence.

Cunt is a word that is also geographically contingent.  On American shores, the term is obscene and can cause spontaneous hysteria.  In the United Kingdom both underworld slang and Polari (an English subcultural slang used by the gay community for centuries) use the term a lot.  Sexy Beast and the Cockney clockworks of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) pepper the dialogue with “cunts.”  In the case of Sexy Beast, the term is an equivalent of “mate,” or for Americans, “dude.”  “Cunt,” like “dude,” has numerous iterations and shades of meaning depending on the tone, context, and nuance of the speaker and the relationship to the listener.

To quote Teddy Bass (played with icy menace by Ian McShane), “Gentlemen, you’re all cunts.”

  3. So what is it then?

 “To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.”

                     -The Thief’s Journal (Jean Genet, 1949)

 What is Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic?

Is it a parody like The Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall?  (A reinterpretation of a classic work, in this case, Gone With the Wind.)  The answer: No.

Is it a sequel done in the style of the original like The Odyssey: A Modern sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis?  The answer: No.

Is it a cut-up of the original source material with other material like Cunt Norton?  The answer: No.

Is it a witty postmodernist take on Our Lady of the Flowers?  The answer: Not exactly.  Tysh takes no narrative liberties with the original story.  No addition of modernist snark or politically correct scolding.

Is it a postmodernist stunt like Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, by Jorge Luis Borges?  The answer: No.  “Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory.  Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely was easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote.”  Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic lies somewhere between another Our Lady and the Our Lady.

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

            – The Hollow Men, (T. S. Eliot, 1925)

4. The Artifice of Authenticity and the Authenticity of Artifice

 Prior: It was tacky.

Belize: It was divine.

            He was one of the Great Glitter Queens. He couldn’t be buried like a civilian. Trailing sequins and incense he came into the world, trailing sequins and incense he departed it. And good for him!

Prior: I thought the twenty professional Sicilian mourners were a bit much.

               -Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika (1992, Tony Kushner)

 

 It seems paradoxical that authenticity can come across as artificial and artifice can seem authentic.  The notions that authenticity means “true and good,” and artifice means “bad and false” have been so hard-wired into the human consciousness that it remains a challenge to successfully eradicate.  It is strange seeing RuPaul in mufti.  Equally strange seeing ruling class career politicians strap on the proletarian drag of denim shirts and blue jeans to clear brush.  Is that Michael Dukakis riding a tank?  What the actual fuck?

Notre_Dame_des_Fleurs

In Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet tells the life story of Divine.  In the process, he creates one of the greatest figures in twentieth century literature.  Divine, a drag queen, falls in love with a stool pigeon, has affairs with murderers, and dies of tuberculosis.  Genet creates an alchemical admixture for Divine’s life, intermixing Catholic splendor with lowbrow gutter criminality.  Chris Tysh recaptures this alchemy in her short poetic stanzas:

Than a phantom shadow

Tinged with blue while outside

Let’s say under the blue canopy

Of tiny umbrellas, Mimosa I,

Mimosa II, Mimosa half-IV,

First Communion, Angela.  Her

Highness, Castagnette and Régine

 

Await holding sprays of violets

All the queens, boys and girls

Are there knotted together chattering

And tweeting, pearl tiaras on their heads

I let myself sink to my own village grave-

Yard where snails and slugs leave

Trails of slime on what flagstones[.]

It’s an almost-transcription of Genet’s prose.  Divine, acquiring the clothes and mannerisms of women, becomes a monument of artifice.  An alias that transcends her biological formatting.  But in this artifice  Divine becomes her true self.

Ironically, attempts at authenticity can ring false.  Nothing smacks of intellectual bankruptcy more than those attempting to be authentic, then failing with the transparency they allegedly seek.  When one’s authenticity is outed as false, one is left being nothing more than a poseur.  It is posture without any underlying meaning.  The grassroots acoustic guitar playing crunchy granola activist is simply another pose.  No more artificial or ill-intentioned than a drag queen.  But what are the intentions?  Is Mr. Crunchy Granola really mean it, or is he donning the raiment of leftist activism to get laid?  One also sees virulent homophobes donning drag to ridicule gays.  The challenge remains to see below the surface and have the courage to call bullshit on the fakers.

The best artifice is effortless, done with ease and grace.  Does the argot of queens ring false to public ears because the heteronormative pose has become so ingrained and so omnipresent society barely notices it?  And is the hyper-feminized speech and gestures of queens any less ridiculous than, say, the macho posturing one sees in all-male environments like man caves, locker rooms, and Promise Keeper gatherings?  (Insert joke about Republican gay sex scandals here.)

The artifice sets queens apart.  Belize nails it when she says that the queen “couldn’t be buried like a civilian.”  The queen is like a soldier, another group set apart from civilian life by the uniform.  The soldier has camouflage and medals for valor.  The queen has glitter and sequins.  Artifice is the source of Divine’s transcendent power as a literary figure:

Each stolen object: liquor, perfume,

Fake jewelry, give the room its

Mysterious allure like flashing

Lights on a distant ship.  Parked car

Or friend’s pocket, Mignon will boost

Anything anywhere and D will simply

Say, I feel like praying on his bare chest

On Sundays they go to mass, gold

Clasp missal in D’s hand, clickety-

Clack they kneel on plush pews

And let a mean-looking priest

Cram the host into their mouths

“Our Mother Who Art in Heaven,”

They pour out in unison, bow down

To the splendor of the pious world

At home.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, artifice reflects against the artifice of Genet’s original.  It is a postmodern refraction of an early postmodern novel.  Chris Tysh has transcreated an artifice that rings true and will stand up against the faux-authenticity that became so popular after 9/11.  The New Sincerity, like “reality shows” and literalist Bible interpretations, reek of falseness, disingenuousness, and intellectual bankruptcy.  Nothing is more fake than announcing how authentic you are?  You can’t boast about your humility either.

Despite appearances of poetical stenography, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, is much more than a “cover” version of an original.

   5The Future of Poetry

 “Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed.  Let the dead poets make way for others.  Then we might even come to see that it is our veneration for what has already been created, however beautiful and valid it may be, that petrifies us.”

                     -The Theater and Its Double (Antonin Artaud, 1938)

 Les Figues Press has given the reading public two fascinating examples of experimental poetry.  Despite the postmodernist approaches both have, each goes beyond mere stunt or artifice.  One creates originality from imitation and the other uses cut-ups to affirm the very source material it cuts.  All literature is there for the taking.  Literature can be imitated, parodied, subverted, and perverted.  Because the Western Canon is such a valuable reliquary of human achievement, that’s the reason to manipulate it and warp it, depending on the whim of the artist.  Literature isn’t something that should be paralyzed by stasis or by worshipful fans.  Android Karenina really isn’t my thing.  I will probably never buy it or read it, but calls of “literary grave-robbing” and “shameless cash grabs” seem a bit too bombastic.

Then there are the Chapman Brothers drawing clown faces on Goya’s Disasters of War.  As one who loves the Chapman Brothers and Francisco Goya, I’m still conflicted.  They defaced Goya’s originals for their artistic project.  Although that is hardly the same as the museum attendee who attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta with a sledgehammer.  His insanity is beside the point, since his act of artistic vandalism was no different than the Taliban destroying the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But artistic defacement and destruction goes back to the dawn of mankind.  Muslims painting over the mosaics of Hagia Sophia; prudes lopping off genitalia of Greco-Roman sculptures; iconoclasm (the movement, not the pose); and so on.  The examples are limitless.  And yet, and yet!  Is defacement different when an artist does it to further their artistic project than some narrow-gauge fanatic doing the same to further their political, ideological, or religious ideals?  (Calling the act “defacement” also loads  the deck and biases the answers.)  We are mutable and we are mortal.  When art shows us our limitations and the boundaries of this too, too solid flesh, some have taken it as a cue to go all “Hulk smash!” on things.  If a museum fire destroyed numerous Thomas Kinkade originals, would we care?  Should we care?

Taste is a fickle beast.  And arguments about the merits or demerits is warranted and should be encouraged.  Hysterical outbursts, generalized statements, and overly dramatic hang-wringing seems to me, at least, as declassé.  Android Karenina as literary necrophilia?  Girlfriend, please!  How, pray tell, do you describe actual disasters, like the Rwandan genocide, Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, and Abu Ghraib?  Before one opens one’s yap on a discussion thread, how about putting things in perspective first?  Using language like that degrades language and defangs the power of language to describe horrific events.  Using the same language to describe Android Karenina and, say, NSA domestic wire-tapping, is crass and obscene.

Luckily there is Les Figues, ready to throw a wrench into the hallowed pretensions of cautious middlebrow culture warriors.  The world is a better place with this press in it.

Truck Books
ISBN: 9780984885749
$15.00

Weapons catalog descriptions: cyberpunk, academic prose, fables, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex stopping a suicide bomber.  From these disparate sources Josef Kaplan creates Democracy is not for the People, his newest volume of poetry. Divided into four parts, the book confronts the unholy terrors of globalization, globalized terror, and mass-market homogeneity.  These confrontations utilize high and low culture, genre imitation, and the political broadside.

It is easy to see this as agitprop or a gimmick.  At first blush, Democracy would appear as more preaching to the converted for the ranks of the Occupy movement.  Kaplan’s politicized confrontations, constructed with a cunning ferocity, aspire to become more, since the lifespan of literature outlives flash-in-the-pan political movements, nation-states, and entire civilizations.

The cunning comes from the technique of pastiche.  Democracy’s first section, entitled Tilt-Shift, is an extended pastiche culled from numerous sources.  Varieties of prose styles come one after another.  Along with these samplings, there are stream-of-consciousness style riffs on religious practice, assassination, and capitalism.  In its own way, Democracy uses the raw materials of recklessly deregulated capitalism and extremist ideology against itself.

Kaplan’s leftism seems pretty obvious, but in one instance, a piece called The President, he inhabits the voice of the ideologically unhinged, a rant that begins as an anti-Bush tirade and ends with the narrator gloating about posting on Yahoo! message boards calling for President Obama’s assassination.  An earlier piece, Gifts of Cloaks, begins with the story of Kenji Urada, who, in 1944, was the first person killed by a robot.  It continues with the history of SWORDS (“Special Weapons Observation Detection System”) and the development of unmanned drones.  In the middle of this prose poem, we read an extended excerpt from a weapons catalog, listing several kinds of drones.  The robotic technology has been weaponized and then commodified, unmanned drones the cutting edge of late capitalism’s commodity-fetishism.  Like the Transformers toy line, there is something intrinsically cool about an unmanned weapon.  Are Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and the trend of using drones for assassination part of the same moral sickness?  Or are we too distracted by the technology’s futuristic awesomeness to actually care in the first place?

Tilt-Shift is a mélange of discourses, commingling highbrow and lowbrow. The next section plays on the same societal critique, but from a different angle.  Ex Machina is a list of suicide bomber attacks, but something foils all the attacks at the last moment.  They include, but are not limited to, the following: Athena, daughter of Zeus, terrestrial bacteria, a spontaneously appearing field of poppies, the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, the sun chariot of Helios, the S.S. Heart of Gold, and the janitor from The Hudsucker Proxy.

When one reads these prose poems, one reacts with a kind of cognitive dissonance.  The tragic intermingles with the comic in perverse contamination of fact and fiction.  Each begins with a documentary description of the suicide attack and ends with intervention, divine or otherwise.  After a while, the long list of attacks numbs the reader, the pop culture interventions seeming like cutesy pop cultural references.  Then one realizes that these attacks did in fact happen, and there were no interventions.  Existential despair or laughter?

However, bad taste can operate as a means to illuminate the everyday, since the American news is now littered with random shootings.  With Aurora, the Sikh temple shooting, and other incidents, one realizes there is no Over There anymore.  Terrorism, like the Market, is omnipresent, seductive, and lethal. Democracy attempts to plumb the abyss created by deregulated markets and globalized violence.

Is Democracy the Howl for the Occupy generation?  The short answer is no. But should Democracy be the Howl for those Occupy protesters?  One hopes the reader will have a richer series of reference points than Allen Ginsberg’s verbally explicit indictment of Eisenhower-era conformity and nuclear paranoia.  Kaplan’s Democracy, in its self-conscious contamination of high and low culture, pop cultural references, and discursive pastiche, is a witty commentary on the present socioeconomic and political unpleasantness.  It’s also a well-written screed, parody, and ode to a world warped by failed states, failed economic systems, and failed theories.  This is not simple-minded agitprop, preaching to the converted, but a bracing slap in the face.

Naked Except for the Jewelry

“And,” she said, “you must talk no more
about ecstasy.  It is a loneliness.”
The woman wandered about picking up
her shoes and silks. “You said you loved me,”
the man said. “We tell lies,” she said,
brushing her wonderful hair, naked except
for the jewelry. “We try to believe.”
“You were helpless with joy,” he said,
“moaning and weeping.” “In the dream,” she said,
“we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.
The heart lies to itself because it must.”

From Refusing Heaven

Prior to a random visit to the local library, I had never heard of Jack Gilbert. Though I make it a point to browse the new releases in contemporary poetry, it is a rare occurrence when a poet hooks into my psyche and refuses to let go.  Jack Gilbert is one of those poets.  Others include Robert Hass, Allen Ginsberg, and Ezra Pound. Every poet worth her stipend understands the importance of voice. Though I was coming from a position of complete ignorance concerning his biography and his aesthetic philosophy, Gilbert’s voice latched into my mind like a Chinese finger trap, burrowing into me with its combination of controlled diction, intellectual engagement, and erotic content.

To those just tuning in, Naked Except for the Jewelry captures a random snippet of post-coital dialogue.  The woman is “brushing her wonderful hair” while the male participant is probably looking around for his pack of American Spirit cigarettes.  (The cancer sticks preferred by socially conscious lefties everywhere, since nothing is antithetical to the aims of Big Tobacco than a schlocky graphic of Native American headgear.)

Back to the poem.  With Fifty Shades of Grey flying off the bookshelves and into the Kindles of discerning philistines everywhere, I would be remiss to avoid the actual eroticism of this brief poem.  One of its beauties is its effortless interplay between the erotic and the intellectual. At an abstract level, the couple talks about ecstasy, love, joy, and truth.  At the fleshly level, one need only look at the title. It is a powerful image, reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini’s performance in Death Becomes Her, the minor film by Robert Zemeckis.  In a scene that has stuck with me to this day, Mrs. David Lynch comes out of a massive swimming pool clad in nothing but a blocky necklace covering her bosoms.  (Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini and possesses a sculptural beauty and haute elegance unrivaled in modern Hollywood actresses.  Catherine Zeta-Jones comes close, but Rossellini’s beauty is Garbo-esque.)

The female nakedness implies an almost clichéd thrust towards the notion of authenticity.  To be nude is to be unadorned, stripped of the divisive symbols of civilization.  Except that she wears jewelry, symbolic of wealth and beauty, itself a concept that excludes.

The poem acts as a succinct counterargument to the hothouse sensuality of The Song of Songs.  Instead of ecstasy uniting two individuals, it is “a loneliness.”  Despite advances in technology and the advances of feminism and male sensitivity, the “ecstasy” remains an individual experience.  The term “ecstasy” is also curious, since it implies a biological orgasm, but also calls back the sensual mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  (Is the body really a vessel of evil and corruption when the best we can hope for in the sacred realm is Joel Osteen telling us Jesus wants us all to get rich?  That seems rather crass, not to mention shortsighted and rather vulgar, as if Christ’s only concerns were the capital gains tax.)

The debate continues with the man asserting the woman was “helpless with joy … moaning and weeping.”  But, she retorts, “We pretend to ourselves that we are touching. / The heart lies to itself because it must.”

The man asserts an analytical assessment of the situation: since she was moaning and weeping, she must have been in ecstasy.  Job well done.  All very scientific and quantifiable – shades of Blake’s dictatorial Urizen – while the woman undercuts his single-vision rationality.  Yes, she did those things, but in the end, “we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.”  One would be exceptionally naïve to allege we only think about one’s partner when one does the deed.  While the flesh and voice respond to the stimuli, the woman understands the situation.  In the giant spy novel Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes about a hapless adulterous protagonist on his way to his mistress, a character who (to paraphrase)  thinks of monogamy as “orgies unimagined.”  In other words, even within the sacred confines of heterosexual monogamy – the bulwark of Western Christian civilization to the carnally deranged minions of the conservative Right – the mind finds other things (people, combinations, situations, and roles) of which to think.  To assume otherwise is simply dishonest.

In the end, “The heart lies to itself because it must.”  A certain degree of dishonesty is part and parcel of any functioning relationship.  Not everyone can be that sexually honest with their partner, and confessing infidelities of the Imagination comes awfully close to Orwellian thoughtcrime, especially given the reflexive omnipresence and inventive nature of the human libido.  (Real infidelities are a different matter.)  But these imaginative infidelities do not undercut the genuine faithfulness of those involved, at least in the general sense.  The poem leaves things a little more open-ended, since we don’t know the precise nature of this assignation.  Gilbert calls her “the woman” but we aren’t sure if this is just poetic license or a transcription of an actual infidelity.  And even with Gilbert’s Ivy League pedigree, the conversation seems a bit arch and contrived, even by the standards of adulterous East Coast academics.  But the poem is more about what is said than who is saying it.

Love, lust, and lying remain the central undercurrents of the poem, infusing it with a profundity and delicious eroticism.  While the title sounds like a random line from a Natalie Imbruglia song – “Something something something / lying naked on the floor” – the poem itself contains a beautiful rumination on the nature of bodily lusts and emotional honesty.  Within his oeuvre, Gilbert revisits these common themes, exploring the labyrinths of desire, truth, and grace, but with a poetic power that undercuts my rather pretentious explanations.  His intellectually sensual poem gives the reader a moment respite from the loneliness of existence, tearing back the veil of lies we tell ourselves, and doing it in a remarkably brief way that shoots across the page with the brilliance of a comet.