A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON
WAVE BOOKS, 2012
REVIEWED BY LISA A. FLOWERS
Last year, CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon—a book that encompassed a perfect blend of street insolence and elegiac tribute—was published. Raunchy and tantrumy, insightful and spiritually reverent, Rumpelstilskin-stampingly angry, and uproariously hilarious, it was a kind of hash oil distilled from its author’s originality and strangeness, and an unforgettable hymn of praise to the work of others.
Over a year later, each re-reading is not merely a return to something puissant and relevant, but a trip to a landscape that, like certain atramentous or transcendental places in the heart, turn out to be knowable only when you come to them. Marsupial is a work of pretty much unlimited generosity that is is there for you when you need it, and it has a portal and a therapy for every condition: love, loss, ecstasy, rage.
The (soma)tic exercises in Marsupial’s title are derived from Soma, a sacred Vedic drink and the Greek word meaning “body”, and the flesh—and the sacred memory of the flesh of the dead—are ingeniously preserved and remembered in Conrad’s hands as they are in no one else’s. Some of the muses that preside over his passion for the corporeal are not unlike the talismanic ‘good luck’ rituals behind dance, or extreme sports: highly superstitious, forged of an immediacy residing not so much out in space, toward a theoretical (and always encroaching) theological ecstasy or doom, but into those forces concentrated into immediate physicality and its sustenance and performance. There is something of the time-fear of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson here—a punk rock Quentin, too marvelously and electrifyingly angry to die, as the dead keep falling through the book rapidly, like a meteor shower, almost too frequently to be eulogized. As such, the most moving crux of Marsupial is perhaps best summed up by Conrad’s contemporary, the poet Ariana Reines, who wrote, in another context, “What is exhumed not from the earth but from a body itself is an addictive kind of beauty you can’t easily get over” and “Earth, I will have to miss you; I miss you already./and yet when I touch myself whom I should not trust/It is still the heaviest and most jealous feelings that bind me to you, like blood”.
Cum, blood, the body’s voluntary/desired and involuntary/undesired responses to love, passion, trauma. Conrad, one of the most head-on of poets, has rightfully bristled at being called an escapist. “I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems”, he said in a recent interview. “I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive.” These are poems that do not abandon their subjects, or treat transfiguration and escapism as if they are the same thing, but forge ahead to restore human beings and moments—in their own right—to the organic states of grace they might have been in before they became corrupted by illness, cynicism, tragedy. As in most spiritual and theological rituals, Conrad’s great obsession seems to be bringing the living and the dead into one place—a longing apt to be consummated in lines as lovely as white candles: “Everyone is in two places here/ and in memory holds porches to their light”. Yet, the essential difference between the preservation-value of pending mortality and the preservation-value of pending immortality—aren’t both concentrated toward the same hope?—is always in question, as is the union of both states ideally suited to mimic and keep each other. So it is in Musk, a poem born from the exercise Séance Your Own Way: “Dormancy entered a flayed/ Bond by/Soda fountains of the world it/Seems funny but it is/Exactly funny how/Exceptions cram/into the disappear.”
With its obsession with fluids, food, physicality, Marsupial sometimes has the wild, unhinged glee of a three-year-old Jackson Pollocking their feces across the wall, as in White Helium:
Smear snot or blood or semen or pussy juice or ear wax or piss or vomit or shit or spit or sweat or whatever excretion you have available onto your balloon. Hold onto the string as it floats above you. Relax on your back on the floor. Hold the string by your toes with your legs extended. Look at the balloon with binoculars. What emblem is this? What Jolly Roger?
Ditto, unforgettably, for the book’s politically-loaded title track:
Someone downtown bought a new refrigerator and I carried the large cardboard box upstairs to my apartment. Lined with blankets and pillows it was the perfect marsupial pouch for the new poetry exercise. I punched a hole in the back and inserted a baby bottle filled with soy milk to suck on. Just outside the box DVDs of Pasolini’s films played, first The Decameron, then The Canterbury Tales…My boyfriend came over. We played Pasolini’s SALO OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM. We removed the baby bottle from the back of my cardboard pouch and my boyfriend used it as a glory hole. Graffiti around his cock and little wigs made of cotton and pillow stuffing. I glued a frame around the hole, asked him to back up and enter slowly, a portrait of a cannon at the castle gates.
Too, wherever it meanders, whatever criticisms its detractors have leveled at it, Marsupial has that quality that always has been and always will be characteristic of original work: completely magical and unpredictable imagery. A quality that, in turn, is summed up by the great Mina Loy, whose manifesto (“If you are very frank with yourself and don’t mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction”) Conrad gives ample credit to. This, in tandem with “sometimes you have to kill your darlings” and “show, don’t tell”, has always pretty much been the most reliable of literary advice going. However, rules are only as valuable as the message they endeavor to protect, and, thankfully, there is little of the sacrificing of dears in Marsupial: true to the reverence, often expressed in his work, for nearly everything as sentient life, Conrad kills nothing, and all the pretty chickens and their dam run free and pecking at our ankles through the streets of his poems like a brood of unruly children whose parents believe—with Monty Python’s stern Jehovah—that every sperm is sacred. As an instructional-book-by-definition, Marsupial “tells” in wonderful, wacky proselytizing, a blend of radical humanitarianism and fabulously cathartic misanthropy—as in the beginning of this exercise:
Go to a shopping mall parking lot with trees and other landscaping growing between the cars to create this poem. Find a tree you connect with, feel it out, bark, branches, leaves. Sit on its roots to see if it wants you OFF! These trees are SICK WITH converting car exhaust and shopper exhale all fucking day!
There’s Feast of the Seven Colors , a series of exercises ornamented by titles like “Distorted torque of FLORA’S red (written after eating only red foods for a day while under the influence of a red wig, right side in curls, left side straight)” and “Rehab saved his life but drugs saved mine at the blue HOUR (written after eating only blue foods for a day while under the influence of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ played on a continuous loop from 6 a.m. to midnight)”. Yellow’s synesthesia eddies the young, doomed spark of high heeled boys (“glitter anchors an eye underskilled for death”) with a feral tracking-through-the-foliage of missed intimacies (“So many things I’d like to smell/but am not allowed Franz Kafka’s crotch”). Largely, Marsupial is also a passive-aggressive dialogue with a spirituality equally revered and held in contempt. Kick the Flush could just as well be directed at God(s):
HE could if HE
Wanted to develop
An odor to please us take
HIS shirt off
Aid our anticipation
But when HE demanded respect HE
Was surprised to
Find out what HE
It was HIS need to
Apologize that drove HIM
HIS fracture of listening
Causing whistle blanks
We woke the blue
Lights in HIS head
It’s how we earned our freedom
Now I open my gorgeous entrails to
But Conrad understands that things of life, the beloved experiences that made and make it worth living, are not to be left behind, “gotten over”, in the sense that such a term is usually used; not to be digested and shat out for a higher continuation. They are, rather, the building blocks of wisdom and spiritual continuation, always aspiring to be the closest possible touching point of the dead to the living. “If you can’t believe you’re going to heaven in your own body and on a first name basis with all the members of your family,” Joan Didion famously said in The White Album, quoting an acquaintance, “what’s the point of dying?”. Marsupial espouses the cultivation of an enlightenment that does not involve the surrendering of self to the vaporizing of a superior consciousness, like the maiden in Grimm who cannily turns herself into a lake to escape her pursuer, or the ice hotels of Scandinavia that melt every spring, only to be rebuilt from the solidifying of their own element in spring. Nowhere is the latter analogy more movingly turned around than in the AIDS Snow Family exercise:
In January gather snow. This is intimate, this calling to honor the shock of being alive. I made one tiny snowman named CAConrad and one tiny snowman named Tommy Schneider. For six months they held hands in the privacy of my freezer while I visited the streets and buildings in the Philadelphia of our love. Snow crystals travel miles out of clouds into the light of our city. My snowman read to his snowman the letters I brought home to the freezer. It’s 2010, AIDS is different in this century you didn’t live to see…the day after Summer Solstice I took the snowmen out of the freezer. 90 degrees, we melted quicker than expected, even sooner than I could have imagined.
Sooner than we could have imagined, for, as Conrad reminds us, “another temperature of/human is/another/folded wing missed by/the tailor”. “You have waited/you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers”, wrote Whitman. At its heart, Marsupial, too, is a reassurance to the dead (and the memories and experiences of everyone who has ever–or will ever—live) that they are eternally recognizable in the hope of love’s total recall, through ages of death and transfiguration:
I’m not so