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postmodernist

BARTAB: AN AFTERHOURS BALLAD
Two Handed Engine Press
118 p.
ISBN: 978-0982002001

Cesca Janece Waterfield’s poetry is palpably stunning at times. Raw and evocative, her debut book,  Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press) veers between profoundly personal poems about the nature of life fueled by substance abuse—and  a refusal to accept traditional boundaries—and the prose poem-narrative of two musicians floundering in a world that has little use for impractical brilliance. Her writing is sharp, incisive, and unsparing of self or society.

Stylistically, Waterfield is a direct descendant of postmodernist Denise Levertov. She’s also a singer-songwriter, which no doubt explains the intrinsic play of rhythm and sound in her lines. Drawing deeply from a lifetime of musicianship, Bartab begins to hum, early on, with a sort of subconscious soundtrack laced with blues-soaked Americana. Waterfield’s tone is conversational and unapologetic, and Bartab is concerned with prices and prisons. The price of refusing conformity, of obstinate recklessness in the pursuit of one’s dreams; the prisons that society surrounds us with and those we create ourselves. The book’s subjects wallow in romanticized cheap living while subtly building to the conclusion that all of this impoverishment comes with a staggering cost. In the story of characters Evie and Daniel, we are led, for example, to contemplate the domestic horror of a surgical procedure where a mere fifty bucks means the difference between proper anesthesia and toughing things out with a few valium:

That day, Daniel drove Evie to the clinic. The nurse had explained that Evie would have to remain at the clinic for three hours after the procedure. The anesthetic gas was powerful, she had cautioned over the phone, and monitoring was necessary to ensure the patient could be discharged. In the waiting room, Daniel squeezed Evie’s hand and looked into her face. “I’ll be right here,” he said. She disappeared into the back.

In a cramped office, Evie watched a video. When it was done, the nurse asked for $375, in money order or cash. Evie’s chest squeezed in panic. “They said bring three twenty five.” She looked down at the bills in her hand. “Three twenty five.”

The nurse was marking paperwork and said to her pen, “That’s for oral analgesic. Valium. If you want nitrous gas, it’s $375.” Inside her alarm, Evie’s thoughts coalesced. “I’ll take valium, then.”

The nurse looked up. “Instead of nitrous?” Evie nodded. Her hands were clenched on her thighs. The nurse consoled her, “At least with valium, you won’t have to wait long in the recovery room.” She circled something on the sheet. Evie remembered Daniel was waiting and she relaxed a bit.

On the ceiling was a poster of a kitten.

Early on in the book, in the mesmerizing Velocity, we are treated to glimpses of Evie’s childhood and adolescence:

I was sad but now I’m getting up wood grain below
my feet rises to swirl in my head swallow intentions
white cold porcelain of the tub’s lip I study the flowers
I painted on the shelf’s edge gorgeous pansies delicate
blooms with the correct number of petals because I
love biology sit up front get high with the grad students
maybe I’ll study neuroscience cure my sister’s epilepsy
I should mold some flowers from polymer clay no a clay I
will make I could patent it drive drive to Chesapeake
the dark Chesapeake earth smells round and sharp
simultaneously strange little animals (grim, they’re grim!)
dart through my headlights their eyes recognize me
they note my gift my head is awash in pictures what my
mother called vanity my father beat us my sister & me
differently I knew watching him beat her he understood
it was meditated it was math but for now I’m speeding
the Eastern Shore thuck thuck branch beneath the tires
thuck and I’m a girl

It’s Evie’s past, then, that largely, perhaps, informs her dealings with men (“I’m here cause Daniel said so”). Particularly heartbreaking is True Story, in which a drunken Evie triumphantly comes home to Daniel to announce, “I din spend any money, baby!”—proud of having gotten wasted without wasting any of their precious green.

It would be easy to despise Daniel but for Waterfield’s adroit painting of his character. Daniel is no villain, nor even a particularly bad man. He loves and tries to do right by Evie – but fails to shoulder his own burdens. From the prose poem-narrative A Prior Engagement:

The waitress reported back that she had a fresh bottle of Dalwhinnie and asked if he wanted one. Daniel thought about money and Evie’s smile. He ordered a double on the rocks. He saw no way to save it this time.

The metaphor of substance abuse as prison is well established, even overused. But Waterfield is effective in illustrating the rationalizations we make when in the throes of addiction. Consider:

These days were defined by a different kind of slide. Evie did not know what to do about it. She simply couldn’t put down a bottle of vodka once she’d screwed off its top. So she rationalized that going to bars with increasing frequency would put the quash on her habit. Because she would have to pay the tab at the end of the night…

And the frankly stunning (and harrowing) account of Drink:

Then you remember how you take it
and you want to pull it into you,
for it to work you over,
dusk shushing day.
There.
You’ve admitted it.
After you step out of sensation -
that silky dress -
shrug into shame,
and return, you recall the afternoon you
fucked the security guard on top of a parking garage
while a neighboring rooftop party saw and began to watch…
You imagine how it will feel,
not long from now…

When images meld, particulars scatter…

Your shoulders tense slightly
as you sense the clock’s progress,
its second hand shoving tenaciously forward.
You slap each minute down 25
like cards in hands of blackjack you win
and win and win…

Of course, the source of these demons is all too recognizable. Then there’s the too familiar background music of depression…(“The keening dirge/how long must I listen? When will we agree to stop pretending it is not there?”)… so delicately and heartbreakingly rendered in Portent, where:

To stretch long into the white spheres of stillness,
one must recall the clamor of hordes.
And as a single shiver descends
a body still ringing with warmth,
grief reaches into the air
to snap scenes between its sharp teeth:
snow flashing gold under sun,
the clattering limbs of the dog
loping into the brush, and I
at my window, watching birds yawp over seed
–as if we didn’t know the machination of sorrow;
how it stirs beneath even these days, waking,
rubbing its eyes with budding fists.

The final poem in the book is titled Memorial. It suggests a sober heroine looking back on her past with regret and wonder. Yet it is Evie’s passion—for music, for her own gifts as an artist—that finally drives her recovery, propelling her out of heartbreak and dissolution and back into the joy of existence, a

Congregation

I am coming a part of,
to wear as wing
of crow, clear
for landing, in my way. I rise
at the sudden clang of
yet another knell…
I fall down at altar as well as any, caw
swell as crow…

There are varied sorts of soldiers,
and on that day at last
the door whines open at my touch,
I want your face to look like Judas
and it’s the coming
of your god damned Lord.

Order Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad

 

It is not language that is arbitrary, but power itself that is arbitrary and this is perhaps the reason post-modernist latched onto the arbitrary sign. Power, in order to remain power, must be arbitrary–and this includes slavishly following rules at times in order not to be a slave to whim. The authority of the whimsical is total and can only be overthrown by an act of violence so great that it exposes itself as too earnest to be truly power. Power is the because I, we, or it said so, the “just because.” It is not only vapid; it is vapidity itself. At the most elemental level it is hidden behind many veils of order–which I call terministic screens. The three great veils are I, we, it, and of these three, the “it” is the most recalcitrant and dangerous in that, being without human accountability, it may be purely evil.

Here we define evil as that which blindly consumes and annihilates without remorse or mercy and, also, without pleasure in that which is. It is null–non-existence. It is abstraction without any ground for being. The bureaucracy of the death camps, the efficiency of drones, the present corporate nexus represent an it of this magnitude. This is why those who benefit from this “it” do their best to conform to the standard of an it–machines, uber-sociopaths, elite minds, perfect team players. Goldman Sachs is filled with elite minds all of whom have formed one collective idiot. This is the final attribute of the “it”: idiocy–the efficiency of one mind without remorse, without culpability, without true intelligence. No matter how efficient a mind bereft of empathy is, it must remain cold and lifeless and hidden at its center and eventually the axon and the dendrites of such a system become so virtual as to lose their elasticity and their ability to create the algorithmic semblance of true human consciousness. Right now, Goldman Sachs is reduced to the power tie, the suit, the expected tropes of family, the reading of information, the spreading of misinformation, the scam, the con, the manipulation of certain drives and desires, the seeking mechanism and all that aids and abets that seeking: positive thinking, mind control, the most advanced forms of personality typing, cult tactics for its employees. The “individualism” that Ayn Rand and her followers (Alan Greenspan among them) pretended to champion in Atlas Shrugged is little more than the silly robot like, perfectly six-foot prussian soldier–a laughable Übermensch. And this leads me to my last attribute of the it:

It is silly.

Silliness, mindlessness, and power are the tropes F. Scott Fitzgerald both envied and so wonderfully delineated in The Great Gatsby. It is not far-fetched to take one of our great novels on the enchantment of power as a sort of primer on the 1 percent. Let’s consider.

Tom Buchannan’s race theories, his rather vapid and smug faith in what were the faux expert opinions of his era. Tom is depicted as a careless man who can not be defeated in the end because he is already dead–dead in the “it” of privilege. He gets away with murder. This is the it as spouter of truisms, and third-rate economic/race theories. If you want to understand the basic mind-set of leading wll street power brokers, look no further than Tom. Unfortunately, Tom is a notch above the it types who now rule. They do not have it (as Fitzgerald never tired of stating); they are the it they have.

Daisy Buchannan’s lighter than egg-shell loveliness and her vapidity: Daisy is loveliness itself–an abstraction, a “sign” no less inhuman and vapid than the signs looming over East Egg. She, like her husband, can not suffer any permanent injury because she is already dead. Her behavior when in the presence of Gatsby’s silk shirts, her weeping over these and her heartlessness in all other respects should tip us off to how arbitrary she and her world is. Silliness and mindlessness is at the core. These people do not have money and power. They “ARE” money and power. Those who have, serve them–often bitterly–but it is only in serving them that the have money and have power folks can justify their worst actions. They bond with their abusers.

So how do you kill the gods?

You quit worshipping them. True power must remain invisible so that, at all times, what we perceive as the face of power is merely a mirage, a screen. Most of our economic history over the last 40 years is the American delusion that their management jobs were anything more than a terministic screen for real power. The college educations, the advanced degrees, the smug disdain for manual labor…all these were terministic screens behind which the true powers could remain invisible. We worship what lies behind the veil. We worship death and call it ultimate life. The most laudatory form of the word death is heaven/paradise. I have often told atheist friends it is more important to dismantle heaven than God because, if you get rid of God, and don’t find a proper fill-in for his chief terministic screens: heaven and ultimate power, something much worse than God will fill that void: power without virtue or even the semblance of virtue, might as right, a heaven of unremitting material display, a paradise grounded in an unremitting choice culture…ah, you got rid of God and replaced him with a CEO! Smart move. Brilliant. Really improves everything. So here’s where we are:

The Most Deadly Oreo

The 99 percent are, at present sandwiched between a reactionary fundamentalist corporate power that believes it is ordained by God to rule and without being questioned (this is actual fundamentalist teaching) and a secular atheist “elite” who believe they rule us by dint of their superior minds (they read Napoleon Hill and Atlas Shrugged, have no conscience, and an idiot savant’s ability for manipulating numbers and patterns and this is superior) and without being questioned (don’t sweat the small stuff is what the 1 percent consider the 99). Here is the truth:

Goldman Sachs is a collective idiot that does not understand limits, and it will keep sucking blood from the world until it and the world blows up. Dead things don’t fear death. Mindless things have no fear of death. Both are already dead. We are letting a corpse drive the bus. Why? Because, like Gatsby, for too long, we have been enchanted by that walking, talking, reality-show-starring corpse. Our college students have a thing for zombies. This is not harmless fun. This is indicative of a love and lust for mindless power among the 99 percent. I could get hundreds of students to participate in zombie games. As for Occupy Binghamton, I couldn’t get ten students.

So my advice? Make the 1 percent truly visible. When the arbitrary power has been truly exposed and made visible it is already no longer the true power. This is shape shifter 101. How do you know when the invisible has been threatened with true exposure:

1. A violent, over the top attack, display, or mockery by the “have” powers on behalf of the “are” powers. Examples from literature: When Odysseus breaks Theriste’s ribs in front of the other rank and file warriors.

2. If violence, display, and mockery don’t work, then an unholy marriage–a mating of the exposers with the have powers and a seeming overthrow of the “are” powers–takes place. This leads to chaos because human beings are hopelessly rank-obsessed. This means the “have powers” show a cosmetic difference. The thugs of the czar become Lenin’s secret police. Saming the changes reduces the stress. Sadly it also means the “are” powers are now hidden once more behind the terministic screens.

3. The actual slaughter of the gods–an act as pathetic and sad as any Kafka story. When we find the actual powers, they are silly, vapid, eccentric, often drug-addicted and don’t seem much worthy of the slaughter. They often appear sweet and even saintly because, let’s face it, being insulated from the brutality of their terminsitic screens, they are, for all intents and purposes, more and more like children. Here is the frightening possibility: the haves already long ago slaughtered the “are” powers and have been “defending” them only to justify their continued existence. This leads me to the “because it says so.” Why? Because. This is the ultimate idiocy of true power–it does not answer to any interrogation.

The people in Goldman Sachs behind the glass windows laughing as the police arrest protesters, are “have” powers–rather minor ones. The true power behind Goldman Sachs is invisible and, probably, dead–just as “God” is dead.

This is what we can expect: if enough force and protest is supplied, then the cosmetics of the have powers will change. Some corpses who seem alive will be sacrificed to the mob to appease them. “Free market capitalism” will have to die as a terministic screen. It will be either modified or re-named under a different order of seeming.

The gods do not die, but grow ever more feeble. And here’s the scary part of this truth: the atrophy of the gods, leads to the hypertrophy of their protectors and defenders. The less true moral character a culture has, the greater in number grow the moral reformers. The less joy, the more comedians. We seek a balance we can never have. As opportunity becomes more feeble, the protectors of opportunity (and this includes both the 99 percent and the enforcer/protectors of the 1 percent) swell. If we were wise we would dismantle opportunity itself–recreate incentive around something less vital than our basic needs, and assure those basic needs are givens rather than carrots dangling at the end of a long hot poker. No one should be working for food and shelter. A system based on starving over half the world is vapid and silly. If a man could toil in the fields all day, and, at the end of that day, simply walk to a grocery and procure the food he needs without paying, wouldn’t that be wonderful? If the prosperous farmer did not prosper so that his son or daughter could become a lawyer, and his daughter a president–if each remained farmer, yet took a vital place in the polis, wouldn’t that be lovely? Problem is, many men and women have overactive seeking systems and must procure more than their fair share. Others have under active seeking systems and will neglect their rights. A balance is aimed at only through a system which has the authority to punish.

And so we are back to square one. Or are we? Suppose we could create a balance of seeking mechanisms? This can not be done when power is invested in an “it.” A machine set on seeking will not stop until the plug is pulled or it has devoured everything and has only itself left to devour–the myth of the juggernaut. The question to pose to Goldman Sachs and to the rest of the global corporate powers is rather simple: “You are not intelligent. You are a plunder machine, who know only how to work off the fallacy of limitless opportunity. Who in your hive is still capable of independent thought and has the power to pull the plug?” The truth is, the plug must be pulled from within. Someone must convince someone within the structure that this pattern and method is counterproductive. But how? How do you explain that to a tie, a suit, a series of numbers, and an advanced degree with 150 IQ that certain types of genius, including the genius of pattern recognition, are forms of stupidity? How do you get these nerd-zombies to pause? What flowers do you explode over their heads? When they have finished eating everyone, who or what will they eat? Themselves?

No doubt they are already doing so. When we pierce to the core of what the police and politicians are defending against all honor and scruple and reason, we may just find a bunch of feeble Ivy league nerdniks feeding on their own arms.