For about a year, from 1995 to 1996, I worked in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto’s regime retained the small U.S. consultancy that hired me as its Sialkot field office manager. In addition to soccer balls, cricket gear, and leatherwear, Sialkot manufactured and exported all manner of disposable surgical instruments. Highly skilled Pakistani craftspeople, working by hand in factories and garage-size workshops, produced excellent copies of mainly German-designed instruments, ranging from scalpels, tweezers, scissors, and forceps all the way to more complex devices such as specula.
American doctors eager to assuage patients’ contamination fears stoked a bull market for these cheap, precisely-turned counterfeits, which could be discarded after a single use, unlike pricey European instruments made for autoclave sterilization. Trouble was, the Pakistani manufacturers, lacking effective trade organization, undercut each other savagely, sourcing cheaper and cheaper steel in an effort to shave rupees. Nurses in Cleveland and New York and Miami tore open shrink-wrapped packages to discover rusted scalpels, and Clinton’s FDA slapped an outright ban on all imports from Pakistan, effectively stalling Sialkot’s economy.
The consultancy’s brief was to inspect the Pakistani factories, offer guidance, and document the manufacturers’ renewed compliance to U.S. production codes. My job was to type up consultants’ field notes on a factory and fold them into highly formalized reports to the FDA, which in most cases responded by quickly lifting the export ban for the manufacturer in question. Sometimes I accompanied consultants to the factories, bumping along through clouds of gritty yellow dust and heat that could reach 125 degrees in Jeeps with retired J&J men or Bayer men or Bristol men (they were all men). Usually, though, I spent the day at my desk in the AC deep-freeze of our office on the second floor of a nondescript building in downtown Sialkot. All of twenty-three, I consoled myself with the precious nugget that D.H. Lawrence, a favorite poet, had been a clerk in a surgical appliances factory.
When the heat let up a little I would sometimes walk in Abdul Hakim Park, where around twilight you could get a good view of a hundred diamond kites flying tethered to concrete rooftops teeming with kids. One evening, a wizened man in a dirty salwar kameez approached me and, leaning on a cane, brought his pitted face close enough to mine that in the fading light I could see the blotches of his cataracts. After a startled moment face-to-face, I said A salaam alaikum. In response he shot a wad of sputum at my sandals and intoned the initials, “CIA.”
I’d done enough traveling to know that for many, if not most, foreigners an American is a loutish Roman centurion until proven otherwise. Still, that particular encounter unsettled me in a new way. For the first time, I entertained the idea that the accident of being born a U.S. citizen was something to feel guilty about, to apologize for. After all, hadn’t my government supported a client regime in Pakistan, using the country as a loading ramp for its proxy war in Afghanistan? Fully a third of the munitions shipped through Pakistan, it was estimated, had fallen into the hands of local warlords, fuelling internecine bloodshed in Sindh and the Frontier Regions that still raged. Pakistanis had, and continue to have, ample cause to feel disgruntled about American interference.
Traveling light with my backpack and a money-belt lined with AmEx travelers checks, earning in one day what a skilled specula craftsperson took home in a month, could I really go on considering myself some kind of cosmopolitan Henry Miller epigone? My relative ease of movement and purchasing power derived from my home country’s inequitable relationships with nations—of course. I had known that before, but in Pakistan it began to unnerve me more. Well, what is to be done?
I include the above autobiographical ramble in the interest of self-disclosure, because I believe each American poet disposes of the vexations of U.S. hegemony in a manner shaped, in ways subtle and obvious, by the facts of his or her life. Although taxonomy doesn’t interest me much, a spectrum ranging from Marxist agitprop to unselfconscious sentimentality might hastily be sketched. In my amazement on reading Brad Flis’s vivisections of American political beasts in his brilliant first collection, Peasants, I can’t help being reminded that Brad is a Canadian who has spent his recent years encountering U.S. fauna in their native habitats. Brad’s keen expatriate eye might account in part for the distinctively incisive and generous, amused, damning jazz fusion he makes from the tragedies, excesses, brute rhetoric, po-faced patriotism, isolationism, decencies and celebratory bonfires of the American scene.
Before you even open it, Brad’s book invites you to take a good look at yourself. The cover image is obscured by a large rectangle of mirror-paper, a gimmick perhaps borrowed from the graphic designers of Internationale Situationiste magazine (1958-1969), which was once or twice bound in reflective silver stock. The silver rectangle on my copy of Peasants proves too dull to resolve a clear image of my face. Which perhaps is apt enough after all. Which of us can pretend to an accurate self-image, and why would we?
More puzzling and to the point, though, is the fact that the “mirror” on Brad’s cover is framed by the outline of a neatly combed, pinkish, seemingly male, and possibly horribly wounded, head. This graphic “frame” is apparently scanned from a color newspaper photo, benday dots and all. The cover thus encourages you figuratively and also in slapstick-literal fashion to thrust your head inside this clean-cut, maybe truly cut-off noggin. In an analogous fashion, Brad’s poems will help over-educated precariat readers (especially you poets out there) awaken to discomfiting, sometimes punch-in-the-gut hilarious complicities and compromises, artistic and political. The effect is tonic, and only rarely preachy.
“Come centripetal chorus of zero fame,” Brad greets us. Or is it Brad? One of the great things about these poems is how they play with the ways reader and author can share in meaning construction. Rather than carving another gray sepulcher to the irreducible alienation of sign and signifier, Brad gets messy with the wet, oozy clay of morphing language, from which might spring, but only with your active participation, asps and other legendary creatures of the Nile. “What I’m saying to you is about-face atrium… / What I’m saying to you is invention veto… / What I’m saying to you is friend & non-friend entity…” Make no mistake, this is a generous book. We live in rhetorical atmospheres, so why not recognize them so as to breathe more freely, if possible? Call me an optimist, but can’t we discover new ways to be fraught within this world?
Here is a piece of Brad’s long poem, “Nuptials”: (my apologies that WordPress doesn’t seem to let me reproduce the poem’s character spacing scheme)
with wakeful fidelity I brutalize conscience
than laughter crating my dissolve in its series
if the servant-empty feelings
that I thug I observe
I marquis and resuscitate
reeling-in every non-gesture addressed, rerouting city transit
of monitor and touch, two robo’s in cream
so it seems
it is Saturday
as I slip into his arms
nevertheless as a worthy entreaty:
Gone With the Wind
So it follows from all coupling just barely forced to liberalize, picking through refuse not annulled in the hemisphere’s fume of soldered stud, that there is much more patent detail to succumb to, waiting in line, this very grey area, glamour of delighting in one gallant leader of tucked-in space, nested…
One hopes to forge breach in a font as familiar as the picking of an apple at dusk. At least after graduating, fully employable, we’re not a Sarin gas attack. At least we’re not a Sarin gas attack.
* * *
It matters little to me how much, if any, of this language is collaged from the internet or whatever. Given its presentation in a book of poetry, I am inclined to take it for different spins. I’m moved by the way a sound-alike word will mask an expected word, like “dissolve” for “resolve.” If poetry becomes a kind of opiate, are we “Gone With the Wind?” Well “At least we’re not a Sarin gas attack.” These are sentiments I can use.
A wise man once told me, “The world is not fair.” Trust me, it was all in the way he said it. If poets were cut out to be saints, politicians, or great humanitarians, they probably wouldn’t endlessly pontificate about books of verse. Just a guess (and I have read Mao’s poetry). This is not to say there is any reason poets should make peace with the world as they find it.
Brad’s poems at once register righteous anger and the inherent hypocrisies of feeling righteous. He goes at the American Scene with enough tragicomic gusto your eyes will water. Lee Boyd Malvo, the young serial killer who in 2002 hoped to extort millions from the U.S. government to build a “utopian compound” in Canada, orates at Ground Zero in “Ground-Zeroiade.” “Is this really about ego? About structural adjustment? About hearing yourself out? Is this all a dream, a driving-forward experience? Driving off the belt?….Is this about movements?” Malvo wonders.
In reply, the ghastly spirit of Ground Zero chides him:
I hate them because they exist and I hate them
for their victimism, an Internet-based computer game that puts
players in the army boots and black trench coats of Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold as they kill Columbine High School
classmates is souless and sick
to look at. It is impossible for any of us to be prepared…
I respond to so much pitch-black comedy by pulling out my pocket linings, opening my palms outwards, and smiling sadly. At times Brad (or one of his alter egos) confesses dark doubts about the future of English: “By punch-out, it is no longer Lear. / Soon it will never have occurred to us.” But even in their most anguished moments, Brad’s verses are, one might say, neo-constructivist. Brad births a mutation of the sonnet with Olde English and random letters. He perceptively diagnoses the ‘crisis’ of contemporary poetry as inhering in a standardization of free-verse practices that inhibits truly distinctive “pretentiousness” (“American Idol”).
This is not a book that counsels despair, but rather realization, an awareness of things as they are, material and non-material—an awareness of your place in the grand scheme of things. And the grand scheme is not in the end a scheme, given that there is no autonomous standpoint from which to critique or map totality. Peasants makes me want to share thoughts, laughs, and food with other peasants, my friends.
Each word has the same weight, loud as brass bells. I am still thinking of the second, the sixth, but the storyline keeps moving me, moving on. I feel these stories of pain and joy. The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths. Light Dottie’s verses in neon. Dottie howls and I hear nail gloss pink, shark tooth blue, shore taffy yellow, stage blood red, the same colors Pharoahs saw rise and set upon the Nile. Dottie regards sincerity and snobbery, dire ponds on which Proust skates till late spring, says hello and goes on. People have asked me if Dottie means it. Is she kidding with these poems? Is it all performance, in-joke, charade? Is she laughing at me?
Dottie is serious as hell. She means it. What you make of her poems is up to you. Don’t let anyone take that away! Your irony, references, costumes, distractions may disguise but cannot alchemically transmute your animal heart and brain, the sweaty flesh that sticks to your bones until it melts. We aren’t turning into machines anytime soon. “Art may want to be mechanized but I am not going to let it Goddamn it / Not gonna let it be all steel driver without my fist,” Dottie insists in “The Legend of Good John Henry,” the first poem in her new collection Black Life. When Dottie says that poetry is not a project, she means it is life. “The real life is wild and the animals will bite you.” Out beyond the zodiac at the edge of the universe spins no system of ghostly scare quotes.
Dottie dares you to scoff. “You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time,” she asserts in “The Poetry that Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead.” Good for her! I don’t think continually of those who are truly great and neither, I think, does Dottie. Why should she? The truth has little to do with rankings and stock tickers. The truth is large, it contradicts itself and cannot be summed up. “I am a player but so is everyone / Your mom, your dad / It is one big game we play,” Dottie claims in one poem. A few poems later she writes, “I am so glad I was brave enough / To leave the place in me that was not wild / To go into the cave of life that is not dead.” There is room for countless moods in an hour, let alone a lifetime. That is so obvious I forget it every day.
Notice the word always in “I Hate Irony,” when Dottie writes, “Oh but Dottie, you say, you are so funny / Surely you realize you are always being ironic / But I am not, I will tell you / I am only being real.” And Dottie can be terrifically funny: “Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal / I have played tennis with so many animals / I can’t count the times I have let them win.”
Dottie can break your heart. Black Life is a book strewn with broken hearts, and some of them are broken hearts that are healing. Some of them are just broken. Here is “It’s a Lonely World”:
It’s a lonely world
It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky
I have done something very wrong and
I am so very sorry about it
“You have done a very bad,
Very bad job, my old boss says
In his Honda
As I take his dick in my mouth—it is all I have left
Men that look like surfers read at the local bar
As my old boss empties me out of his car
Without so much as a kiss
I see a pretty girl in purple lipstick—she is me
I have done something so wrong that my mother can die from it
Laura walks across the universe in a mumbling tongue
And in her stupor she doesn’t necessarily connect my name with my face
I have acted in such a worse way it made
My baby win his law school parade
And they hoisted him up, even the girls did
With a big party full of balloons
There is something so wrong with me
That I make the baby’s diapers even in my sleep
Because they need making
The baby comes home and falls gently down the stairs
So that we can see his head cracking like a watermelon
All that pressure built up like a haze of stars
I am red-mouthed again and I go out the door
There is a sun setting, with a halo around it
I tell people, who are listening to me, that that sun is God
But they never believe me, they only listen
They only believe what they are taught to believe
Which is to believe in nothing
Which is what they were taught when they were born
* * *
What has happened here? Wait. Breathe and make things. Make them up. Here are stories and stories take time, go through time. Be inside this time. Treat it like space. We are in a space filled with bodies pert and inert and other. Dottie’s lyric narratives in Black Life require invention, bring in large tenors, make sopranos reach, tremble terrible trebles. When I read Dottie I hear a conductor and I hear a whole train of things, images, and events, and they clank.
Go to one of Dottie’s readings. You will see Dottie on stage and hear her big deliberately broken orchestra. No less true or real for being presented to us. For being brought out on stage. No one is on stage all the time. Dottie will remind you that every stage is built on a foundation and every foundation is built on the earth and the earth and everything in it and on it is visible only because of the sun and that believing that is a kind of faith.
Dottie believes in the real, and that is why what she makes up is real. This is the real magic of her poetry. Her choir of words, her cast of printed characters, can be given real life by her or by you; that makes no difference to her. No one’s life is more or less real than anyone else’s, but people forget that all the time. Whatever is happening is bigger than any of us and Dottie knows no one person can know. Dottie shapes voices that call to what was and what is, whatever it is that happened, to us all.
Forgive me, friends, for looking at this book through poetry-colored glasses. Heather Christle’s lyrics in The Difficult Farm have a great deal to share. Of love, bitterness, generosity, fortune cookies, heartache, empowerment, beasts, and more. You will find so much to enjoy.
I personally, however, couldn’t stop thinking about Heather’s poems as meta-poetry. I read the whole book through at Think Coffee on Bowery and 2nd Street, and these songs sounded to me, at least, like a wild cry of poetics. Too much macchiato? No, folks, I think this one is pretty much down to me.
Here’s why. As poets go, I am not as academic as they come. Yet I am quite academic. I became a poetry fan at college, and like it or not I often reflexively consider poetry in terms of past poetry, dormitories, canon formation, the Norton Anthology, teaching, Major British Writers 10a and 10b, social class, bluebooks, race, psychology, imperialism, wealth, close reading, libraries, feminism, legacy kids, new historicism, the history of the avant-garde, privilege, final clubs, Karl Marx, you name it. I know I am far from alone in this, and this won’t come as much of surprise to anybody who has caught wind of me or my ilk.
Yes, I have backpacked around the world, worked for a medical device consultancy in South Asia, paralegaled, mowed lawns, written obituaries for The Princeton Packet (is this sounding anything like a seventies poetry jacket flap?), done P.R. for Adderall, even rung cash registers at a New Jersey farm stand (is this last more relevant here?). Yet I would lie if I didn’t admit vigorous academic shampooing, grooming, and primping. In front of gilded mirrors with the stylists at an industrial strength deluxe college and the University of Massachusetts Amherst Master of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers, where Heather also studied at the time. If, unlike David Byrne, I can’t sing, “I’ve met the people that you read about in books,” I can at least say that I’ve read about them in books. I’ve been conditioned to think about poetry in academic ways. That is, partly in terms of traditions of poetry as codified in academe. Zzzzzz.
Wake up for a minute; it’s time for more true confessions. I have had a lifelong fascination with places where brains grow. Partly as someone who loves to teach and study, but I also mean this in a literal sense. Have you seen The Man with Two Brains? With Steve Martin? I haven’t. I wish! I was ten years old when it came out, and my parents were strict about R-rated movies, particularly films in the gross-out comedy genre. But I remember being really fascinated by the picture’s title and begging to go. Now I see the movie is streaming at Netflix.com. I’ve recently turned thirty-six, so I’m definitely going to watch it soon.
One time, at debate camp, the director, a noise music enthusiast who called himself ‘Tuna,’ gave us all extra-large black tee shirts that read: “BRAIN FARM: WE GROW ’EM BIG!” Tuna was extra large himself, and extra-large tee shirts were fashionable then. The late eighties. I wasn’t a very sportif teen, as you might imagine, but my tee flapped about my paltry frame as I shredded my friend James’ quarter-pipe on a Vision Old Ghosts skateboard. Later, during college, came yawning moments when, just before I stepped aboard the last train, I pondered what for me was the Red Line’s more intriguing terminus: Braintree.
By now you’ve probably guessed that the brain/farm figure germinated thick as sod in my tender mind. Indeed, the brain-farming metaphor rooted itself deeply enough in my psyche, gentlemen and ladies of the jury, that I will now go and misread The Difficult Farm’s opening of the field primarily in terms of an idiosyncratic meta-poetry. As if Heather had written a book of poems about poetry, for crying out loud! This is a quirk, or quark, of my own, and should not prejudice other readers’ readings of this wonderful book. The Difficult Farm is definitely varied enough and vigorous enough and, yes, difficult enough, to invite a cornucopia of readerly responses. As Tuna would say, grow ’em big!
“It’s Not a Good Shortcut If Everyone Dies,” declares the title of the book’s first poem. Sound advice. The poem’s self-conscious speaker is not a little miffed about the contemporary scene. “I finally understood painting. I was irate!” she exclaims, proceeding to grab a “sledgehammer” and demolish a “cinderblock” and “terrarium.” Later, the speaker comes to the realization that she “finally / understood architecture. I was irate!”
door to door, to my neighbors, trying to explain
the system we actually inhabit, and they became
absorbed, so we all flapped our arms together
and though we did not fly away I finally
understood how geese make decisions. I was
crushed. I wandered the earth for eighteen years,
honking at anyone who’d listen…
These geese are the first animals named in Heather’s teeming bestiary of a book, though before them come human animals (the speaker and her neighbors) and the unnamed inhabitants (if there were any) of the smashed terrarium. The geese made me think of Walt Whitman’s meditations about the (male) goose that, according to Walt, calls the shots:
The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the November sky.
Whitman’s sure declaration that the gander’s only seemingly “meaningless” cry of “Ya-honk!” is in fact purposive foreshadows the poet’s famous self-identification with a yowling winged creature, later in “Song of Myself”:
I too am not a bit tamed… I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Through the imitation of goose behavior (“we all flapped our arms together”), Heather’s speaker in “It’s Not a Good Shortcut,” does not discover (as Whitman did) an arrogant, bossy, companionable, authoritative, autobiographical, progressive first-person poetic voice. On the contrary, the trajectory of “It’s Not a Good Shortcut” leads to a radical diminishment of the speaker’s sense of self, to the point where we can’t be sure if the speaker is really there, or even if the poem really exists:
…I’m down to quarks, an idea
so tiny it’s sometimes not even there and it suits
me—I appear, the thought appears: quark.
The speaker is bereft of aesthetic pleasures (which bring anger and violence, not edification); sustainable shelter (“running / outside to see my house collapse”); intersubjective discourse (the neighbors flap together, but it’s unclear if they converse); and lacks even the goose’s instinctual ability to migrate away from inhospitable weather (“so I walked sadly / north, migrating so slowly I never reached / anywhere”).
The first speaker we encounter in The Difficult Farm may be read, then, as a kind of disgruntled and sorrowful poet. One who repeatedly cries, “I was irate!” (I couldn’t resist breaking this last word into its two syllables: “I rate.”) Of course, it would be a grave error to equate this speaker with Heather herself. In fact, the speaker of this complex parodic poem is the first of a motley multitude of characters to cross The Difficult Farm’s burlesque stage.
Okay. Let’s consider Ezra Pound. He made “a pact” with Whitman in Lustra (1916) only to reject as dubious, to a relative degree, certain of Whitman’ tenets about the stability of authorial identity. In Lustra, Pound dons the masks of multiple personae in order, in many of the book’s lyrics, to critique the poems of his contemporaries: either allegorically or head-on. I think Heather’s project in The Difficult Farm analogous in its outlines to Lustra, although different in several important respects.
First, a difference. There is a refreshingly feminist flavor to Heather’s approach that is, shall we say, rather lacking in the Pound. Her poem “One of Several Talking Men” hilariously lampoons the affected paranoia of a pedantic shut-in who asserts, “I am, moreover / a senatorial moment.” “Wilderness with Two Men” gives us a rather pathetic pair who go to ridiculous lengths to suppress the erotic nature of their homosocial bonding and end up shooting guns at each other. “The Barbarist” is voiced by an outraged and outrageous kind of Madame de Salon, who brusquely asks “Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Adams, / Mr. Didn’t-Feel-Obligated-to-Wear-Any-Pants. / Where are your bustling wives?”
Second, The Difficult Farm marks a withdrawal of autobiographical authorial identity to a remove several orders beyond Whitman or Pound, or even the Eliot of the oft-repeated dictum, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Of course, a lot of poetry has come down the pike since Lustra, but if I’m not mistaken, Heather isn’t gaming to reclaim the Romantic. She is having a lot of fun pointing up the foibles, small victories, trickery, trumpery and frumpery of the current poetry scene.
As I’ve explained above, for my own autobiographical, quirky reasons I’m reading Heather’s book as a brilliant and sometimes savage critique of the poetry industry today in these United States. Viewed from this slant, The Difficult Farm is a sociological, topographical and zoological study of the poetry farm where American poets work hard and hardly work. A farm that produces difficulty, and not much else.
Which makes each of us poets, in Heather’s world order, a kind of animal. Which we were already, of course, but with a difference. As zookeeper/inspector/overseer Heather’s great predecessors are Marianne Moore with her precise biology of types (see, for example, the wonderful “The Octopus”) and Elizabeth Bishop, with her curious, exacting, overdetermined analogies (“The Fish”).
In “Variants on an Animal Kingdom,” Heather’s speaker begins:
People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
In numerous contexts (the reading room of the British Museum, for example) such a salutation (“Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird”) properly could be construed as misogynistic and offensive. But the speaker’s explanation asserts her power and freedom. The speaker claims responsibility for her misidentification with an invention (a robotic bird? a gender identity?) by owning that invention, naming herself its regretful creator. Later, a similarly assertive but distinctly more anxious speaker declares, “I will not renounce the decorative” (“Themselves Performing Small Brave Acts”). The question that lingers in both cases, as the title of the second poem hints, is whether such mini-declarations of freedom and invention amount to a hill of beans. My sense here and elsewhere is that Heather is poking fun, with considerable justice, at the self-seriousness of poets who make bold claims about the powers of the imagination.
The poetry industry might be responsible, in fact, for runoff more insidious than mere rosy pronouncements. In “What an Undertaker Does to His Family at Night,” Heather’s rather sinister speaker asserts, “Most of the world gets embroidered in the end.” Not a very comforting thought in an era of pollution and global warming. The Undertaker goes on, “If you’re under / my feet, you’re a plant in a poem by an Episcopalian poet.” We can read “feet” two ways here. As the feet of the Undertaker, who “steps on” (borrows from?) the pages of an Episcopalian poet (e.g., the famously Episcopalian Ashbery?) in order to climb or to destroy. Or we can think of metrical feet, and again of the inheritance of leaves of poetry. And there may be a hint of Whitman’s bequest, that we look for him, bodily and spiritually, under our bootsoles.
Yet Heather has her unnerving character, the Undertaker, say, “There are times I’d like to be perfect, i.e. digital.” Can we recognize this type of poet? This type of person? Have I looked closely in a mirror today? As the poem’s rather terrifying closing chords go:
…My favorite kind of singing
is choral, but I don’t believe in harmony. When we all
sing the same notes, we wake a newborn monster.
Elsewhere a speaker takes a flustered, impatient, yet kindly approach:
The geese—all of these
wild geese are beeping
There is a lack of new reeds
in the lake.
The furiously intense speaker of “Barnstormer” might be calling for the banishment of lament:
I do not feel well do you feel
well? my throat’s on fire I mean
missing something crucial let’s say
the filament say filament!
Yet a page later we hear from a rueful speaker who admits that
when goslings die the nation
(“Because the Limit Seeks Its Own”)
Yet for all of what I see as The Difficult Farm’s mourning for and chiding of contemporary poets (or poultry, as the case may be: “I call the chickens names,” a speaker remarks), this book emphatically is not for poets only. The question of how to foster a closer personal relationship with breathing, with language, is one of those questions everyone can spend more time with. As is the question of where we might find beauty, if not in painting, terrariums, or architecture.
Heather’s book invites us to come in out of the “ad hoc rain.” As one of her speakers generously suggests, “If a farmer wants something / to do with me there is a way for him to get it” (“Upon the River Pang”). Heather’s savage and wild and surprising and critical book contains multitudes, and in doing so forges new pathways for poets and everybody else. Did I mention that it’s really funny, too?
Nostalgia gets a stern rap. Don’t indulge in it, poets tell each other, thinking, I think, of the OED editors’ second take on the word, viz., “Sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past.” With negative emphasis on the sentimental. With regretful making the memory suspect, the past self an impostor, surely guilty of treacly crimes. Lest we forget, we are reminded: the past is another country, where the grass is always dirtier.
Who would disagree that making a fashion of living in false memories is disagreeable? Dressing ourselves in the clothes of a decade cherished because we remember or know so little about it, we make fools (babes) of ourselves. Such false consciousness Alan Ruppersberg may have had in mind when as an element of his “Preview” (1988), he slapped up a slogan poster: Nostalgia 24 Hours a Day.
But let’s not forget the OED editors and their heroic, historical diligence. Here’s their first definition of nostalgia: “Acute longing for familiar surroundings, esp. regarded as a medical condition; homesickness. Also in extended use.” At certain times in one’s life you can stay in one place, and yet the surroundings can become more and more unfamiliar. We live in uncanny times, when technologies (electrified or not) we use to interface with each other and the world change for better and worse daily. I bought an iPhone last week. Facebook changed its skin a few days later. Today something called Buzz shows up in my Gmail. I don’t know what it is, and eight people are already “following” me on Buzz. Yikes! It makes you wonder, what’s wrong with longing for the familiar?
Technological gizmos are far from the only thing to bring on nostalgia. Longing for familiar surroundings reaches perhaps its most poignant intensity when families are formed, broken, reformed, decay. So I’d argue that childhood is itself for many, and certainly for many poets, already characterized by a self-conscious experience of nostalgia, of homesickness. Uncertainty about one’s place in the home. Doubts about the rules. Confusion over boundaries. Our changing bodies. Think back on childhood, and you’ve got nostalgia times two.
In his first book, a sequence of prose poems called Iowa, Travis Nichols travels byroads of childhood and adolescent memory, and has the courage to register sentimentality, sincerity, embarrassment, along with critique, disdain, anger. Whether these are postcards from his own or anybody’s autobiography matters less than the tones and shades of the often ambiguous and shifting scenarios they capture.
Remember Harold Bloom? I thought of him when I read the opening lines of Travis’s book:
Always speaking, a crow sits on a blown speaker. The springtime dissolution drowns out its muddied voice, washing it under the wheels of a red van. The red van on the long-suffering concrete has just picked a boy up from the palace of never singing and placed him in a loading dock behind the old armory for informed arms.
Like I said, I thought of Harold Bloom. I thought of the agon, and (lazily, and with a good deal of reluctance) got ready to go all allegorical on this book. So, here is a “speaker,” an upstart “crow,” perched on the shoulders or perhaps the tomb of a “blown” (dead?) poetic forebear, yapping his fresh new barbaric yawp. Watch out! Here comes the red van of taxonomy, to take him into a poetic school, file him away with the ranks of those trained to use their writing “arms” to scrawl poetry. Whoa! This was getting boring fast.
But wait, along came John Ashbery in his bright moustache to save the day (as usual). I forgot about Professor Bloom and thought of what is possibly young J.A.’s most famous ditty, “Soonest Mended,” and its undying counsel, “[T]ime is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up / Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.” Which got me wondering: how have poets been reading these lines for the past thirty-five years? Because it occurs to me (not that I’m going to name names or anything) that there had been a fair amount of poetry of late (maybe up until a year or so ago) that brought to market an insouciant, breezy, willingly amnesiac brand of nostalgia. The kind that poets warn poets about. The kind that Alan Ruppersberg makes posters about. I don’t think this was the “brightest kind of maturity” that Ashbery was on about, either (and his “for us, right now at any rate” kind of looks that gift horse in the mouth, for that matter). But a lot of poetry seemed to me to get untethered from a self-conscious sense of place and history. (Because, hey surprise! And isn’t that thought what you ought two? Etc.) Okay, enough vague intimations!
Back to Travis. I started wondering, What if Travis is paying a visit to the past, fully knowing that the past itself was nostalgic, was a place where nostalgia ran riot? What if he brought with him few or no other preconceptions? Then I got excited. Because growing up is often the story of DIY identity formation and self-taught voice lessons done under the shadow of an uncanny longing for familiar surroundings. Under the shadow of searching for a place of inclusion. So, What if Travis is going to that place to see what it was (is) really like? Reader, Iowa is a map of that state.
Nobody understands teenagers. Children are best when seen but not heard. Your parents, they fuck you up. True, true, and true. Travis invests with moving life a world of young avatars and their often menacing elders (a step-father who “wanted me to keep inside his head;” Coach Al, whose house has “a tangy taste;” deadbeat Dads and “office harlots”). Travis’s cast of characters live out the underbelly of the above truisms. They live in an occupation zone, really, ruled by those on high whose rewards and punishments are as confusing as their erratic behaviors.
We know this, but what’s interesting about Travis’s book is the way it recalls with true sudden force the adolescent experience:
The sleuths and this one kid, My Bones Are Wheat and My Blood Is Vinegar, ran track for a year but got initiated. They loved him. By the shorts, his wide ruddy face almost broke his neck in the urinal. His little mouth quit. I didn’t want to be his wild orange ring of hair and his moustache then, but I remember really they loved his side-whiskers and his starched shirts wanted to be liked by people. Whenever his baggy pants and his sensible white shoes met them, which wasn’t what they loved, his red hands and silver rings flew. Very often I remember being kind of loved. How he alone loved me terribly and shocked me. How he spoke of love when speaking of laws. And they were horrified when he said it was impossible to forbid a man to run genetically closer to the antelope and make a big wax doll to kiss it. Then white runners, which I don’t think of. But if this man with the doll is true. But I’m so bad at science who knows. But if he were to sit in front of a man in love and begin to caress his doll the way their Mom was a white tube of light, the man would caress his beloved, inside of which there must have been the man in love. You would find it unpleasant, something the kids would sigh and pull their brown bright and blank but no-one clothes around them about and say, “We know.”
As you can see, these poems are generous with readers. Kind-of grammatical sentences and the prose form allow multiple interpretations and emphases each time you put this sheet music on your clavier’s stand. Beyond that the poems are okay with you and or the speaker not getting all the references or replacing them with your own. There is the de rigeur pronoun confusion, but it feels warranted here, in the teenage Waste Land, where nobody knows who they are going to be when we grow up yet anyways so why don’t you get up out of our faces, okay mister? Take this, for example:
He would never park a girl but came up to me really talking anyway, eating meat culled from me and asking if it was carrots. I did our unknown process. “Dan is good,” I said. “No,” he said. We stood there for a while, and then I went to go get a girlfriend, but her parents could feel me turning into a training room doorjamb, so they decided not to live there anymore. Red then, she walked her legs into a bucket of ice. Aaron teaches math back to her friends who were water because I got shinned somewhere in Virginia. It hurts. Gretchen is skinny. She didn’t want a lot right at the start when I covered up some of what I assume was someone else combed into me.
There are moments of cringe-worthy whimsy (e.g., a farmhouse “turned out…to have a floor made of squirrels”). And a few tableaux worthy of Gregory Crewdson—not really my cup of tea but de gustibus non est disputandum, right now, at any rate. Compare this from Travis…:
We were in the woods like it was a blue day. I think I could see on this dirt path with a creek more than I could over a little cliff below us. I looked in the day because that moon flew down at her for a long second, and then she pushed me off of her and went back. She would catch the kids when the campfire without me sat and fell, listening to the creek move into its snow-sewn fields. Frozen for a while, I was thinking about having voiceless sex with Tami from Roland-Story in the woods.
…to this from Gregory Crewdson [Untitled (Forest Clearing)]:
But there are so many moments when Travis gets the child’s experience of nostalgia, or gives us the adolescent’s experience of nostalgia! Take these examples (there are so many more in this wonderful book):
She saw me come in, so I went vision.
To school, lit a very comfortable degree, the rose made a wide eye.
It was pretty good, and everybody trying to feed the body with actual goodness laughed…
For once, my beak had something pure, and my first kind of thinking wasn’t but a real person who could be like my next thinking and loved, but I retched another kind of virus vomit thinking, and then over your face everything in my head was in splattering pieces all lovely.
Gertrude Stein is beaming proudly in prose heaven. There is much narrative in Travis’s intricate and beautiful book, and eventually a mysterious, potent character, The Pioneer, makes his fateful entrance. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that that the Pioneer, like his namesakes the white settler of the Midwest and the Japanese-made stereo, powerfully explores the history of place and registers each note, true or false. I hope everyone visits and revisits Iowa, and really listens to the population.