Saturday, November 19, 2011

Elton Glaser's "Downloading the Meltdown"

Though I intended to write about a villanelle I ran across the other day at Verse Daily, upon my return there today I found "Downloading the Meltown" by Elton Glaser. I've read none of Glaser's 6 books, but I do encounter his work from time to time and for whatever reason, his name has always stuck with me. While I can't recall being wowed by anything he's written—no particular line or title comes to mind—I have to say I believe I've liked everything of his I've read, including "Downloading." His poems—to the best of my memory—are crisp and concise with a fine sense of sound, image, and tension—none of the highfalutin, meta-tone that can come with the technically and perspectively gifted.

"Downloading the Meltdown" is a twelve-line poem made of six couplets, each line say 5-7 stresses in length, so mid-to-longish. You can tell from his title that Glaser enjoys sound-play with his use of "Down," that he has and uses an awareness of how his words fit together, play against and with each other. Such play here isn't...subtle. It isn't heavy-handed exactly, but it is meant to be heard (and seen, I suppose). In poetry's current age of disassociation and quasi-unconsciousness, this seems to be a decision Glaser has made in "Downloading" instead of the effect of the random positioning of verbage and its various accoutrement. As a craft element, this sense of decision-making is one of the things I look for in a poem of any variety of poetry. It's what separates art from the mere gathering of its materials.

Glaser employs a good deal of sound device throughout "Downloading," which grants the poem a consistent aural texture. Most often I hear consonance, as in these phrases from lines 1 and 2 respectively, "low and pink" and "summer slack," the d's from line 3, the more subtly used l's of the first three stanzas, and so on. In any given stanza, there's music to be heard. Particularly I like his rhythmic repetitions. Although I would not consider "Downloading" metrical, nor rhythmic in its meditation, there is a punchy phrase repeated throughout, almost like the tonic of a musical scale, that returns the reader's ear to homebase. I like this device because as the poem's images progress, as the narrative progresses, the repetition of this acoustic phrase keeps me (re)focused on the material at hand. Often in poetry this is done with the repetition of an image, which is fine, but such sound-play is a bit trickier and, therefore, laudable in a way that the echo of an image is not. Plus, an image can bear with it a heap of meanings that, typically, a rhythm cannot do. A heart, a cross, a raven, for example. I don't think an iamb, even with its rich tradition, comes to symbolize any comparable list of ideas and notions as so many of our images do, including the aforementioned. I say cross, and everyone arrives at the same shortlist of thoughts and images. I say iamb, and we poets may think of meter, sonnets, Shakespeare as being associated with the iamb, but not represented by it. It's just not the same.

Anyway, as I was saying, Glaser uses a rhythmic trigger throughout the poem as a binding device, as can be heard in the last phrases of his poem's first line: "low and pink." This is echoed in the succeeding two lines with "summer slack" and "case of slow" respectively. And this continues until the poem's ultimate line and final phrase, "odds and ends." The penultimate line finishes with "smoke and rum." There's just too many instances here to say the repetitions of the amphimacer (that's stressed-unstressed-stressed) are an accident. Yet, they are built with a variety of scaffolds such that the stress pattern surrounding each repetition is different. Thus, the poem isn't metrical and never feels that way. The repetitions don't sound stilted. They're sound savvy. Similar repetitions occur within single lines, sometimes by way of the amphimacer, sometimes in the fashion of the poem's title, sometimes of another sound device. The phrase "the hot night, the moon cool" from line 10 is like that, sort of an ironic twist of the language and two spondees back to back—two bacchics, really.

Glaser's images are tight, too, though I don't enjoy them as much as I do his sounds. Lines like "Depressed as a backdoor detective on a case of slow clues" are silly to me. They are nevertheless specific and interestingly worded. The diction isn't slack here, and it does the poem and its readers justice by continually offering us something to look at or think about. There's no fluff, no sagging, and I like all the little Catholic nods, as they torque up the tension quite a bit. If this was just about a guy sitting on his back porch watching the sunset "through a haze of smoke and rum," well, I've read that one before. Probably I've written my own version of that several too many times. But the idea of choirboys and bishop's boudoirs drops the poem into a much wider horizon of possibility. I mean—who is this guy? And why is he in a state of "What's left of me"? Are we talking about a sunset, or a son-set? (whatever that is exactly) I leave that for somebody else to decide.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Two Poems for Veterans Day

For my friends Tom and John, vets of the Vietnam War and Korean War respectively.



-originally published in Red River Review


I walk in the closed cavity

of myself, glancing up

the alley behind Jigs’, the one tavern,

the True Value store, the feed lot,

the grunts amid the heaps,

the flies.

Nothing’s changed.  Maggots

flies flies maggots, angels

descend upon the living and the dead.

What I’ve found here, what calls me here

is a winged, terrible thing, its red mouth

sucking me in secret. With a lift of my foot

I am gone, deep in the war

as if in prayer.


Those Nights In L.A.

-originally published in Triplopia


Nothing but laughter those nights

after we closed the studio

and some of us took the Ten to Ocean Avenue

for a stroll along the beach. Others

drove home to wives, families, the six o’clock news

setting the war down in their living rooms

like a guest who would overstay his visit.

But in the Blue Room, we’d laugh and laugh,

nothing could hurt us. Shots

ran through us like water on hottest days,

and our big mouths roared over small jokes

at the other poor bastards in the world, the fucked up

moments of their lives a cacophony of booze,

Angels’ games, Hendrix, white noise

we romped around on like teenaged children

who’d eaten their virgin to her core, juice

spilling over our lips, and the world crumbling into an emptiness

that grew as silence grows, quietly, tenderly,

to take our breath away. Those nights

I heard boys in other rooms of our house.

I saw their bodies straighten like reeds along a river

then flatten beside us in the paddy.

An awful wind passed.

I was there when Gale Sweet drug his rag across the empty stools

and unplugged the box, but still

the sound of a thunder, ten thousand whispering

and the walls alive, and the television

flashing through the dark like light through the limbs of trees

though I wouldn’t move, wouldn’t make a sound. When sweat dropped

to my thigh with a soft puussssh, I leaned closer. Behind the door,

irregularly, my wife breathed. I closed my eyes.

One inch, then another, breath for breath, I slid away

as though gliding under water, the moon above me, the stars.

In the halogen glow of my garage, jug in hand, I heard her

nice and steady,

then poured life through me like a river.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Allen Ginsberg's "The End"

Maybe it's this breezy 70 degree weather here in Tucson. Maybe it's the sinus pressure that's kept me home all day. Maybe it's this Fall nostalgia for Pour Dick's, Mark Campbell, Seagrams 7, and poetry that has channeledAllen Ginsberg Allen Ginsberg's voice into my brain today. Over and over I keep listening to "I am I, old Father Fisheye that begat the ocean" and so on for four or so lines, then I skip ahead to the finale of the same poem—"The End"—over and over, "come Poet shut up eat my word, and taste my mouth in your ear." I can't get rid of it—the rhythm of the language, the performance of the poem, the hiply odd imagery.

So I'm breaking form. Instead of quixplicating a contemporary poem by a likely still living poet, I'm jotting down some thoughts on "The End." And, because I can't find a reliable version of the poem on the net, I'm including it here (I don't normally reprint) as it appears in my copy of Ginsberg's Selected Poems 1947-1995, originally from Kaddish and Other Poems (1961). Somewhere along the line I also acquired an audio version of it (probably from the aforementioned Mark Campbell). Listen from another tab as you read "The End" (Allen Ginsberg):
The End

I am I, old Father Fisheye that begat the ocean, the worm at my own ear, the serpent turning around a tree,

I sit in the mind of the oak and hide in the rose, I know if any wake up, none but my death,

come to me bodies, come to me prophecies, come all foreboding, come spirits and visions,

I receive all, I’ll die of cancer, I enter the coffin, forever, I close my eye, I disappear,

I fall on myself in winter snow, I roll in a great wheel through rain, I watch fuckers in convulsion,

car screech, furies groaning their basso music, memory fading in the brain, men imitating dogs,

I delight in a woman’s belly, youth stretching his breasts and thighs to sex, the cock sprung inward,

gassing its seed on the lips of Yin, the beasts dance in Siam, they sing opera in Moscow,

my boys yearn at dusk on stoops, I enter New York, I play my jazz on a Chicago Harpsichord,

Love that bore me I bear back to my Origin with no loss, I gloat over the vomiter

thrilled with my deathlessness, thrilled with this endlessness I dice and bury,

come Poet shut up eat my word, and taste my mouth in your ear.

One of the things I enjoy about "The End" is what I enjoy about a lot of Ginsberg's poetry: his performance of it. Too often I've been to a reading in which the fabulous on-the-page poet has bored me and much of the rest of the audience to yawns if not tears. Such a shame! One way or another, poems should be sung, and Ginsberg sung his well. The timbre of his voice unattractive but unique, and he reads with emotion and energy, two necessary traits too often lacking at a poetry reading—slam aside. Nothing better than a poet who knows how to read a poem—nothing worse than poets who read as though the audience isn't even present. For whom are they there?

I think, too, "The End" is a fair example of Ginsberg's aesthetics in general: the litany, the all-encompassing, the self-indulgent, the sexual, the visceral, the surreal, the Biblical cadences he co-opted from Whitman (among the other things he co-opted from Whitman and many others), the quasi-sloppiness. It's all there. Among my favorite moments is the poem's opening line, "I am I, old Father Fisheye that begat the ocean, the worm at my own ear, the serpent turning around a tree" and, of course, the closing line, "come poet shut up eat my word, and taste my mouth in your ear." Not only is the language raw and punchy and the rhythm riff-like with its spondee repetitions, but the image of the "ear" helps the poem arrive full circle. Notice how it's "my own ear" in line 1 but "your ear" in the last line. The poem's a Möbius strip.

I don't often think of Ginsberg's poetry as persona poetry, but I've always thought the "I" in "The End," the poem's speaker, wasn't Ginsberg. Who is "old Father Fisheye"? God? Death? Truly—it's Allan? I read the "Father" as some sort of Universal Mind figure, perhaps a reference to the Buddhist concept of Anatman, perhaps an amalgam of all the above. I don't believe it matters too much that we know exactly who the "Father" is, only that we know his vision is wide—like a fisheye lens. In this regard, the speaker is Allan Ginsberg, but only by default of the Anatman-like quality of the "I" in the poem. Ginsberg is one of the speaker's many selves. As he says, "I receive all." I've heard others discuss the speaker as Death, the end with a capital E, but there are too many beginnings in the poem for such a reading. "I delight in a woman's belly" makes me think of a pregnant woman, for example, the words "delight" and "belly" bearing several meaning's here. More likely the poem utilizes the cycle of life and death, the process of each occurring simultaneously such that one is not separate from the other but the other in a different form. Not sure if that makes sense, exactly... but the cycle, the simultaneity, runs throughout the poem as a central theme.

As such, I find the poem ironic. It isn't really "The End" at all, nor is it the beginning. And, assuming the speaker is not Allen Ginsberg but Allen Ginsberg assuming the voice of Father Fisheye, the poem is a call to the poet to shut up and listen for once. Ginsberg, as passionate as he was erudite, was no stranger to verbosity, yet here his speaker is telling him—the great "Poet"—to be quiet for a second, to meditate. This is appropriate given that "The End" is the last poem in Kaddish and Other Poems, a 100-or-so page collection titled after Ginsberg's "Kaddish," concerning the life and death of his mother. The story goes that Kaddish—a Jewish prayer given for the dead—wasn't recited at Ginsberg's mother's funeral. He wrestles with this fact for like two years, finally discusses it with friends, visits his mom's grave for the belated prayer, and shortly thereafter out comes the poem—something like that. So, 100 pages later, enough already. Perhaps that's a general call for enough already (although Ginsberg would go on to write a great free-for-all of poetry).

Ginsberg was one of the first poets I really fell in love with. I think I fell in love with all the first poets I read, actually, but my buddy Mark Campbell was something of a scholar of the Beats, and likely with his instigation Ginsberg has remained a favorite a mine while many of the others have come and gone. Strangely, as fresh as I find his language and style, I can't help but feel it's equally dated. Not so long ago I wrote about the "self" in poetry, prompted by the thoughts of poet Cam Scott (among other poets—the issue of the self in poetry not a twenty-first century dilemma). The common consensus is that too much me is a bad thing for poetry, a shunned thing even, but cripes—there's a lot of self-indulgent "I" in "The End," regardless of who it is or isn't. And that emphatic tone? It happens, but more often contemporary poetry's tone tends to the distant, the stoic, the monotone, the ... unemotional, though the content of the piece may be rather moving. We seem to have a distrust of language at that emotional level, the lingering effects, perhaps, of Language Poetry, more directly of disassociation and the intentional breaking of meaning and feeling.

Ginsberg never had problems with either one of those. In fact, often his poems come at you like a train, like the squeal of a sax, like he sung them via the technique of circular breathing. Always a success? No. But often worth listening to.