Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The weather here the last two days has been practically San Diegan. Tomorrow begins a warming trend I'm not really looking forward to; my personal comfort zone maxes out around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Recently enjoyed two poetry books of the read-'em'-all-the-way-through variety; I don't know if this is a genre distinction or what, but certain poetry collections invite being read on a single sit-through and most others don't. Which is not to say those that don't are bad or boring: their density may demand reflection, or you may want to savor their beauties/ironies, or they may simply lack the appearance of an engaging persona. I continue to mistrust the notion of "voice," but I have noticed that books that foreground a particular and distinctive personality (an "I" that comes forward to do this or do that) to act as a kind of Virgil for the reader read much more briskly than those that don't. The difference between this kind of persona and the reliably commodified "I" that tour-guides the reader of popular middlebrow poetry is infrathin. Unless we see that persona change over the course of the book, or manifest as a single book's project, the main distinction will be the particular hell, purgatory, or paradiso that persona guides you through. Younger poets tend to be much more up-front about how mediated their particular landscapes are, both through a rapidly oscillating ironic-sincere take on the literary as such and through the presence of current pop culture. Anyway, this all has more to do with readability than how worth reading a book is, and these two books are very much worth it.

The first I picked up in Maryland: Ed Barrett's Sheephead Bay, published in 2001 by Zoland and thus out of print. You can read an appreciation of the book by Barrett's friend William Corbett here. I agree with Corbett that the book has a Wordsworthian feel, an insouciant take and double-take on "to be young was very heaven." The book has a soft, approachable feel, magnified by its cover (a family photograph including the young Barrett) and the numerous dedications to poets living and dead, making it feel like the organic product of a life. Often funny and surreal in a post-Ashberyian way, with light rom depths like the reflections a swimming pool makes on the walls and ceiling, the speaker has a gee-whiz freshness to his self-presentation that's very appealing. Mixed prose and verse: the verse pushes more or less unabashedly toward lyric while the prose poems go for the thinkbone and funnybone (same bone?). It risks sentimentality and mostly avoids the trap by embedding the sentiment in fresh language that somehow persuades you of the speaker's ingenuousness. I don't have the book in front of me but I'll emend this post with a quote later.

The second I read here in the bookstore: Christopher Nealon's The Joyous Age. The presentation of this book couldn't be different from Barrett's: it's gleefully violent, with the title in an elaborate script to enhance the irony of its backdrop, a wall of flame. Inside the design is crisp, with all-capital slant titles reminiscent of thosed used in Elizabeth Willis' Turneresque. About two thirds of the book consists of named poems, verse and prose, while the last third is a sequence titled "Concept and Category." Nealon's persona here is more arch than Barrett's (and yet both poets seem alive to the possibilities of camp), more self-consciously intellectual, with a kind of swervy, pervy, clinamen'd eroticism embedded in the language itself. Here's a poem:
Ecstasy Shield

No it's not a condom
Just the second person:

Hey there nerve-bunch
Hey there organ-ism

Where you goin
Baby! where you draggin those obedient

Three limbs past the herbal remedies
Huh? Is it true

You're just a twitch a frog-leg?

No I'm joy I'm misery

I'm misprision
I'm direct address

Apostrophe a condom
And my stomach hurts

Calendula: You Flower
O Chronicle

My Emperor
Of the two books Nealon's is more ambitious: his prose poems make a spectacle of the poet's interior landscapes of desire, in which the pain of lost opportunities for liberation is made to sing. I'm very moved by this paragraph from the snarkily titled prose poem, "Emission Impossible":
In fact the basic problem of imprisonment may be the flourishing of your imagination; it had never occurred to me. But my dreams are more vivid than ever, particularly the one in which I've been cast into the desert, no longer able to produce melanin and bursting into flames instead, a dream I know must have political content but which so far has only suggested to me I've become over-invested in myself as a person with skin. Sometimes the nightly scenes of electro-muscular training are broken by the image of an old comrade, a friend from the days of late-night subterfuge and splashing the embassy stop-the-madness red, who appears before me on my way to room 101 to call out, "¡Ay, su madre! This is why realism has failed."
I like both books: Barrett's is intimate, cozy even, without being soporific; Nealon's in full pursuit of the postmodern sublime. I'm struck by a sense of their regional attachments, too: Barrett is East Coast through and through, while Nealon's book fits recognizably into a Bay Area scene I associate with the likes of Joshua Clover and Andrew Joron (and, very soon, Jasper Bernes). There's a general sense I have that New York and Boston poets today are writing very much in the spirit of "Come off it!", while California poets are yet in the grip of an apocalyptic confrontation with "IT," however insouciant their overt tone. This is a little surprising given how much more tangible recent experience New York has had with the apocalypse than California, which has merely been fantasizing about it for the past sixty years. On the other hand, it makes sense that New Yorkers would be pulled into a more fragile and immanent state of mind in which they reach out for connections with each other, while the transcendental Californians are out there on the edge of the continent both fulfilling and negating the project of America As We Know It.

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