Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reading in two books that couldn't have more different provenances, yet which ring similar changes: Brandon Downing's Dark Brandon (from Faux Press) and Dan Chiasson's Natural History, published by Knopf. In large and small ways the books are marked as experimental coterie book and mainstream "event" book, respectively: no blurbs vs. blurbs, softcover vs. hardcover, interior artwork vs. no artwork, no sections vs. sections, etc. But both poets are struggling to register and engage subjectivity while dodging or critiquing the standard-issue lyric "I." Downing does this with his title, of course, and with poems that seem to half-ventriloquize the personages of the films they're associated with while also registering contexts that only a viewer or film student could know about: in film language, the speaker oscillates constantly between diegetic and nondiegetic levels (I should note too that instead of any blurbs or description the back cover has a note reading "Poetry / Cinema Studies"). Having myself written some poems about the 1960s TV show The Prisoner, I was interested to read Downing's take on it: here's a piece of the first poem in the book of that title:
The Plover Lying In The Dust, by John Coletti

I'm so angry! I'm so mad!
The models wouldn't stop kicking me!
I spent extra money to get footsteps.
I can't look at myself, I am covered by tracks.
Because I said, "Come to me, I am 'Lex Luthor',"
I go outsie to the garden, Mundo,
To get leafy greens, I got stabbed!
Not a great statue untouched by the caustic millennia
Energetic, angry, conveying the investment we make in the movies' dream life and the disappointment that results, the disorientation of leaving the matinee to find broad daylight. I was interested to put this book down and pick up Chiasson's: many of his poems also directly interpolate "Dan Chiasson" and, though less frenetic and more wry, they can create a similarly edgy affect (somewhat in contradiction to the "affability" and "friendliness" attributed to him by his blurbists—Linda Gregerson and John Ashbery, respectively). Here's Part II of a four-part poem, "Four Horaces":
To Helena Concerning Dan Chiasson

The water at the bottom of the river, way down, the coldest
darkest water: if that water were your only drinking water
what would you do: thirst forever? Or drink the freezing water?

If A, send me a postcard from la-la land, where
Mom bays like a donkey and Dad is an oil slick,
because that's where dehydration takes you, fast.

If B, I'd buy the biggest wool parka I could find
and put it where the sun don't shine—otherwise
you'll feel a subzero chill no mug of tea will thaw.

I chose B, and now it's winter, and I'm outside your door
like a baby seal on an ice island, waiting
to be clubbed or saved by a Green New Zealander.

Come out. When Dan beats off again, when
he drifts away the way he always does, come out:
zip up that pantsuit and rescue me from my Horatian

sense of humor! There's a great jazz bar nearby
that doesn't charge a cover. They will play
only the nine jazz songs we know, over and over.

And the world will narrow the way it always does
when we're together, only nine jazz songs
ever written, and we know every one by heart.

And if some kid from the local jazz college walks in
and starts playing the tenth song, that's when
we get our clubs and club him like a baby seal.
Chiasson is, like Downing, exercised over the mediation of his own life, but he comes at it from a different angle: the poems mourn the assault on (human) nature and express guilt over his participation in same, registered through the pathos of animals brough to the edge of speech by a kind of wry empiricism (inspired by the writings of Pliny the Elder).

I can't ignore the different origins, the different imagined readerships, that are encoded in the packaging of these two books. Nor is the poetry similar in any consistent sense: Brandon Downing practices a manic dialogism, deliberately bleeding the barrier between poetry and discourse white (and black); Dan Chiasson is more discrete and discreet, more concerned with the shapeliness of language even if there's sometimes broken glass in his mouth. But I think they form an interesting mini-constellation, a snapshot of the limitations of the various dichotomies and trigonometries of the poetic field that are currently on offer. Chiasson especially seems aware of how the available maps might lead him to be overlooked or misread by coterie readers—paradoxically the most desirable readers for a "mainstream" writer because of their intensity. But he enjoys his symptom. This last stanza to a poem called "Tulip Tree" could have come from a "post-avant" book, yet the fact that it didn't is what gives it its meaning, what makes it a plea:
I want fried clams, the ones with gritty fat bellies.
If I strike the apocalyptic tone you lke, won't you
drive up Route 1 with me, right now, to find those clams?

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