Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Two things that make Michael S. Begnal such an impressive poet are his range and the delicacy—the grace—with which he expresses that range, balancing erudition with freshness, distilling broad learning in a sound like a baby’s scream. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who case up their smarts in a vitrine, for display, Begnal’s skills drop with wisdom and humility. Indeed, there is, in these two collections, a voice one could easily mistake for a much older poet, and each of these books reads like a “selected volume,” in which the library poems and alleyway poems, the rainy-window poems and post-coital hotel poems are all artfully arranged to give a sense of the scope of a long career. But Begnal is young: he’s just that good. In Ancestor Worship (2007), a narrator visits Montparnasse Cemetery in a piece that bounds from sex to shit in two pages, from suicide to the yeasty immutability of crotch. As an act of worship, an offering of the vernacular: “Baudelaire’s grave / covered with green Métro tickets, / many-coloured flowers, / and a sketch—/ Beckett’s bare— / Sartre’s respectable—.” Because the “worship” imagined here is
not like the imagined
rituals of an old old age
before iron or bronze,
the metal of our mythology,
. . .
but the warm blood
that flows through to this age, dangerous and violence in veins
. . .
the right hook of history,
the slow arc of the punch,
the strange figure
on a modern city street
who burrows into your eye
and says, “Who’re you?”
In these poems of street wandering and port wine, one ancestor being worshiped sure seems to be Kerouac, in the best sense, of child-like wonder at the sounds, at the endlessly fascinating task of describing the world, “Grab the polaroid / and head down to where they spray graffiti / on brick walls / and piss in alleys” reads a poem in Future Blues (2012), the more recent collection, wherein a No Parking sign is as likely—along with “piles of pallets / & another broad wall of brick”—to constitute the subject of a poem, or the raw material out of which a poem, about the act and function of poetry-writing, is constructed. That on each of the pages of these two volumes Begnal makes us see something anew—a fresh perspective on delivery trucks as well as seasons and wine and weather and libraries full of previous writers, from Li Po to James Liddy—is their great success. Yet here, amidst “my songs all of lonesome” and reevaluations of surroundings—an ancient “stadium of white stone, / cracked blocks of sun” where men eat tacos and sneak pills “and the peanut vendors never come around”—the major themes of Begnal’s work are advanced, these being language as a product of a given context—not only a place, but a time, a particular moment on a particular street, be it Galway, Derry, San Francisco, or Madrid—and the sense that through language not only are voices of the dead, our ancestors, preserved, but that a community is established in and through such reading and reciting. “Ancestor Worship” is thus the active establishment of a community of voices the enduring presence of which is a defiance of time and death.
This is a sophisticated concept, that, on the one hand “There’s no present / just a continual becoming / past” on the page, in the text—there is only ever that which has always already been written—and, as a result, poetry thus offers collective “resistance to certain fixities.” Begnal is here informed not merely by study of things written in English, but by global travel and—too rare among Americans, whom he refers to, in a poem set in Prague as “too many shorts-wearers, / oblivious to their own / incongruity”—serious engagement with other languages. Most importantly, this mean Irish, in which Begnal writes.
Both books under consideration here have poems that, to a non-Irish reader, remain—as Begnal writes about French television—inaccessible. “I am denied,” he writes, straining “to penetrate the sound barrier / extracting random phrases but no coherent sentences.” Yet there is a lesson here: that these are words still living; that here is a poet assembling community from more than one culture. This dual sense for language—again, one thinks of Kerouac—grants Begnal a blessed ear, a sense for the entanglements of imagination and place, memory and words. Here are lines set in Madrid: “I don’t really speak Spanish / just know a few words / but I can fake it pretty good.” “Because I, in my American, think of Mexico / I think Juárez while wandering . . . thin uphill streets lined with cervecerías, / eat tortilla yum egg patata onion, / wandering, restaurants full of pigs, / plates of fried squid in windows.”
As one can travel with language, one can travel through language, as well: “The closest I can get / right now to Mexico / is Texicanos corn chips, / ‘manufactured’ (not baked) / in Coolock.” Or dig this fantasy, tinged again with what I take to be the inheritance of Kerouac, and Kerouac’s San Francisco: “‘cause just up the street / was my Mexican place, Burrito Salvadoreño, / and a hot married Salvadoreña // I always got hot peppers, / always got hot peppers, / left impressive tips, / but feared the imagery / of the black Latin moustache, / murderous, / vengeful husband.” In the same poem, Begnal warns that “deep in the Mission / it was even more dangerous / ‘cause you were / out of your language.”
It is refreshing and useful to read a young American poem so aware of that sense of being in and out of language, whose poetry acts to “celebrate all the dead in their graves” in their own contextual voices, even while he also rhapsodizes about 25 cent porn booths and the neon pulse of a city rippling through the night. I believe Begnal’s bilingual status grants him a rare gift; that while he can write of “Solitary room freak-outs nobody knows the panic of” he never confuses the subjective experiences of the self with the limits of the world, knowing, rather, that the world inhabited by the living, reading, poet is one in which—as he writes in “Samhain,” in Future Blues, one exists in concert with those who went before. We are a compilation of our ancestors.
Indeed, Begnal roots what he calls the “rebellion” of poetry in language’s disavowal of temporality, that the written word maintains an “ancient revolutionary movement / forever.” To “trust in language always” is thus to “trust in a world, in a flicker, / in an echo, / speak, and they are present . . . they are there, in a word or line / you thought was your own.” Forget the spook-show metaphysics of Halloween, where the dead wander for a day: Begnal is interested in poetry as a particular class of engagement with language—“the poem is an action among / the most human (and animal) of actions”—which, in this reading, becomes truly revolutionary, a defiance of time and death and a revolutionary catalyst for an ideal community, “different but together and equal, / agency and valency, / multi- Multi- MULTI-.” The fantastical “city City CITY” of Kerouac is here given a new gloss, one of ethical and political urgency. The dead speak, and these subjective flashes from beyond the grave contribute to what Begnal sees as a resistance not merely against “stasis” but also the status quo of the capitalist “market.”
Not that the author—like certain still-singing voices from the past—is not also “freaking out” about the unknowable concrete reality of his own death, but simply that life itself, as experience through language and manifest in the process of writing poetry, is always collective, always involves our ancestors, acknowledged or not. The Irish pieces here represent one form of acknowledgement, as do the many references—from Goya to Ferlinghetti—sprinkled throughout, and even the recognition that we are our own ancestors, that our own writing represents some voice speaking from a moment now past, lost. I “cannibalize myself,” the poet says, “I wrote days ago some of these lines.”
The particular roots of the written word, testifying to a past by continuing to speak, the community of poets assembled through veneration and continued engagement with the voices of our ancestors. That these themes are engaged in two books so fresh, so multi-faceted, smelling of assorted street cuisines, desire and fear, drunken ecstasy and philosophical consideration—that is more than impressive. These are remarkable books.
Official Michael S. Begnal Web Site
Official Salmon Poetry Web Site