Posts Tagged ‘Spencer Dew’

A Review of “TUND” by Thor Garcia

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Spencer Dew

There is a voice, predominant in these stories, always at some distance to itself. Not numbed, maybe, so much as slightly disassociated, tingling, like hands on the verge of sleep. Experiences slide by, then there is some odd prickling. Objects and events are studied, sometimes in detail, but the focus, narrowing in, verges on the absurd. The newspaper, for instance, reports “The economic indicators were open to differing interpretations, but some of the executives were quoted as saying the cycle could be near an end. The Semites were haggling over land. In athletics, one of the teams had won.” And of a girl, far from unattractive, we learn that “while her hips were rather wide, they didn’t quite protrude. Her buttocks did, however—just slightly more than was perhaps too far. The twin insane globes of that device heaved, they quivered and juked. They jiggled and jimmied independently, but also in supernal, near preternatural concord.” Wandering, dazed, through a world at once blurred and hyper-detailed, of vague Semite struggles and asses analyzed with everything but a physics equation. This is the straight face of TUND, to which time happens, events happen, and the actor, as if passive, presents himself as merely on the receiving end of events in which he plays, in fact, a vigorous, even initiating role: “And so I was hard again. I flipped her over. I had to work to make the third time happen. It was long strokes, then short stabbing ones, and sucking on her earrings, her hair, her neck. Finally it happened.” Yes, even that just happens, as the arousal happens, as the situation happens, as the relationship happens and as the collapse, gradually and then all of a sudden, happens, just comes to pass. “So suddenly everything was falling apart. It’ll happen like that. You know, things slipping right by you in one big flux—and there you are, trying to make sense of it. This was me.”

Some of these stories are set in Europe—“Eastern Europe, to be exact, in the time following what were popularly called revolutions,” a place presented as perhaps especially suitable to this sort of detachment, this approach to history as something that rolls in and over, then breaks for a little picnic weather. Narrators find themselves in places, with people, as if they are waking up or becoming aware of their existence, as a passive player, in a dream. Alcohol gets drunk; dreams get discussed. A mother, a castration, the size of the severed penis, its smoothness—all of this happens in proximity to a sauna scene, two men, wrestling, one “half-observ[ing]” the other’s “flaccid penis and heat-engorged scrotal sac, resting on the tiled slick floor.” It’s like a scene out of Saint Augustine, only it ain’t, quite, for while the Bishop seeks, in his prose, to cut to that which can be known, to express his visceral emotions and wrangle through the complexities of his own mental life, here a group of somewhat friends try to get high and take turns talking. Everyone and everything is disassociated, like pool balls after a break, sliding farther and farther apart. Here’s one friend on his companions:

He looked at the flesh, the flesh vaguely glistening in the low-watted light. Ugly flesh casting invisible rays, nipples casting shadows, deep crevasses in the fat like expired sausages bundled in twine. He concentrated on shriveled ghostly penises, saw gaping, dripping vaginas—layer upon layer of them, piled on one another, hairy and shaven, blurring into a single folding, receding, bifurcating, suffocating pink-red sludge, and scabs and little holes, dozens of them, woven into the red-pink walls themselves. And new noises came to him, the crunching and cracking and grinding of bones, and scalps tearing from heads, skulls smashing against stone, faces grimacing in howl.

Such a paranoid trip is, in TUND, our world, more or less. The folks here don’t always know whether to ralph or jackoff, to cite some parlance used.

Meanwhile—as with those Semites and their “haggling”—mayhem happens, and murder, mischief of various sorts. There are dog deaths, dog surgeries, dog torture, dog love (dogs predominate, like that detached voice). People watch porn, or make porn, or worry, aloud, about their sperm count. Meals are served, “tasting more like a recipe looks than a meal is supposed to taste” and artists endure “years of surviving on ketchup soup and kool-aid” until they are hailed as geniuses, become rich, and indulge peculiar habits like making a “handmade stone pornographic chess set.” To cite a somewhat similar writer, it is difficult to merge in these places. Here’s how a relationship falls apart, while waiting for a second opinion on the test results:

There were difficulties. I began to be troubled by some of her characteristics, which included drinking coffee from a cup the size of a small bowl. She was always making pasta dishes, which she would never throw out but leave sitting in the refrigerator, sometimes for a week or more. / We never went out together in public, and never once did I see her lay a brush on her paints. She had slender hips, a beautiful long back, hardly any breasts at all. I answered a great many questions, mostly of a technical, mechanical nature. Sometimes she smelled. She said it was infections and viruses, of the kind exclusive to women.

And here’s how another narrator feels about coming, finally, to the big city, to live the dream imbibed via advertising: “Bay City, I sneered. You bitch. You lying whore sack of come. You four-on-the-floor mother-cunt. Come on, you filthy bitch. You cheap whore. You dirty lying two-dollar strumpet.” But soon, despite his desire to rape and dominate the city, our hungry young narrator finds himself fantasizing about his own assault, the urban promise simultaneously a threat:

He would knife me first, surely, then drag me off and rape away at me frenziedly in some alleyway. I would beg him NO PLEASE NO. But it would mean nothing, to him. He would slap angrily at the back of my neck, as if I were some loose red-headed woman—his loose red-headed woman. I would shriek and cower as he pulled my shirt from my back and lashed me with enraged swipes. Onlookers would hoot down from the apartment blocks, giggling and turning up the television as my assailant pounded away, clubbing away into oblivion all my tender beliefs and chivalrous instincts.

Better, in such a world, to just give up, have another beer. Or so that narrator decides. And another. Then another after that.

I’d figured this out before, it was so damn obvious, but sometimes you’d forget. But it was always good to remember:
The first step was to surrender.
The second was to give up.
The third was to toss in the towel.
The fourth was to relinquish all hope.
The fifth was to forget any of it had ever happened.

The voices and happenings of TUND are not quickly forgettable. The panoramas may mesh together, the paranoias and detachments of the various characters may echo each other, but the overall result is a seductive, disturbing vision of life and one way of relating to it, as spectator to spectacle, as victim to one’s own agency, actions and inactions.

Official Thor Garcia Web Site
Official Litteraria Pragensia Web Site

A Review of “The Field” by Martin Glaz Serup, Translated by Christopher Sand-Iversen

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Spencer Dew

A brooding field is the dominant presence in this beautiful little book; a field that wakes slowly, sitting on the toilet in the morning; a field that “spends far too much time on Facebook” and “spends far too much time watching TV”; a field that has anxieties about photography and memories of sex in public; a field that believes “many who directly or indirectly accuse working people with conservative values of being complacent, superficial consumer fetishists, are, perhaps, without even having realised it themselves, hypocrites”; a field that “doesn’t know when it would find time to exercise . . . doesn’t understand how everybody else finds time to exercise”; a field that “has yet to decide whether it can be bothered to keep itself up to date with the risk of brain tumours caused by radiation from mobile phones.”

The psyche on display here, in the third-person, is presented as something radically other, a sentient non-sentient thing, a place, an absence even, because what is a field, exactly, other than a grounds for something and thus not quite something itself? A field is not landscape, at least not in this text. Indeed, the field, our protagonist, “can be jealous of the landscape from time to time, the landscape doesn’t have any colleagues it has to see again and again, the landscape doesn’t have friendly, superficial conversations in the kitchenette with them; the landscape, the field thinks, doesn’t find itself as a Christmas lunch confessing all to a boss.” The field here obviously isn’t a field at all, either; no field finds itself “On a trip to Paris without the kids,” let alone able, then, to ask, “do you think we’re having a crisis.”

It happens—though this is not noted in or on the book itself—that in Danish, the original language of this poetic meditation on identity, “Marken,” the field, puns on “Martin,” the author’s first name. So “The field wishes its brooding would soon be disturbed, that the telephone would ring, that the smoke alarm would start wailing” sounds quite different in the original, and interjects an explicit autobiographical valence lost in translation. Through this autobiographical valence—reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s explorations of psychology in the third-person—is generated a depth of field, as it were, an accumulation of opinions, echoed notions and claims, from all of which emerges a portrait of a particular self, a subjectivity, reflecting back on itself, critiquing its own opinions and ideas, relishing the taste of its personal pleasures. In keeping with the distance inherent in framing this slew of intimate (if they are intimate) bits and pieces via the abstract “field,” there is a recurring motif, philosophized here, on exile as an interior condition, on existential location as in some ways like the position of a field, subject to rather than agent in: “The field thinks it makes no difference what it’s interested in, the field will in any case have forced upon it and be exposed to both this and that, no matter what it’s interested in, and that’s what you have to take notice of, in the field’s opinion.”

Though, of course, this field is constructing its own field of meaning, quilting together tiny comments into a book, contrasting simple preferences—“The field is fond of long legs.” “Tits or arse, the field is a tit-field.” “The field notices shoulder blades.”—and idiosyncrasies—“The field finds words such as euphemism challenging.”—with seemingly important, formative claims—“The field remembers when it was younger; when it realized how a kaleidoscope works, mirrors, not magic, the disappointment, that feeling, like being abandoned by oneself, like having one little part of the world exchanged for another, coarser.”—and the sorts of deeply considered pleasures that reflect the guiding interests of the author as author, as poet, as constructor of texts:

The field loves talking on the phone, the intimacy of it, being together without being together, the sound of the other person in that person’s own sitting room, the sudden nearness that can be broken off as you wish like turning off the TV. It can talk for several hours until its ear gets warm and dark red and throbbing.

For all the anxiety about the “incredible amount of meaningless communication” and the contemporary anxiety about “missing out on something,” the need to keep “up-to-date . . . to know what everybody else is doing right now,” Serup is crafting a text that both moves at the speed of Twitter, page by page, quip by quip, but also builds like a novel, like a piece of music, dependent upon a lengthy engagement, focus. It’s hard not to read the obsessions over photography in light of the obvious preference for words, just as a line like “The field thinks that hearing as a sense will make a comeback in the near future” seems to speak, too, to the quality of listening involved in reading a text like this, in which the line speaks, both on a page by itself, quickly turned, and within a wider mesh or matrix or field. That “The weather . . . is the most watched TV programme in the world” is both a humorous line and a kind of commentary on public consumption, but it’s not, as I read it, within the scope of this book, a line lacking in hope, even in poetic appreciation. The book begins, after all, with the line “This is a nature poem which is also concerned with other things,” and, indeed, there seems to be little of the “nature poem” in it, but then again, a certain type of nature poetry is always, at its best, about the field inside the mind? Some such notion has been considered here, of course: “The field has thought about it, it has reached the conclusion that the most interesting things in reality don’t happen in reality but in people’s heads, in the imagination.”

Official Martin Glaz Serup Web Site
Official Christopher Sand-Iversen Web Site
Official Les Figues Press Web Site

A Review of “Here Comes the Nice” by Jeremy Reed

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Spencer Dew

On one page, it’s the early 1960s. Faces, first-wave Mods, cluster near their customized scooters outside a club from which bluesy rock emanates. “As self-regarding stylists they weren’t going to sweat it out inside the club for the Stones. They were too cool for that, and weren’t going to risk spoiling their clothes.” On another page, it’s a little past now, some dystopic alternative future, London, with terrorist bombs exploding in the distance, and Mod-obsessed journalist Paul, procrastinating from writing, is watching

parts of the grainy, extensive archive footage of Stones in Exile, a re-mastered documentary of the degenerately substance-fuelled band’s bitty recording of Exile on Main Street at Keith Richard’s villa, called Nelicote, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in 1971, as ultimate Stones cool, a kick ass blues album that sounded dirty, like mixing blue paint above a drain cover. After watching heroin-based seventies Stones footage, Paul shifted to scrolling the sci-fi marketing claims for resveratrol, as activating a longevity gene that theoretically extends life expectancy by 70 per cent; the was drug (sic) believed to ramp up the activity of SIRT1, a protein implicated in age, and was useful in stopping the progression of cancer growth. Paul was interested too in pulling info from the web on a new dopamine reuptake inhibitor MDPV, noted to have characteristic hypersexual effects, but still under clinical trial, and on the aphrodisiacal effects of yohimbine as an alpha-adrenergic antagonist, increasing genital bloodflow and inciting unusual sexual sensitivity.

Shot, count-shot. The Stones, something like time travelers themselves, are woven throughout this narrative as past and future open to each other, the sixties and their promise—Mod fashion as a new form of identity, new music as a transport to ecstasy—and the future’s grim but amped-up potential—pills for arousal and long-lasting erection, pills even for the cessation of aging, pills to combat time itself. Time, in this novel, is not what it once was. Or rather it is, in moments, precisely what it once was, and both Paul’s investigations and desires and the author’s attention to long-lost styles and feelings lead to an injection of then into the now of reading:

The Face stood apart from the Shepherd’s Bush Mob contingent busy investing in a tin of Smith Kline and French blues, clearly stolen by a wised-up dealer from a Boots chemist. The Face was his own creation, wearing a purple Dormeuil tonic-mohair jacket, with Prince of Wales dogtooth check trousers from Harry Myers in Bethnal Green. The trousers kept narcissistically attracting his attention, no pleats in the front, and a 1-inch step at the foot of the trouser leg that went halfway down his heel at the back, almost touching the floor, and the front half of the trousers had a button on the outside leg. Cloth covered in the same material, and sewn at the point where the step began, hung just right over the shoe, worn with a pair of short-point side laces on Cuban heels.

He really had the edge on all fashionista rivals. He was the Face, the acknowledged king of Mods, but he lacked Mick Jagger’s infamous celebrity, and he knew it, with an acute stab of jealousy.

This is addictive stuff, amidst a sea of addictive things. So Paul experiences something like a time warp, questing, all the while, after sex, in an increasingly herbal-and-pharmaceutically-fuelled manner, falling in with a young girl who, with her teen energy—“spellbinding teen pheromones”—and youthful enthusiasm seems also to represent something about aging, about fads and what happens to them with the passage of time. The girl talks about “crazy, disassociated things, like banana problems on the web, e-democracy as the new global politics,” and she takes Paul to a restaurant

with tablecloths that were touch-sensitive screens, on which you could scan a menu, order a cab, or morph the screen saver on your tablecloth from clouds, to bamboos, to geisha girls etc. The table, she told Paul, was like a sexy kind of iPhone, and the place provided top quality pan-Asian food. Suzie was right up on iPhone games, gadgets, UFOs, retro-pop, Michael Jackson’s pigment whiteners, the fatty acid DHA, which increases acetycholine, the g-spot as sensory epicentre, Chinese girl bands, Ts with graffiti slogans, and being mutant Eurasian cool.

This “mutant Eurasian cool” is worlds away from the first generation of Mods, who started trends like “spiking shocking pink drinking straws into bottles of beer they never touched, but placed on the bar counter as artefacts viewed with visible disdain.” Or is it?

There is some plot here, obviously, and some boilerplate bafflement: Paul has trouble, as he explains it, with “the notion that you’re first-wave from the sixties, and that you’re still twenty-one, and that all the sixties icons, who are dead, still visit this place.” There is lots of sex, fucking “like re-immersion in a steamy Chinese river, the current working at him to come in rhythmic contractions, and they did, together, simultaneously, their skin like sauna, as they exploded into optimal sensual reward, kicking at each other ferociously until the climax subsided.” There is some jarring echo of imagery, as when Paul helps pull a girl “out of her skinny jeans, like squeezing a tube of black toothpaste,” and then, a few pages later, the same girl “squeezed out of her skinny jeans like a squirt of toothpaste from a tube.” But the real thrill of this book—much like those pink straws spiked in those beer bottles—is with how it looks, how it sounds, not the storyline, the engines of character motivation.

It is an endlessly quotable book, addictively precise in its prose.  Here’s a bit of seemingly throwaway background noise, from a restaurant scene:

There were city suits to either side of them, men in conservative charcoal Paul Smith suits, who were part of an increasingly demoted corporate sector, exposed for their banditry, corruption, dodgy futures contracts, and consolidated fraud. There was a group of them, like a retarded planet, a species largely unable to individuate, and reliant on shared lo-fi intelligence. Their A-line skirted blondes were much the same, anxious to collectivize, drink beers, and industriously fork chewy sinew, by way of what looked like Wagyu onglet, slow-cooked beef served with braised yam bean. They were loudly talking company politics, and eliminating rival colleagues with bitchy rapid-fire verbal bullets…

And here’s Paul doing journalism:

“I’ve got a colour question for you, if you don’t mind,” Paul said. “I’m such a completist for detail that I’m curious from clips, and photos, about a very specific ice-blue, that is almost white, that seems to have existed in shirts only at this period. Can you remember it?”

“I can, now you mention it,” Max said. “The shirt was a favourite with Mods in the early sixties, and was worn with black knitted ties. You’re right: it was a blue indistinguishable from white, almost the colour of vodka.”

And here’s Paul’s notion of the coming apocalypse:

…an imminent London flameout, with ministerial armour-plated Jaguars screaming out of the city, discharging oil-and-tack slicks to de-road pursuing vehicles, lasers scanning the road up to 300 metres ahead, towards an underground warren of cells concealed somewhere in Oxford for Cabinet usage. These warlords, and their lugubrious killing fields, were all part of London’s B-side, ministers who employed organised crime as a means of personally stockpiling weapons, food, pharmaceuticals, Tamiflu vaccines, and boxes of scotch and gin—as provisions for their intended resistance to the militant, Soho-based Blackjacks, who were looking to establish lawless supremacy in a capital in which a discredited government was harnassed to the army for its unsanctioned defence.

Sometimes, the task of the critic is to lean back and say, wow, that’s sharp, and these passages make me do that, have that sheen, that crispness. There is much that could be said about this book as a meditation on time’s arrow—from metrosexuality to gay-hatred, from hippies to Hells Angels, or the thought Face, after some exposure to both anti-gay slurs and Hells Angels spit, has: Mod, he realized, was irretrievably over, like the thought he had just left behind as part of his continuous biological acceleration towards death.” But this book is more fun as a romp through and against time. Paul is given an offer: “You can join us in the sixties—the orange sunshine decade. You can cross the time barrier.” But it doesn’t really matter what he decides; the time machine is the book itself, its realizations of specific moments with addictively cool prose, prose the color of vodka.

Official Jeremy Reed Web Site
Official Chômu Press Web Site 

A Review of “Gardens of Earthly Delight” by George Williams

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Spencer Dew

“You will not,” one story here informs us, “at your boss’s annual summer evening Hawaiian pool party walk up to your associate’s wife and pluck the nursing newborn from her disbelieving arms and dash it on the mossy stones of the Japanese rock garden.” But the idea is there, and that level of violence, explosive, cruel, and horrifying, is veined throughout these otherwise dull tales.

The stories here disturb, but less in any sense that art should; more the way images of pain and suffering appropriates for pornographic purposes do, the way Faces of Death did back in middle school when kids would make out in front of it, or certain Web sites today that show photographs of white phosphorous burns for the titillating “gross out” factor. Williams is poking his finger at something he takes to be profoundly American, a bone half-buried in this blood-soaked soil of ours, but his response to that undercurrent of violence is another layer of violence, reading like a photocopy of a photocopy, numbed to its own force, distanced from the reality it signifies.

In another story, a man with a gun takes a hostage and then blows up a Hooters. They speak, terrorist and victim, in stripped-down dialogue, lacking, as all dialogue here does, punctuation marks. This can be confusing, as a tactic, though in its implications of purity it, too, is almost violent, an over-worked minimalism, clenched, like the fists of a man who will soon flare up in magnesium, eradicating his physical form due to some unspoken anger. Men draw guns and fire, randomly, in anger or something like a toothless joy. Not that there aren’t also career criminals here, and agents of various sorts, and myriad occultists. And some of the violence, for all its wild lashing, does have a motivation: there are hate crimes against Muslims, a protagonist obsessed with dealing revenge for the imposition of sounds into his world. Yet under both the clear, caused rage and the inchoate, frothing anger, there is a sense, from Williams, that violence has a deeper, religious root.

Religions recur here, as well, from caricatures of Scientology to those wounded Muslims, the blood of the lamb that washes over revivalists in the pine woods, the blood rites of various imagined initiatory communities, the secrets of and related slanders associated with the Masons or the Templars or Hubbard’s own sect. Even the ghost of a young girl blames something like religion: “My father made us believe he was god. We believed him. That’s why we killed ourselves. God said it was time.” More than one story involves the idea of a coming anti-Christ, a new nativity, the incarnation of evil itself. One couple wants to revamp “the Cult of the Sacred Whore.” “In three years their web site had 786 million hits, five percent paying. Their latest adventure: traveling through Spain. The goal: to get pregnant. The phases of the moon, temperatures, graphs of peak ovulation.” There is a riot in the wake of Easter. Skulls are smashed. This sacrality of violence, not merely the notion of violence as something ancient and incubating but its unleashing as somehow transcendent, even a good in itself: this echoes through the museum hallways lined with weapons, the Quixotic old man who unsheathes a sword, even the excessively effusive epistolary responses, spinning out fantastically, to singles ads, which culminates in a sinister new paganism: “In my garage I am building a gift for you, a sacrifice.”

While one narrator, struggling to contain himself, repeats to his own disbelief the claim that America “is not a rabid behemoth of greed idiotized by advertising and stupefied by cathode rays and narcotized by Twinkies. America is not a land-fill,” this sense predominates, and some of the return to a sacred violence is out of a sense of needing to purify a polluted land. Blast the Muslims away with sonic weapons, for instance; plow through the Virginian suburbs with a tank. But Williams treats the employ of this violence like he treats the lack of question marks, a literary tactic only, rather than taking such things, even when only on the page, seriously as already a reality, a real force. Consider: “You motherfucker, the woman said to Leland. You killed my boyfriend. I’m like God now and like God I’m like God now like God I’m like God now goddamn you killed my boyfriend you goddamned son of bitch.” The quote is accurate, and here maybe Williams is capturing something of the shock, the physiological force of violence not on the body but on the nervous system, on perception and speech, but the story is too slick, transient, for this statement to have much force or give the reader much pause.

Imagining the events described here, away from the book, is much more viscerally affecting than reading the prose. The congregants outside the mosque buckle and drop, and in my mind, this matters, this hurts, whereas in these pages there is an immediate moving on, an insulation in the prose, a retreat from engagement with the power of the violence that gets thrown around here as reference but without respect for its weight. In one scene, a woman climbs out from under a table to examine the consequences of a Tarantino-like shootout scene: “The room filled with the keen odor of cordite and blood. Eight bodies.” It is oddly bloodless, this writing, for all the blood shed within its narratives. And this distance—like that “you will not” that conditionally adjusts the opening quote to this review—heightens the disturbing reality of violence even as the violence here is inserted, imagined, and shuffled around as a plot device.

Official Raw Dog Screaming Press Web Site

A Review of “Sparrow & Other Eulogies” by Megan Martin

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Spencer Dew

This beautifully produced little book relishes around with language, ranging from quirky trips of tinfoil meditations, newsprint postcards and bleeding disco balls to more sober consideration of words in the gaping maw of time. Eulogies and playfully quilted epistolarities bloom here, lush and pleasant to romp around in. “When I pray for doves, stray pigeons descend to me; I strap sentence-scraps satcheled to their backs, fly them off cross-country at random intervals,” we hear at one point. “Inside the hot black pit of you,” we’re told at another, “objects once ours floated on the dark. Scraps of postcard, photograph, mandolin, blooming forest: too heavy to swim up.”

So while some of this volume locates itself “Inside the velveteen whalemouth” or with the hallucinogenic wisps of narrative accumulated in phrases like “The mailman arrives with notification that my lightbulb resides in Antarctica, in the cellar of the Nightmare Fishery Museum. He has a picture. He has a map.” there is a lower key as well, wherein “the whale corpse” washes up on the beach, “its ruined, mineral grin” stark in the morning light. “Someday bits of my story will fall somewhere in the vicinity of your coordinates?” a narrative voice emerges, at one point, to ask, and while such fallout is envisioned in the same wild register as the mailman’s news (will my story “Materialize in your medicine chest, the toe of a brand-new tubesock, on your tongue during a dream of snow?” the poem asks), this is no nonsensical surface play. Rather, there is something painfully real under the images, visceral as a “Gash of belly; an opening in a gutted story to swim out of; a cloud of ink-stained blood.”

“I will never have that hot sauce, that grandmother, that handwriting again,” reads another poem, archiving loss. A nostalgia for that which has been drowned, ruined, bled over and lost its teeth permeates this collection, yet relayed in crackling braids of phrase. “Problem:  I’ve forgotten the correct dimensions with which to construct a tear. (I believe Mother used romancenovel-cornstarch-laced-with-celebrity-obituary. But hers turned out flat and unintelligible as razor blades.)”  This is a satisfying book, well worth the ticket price.

Official Megan Martin Web Site
Official Gold Wake Press Web Site

A Review of “Emergency Room Wrestling” by The Dirty Poet

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Spencer Dew

The first image in this book is of “a 400 pound naked man” with “necrotizing fasciitis—flesh-eating bacteria—/of the crotch” and of the poet-narrator “helping three nurses reinsert his rectal trumpet.” There is horror, to be sure, in a scrotum, devoured by some invisible force, but what haunts about this brief, rough, solid poem is the patient’s denial, that he acted “like most men—ignore it, hoping it would go away,” which says as much about the sociology and economics of medical care as publisher Karen Lillis’s passionate preface on the medical-pharmaceutical complex.  Whoever the Dirty Poet is, he has worked as an emergency room attendant for several decades, and he has scenes to relive and stories to tell, which is what he does in this slim but gut-wrenching, extremely impressive volume.

A line in the dedication note says “hospitals exist; misery is real.” Respect for and allegiance to the reality of human suffering characterizes Emergency Room Wrestling, thick as it is with blunt trauma and victims of assorted accidents, the tears of parents and the sting of catheters and addicts bucking against their restraints or ripping loose from their various life-preserving tubes. A man spits one of his own teeth at a nurse. A bloodied kid, when “asked what happened … looked up at us and wildly offered / i just got my ASS kicked.” A man believes “the i-phone in his chest / told him to take an x-acto knife” and sever his penis, “plus one testicle for interest.”

Another man, upon admittance, “was so wasted he asked was anyone else in the car? / only your dead wife, dude / no one told him this / but he saw it on the news that night.”

Gallows humor abounds, as it must, a survival mechanism in a world crowded with botched suicides, where nurses and attendants are desperately “juggling bodies, crises, bloody tracheas / wall-to-wall patients gasping for air.” But these poems are also marked by stripped-down, functional language—the language of work, work wherein every second matters and where everything is at stake. “i hustle to the trauma bay,” reads a representative line, “blasted like that, the man’s gonna die / but maybe not.” So much depends on that slim hope, which, in turn, depends less on the “voodoo” the surgeons perform than the basic, repetitive, maintenance and preparatory tasks, the messy, often explosively liquid tasks. “but i’m sweating with this guy i extubated and can’t reintubate / he absolutely could use oxygen about now,” read another line, capturing the pace. There is tragedy in these pages—extreme sadness, loss, horror—but for those who work elbow-deep in it, there is also always somewhere else to be, someone else with vitals to check or bedpans to change. The emotional drama of the patients and their family is at the sidelines here, as in one stunning piece describing the step-by-step measures taken on the slim odds of keeping one man around:

i stick in a nasal trumpet
i stick in an oral airway
i stick a suction catheter up his nose
triggering a vast bubble of yellow bile out his mouth
step back! i shout
the room screams

What impresses me the most about the Dirty Poet is he is that, with minimal language, he allows the humanity of everyone involved to be present, palpable, even while the main concern here—the most engaging perspective—isn’t that of the grieving or freaking or hand-wringing relatives, nor the walking or wheeled-around wounded, but the man and women whose job it is to pick up that patient who has “fallen out of bed” and who looks “like a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich / smeared with shit and blood.” The coexistence of gallows humor and empathy, and the ability to convey this confluence on the page—this is what gives Emergency Room Wrestling real wings. So when the narrator speaks of needing “a couple of beers to cut the grease in my soul,” we know well what he means, and may even feel likewise…knowing, too, that it can’t ever be enough. “hospitals exist; misery is real”:  and here are poems that bear necessary and affecting witness to that reality.

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A Review of “Poena Damni, Z213: EXIT” by Dimitris Lyacos, Translated by Shorsha Sullivan

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Spencer Dew

We begin in what may be an internment camp, some complex, “four wards separate not far from the sea … and ashes spread out on the floor black stains and ashes … and next day in the morning they would come and take them from there and you could hear at that time they were going in and calling their names…” The vagueness of the prose style establishes the limits of this world and the concerns of the text. We have a camp, a train, soldiers, a Bible with notes inside, and we have encroaching darkness, the struggle to remember, the struggle of hiding, physical pain. A war, just ended or ongoing, shapes the experience as well. “Remnants of the very last attack” mark both the landscape and the prose, which yearns for “Human traces” in a wasteland of loss, lost memory. “Remember to write as much as I can,” we are told—a first person phrasing for the voice of the text, a shifting protagonist—“As much as I remember. So that I can remember,” and yet, this person forgets and, chronicles, in pieces, in poetic fragments and impressionistic prose, this very forgetting, the gap that opens between self and memory, self and world, self and other. “I think of you but not like before.” The man leaves the place of wards, pushes on, boards a train, travelling from one zone to another—“Cruel the evening again in the station and the train and another station, silent, and the train…”—but the main drama of this text is interior to this person fleeing, attempting to flee, forgetting, attempting to remember:

One by one all those that fled all those you left, pieces, pieces like ice breaking and falling in front of your feet. And it melts before you can move…. Cramp in the stomach, the usual. You cover your feet with the pullover, fall face down. Chilly berth that sticks to your face. You wear the pullover, under the jacket you put the Bible for a pillow. Her breast, her half-opened mouth. Some life. You unbutton your trousers put your hand in.

Thus, while travelling onward, there is a sense, of moving in a circle, a spiral even. Passing the same tree again and again, remembering the same woman, moving yet not making an exit, only sinking deeper, descending. “I try to stay awake. I wet my face with some water.” This retreat is not orderly, nor is the only violence here that of battle, of beatings and whatever bombs leave castles in ruins along the route of travel. “I have no painkiller,” our narrator says, in response to a pain in his foot but also to the larger problem, the journey, the attempt at exit.

And when you can no longer remember, just meaningless things here and there, and you can’t. But still try even then, as the twilight sets in, stand and look at the past, walk again along the corridors where your eyes used to wander, attentive ghosts, open the boxes, think of the other side of the wall. Sit at the side of the road and see yourself pass.

Z213: EXIT gives us not a conventional story but, rather, “a tale you remember unfinished.” Which is not to say that there is no drama, no danger, no desire.  There is even sex, or a memory of sex, maybe a dream of a memory in the process of its own erasure. At times in this hypnotic little book it feels as if everything exits except for our protagonist, whom, while in many ways mysterious, is also something we feel and thus know. The stream of his thoughts define our experience of the text:

they change, all things, memory changes, you change yourself, some woman you search for, you don’t know if you were seeking another, if you had some other hope, other aim. Tomorrow perhaps something else might erase those things as well, the new veil of the world, but you will never know it, you won’t be able to know it.

Of note, too, is the role this book plays in a larger trilogy (which I have not read). Last written but first in the series, simultaneously final installment and a prelude to the other parts, the role this book plays likely finds echo in its own obsessions with memory, loss, with exit and, indeed, beginning. One plot device, such as it is, present in this text is that of being pursued. There is an element of chase in all the travel, and, thus, a touch of paranoia, perhaps well justified, in some of the concern with memory. “Nobody is coming after me,” we’re told at one point.

Surely they have forgotten about me. Nobody will ever come here to find me. He will never be able to find me. Nobody ever. And when I fled they didn’t even realise. They took no notice of me no one cared no one remembers. Now they will remember neither when nor how. Not even I. Tracks only, a hazy memory and those images when I look at what I have written, tracks of footprints in the mud before it starts raining again. Uncertain images of the road and thoughts mumbled words, and if you read them without the names you won’t understand, it could have been anywhere, and then I spoke with no one and those who saw me no chance that they remember me.

Who is this “he” so central to the hunt? Herein lies, I think, a key to the text, to the real drama playing out in this slim volume, a drama of the phenomenon of writing itself, the drama that is textuality, the process of words, preserved, of voices, living on the page once long forgotten in the world of flesh. Considered in this light, the end of the book is already the beginning of something more, another loop back into memory, an urging for us to turn back to the beginning, those cold wards by the sea, and rechart the travels of this man, his notes, his memories, his forgettings. But in the context of a larger trilogy, this ending is, in another sense, the start of something more, an exit, perhaps, into deeper considerations of the phenomenology of the self as something written, that “I” as it slips into the alien third person on the page, becoming a “he” of a drama no longer the writer’s own. By tapping into—and engaging with such visceral detail, as the scraps and scrims of scenes here provide—this issue of how writing works on the most basic, universal level, Lyacos has created a book of real interest and reward. One such visceral tool is the second person—the “you” written by some “I,” some “he”—who becomes the protagonist, allowing us, as readers, to embody the place ourselves in the volume’s inconclusive end:

… you look behind and expect him, you get away again, you are drowsy, you close your eyes, you see him before you, you get away you are tired, mostly you stand, you close your eyes open them again, you don’t want to go any further, you shall sink to your knees, the tiredness hurts even more, you are less afraid, you are feeling the blow, you open your mouth, you look at his mouth, you don’t want to stand up any more.

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A Review of “badbadbad” by Jesus Angel Garcia

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Spencer Dew

“We are who we pretend to be at any given moment, no more, no less, no one, no thing. We are nothing, less than, duped into believing we’re something we’re not,” writes Jesús Ángel García, relaying the thoughts of a narrator and protagonist also named Jesús Ángel García, or JAG for short, who has a tendency to philosophize in light of his experiences in two alternative arenas, each rich with symbolism and writhing, inchoate need. JAG straddles, so to speak, two communities, working as a Web designer for a local pastor intent on extending the gospel message into political action (banning sex toys, for instance) while also (thanks to said pastor’s prodigal son) spending time on another Web site, one built around the Internet’s paradoxical offering of anonymity alongside the opportunity for over-exposure, a site where people can post their most private desires, their secret lusts, along with pictures of themselves or of someone they want to be, are pretending to be, etc.

Christianity, from its inception, has also always been about trying to be something you are, at present, not. The imitation of Christ might seem a far cry from posting shadowy and sharp-angled cell phone pics of cleavage, but García wants to toy with the similarities, crafting a narrative wherein the desires of disparate communities are revealed to be not so different after all—wherein addiction, manipulation, and insincerity exist alongside transcendence, radical freedom, and utter authenticity, all of these manifest, at times, by hypocritical zealots, pious believers, abusive pervs, and vulnerably open creatures aware that whatever they are, this identity is constituted, foremost, by their physical needs and wants.

So some people await a messiah who will come bearing a sword, and some folks have a fetish for reliving a formative rape. Some throw stones at any trace of difference and some rock out in a perpetual masquerade. Some cultivate snuff fantasies and some just want to see their son, sleeping in a nest of blankets at their ex’s house. And, as is the case for JAG, some are willing to tote guns and go covert in order to catch such a glimpse, all earthly laws and norms outranked by some irrational call.

JAG’s got plenty of issues, apart from the son—to whom this book is dedicated, raising another level of doubt about avatars and authors, characters’ names and continual fictions. He’s got a little thing with the pastor’s wife, a brother he’s speaking to throughout the text—in the traditional Christian autobiographical form of confession—and assorted associations with women whose desires are elaborately specific, including the one who feels the need “to reconstruct this atrocity” that happened to her years previous. “I need to be hurt to be healed,” she says. JAG gets his own dose of hurt one night at a bar, and while he’s initially reluctant about putting that Chekovian gun in the rifle rack of his new truck, he’s as driven by missionary zeal as any fundamentalist reformer. Taking a virtual hatchet to Web site servers, JAG wipes away those profiles while he takes to be products of “fakes, flakes, freaks, fantasies and fraidy cats” as opposed to the work of “those seeking true fulfillment,” while simultaneously contemplating how all identity might be nothing more than temporary play-acting and how God might be a collective. John Coltrane, jpegs, and alcohol can lead a man to think all sorts of things.

But badbadbad, while populated with straw man preachers who rant against teen sodomy and the evils of relativism, makes clear the asymmetry of otherwise neatly parallel stances. In a major scene, JAG shows up for a showdown protest/counterprotest of white supremacists and gay pride contingents. “The Klan processional was led by a pointy-headed knight on a white horse, trailed by a contingent of foot soldiers. Spearheading Gay Pride was a team of pony boys, saddled and harnessed, silver bits in their mouths. At the reins a king and queen in swapped gender roles steered an outsized red wagon straight down the thoroughfare.” There’s a neat visual parallel, two campy camps in outlandish outfits, theatrical, each with their own flags. But the parallels stop there, for while surely “advocates for broadmindedness and equality” can fall prey to plenty of flaws—self-righteousness and solipsism among them—“gay pride” and “white power” are ideological platforms that just don’t line up. There may always be a whiff of queer supremacism at such rallies, but it’s far from the defining line, are not coupled with canned hatred, weapons or the implication of weapons, or eschatological dreams of a “purified” world. In short—and this is an obvious point but worth belaboring in order to dig deeper into García’s text—a rainbow clown wig differs in some basic, practical ways from a face mask designed to allow anonymity while participating in terrorist action.

For JAG, however, the goose-steppers and the glitter queens are all acting out fantasies of self, all edging around issues of anonymity intertwined with loudly out self-expression. At one point a Klansman yanks up his mask, so angry he is with the motley mocking crowd. And for JAG, the street is already an old time venue. While the novel begins on the asphalt of a Piggly Wiggly parking lot, soon most interaction is happening online. “I realize the digital domain is a place where some folks play identity games,” JAG says, and though he means a more blatant adoption of new identities, he, too, is pushing into a kind of game of self, scrolling through profiles, “reading between the lines, holding close the heartache, the longing in all the profiles I’d come to see as naked portraits of need built up over a lifetime. There were so many girls I could care for. It was my moral responsibility to do so.”

So in a world where people are constantly pretending—what JAG calls, elsewhere “endless storytelling”  wherein “life comes to you in fragments”—our narrator develops some kind of odd messiah complex, seeing himself in a unique position to salve the wounds of various damaged girls. But while he at once argues that we’re all always pretending, posing, he also obsessed, especially in connection to the online spaces where he’s doing all his foreplay, with “what’s for real and what’s made-up, who’s authentic, who’s a poser, what matters, what means nothing.” There’s a desperation for meaning even in a world where meaning seems to be nothing more than a wig worn for a particular parade. All of which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, to me at least, is why this need for meaning gets channeled into sex, into picking up girls from an online site and helping them fulfill their pregnancy or snuff kick. Why is some need, some desire, recognized as marrow-deep and therefore commendable, even when it’s explicitly nutty and destructive (of self and others) when other needs (like, say, those white folks with their Nazi badges and dimwit chants) are quickly dismissed. The preacher who wants to rid his town of dildos seems as deeply motivated as his wife in wanting to fill up her vagina, but the sexual need is linked here with something admirably true, transcendent, positively communal—everything “good,” in short, in a system that rejects relativism on gut reflex—whereas the prudish anti-dildo stance is seen as a kind of repression, an inauthenticity, as if the preacher, in his opposition to such devices, is just lying to himself, refusing to acknowledge his actual and inescapable nature.

This is less Rousseau than de Sade—the path to be followed here is through the lusts of the body, however twisted by society. Exit through the sewer, as it were, or the bowels. The denial of desire is a deadlier perversion than the aforementioned snuff fetish, and JAG seems to mean this literally—he’s even, via all the bits of Christian symbolism that have been tossed his way, able to view an individual death as redemptive, holding up the hope of salvation for a wider society that needs to get in touch with its true urges before it morphs into monsters. The human, JAG insists, is right there above the tendrils of those Daisy Dukes. “For the record,” he tells us, “I’m not a sex addict. I’m not a pervert or a freak. I’m not less moral than anyone else who lives his life according to his beliefs, who tries to do right on the path laid out before him.” The addiction, the perversion, here is precisely one of beliefs, of moral claims. badbadbad is the story of a man who feels there is a “path laid out before him,” a straight path in a crooked world. It’s an odd religion, one that passes judgment on the jukebox and the sex site with far more fury—albeit it also with more nuance, more investment—than it does on the Klansman or the raving preacher. It is a path that leads to extreme acts, and, in turn, to this extreme confession, a weird gospel, one man’s account of his journey through the wilderness.

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A Review of “Mere Tragedies” by Heather Palmer

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Spencer Dew

The riddle of Mere Tragedies hinges upon the impossibility of discerning where the line might lie between stylistic choice and the fumbling of haste. In promotional materials, we are told that “every aspect of the work, from content to formatting, is aware of the isolation of contemporary existence,” which may, itself, be one of those statements warped to signify something, viscerally, about said isolation. I’m simply not sure.

These tiny vignettes, some only around sixty-five words, lack titles, injecting us, instead, immediately into a scene: a couple eating dinner, a girl walking to the store, “Strangers waiting to piss at the diner they frequent for its 24-hour, bottomless, buck-fifty coffee and smoking section.” There is a strategy here, for sure, of the jump-cut, the jagged fracture. A man is introduced who “finds hope in the consistent uncertainty of weather forecasts,” and then he is gone again, forever. And phrasing matters, certainly, either stitching together associations via a surreal turn of words (“…his father is already asleep on the couch, the snoring mouth an open wound on his mother’s face”) or reiterating the swift intrusion of character, of fact (“the homeless man falls into view”).

But at other times, what may be an attempt to infuse syntax with a sense of “isolation”  seems more like mere garbling of language. Consider this strange passage about the behavior of children to worms after a rainstorm: “Some kindly kick them to the dirt, but more likely, step on their exhausted bodies in bewildered disgust.” Amidst the glut of adverbs and adjectives, there is also an absence of noun, or a confused phrasing. Does the same “some” do both of these things, at once? What I can’t figure out is whether this is a literary tactic or a mistake. Women, we’re told elsewhere, “feel more sensitivity than men,” the phrasing of which is perhaps a wry joke, and at another point we’re told “Decisions entrap the maker inside the moment of decision until paralyzed by choice” which has, itself, a paralytic effect. Is Palmer intentionally structuring these sentences in order to inflict, on her readers, something akin to vertigo?

There are other oblique passages Palmer seems surely to have designed for sound (“The boy accuses her bladder. She defends it. He accepts insistence,” one story ends, for instance.), passages where punctuation is forgone in favor of some kind of desperate pace (“When I speak to the face of her fears, I speak about death. I quote the great writers, tell her we will die and we are born and all that matters to me is I have fallen in love with you forever”), passages in which verb tense is twisted in order to emphasize a lapsed conditional (“Her husband, before they had married, told her he would marry her for her inherent sense of self”), but Mere Tragedies is also marred by what must certainly be editorial errors—a word is split by hyphen and space mid line, a sentence ends without a period, a proper noun goes uncapitalized, one character is given “a propensity for ease-dropping,” the color violent “compliments” black, etc.—casting doubt on the idea that a line like “A man late for work speeds past a man who jauntily strides in his direction” is an attempt at assaultive literary innovation. One is left with the sinking feeling that much of this book might just be sloppy writing, preserved in vacant sans-serif font (that formatting, aware of isolation).

Mere Tragedies, in the end, is a riddle. As its awkwardness dovetails with its subject matter, the baffling or broken or bludgeoned phrase may well be the point of the text. “In mirrors, the body is almost certainly not the real body, so that the physical body remains lost between the reflection of the soul and the soul,” for instance. But experimentalism that passes as something other than experimentalism, experimentalism that can also just read as sloppiness—this is a weird situation, at best. I’ve read it and read it, and I just can’t be sure.

The best this review can do is chart out what I’ve seen and allow the text to speak for itself. Here, then, is the final line of the book, leaving us, as readers, with jangled nerves: “While no theory has yet studied the mental health of abundantly touched patients, scientists have observed that newborns without human contact do not gain weight and slowly die.” Savor that phrasing. Then tell me, is this a technique designed to reveal to us, as readers, something essential about the contemporary condition, a procedure for calling linguistic expression into question even as it stumbles ahead, conveying pieces of narratives, scenes of tension and terror, claustrophobia and the tourniquet of routine?

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A Review of “The Paris Poems” by Suzanne Burns

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Spencer Dew

Burns gives us the Paris of pilgrimage, the Paris of cliché, the Paris of déjà vu, even. The first page begins a list of instructions as to how to arrive, spelling out, in jagged rhythm, the ideal encounter of the Paris in all its concrete and flesh, though noting that this original reality has already been mapped by “Vista Vision Technicolor trompe-l’oeil,” by Hepburn and Astaire, the Nazis, Marie Antoinette, the Mona Lisa. Paris, Burns says, looks “like scenery in a play about PARIS,” and this iconic familiarity is a key concern of her poems.

Paris is an idea, the city of Jean Valjeans and those heirs to Napoleon, emperors of fashion like Louis Vuitton and Karl Lagerfeld, the city itself thus inspring “all my blonde nieces / praying at the altar of Diet Coke / and iceberg lettuce.” This is the city, too, where Michael Jackson “dangles his baby / from a Parisian balcony,” the city of “1,000 Notre Dame snapshots / Sacré Coeur pencil tops / an idolized Montmartre where Amélie / tape the top of her crème brulee.” This is a city known, in some way, since childhood, a passion as much of a place, the focus of a lifelong romance. Here even “being pick-pocketed” is “almost okay / as long as we call it an epiphany on Facebook.”

Writing is Paris, these poems often say, as is art; Paris is as much “the grey bowel / the grey underbelly / the isolation” of Brassaï as it is the literary work of Miller and Nin, Hugo, or Rimbaud. This is the town where Sylvia Beach sold books and Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation as resurrected by his words being read.

The central artistic presence in these pages, however, is Jim Morrison, “the closest thing we have to a saint.” Morrison’s tomb, that international pilgrimage point, is described as an altar to something all poems aim to achieve. The admiration of Morrison is linked, on a personal level here, with adolescence, with growing up, and yet this childhood idol has become, now, something more. At the graveyard, “Someone lit a red candle on Jim’s grave / to collect the wax tears: / souvenirs,” Burns tells us, and, later, a “dark man dressed like he stepped / from an avant-garde film / springs his switchblade / to slash the heart line of his palm / bleeding himself onto Jim’s final home.” Such devotion speaks to the meaning of Morrison, however inchoate. And, moreover, this figure who so palpably matters to so many people is am American, a foreigner merging his own legend with that of Paris, becoming as Parisian—at least in Burns’s reading—as Hemingway.

The best moments here reflect frankly on the juxtaposition of the American and Paris, particularly the poet’s own Oregon. If Oregon is a place of dreaming, Paris is the dream, as magical for its own incongruous “Big Macs / within walking distance / of the palace where a queen / once debated bread vs. cake” as for the more characteristic “denouement of a baguette.” Paris, in these poems, is presented as a holy place, a sacred precinct in which, for “2 Euros per wick” one can light candles to the vibrant afterlife of artistic creation. “Is it sacrilege to pray to books?” Burns asks at one point, rhetorically. The answer, in these pages, is that we do it all the time, and that there is perhaps no chapel more frequented, for that purpose, than Paris.

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