Soft Surreal Barnyard Fantasies, or, Revival

             So in the previous post I engaged, with great brevity, this cultural trend of fascination with old-timey objects, leading to this kind of logic that old-timey nouns (e.g. “fifty-cent piece”)–>anachronisms–>nostalgias, however you want to interpret those arrows, dear reader. Well, I want to pick up on that again. Claro.           

            By “old-timey” I think I am really referring to the first half of the twentieth century, and, more specifically, to farm-ish, rural kinds of apparel, tools, musics, values, and ultimately mythologies. I’m talking about Cracker Barrel, and who would of thought, but this culture, at least as I see it, is rearing up full throttle in the hearts of our largest cities and of the most urban peoples among us. You see it in clothing, in the dingy flannels, huge knit hats and tough canvas pants and bags and whathaveyou. You read it in writing, all the sparrows that fly through all the rafters in all the poems.You see it in the beards, the care-not haircuts, the keys latched to belt loops. You hear it in the resurgence of bluegrass, jug bands, and especially folk music. And you see it in design, the hand-stitched (oh yeah, knitting and crocheting) and the wood-carved, or the facsimiles thereof. My point being, all these examples point to an increasingly ubiquitous, contemporary style that in many ways defines a subsequent counter-culture. 

            Now, there a few things to be certain about with this. 1. I feel a personal affinity for this culture, mostly because my own contrived identity was/is so close, so I really don’t mean this in any chiding or jocular way, at least, not yet. 2. This is a particular sect of urban youth and is not any more or less important than hip-hop, club, punk, hardcore, etc. Certainly, in fact, it gets interwoven and diluted among these other cultures and definitely varies in intensity according to an individual’s commitment. 3. On this point, like many youth cultures, it is strongly centered around musical taste, a very reductive definition/history of which is a return to melody, vocal harmony, lyricism, and the heartfelt and true that were so derided by musics of the nineties, alternative stuff that promoted a view of the world as hopelessly vapid and monetized (caveat: gross generalizations up in here, also), and which concluded that any sincere response to said world was in fact merely naivety. Or perhaps that the only sincerity was in the insincere. Hmmm, at any rate, one successor to that (i.e. nineties alternative culture) is this blowback ruralism, which at this point is firmly present. 

            But what I really want to get into is more specific, an aspect of this culture that I will call, for the time being, Soft Surreal Barnyard Mythologizing. Several times a year, my neighborhood explodes in an arts & crafts frenzy, filling streets with EZ Ups and beer trucks and stages and the like. One of the best reasons to live in Chicago is for these events, and as much as I can I make it to them, all over the city. But my neighborhood’s festivals exhibit the culture I am trying to get at with particular tenacity, and what I have found most interesting, quite specifically, at these art fairs, is the staggering amount of woodland and barnyard animals I see printed, etched, stitched or otherwise represented on whatever product, all number of small birds, cats, squirrels, rabbits, owls etc.—a veritable Charlotte’s Web. Now, it’s not merely the presence of so many animals—hey, animals are neat, always have been, and I hope always will be—more it’s the design with which they are so often rendered, this kind of softness, I think the proper term is illustration, so we get a style much akin to those in animated bucolic adventures like Watership Down. So my question is, where did this come from? 

            I have many explanations, and most of them place this trend in a fairly complicated maelstrom of cross-vectored nostalgias. Shall I make a list? 1. Nostalgia for the time period when such animated features were prevalent, late 70’s through the 80’s (which, in turn, most often, were remembering back another 30-40 years)—as in, precisely when the people embracing this culture would have been children. 2. Nostalgia for childhood through animals (do I need to explain this? Kids love animals). 3. Nostalgia for childhood engagement with animals as metonym for the rural homeland, the farm-from-which-one-came-to-the-city (if even that history is merely cultural, that one in fact was raised Schaumburg). 4. And perhaps most importantly, nostalgia for this place as seen through the opiate-like lens of remembrance and invention, the dark annals of childhood, the glorious, innocent, learning-heavy, seemingly pure engagement with something (animals) that is truly Other, which, in turn, provides a kind of self-learning and self-development (I do not have fur, so what do I have?). My point being, when I carry a tote bag with a big, illustrated owl on it, I am in fact taking part in a kind of surrealism that is a result of near tectonic forces of nostalgic layering, for a thing itself, for a thing I did not in fact have but feel I should have had, and for the very media that has convinced me of this. So no, I am not Robert Hass or Gary Snyder or Muir or Leather-Stockings or Chief Seattle or whatever—my renderings of nature are not so close; they are instead guesses at nature that have been filtered through assumptions and culturally propped-up aesthetics, and the mark of this filtering is apparent. 

            The reason I’m being such a littler pisser about this, beyond the obvious reasons that “nostalgia” seems unarguably pejorative, that nostalgia is deceiving, is that it is also really CONSERVATIVE and distracts us from the larger, pressing issues of what it means to be an ADULT, among other adults, making decisions, being social and human and dealing with a far wider array of Others than the farm-dream can ever afford. The other issue I have is that I can’t help but feel that this culture is entirely ironic, that people are drawn to it not because it’s rural but because, in fact, it’s urban, in a really edgy, self-effacing way. I find all of this powerfully fascinating, and I very much like neo-cultures and all the complexities they bring. But I also cry caution. We are appropriating, but more importantly, we aren’t looking in the right direction.

The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth

The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth by Joshua Marie Wilkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joshua Marie Wilkinson has been in my radar for some time, though this is the first proper response I’ve really had to his work. I first came to him at the vehement request of a better read friend of mine back when I was poetry editor at Dislocate, that we solicit some collaborative poems Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon were then getting out to periodicals in advance of what, I guess, would become Figures for a Darkroom Voice. I mention that “guess” as caveat that, other than this collection, I’ve only otherwise read Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk. His (and Gordon’s) kingdom is vast, impressively prolific for his age, so I feel a little embarrassed that I am about to draw such large conclusions from merely two collections. That being said, I’m hoping for a shorter post and review, so now that the obligatory hyperlinks are out of the way, let me get down to it.

If you are at all familiar with Wilkinson, you know his writing is most often fragmentary, near tanka-like, and his voice is defined by great mystery—these kinds of dark narratives of childhood and youth, often in rural settings, with strong bents toward fable and quite often an almost painterly delivery. This collection is no different. I am tempted to call him a surrealist, but that’s not entirely true—every time I go and seek the actually fantastic in his work, I find nothing but the utterly possible, the, in fact, plainly possible, the quotidian, a great population of objects that suggest otherworldliness simply by their delivery and combinations. We get, for instance, lovely lists like that which makes “deer & salt block:”

One boy hides a turtle from his brothers in a dresser drawer. One boy is mute & sluggish from the hurricane sirens. One boy took a long time in the bathtub reading the comics. One boy loops a tractor chain to the ceiling fan & tears the whole roof down. One boy speaks through a keyhole to the others about a shortstop’s hex.

And so forth. On one hand, this seems a rather run-of-the-mill catalogue meant to establish a summarial description of life in that place, of boyhood there (perhaps, as a result of his draw from films), and yet, on the other, the deep specificity of each sentence, not to mention the really striking imagistic qualities, resist our summary. Despite the fact that one could very well have experienced any one of these, that one sees a self-recognition from one’s own youth, the grouping as a whole is indeed surreal, and this is partly because it is difficult to draw a really tenable narrative or thematic line between them all. There’s an overriding furtiveness in the actions, perhaps, which evokes that quiet place of boyhood imagination and the private machinations of figuring-out-the-world, but the distance between territories is still so great that it challenges the reader to not rest simply there. Such arcs are translated more often across entire sections, in this case across the various “books” that makeup the collection, which secures a stronger sense of each little asterisks-bounded moment as an entry in a catalogue. They are curios, and there is an inherent difficulty, then, in deriving a larger concern for the sections or for the book as a whole.

This is what I think Wilkinson does best—he makes the ordinary seem otherwise, and within the specific realm of youthhood, childhood, I really can’t think of someone who does this any better. He will capture you with his stories; he will make you want to stay. Of course, I have a problem with this, too, in that the tableaus of the child’s more enraptured mind also fall into these sorts of crutches. One is that he populates so much of the text with old-timey nouns. Like this, from the section “The Book of Trapdoors, Thimble-Light, & Fog:”

A fifty-cent piece in the sweeper’s

Thief’s daughter
clapping in the game

behind the cistern.

Not lurk, just lisp
or coined through.

Another is that he populates so much with a kind of slick darkness, like this from “The Book of Falling Asleep in the Bathtub & Snow:”

Carry your sister’s ring
in your hidden pocket.

Carry this song
in the hood of your throat.

My quarrel is that “fifty-cent piece,” “cistern,” “hidden pocket,” and metaphorical pairings like “hood of your throat” have already had all the poetic work done for them in the past—there is no argument that they make for compelling surrealism—they seem, in fact, like staples thereof. They are almost anachronisms, and in that way they feel like nostalgias. And this is not something exclusive to Wilkinson—rather, I see this as a larger cultural trend among the young, urban, and artistic, the “hipsters,” but I will address that more thoroughly in another post. The point here, for this collection of poems, is that some of the text seems to sacrifice truly adventurous, risky image-making, image-making that could fail (and therefore, provides the tension of that as a possibility) for a more flawless, dependable design. In a sense, I feel slightly marketed to, at moments. Largely, however, this book will blow you away with a really stupefying array of powerful images.

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Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep

Archicembalo Archicembalo by G.C. Waldrep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s worth mentioning right off the bat that few reviews will really cover the territories in which Waldrep finds himself in Archicembalo, which is so thick with reference, ambitions toward varying styles, difficult words, difficult images and metaphors that the reader, or at least I-as-reader, went to sleep after finishing the book muttering asunder. This is good and bad, and many reviewers have already touched at least on Waldrep’s difficulty. I feel mostly compelled to engage this quality of the book, too, and I guess I should just accept this bourgeois response as my own. It’s a tough book, kittens, so let’s perhaps describe it through a series of anxious caveats, and maybe we can get a general sense of what it achieves and doesn’t achieve.

Caveat number one: Waldrep is smarter than you. It’s not just that he’ll break your iphone with a fury of dictionary queries, but he seems to know the words as well, I mean, they fit in such lovely arrangements. I’ve really discussed all this already, so I’ll take up from there and tell you a funny little story about what a terrible reader I am. But not yet.

Caveat number two: anyone else thinking of Tender Buttons? I think Stein is more successful, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll explain that later.

Caveat number three: it helps if you know a little bit about music theory and history, not to mention archaic poetry, but, just like all his fancy words, isn’t this a good opportunity to go and educate yourself?

Caveat number four: what the hell is an archicembalo? The key, for this book, methinks, is microtonality, as in finer-than-your-usual-gradations. Think in terms of metaphorical linkages, juxtapositions of image, and the real poetic of the book emerges. Forget all that “gamut” malarkey in the blurbs—that fails, to me, and I will explain that. I promise.

Caveat number five: the only true caveat: I’ve only otherwise read Goldbeater’s Skin, so that kinda still makes me a rookie, maybe, but who measures these things?

Caveat number six: okay let’s get serious: I’m going to approach two issues with this book, neither of which is really good at explaining what seems the meatier riches of the text: I want to look at local examples of the amazing, just sublime images Waldrep achieves, and then I want to discuss the pacing of the text as a whole. This leaves out the troubling issue of what individual poems are getting at, and again, I’ve mentioned that at plotsandoaths already.

Ha, now watch how short this actually ends up being. Okay so my story: page 3, “What is a Hymn,” I got to this:

When thrown to the harp as eggs, as pelican, as license, as cheese it makes a simple roaming, it splays tethered, it does not go far.

And spent the rest of the day trying to explain to my non-poet but otherwise ridonk-in-the-smarts-department friend the metaphorical beauty of my gross misread “it sprays tethered.” “Splays tethered” makes more sense, is of a violence a bit closer to what we can imagine, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t think “sprays tethered” was about the most intriguing little mashup I’d seen in a long time (seriously, I went a good week thinking Waldrep was a genius. I still kind of do, but now I am too!). So let’s just pretend that’s what he wrote. How do you tether a spray? O, this will be tedious. Is it, for instance, that the head of the spray (are you thinking of a hose yet or do I need to come right out and say it?) is tethered, or the body there below, and the thing sprays wildly, whipping back and forth, like a fire hose still connected to the hydrant? Or is the spray itself tethered? This, if you are me, is the gate of beauty for the image. Like, each little particle in the spray has its own little tether (fray?) pulling it back to the source, so the spray itself collapses back, like in rewind. See what I’m saying? There’s a tension—something wants to be free, something wants to disperse, and something else will not let it. And I hope you are recalling archicembalo now and the finer gradations thing I mentioned earlier. My argument here is that this is his poetic, for this text. The mind zooms out across landscape, across the lexicon, and each particle of thought hits it’s own individually determined end. That end can be in the title. It can be in the approach. It can be in the form, but mostly I think the particles of thought (we are really having a good time now) are bound by each other—they are forced into a whole shape, fanlike, perhaps, so we get the simultaneous feeling of their movement away and toward one another. In many ways this describes all poetry difficult in the images it conceives, and in other circumstances I’ve called such connections between images or constituents of an image as “bulbous” or “synaptic,” but let’s just go with “tethered spray” for Waldrep.

If you don’t believe me (I hate you) here’s another example where he (actually) gets at it, from “What is Key Signature:”

A stone is a plenary terminus.

We’re you expecting more? Again, we can’t help but think of the constituent particles of the stone, and their end is their togetherness—they have been made into one by no other than geological forces. This is the force of poetry, too. So largely I think of this book as Waldrep, locally and globally, forcing really fine, subtle things together, making a new order, a new thing (ahem). And it is for this reason that I think the shorter poems succeed more than the longer ones, since they give a little more white space to really let things sink in, though certainly a book of short poems might be little better, so I give Waldrep the benefit of the doubt and just go on reading each poem for the lines only, as though no titles were given.

Which is a shame, because the poems do differ from each other. We have “What is Opera,” whose ambitions and looseness set it apart. We have more narrative, almost parable-like poems such as “Who Was Scheherazade.” And we have a handful of studies like “Who is Steve Reich” (great example, FYI, of a direct look at gradations) or “What is a Bass,” which is a character study of the months of the year so lovely and interesting as an etude it belongs in any intermediate workshop as an exercise primer. And in these cases Waldrep makes good on his multi-entendre promise of the gamut, of showing his range, of running like a series of keys a series of voices and approaches.

But, his range, in the end, simply doesn’t impress. Perhaps I should reiterate the caveat that I’m really not giving enough time to the book, and I might be missing finer or allusory differences between poems that would set them apart, but time and again I felt like I was floating in one central poem between rare if albeit fascinating islands of more strikingly different ones. The crutch, largely, is syntax, which is truncated, so often subjectless, sort of your typical, pushy sentence structure. From “What is Sforzando:”

A new town, midsummer. Classical sidestreet allusions. A slur thrown, as from a car; unwanted pet. Soon to be feral.

From “What is a Cittern:”

Figuration of the neck, three heads—two human—armigerous. As for fray, for vitrine. What issues. An identity: a Maltese cross, a game of chess.

Fourteen arguments are running through my mind right now as to why I shouldn’t criticize him for this, so let me just give you a knee-jerk Dad reaction and say I simply don’t like how much of this is going on. This is especially true in the latter parts of the book, as others, I think, have mentioned.

But if you are deciding whether or not to read it, just read it. Spend time with it, keep a dictionary handy, freaking meditate on the images, because they are some of the best around. Kate’s cutting onions in the kitchen so my time is up. I love you/I hate you Waldrep.

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