Friday, July 20, 2007

 


Ed Barrett, left, with Bill Corbett

I had the strangest experience with Ed Barrett’s “prose poem novel” (as it says on the rear jacket) Kevin White. I read the first half of it over two days, then got interrupted by what daily life was throwing at me, then couldn’t remember which backpack I’d put the book in so took a few more days before I picked it back up and finished it. But the experience was of two almost completely different books. During my first stint, I was definitely reading, feeling, seeing the prose poem on every page, even if it was a remarkably cohesive set of same. Here is the very first poem, from the book’s first (of nine) sets, “Kevin and John”:

I saw Kevin White’s mind disappearing into heaven as he bent down to pick up a tea bag John Wieners left on I-93 Southbound to remind oncoming traffic and the Big Dig that we have been set to – Boston, a mound of curly tight shiny law in the mind of Kevin our charge – and holding it like a ribbon to give a pretty girl, he placed it on his tongue and spoke to the Virgin Mary his language of tannin.

A single sentence prose poem that incorporates the former mayor of Boston, its most iconic poet, its most infamous “improvement” project, the Boston tea party, the Catholic church – dichtung don’t get much more condensare than that as Pound might have put it.

But when I returned to it, Kevin White had indeed turned into a novel, as elegant as anything plotted out by David Markson, each page as realized, both symbolically & visually, as Don DeLillo at his best. I went back & started over attempting to see it as I had at first, as a “collection” of separate poems around a series of recurring motifs, but I just couldn’t. Somehow the book had actually transformed itself. It was (is) a very spooky bit of magic.

For a guy born in Brooklyn, Ed Barrett “does” Boston pretty thoroughly. In addition to Wieners and White, other folks who show up in this book’s not-quite-80 pages include Whitey & Billy Bulger, Nomar Garciaparra & Pedro Martinez, Bill Corbett & Fanny Howe, the Virgin Mary & Deborah Hussey, whom a search of Google reveals to be the “last known” murder victim of Whitey Bulger.¹ If the book doesn’t have a plot in the usual sense of that term, it still fits together quite a bit more tightly than, say, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent effort.

Barrett has, in fact, been in Boston for some time, twenty years at least, during most of which he has been associated with various MIT programs that focus on the intersection between computing & writing. Where another poet so positioned might be inclined to use that intersection to drive endless amounts of techno-centric media exploration (imagine, say, Alan Sondheim in the same job), Barrett seems to have gone rather in the opposite direction. Choosing a poetry that is taut, highly constructed, with layers of allusion & irony used rather the way the painter Jess liked to heap up oil in some of his portraits. He gave a reading & talk at Writers House not quite 18 months ago & the MP3s of the two events, well worth listening to, return again & again to the same two names – Bill Corbett & John Ashbery – as touchstones for Barrett’s practice.

In fact, he’s not really like either, or at least this book isn’t. At first I thought of Kevin White as being closer in its sensibility to the sort of booklength poem that takes advantage, say, of genre vocabulary & devices, rather the way James Sherry’s 1981 In Case deployed the language of the hardboiled detective novel. But really it’s the city, not a genre, that’s the organizing principle here:

Flight Into Egypt

I saw former Red Sox pitcher Bill "The Spaceman" Lee take something from a dumpster in front of the Corbett house. "Watch it!" said Lee, "dreams are not hard science like colonoscopy and laser hair removal-dreams don't even know your name, Mr. Wally Cox, and therefore they come to you but could just as easily visit someone else when all you wanted was to have your head patted like a child. And I am Bill Lee, making a voodoo doll of Carl Yazstremski whose dream came to me by mistake and said Yaz was living in the Corbett house, upstairs under the eaves." "Is Bill moving?" I asked, "What's he need a dumpster for, anyway?" "Ask him yourself, here he comes," shouted Bill Lee as he ran down Columbus Avenue, sideways like a crab. "Bill, I don't understand, what is this all about?" "Dreams," snarled Corbett, "Who the hell is Bill Lee to talk about dreams!" And we walked into his study which was filled with life-size voodoo dolls of Bill Lee, each wearing a different set of legs: deer legs, grasshopper legs, rat's feet, and still twitching in the corner, a doll with legs of a blue-claw crab taken from the Gowanus Canal when Bill was visiting Brooklyn where the crab population, long crushed under the weight of pollution, now floats and copulates in the currents around Brooklyn like a blue halo. "Dreams know your name, Ed Cullen Bryant, like a real estate agent knows a price. Through my black art I torment Bill Lee with more sets of legs climbing up on him than some of the poor souls who once worked as prostitutes on Columbus Avenue. But now Boston has these dumpsters where our true past, which is unclaimed dreams, gets shoveled out each morning!" And Bill kicked the side of the dumpster so hard some trash spilled out revealing a child's Burger King paper crown from a lost day in the lost life of the nameless real, its gold paper glistening in the sun. Just then the soul of John Wieners stood beside us and when he picked up the Burger King crown and set it on his courtly brow, you could see it wasn't paper at all, but the live body of a blue-claw crab, its shell delicately balancing on top of John's bald spot, its legs in the air like a Boston prostitute, and in each of its needley pincers a birthday candle glowing in the blue smoke of the Virgin Mary's cigarette.

This is the lone poem in the final section of the book (&, in fact, is the final work Barrett read at Writers House as well, a good piece on which to close). The return here of John Wieners makes me realize that the deeper model in Kevin White, deeper than the novel, just might be the serial poetry of Jack Spicer, especially the run of great books that began with Heads of the Town Up to the Aether & ran through Book of Magazine Verse. That’s the kind of cohesion I sense page-to-page, section-to-section, tho with none of the acrid sarcasm that characterizes so much of Spicer’s use of public figures.

Oddly, as I write, Small Press Distribution has no copies of Kevin White on hand & the Pressed Wafer website hasn’t been updated even longer than that of the National Poetry Foundation, so it may well be that you can’t buy this book at the moment. Which is a shame. Hopefully this will be corrected shortly.

 

¹ Tho I note her body was buried where Bulger had already stocked two other bodies, one of them a drug trafficker & jewel thief by the name of Arthur “Bucky” Barrett.

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