Monday, November 24, 2003

My sock puppet, my self.


The cult of the person casts a long shadow in the history of poetry: Whenever I speak, I speaks, as Creeley put it. From Dante’s poems to Beatrice, a love that would have gotten Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson into trouble, to Jack Spicer’s letters to Lorca, the poem with an intimate you has long been a text with a presumptive I. From Sappho’s love poems to Catullus’ far more sardonic fare, where there is a you, there is an I, a we, a universe of relations posed sometimes by no more than the simplest pronoun.


It’s a problem I once broached under the heading of “ventriloquism” in a piece, “Who Speaks” – not, you will note, a question – that Charles Bernstein appended as an afterword to the anthology Close Listening. Now the approach of ventriloquism goes one giant step further in the form of Lester, sock puppet extraordinaire & alleged author of the booklength manuscript, Be Somebody. Lester, obviously, is in the tradition of other wisecracking dummies from Charlie McCarthy to Triumph the Insult Dog, but also Armand Schwerner, Art Language & just possibly the aforementioned Mr. Bernstein & David Antin. &, dare I say, Spicer too falls on this side of the line, certainly in Language & Book of Magazine Verse.


Conceptual poetics is by definition problematic. When, during the last days of the Soviet state, Dmitri Prigov tore poems into pieces & then sealed the pieces inside envelopes, the role of the text & whole hosts of questions concerning literary “value,” even of the idea of value, were thus invoked. Be Somebody similarly pokes a very hard finger into the chest of Western literary assumptions. Consider, for example, this poem entitled – not numbered – “4.”


I: Hi. How am I?

I: I am fine. How am I doing?

I: Great. My me and me just bought a me up in me.

I: Is that so? I live in me too.

I: Well, that's terrific. I'll be neighbors! Say, me and I would love to have me and my me over for me sometime after the me is over.

I: Great! I think I'll take me up on that. I'm in a terrible me and I've got to run. Say 'hello' to me for me, will I?

I: OK, I'll take care. See me later.

There is a Steinian level of play here, but even more active is the setting up of the pronoun as jarring: this is only half-hidden by the joke of the ego-centric that underscores this text. Later in the book, one will run into, in reverse numerical order, 3, 2, 1, & 0, the first three of which replicate this text almost identically save for the pronouns, 3 focusing instead on You, 2 on We, 1 on They, and 0 on, one might say, zero:


0: Hi. How are?

0: Are fine. How are doing?

0: Great. And just bought a up in.

0: Is that so? Live in too.

0: Well, that's terrific. Be! Say, and would love to have and over for sometime after the is over.

0: Great! Think take up on that. Are in a terrible and got to run. Say 'hello' to for, will?

0: OK, take care. See later.

The range of texts in Be Somebody is fairly wide, all the way from the epistolic to poems that border on nursery rhymes. One hears not so much echoes of Bernstein, nor of, say, Alan Davies or Steve McCaffery, as one does their concerns, played out here with a level of commitment, the proverbial straight face, that would I suspect give even Davies a start:


What's going on here before your eyes, on this page? Yes, I am talking to you. Is it after the end of our world? Where has everyone gone? Please reply. Speak louder, I cannot hear you. I know everyone, as I know someone, or at least that is knowledge of many and one good enough for them. What they say, everyone, is what they say. Everyone is one, yes, someone, so one is many and many, one. You read that once, in a dream, but you have forgotten it. You are everyone, you are sleeping as one, as many things, all slowing down. Everyone turns at least once each night. Please reply. Speak louder. Normally everyone is what they say. Everyone is someone, or so they say. Or so that's what they say because someone has disappeared from this page and our world is at an end. I am talking to you, only you. Everyone. Someone. Please reply. I cannot hear you. Only silent things are said after the end of our world.


In the manuscript version, at least, the cover of Be Somebody offers us a mask, specifically the hockey mask of B-horror flick fame. If we want to know who speaks, we are told Simon says. And there are poems here with stanzas like this:


01 50ld 01's 5p1r1t f0r 4 9h05t,

c0rp0r4t3 v0c4t10n, c045t t0 5cr34m1n9

c045t 4nd 1t 15n't cl34r, th3 5p3ct3r

0f th3 n34rly l1v1n9, th3


I read that as:


I sold I’s spirit for a ghost,

corporate vocation, coast to screaming

coast and it isn’t clear, the specter

of the nearly living, the


Like somebody who understands that what makes Moby Dick great is all that stuff about whales, Be Somebody is difficult in the way the very best books are – it challenges our desire for the familiar (and nothing is more familiar than my pronoun, not even my name) & holds on like a pit bull with lockjaw for the entire trip, in this instance 58 pages.


Someday, someone is going to publish this book & then we will all have to deal with Lester’s intimate striptease of the self. Until then, it will remain – like the full-length version of Mark Peters’ Men – one of the great rumors of contemporary poetry. Lester has his website. But you have to read the book.