Saturday, October 22, 2005


David Bromige, unarmed


Today is the birthday of one of my favorite poets, ever, David Bromige.

Bromige is one of those people of whom I haven’t written nearly as much here as I ought. He has been one of my primary influences for some 27 years, ever since I first ventured with my friend David Perry¹ over to Paul Mariah’s poetry reading series at the Albany Public Library, then on Solano Avenue in my old home town, to hear Perry’s fellow Bard alum, Harvey Bialy. I had not heard of this fellow with whom Bialy was reading, but between his deep voice, ready laugh, extravagantly elegant sentences & carefully honed ear, I was immediately captivated. He was, it seemed, a graduate student at Berkeley, but had been a farm boy in British Columbia, and before that a lad on the streets of London. If, in 1968, you were at all attuned to the implications of Charles Olson’s ideas of how breath equaled the line & simultaneously revealed place within poetry, David Bromige promised some extraordinary challenges:

Whoever stood furthest up the trail was the master
of the trail, which for the most part climbs
through a beautiful if crowded forest, though the final
four or five hundred yards rise
above the tree-line, across tricky scree, & ends
at that peak, which is also the scarp-edge, a steep
&, despite the rumors, inaccessible, drop
on one side, the shallow slope on the other, where the wood
grows, that is mainly conifers.
To be master
meant, to gather all those things the ownership of which
proves masterhood, a tribute
all other travelers are bound to pay

I was forced to admit, right there at the outset, that this was a facility with syntax & with syntax’ relation to the line, I would never fully have, no matter how long I practiced or hard I tried.

Bromige originally may have come to this focus in his poetry as a result of his early fascination with, work on, and friendships with the likes of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, but this focus extends far deeper & further than questions of influence could imply. One could argue that Bromige took them considerably further than all of his early masters, even as he himself came less to be identified with Projectivism as such & more with language poetry. I think in part that this is because he showed that he could attain such mastery & set it all aside, his imagination was/is so restless, that he could write works that removed all the elements with which he was so identified, just to see what remained if & when. Thus a prose poem composed of slightly refiltered reviews of his work:

My poetry does seem to have a cumulative, haunting effect – one or two poems may not touch you, but a small bookful begins to etch a response, poems rising in blisters that itch for weeks, poems like ball-bearings turning on each other, over & over, digging down far enough to find substance, a hard core to fill up the hand. It’s through this small square that my poems project themselves, flickering across the consciousness, finally polarizing in the pure plasma of life.

“My Poetry,” the title work in the book of the same name, continues on in this vein for another ten pages, identifying a discursive mode as texture, which is the real content of the poem.

One could write about David Bromige in terms of his relationship to language poetry, the Projectivism, even to the phenomenon of New Western poetry – he’s a contemporary of Drum Hadley, Bill Deemer, David Meltzer, Jim Koller & the rest – as well as to western Canadian poetry. Any one of these approaches would be interesting & revealing, yet none would completely capture what has been so consistently unique about his work. If anything, it’s that constant questing, combined with the complete mastery of whatever new task he’s taken on. Nowhere else in my generation will you find it quite like this.

Have a great birthday, David.



¹ Not the poet who currently lives in Kansas City, but the poet who was a student of Robert Kelly’s at Bard in the early 1960s, now I believe a therapist in upstate New York.

Friday, October 21, 2005


I’ve never been clear if Bill Deemer ever lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where so much of the New Western poetry of the 1960s came together, or whether he has always been up in the Eugene, Oregon area where he lives now. In the 1960s, Deemer was a name one saw frequently in periodicals like Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal & it was obvious that Deemer had a considerable ease with the formation of line & stanza. There were at least two books in the 1960s, Poems from Auerhahn Press, one of the prestige fine presses in San Francisco, and Diana, from Coyote’s Journal, the book that originally introduced me to Deemer’s work. There was, or so suggests, at least one self-published volume that decade – I never saw it. There was one book in the 1970s that I also never saw, then two in the 1980s from Coyote – which I believe is what Jim Koller’s press had evolved into – and more recently a trio of things from Bob Arnold’s Longhouse Press up in Vermont. I would be surprised – shocked even – if any edition had more than the 525 copies of that first Auerhahn volume, tho Deemer was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards for Variations. Longhouse’s catalog, which still has copies of the 250-copy run available at $25 apiece, says this of Variations:

I wouldn't be an American if I didn't do a little self-promotion. In that tricky vein of remembering just what it was like when you first read a Richard Brautigan poem during that time (50s-60s) or a Philip Whalen poem, or in further time a Louis Jenkins poem, and now Jim Dodge poem, and Eileen Myles poem, that flash. Never take a flash lightly. Bill Deemer is our Han-Shan and has lived for decades in a quiet corner of Oregon making these well-built poems of flash. There is nothing like them any where. Bill doesn't talk to us anymore since we did this book and had to raise the price a few dollars. I wouldn't want it any other way. It's a Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea sort of thing. We hand-made this book of hand-made poems.

Deemer comes very close these days to being a haiku-ist – his impulse for the short poem constructed around consciously counted syllables & a two- or three-part logic is broken only when he gathers several of these together, as in what I take to be the title work, “Variations on a Theme”:

no bigger than that
flies all the way south

no bigger than that
pushed winter aside

no bigger than that
needs so many legs

no bigger than that
won’t be ignored

no bigger than that
ruins her makeup

no bigger than that
plunders & wars

no bigger than that
but all Paris listened

no bigger than that
puts lumps on my head

no bigger than that
made Basho famous

no bigger than that
shelters a family

no bigger than that
reflects the sky

I can get into the efficiency of these stanzas almost instantly, a poetics with clear affinities with Phil Whalen & Anselm Hollo, say. They’re deliberately anti-ambitious, which I suspect must raise up a whole range of emotions when other poets read these works.¹ It takes a particular kind of gall to write without ambition & Deemer knows it:


the cows stop eating
to watch me pass.

more blackberries
than I will ever pick.

There are numerous homages to Issa & Basho, and a suite of six poems all offering variations on Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow.” There is room for sentiment, humor, a little grumpiness. What there isn’t room for is excess or waste – this book’s primary value is an economy of precision. On its own terms, it’s a delight.


¹ I’ll be almost shocked if I don’t get a comment or email to the effect of “Geez, Silliman, you used to be so cutting edge!” But what that writer wouldn’t recognize is that as recently as the 1960s, this was cutting edge.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Easily the best expression of what I called yesterday the New Western aesthetic within the New American Poetry was the magazine Coyote’s Journal during the mid-1960s – edited originally by James Koller, Carol Arnett & a rotating host of others, it has continued onward, sporadically, in Koller’s hands and may still exist to this day. An listing for the second issue identifies its contributors as Larry Eigner, Theodore Enslin, Cid Corman, Ed Dorn (featured in 28 pages), Douglas Woolf, Anselm Hollo, Robert Kelly, James Koller & Gary Snyder. Another, for double issue 5-6 mentions Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Philip Whalen, Richard Brautigan, Anselmo Hollo among the contributors. A 1971 issue – the first after a four year hiatus – lists Gary Snyder, Harold Littlebird, Jack Collom, Franco Beltrametti, Lew Welch, Giulia Niccolai, Adriano Spatola, Al Glover, Paul Blackburn, Don Eulert, Coyote Man, Zoe Brown, Jerome Rothenberg, Bobby Byrd, Harry Hoogstraten, Drummond Hadley, Keith Wilson, James Koller, Allen Ginsberg. I had originally thought that Caterpillar, Clayton Eshleman’s first magazine, had modeled itself after Coyote’s Journal, as they had similar physical formats, an interest in the heritage of the Black Mountain poets & large-scale ambition, but Clayton corrects me, noting that his template above all others had been Origin (which makes sense, in part because Eshleman was still very much the New Yorker when he started Caterpillar.)

But as Coyote’s Journal stopped being a predictable presence in the poetry journals section at City Lights, Serendipity & Cody’s in the Bay Area – eight issues occurred between 1964 & 67, then nothing for four years – something curious happened. Nothing. While other publications shared some or all of Coyote’s aesthetic – Clifford Burke’s Hollow Orange, for example, or John Oliver Simon’s Aldebaran Review or even Will Inman’s Kauri – they were smaller publications even within the social frame of small presses. With Olson’s death – he was an important influence for many New Western poets, in part because his insistence on space seemed to point in their direction – the rise of other literary tendencies, including Actualism & Language Poetry, the New Western’s adamant resistance to leaders resulted in a shift away from any cohesive aesthetics. The New Western moment had passed.

This did not mean, however, that New Western poets themselves had stopped writing, but the sense of anything larger or more cohesive soon dissolved. Snyder had already ceased to be a presence in the Bay Area, Phil Whalen was immersed in his study of Zen, Richard Brautigan turned to the novel, Lew Welch took a pistol & disappeared into the woods, his body never to be found. Others continued to be active, but without the same focused outlet for their work, moved to more private or local solutions.

One of the poets who seemed to vanish was Drummond Hadley, who had published one book, The Webbing, with Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation in 1967. Hadley, as it happened, had moved to the Mexico/Arizona/New Mexico border sometime around 1965, where he has worked as a cowboy & rancher for the past four decades, founding the Animas Foundation, a group devoted to sustainable agriculture, & helping to start the Malpai Borderlands Group, an ecosystem management project. Somewhere along the line Drummond got shortened to Drum. And now, finally, Hadley has a big collection of his poetry available from Rio Nuevo, entitled Voice of the Borderlands, introduction by Gary Snyder. Given that Rio Nuevo is a regional publisher – typical titles include The Prickly Pear Cookbook, Navajo Rug Designs & The Legend of the O.K. Corral – it’s not evident that Voice is going to get the national distribution it deserves.

One could legitimately characterize Hadley as a cowboy poet, save that he’s a cowboy who quotes Charles Olson & has obviously read Ed Dorn’s Slinger, & who mentions Snyder, Creeley, Coyote’s Journal founder Jim Koller & Keith Wilson among others in his acknowledgements page. And tho he is given to fairly simple, straightforward poems, the book not unwisely includes a five-page glossary, so that us city types won’t think that RCA (Rodeo Cowboy Association) isn’t the technology firm once headquartered in Camden, NJ.

Of all the poets who reflect to one degree or another the influence of Olson, Hadley may be the only one to fully get it that the fundamental genre of The Maximus Poems is dramatic monolog, and that it is Olson more than anyone who demonstrated what might be done with that form going forward. Dramatic monolog, along with free verse & the prose poem, one might characterize as one of the three great formal innovations of early modernism, yet it is perhaps the one least well understood today, in part because of the likes of Richard Howard & Frank Bidart attempting to preserve Robert Browning in amber.

Hadley, tho, is closer in spirit to the documentary impulse one finds in Olson, tho less with documents, more with the voices of the people around him. It’s something one finds, albeit with a different attitude, in the work of Jonathan Williams with its broad characterization of accents. Many of the poems in Voices are identified after the poem as “Voice of,” tho the names – Bronc Buster Billy Brown, Walter Ramsey, Coot-Si-Wii-Kii-Ooo-Ma (Delbridge Honani), Trog Smith, Stan Hall, Porfirio, Bill Bryan – are obviously not selected for their currency with the audience, say, at St. Marks. Thus, through the eyes of others, we can sometimes glimpse Hadley off to the side in the poem, in the third person, as with “A Calf with Three Legs”:

One day, Porfirio and Drum were riding together
They came upon a young calf
Who had been born with only three legs.
The calf’s right front leg was missing.
Porfirio looked at the calf for a long time.
Finally, he said, “La luna le comió la pierna, digo yo,
the moon ate the leg, says I.”


The real energy of these pieces lies less in any individual poem than in the overall tapestry they present of a way of living that has all but disappeared in this country – at 350 pages, it’s rich & detailed. The collection is gathered thematically rather than chronologically – thus one runs into sequences of poems devoted to a single subject, such as keeping warm out of doors. Specificity is important here, tho often for Hadley it’s the specificity of the voices he captures – many poems are simply comments, not necessarily from the blue state perspective we’re used to in contemporary verse. Here is a piece with both title & subtitle (or, as Hadley suggests in the index, section heading & title, tho the section here consists just of this one poem), “THE TRADERS: Horse Trading”:

My old Daddy used to say,
“You walk around a horse once.
You look in his mouth
You’re ready to trade.
It’s about the same with a man or a woman.
You walk around one of them once.
You see what’s in their eyes.
You’re ready to trade.”

Voice of ROY THORN

Simple as that poem is, the voice there hinges on the one extraneous word in the entire piece: “old.” It heightens the spareness of what follows as well as positioning both speaker & the original saying in narrative time.

All told, this is a sad book precisely because of the changes that have occurred, are occurring & are certain to occur in the future to this part of the American landscape. One glimpses the modern world only occasionally, and in surprising ways – a co-inventor of the H-bomb worries about zipping up his pants – yet it’s unseen, literally unvoiced presence hangs over this volume like a cloud.

This is an important book, tho clearly not for every reader. Poetry has a lot of social functions & one of the implications of the Olsonian program is that it can document lives in ways no other record could capture. Drum Hadley has tuned in to that possibility in a way that’s virtually unique, even as the poems themselves are no more difficult for non-readers of poetry than, say, Spoon River Anthology. Hadley himself appeared on NPR the other day, reading from Voices. You can listen to it here.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005


I’ve written on numerous occasions that the so-called San Francisco Renaissance was largely a fiction, perpetrated in part by Donald Allen in order to give The New American Poetry a section that acknowledged just how much of this phenomenon rose up out of the San Francisco Bay Area – a literary backwater prior to WW2, but now suddenly a primary locale for much that was new. The other part – and it’s not clear to me who, if anyone, could be said to have perpetrated this – was an allusion back to the earlier Berkeley Renaissance, which had been a decisive, thriving literary tendency in the late 1940s, early 1950s. If you look at Allen’s S.F. Renaissance grouping, you call still make out the vestiges of that earlier moment in the presence of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer & Robin Blaser, the trio that had given rise to the Berkeley Renaissance while studying at the University of California, along with, I suppose, Helen Adam, who at the time of the anthology was something of a Duncan protégé. Yet there are also poets representing an older San Francisco scene, such as Madeline Gleason & James Broughton & even – tho it’s a stretch, given what a loner he was, at least when he wasn’t actively channeling Robinson Jeffers – Brother Antoninus (William Everson). Then there are a group of younger poets – Richard Duerden, Kirby Doyle, Ebbe Borregaard & Bruce Boyd – whom it’s harder to place aesthetically, a fact that is still true some 45 years after the book’s initial publication, as they’ve become its least published participants. That Allen placed Lawrence Ferlinghetti into this grouping, rather than with the Beats, suggests just how arbitrary these distinctions were.

Given that he was improvising & fabricating in search of clustering principles in general, it’s curious that Allen completely missed one of the most interesting & useful formations among the New Americans, a western poetics that may have first revealed itself at Reed College in Portland, and which didn’t fully take flight until the mid- to late-1950s in San Francisco. Gary Snyder, Lew Welch & Phil Whalen in fact were just the first of a number of poets who came out of this aesthetic – one could probably put Duerden & Borregaard there as well, plus three other contributors to the Allen anthology, all of whom joined Snyder & Whalen in Allen’s curiously amorphous unaffiliated fifth grouping: Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer. Beyond the Allen anthology itself, one might add Richard Brautigan, James Koller, Joanne Kyger, David Schaff, Bill Deemer, Drummond Hadley, Clifford Burke, David Gitin, John Oliver Simon, Lowell Levant, John Brandi, Gail Dusenberry & a host of others. In general, these poets were straight where the Duncan-Spicer axis was gay. Perhaps most importantly, this cluster really had no leaders as such. It was not as though some, such as Snyder or Whalen, might not have led by example, but that their personalities were not given to the constant marshalling of opinion that one could identify in such others as Olson, Duncan, Spicer, Ginsberg, O’Hara or even Creeley. This mode – lets call it New Western – perhaps reached its pinnacle of influence during the heyday of Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal during the mid-1960s. But without anything like a leader or a program, poised midway aesthetically between the Beats & Olson’s vision of Projectivist Verse, the phenomenon never gelled, never became A Thing & by the 1970s already was entering into an entropic period from which it has yet to re-emerge.

Just 23 when The New American Poetry hit the streets, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer were the babies of that project (indeed, they’re just one year older than David Bromige & David Melnick & eight years younger than Hannah Weiner, all of whom would be associated more closely with language writing come the 1970s). Loewinsohn went on to become a literature professor & novelist, but Meltzer has hung in as a poet, with a few side forays into music, jazz writing & erotic fiction, all these decades. Now, with David’s Copy just out from Penguin, Meltzer seemed poised to get the attention his work is due.

Actually, considering just how many of the Beat poets were treated like rock stars while Meltzer, fronting Serpent Power with his late wife Tina (and drums by Clark Coolidge), actually had a rock band long before Jim Carroll or Patti Smith, it’s odd that Meltzer hasn’t become much more widely known, celebrated before this. David’s Copy is at least the fourth selected poems he’s published, the others being Tens, Arrows & The Name, and many of his earlier books were published by Black Sparrow, one of the rare small presses to have had some volumes – mostly those by Charles Bukowski – widely distributed through the big book chains.

There are, I suspect, multiple reasons for this. One is that New Western aesthetic never really broke through, even if a few of its practitioners – Whalen, Snyder, McClure – did. A second, more important aspect is that old bugaboo of so many poets – Meltzer’s not a compulsive self-promoter. As the youngest of the New Americans, his timing was just a little behind from a marketing perspective. Indeed, as Ginsberg et al became folk icons in the 1960s, Meltzer’s first books that decade were from small Bay Area fine presses like Auerhahn & Oyez – his one big trade publication prior to David’s Copy being an anthology he edited in 1971, The San Francisco Poets, a collection notably missing the Duncan/Spicer axis, including just Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Welch, McClure, Brautigan & Everson. Meltzer’s first sizeable collection doesn’t appear until 1969, when he brings out Yesod with the British press, Trigram. It didn’t receive much distribution stateside. Black Sparrow releases his first large collection in the states, Luna, in 1970.

Part of this neglect may also be due to the fact that Meltzer is Jewish. It’s not that there were no Jews among the New Americans – Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Eigner all come instantly to mind. But the intersection between the New American poetry & the New Age approach to religious experience in the 1960s (Serpent Power?) tended to mute its presence in all but Ginsberg’s writing. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all shocked to discover that many readers of Eigner were late to discover the heritage of the bard of Swampscott. In the 1960s, the Objectivists were only gradually coming back into print. And Jerome Rothenberg didn’t really begin making the space for an active presence for a Jewish space within American poetics until late in that decade, during that interregnum betwixt the New Americans & language poetry.

Finally, Meltzer – and this I think is a sign of his youth relative, say, to Whalen or Snyder or Ginsberg or Olson or Duncan or O’Hara et al – lacked the kind of visible trademark of a differentiated literary style that one associates with all of the above, and even with someone closer to Meltzer’s age, like Michael McClure. Meltzer’s work has always been in the vicinity of New American poetics without ever being its own recognizable brand – as such, it would be difficult if not impossible for a younger poet to mimic. It’s not that Meltzer lacked the chops & more as though he never saw the need per se. In this sense, Meltzer’s situation is not unlike that, say, of a Jack Collom, another terrific poet of roughly the same generation who has never really gotten the recognition he deserves. In a sense, those who were a little further outside the New American circle – like poets in New York who were visibly not NY School, such as Rothenberg, Antin, Ed Sanders or Joel Oppenheimer – had an advantage because their circumstance forced them to define themselves in opposition even to poets whose work they cherished.

Indeed, if there is a defining element or signature device in Meltzer’s work, it’s that he alone among the New Westerns has an eye for the hard edges of pop culture, something one expects from the NY School. Often, as in this passage from “Hollywood Poems,” it’s accompanied by a tremendously agile ear:

                De Chirico without Cheracol
saw space where its dead echo opened up
a plain unbroken by the dancers.
a relic supermarket nobody shops at.
Plaster-of-Paris bust of Augustus
Claude Rains Caesar face-down beneath
a Keinholz table
whose top is blue with Shirley Temple’s saucers,
pitchers. Mickey Mouse
wind-up dolls in rows like
All tilt out of the running without electricity.
Veils of history,
garments worn in movies, hung on
steel racks at Costume R.K.O.
R. Karo would’ve used the tower’s light.
He’d wear it as a cap to re-route lost energy.

So dense with details that it rides like a list (& sounds like a Clark Coolidge poem), this passage is actually a better depiction of a De Chirico landscape than those one finds in John Ashbery’s poetry. David’s Copy is filled with such moments, which makes it a terrific read.

One might squabble with the fact that the book is not strictly chronological, or that the first 25 years of his writing gets more weight (over 150 pages) than does the last 25 (roughly 100), tho I suspect that’s because more of the recent work is still in print. On the whole, such squabbles are few. Editor Michael Rothenberg had done a first-rate job here, smartly including bibliography & a decent two-page bio note from Meltzer & an excellent introduction from Jerry Rothenberg. Toward the end of the introduction, Rothenberg notes:

Elsewhere, in speaking about himself, he tells us that when he was very young, he wanted to write a long poem called The History of Everything. It was an ambition shared, maybe unknowingly, with a number of other young poets – the sense of what Clayton Eshleman called “a poetry that attempts to become responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.” Then as now it ran into a contrary directive: to think small or to write in ignorance of what had come before or in deference to critic-masters who were themselves, most often, nonpractitioners & nonseekers.

From my perspective, it’s a shame that project never took hold, but then I don’t think there’s any contradiction between such scale & the desire to “think small” (or, as I might put it, to write in the present) – that’s one lesson one takes from Zukofsky’s “A.” Throughout, there are works that evidence an impulse to “go long,” almost in the sense of a football quarterback, but most often they come back to the compilation of shorter works that one might expect to see from the likes of Whalen, Welch or Snyder. The whole of David’s Copy offers us a deeper link into that New Western poetics, even as it connects that world outward, toward the New York School & the poetics that would emerge in the 1970s & ‘80s in a journal like Sulfur. The key, as it is in New Western poetry in general, is precisely that desire to “think small” as Rothenberg puts it, to write in the complete present. Meltzer is less openly Zen-like than, say, Whalen or Joanne Kyger, but the pleasure can be every bit as deep.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Finally, belatedly, I got around to viewing Crash, not the Cronenberg film from the J.G. Ballard book of the same name, but Paul Haggis’ film from last year, starring Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Brendan Fraser & a host of others. It’s an effective & moving ensemble piece, but so familiar that I had to rent Robert Altman’s 1993 Short Cuts to double check my vision. I was right – in many ways, they’re the same movie. But it’s the differences that are telling.

Both are “ensemble projects” set in Los Angeles around large casts portraying almost uniformly dysfunctional human beings. An automobile accident narratively is the key event in each film. And both make use of first-rate actors in projects where nobody gets to take a star turn, unless possibly it’s Alex Trebek’s one scene in Short Cuts portraying himself. In each film, one of the secondary plot lines appears to show someone getting away with homicide, and in neither case is the killer one of the narratively evil characters. In fact, in each film the “worst” person is involved in a rescue, revealing them to be something less of a monster than they may have been previously portrayed. In Crash, this theme is hammered home by having it occur not once, but twice. The bad cop rescues the very same woman he sexually molested the night before from a flaming auto wreck; the gangbanger auto thief (rapper Ludacris) refuses the small fortune ($500 a head) he is offered by the chop shop owner for a vanload of illegal immigrants he has inadvertently kidnapped while boosting a van, turning the bewildered Asians loose in the streets of Chinatown & even giving them some money. In fact, one could say it occurs two more times, as the gangbanger himself is rescued after one of his carjack victims, the TV producer played by Terrence Howard, who failed to protect his wife the night before from the marauding hands of Matt Dillon, refuses to turn Ludacris into the LAPD. The producer in turn is rescued by Dillon’s good cop/rookie ex-partner.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. The “rescue” in Short Cuts is nothing more than its bad cop – great rep you got there, LAPD – Tim Robbins finds & returns the yapping pooch he had deliberately “lost” in another neighborhood the previous day. And Short Cuts is a satire played with a heavy hand, while Crash proposes itself as a more serious fable. Both have social commentary at the heart of their project – Crash wants it to be taken seriously, Short Cuts is a more cynical film – it thinks the problem as it sees it is beyond repair.

Crash in a way is much clearer about what it thinks this problem is – free floating anger, that motivates every single character in this film. Matt Dillon can’t get his ailing father his medicine from the inept bureaucracy of his HMO, so he takes his frustration out on the first people he sees – a black TV producer whose wife was giving him a blow job as they returned home from a party. The gangbangers confront racism on the streets of Westwood, which they use to excuse their theft of cars. The owner of the little Persian shop can’t communicate clearly with the owner of the gun shop & nearly gets thrown out of the store, leaving his college educated daughter to buy the ammunition. Later, when his locksmith tells him he can’t fix the lock on the store’s back door properly because the problem isn’t the lock, it’s the deteriorating door itself, the Persian calls him a thief. The Latino locksmith has already heard as much from Sandra Bullock, wife of the DA, as she has the locks on their doors changed after she and her husband had their car hijacked by the gangbangers. When the Persian’s store is trashed, the word “Arab” scrawled across its walls, he blames the locksmith and takes the gun to go off & shoot him. But when he gets ready to pull the trigger, the locksmith’s five-year-old daughter jumps in the way. It’s an echo of the about-to-turn-eight-year-old child of the News Anchor who runs in front of diner waitress Lily Tomlin’s car in Short Cuts.

Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver, sees pretty much everything in terms of gender relations & alcohol. At least half of the characters in the film are alcoholics, most are unfaithful to their partners, whether this is treated in broadly comic turns, as when the cop’s mistress spends the weekend with her other lover (while her ex-husband systematically destroys her furniture & clothing, slicing everything in half), or with somewhat more painful realism, as when Julianne Moore (the sister-in-law of the cop), admits to her husband that, yes, she fucked Mitchell Anderson at a party three years ago, just as he’s always suspected. That scene is drawn out, with Moore naked from the waist down for much of it, a sharp contrast with most of the rest of that picture.

Crash has a completely different analysis. For it, race is the dynamic factor. Either race is the cause of all this anger, or – more accurately – it’s the focal point, the place in which it’s allowed to come out & flow all over other people, the weak point in the levee of social relations. When rich bitch Sandra Bullock, who has badmouthed every person of color she’s seen for two days after her carjacking, falls downstairs, nobody will come to help her but her maid. Bullock, whose husband is portrayed as the shallowest of politicians – he has to given award to a black cop to expiate the political problem caused by his having been robbed by blacks the night before – is given the film’s topic sentences, narratively one of its few serious weak points. When she calls to explain what’s happened to her husband, he looks knowing at his black female assistant. My wife insists that that look has to be read as a sign that the D.A. is banging his aide & I tend to think she’s correct. The cop he wants to reward, Don Cheadle, has a junky mother and a brother who, by the film’s end, is dead at the hands of the anti-racist good cop.

Both films make the argument that people, or at least adults, are walking wounded, wherever they go. Neither blames the dimensions on which they focus for this wound, as such – Matt Dillon’s problem has more to do with capitalist power relations in late modern society, the programs that overtook his father’s marginal business, the rules of the HMO designed to minimize its responsibility to treat pain if pain should cost – but both explore how this woundedness is expressed through race or gender. I started to add alcohol to that list as well, but I actually don’t think Short Cuts has any coherent perspective on this – it’s characters are self-medicating through booze as best they can, but at most the alcohol is shown to blunt emotions & reactions. Thus Annie Ross blows off her daughter’s distress at the neighbor boy’s death, a reaction that triggers an even more baleful consequence, but it’s little more than a detail here.

Long term, Robert Altman is a far greater director than Paul Haggis ever will be, but Short Cuts is not The Player, Nashville nor Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean – for my money, Altman’s best pictures. It’s as if he’s telling a story, wants to focus on these dimensions of it, yet doesn’t really have a story to tell, only a series of interconnected actions. Crash is 76 minutes shorter than Short Cuts & may have fewer characters, fewer plotlines, but overall it has a lot more to say.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Ever since he took over as director at St. Marks’ Poetry Project, Anselm Berrigan has insisted, repeatedly & publicly, that there is no single aesthetic agenda at work at the fabled home church of the New York School. If a look at the program there wasn’t proof enough of Berrigan’s contention, bringing in Midwest mariner Stacy Szymaszek, whose aesthetics are poised midway between Objectivist minimalism & an interest in Olsonian documenta – the closest thing to a projectivist poet at St. Marks since the heyday of Paul Blackburn in the mid-1960s – to work as the new literary program director there should certainly seal the deal.

But, for me, the real proof that the phrase “New York School” no longer has any current substance is that nobody I know thinks to use the phrase to describe the elegant, wry, pointed poems of Shanna Compton. In the past week I’ve received her new “first” book, Down Spooky,¹ which Aaron McCullough selected as Winnow Press’ first “open book” competition winner. And before you can exclaim what a coincidence it is that one well-known poetry blogger might select the work of another well-known poetry blogger, even tho they may very well not know one another personally, here is well-known poetry blogger Tom Beckett including several new, mostly post-Down Spooky pieces by Compton in Beckett’s guest-edited new MiPoesias, webzine of well-known poetry blogger Didi Menendez. There is even a terrific, eight-minute audio interview with Compton by Laurel Snyder, whom I think of not as a well-known poetry blogger, but more of a podcaster. And here I am, writing about Shanna Compton as well, whose book I opened not only because it’s exceptionally well designed, but also because I know her work, primarily from the web. Have I mentioned my new theory that the web has replaced lower Manhattan & SoMa San Francisco as the primary poetry “hang out” space? And that the next New Yawk School will be composed mostly of bloggers, even if they happen to live in Lawrence, Kansas, Norway, Tijuana, Toronto or Taiwan?

But that’s not what I mean really, when I associate Shanna Compton’s work with the historic NY School, especially that side of its second generation that might best be represented by the likes of Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson & Dick Gallup, all fashioners of lyrics that look as casual & friendly as anything e’er typed out by Frank O’Hara, but with a polish & a twist one might associate instead with John Ashbery. That’s an influence I see at times in the work of certain langpos, especially Alan Bernheimer & Kit Robinson (especially early Kit Robinson), but mostly when I run into it today among younger writers – the late Marc Kuykendall, for example – it often feels to me like a limit, the outer reaches of where the poetry might go, whereas for Compton, like Bernheimer & Robinson, it feels just the opposite, as a jumping off place, a launching pad toward something altogether new. One of the things this makes me think about is that, besides the influx from outside the circle of the first generation NY School poets of the work of Ted Berrigan & to some degree Anne Waldman, the second generation poets were the first who were able to synthesize those Ashbery-O’Hara strains, adding in a sense of wit that has more to do with Kenneth Koch than either of the other masters, to create something that was really new as a poem. That is why the 2nd generation New York School poetry is the only second generation of anything I can think of that is as important, ultimately, as the first. Second generation Projectivists, for example, spent more time breaking with the fathers than synthesizing them. There never was a second generation SF Renaissance because the first had largely been a fiction perpetrated by Don Allen.² Second generation Beats were simply echoes of the first, but without the good educations & intense commitment to craft.³

Compton gets away with her own retro echo of the 2nd gen NY School because so very many of her poems are brilliant, perfectly crafted & even surprising, even as they occur within a formal palette we’ve lived with for four decades now. Here is “Slashy Speakers, Nervy Endings”:

At the drive-in where
there’s nothing to see
but the weeds growing,
the joints glowing, and
the hooligans breaking shit
and making out, I
one time caught a
horror flick. It reminded
me of you. We
guffawed over the screams,
blushed at the sexy
scenes. Back then you
acted like yourself and
I looked like me.

And here is “Post-Texas Expressive Heat”:

Your mother put a
fan in the oven,
he said, to cool
it down. That’s right
the door is open
and on it sits
a little fan, blowing.
I am a little
fan, she says, an
ardent fan, a big
fan of yours. Whew.

Consider just how completely Compton controls the timing of this second poem by inserting that “he said” into the third line – it’s not “filler” text in the slightest. It also sets up the “she says” in the ninth line, which is crucial precisely because it’s so ambiguous as to just whom “she” might be.

You can get famous writing this well, and Compton very likely will. Even more important, from my point of view, are the pieces that show her going beyond her initial frame of reference. “Fusion Lingo,” for example, harkens back to Creeley’s use of the quatrain & Zukofsky’s sense of the hard-edged line in ways that I’ve seldom seen accomplished before:

She lectured us
about this
and was paid
in tinctures.

Over to the
via buses, the BQE
bust open good.

She took a swing,
a swig. We waited.
We sang
at the bar.

A first pressing, rare,
ovoid and red,
a heart presses another,
she said.

Underfoot a flagrant circular:
How to Earn Sense
on the Dollar, How to Own
Your Self.

She lectured us,
all fools, while
the stools
revolved and revolved.

This is a terrific piece of writing – my favorite poem in the book – and if I try to imagine any other living poet who could conceivably have written something on this order, the only person I can think of might be Bob Perelman. That’s about the highest praise I could give anyone, frankly. Another poem that reminds me of the heroic phase of language poetry – here Kit Robinson rather than Perelman – is “The Woman from the Public”:

When I was in the fourth grade
    School system.
The woman from the public
My science teacher drove me every day
    Library. The woman from the public
After school to the public
The woman elected to public
Library. I waited there for my mother
    Office. The woman who claimed to own public
Who worked in a government building
The woman from the Public
A few blocks away. Red tiles topped
    Works commission. The woman from the public
The roof of the public library.

    Park. The woman who in public
Upstairs there were private carrels
    Wore gold jewelry even while jogging. Public
For earnest students from the junior
    Sentiment against the women who supported public
Ms. Grisom drove a silver
    Stonings in an editorial. Public
Pacer. Once she asked me
    Television’s special Becoming a Woman. Public
What I would make if I knew how to make
    Humiliation of a woman named Looney. Public
I didn’t understand
    Appreciation of works on paper by female artists. Public
What she meant by that. Her first
    Lot number 3057. The woman from the Public
Name was
Charlotte, I think.
    Defender’s Office. The woman from the public
The back stairs smelled like soup.
    Pool. The women’s action group against public
The library was always quiet and I was alone.

What I love about this poem is how quiet & personal it is for a work that is so out front in establishing a particular politics. The interwoven threads pull in opposite directions, one towards a kind of confessionalism, the other toward the most impersonal of lists. Both are about what Marxists of a certain generation would have called the Woman Question. It is worth reminding ourselves that this poem rhymes in the harshest possible manner & that the contrast with this “public” tone is the very private, even hidden world of a latch-key kid being handed off out of sight (and yet “safe” because “public”)* between two women, both of whom work in public jobs. Cognitively & socially, this poem is far more complex than it at first appears.

These are all still poems within the framework that Compton finds already existing in the world. Yet her mastery of these forms is so complete that I cannot imagine that she won’t go beyond this fairly quickly. These pieces are evidence of a restless, almost limitless talent, so much so that I think we are just seeing only the very first glimpses of a great career.


¹ Quotation marks around “first,” because Compton has had chapbooks before, even one called Down Spooky, as well as editing other books, including one on gaming. As her interview with Snyder makes completely clear, she is hardly a newbie in the book world.

² This distinguishes it from the much more real phenomenon of the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s, early 1950s, from whom the SF Renaissance took its name. Allen needed some way to group all those Western poets together for his anthology, but it did not then follow that they all read one another, shared aesthetic values, or even talked.

³ As always, it’s the exception that proves the rule, Jack Hirschman being that exception.

* In Philadelphia, a rash of rapes in the Free Library a few years back shattered that particular parental myth.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


You may have to register with the website to read this report of a writer’s conference in Mexico City, but it’s worth the effort.

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