Thursday, August 17, 2006

All this week I’ve been writing about projects that seem to withhold something – as Jessica Smith does her reins over reader response, or as the anonymous collection does it unveiling of authorial anything, or the way Thomas Pynchon withholds his own biography. In contrast, Craig Allen Conrad – CAConrad to his friends (all one word) – is someone who wants to get it all in. Deviant Propulsion, just out from Soft Skull Press, is Conrad’s long awaited first full-length book, beating out his other equally long-awaited The Frank Poems, due some fine day from Jonathan Williams’ fabled Jargon Press.

Conrad is a fearless combination of the out front & tenderness, subtlety in the literary equivalent of outrageous drag. For example:

“vacant land”
means no

”nothing but a few
prairie dogs”
means no

”we swerved, hit
a cat, but no one
was hurt”
means no

This poem, which when you let it settle in & think about it for a minute, is remarkably Buddhist in its relationship to its content, carries the title “Severed Leg Pirouette.” It doesn’t take much to push the simple parallels of this text into an infinitely gaudier display. Or, consider this:

It’s True I Tell Ya
My Father Is a 50¢
Party Balloon

my father paper thin
lost on the basement floor

but who will put their lips
to his stiff old hard-on?
who will blow him up?
who will want this
man floating
stuck in
a tree again?

Or this consideration of parenting as well (literally on the facing page):

A World without Condoms

she swears it was the cucumber

nine months later
a son with
her eyes and
but the seeded spine and
leafy complexion are all Dad’s

the nurse rubs a little Creamy Italian
on his bright green belly
they coo at one another
blow bubbles at one another
”this won’t hurt a bit” she says
and tucks the napkin
under her chin

You sense that, had he wanted to be, Conrad could easily have been a Cid Corman to the new generation – the distance between these satires & the gentle ear isn’t all that terribly far – but that CA has another agenda in mind.

Then there is the seriously outrageous stuff, including a revenge fantasy against vaginas that wouldn’t go down well on the WOM-PO list. Part of what makes Conrad’s poetry work – which it almost always does for me – is that he himself is a mélange of so many different & unusual influences – southern & rural, urban & very definitely out of the closet. He also is a fulltime employee at one of the big chain bookstores in Philadelphia and, since the death of Gil Ott three plus years ago, visibly the greatest cohesive force the local poetry scene here has – he’s the one poet who knows everyone. Here is yet another poem involving the relationship with one’s parent, tilted this time on a completely different axis:

My Mother after
Knee Surgery

she calls it her
new knee it’s in
everything she
says her
new knee

hide my book of
poems tired of

she distracts herself
with television
I watch to
share her

when it’s boring
she makes herself
a drink
me one

drink gets

”hey, remember when i was
a kid i asked why humans
aren’t extinct, and you said
it’s because we’re afraid
of the dark?”

”bullshit, hey, c’mon now,
i’m trying to relax my
new knee dammit!”

Conrad’s best known work, “Celebrities I’ve Seen Offstage,” inevitably is the book’s high point, although I don’t think, really, it’s his best writing. First published in the Fall 2003 issue of Lodestar, the work is a not-so-distant cousin of Joe Brainard’s I Remember or perhaps some of Michael Lally’s more agitprop pieces:

Timothy Leary at Starwood having lunch with the Reverend Velveteen Sly a couple of naked pagans asked if they could get their pictures taken on his lap he twitched his gray brow with a big smile happy to oblige

Annie Sprinkle was dating my friend Marie they came over for a tarot reading we spent most of the time talking about herbs to cure AIDS I don't remember if the tarot answered anyone that night

Henry Winkler on Benjamin Franklin Parkway annoyed me to think of jerking off as a kid "Oh Fonzie, cum on my FACE! SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT!" what was my deal back then?

The Frugal Gourmet shooting a segment of his cooking show in the Reading Terminal Market telling someone what a moron his cameraman was then oooing and aaahing over the pastries for the camera moments later

As much fun as this work is, & fun is inescapably the point here, Conrad is almost too sweet & gentle, a little too much Carson Kressley, not sufficiently Devine. So what I come back to are the quieter poems – like the following one, whose Pepsi moment is literally right out of the biography of Rimbaud:

I Still Have Keys to the Apartment

i let myself in
the new boyfriend
asleep with your arm
wrapped around his waist
looks like we did
i take my clothes off
to slide between you
but the cats fill my arms
i miss the cats because
they smell of you
i want to lick the hairs
on your chest flat
while the new boyfriend sleeps
but sniff the cats instead
i could feed my sperm
to your plants so part of me
would always be around
but you’ve swallowed
enough of me to feed
your bones and eyes that
you’re not going
anywhere without me
i walk into the kitchen
careful to eat just one,
two grapes from the bunch
i hold back tears
see you still have
the smiling soccer ball
refrigerator magnets i gave you
the new boyfriend
doesn’t know i bought them
i open the refrigerator
a little at a time
try to talk myself out of it
but open it anyway
i pee in the Pepsi
feel a little better
and grab my clothes
i want to leave the keys behind
but know i’ll want
back in tomorrow