Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Low Carb

One of the pleasures
of eating insects alive

is how their legs thrash, tickling
the tongue and roof of your mouth –

it’s like a good seltzer fizz.
Then there’s the satisfying

crunch, followed by a burst
of cream filling.

It’s good to see Jim Bertolino counting his carbs in such efficient fashion. This is one of those poem-as-small- machine projects that works wonderfully because there is not a single molecule of wasted effort. Even the word like in the third stanza is strategically important, rare for one of the most over- and misused of all English terms, versatile tho it may be. This is a good example of a kind of poem that Bertolino has been writing well now for over four decades. So is this:


Living high on the head, his ego
an agitated liquid, he sang “Spoon

rover, wider than a meter,
brighter than a smile.” Marriage

had become a mirage supported
by labial alibis. “Who once was

considered beautiful,” he muttered.
He needed a pocket diesel, yearned

to be known as rapscallion
or scalawag. Howling had become his

method, weeping his accident.
”Toad it down in there,” she shouted.

”You’re squealing like a hog!”

Plath- or Sexton-like angst this is not, nor is it in any strict sense post-avant, tho Bertolino’s instincts put him not all that terribly far from the Actualists of the 1970s – something neither he nor they ever appear to have noticed – as well to an Actualist-type God like Anselm Hollo. Imagine, if you will, a wit in the vein of Ted Berrigan in packages as tightly crafted & compact as any by David Ignatow. Long before there were the Elliptical poets of the Third Way ‘twixt the School o’ Quietude (SoQ) & the post-avants (e.g., Lauterbach, Gander, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham), Jim Bertolino was doing his thing, first in Cincinnati – the city I still associate him with in my mind – and in more recent years out on the west coast, where he presently teaches at Western Washington University.

According to the contributor’s note in the new Hot Whiskey, where both of the above poems reside, Bertolino’s published nine volumes & 14 chapbooks over the years, including with some of the more established SoQ venues like Copper Canyon, Carnegie Mellon & New Rivers Press. CAPA, the Contemporary American Poetry Archives, has two of Bertolino’s more important publications online. I recommend taking a look at them both.

I’ve always thought that Bertolino was somebody who, if he had not taken the job in Cincinnati when he got out of Cornell, but gone to New York City instead & gotten a job in a bookstore (or at Artforum, which in those days was the same thing) & started hanging out at Saint Marks, would be infinitely more famous today than he is, partly because Bertolino would have fit right into that cusp between second & third gen NY Schoolers, and that’s pretty much where his sensibility fits as well. Koch, Padgett, Bertolino could easily have become a progression that would flow seamlessly in the reader’s mind.

That he’s never slotted very comfortably into the School of Quietude vision of the world is perhaps gauged best by the fact that, after 23 books, Bertolino’s never developed a steady relationship with any one of the SoQ publishing houses, so there has never been any cumulative sense of commitment and presence. A book here, a book there is one way to minimize the impact of a lot of publishing over the decades.

Every time I bring up the SoQ/post-avant bifurcation of American poetry – a phenomenon that dates back at least 160 years at this moment – I get a lot of angry response from people who feel they don’t fit into either one of these competing visions of the world & who seem to think that, simply by pointing out the presence of not one but two 800-pound elephants in the livingroom, I’m responsible for having created them. I’m certainly willing to agree that I think it’s hardest for poets who don’t fit neatly into either paradigm, particularly if they happen to live & work outside of one of the half-dozen primary literary scenes in the country.

Further, there’s an interesting history within the School of Quietude between the original tendencies that existed, say, at the end of the Second World War & a significant number of SoQ poets who arrived mostly in the 1950s rebelling at the somnambulant Anglophilia of the Boston Brahmins & Southern fugitives with their dusty doily closed verse patterns & a new more open poetics that still found itself militantly opposed to the poetics of the New American Poetry. Leaping poetry, open poetry, naked poetry, deep image, etc., none of the terms for this seems to have stuck, tho the most substantial SoQ writing of the past half century has in fact come from the likes of James Tate, James Wright, Jack Gilbert, Charles Simic & others who fall into this curious half-life of what I think of as an apostate SoQ.

I’m not sure just how Bertolino sees himself fitting into this scene, whether he seems himself in terms of a lineage that would include Russell Edson & Bill Knott, or whether he just imagines himself to be picking & choosing as he sees fit, some eye of the newt here, wings of the bat there. Nor is Bertolino the only writer who has slipped into this space between paradigms (&, I would argue, never truly received their due as a result): poets as divergent as Howard McCord & Jack Marshall come immediately to mind.

Jim Bertolino deserves to be read & taken on his own terms. It’s good to see him in Hot Whiskey, where his work sits alongside Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Dodie Bellamy, CA Conrad, Logan Ryan Smith, Clayton Eshleman, Dale Smith, yours truly & others. Bertolino’s work fits right in.