Friday, November 24, 2006


I finally got around to seeing Ron Howard’s film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code and it’s every bit the disaster that the reviews said the film was when it first came out. If you have never read the book, this flick, just released to DVD in time for your heretical holidays, very probably is going to seem unintelligible, moving as rapidly as it does, virtually leaping from plot point to plot point without the slightest pause for reflection. The characters have no opportunity to gain any real sense of connection with one another. Why the Parisian police cryptologist is rescuing the American “symbologist” (sic) is never very clear, nor why he believes her when she insists he’s in danger in the first place.

The essence of this story is that three sets of people, each with very different motives, are racing to solve the very same mystery, a puzzle in the form of a treasure hunt, the object the secret, literally, of the Holy Grail. Even in the book, the narrative is complicated to the edge of intelligibility because one of the three operates parasitically, letting the others do all the work, intervening just enough to make everyone’s actions a little muddy. Here, to squeeze everything into two-plus hours, Howard has drained the monks of any inner life they might have had, so that we are given just enough detail about their actions to understand that Our Heroes are at risk. But everyone feels instead as if they have been trimmed back to stick figures. The result seems more like you’re looking at the story boards for a motion picture than a film itself.

It’s a waste of good actors, doubly so since so many of them – Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina – are terribly miscast for their roles. You want them to have the time somewhere to try & develop (rescue) their characters, even just as an acting exercise, and it makes you wish that Howard had either stripped out perhaps an hour’s worth of plot, or else given himself the extra time – this film is long & feels much longer – to do this. There are moments in the film – the bank manager’s betrayal, for example – that seem to exist entirely out of all context, because his back story is completely missing & he acts thus without motivation.

In the end, this film really fails either because Ron Howard lacks self confidence – he has shown in the past that he knows better, even if he is a relentlessly Hollywood director, not the sort of brooding type who might have had more intuitive sense about the film’s spirit of darkness (it’s more than how you light the scene, Opie) – or because Ron Howard doesn’t have the power to make this his own film in the face of bottom-line driven execs.

So the problem is that it’s the author’s film that’s been made. As I’ve noted before in some detail, Dan Brown is a hack & the book itself is little more than a hyperactive plot machine. But it was a monster success and is no doubt what audiences expect. Yet consider, instead, how Peter Jackson & his writing partners far more successfully adapted The Lord of the Rings, omitting major characters, developing one entire picture out of a couple of paragraphs. Howard & screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Cinderella Man; I, Robot; A Beautiful Mind) collaborate instead to give us a faithful but surprisingly unguided tour of the original plot, adding in only the smallest new details to try & keep some of the book’s narrative gaps – most notably the motivations of French police captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) – from sinking this bloated mess even deeper.

Because it’s Brown’s film more than Howard’s, taking some extra time to develop the characters & their evolving relationship to one another is pointless – they’re hardly any deeper in the book, although there readers get to see quite a bit more from the perspectives of Sophie, Silas, the Bishop, the banker, even the butler than we do in the film. And, contra Tolkien (or for that matter, Harry Potter, the other big film adaptation franchise of late), the myriad plot points are what the book is about. If it feels like a roller coaster ride, that’s because it is a roller coaster ride.

So often when films fail, it is because of bad writing. The producers spend a fortune on stars, sets, special effects, but appear to have forgotten to hire a writer. The variable history of Philip K. Dick stories as motion pictures could itself become a film course in the strategies of adaptation. The tales that work best as film – Blade Runner, Minority Report – are sometimes the flimsiest of Dick’s works, because in the movies, it’s easier to build from too little than it is to cut from too much. And, in sharp contrast to Brown’s bad book, few viewers of a Dick film are sitting in the theater with checklists ascertaining the veracity of the translation from page to screen.

This film fails as writing also, but not at the tactical level of bad dialog. It fails instead on writing’s broadest horizon: envisioning just what the experience of the film should be.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006




Arlo Guthrie
Alice’s Restaurant


Here’s Alice


& the late Officer Obie


Obie portrait by Stockbridge resident
Norman Rockwell


The church where Alice lived


A trailer for the movie


Wikipedia’s history of the Massacree


The story behind the song
(Arlo on NPR)


My Life as a Restaurant
by Alice Brock


Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook
by Alice Brock


Mooses Come Walking
by Arlo Guthrie & Alice Brock


A map to the restaurant
(now the Main Street Café)


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Joanna Newsom,
folk-rock poet
with a harp of gold


Evicting Chax


Poetry, prizes & markets


Happy 80th birthday,


Art & inner space


Christopher Sorrentino
on Thomas Pynchon’s
Against the Day


Carlin Romano
also on
Against the Day


What was he thinking?”
Louis Menand
Against the Day


the sort of imitation of
a Thomas Pynchon novel
 that a dogged but ungainly
fan of this author’s might have written
on quaaludes
(Michiko Kakutani)


Gravity’s Rainbow


Selling Philadelphia’s
most famous painting
to Wal-Mart


When poetry
lays its hand on our shoulder

& other platitudes
to make you cringe


A completely different
set of poetry


A piece
on Alice Walker


looks suspiciously


The life of Susan Sontag
in the age of
photographic reproduction


Two views
of the world of publishing:
(1) Alice Denham
(2) Al Goldstein


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.


Monday, November 20, 2006


It helps, reading this Jack Spicer poem for the first time, to know that Paul Morphy was the greatest of the 19th century chess players, a New Orleans lawyer who opposed the Civil War & spent the war years in Paris, and that he was every bit as moody & cantankerous as modern-day chess champions, refusing toward the end to play anyone who would not give him the advantage of one pawn & one move. The poem is entitled “The Clouds”:

The pawns are pushed like clouds
Paul Morphy played.
The poem pushes a car
or even love
What a poem could grasp   That is,
a car
that runs over
a king or a queen or a bug
that happened to get on the board.
If that aint big enough
I push New Orleans toward anything
he’s afraid of
Imagine, in a hundred years
Biography, sitting before the fire on a winter’s night.
he’s afraid of.

The typescript, which is dated anywhere between 1959 & ’61, also contains this alternate ending:

Imagine, in a hundred years
Biography, sitting before the fire on a winter’s night
Trying to figure it out
he’s afraid of.

This typescript appears on p. 102 of an extraordinary new book entitled Exploring the Bancroft Library, a sumptuous art-book anthology to celebrate the centennial of the acquisition of what is now the largest public library west of Chicago by the then-fledgling University of California at Berkeley, co-edited by Charles B. Faulhaber, the director of the library, and Stephen Vincent, poet, editor, blogger. Curiously (to my mind at least), this edition is published not by UC Press, but rather by Signature Books, a publisher of Western & Mormon Americana.

The Bancroft is a major institution in its own right – it was my constant hangout when I was a student at Berkeley, having pulled every string I knew in order to get a carrel in the stacks there, which in those days was almost unheard of for an undergraduate. In fact, one year before I actually transferred over to Berkeley, I found myself one May afternoon locked in a classroom in Wheeler Hall, the English Department mausoleum & the building immediately south of the Bancroft, watching out the window along with maybe a dozen similarly huddled student protestors (I was technically an outside agitator, I suppose, and certainly would never have been admitted had I gotten busted) while Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs – “blue meanies” in the popular jargon of the day – riddled a library van with shotgun pellets & fired live rounds right through the rare book room window. Fortunately, no one was hit, though four blocks away the same deputies did kill one bystander, James Rector, & blinded another. This to explain perhaps my own deep attachment to the Bancroft, which goes much further than one might expect for your typical college library.

There are a million good reasons for any citizen in the Bay Area, any bibliophile, or any former UC student to own this anthology, but I just want to focus on this one. The first part of the book consists of panoramic essays on each of the Bancroft’s major collections, accompanied by a shorter essay on a key collection within that area – the choices are whimsical to the point of being brilliant. The key collection for the section on the history of science and technology, for example, is that of Rube Goldberg! And for rare books and literary manuscripts, it is Jack Spicer, with an essay by none other than Kevin Killian, Spicer’s biographer & himself a wonderful poet. The three illustrations for this two-page suite include this typescript of a poem, a sampling of Spicer’s translation of Beowulf in his own hand – numbered lines with the Old English in red pen, the translation above it in a slightly faded blue ink – and a poster for Spicer’s book Billy the Kid, a collage including chess pieces (knights), a man in a deep sea or outer space outfit and an add for women’s blue jeans (I’m making that gender call based on the femme boots that jut from the cuffed leg) with a monarch butterfly just slightly off-center at the crotch where some superimposed text reads “COME JOIN US ON THE ALASKAN FRONTIER.” The book is advertised at a cost of 50¢, to be found at two locations on the same block in North Beach, one called The Cloven Hoof, the other the Paint Pet.

Killian’s essay contextualizes Spicer for readers who’ve never heard of him before – twenty years earlier this same collection would inevitably have focused on the library’s Mark Twain holdings instead – and makes the point, underscored here by the typescript, that although Spicer’s theory of Martian radio & poetry by dictation is widely known, an actual examination of his manuscripts reveals instead “Spicer the craftsman, never satisfied with what he had written, always seeking the next turn round the bend.” Killian also gives the first complete accounting I’ve seen of all the major Spicer publication projects that are now in progress.

Vincent and I are of the generation that came of age shortly after Spicer’s death &, for a decade or so until the publication of the Collected Books by Black Sparrow in 1975, we & Spicer’s immediate compadres had him sort of as our own secret in the world of poetry. Vincent, in fact, is in the middle of a series of prose pieces dedicated to Spicer that is emerging these days on his blog. A decade from now, Spicer is almost certainly going to be seen as one of the half-dozen great poets of the mid-century period in America (the post-avant scene already knows this, but the Collected Books have been out of print for awhile now), so just maybe we’ll finally be getting over the circumstance of discovering – continually, as tho Spicer’d been writing furiously the entire four decades since his death from alcoholism a few weeks after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 – new poems as well hewn & hard-edged as the one above. When Killian, Peter Gizzi, Kelly Holt & Aaron Kunin have finished their respective editing jobs, we will have a new, far more substantial and complete Jack Spicer, even if it is still the same cranky drunk from the deep end of the bar at Gino & Carlos.

Killian is, as I would expect readers of this blog to know, as qualified to write on the work of Jack Spicer as is anyone not named Robin Blaser in this world. Lew Ellingham’s sprawling raw manuscript of Poet, Be Like God had defeated more than one first-rate Spicer scholar before Killian stepped in & helped make it the best literary biography to date of any New American poet. In a just world, Killian would have had an endowed chair at an ivy league school for ten or fifteen years now. That Vincent & his co-editor Bliss recognize & acknowledge this is integral to the genius of this anthology.(And check out the Kyoto notebook page of Phil Whalen’s, reproduced two pages before the Spicer essay, as well as the photo nearby of Gwendolyn Brooks apparently as a teenager.)

I should note, while I’m at it, that Killian has some terrific work as well in the new No, which I wrote about in more depth last Wednesday. Better known as a novelist & playwright, Killian’s chops are just as solid when it comes to verse. Of the five poems by Killian in the issue, my fave is “Proverbs”:

After dinner is over, who cares about spoon? Deer
Should not toy with tiger. Every maybe has a wife
Called maybe-not. I went hunting for your proverbs,
Silently, dicta buzzing through my head,
In the long flat jungle where they stalk the plain.
If befriend donkey, expect to be kicked.

I missed the metaphor, my gun, like a loaded base,
stood up in my face. Impossible to miss someone
who will always be in heart. Mind, like parachute,
only function when open. “Hey, sahib,” said my
Sumerian sidekick, “maybe in this one jungle case
you might be out of your league.”

Mock insanity not always safe alibi. I didn’t love you
because you were curious. I just let myself go, like
the mud turtle in pond, more safe than man on horseback.
I didn’t give you five dollars just to suck my dick,
must gather at leisure what may use in haste.
I’m trying to go all Charlie Chan on your ass,

Must turn up many stones to find hiding place
of snake. Okay, my little clown, I fucked up this safari,
so bring me back to Minna Street, help me ward off crack.
I made a magic promise to pluck bullets from mid-air,
happiness from that hole in your rucksack.
Pretty girl, like lapdog, sometimes go mad.
People who ask riddle should know answer.

Not only do you see Killian appropriating proverbs at all angles here, particularly with the fortune cookie syntax, an ear that has honed itself on Spicer over the years, but the detail that I like best is how he uses the more formal capital at the left margin in the first stanza, but drops it thereafter, a perfect formal analog for the increasing intimacy between poet & reader as this poem progresses. It’s attention to particulars like this that tells me this poet indeed knows the answer.


Sunday, November 19, 2006


The most important
postwar painting

that is not in a museum”
changes hands
for a mere
$137.5 mil


If Kevin Smith, Matt Groening or Michael Moore
were writing a parody
of neocon poetry perspectives,
this interview
is what they’d write

(My favorite part
is the description of FSG
as ” an imprint of
 Georg von Holtzbrinck

a phrase more poetic
than the cliché-ridden
poem “The Hearth”
with its “plastic coffee cup…
uncertain what to do”)


Further question:
why do neocon poets
always compare themselves
to the avant
poets of the past,

why not compare
C.K. Williams
to Edward Arlington Robinson,
instead of to a poet
like Whitman
antithetical to his project?


The New York
Art Book


Charles Olson
in Persian


R&B great
Ruth Brown
has left the building


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