Monday, February 12, 2007

I know that some people are going to cringe to hear this note’s topic sentence, so let’s just be blunt about it. We can come back and address the collateral damage after:

Fifty years from now, when people are writing without irony of “the classics of flarf,” one of the works that will turn up on that relatively short list will be Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson.

The book has just been released by Zasterle Press, so recently in fact that it doesn’t yet show up either on the Zasterle website, nor that of Small Press Distribution, where eventually you will be able to buy it.

The idea that flarf, which Gary Sullivan once characterized as

A quality of intentional or unintentional "flarfiness." A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. "Not okay."

should have “classics” is, by itself, problematic. The whole notion of a “classic” “awfulness” ought to be oxymoronic even if one were to associate it with the somewhat older notions of kitsch or camp. But when I think of kitsch, say, I think of some social institution on the order of the Lawrence Welk Show, the 1950s TV bandleader whose sense of the polka drained the music of its ethnic heritage, substituting a treacly version of super-Americanism. Flarf, by its character, goes against that grain, raising its forms to the level of conscious while, in most cases, both loving & attacking them at the same time.

Magee’s choice of Emily Dickinson is a case in point. Magee notes in his forward that he seeks to

disrupt some of the pieties around Emily Dickinson’s work that I don’t believe have served her poems very well. (As an example, I would note the rarely mentioned fact that Emily Dickinson is one of the funniest poets ever.)

Whitman & Dickinson share an outsider’s perspective on what was already a submissive & imitative Anglophiliac literary establishment by the end of the Civil War, but where, when the descendants of that establishment claim Whitman for their own today, they simply look like fools, Dickinson’s own social isolation permitted her work to be mediated by that same establishment. That she is, grammatically at least, the most disruptive & fragmentary poet of the 19th century – Blake, Lautréamont & Rimbaud have nothing on her – has often been smoothed over by School of Quietude “heirs,”¹ at least until Susan Howe reclaimed the poet in all her rawness. It’s not an accident that Magee’s title points directly at Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, nor that he acknowledges her by name in his foreword.

Magee’s description of his methodology deserves to be noted:

The poems in this book were written during an intensive period of reading and writing in 2003 and 2004. I was curious as to whether I could, using some of Emily Dickinson’s forms, evoke in my own readership that combination of shock, bewilderment, excitement, pleasure (a process of dis-orientation and re-orientation) that I imagined Dickinson’s earliest readers must have felt when reading her work. I was cognizant of the fact that Dickinson’s poems, in both form and content, remain surprisingly volatile despite the various historical attempts to render them more placid. This is especially true of those invisible poems that continually escape anthologization and discussion, many of which stray far from English hymnology. So, I reread Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems and, as I did, performed Google searches using the phrase “Angie Dickinson” combined with bits of syntax from Emily Dickinson’s poems: “Angie Dickinson” + “Hope is”. Likewise I would sometimes integrate rhyming words into the search: “Angie Dickinson” + “with a” + “chimp” + “limp”. Each poem involved a series of such intuitive searches followed by fine stitching together, the mouse replacing the needlepoint.

In picking Angie rather than, say, Emily Dickinson, “a sort of Zelig figure in American popular culture,” Magee is picking not only the former lover of Frank Sinatra & actress in over 130 films & TV shows, but also a creature as self-made in her own way as was the poet. Angeline Brown – Dickinson was the surname of her first husband – was, like Lawrence Welk, born in North Dakota but transformed in L.A. The first major American female actress to routinely accept roles that required nudity & later the longtime star of Police Woman, Dickinson offered a persona that was tough, just a little brassy, but also always intelligent. She was a natural progression in a chain of actresses that included Dietrich & Bacall.

I had a hunch that searching her name would throw up an unending stream of interesting Googled material. Whatever voices emerged from this procedure were, to my mind, pure “flarf”….

Here, just to test this, is “087”:

To Die For — an idea — is Rather
Vegas to Flea
Let’s not — Devolve into Conjecture —
Sea-change on me.

The president hasn’t “Entered the Image” —
Achilles assumed when hid,
Himself among Women Puzzling questions
An old Yearning with His dad —

Jon Bon Jovi is
Classic deadbeat showing
Up — occasionally —
In Order — to beat — up His mother
Version — “to fully” —

This is where it gets interesting. Magee’s poems replicate the start-stop stutter step movement central to Dickinson’s prosody, but through this sonic veil we get glimpses of a world that is sharply etched, celebrity-ridden, but also more than a little dangerous. What Magee’s searches found literally appears to have been a series of websites that included Dickinson among other targets of celeb gossip (hence Bon Jovi) as well as others that recap the narratives of various films & TV episodes. The overall effect is a little like viewing the world through a TV that gets only two channels: E! & Turner Classic Movies.

As a project, My Angie Dickinson also rubs up against the notorious vessel model of communications, the linguistic equivalent of intelligent design. In this telling, poems functionally are molds into which content is then poured. But as with the poem above, what results constantly refutes the theory itself. The materiality of these snatches – “’too fully’” indeed – push back with as much resistance as Vegas or Flea.Throughout, one catches Magee’s own deft hand & sense of wit, as with “082”:

An “added” — Pleasure —
Tinsel Girl remembered —
His “menacing peril” —

The overall result is not that far away from something like Charles Bernstein’s Nude Formalism: brilliant, hilarious, deeply conceived, completely serious, with more twists than a pretzel factory, well written, but still thoroughly flarf. Just for good measure, My Angie Dickinson is also the most ambitious production, design wise, Zasterle has yet attempted. This book is a joy.


¹ To the degree that one poet I know used to claim you could read all of her poems aloud to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. If you suppress all the dashes (or presume them to be silent or “not really there”), this just might be plausible.