Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Back in the mid-1980s, all I knew of Ben Friedlander was that he was in the East Bay co-editing a little magazine with the best name, Jimmy & Lucy’s House of K, along with some guy who worked at Moe’s, the new & used book emporium on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I remember seeing his first chapbooks and sensing a Big Huh – I clearly did not get it & wasn’t at all certain that there was something here to be gotten. Friedlander’s co-editor turned out to be Andrew Schelling, who himself proved to be quite a bit more than just “a guy in a bookstore.” But it was hard to tell back then if any of this was going to add up to all that much. Friedlander’s own poems seemed slight & not so much off-balance as to eschew balance altogether. Yet when you talked with the guy, you were almost bowled over by the intellectual ambition that seemed to be bursting out everywhere at the seams.

Flash forward a quarter century & Friedlander is one of the most solid & important poets & scholars we have, really one of the defining intelligences of the present moment. But picking up The Missing Occasion of Saying Yes, his collection of writing from 1984 through 1994, released last year by the subpress collective, reminded me of just how suspicious I felt first seeing Jimmy & Lucy’s & Ben’s work. I wasn’t sure that this was a book I really wanted to read. So I took it slowly, at first, then found myself drawn in, then drawn in further, then wondering just why nobody has written an essay on the precursors of flarf that would point to this work, along with that of Charles Bernstein & Walter Benjamin & Bertolt Brecht, and finally found myself completely sucked in & reading it rapidly, deeply and ultimately feeling that sadness you do when getting to the end of a great book that it’s over, there is no more. And wanting very much, right now, a volume of the next decade’s work instantly at hand.

Friedlander’s early poems are still slight, but now I can see just how aggressively so this is. And they’re still off-balance, but I’m right about their impulse to throw the idea of balance overboard completely. Often they read like nursery rhymes that have gone through a meat grinder, or snatches of language you might hear on the street, tho never particularly a street you’ve actually walked on. Lets look at an example from the series called “Algebraic Melody,” poems using two quatrains each:

True opposites,
  Contending likes,
Over the space between
  That divides between

The part and the whole–
  A marble mask
The water wore, rushing
  Away, the cringing foal

The poem employs a frame that is immediately familiar, an abstract description followed by an image that presumably represents it. It’s the logical structure of a lot of haiku. Yet the individual elements here seem so determined not to fit. The abstract description itself seems to fold in on itself right at the moment it rhymes. The concrete instance is composed of incommensurate images. You can imagine rushing floodwaters, say, presenting a solid surface not unlike marble, but a marble mask ultimately is saying something quite different from this. And finally that image of the cringing foal – all of this is leading up to such an unattractive instance of minor terror?

Friedlander wears his allegiances on his sleeve. It is easy to see Larry Eigner, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickinson, Bertolt Brecht & Charles Bernstein as the hovering angels of these texts. What Friedlander seems to take from each is instructive – a sense of word-to-word writing that can be traced both to Eigner & Dickinson, a dourness one might track to Celan, a sense of letting the poem lead wherever it must that was the hallmark of Creeley (but Eigner also), a sense of satire that extends from Brecht & Bernstein, the continual play between balance – see the rhyme in the first stanza above – and a deeper imbalance (see same aforementioned rhyme). These lyrics are not so much strangled as they are throttled in the crib. The result is something quite unlike any of these ghosts or masters, but you can see where it stands as a work that had to exist if ever flarf were to be invented. There is an awfulness here that is integral to Friedlander’s vision, a poetic equivalent of something like David Lynch’s baby in Eraserhead, or what Munch’s Scream might have invoked before it resolved into kitsch. Friedlander confronts it most directly, perhaps, in the volume’s very last poem, entitled “Poem”:

makes a knot
and keeps the rope
from slipping through our fingers

I was a fish
but my tail turned
tight to the twisted
seaweed nomenclature

It was sped up experimentally
on the page, this indecision
that binds us to an action
that doesn’t happen

Reading the text, you begin to understand that the title is not generic, as it first seems, but deeply ironic. This is Auden’s accusation that poetry makes nothing happen (and just possibly Adorno’s “lyric poetry after Auschwitz…”), both pushing & pulling all at once. The allegory here – the metaphor generated by equating “the line” with a rope & a fishing line, not once actually uttering the word line – dominates each stanza. In each, the subject is somehow trapped, in love with surplus meaning & sucked in all at once. It’s a perfect poem in a book that has more than a few such works, the bitter laughter so sharp it could cut, so muted you might mistake it for mumbling.

This volume is just the latest example of how a small press collective, so decentralized they don’t even maintain a decent Blogspot page on the web, can at the same time be one of our very most important publishers. In 30 years (hell, in 30 minutes) nobody will give a damn what FSG did or did not publish, but people will write volumes about the vision and practice of the subpress collective. Ben Friedlander’s book is one big reason why.