Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Literature loves its bad boys and girls, from Rimbaud to Kathy Acker, from Edgar Allan Poe to Jack Kerouac, from Jean Rhys to William Burroughs or Gregory Corso to Stephen Rodefer. We expect them to tell us the truth. We expect them to tell us what propriety would otherwise edit out.

I took both Chelsey Minnis’ Poemland and Douglas Rothschild’s Theogony with me to the U.K., not expecting them to be such a wonderfully matched set. But in more ways than they might suspect, Minnis is to the personal what Rothschild is to the political. Each volume is the yin to the other’s yang. Yet I know nothing to suggest that these two exceptionally witty, often brilliant poets have ever read one another, let alone met or been influenced by one another. Nor, for that matter, do I have any reason to believe that the “bad boy” or “bad girl” aspect to their work is anything other than a stance. They may live like monks for all I know.

Each lets you know instantly that you’re in for an intense & unusual experience. The first poem in Theogony:

Hard at Work

“[S]he told me /Top/ik/, [eminent danger] I heard, [impending disaster]”

        Jean Luc Nancy

i shifted back & forth

all day. i had thought it out.
The reality of disaster over-
took the concept of danger
& became tantamount

in my mind. i was paralyzed
& reacted suddenly & with-
out warning.

The first work, or page, in Poemland:

This is a cut-down chandelier…

And it is like coughing at the piano before you start playing a terrible waltz…

The past should go away but it never does…

And it is like a swimming pool at the foot of the stairs…

Each poem here might be said to be about tone as much as anything else – Rothschild’s is anxious, Minnis’ whimsical & offbeat. Minnis manages to hold to her tone even in pieces that have darker implications:

This is a present of tiny pretty scissors…

Which you must use to cut your beast hair…

I am a vile baby…

Look, death, I have so much delicious vulture food within my chest cavity…

Likewise, the undercurrent of alarm is maintained by Rothschild – often by the judicious use of linebreaks that appear offhand but prove to be razor sharp – even when the topic appears innocuous:

is it Wittgenstein says? At the end
of the Tractatus? Hovering just above
the edge of the page – the wide, flat
edge? The one on which you write? Or
that which you cannot see, it is not

One might argue that Rothschild’s thesis in Theogony could be reduced to That which is not there is all that is the case. Although the book collects poems from as far back as 1997, it is a volume profoundly “about” the events of September 11, 2001 from the perspective of someone who lived in close proximity to the fallen towers. “Union Square,” directly opposite the poem above, is as evident a political poem as one might imagine:

As the F-14’s circle, the possibility
of an oppositional politics has
evaporated. The young people
sit, their heads empty, their can-
dles lit. Their eyes focused on
nothing & their mouths agape
in the headlights’ glare.

One might ask here which headlights, whose headlights? But Rothschild’s point here is the utter vulnerability of the shocked & his despair seems absolute, figured in the mid-word linebreak within candles, the poem itself flickering. Yet Theogony – think of that title for awhile & what Rothschild is intending by appropriating Hesiod – is not all gloom. Thus, for example, “Mysterious Playwrights”:

Even as a Joke:

The real mystery is
why some poets don’t
just leave the play

writing to the play
wrights. Really – ever

read any of August
Strindberg’s poems?
or Harvey Fierstein’s?

This sounds just like Jack Spicer at his most dyspeptic. Rothschild doesn’t need to name names here to make his point.

In parallel (but opposite) mode, Minnis can let down her guard so that we see what underlies her almost manic surrealism:

I look to the left and right with my eyes and then I swing the sharp thing…

As you rise out of a cloud on a mechanized contraption…

If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream…

There is a floating sadness nearby…

This appears directly opposite the poem I quoted above. It’s a love poem, but one predicated on terrible grief, entirely unnamed. Stopping the complaint via whipped cream may seem like the foolery of lovers, but it is precisely the same refusal to name, to confront names, that is at the heart of Rothschild’s Wittgenstein work.

Poemland is composed of short sequences, mostly seven to ten pages, of works just like the ones quoted here, three to six lines in prose always ending in an ellipsis (even when none is needed). There are maybe a dozen of these sections, each divided by a black page containing the book’s title & half of its universal product code. Theogony is more traditional, broken into seven sections that could have been chapbooks.

Finally, both books end unsatisfactorily, at least to my eye. Neither poet is completely able to carry off their song & dance all the way to the end and the last 20 pages seem to peter out in repetition of what’s gone before. In one way, Minnis gets more faint while Rothschild gets more shrill, sounding finally like a leftwing Glen Beck, with no more political subtlety or nuance than Fox News’ newest wingnut broadcaster.

And this ultimately is the great structural problem of “bad boy (or girl) poetics” – if you carry it on long enough, it just gets sad or pathetic (which is why the ones who fare best die young). Watching, say, “terrible genius” Andrei Codrescu devolve from naughty surrealist to avuncular southerner is like watching a car crash re-enacted in Jello. But at least Codrescu – unlike, say, Charlie Simic – was able to gun the engine for awhile. Minnis & Rothschild are almost certainly at their very best right about now & these are both really excellent books. But it’s much harder to imagine what they’re going to be writing in another 20 years.