Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Photo by Ben Friedlander

Nothing demonstrates the importance of tone to the work of Bruce Andrews than seeing poetry that comes across as being very similar in method, but 180 degrees different in tone. That was my very first impression on starting to read Kevin Davies’ The Golden Age of Paraphernalia (Edge Books, 2008), and it’s one that returned on more than a couple of occasions in the process of reading this entirely delightful book. Delightful, not an effect I tend to think of Andrews ever seeking, is a consequence here of Davies’ relentlessly cheerful attitude as well as a series of shrewd choices on his part. Paraphernalia, which was the subject of the most detailed & thoughtful review of a contemporary post-avant text ever to appear in The Nation (under the heading “Happy Thoughts”) last February, appears to consist of five works that are shuffled together throughout this volume.

In fact, the only way to read this book is as a single ongoing poetic process (think Phil Whalen or maybe Larry Eigner) since the boundary where one work ends & the next begins appears to be willfully arbitrary (indeed, the table of contents suggests that individual lines within certain pieces are themselves parts of other works – taking the interleaving of poems well beyond Robert Duncan’s tendency to put a few Passages right alongside sections of Structures of Rime – two projects that were never released as independent books).

Davies appears to have found a spot exactly halfway between language poetry and flarf, or maybe to have heard what was particularly flarfy about Bruce Andrews’ approach to langpo. Davies has poked at this scab just enough to open a wound that is simultaneously a panorama of the contemporary. If Andrews is painterly in his ability to string together endless runs of phrases, lines, snatches of language, he prefers a somber, even dark palette, the reader is continually put off balance & is apt to feel challenged personally – which is quite different from being challenged by the work itself. Davies, tho, is full of pastels & bright, primary colors. In both instances, what is required is an exquisite sense of how to combine found language with one’s own writing. If Andrews’ verse makes you feel like you’re about to topple over from having been poked in the chest one too many times (or maybe 100), you’re more apt to feel off-balance in Paraphernalia as tho you’re trying to waltz to a polka played by a merry-go-round calliope. It’s a radically different experience, even as you end up on your butt either way:

I’m standing before a mirror, shaving my ears,
when Sufi devotional music bursts through the door

in a livid sweat, with big news from the physics think tank.
Yellow door. Red pants. Green projector.
Brown calculator. Blue penguin. White succulent.
Orange box. Black wrench. Purple

Not all fruit trees hate you —

just this one.
Freud once attempted to purchase Mexico.
Darwin feared meteors and their connection to lichen.
Mathew Arnold hated ducks, just hated 'em.
Martin Frobisher cooked and ate an entire cabin boy.
Jack Spicer
invented the clap-on clap-off lamp.
Fatty Arbuckle faked his own death and ended up running a go-cart

        track in Alabama.


       lost his nose

in a practical joke gone very wrong.

Backing slowly away from the bear, not looking

        in its eyes. Pretending to be asleep.

Ignoring the tornado. Refusing to acknowledge

        the legitimacy of the mudslide.

Not flinching — holding steady — when the toaster

        falls into the bath. Glancing back, turning to salt, and not

caring. Driving blindfolded on acid in the 70s.

        Arguing for a lower grade. Pulling the thigh

hairs of the opposing power forward.

        A small gully, with a few boards, can be home

for a while. Bowing inappropriately, standing up

        at the wrong time, an accidental snort. Now you are ready.

It isn't what anyone needs or wants. This music

        includes recordings made out Trade Center windows.

Plato libeled Gorgias to advance his own protofascist

        agenda. Those clicking sounds. An unexpectedly

depressing millennium, a real letdown after

the frisky ad campaign.

It’s worth noting that the beginning & end of this excerpt both occur mid-stanza – just as the stanza breaks within take place entirely mid-sentence, mid phrase. Only rarely does Davies begin at the beginning or end at anything like a logical conclusion. Each shift in the “narrative” represents a tectonic juxtaposition of discursive plates, which means, among other things, that we want to associate the tale of the fruit trees with Freud, for which there is little internal corroboration. It comes between the first & second of the three sets of parallelisms – colors, people, actions. But the colors relations to their objects is problematic at best (Blue penguin?), the events & attitudes ascribed to the people is likewise (Arbuckle ended up directing comedy shorts under the name of William Goodrich before an attempted comeback that was cut short by his death at 46), the actions are all predicates lacking the very subjects with which the two previous sequences were so fixated.

This is a hybrid poetics, albeit not a Hybrid Poetics in the usual sense of that phrase. Davies pulls in from language poetry, the New York School (more than a little Kenneth Koch here, more than a little Ron Padgett) & the aforementioned flarf effortlessly, and a good deal of the book’s considerable pleasure lies in watching a master work with this palette. Reading this also demonstrates how these differing generations & aesthetics have more in common than perhaps thought previously – Davies makes them all seem so very simpatico. & there more than a couple of references in this book – Martin Frobisher in this passage – to remind the reader that Davies may have lived in the U.S. for many years, but he is (or was) Canadian.

So hybridism, as a dynamic, can exist entirely within the post-avant. This is not really news, I suppose, nor would be its precise opposite, a quietist who mixes several of its strains. Third way poetics gains its status as a privileged New Thing solely because it mixes post-modern technique with anti-modern impulse or vice versa. Yet anybody who has paid attention to the poetries of the past 40 years ought to be able to tell you that mixing tendencies within either of these two broad traditions can be every bit as fraught with peril. Dorn’s use of comic book narrative techniques in ‘Slinger, perfectly acceptable practice within the New York School, initially was greeted as a betrayal by several of his Black Mountain compadres, some of whom never did come around to seeing his perspective. LeRoi Jones’ work as Amiri Baraka likewise proved controversial, tho many of the actual literary techniques he was now using had long been employed by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who took them from Jacques Prevert). And to my knowledge nobody ever put the lyrics of Joseph Ceravolo alongside those of Larry Eigner – tho the two of them point toward a cognitive poetics a decade ahead of language writing. All you have to do to sense the distance between these various poetries is to read Jack Spicer. Even when, as in Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, Spicer says it with a smile, it doesn’t take close reading to sense the gritted teeth & curled upper lip.

All of which is to say that nobody should take what Davies is doing here for granted just because he makes it look easy. Far from being the happy-go-lucky collage work it vamps as, The Golden Age of Paraphernalia is as trenchant a critical reading of the poetics of the past 30 years as any I’ve seen. No wonder it’s a spectacular book.