Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Sam Beckett’s early correspondence


Barry Schwabsky on Barbara Guest

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Monday, March 09, 2009


Malin Akerman & Patrick Wilson have all the emotional power of Ken & Barbie

This is the golden age of movie effects, or at least it should be. Computer graphics have been enhanced to the level that anything is possible, anything you can dream of can be presented as a plausible physical reality on film, a phenomenon that leaves directors, screenwriters & stuntmen drunk with the potential. Yet the problem remains that for the golden age to actually exist, these same individuals have to envision it, have to make it happen. Just as early motion pictures owe a great deal of their narrative structures to the imaginations of D.W. Griffith & Sergei Eisenstein, men who figured out how to transform a story into the new medium, the potential of today’s film technology is just waiting for someone to come along and imagine what it truly might be.

The problem, however, is that Hollywood – the whole professional lets-make-an-entertainment industry – is terrified of losing money (this year especially) and that the people they’ve trained & groomed & put into positions of power reflect the same timorous nature. Two sides of this problem were on view this past weekend – first in the film extravaganza Watchmen, one of the most ambitious movies ever, and second in the boom-bang-boom previews that ran endlessly before the 2-hour 48-minute long film began.

Director Zack Snyder has tried to do something new & brave in Watchmen, which is to reinvent cinema completely. Part of what results is awe-inspiring, genuinely breath-taking, as ambitious in its own right as was Todd Haynes’ Dylan faux-biopic, I’m Not There or anything ever written by Charlie Kaufman. And parts of it are leaden, tedious, so corny that they leave you guffawing, such as the sex scene in which Nite Owl II, having cured his erectile function disorder through a night of good old caped adventures finally gets it on with Silk Spectre II, woodenly portrayed by Malin Akerman (an actress who could take lessons in the thespian arts from Paris Hilton), while Leonard Cohen gravels through Hallelujah, the soundtrack turned so loud it’s the foreground.

Snyder has pretty much abandoned action-picture dynamics (think the new Bond films or anything with the word Bourne in the title) altogether, and instead has tried to make the graphic novel. Complete with Alan Moore’s long prose asides that in the original comics took up a full page in every episode. He’s abandoned cinematic pacing. What he wants is something that doesn’t look or feel like a film at all, that is as new to the genre as Watchmen was to the world of comic books when it first appeared a quarter century ago.

Narratively, Snyder has added relatively little, tho most of what is new, like a martial arts fight scene down a prison corridor by Nite Owl II & Silk Spectre II done as a parody of superhero fighting, distracts or detracts. He’s also sliced away relatively little, which given the size of the graphic novel is almost surprising. Where he really has added is a dimension you can’t get in comics, which is the score, from the strains of Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A’Changin’” over  the most leisurely opening credits I’ve ever seen – the first real hint that we’re not in regular old movie land – to Simon & Garfunkel singing “The Sounds of Silence” during the funeral of The Comedian to a punk version of “Desolation Row” in the closing credits by My Chemical Romance. As with Leonard Cohen during the film’s principle sex scene – as explicit as anything I’ve ever seen in a picture aimed at adolescent males – the presence of Simon & Garfunkel plays against the action, a moment of very strange irony that Moore’s gloomy plot misses altogether. 

Where the film really doesn’t work is in the acting. Snyder – rather like George Lucas – moves the cast about & has them say their lines, but often with no affect whatsoever. So that the only performers who shine through at all are veteran character actors: Jackie Earl Haley’s Rorshach, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, a cameo by Matt Frewer (Max Headroom himself, this time with pointy ears) as Moloch, the villain befriended by The Comedian shortly before his demise, and Robert Wisden’s caricature of Richard Nixon, with a ski-nose right out of the editorial cartoons. It is really Haley who saves this film as film, and its very best moments are the ones where is he is free of his character’s gauzy, perpetually changing mask.

But I wouldn’t judge the actors here – save maybe for Akerman, who should be an early favorite for next year’s Razzies for that sex scene alone – on the basis of their work here. Hollywood spectacles are notorious for the first-rate actors – think of Natalie Portman in Star Wars or Kate Winslet in Titanic – who come across with all the personality of a sofa. Matthew Goode does his version of Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias as tho he’s channeling David Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth, but does this mean he’s as bad as he comes across here? I have no idea. Pretty much everyone but Haley, Morgan, Frewer & Wisden are defeated by the weight of this film’s machinery.

The end result is that Watchmen is like viewing a beautiful train wreck in very slow motion. You can’t quite look away – save for the moments when limbs are being severed, which is a regular enough occurrence. Watchmen may even turn out to be an important film as film for all that it tries to do, but that will never make it a good one.

Still, it has a decent shot at being the Best of the Bloated among this year’s CGI-enhanced action spectacles. With Terminator Salvation, Star Trek (the prequel) & something to do with poor Wolverine of the X-men franchise all in the offing, not to mention the new Transformers, G.I. Joe & good ol’ Harry Potter, we’re in for a lot of special effects, none of which will take place in the writing. Safe scripts, franchise-familiar characters – that’s the name of the game, alas. Snyder at least has taken the riskiest project and done his very best to give us something completely new to look at. It is enough to make you ask of cinema – is that all there is?


Saturday, March 07, 2009


Doris Evans, Krishna’s mother, passed away late Friday afternoon.


Friday, March 06, 2009


L-R: Allen Ginsberg, Lew Welch & Robin Blaser 1963,
 probably the same day I met Dean Rusk & Adlai Stevenson
in my capacity as “lawn boy” to Rusk’s in-laws in
three weeks before the assassination of JFK
(photo courtesy Allenginsberg.org)

I’ve noticed of course that there are even fewer “classics,” i.e. books published before 1900, on my first list of the 20 books that caused me to fall in love with poetry than there are even of women. I wouldn’t agree with Georgie’s comment in my note stream that there was “NO ‘classic’ work” on my list save in that historic sense. You can’t tell me that Tender Buttons, The Cantos & Howl are not classics by any definition other than the “written before 1900” threshold. Actually, you can’t tell me that about a lot of the others as well – Spring & All not a classic? – but this morning I’ll just go with the three that I don’t think anyone can make a credible argument against.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009


Pam Rosenthal

The “20 women poets” who have had the most profound influence on my writing, in alphabetical order –

Kathy Acker

Rae Armantrout

Sandy Berrigan

Elizabeth Bishop

Lee Ann Brown

Abigail Child

Jan Clausen

Beverly Dahlen

Tina Darragh

Lydia Davis

Jean Day

Emily Dickinson

Lynne Dreyer

Hilda Doolittle

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Kathleen Fraser

Judy Grahn

Carla Harryman

Lyn Hejinian

Joyce Holland

Fanny Howe

Susan Howe

Erica Hunt

Lisa Jarnot

Beth Baruch Joselow

Joanne Kyger

Lynn Lonidier

Bernadette Mayer

Laura Moriarty

Harryette Mullen

Rochelle Nameroff

Pam Rosenthal / Molly Weatherford

Leslie Scalapino

Gertrude Stein

Cole Swensen

Rosmarie Waldrop

Diane Wakoski

Diane Ward

Hannah Weiner

C.D. Wright

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009


The question posed by Andrew Motion’s The Mower, out any minute now from David R. Godine, is: Has Britain’s most recent poet laureate always been a dreadful writer, or is this just the case of a talented young man who believed his own press clippings & slouched into a life of unrelenting clichés passed off as profound thoughts? A third conceivable argument is that he intends to be awful, an instance of flarf avant la lettre. How else might one explain the following?

Earth’s axel creaks; the year jolts on; the trees
begin to slip their brittle leaves, their flakes of rust
and darkness takes the edge off daylight, not
because it wants to – never that. Because it must.

Four hackneyed images of time passing followed by a line that could only read aloud by placing the back of one’s hand against one’s brow before yielding the most histrionic pathetic – seriously pathetic – fallacy I can recall. It is hard to imagine reading this to an audience that did not double over in laughter. There is not one phrase here that is not overwritten, not one image that is not stiff with rigor mortis.

The second half of this little ode, entitled “Mythology,” is even more appalling just because it is in such bad taste:

And you? Your life was not your own to keep
or lose. Beside the river, swerving underground,
the future tracked you, snapping at your heels:
Diana breathless, hunted by your own quick hounds.

A poem of mourning for the late Princess Diana. Motion does at least reach for polysemy in the final sentence, jumbling together the image of goddess of the hunt with the real-life woman chased by paparazzi through the streets of Paris. But Motion apparently can’t help himself, calling the photogs “the future” & turning the image into one last cliché of the hunt. Just for good measure, Motion’s muddled grammar has the river, rather than Diana or the photographers, swerving underground. The Seine does no such thing, and the mythological Diana is of course a hunter, not prey.

Intellectually this poem would be an embarrassment for a college freshman. Motion wasn’t yet the laureate when Diana died, so this isn’t something he was required to do. In one sense, it may even have been an audition. Ironically, this poem is toward the end of the book’s “Selected” portion, which is to say Motion thinks it’s a keeper.

Was it ever thus? The book’s second poem, “In the Attic,” is every bit as committed to the hoariest clichés & unfathomable overwriting. The speaker in the attic paws through the clothes of the deceased, kneeling:

My hands push down
between hollow, invisible sleeves,
then take hold and lift:

a green holiday, a red christening;
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers,
entering my head as dust.

It is not the sleeves that are invisible, one wants to shout, but rather the presence of the dead. This book is chock full of such cringe-worthy moments.

The one thing Motion does excel at is his sense of measure, particularly the use of iambics to slow the text down & lend it a sense of gait. Still, he suffers, as do so many “new formalists,”¹ from the occasional need to add unnecessary language just to keep lines even, as in “square of” in

With storm light in the east but no rain yet
I came in from mowing my square of lawn
and paused in the doorway to glance round
at my handiwork and the feckless apple blossom

blurring those trim stripes and Hovver-sweeps²
I had meant to last.

I actually like feckless, in part because the trochee works there, and the emphasis on one-syllable words in the first line is effective. But inflating the second line to keep thing consistent gives the passage as a whole – this is the first sentence of the book’s title poem – a bloated feeling, every bit as blurred as the trim stripes of Motion’s lawn.

Trite imagery (green holiday / red christening), vague thinking, padded metrics, overwriting everywhere – what exactly are the values that Britain’s version of Official Verse Culture is trying to champion? If ever one wanted to construct an argument that the British were incapable of serious thought, here is exhibit A. Yet Britain has often had brilliant poets & has many now. They are obviously quite apart from the inbred world of received culture that Motion represents, which feels like the 18th century gone to rot.


¹ Who are not formalists at all, but rather pattern obsessives for whom the creation of new form is something of a taboo.

² My guess is that Motion means “ Hoover.” The phrase “Hovver-sweeps” never appeared on the internet until this review.


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