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Two White Americans

Paul Killebrew

American Incident
Brian Henry
Salt Publishing, $13.95 (paper)

Famous Americans
Loren Goodman
Yale University Press, $12.95 (paper)

8 Brian Henry’s second book of poetry, American Incident, and Loren Goodman’s first, Famous Americans, evince two big tendencies of American art as it addresses American culture: the acidic and the absurd. The acidic tendency is characterized by expressions of anger and cynicism intended to provoke or antagonize in response to some perceived abuse, whereas the absurd usually involves the unexpected or incongruous, indicating a non-acceptance of fundamental principles. Usually both of these approaches are present within a given work, as in Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Jim Dine’s rouge-and-lipstick silkscreens of Lyndon Johnson and Chairman Mao. Weirdly, and somewhat austerely, each of these poetry collections embodies one stance to the exclusion of the other.

American Incident falls into the acidic tradition, though its criticism has lost much hope of being an instrument of reform. A poem like “Beating Around the Bush,” an extended pantoum whose lines all originate in speeches of our nearly elected and variously articulate president, doesn’t shed new light on public discourse so much as mirror some of its lowest moments in recent memory. Such an approach largely characterizes the collection as a whole, which isn’t trying to hack through cultural deadwood on the path to what’s good and right; this cynicism is focused on itself:

Mediocrity as a way of life is what we all must accustom ourselves to. There is no use in trying for greatness, as even the attainment of greatness would go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Passive resistance murks the waters.

You could call this expressive cynicism if there were any good in giving it a name, but there isn’t; while the voice in American Incident feels somewhat familiar, it’s not the kind of thing found often enough in American poetry to require its own category. The diction might sound similar to some recent American literary fiction (like the reflexive neuroses of David Foster Wallace), magazine art criticism (“A sclerotic monument to the moment, the cheese sculpture turns before us”), or other forms of upper/middle-class, vaguely liberal media. Ten years ago we would have talked about this poetry in terms of Generation X, but that term slipped out of the popular lexicon a few cultural minutes after the attitudes it characterized—angst, sass, and neurotic self-doubt—became general enough to fill all the slots of prime-time television. And it’s these attitudes, which are now something like a national accent, that American Incident seeks to critique. It may well be that this approach—criticizing the very idiom set forth—stinks of the kind of claustrophobic self-consciousness that would absolutely peg Henry as a thirtyish, comfortably educated white American writer; to paraphrase Susan Sontag, there’s nothing more bourgeois than calling something bourgeois. But like I said, angst, sass, and self-doubt have become so densely woven into our cultural fabric that they’re ripe for re-examining, and I think Henry is up to the task, even if he can’t escape his own vocabulary.

Early into “Patricide in C Minor,” an elliptical prose narrative spattered throughout American Incident, the story’s female character thinks this:

. . . however I look at it, the arrival of bad news can never co-opt the absence of news. News needs no void to fill. There is no saturation point.

This passage, like others in American Incident, seems to arise from and address a whole stream of cultural theory that deals with media and its various threats to the human psyche. This stream has also been revisited by Sontag—sorry to bring her into this again—in her newest book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Revising some of her own Baudrillard-like views espoused in 1973’s On Photography—views concerning the degradation of reality and our ethical sensibilities by the proliferation of images of violence—Sontag writes:

To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breath-taking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment. . . . It assumes that everyone is a spectator.

This passage describes a certain kind of confusion just at the moment that it’s no longer sustainable without being party to, as Sontag puts it, “a breath-taking provincialism.” The confusion I’m referring to is one that thirtyish white Americans are especially prone to, though increasingly paranoid about: projecting one’s own spectatorial powerlessness and attendant apathy on the culture at large. Henry acutely calls this dilemma “the concern of not being sufficiently concerned,” and jittering through American Incident is the anxiety that, as distasteful as apathy might be, developing actual feeling could be much more horrific.

In another poem early in American Incident, “Am I Offended,” Henry approaches this anxiety from several angles: “You could say I’m telling you / I’m fucking you while I’m fucking you . . . Perhaps there’s some charm, honesty . . . Perhaps it’s a shit approach.” Henry’s grammatical constructions create a frantic rush in poems where the logic can’t find its own conclusion. Henry recognizes that when the thinking process is undermined so thoroughly by alternative, equally viable views—when diversity threatens to dissolve meaningful coherence—a terrifying alienation arises. Even the generic instability of American Incident embodies this tension—not only does the book drift in and out of verse, but it also contains several instances of immediate revision in which a poem is followed by a sliced-and-diced version of itself, as well as the aforementioned spattered narrative and a script for a somewhat unperformable performance piece. The book threatens to collapse under its own variousness, though the anxiety that characterizes such moments is what we’re led to hope for:

I can’t say what’s in order except that
I feel at ease with it.
I welcome it
gnarled on the inside
as it might be.

*  *  *

Alternatively, it’s hard to imagine a poetry so free of anxiety as Goodman’s Famous Americans. Partly he achieves this by fully embracing what might be called a goofball poetics, something akin to Kenneth Koch’s early work, but without the sense that the poems are trying to articulate or discover anything new about humor, language, consciousness, or their capabilities. As with Henry’s acidity, Goodman’s goofy absurdity is its own point:

                             . . . Werner
Heisenberg was a young German boy born in
1959 of an Italian sharecropper and a
Dynamo. He was born in 1959, the proud son
Of a shoemaker and an air balloon. Werner
Heisenberg, born in 1959, was the young son
Of a Jesuit and a coughdrop.

It’s liberating to read a poetry so free of concern for itself, though at times you’ll wonder what stake anyone could take in it. Perhaps that’s the risk—and the purpose—of Goodman’s approach, which has something in common with some of James Tate’s more recent narrative poems such as “Lust for Life,” which has no anxieties, no tensions, and no movement. With Tate, it seems as if he’s extracting some of the nuances of rural boredom from his larger narrative project and making them the subject of an entire poem. In other words, he’s pushing to a certain kind of end, beyond which a poem would be indiscriminable from a telephone call between two very bored and very boring people. If it’s easier to believe that Tate is somehow making artistic progress at the expense of compelling verse than it is with Goodman, it may be because Tate has developed his aesthetic over the course of 13 books of poetry, and this is only Goodman’s first. <

At the same time, I shouldn’t give the impression that Famous Americans is devoid of compelling poems, by which I mean poems that arrest, maintain, and reward a reader’s attention in the usual sense. In fact, the interplay of dull and engaging poems is part of the book’s overall absurdity—one poem that’s all depthless meandering will fall on the heels of something you’re suddenly engrossed by and glad to be reading, making all the goofy stuff seem a little more purposeful and worthwhile. Another way of putting it would be, simply, that Famous Americans is uneven. How much Goodman is aware of this fact is beside the point, given that the issue of awareness has probably been abandoned in favor of a more austere absurdity, to free the poetry from anxiety. So the book’s unevenness comes across neither as unconscious nor as deliberate, but as the full and open spectrum of a somewhat challenging aesthetic. This interplay is compressed in the undermined beauty of these lines from “The Future”:

An! ode of! Buses and! the! future
Is! slipping into! itself like! a! red sleeve

Presumably Goodman has spent a fair amount of time traveling back-and-forth between Japan (where he is pursuing a degree in sociology) and the United States (where he is pursuing a degree in English literature), and I don’t think it would be a stretch to see this axis at work in the poems. Some of them are overtly based on an ESL dialect, such as the one-sided telephone transcript poem “I am Yan Shaohua”:

I am I’ll have a meeting now
The address is the Perry Hotel
   P-I-E-R-R-E Hotel
P-I-E-R-R-E Hotel
   Maybe ten minutes from your unit
OK, it’s very near, OK?

But even more central to Famous Americans are poems that riff on imaginative reconstructions of famous people’s lives, which almost read like snippets from English-language biographies as run through several degrees of translation before making it back into English—like English to Japanese, Japanese to Swahili, Swahili to Serbo-Croatian, and Serbo-Croatian back to English. Sometimes the effect is like what happens in the poem about Heisenberg quoted earlier, though at times Goodman reaches a diction more nuanced and interesting, such as this passage from an untitled prose poem about Babe Ruth:

        Equally at home hauling grain across America’s rolling wheat fields, bringing the family into town on Saturday night or silhouetted against the skyline of a great city, this legendary player is suspended on poles of gleaming brass, alert to every sound, every movement.

In poems like this, you could say that Goodman has found lyrical possibility in the gap between famous people’s lives and the mythic status they’re attributed. Helpful as this reading may be, I’m not sure that it will carry you all the way through the book and, in truth, it may be too thought-out and hemmed-in for Goodman’s more inclusive absurdity. For example, it can’t account for “The Party,” which I quote here in its in entirety:

Invite Don Rickles.

It’s interesting to note that Goodman’s work almost totally lacks bite; even in poems dealing with famous Americans he avoids the irony and cynicism that a lot of writers seem to find mandatory, and this is refreshing. Goodman is inspiringly innocent of sass, and his handling of American myth is free of the camp and acidity of Larry Rivers’s Washington Crossing the Delaware or Frank O’Hara’s poem on that subject, although he does fight towards their lyrical heights.

Unless, of course, he doesn’t. Famous Americans also contains a fair number of aggressively un-beautiful poems, such as the four-page “Film Retrospective,” a list of movies along with their characters and actors, some real, some imagined, and all involving Max von Sydow. Then there are several list poems—and this is perhaps where Koch’s influence is more apparent—that spin out variations, usually too many to be enjoyable or funny, on a simple construction, such as “Who Would Win”:

Columbo (the private detective) vs. Colombo (Sri Lanka)—who would win???

Julius Irving vs. Irving Goodman—who would win???

Dialectical Hegemony vs. Axiological Heterogeneity—who would win???

Herman Melville vs. Herman Munster—who would win???

And on and on, as manic and mechanical as the triple question marks at the end of each line. This poem probably sounds like a so-so conceit taken out past its bedtime, but to dismiss the poem that hastily and on those grounds is to lose sight of the book’s latent proposition—that its absurdity, being so free of anxiety, has a kind of integrity.

 

Integrity is one of the strangely and seriously valued characteristics in Famous Americans, and it comes up in plenty of the poems, though always through the back door, packaged in banality or absurdity. For example, take the book’s epigraph-like proem:

Let my friends know that I have remained faithful to the ideal of my life, let my countrymen know that I am going to die so that France may live. For the last time I have looked into my conscience. The result is positive.

What a strange thing to say. This passage never really resolves into satire, irony, absurdity, banality—or back to the larger point, integrity. But as with much of Famous Americans it seems to float around the tips of all of those possibilities. Such buoyancy can yield poems that sound a little hokey, but admirably so. <

Paul Killebrew lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he is helping to launch a nonprofit advocacy agency to address racism in the foster care system. In the coming months the Poetry Society of America will publish his chapbook, Forget Rita.

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review



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