9 WRITERS TAKING THE POSTBEAT LINEAGE FURTHER: WILLIAM SEATON, STEVEN HIRSCH, LYNNE TILLMAN, MICHAEL ADAMS, MICHAEL HOGAN, JORDAN JONES, ERIC PAUL SHAFFER, GREG BOYD, VINCE BALESTRI
Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems by William Seaton; FootHills Publishing, Kanona, NY, ISBN 978-0-941053-47-199 pages, 2008, $16.00
Lovers of poetry have come to William Seaton’s work in a variety of ways over the last forty years: with the Cloud House poets in San Francisco in the ‘70s; with his radio series, “Poetry for the People,” and his television show, “Words in the Air,” in the ‘80s; or with his long-running “Poetry on the Loose” that he produces in the mid-Hudson Valley, now in its sixteenth year. Others have found him through his translations of Greek, Latin and German poets, as ancient as Sappho and as contemporary as Dada. Others know him as an inspired teacher of the craft or as a captivating performer.
For those who know only a spoke or two of Seaton’s talent, Spoor of Desire is a great introduction to his work, a journey to the center of the wheel. But for readers already familiar with his chapbooks, Cold Water (Goshen: Monkey’s Press, ‘99) and Tourist Snapshots (Berkeley: CC Marimbo, ‘07), his work in journals like Home Planet News, Outlet, 4 X 4, PoetryBay, Mad Blood, Heaven Bone, Fertile Ground or in anthologies like CAPS Voices, Will Work for Peace, Hudson Valley Poets Fest and Riverine, Spoor is a long-awaited pleasure.
In fact, the seventy-two selected poems and prose pieces in Spoor demonstrate a most pleasurable combination of talents rare in today’s literary scene: an incantatory incandescence from the Whitman-Pound line-breath lineage; a gifted lyricist in both metered and free verse; a combination shaman-classics scholar equally absorbed in the Vedas and the Tao as well as the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas; a sympathetic and original voice, engaged and curious about the world within the world around him.
Read in the quiet of one’s study or while on the road in some far-away province, Seaton bids one entrance into a deeper event, a fuller participation, an enlarged appreciation. That Whitmanic impulse, to move beyond the words of the learn’d astronomer, to sing the body electric to the stars, to join what has been rent by containing in one’s own self multitudes, to initiate the democratic vista, is fully alive in these pages. Seaton writes in the title piece, “As the bloodhound knows, each spoor is a unique track, bearing for a time a unique scent.”
Whether a caterpillar or a white church on Paros, the market at Marrakech or Florida’s panhandle; a freshly mowed lawn, the road to Benin or Salvation army stores; a bird’s mask, Elgin marble, three luminous slugs in his garden, Prague or a pinball machine; Nigerian roadsigns, a pelican in Boca de Tomatlan, the Dobo guesthouse in the shadow of a castle, a dead woodpecker at the back door, a carrot or a grapefruit, wherever his sight strikes, Seaton makes of the poem a portal. By way of image, allusion and invocation, events in the present tense are gleaned through the lens of antiquity as he teases out from the quotidian pastiche hidden clues that reveal an ancient way or rite of passage, an underground river running below us. Like this untitled poem-song-prayer-flag-ritual-ceremony from his section, “Neopastoral Texts,” with its last line shouted out of a Mystery cult:
My fat grape eyes can hardly bear the sight
Of tress so brimming full of autumn death.
Their red and orange light the country road.
What prodigal electric discharge here!
At home tomatoes swell and burst their skins
(hopped up with hybrid genes) and on the road
a deer’s leg, a dead mouse in the backyard.
“Mists and mellow fruitfulness” be damned!
The cat shit on the bed last night. It stinks
So full and rich a smell it fills the house.
The conflagration’s here and at the end
Of things is glory. Hail the flight
Beyond when things leap chuteless into flame,
For Dionysus Lysios is skipper now!
That killer first couplet of welcome, the mad momentum it makes and its graped-eyed reminder that its author is part of the libation and celebration! It’s all downhill from there with the ease of falling leaves in “prodigal electric discharge” around these smooth-talkin’ lines, how the rhythm of syllables stressed and unstressed tumble out from the cave of the mouth effortlessly, as Ramakrishna said of death, “Like taking off a tight shoe.” What a way to welcome autumn, a ripening that bursts open the skin.
Seaton, reminiscent at times of Kenneth Rexroth (and the Pound of Personae), delivers lines of incredible compression and imagistic precision. But it’s his ear for the exact sound, pitch, meter, nuance and balance of a word, tuned to its assonance and consonance, aware of its innate shape in the mouth and its size on the page that drives these lines of buddha nature winking into everlasting rhythm the cadence of wonder.
intent as a falling plumb,
grand with gravitas, lighter than air,
yellow like hip swampwater,
light glances there and plays
like dervishes on holiday
instant calculus dwells there
nailed by cat’s eye shine from tenebrous parlor
shamed by that dead certainty
galaxies float there and worlds collide
and fugues play out
in the drift and settle of days and needs
There is indeed (colliding) world enough and time “in the drift and settle of days and needs” to be lulled into the deep silence the poem travels in and offers to us. It’s full of charm and craft! On the one hand, yes: it’s his eye to the right detail, what Eliot called the objective correlative, the image that turns the image-making machinery in the brain; but on the other hand, it’s his ear to sound, the haunt of the lyric and its whisper of the ancient world that makes these images unfold in musical time. No doubt it’s one thing, not two: eye and ear. Like Rexroth and ol’ Ez, Seaton has learned from the Chinese.
Here’s “Kasyapa’s Flower,” with its epigraph, “When one knows what that staff is, one’s study of Zen comes to an end” from Hui-leng:
throat of a breeze,
autolights nervous in daylight,
pool of melody, a crow’s call
wakens the crows of the cranium,
sortilege in the Milky Way,
rolling like water downward,
impelled toward the next
Niagra of glances,
& Morpheus’ caress.
The treasure of pleasure is in the sheer delight of song, but Seaton masterfully contrasts shifts in size: the “Niagra of glances” alongside “Morpheus’ caress”; “the crows of the cranium, sortilege in the Milky Way.” Like a zen garden, his song-canvas walks and talks us from yin to yang, micro to macro, water to rock, indoors to outdoors, and back again. With a wry humor he poignantly counterpoints human plight against vast space. As he reminds us in another context, “It’s cold out there: in the nighttime field, in the ocean, between the galaxies.” All the more reason to travel a path of the heart, as the old timers say, and with a song to counter any misfortune:
A shadow of disquiet
supports the glaring snow;
an odor of illness
plays about the edge
of the sea of air;
anticipation of the ache of longing
in love’s tight grip;
black holes in the cosmos
of consciousness, too.
How so unwieldy,
This old, old warp and woof?
Yes, it’s certainly a poem but it’s also a prayer. With his long-lobed ear pitched to “the ache of longing” and his eye to the original integrity behind alleged opposites, he renews to the office of poetry its oral and oracular aspect. Like Kabir and the poets in the Siri Guru Granth of the Sikh tradition, Seaton word-smiths songs that, through the repetition of the lyrics aloud, create the experience the lyrics celebrate. In India it’s known as shabad or laya yoga, divine union through the art and science of vibrating the sound current (nam). It’s a blend of raga (musical mood) and verse lines whose permutation and combination of certain seed syllables has the tongue tip striking meridian points along the roof of the mouth in rhythmic patters to awaken the “divine receptors” (the pineal and pituitary glands and hypothalamus) not just in the singer but in the listener. It’s the poet’s original contribution to the human tribe and in India the practice is as old as the Vedas, and they’re the oldest poem-prayer-invocation-incantation-songs recorded in human history. The mark, one might say, of excellence in such a project is the actual change it brings in our consciousness. Not only does Seaton celebrate the older story shining through the new one du jour, he crafts words that the mouth loves to repeat in language that is pure candylandy. For example:
Since certainty shattered so long ago
we live among glittering shards,
each husk lit with shock from that old blast.
Thread these to truth’s needle:
a coleus shaken and wary, looks this way and that,
creeps blind looking for some way out,
each leaf like subtle radar or cats’ ears
turning this way and that
seeking some dream of a main chance;
a book whose text does twist and dance
and squirm to find itself thus stranded here,
like me, a cast-up hulk on this damp and sandy shore.
And in the corner some nameless dust
a gleam of sparkle there from distant galaxies,
a winking from its inner soul of subatomic glee.
Listen to the music of his first three lines for the real story. Nothing against all the revealed, infallible and absolute truths we must believe in under penalty of death, but never has uncertainty seemed more the actual ruler of what we know, nor humility a more appropriate response to our human condition, nor “a cast-up hulk on this damp and sandy shore” more the voice to remind us it’s a weave of large and small, of ‘as above, so below.’ Seaton threads us through light and shade, star and sea, book and plant via the repetition of “this way and that,” a dance of antenna leading to that Yeats-like, Second Coming ending in the last three lines, the spinning of proportion.
Lest the reader be misled that Seaton only stays clothed in awe and at-one-ment, his portrait of a subway ride (“Did ever any people move / so silently to work?”) makes a most familiar subject new by his idiosyncratic gaze. Not since Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire opened with Rilke’s angels giving witness to the commuters’ thoughts has this reviewer felt underground travel so well sized up as in these Seaton lines: “The routine here outweighs the car! / No desperation but an aimlessness, / a terrible blooming of dead ends, / solitary luxuries, lonely sufficiencies . . . in this morning number two subway car / from Flatbush on its way to Manhattan.” His quick read and wit keep one at the edge of one’s seat, never sure when an expectation he creates will hit paydirt or turn into a reversal.
In fact, for all the kudos bestowed for his musical imagism, it’s when Seaton travels, especially to far-off lands, that his poems take on an even more immediate quality and depth. For one thing, his sketch style is enriched by the layers of history. For another, his scholarship is not anemic or pedantic but Whitmanic and human, based upon his actual interest in the people he encounters. The past becomes prologue for this world citizen informed by the de-colonization of his own mind. With a willingness that knows no borders, ever-ready to go native no matter the flora or fauna, he’s Father Walt’s wild child, the whole enchilada, the antithesis of the gringo besieged by hygiene issues and the Other. These are the words that end the book:
“As we sit in a hut with walls of fronds, we eat the meat with mint tea and round leaves. White and whole wheat, while drummers and string puckers perform keening warbling heartsongs and great rough clouds of smoke from cookfires that have smoldered for centuries drift through this new and temporary Eden.”
(published at http://www.cosmoetica.com/B798-KPG2.htm)
Ramapo 500 Affirmations, Steven Hirsch, Flower Thief Press, New York, NY 1999, $8.00, www.amazon.com
Steven Hirsch’s first collection of poems, Ramapo 500 Affirmations, is everything one would expect from the founder-editor-publisher of Heaven Bone Press and more. His magazine, one of the most celebrated and long lasting publications of its kind, has always demonstrated to this reader what Dumar Reviews once described as “offering a variety of styles and viewpoints with enough depth, meaning and complexity to fill up several lesser magazines.”
Such is certainly the case for Hirsch’s poems. At one level, they are about the joy of cross-country motorcycling, “to affirm what lies / ahead, to see everything,” as Hirsch sings in the title poem. Clement Salvadori wrote in Rider Magazine that the chapbook “celebrates the pleasures of following a long ribbon of asphalt to the farthest horizon and will be appreciated by even confirmed anti-poetry types!”
But only a poet with Hirsch’s extraordinary background could weave such unabashed joy of the open road with themes of loss and compassion where the frailty of life meets the “mahamudra of a water lily opening in rapids of the Delaware.” He’s got heart and an encyclopedic breath. References to the Tarot, Reiki Master Symbols, Vajrayana Buddhism, Rainer Maria Rilke, Numerology, Auschwitz and Brooklyn’s Ocean Avenue intersperse with upstate Greek diners, personal ads, a catalogue of New Jersey towns, biker lore, the attributes of beautiful women he loves and the hard facts of urban landscapes. Jack Foley of Poetry Flash wrote, “Hirsch’s poems move but speed is not their only quality. These poems are meditative and haunting.”
But there is no admonition for us to bow down to his particular truth. It’s more a matter of seeing what is, or as he puts it in “Deep Wood Desire,” “There is a light and I am in it.” To this reader his least powerful moments are perhaps the wacky, even delightful, stream-of-consciousness pieces like “Shoppin’ List” where he really lets it all hang out. He is certainly a much more powerful poet when writing closer to home. The most moving moments in the collection remember “my father’s memory / invite him as my guardian angel / into the open court of my adulthood” and “my furnaced family whom I never got a chance to be related to.”
The closest he ever comes to delivering a message might be his short poem, which could easily be a biker’s, a lover’s or a meditator’s prayer:
Sword Against Leather
consider every single moment
if you are not sure
you can handle another defeat.
Ramapo 500 Affirmations, as Stephen-Paul Martin noted, “convincingly ask us to think about the possibility of spiritual intelligence in a dangerous and absurd world.”
(published in Hunger Magazine)
American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman; 1-933368-44-6; 320 pages; $15.00; Soft Skull Press, 55 Washington Street, Suite 804, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Lynne Tillman has written a wild ride of a book. In American Genius she brings to the dramatic monologue, that old war horse that’s covered many a literary waterfront, much of the whacked-out wit, subversive psycho-anarchy reminiscent of performance art as it has been practiced in lower Manhattan over the last thirty years.
A veteran of that downtown scene and a lover and scholar of Gertrude Stein, Tillman has produced a laugh-out-loud satire-in-stealth, simultaneously high brow and low, epic in proportion and dead-on about life in our dis-United States. It’s a 320 page non-stop word riff, filled with arcana from the worlds of textiles-fabrics-design (what we elect to wear) and human physiology, especially the life of our epidermis (what we can’t help but wear): rashes, blushes, acne, boils, psoriasis, and lo and behold, the secret mother lode of her story, skin tone.
Exploring these two kinds of covering, manufactured and natural, the obsessively observant narrator contrasts the individual and the collective (democracy) while also investigating the relation between perception and judgment in unpredictable and refreshing ways. After so much cliché-driven, race-card-baiting by folks on all sides of the equation, here is an intriguing look into the hole in our most American bucket. Way back in 1905 W.E.B. Du Bois, grand daddy of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote in The Souls of Black Folks, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the relation of the darker to the lighter races." Take a look at the book’s cover: blue thread weaves a pattern with a hairy skin. Through our epidermis, the mediator of inner and outer, self and other, Tillman unfolds a signifyin’ meditation on race. Her narrator’s chatty, witty, nutty investigations pull together thoughts on, among other things, Manifest Destiny, work, religion, the Zulu language and Leslie Van Houten of the Charles Manson family with memories of growing up in suburban Fifties USA. Cleverly, instead of relying on a more traditional plot and setting, she turns her knowing eye to the various guests. She is specially taken with Violet, who she nicknames the Contesa (a mulatta fleeing the black bourgeoisie who writes on Kafka), and the Count (an eccentric Southern aristocrat) who come and go at a place whose purpose we can never really determine.
Check out the first paragraph:
The food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there’s a bathtub, which I don’t have at home. I can have a bath here every day before dinner, which is 7:30 p.m., and usually unsatisfying. But I can’t wait for dinner because it’s the official end to my day, and there will be other people around with whom I can talk and who may distract me. I’m often distracted from the things I must do, which I feel compelled or expected to accomplish. But here I hope to discover what might help me or what I need to know, or what I don’t need to know, for instance, about the other residents in the community.
Where is she? Like so many institutional situations, it sounds variously like a hospital ward, art colony, sanitorium, think tank, hospice, nut house, health spa, prison and a retreat for intellectuals, but we can’t be sure. At first I was reminded of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where Rilke’s narrator lives through fever dreams in a country and a language he doesn’t know. However, in the narrator’s mad flow, held together by the rubber bands of coordinating conjunctions and “free association kibbutzing,” Tillman has added a layer of psychological uncertainty.
How sane is the narrator and how dependable are her observations? Her wit runs martini dry to over-the-top absurd, but her mind noise (indecisive, confessional, introverted, afraid of contact) sounds like someone in rational-emotional therapy. Certain routines (the family cat, her Polish skin care specialist, her aging mother, her lost brother) keep re-appearing unexpectedly in hilarious, knee-jerk-robotic synapses. Just say, “Niagra Falls,” and slowly she turns, step by step, revealing the warp and woof of her own unstable homeostasis, simultaneously guarded and open as her identity shifts from automaton to becoming the agent of her own behavior change.
Look at the word genius in the title: from the Latin, originally meaning a guardian spirit or deity; endowed with talent or wit; in the eighteenth century: the sense of natural ability or quality of mind. So, is the guardian spirit of America within us or outside us? As Henry James once said, literature is about what you leave out as much as what you leave in the telling. The narrator’s unwillingness (or inability or lack of concern) to be more specific builds suspense while it provides clues to this hypersensitive and smart first-person protagonist, a former teacher of history. However, William James, the novelist’s brother and the father of Pragmatism, the only American-grown contribution to world philosophy, holds the best clue to the novel’s theme. This quote of his opens the tale: "Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experience; they will lead him nowhere or else make false connexions."
Are these cautionary words for an American century that ended with winning the Cold War, the Twin Towers falling and our occupying the wrong country looking for the wrong enemy or what? How many Americans can tell the difference between Osama and Saddam or care? How many of us prefer our illusions clean and untouched in contrast to the responsibility inherent in dreams, to paraphrase Delmore Schwartz? To what extent are we dupes of what Robert Bellah called the civic religion of America (xenophobic, anti-intellectual, secure in our convictions even if we don’t question the assumptions that root these convictions)? The end of the story most powerfully renders how our beliefs inhibit our perceptions of reality. I won’t give anything away, but William James, among the early pioneers in psychic research, understood that whatever conclusion we make about spirit has nothing to do with science and everything to do with how we see the world.
For me the other major clue into the comical yet allegorical nature of the narrator’s goofy yak-a-thon is jazz, perhaps the greatest American-grown contribution to world culture and certainly a celebration of hybrid vigor. There’s a musical quality to her theme-and-variation approach. Think of Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige Suite where Saturday night becomes a Sunday morning spiritual or the kind of all-of-a-piece cohesion to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or the interweaving of motifs in Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. They all spell epic Americana, something new coming out the permutations and combinations of existing elements. Furthermore, instead of narrative seaming the text, the novel is all voice, what reviewer Douglas Glover called "such elan, such spirited delight and comic intelligence." Yes, and what a voice Tillman has created, knowing and yet tentative! It’s as if the cubist quality of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans were somehow wed to the haunting, moody, free-spirited solos of a Betty Carter!
Matthew Sharpe wrote that Tillman’s book “belongs in the same class as Moby-Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow, encyclopedic novels about America and the world.” However, I sense there’s at least as much in common here with the highly distinctive voice of the American epic poem as expressed in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Pound’s Cantos, Crane’s The Bridge and William Carlos Williams’ variable American foot in Paterson. As Colm Toibin pointed out, "American Genius is written in cadences both sharp and mesmeric." It’s got language on its mind and up its sleeve, a postmodernist’s pluck-&-paste pastiche.
Yes, to all that, but for me it’s got something even more compelling: the genius of indeterminacy. It’s that rare kind of a book one is likely to return to over and over through the years because as one reads and re-reads it, another aspect of our own story takes shape in the shifting kaleidoscope.
(published in http://www.cosmoetica.com/B507-KPG1.htm)
Steel Valley by Michael Adams, published by www.LummoxPress.com, PO Box 5301, San Pedro, CA, 90733-5301, 2010, 103 pages, letterpress soft cover, ($15.00) ISBN 9781929878178
A bittersweet elegy to a by-gone time, of stepping “into the fires in the cathedral shadows of the furnaces, /…Pittsburgh where I was tested and tempered,” Michael Adams records in the clipped language of his native Monongahela Valley a world of friends and family living through a turbulent transformation from “our city / beautiful / molten / riven to the core” to “boarded up storefronts, abandoned downtowns, suicides and divorces, low wage jobs or no jobs at all.”
Like Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl talking blues, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson and Jack Keruoac’s bop prosody road novels, form meets content in Steel Valley as compliments, not opposites, to celebrate an original voice, a new way to cohere the gestalt. In the Introduction John Macker calls “these tough, tender-eyed poems and prose pieces at once blue collar and bohemian,” and throughout its 103 pages oppositional points of view are abandoned in favor of a deeper embrace of the whole, an acknowledgment of human foible and the many phases that make complete the journey; in short, a sense of proportion and perspective, yet he does more than show us eternity in the eye of the sand grain. For example, these last lines of his opening poem:
From the bluffs above Lock and Dam #2
I watched the tugs push their coal barges downriver,
imagined the days and nights of their long journeys,
past Pittsburgh, down the Ohio to the soft-banked Mississippi,
past all the towns with their wonderful sounding names
Gallipolis, Oceola, Tallulah
Dreamed of the bayous and salt-washed rivers,
sea-tangled with life
ibises and spoonbills startling
the cypress swamps
and the hot green cities
Baton Rouge, New Orleans
copper-haired woman, skin sheened with sweat,
and the ice-hot wail of a saxophone
calling down heaven.
Or consider these stanzas:
Trains Like the River
The steel wheels were always rolling,
up and down the valley, loaded with coal and grain,
trucks and ore and gut-searing chlorine
and sulfur in the black tanker cars.
They rolled through Homestead,
South Side, over in the Strip District
with frozen sides of beef and big boxes
of Lake Erie smelts.
The alliteration, pace and rhythm of his line feels like the musical shape his memory takes when the flashbulb goes off, what holds all the details in place, one clue dramatically giving way and revealing another, a giant woven fabric coming into focus, a great sense of participation, as if by reading these lines of verbal voodoo aloud, one invokes the actual events described. In short, transport. The fifteen haunted photo-like illustrations of mills and workers that accompany the text accentuate that quality of really being there working in hell fire and living in a shack.
Perhaps it’s no accident Adams also weaves into his poems the song lyrics of the era he is remembering. Word and rhythm, time and tempo seem to be the keys to his memory vault, and for this reader conversant with the rock, soul and jazz tunes he quotes, the effect is of a deep outpouring of personal and historical memories long forgotten playing side by side with his characters whose voices and values shaped him as a man and poet, hastened his departure and/or welcomed his return. As Macker writes, Adams “like Ed Abbey before him, left behind the Wobbly Joe bars, mills, hills and scarred valleys of Pennsylvania for the boisterous outback of the comparatively wide, wild open West.”
It’s the experience of opening into a fuller understanding or level of being that is the heart of his voice and its strong appeal, personal yet wide-angled, confessional but unsentimental. He’s got the whole story, kit and kin with roots in both ends of the game (his dad’s dad “a union man, ‘goddam Hunky troublemaker’ to the Germans and Irish in the strike of 1919” and his mom’s dad who “lost a leg in the mills before he was thirty, crushed by the steel wheels of a locomotive” and “spent the rest of his working life as a clerk in the company office.”) Hence, his propensity to see both sides at once in all their urgency and futility, to leave the old equation of the industrialized east and its Appalachians, strike out for a new compact with nature and land in awe of the wide and wild Rockies; hence, he’s zero on tricks but long on the telling detail.
By alternating clusters of memory poems of “orange clouds of sulfur off the slag pits … pools of molten iron hiding in the slag runners, under a thin crust” with his post-mill existence as “a farmer, monk and hermit” in West Virginia and his present life in Colorado, narrative time is bent just enough to connect all the pieces. For example, “the mills of Pennsylvania and mines of Colorado” meet in the town of Homestead, the site of Carnegie’s steel works where he grew up, which was stamped on the railroad tracks that were laid out in Silverton, where he finds a Carnegie library just like the one in his hometown where he read and dreamed of the Rockies. He wonders “How we are shaped by land and water, the work / of a lifetime, nothing ever lost … everything carried along / Silverton mines quiet, sinking / by slow stages back into the earth, / Homestead mills gone to weeds / and failing memory. / A dilapidated assay office, / beside it, a rusted ore car / filled with black soil / and raspberry bushes.”
Art Goodtimes observes that Adams “employs a full range of genres in this crossover book: crafted lyrics, prose poems, field notes, bar talk, haiku, recipes,” and it’s this layering of stylistic elements, a technique so favored by modernists like Eliot, Pound, Crane and Olson, that reveals the work’s epic dimension. Goodtimes notes that “his tone is consistent throughout, reflective and personal … the bardic stance of Whitman, the nature zen of Snyder and the native spoken English of Lew Welch,” but the effect is of a deep and most personal inclusion into one of American capitalism’s most cautionary tales, one whose repercussions speak directly to the country’s condition in 2010.
(published in Rain Taxi, Fall, 2010)
Winter Solstice: Selected Poems, 1975-2012, Michael Hogan, www.drmichaelhogan.com, 187 pages, $11.49, ISBN 978-1-468-19269-8
Reading Michael Hogan’s Winter Solstice: Selected Poems, 1975-2012 is like walking into a garden after a long illness. In my case, the illness has been reading poetry of the I-yi-yi school and the garden I have walked into is Hogan’s simplicity of craft, maturity of voice and meditative revelation delivery: exactly what the doctor ordered.
The changing fads and fashions that have dominated much of American verse over the last 37 years are of little interest to Hogan. One can see him as an example of a highly individual voice developed from a postbeat, hyphenated poetry pastiche culture and draw out his roots in desert surrealism or what he holds in common with the confessional school or the Objectivists, but Hogan’s verse is an argument with existence, not with aesthetics. Rather than gussy it up with adornment or obfuscation, he wants to undress the language so that the rests (silences) speak as powerfully as the lyrics for his interest is entirely with the reader, not with his own poster.
However, it’s not just the economy of his plain-spoken lines or his preference for precision that’s gotten me well; it’s the depth of his engagement. To quote that medieval Muslim weaver, “Kabir says: Listen to me, brother! Bring the vision of the Beloved into your heart.” Or as the book’s opening epigram from Rumi puts it: “Whoever brought me here is going to have to take me home.” What these two Sufi poets hold in common is an ability to reveal a spiritual presence in metaphor without a gangster theocrat or limiting belief window as a referent. In our Judeo-Christian traditions which favor dogma over experience, we’ve run words like religious or spiritual (poetry) into a tug of war about orthodoxy which often makes thinking people who read literature run for the hills.
However, like an Irish-American Sufi or an irreverent Han-shan, Hogan celebrates both the art of dying and his own Catholic upbringing even as he jokes about it. There’s something of the loneliness of the long distance runner in his lines; he’s earned his transcendence at a cost and the price is a kind of vigilance of humility whose center feels like the meditative mind of the prison lifer yet for all that weight Hogan remains in the world in an open way.
Culled from thirteen books and chaps with titles like “Imperfect Geographies,” “The Broken Face of Summer,” “Rust,” “Risky Business,” “Letters to My Son,” “Making Our Own Rules” and my favorite, “If You Ever Get There, Think of Me,” Hogan’s 115 short narratives celebrate the turning seasons, family, love, loss, incarceration, hope, memory, making a living sin fronteras in Mexico and confronting that reaper most grim. These are his subjects, the everyday world as we experience it, yet for all of that, where Hogan goes in a poem remains unpredictable. For example, in “Visitation Rights,” his last line, “Next winter, he asks, may I come back?” is a knock-out punch that changes the entire meaning of the 23 lines that came before in which the child complained about the weather, the dust and the barrenness of the desert locale.
Just as I began to think that the poems entitled New and Selected were particularly well made, I realized the new stands on the achievements of the earlier work. In fact, the last four lines of the last poem in the book, “And the Livin’ Is Easy,” “… and know that the world / is floating out over the edge of space / and nothing is more remote than your survival / and less imperative,” read like the price of admission into his hard-won point of view, so I read the whole collection over again and found that the vision/voice in “Born Again,” the earliest poem, is as mature as this last one.
What has changed is merely historical time and his age in years. His themes of recovery, renewal and redemption are what make Winter Solstice less of a chronology and more of a seamless, powerful personal witnessthat compels a deeper humanity in a reader while his eye on life, death and the horseman passing by sees ever more clearly.
(published in Big Bridge)
Eric Paul Shaffer
Lahaina Noon by Eric Paul Shaffer, 2005, Leaping Dog Press, PO Box 3316, San Jose, CA 95156-3316 (www.leapingdogpress.com), trade paperback, ISBN: 1-58775-018-X; LCCN: 2005820367, $14.95 US, $18.95 Canadian, Biblio Distribution, Inc.
It’s a wonder that in a poetry market ever ready to slip into financial woe, an small independent house like Leaping Dog Press not only exists but produces books of such exceptional quality. Its two most recent titles are Eric Paul Shaffer’s Lahaina Noon, his third LDP collection, and Jordan Jones’s The Wheel, his first. Reading the two books in the same sitting was both a fierce wake-up call and a hard times shakedown about our species’ relationship with the world rapidly becoming extinct around us.
Eyeing first Shaffer, readers of his “textless translations” of Shih-te (companion of Han-shan, the legendary T’ang Dynasty poet who penned Cold Mountain) will already be aware of his eye for the cheeky in the face of the pious. In Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen, the Way he seeks is strictly lower case, informal, of the all-that’s-left-to-do-is-have-a-belly-laugh variety. Shaffer, who studied with Gary Snyder, has a feel for Asian languages and world citizenship, but his attitude is closer to Lew Welch who wrote, “Church is bureaucracy, no more interesting than any post office” and “Seeking Perfect Total Enlightenment / is looking for your flashlight / when all you need your flashlight for / is to find your flashlight.” As Shaffer tells it in the voice of the eighth century cook: “And it is best not to speak of Buddhas / to one who daily watches monks eat.” Or as John Kain said of the collection, “These poems, like a strand of black hair in a monastery rice bowl, irreverently remind us that ‘enlightenment’ has nothing to do with purity or perfection. ‘Be human!’ Shaffer bellows.”
Ann M. Sato, reviewing his earlier book, Portable Planet, wrote, “Shaffer’s work is more of the ‘clear pool’ school. That is, many of the poems appear to be straightforward and ‘about’ something, as a pool seems as transparent as glass.” One of the real joys of American poetry, starting with Father Walt and Mother Emily through vortexical Uncle Ez and mad Aunt Gertrude to Harlem’s twins of the vernacular, Brother Langston and Sister Zora, is the individual’s railing against forced British meter and toward the distinctive voice. Like the blues, which is really not a genre of music but the root of all American musical genres, it is in the diversity of approaches that we get a flavor for what is quintessentially American. Include even avant-garde writing styles deemed by some to be unreadable, disruptive or divisive, projective, surrealist, black arts, langpo, lesbian separatist, dada, nuyorican, but which are part of our “democratic vista,” and one can see the value of the phrase “clear pool school.” It names what Shaffer and Jordan are up to very succinctly. Consider Shaffer’s title poem:
Today, I’m a shadowless man.
The sun calls me into the street,
and I walk alone into the light
of noon. The moment has come.
I stand quietly on Front Street
balancing the sun on my head.
My shadow crawls in my ear
to hide in the small, dark world
of my skull. The sun illuminates
the shadow in my skin, and I shine
like a second moon, reflecting
all the light I cannot contain.
Effortless to read, neither dumbed down nor smarted-tarted up with lit tricks, the visual melts into the sensual in a delivery so nonchalant it’s joyous enough to the ear to go back and listen for the rhymes a second time. That’s deadpan American that man without a shadow is talking, clipped and enjambed, irony already encoded, just nuke it and presto, it’s piping hot. The transparent narrator is not the target, not the point. That’s why there’s not one extra word anywhere; it’s reader-centric. Moreover, he is so easily us: the event takes place in our own skulls as we experience a bald man’s high noon over Hawai’i. It actually happens to us. Feel your own face at the last line, the top of your head. Though the poem’s got nothing to do with the Buddha nature, it is exactly like the arts of calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, “self defense,” archery and landscape painting as they have been traditionally expressed in the Far East. By that I mean they are purposefully experiential. If it’s too much to say that their intent is to awaken a satori, a flash of original mind, the unconditioned integrity within which the fields of opposites play, then okay, at least we can admit it radiates a just-so-ness. Hence, there’s no commentary necessary. If Shaffer were a radio dj, the tag line would be “all experience all the time.” He weaves light and shadow, playing yin to yang, molten liquid and moon rock to evoke that lunar-like eclipse inside our heads. Or as he concludes in “Black Light,” “The field of white we mistake for blankness / shapes darkness into words.”
What struck me most about the collection is its mature and confident feel; it’s much richer, more deeply felt, both a funnier and sadder book than Shaffer’s earlier shots. It’s also a celebration of place: this Pacific Rim wanderer, who has lived in Okinawa, Japan, Indonesia and California, loves Hawai’i. What’s not to love, you may say, but unlike most ex-pats everywhere, Shaffer has gone native, learning the language, local customs and politics along with the flora and fauna. The result is a poetics of engagement with a guy one feels lucky to share the foxhole with. It has certainly helped him burn the superfluous away in favor of mad flow. Consider the set-up in “Lovers on Pulehu Road”: “I drive past, but they do not look over, / knowing everyone on the island knows everyone else. . . . They know the road to the dump is far too public / for a lover’s lane, and they have not forgotten their families / and their friends drive this red-stained, two-lane blacktop / to throw away what they no longer want, what they have used / beyond use, and all the many things they have broken.” It’s the whole story in a county dump, the paradise brochure dripping in the rain: life is funky, things fall apart, how that last line comes up so Lady Day sad and weary.
He’s also quite funny. Consider this chorus (one of seventeen) of a poet that takes the first line for its title: “Officer, I saw the whole thing. I was standing there minding my own / business, when the sky cracked open like a blue Easter egg, and / suddenly, I saw it all / was made of atoms and molecules and elements bouncing around the tiniest, infinitesimal, electron-microscopic drunks in the / universe. Yes!”
With a grain of sand he shows us a view of the planet in “Blue Curve” and “As Seen From Space.” Karen Joy Fowler wrote, “No one is better at peeling away a single, ordinary moment until the whole world has been revealed.” But such revelations won’t make the six o’clock news. All the more reason to read “Big Paw: Black Leopard in Exile on Maui” to its Clear Pool School conclusion:
When I hear of you roaming upcountry, hungry, alone,
I tell everyone you are myth, and I think so myself
most of the time, and I wish you were, yet I love
the sight of your pawprint in the dirt. Some say you are
a threat to us, but I don’t care. We’re a greater threat
to ourselves, and you could never endanger us
as we endanger you. I apologize for what we’ve done
and will do. I curse the fool who brought you here
one of us, of course. We are a willful, stupid species,
and out own intelligence is our greatest delusion.
I wish you food, untainted by poison, unspoiled by traps.
I do not wish you a companion, although another fool
already plans to smuggle you a mate. Don’t ask me
how I know this. I am human. I know how we think.
I wish you stealth. Run fast and far when you see us.
We mean you no good, and I don’t want you dead
or in a cage. I want no more killing or cages.
Speak only in the night, for your loneliness will raise
ears and arms. If your fate is a cage, I wish you
good food and a short life. If you are lucky, I wish you
solitude and a short life in our green hills and gulches
far beyond eyes that hunt you, for some still believe
killing you will end their doubts and make them men.
The Wheel by Jordan Jones, 2005, Leaping Dog Press, PO Box 3316, San Jose, CA 95156-3316 (www.leapingdogpress.com), trade paperback, ISBN: 1-58775-020-1; LCCN: 2005901963, $14.95 US, $18.95 Canadian, Biblio Distribution, Inc.
If Shaffer’s ‘macro in the micro’ suggests the spatial, Jordan Jones adds the temporal to the Clear School Pool. His eye is on the everlasting, what’s behind the veil, the circle in the square, the older order hidden amidst all this tyranny scramble and greed. Known to readers of venues like Asylum, Fiction International, Heaven Bone, the 365 Project, Obscure Publications, Futharc Press and ABR, Jones also edited the late, great Bakunin “for the dead Russian anarchist in us all.” His poems, reviews, tales and co-conspiracies with other writers, as well as his translations of Rene Damaul’s Vedic-influenced The Anti-Heaven, reveal an ear tuned for nuance, a tongue sharp enough to sculpt verse with and a heart-mind at home in ancient and non-Western philosophical systems.
Whereas Shaffer is grounded in a wandering American Taoist-Buddhist tradition where praxis is the axis that spins the prayer wheel, Jones seeks to reveal the wheel itself, not as a symbol but as a call to witness, a fact of existence, the truer shape of things than the “lies that fueled the engine of power” for our late capitalist, screwball world-outta-balance, occupying foreign lands for oil in which we’re the freedom fighters and they’re the insurgents. If Jones played guitar, no doubt the words on its body would read, “This machine kills fascists.” He’s got Woody Guthrie’s talking-blues impatience for government obfuscation (“$200 billion for a pre-emptive war? / Don’t worry! The final accounting will appear / on your toe tag) and Whitman’s eye-popping impatience with the learned astronomer’s lecture. In the opening poem, “Cycle,” Jones writes, “The sun eats the flesh of the moon. / The moon makes a dress of the stars. / On earth, we have nothing more / to take care of than ever / Just each other / that is enough.”
Divided into four sections, new, waxing, full and waning, The Wheel blends precise, crystal-clear descriptions of what Jones finds in the Coyote Creek watershed of California’s Santa Clara County with what comes up on the nightly news. His instinct is to set them both against a parade of ancient times and places that celebrate the cycles, circles, wheels and spheres of the natural world all-of-a-piece with a human world. “The planet,” he observes in the Manifesto, “is tidal and watery by nature.” The result is a free-wheeling meditation on the interplay of opposites, the industrial night extinguishing the stars, the color of fireflies and a frog pond in a younger Simi Valley, a porn bomb welcoming Dubya to the White House, trail markers and the Aztec calendar, a Zen baker, getting naked in Babylon and the Druids of Stonehenge, the erosion of human rootlessness and the Book of Revelation meeting the Hindu tri-murti, grapefruit and a possum in the back yard, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and the birds of Iraq, an alternate reading of Orpheus in Hades and the Lakota Ghost Dance remembered on Thanksgiving, “the whirl of years in wood” meeting “the whorls on the tips of our fingers” and the moon hanging in the heavens like a perpetual blueprint for civilization. Notice in “Chimney Tree,” written at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, how the last lines burn their imprint deeply like Lao Tzu’s uncarved block:
The hollowed-out trunk
of the chimney tree
shows the path
standing inside the base,
I saw sky
through & beyond
the center of the tree
let the heartwood burn,
straight through the tree’s top,
so long as xylem
& phloem still conduct,
so long as
the remaining trunk
Here’s what death doesn’t consume,
& life differs little from death.
A practice of dying makes a living
wise, long, & sweet.
Life and death taken together make the whole story, not one without the other. It is in the observation of the cycle of all things that his wide-ranging juggle of juxtapositions coheres. Whether actual wheel, hiking trail, flow of seasons, contour map, the roundness of objects or the circular reasoning of the present administration insisting the water’s fine, Jones is there to remind us that there is a puncture in the ozone, that war is not peace and global warming is not just some acid-reflux about fossil fuel. His investigations compel our attention and dig up what’s underneath the mainstream discourse. What he finds is loss and what he recovers is a sense of the whole. “The state & the sawmill,” he concludes in “Fingerprints,” “will one day be fossils of little interest, / all straight lines & human planning, / not a biological circle / to be found.”
Like Shaffer, Jones’s clear pool aesthetic has an ethic implied in the act of viewing. These poems are the antithesis of escape, of covering over, of switching to another station. Like Shaffer, there is not a word wasted and plenty of craft at work, though it does not call attention to itself. Listen, for example, to how he works the ‘o vowel’ around consonant clusters to elicit a sense of taste to the woods and to evoke that killer, uneasy image in the last line of suburban “Sanborn Park”:
Pale green leaves underfoot
maroon of madrone,
ochre of tanoak on the trail
hundreds of small, slippery poems
the trees address
to the leisure
of summer soil.
Decaying leaves nourish wildness
in the terrain Coyote inhabits, just outside
the circular edge of the urban.
The war our species is waging on every other species (including our own) isn’t just happening in remote corners of the Serengeti but in our own struggles to make our neighborhoods safe, tame and antiseptic. As Greg Boyd wrote of The Wheel, “Jones demonstrates that the best poetry is an engaged and active response to the world around us.” Exactly unlike TV, that passive screen that Jones mocks, one could say that the reader’s engagement is the crucial connection. It’s the spoke that drives deeply into the wheel’s still center bringing it back to where it all began. It’s only at the end of book (“And who’s going to pay for replanting the forests? / Let the shade of concrete buildings refresh you”) that all the pieces come together and we know we’ve been somewhere.
If our present administration seems too stupid and petty to hang ironic metaphors on, Jones reminds us that stupid and petty are responsible for the damage. Still, the poems that leave out their cataclysmic agenda and focus more on nature itself seem stronger and more likely to be read again and again. For example, take a look at
The Body Is a Watershed:
I am only a temporary geology of bones
water sands to fluid curves,
speeding its return to itself
& the expanding acres of krill.
Water moves through me & falls away
as charged with minerals as I am,
as salty, as polar.
Oxygen carves rivulets through my flesh
& feeds the soil of each drinking cell.
Water wheels back into the air
from whoever I am
to fish, fowl, protozoan, person.
How joyous to be a mortal house
of rushing water!
to be at the center, all my life,
of the give & take of water & clay.
That last stanza! Taken together, The Wheel and Lahaina Noon offer the reader a double dose of good medicine. Poems this easy and satisfying to read are not political? It should be remembered that Imagine-Nation and the image-making machinery of your mind at play, the very site of reading words and translating them into images, is a skill that many children will never learn in the home of the brave, the play station and the myriad channels of the entertainment tube. Why poetry matters.
The Double (Doppelangelganger): An Annotated Novel, written and illustrated by Greg Boyd, Leaping Dog Press, Chantilly, VA, 2002, $14.95; ISBN 1-58775-007-4
Greg Boyd’s The Double, a singular, one-of-a-kind annotated novel, reads like a work of Burroughsian terror about the psychic disintegration of contemporary life, but it doubles as a trompe l’oeil of illustrated appendices, intersecting fairy tales, metafictive footnotes and surreal cul-de-sacs. In a final and fitting twist, The Double mocks the notion of autobiography while offering a midrash of sorts, East and West, on personal identity and the mythology of the self.
To call this doppel-angel-ganger lampoon of what is most unknowable about our own natures “tongue-in-cheek” is only half the pun. Boyd’s wicked satire reads as scary as it is funny. Like Naked Lunch, it’s less a single story with a beginning-middling-ending and more like a portal to another zone of consciousness. In this case, think of a chthonic garland, an anthology of many slippery serpents swallowing their own tails in telling their tales. The ouroboros is his connecting master trope, and it’s the psychic force of impulses we marginalize and bury that fascinates Boyd. It is the power of what is hidden that delivers the chill in this deceptively structured narrative that turns progressively in on itself until it assumes the urgent shape of a question mark the reader must live in order to answer.
As for locating Boyd in a larger literary landscape by appealing to his postbeat interests, his Taoist bent, his blends of symbolism and surrealism or the interaction he creates between text and image can be misleading, and shape-shifting surfaces is his specialty. One way into the labyrinth of his vision would be to suggest that in both word and image he erases depth, forcing his characters to occupy the dimensions solely of height and width. The result is a flattening that makes for a crushing deadpan, catastrophic glee, then a birth contraction followed by a metamorphosis out of the ordinary and commonplace. In this sense Boyd is creating a psychedelic literature of the threshold. He’s our Ovid at the Mardi Gras.
“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull,” Salman Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses, and it aptly captures the corner of the carnival that Boyd has painted us into, a charade not only of smoke and mirrors but of dread. Boyd seems to be saying that the life we are living is more complex and demanding that the attention we give it! Like the cover woodcut illustrating a man in a suit getting strangled by a frightening angel more out of Rilke than out of Raphael, Boyd’s visual artistry uses negative space to trick the eye. Like his photomontages that appear throughout the book, our brains are forced to gestalt these images without the clarifying help of a fore- and back- ground. It’s as if the pre-conditions that shape our understanding were pulled out from under us without our knowing. Examine the plot. An Everyman wrestles his double above a hole they have both just dug for the other in the cemetery. But in Boyd’s indeterminate, flattened prose we can’t be sure who’s doing the narrating, who’s doing the dying and who’s doing all the evil: nebischy Jeff or his doppel(angel)ganger.
Jeff is an unexceptional, surface-only, go-with-the-flow schmo with a job and a gal pal he seems barely related to, a guy to whom horrible things keep happening. All he remembers is waking up from sleep drained (his previous night’s reading was from Lies and Annotations written by George Body, the name of a writer-on-the-hustle who appears in Greg Boyd’s earlier work, Modern Love and Other Tall Tales, coincidentally). Like the characters in that collection, Jeff putters around without a sense of humor or irony to help him cohere his subconscious. In any case, the story he reads before bed is called “The Tale of Two Hugos” (yes, a previously published Boyd fable), about a writer fearing his ideas are being stolen via telepathy. With so little sleep Jeff cuts himself at work the next day and is told by the boss to leave early, only to find that the fellas in the shop are harboring weird feelings about him. Over beers, he discovers the trouble. Some other version of him has appeared at the shop to quit his gig and call the biker bad boy Iron John a pussy. What’s next? While he takes a beating for provoking Iron John in the john, his double calls his girlfriend Gina to tell her he finds her roommate Tina more attractive. True to her cardboard character, Gina retaliates by never speaking to him again. By the time Tina calls Jeff to deliver the most banal of erotic chatter, sex seems the worst of bad jokes. By now the page we are reading is getting more and more “eaten away” by long, illustrated footnotes that tell the stories Jeff reads at night, stories of the surreal which eventually “overwhelm” the narrative and “grow” appendices. It’s only when Iron John’s long-suffering wife Frieda contacts Jeff does his condition improve. After he has been fired from his job, evicted from his apartment and booked at the precinct, they meet at a donut shop where she reads to him from her own book of fairy tales, The Goat-King, chock full of double-takes on the Brothers Grimm and Jung, Hildebrand and Bly.
In pure dream logic, it turns out that: a) divided Jeff buys a gun and a harp at a pawn shop; b) the shrink his mother recommended is none other than Tina’s boyfriend who has him repeat, “I’m not my father”; c) Iron John is schtupping his former girlfriend Gina; d) Freida walks in with the double. And yes, among other tales (like “Books” whose narrator confronts a world he finds less real than the one he reads about), we read that the double is reading the opening sentences of The Double to Jeff, its protagonist.
Underneath the surface of these flattened characters’ incomplete responses to one another lurks one of the blackest senses of humor ever to write in the American grain. Black like the Baudelaire (whose La Fanarlo Boyd has translated) of Les Fluers du Mal and reminiscent of the Borges who wrote, “In relief, in humiliation, in terror, he understood that he, too, was an appearance, that someone else was dreaming him.” If this printmaker, painter, collagist, writer and former publisher of Asylum Arts Press has an American contemporary, it’s David Lynch, whose latest film, Mulholland Drive, explores the same noirish nightmare known as Los Angeles from which Boyd’s fictions seem to emerge as well. Like Lynch who loves to extend the extended metaphor of his films, which gain momentum long after you’ve left the theatre, The Double is Boyd at the top of his game. That his novel, published in paperback and ebook, hangs on a shelf populated by market-sampled, demographically driven, corporate-printed pulp only underlines the irony The Double reveals and revels in. Like his own invented persona George Body or the actual body of his work that The Double quotes, the conditions he writes in are inextricable from the joke he is telling. It’s a joke whose punch line is our own lives, a celebration that, like all great literature, needn’t wait for him to be dead for the rest of us to get.
Kerouac: The Essence of Jack, A One Man Improvisational Show, performed by actor-scholar Vince Balestri, on national tour, Schreiner University auditorium, Kerrville, TX, http://www.beatangel.com/vincent.html
I didn’t want to go to a show about Jack Kerouac. His books had touched me in a personal way, and since his death in 1969, there has seemed to be no end to the number of people trying to make a cottage industry out of this writer, but then I met Vince Balestri.
A walking-talking Kerouac scholar and a true fan of his books and not the hype, Mr. Balestri is also an enormously talented actor of the old school. In other words he worked the stage, the crowd, the material. He performed The Essence of Jack, the subtitle for his one man show Kerouac, a rolling, sad, funny, poignant improvisational jazz play, which he has performed all over America during the last fourteen years. With him on stage on Monday night at Schreiner College auditorium was Denny Hardy, Kerrville’s own “man with a horn” on tenor and alto saxophone. Although they’d only met the previous evening, they played off each other’s gifts for music and words as if they were the sons of Charlie Parker and rightful heirs to all that we call jazz.
The audience of two hundred and fifty college students and local citizens lucky enough to have heard about it hunkered down for what proved to be a delightful and moving two hours of vignettes from Kerouac’s life and works. Mr. Balestri not only knows his material inside and out, his cohort, consort, agent and stage manager Reda told me he’s got over seven hours of prepared text from which to choose. He knows what acting is all about. Everything works when he is on stage: voice, face, body, motion, delivery. The insights of Brecht, Artaud, mime, Method, yoga, dance, the choreo poem performance tradition of Ntozake Shange along with his uncanny sense of timing helped the audience get inside of JK, the writer.
Balestri’s sense of humor is so quick and effortless that even Mr. Hardy had to take the sax out of his mouth to join the laughter. He’s also a master of the comic impersonation. William F. Buckley, Jr., Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Franz Kline, Columbia’s football coach Lou Little and a whole gang of New York publishers were portrayed with all their idiosyncrasies intact. The show was also a celebration of the authentic in art (he performed Kerouac’s famous “theory of spontaneous bop prosody”) and the urge to get it down true “without the commas.”
Furthermore, he knows how to play to the house. To this reviewer there was certainly a lot of the darker Kerouac he wisely avoided. Instead he universalized the plight of the artist and delivered a moving call to the audience to love American writers before, not after, their funerals. In addition, Mr. Balestri trusts the unknown. Act II opened with four students reading their own poems. Any veteran of the American poetry scene knows this open mic could have easily become tedious and tangential, but each of the four women read brilliantly and kept it short.
At times it was as if the spirit of Kerouac were doing the acting. This seemed particularly so during his question-and-answer period, the penultimate scene. Reminding the audience that “after your questions I’m dead,” Mr. Balestri coaxed us into more and more queries, his answers increasingly taking on the kind of haiku-esque and goofy wit that Kerouac was known for during his television and radio interviews. Asked to read from all of his books, Vince-as-Jack said, “We’ll be here all night.”
“Perfect,” a Zen master in the audience yelled back, “then you don’t have to die!”
(published in the Kerrville Daily Times 3/28/95)