What does it mean, for blood to work?
If my blood works with your blood, are
we merely bloody? It can’t be that we’re
the same person twice, or that the same
foundation inheres in/for us— it must
be a matter of temperature, we demonstrate
sameness by degrees— and by manifesting
identical aptitudes to be pierced, bring
fluid to the surface, heave towards horrors
and ecstasies. I walk down Butler Pike,
astounded by the sky’s whiteness against
us, and am vertiginous with the dizziness
of deep dirt dredged from depths of us,
stung raw by toil, streets crossed as we are.
You watch, as in slow motion glass-
hewn objects crash to the ground, as
streams back and forth confirm, once
again, you’ve cracked into a slug-pile
of heartless psychopaths— I stand
aside, jaundiced, wearing my own
glasses, knowing blown glass to be
how human interstices are knit, words
to be an absolute sky of glass, and here
I am, speaking to you in transparencies—
She projects herself into
my room, asks my hand
in intercourse, of course—
I say yes, we’re in bed, I
take her as she asks, but
horizons of expectation
constrain us into drinks,
so that we’re half-there,
(she’s not here at all, in
fact I don’t know where
she is, or if she is), eyes
tell stories years, maybe
eons old, meteorites in
charge push us further—
I eat out the astral plane.
Conshohocken power lines in the rain—
edges of buildings cut through whitened
sky, as rising light topples privacy for
squat-dwellers on the Schuylkill— I see
power defining itself in lines, acrobatic,
space-consonant, but always working
within suburban, subaltern parameters—
eternity decoyed from a rusty beneath.
Is it pure rapacity,
that part of me I
set aside to dance
when the scene is
a dance scene? It’s
not pure anything,
she said, it’s dirty
(we have matching
guilts for our beds),
if you handle me I’ll
make sure you pay a
price. I looked into
her eyes, hands in
hers, alright, she said,
I’ve got your moves.
You could ask, is love just
one level among levels, and
I would say this: you put me
on a level where the streams
that cross between us are all
I have, and I accept, Julia.
And when I tell you, bent
back like something stiff as
it becomes malleable (branches,
flowers) that I adore you, I mean
to say that I use your name here,
use an “I” that is an I, and its
naïve, it is, but also OK.
There is a metaphysical aspect to
signs on hills: as if the letters are
ascending to heaven on backs of
smooth terrain. This terrain, also,
is smooth, chiffon, lace, lots of
things designed efficaciously for
bodies of women who deserve it.
Those letters spell out what, who
you are (I am) expected to “do,”
where you (not I) am concerned,
I want you to know it is a pleasure
to do you, right on top of letters
you forced me to trash in exchange
for these brilliant, scintillating ones.
What kind of intoxication
is the “best of life”? Nature
keeps changing on me; all
those spliffs I smoked, all
the little trips, jokes, those
drunken almost-orgies, all
the blokes I left behind, all
that’s left is what I can do
right here (spirits promise
what’s to come, is it naïve
to believe spirits?), all this,
whatever this is, in any case
it’s a cloudy day in Philly—
I trace shadows on the sky’s face.
this is what
words amount to—
festivals of ash,
collapsed into urns,
held up by timid
folk for the bold
Cheats and Disappointments: T.S. Eliot in the Twenty-First Century
Through the middle of the twentieth century, particularly the brief influential reign of the American New Critics in the Fifties and Sixties, T.S. Eliot held an esteemed and venerated place in the front ranks of the Modernist movement in English literature, which occupied the first three decades of the century, both in America and in Europe. Towards the end of the century, a critical shift occurred— Modernistic formalism became stricter and more extreme, and took the name post-modernism. The critical ethos around post-modernism had less room for Eliot than Modernist critical frameworks like the American New Critics had— Eliot was deemed too parochial, conservative against extremism, and his own moderated formalism too conservative as well. By the end of the century, the top ranks of avant-garde poets, in America and on the Continent, had made what amounts to a formal split with Eliot— Pound, Stevens, and Williams, along with later groupings like the Black Mountain and San Francisco Renaissance poets, were deemed more germane to the dictates of post-modernity, both in theory and in practice. In many ways, this was a regrettable development for readers of serious literary poetry— textually, post-modernity’s extreme, claustrophobic formalism produced little of permanent interest. Veneration for Ezra Pound, in particular, who produced no original verse of note in his lifetime, has proven to be in extremely bad faith. Indeed, post-modern verse has sought ways and means to manifest and develop modes of disposability— disjuncture leading nowhere, aesthetics of thematic auto-destruction and pathetically narrow focus, general regard for what might be labeled “Non Sequiter-ism.”
In disavowing Eliot, and with him narrative competence and intellectual coherence, avant-gardists had clearly lost the sense of poetry as an aesthetic repository for anything other than drug decoys and other flimsy forms of textual parasitism. Were post-modernity to continue indefinitely to progress in this fashion, artful utterance, its representative capabilities, would be reduced to a grime-hewn cul-de-sac. As of 2013, a number of contingent factors have converged to suggest that this may not need to be the case. A renascence to thematics, and the preponderance of literary humanism, signifies that post-modernism’s narrow and impoverished modes of formalism and formal disjuncture need not maintain a centralized position any longer. I have made a recent argument for William Butler Yeats as an Edwardian artist, in the manner of the major Edwardian novelists (particularly Somerset Maugham)— text becomes, for Yeats, an expression of wounded idealism and narrative coherence. T.S. Eliot, conversely, was a poet who balanced narrative coherence with enough formal daring to fit him squarely under the Modernist aegis— he does, in fact, balance aesthetic conservatism with innovation, lending his best work greater durability than the work of his more extreme, and less verbally gifted contemporaries. Yet, unlike Yeats, Eliot does not tend to express wounded idealism, or any idealism at all— rather, most humanistic interest which we find built into his major poems expresses a pessimistic fixation on the foibles of mankind, and the ultimate entropy of individuals in the face of society’s larger and more imposing mechanisms. Until “Four Quartets,” very little hope is expressed at all; when hope finally does emerge, in “Four Quartets,” it is guarded and expressed in a generalized fashion.
Make no mistake: Eliotic nihilism is well expressed, and very potent, especially in his signature poem, the most famous English-language poem of the century, “The Waste Land.” The first interrogation I have of “The Waste Land” as literary construct is of its collage form— is the literary collage, as executed here, expressive of a certain kind of nihilism? I would like to opine that, in “The Waste Land,” narrative coherence and competence are only intermittently manifested— sometimes constituent parts cohere, sometimes they do not. The American New Critics made the rationalizing supposition that the large chunk of incoherent interrelations in “The Waste Land” were configured self-consciously to mirror, as precisely as possible, the incoherent and inchoate barbarity of the twentieth century. However, this supposition projects onto “The Waste Land” an assumption of narrative-aesthetic purposefulness, which Eliot himself disavowed, with characteristic diffidence. Poets, critics, and scholars have seemed unwilling to consider Eliot’s own curt dismissal of the collage as “rhythmical grumbling.” It is also worth considering that there is a major quandary even with Eliot’s own formulated phrase— that large portions of the poem, written in jagged, clipped free verse, do not scan as rhythmic, let alone incantatory. For a literary collage to work as an expression of innovative formalism, the pieces must manifest some coherent and cogent relationship to each other. Eliot’s success on this count is, again, intermittent— it is easy to see why, for example, the typist in “The Fire Sermon” artfully inverts the shrewish muse of “A Game of Chess.” Both figures represent female responses to the lassitude, ennui, and desperation of moral order in the West collapsing into entropy. The New Critics most trenchant response was to assign the signification of “secularism” to this entropy.
However, the generalized apocalyptic din, which does feature the rhythmical grumbling referred to by the poet himself, of “What the Thunder Said,” establishes an unclear and tenuous relation to the twin female figures already presented to us; aesthetic sharpness degenerates into amorphousness. Eliot’s extreme allusiveness, the quotations he employs from a wide variety of sources, literary and otherwise, further obfuscates and mystifies the notion of narrative or any other form of sustained, center-granting coherence— they do, in fact, tend to take any “rhythmic” possibility out of Eliot’s prosody here. Eliot co-opts the history of English and Continental literature, from Shakespeare to Oliver Goldsmith to Baudelaire, to pile on a formal-semantic junk-heap— whether or not this particular, willfully forged junk-heap constitutes an effective, compelling mirror of the then-burgeoning twentieth century’s cognitive-affective dilapidation is open for conjecture. But compare what Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse” can do that “The Waste Land” cannot— while it presents many analogous perspectives, it is more sharply and coherently rendered, creating a work of art as complex symbol solidly built, against the entropy it represents. There would seem to be no reason to valorize aesthetic entropy, no matter what it is meant to embody or mirror— works of art are meant to subsist as complex symbols, cohering on high cognitive levels, and fractured societal conditions are still better represented by aesthetic wholeness and coherence then by jagged semi-coherence. This is what I would posit for Eliot, against Yeats— an often compelling, possibly durable semi-coherence. Past Yeats, Eliot is the best English language poetry had to offer in the lame-duck twentieth century. The New Critics pretended, for mysterious reasons, that Eliot’s semi-coherence was fulsome. Having been stripped back, economically and socially, and past precedent, the twenty-first century already knows better.
Poor guy that he is, he sits on the toilet, not needing
to shit. He thinks if he pushes his bowels hard enough
(especially with all the Heineken in him) something’ll come.
Truth is, he just likes the idea of flushing parts of himself.
The shit comes from within, so that’s less of him exists.
Yanking up his boxers, he looks in the wall-length mirror.
A wraith, more or less emaciated, looks back. No one to
watch over him but many, many to subjugate, withhold,
deny, supplant, stymie, titillate, vex, disturb, outfox.
His eyes are his best feature: stark raving mad sapphire. They
glow in the dark, an old girlfriend used to say, they dazzle.
He sits on the toilet with the seat up, enjoying being
pointless (not just pointless but profoundly pointless, that’s
the thing, a beacon of pointlessness, a pointed husk.)
He figures he might as well smoke outside.
My lady, he speaks, doth need no smoke.
But it’s cold and he thinks, who cares?
Each drag mixes with the final beer buzz
in a sweet, maudlin, I’m doing this haze.
Yes, the father smokes, drinks, reveals
the good Irish taste not to hide these things.
Succulent, how hazy his mind is in miasma.
The calendar on the kitchen wall has some
tart on it, stretching her parts like rubber bands.
Maybe she’s the one from his dream? She may
as well have been. He’s a father, he’s past this
stuff. Still, the old hangman’s itch hits him at
such an angle that it’s back to the bathroom.
His erection juts, but fades as he vigorously pumps.
Feeling knavish, he runs to the kitchen, takes the
calendar off the wall and, in his drunken sense, it
seems perfect to rub the picture on his crotch. As
he does, he stands, and the baby’s tears and his
intense drunkenness and his lover’s fat ass and the
tart’s large breasts move him so much that when
he finally finishes it is with such emotion that he
barely notices a few words coming from the bedroom.
He finishes, makes a wad of toilet paper to sponge off
himself, the sink (he used soap this time), the formica
counter, bits of puddle on the floor, all doused with
such reckless extravagance that he gets proud all over
again (she’s saying something about coming here, now).
Erection just beginning to subside, he glides
like an ice skater into the bedroom, sheepish.
He had seen from the bathroom’s light all
the angles and creases of her careworn face.
What bothered her was facing her breath.
At this hour, the wrinkles make it like death.
Please, God, one or the other, not both.
His stealth has won him nothing, as he kneels.
He rests his elbows on the navy blue sheets.
There it is: the reek, combined with the ways
she tries to combat it: Crest, Listerine, floss.
He is still seeing the calendar girl’s sleekness.
There is richness in having both, until he sees
that there is really only one he has, and wants.
He’s getting hard again, and wants to take her, just for
the hell of it. But she moans about his errant ways, and
she even knows what he’s done with the calendar that
remains doused near the bathroom sink, laid sideways.
He is someone who crawls, but he’s being babied here.
She looks at him and sees so much to love, from distances.
But this right up close angle makes him ten pounds richer
with white and black and red and blue scum. She’s a bitch,
she knows that but this man carries on (she can’t believe
he’s sitting here kneeling as if in a pew, will he just please
get in bed?) as if the world was pure shoots and ladders.
She splits her mind into before him and after, and now
realizes it’s just her breath, so makes a slight shift back.
Still, he won’t climb in, though he knows she wants it.
It has to be said that, all things considered, the big “getting things done” circuit in the Free School nexus was John-Adam. We were always “on,” always ready to seduce, always working the angles with everyone and everything around us. Lots of subterranean action happened at B & N on Rittenhouse Square, where we worked (Ricky had started off with us, but had been “offed” for molesting female employees). Free School characters would drop in to say hello and commiserate. John and I would smoke a little pot on our lunch breaks (the streets around Delancey Place were conducive) and plan new heists. John had U of Arts kids he wanted to include; he had also become chummy with a gaggle of Temple undergrads who were into poetry. We were too on fire to create a context to be snobbish or elitist; anything young and fresh, with at least some artsy edge, had to work. The big sexual tension between John and I was more personal than my head-butts with Ricky— John was in love with me. He made passes; I deflected them. I was later to learn that many people who saw us on the street assumed we were a gay couple. One of the reasons we so liked to get high was so that John could numb the pain of unrequited love and I could numb the pain of having to deflect him. I was, and remain, incorrigibly straight. Still, these were dark undercurrents in a period charged with vitality and excitement. As a way-station leading to other destinations, B & N worked just fine for us.
For the second Highwire show, Jim O'Rourke installed a nitrous tank in the stairwell behind the "factory room" and manned it. Whippets were sold for a dollar and almost everyone, including us, indulged. We were all in an exhilarated mood— it was now October, and attendance had doubled since the July show. We exhibited one of Trish's paintings, and she came with her sister. We were also able to show movies for the first time— our friend (and Trish's PAFA buddy) James Nguyen had two short ones, perfect for a venue and an event this size. Most importantly, the square worked cohesively (especially at keeping the money collection tasks in order, at Jim's behest), and no major balls were dropped between us. I learned about Ricky— when he had just the right kind of alcohol buzz going (we had loaded up on cases of wine for the event), he could be a sport. The best part of the night, for me in particular, was how effortless it all felt— the work of overseeing things (balloons in hand) was a pleasure for all of us. If there was a dark edge operative that night, it was that many artists were showing up who wanted to ride on the Free School gravy train, and not all of them had good or honorable intentions. John, in particular, would drink with anyone, and he was besieged with invitations. I struggled with my instinct to impose on John who he could and could not drink with.
By now, all of us were infected by the freewheeling spirit of the Free School. We were bummed that Bush had won a second term; but there was nothing that could be done. One of John’s many chance acquaintances had bequeathed to him a little acid blotter sheet. So, one night, when Christopher and Ricky happened to be unavailable (Christopher in particular, being based in Roxborough, was in and out of Center City), we decided to trip. We started at my pad at Twenty-First and Race; the acid was slow-burn, and took about ninety minutes to sink in. We had been listening to the Stones the whole time, and by the time we got to “Hot Rocks” and “Satisfaction,” I was “seeing the music.” It passed in front of me as something concrete. We somehow managed to stagger over to the Last Drop, and found ourselves occupying the basement, which was dimly lit (as ever) and dank. Neither of us could sit still, and John was stuttering. I had a fortuitous inspiration— I was seeing another B & N girl named Jenny Lee, who lived around the corner on Lombard between Thirteenth and Broad. We could drop in on her. She was a stoner, after all, and forbearing. We found her entertaining a bunch of her Delaware friends (she was a U of Delaware BFA). At first, John was OK. But when we smoked a bunch of weed on top of the acid, John became catatonic. He was rocking back and forth in an armchair, and wouldn’t respond to questions. The Delaware crew became aggravated by John’s bad vibes, so I got him out of there. The trip would’ve been better with all four of us on it, but what the hell.
One of the incidents which transpired at this time was symptomatic of Philadelphia’s mixed reaction to the Free School. I asked a U of Penn staff poet to read with us at the Highwire. He demurred, and I shrugged; but Jim O’Rourke revealed that, having discovered the Highwire through us, he’d gone behind our backs and booked a huge academy affiliated poetry event there. He didn’t ask any of us to read. Now, he wasn’t breaking any laws, but it was a cheap move, and very not Free School. So, employing the privileged position we’d established as Highwire regulars (crucially, Jim O’Rourke didn’t attempt to dissuade us), we decided to put in a unified appearance the night of the reading. It was just as boring, rigid, and Academic as we had expected— the important part for us was that we stole the show. Not only was our antagonist made visibly uncomfortable by our appearance, all the Academicians appeared uncomfortable that we were there. Even just our looks ran rings around them. As I was later to learn, many academicians have beleaguered fantasies of being rock stars themselves, and want to be perceived as celebrities. The Fab Four gave them a pungent dose of the real thing. It was enough to make me think that Jim O’Rourke, who had smoked us all up in the factory room beforehand, had the whole thing planned when he booked the Academy reading.
Yes, this is how it must be, high up;
there is no earth in this pitted wood.
Stoli, Captain Morgan’s, especially;
all taste clear, brackish, bring sweets.
Beneath flesh, digested meats;
she’s expecting, wants me to die.
If I’m dead, I drink to this death.
If I live, I curse her stomach, too.
There is little else to do. New York:
a crust of bread that crumbles, spits.
When I take her, I take an island:
all streets split to flush us into it.
There’s a steep price for this shit.
Our low-down: reverse mountains flake.
Listen, now that I’ve got you alone I need
to break a few things to you. You think
this guy is going to make a responsible
father? Look how shiny these shoes are,
and you know why? I took the time to
have them shined. This guy has hands
that shake, eyes that dart, lips that curl,
and it’s all because he can’t take care of
himself. You think having two kids at
once is going to be glamorous? Do you
really have that much of a martyr complex?
Please, here’s another Diet Coke, I know
this isn’t fun for you, especially because you
have to cab it back to the subway. I’ll pay.
Look: the boy-child sleeps. Of course, he left
a cigarette in the ash-tray; sudden death’s here.
I take his sleeping hands, place them on my
belly, just so he knows, at least somewhere in
the dense green fog of his existence, what’s about
to happen. My breasts are watermelons, it’s sick.
His hands are limp. I’m damp: I still want this man
(if he can be called a man, if that bald pate signifies).
To think, that all he’s swallowed in this are lies.
Of course, tiny streaks of spit mar his pillow.
I bought them of course, and their blueness works.
He’ll leave me lit too, and wanting a real father.
Yet, do I take the blame for this hideousness? Yes.
Two babes are sleeping while I get undressed.
Truth is, he’s only half-asleep. He left
the cigarette in the ashtray, hoping the
place would burn down: he’s a terrorist.
She’s the fattest woman he’s ever kissed.
But, as she lies her hefty bones beside him,
there is tenderness that wells up softly.
If he opens his eyes, he falls deeply, again.
Outside, slush builds up, brown, grey.
The blue Hudson signals from beyond.
Nighttime is not a time to go someplace.
It’s a common human race scenario;
with a pregnant wife, you do not go.
Now, she snores, he flips the spit-stained
pillows, laid stiff like a cadaver, ashamed.
Do their dreams coalesce? His dreams are still, blue:
girls in their youths, pliant limbs, bright eyes, smooth.
In dreams like this he doesn’t have to move, they do it.
Long languorous lays on beaches, he digs deep for it.
There is no risk as the spray hits him, here to eternity.
But crosses dangle mysteriously from blank blue skies—
each one slightly different to the others, asks repentance.
So he pumps as her face changes (this one, that one),
confesses to it as he finishes, reaches for a drink, it ends.
It’s 4 a.m.: if there is a wolf at this hour, it’s him.
In the dim light, her frame repulses him swiftly.
His mind explodes with exploded possibilities,
all the how things used to be that never were.
That spit on the pillow should’ve been for her.
You were one of the twelve
of you doing what you were
doing; promised a part in
a Communist parade, a five
year contract to be who you
were against eleven imposters—
I saw you on South St. on
my thirty-sixth birthday,
you had pigtails, and as you
lied to the barrista about
working at Condom Kingdom
(for seven years), I remembered
Loren Hunt on the floor of
Gleaner’s bathroom on mescaline—
Main Line Sky
Clouds conglomerate against notions of
isolation, dispersal into atoms; sovereign
against human contingencies, which neglect
the arbitrary’s ultimate importance in composing
form and then function; streaks of sun, floating
segments, as morning dissipates potentialities
in and out of glass doors, opaque to how
all might coalesce past the imposition of
will. Our distinctions, exposed in this fashion,
are meaningless, gambits sans grace; moods
made jagged as we are watched & never alone
from processes pulsing above/beneath us,
so much funneled into sky’s antithesis.
That night I got raped by a brunette
chanteuse, I lay on the linoleum floor
of the front room sans blanket, & thought
I could hack it among the raw subalterns
of the Eris Temple, who could never
include me in their ranks, owing to my
posh education; outside, on Cedar Street,
October gave a last breath of heat before
the homeless had to hit rock bottom again, &
as Natalie lay next to me I calculated
my chances of surviving at the dive bar
directly across from the Temple for the
length of a Jack and Coke, North Philly
concrete mixed into it like so many notes—
The Otoliths Equations went up in September 2010. By then, I was into teaching English 902, a syllabus I designed myself. The centerpiece was Zadie Smith's "White Teeth," with Donald Barthelme and Anne Sexton on the side.
Equations, which was released as a print book in '11, was written co-terminously with Mother Earth in '10. If Equations has been misunderstood, it's because readers don't realize I was "writing from life." The encounters in the book are not bluffs or braggadocio.
Some of the Equations came out in Peter Philpott's Great Works in late '10. Also, I I was building up support for the book using Red Room. The Red Room pages for 54, 48, and 10 have been revamped/improved this year.
As no one’s going to tell you,
Philadelphia and Los Angeles
are the same place. That’s why
the goomba princes rigged things
a long time ago to look a certain
way: “nothing’s happening here,
folks; this is the realm of the
underdogs, blue collar losers,
flatulent artistic mediocrities;
please pack your bags and head for
New York.” It’s all a decoy, and if
you run into an elderly matron in
a North Philadelphia slum and she
happens to be Vivien Leigh, don’t be
surprised. As for me, I’ve always
depended on the kindness (and blindness)
of strangers, hung back with the beasts.
Go ahead and open that window.
A Prayer for My Lover
How unceremonious, to impale
yourself on me, as though meat
were the reverse of murder,
carnality an antidote to entropy,
when piles of bodies adorn the
troughs which constitute our
current milieu. What’s hidden
in you must flourish from long,
long-besought gestation, and these
quick lunges into hollowed-out
ecstasies (ripened into rust by/in
the deadness of night)— all I can
pray for you is a going forth from
winds, rain-shaken trees, roiled
streams, storms, into the serenity
which comes out of turbulence, won
like a wax-burnished chair to sit in,
and become accustomed to—
On My Own “Deposit”
The bloke sitting in Volo Coffeehouse
in Manayunk, writing “Deposit,” looks
at the white coffered ceiling, high
windows, wide façade, into the heart
of the August morning on Main Street,
and is floating down to the bottom of
an ocean called America; Crystal, hair
bunned, thinks only of what she can buy
and sell, but stops for a minute between
customers to stare at him. She finds him
so disconcerting to watch that she excuses
herself to do a little blow. Outside, a
pack of drug dealers wonder if they’ve been
jinxed. Freeze frame: if I write this as a
time loop, where does “I” land in the fish-tank of history?
On his daily walk down Fayette Street,
he senses something he’s never sensed
before— space. With everyone cleared out
(into death, probably), he owns the ground
he treads on, and the space he takes up is
his own. That’s his compensation, as an older
man, for the misery and deprivations of the
Great Recession— space. He feels the cosmos,
how vast it is, and as he stands in a short
line at CVS to pick up his prescriptions,
the cosmos has in it something eternal, which
will continue with or without him, or us.
Emptiness is what you make it.