Poetry for Southern California

 

Reviews 5/2011

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

May 2011

By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor and Eric Morago, Associate Reviewer

WORKING THE WRECKAGE OF THE AMERICAN POEM
Todd Moore Remembered
Edited by RD Armstrong
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)

This is a strange book. It manages to simultaneously mythologize poet Todd Moore (who died in 2010), and provide an analysis/critique of such mythologizing. It collects a variety of tributes to Moore from other writers. Some are poems, some personal remembrances, and some critical analyses of his work, or often, some combination of all three. Many entries include a poem and a brief essay. The results create almost a legendary Todd Moore, yet, at times, they also undermine that legend.

For those of you unfamiliar with Todd Moore, he was a towering figure in the small press world (more on that world in a minute). He was most famous for a series of poems (or was it all one long poem?) on John Dillinger. He also wrote about other outlaws and various aspects of the brutal underside of American life.

Moore had a unique, powerful style. He wrote about brutal subjects with very short lines; his poems often rush headlong into disaster:

dora
was sitting
very still be
hind
the wheel w/
something
steel thru
her & the
angle of the
sun at that
time of day
made the
wind look
red

Perhaps John Macker, in his tribute, best describes Moore’s style. “His words, staccato machine gun bursts that fractured the American poetic line sometimes right at the joint, the syllable, are unique in American underground letters.”

The various tributes paint a broad portrait of Moore, the man, his poetry, and his place in the poetry world. Many of his fans believe that place should be equal to Bukowski. (Judging from some of the poems included, that also means that his style is as imitated as Buk’s.) What becomes clear is that Moore was deeply respected, even loved, by his peers.

But there is a thin line between tribute and myth, and the book often veers over that line. It is easy to see why Moore is a ripe candidate for mythology. He was a brilliant poet who never (especially in the eyes of his admirers) got the accolades he deserved. Well known within the small press world, he was virtually unknown outside of it.

Poetry in the U.S. is a very sectarian place these days. There are all sorts of divisions, usually based on stylistic differences, but often blown up into something greater. The result is a variety of “schools” which exist almost entirely independent of each other. The poets who transcend these divisions are a tiny handful (think Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin, Maya Angelou, and, in the past, Allen Ginsberg and, of course, Bukowski).

The most famous schism is between slam poets and academia, although many bridges have been built over that gap in the past decade or so. Still, they exist as separate worlds, with their own heroes and rituals. What is important is that it is possible to make a name for yourself in one school, and remain totally unknown in another.

Todd Moore’s school was that of the small presses. These are those small literary magazines, usually labors of love, that come and go. The small press poets, in some ways, occupy a middle ground between slammers and academics, yet exist entirely separate from both. Like the academics, they believe print is the best medium for poetry, but like the slammers, they deal in both style and subject matter often rejected by the academics.

It is possible to make a reputation in these magazines, especially if you are as prolific as Moore. There is a lot cross traffic between the various magazines. The various editors often cross promote each others’ zines. The same poets publish in many of these magazines. In the end, they form their own community of poets. As this book makes clear, Moore was a hero of that community.

Further, Moore had his own mythology, that of an “outlaw poet.” This notion is a running theme throughout the book. Partially it is based on his subject matter, especially the Dillinger poem(s). He was an outlaw poet because he wrote about outlaws.

In fact, the Dillinger poem becomes a sort of myth itself. Everyone has seen part of it, but no one (except Moore himself) has seen the whole thing. In an interview with S.A. Griffin, Moore claims that it is between fifteen hundred and two thousand pages. But he admits that it has never been assembled into a single whole. Definitely the material of myth. Even more so now that Moore has passed on, and it is uncertain whether it will ever be put together into a single volume.

But the idea/myth of the “Outlaw Poet” runs much deeper than Moore’s subject matter. It has to do with an attitude and approach towards poetry. Part of it comes from the outsider status which runs through much of the small press world. These poets often wear their rejection by academia as a badge of honor. They are the “outlaws” of poetry.

It also has to do with a burning passion for one’s work. Tony Moffeit, in the opening essay “The Fastest Gun in the West,” establishes this idea. “Outlaw is about speed. ... Outlaw is about creating yourself out of nothing. ... Outlaw is about being an individual who creates one’s own laws and outlaw is about being a ghost. The other half of outlaw is ghost. The other half of ghost is outlaw.” And this is where the mythologizing starts, in this creation of an outsized identity for the “Outlaw Poet.”

Only later does the reader realize that Moffeit is not only mythologizing Moore, but he is mythologizing himself, as he takes credit, with Moore, for being the founders of “Outlaw Poetry.” There is a bit of debate within the book about the role of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, edited by Alan Kaufman and S.A. Griffin and published in 1999, is establishing the concept of “Outlaw Poetry.” Moore, in his interview with Griffin, claims he and Moffeit came up with the idea in the 1980’s, although it didn’t seem to come into widespread currency until after the publication of the Bible.

There is a certain irony in labeling Moore an outlaw, and many of the writers here touch on it. That is that Moore himself was an unassuming man, who looked like the librarian he was, who lived a stable middle-class, happily married life. He would often hint at a wild youth, but in the present time, the outlaw label applied entirely to his writing, and his writing persona.

Don Winter, in “For Todd Moore, In Memory,” brings to the fore the key problem with this “Outlaw Poet” concept. He writes, “the elements of a sociological poetics uncover the terms and uses of most American literary ‘movements’ as taxonomies of taste and/or group identity, joustings for a higher rung on the status ladder.” In other words, if Moore was a big fish in the medium sized pond of small press poets, he became the kingfish in the even smaller pond of “Outlaw Poetry.”

I don’t want to state, or even imply, that Moore was deeply involved in, or even concerned with, the creation of the Moore Myth. Although he doesn’t seem to have resisted it, and certainly, on occasion played along, it is clear throughout this book that he was primarily concerned with writing. He wrote what he wanted to write, how he wanted to write it. Many of the writers included here talk about he burned with the need to write. The myth is mostly the work of others.

Nor am I entirely opposed to this sort of myth-making. Moore was clearly an outsized talent, and myth is one of the ways we humans deal with things which are bigger than we are. In a way, all the myth-making in this book is merely the poets’ way of paying tribute to Moore, of acknowledging and sharing the genius they saw in him. It is their way of making sure he gets the credit he deserves.

—G. Murray Thomas


Dog Whistle Politics New and Selected Poems
Book by Michael Paul
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)

A professor of mine once defined a line of poetry as being a group of words that throw a surprise party for one another—the success of the line determined by the size of the surprise. I’d say the same is true of any good book of poetry—the more unexpected its use of imagery and narrative turns, the more vibrant the collection. Michael Paul’s new book, Dog Whistle Politics New and Selected Poems, published by Lummox Press is most certainly one such collection of work. Paul is an explorer always traveling between two worlds examining themes of transformation, heritage and heart. He weaves effortlessly in and out of the lyrical and the narrative, the natural and the urban and the surreal and the concrete, while we the readers are lucky enough to be along for the journey. It is this ability coupled with his vast imagination and knack for staggering imagery that keeps one in a state of pleasant surprise throughout.

One of Paul’s greatest strengths is how well he can craft a poem using both lyrical verse and narrative structure—giving the reader a very strong emotional, yet contextual grounding. A good example of this is can be found in the poem, “He, being dead, yet speaks, pipes, writes.” It mirrors the improvisational feel of a jazz number and moody melody of the blues as it leaps from the abstract to the concrete. Take for instance the third stanza, how Paul’s vivid simile of love anchors the reader to the poem’s context:

Listen:
my love comes,
kittenlike,
bearing gifts. Four roses odorless
and still as newly killed mice;
lays them out, like my heart,
at her feet,
with the news of her leaving.

This image of a kitten presenting four odorless roses gives sense to what the poem is about without utilizing any straightforward narrative. And while it offers the reader understanding, it also allows for Paul to take on a more lyrical freedom as demonstrated later in the poem when the four roses are revisited in toast:

The color of memory.
The complexion of time.
The shade of solitude.
The hue and pattern of
the chiaroscuro coloratura
the jazzman scratches on my bones.

The lyricism of a stanza like this could perhaps lose some in its abstractions and thus hinder the reader’s overall comprehension of the poem, but because Paul’s imagery can serve as a narrative, the reader can deduce meaning while also being free to feel that which might be abstract. By moving in and out of narrative and lyric, Paul reminds us that emotion is an irrational creature that cannot always be expressed logically in poetry.

Another poem that does this exceptionally well is “Seven Metamorphoses from Syrup to Strange Flight.” The speaker in this poem starts by acknowledging they are a “love-struck scribbler” watching their lover in the kitchen from the yard, awaiting inspiration. The poem continues with the speaker expressing how, “When I am a painter, you are all the cool colors…” and “If you were the painter I would be all the warm…” Again, Paul uses color in a synesthesia-like way to convey sentiment and to show how the two lovers are “complementary.” And while the narrative of the poem is clear throughout, Paul’s last two stanzas are gorgeous lyricism at its best:

6.

If if is is,
maybe becomes be.
Tenuous turns tensile,
almost morphs to most,
and all these ifs of you,
and all those when’s of me,
burn to ash, and from that pyre comes this weird phoenix:

7.

We.

The poet’s description of ‘soul mates’ here is as alluring in its vividness as it is in its lyrical musicality—and like the two lovers are in this poem, Paul’s work surprises by showing us how the lyric and the narrative can be just as complimentary to one another.

Lyric and narrative are not the only pairings Paul plays with though in this collection. He also has a keen eye for seeing how the natural world and the urban one strangely coexist in poems such a “Cowboys & Indians.” Here, the speaker laments over how the old west has been absorbed by the present culture and creates a jarring mix. He shows us outlaws taking to $50,000 Harleys and traffic signals having “Horse Xing” buttons at crosswalks mounted at riders’ level. While there is a certain humor to these images, the poem quickly turns more somber in later stanzas, again keeping the reader on their toes:

To the west, where the Indians live,
demarking their reservation with runic symbols
written in spray-paint on every cinder block wall
day workers cluster in the drug store parking lot.

(Is it better to assimilate and serve than to die?)

This poem is just one of the many examples of how Paul explores the transformation of the external world—the past’s relationship to the present—and how we are affected by it. In the poem’s final lines—a couplet—Paul eloquently denotes a sense of displacement:

I am a cowboy without a horse, and my gun
is tucked away somewhere in a sock drawer.

Surprise also comes from this collection in the form of Paul’s talent for moving us from surreal imagery to a palpable revelation by poem’s end. He knows how to open with attention-grabbing images, pacing it perfectly before he reveals ‘the meat’ of the poem. “Of Hair” is one of my favorite poems in the book that does just this. It begins with images of eyebrows as islands, the “last outposts,” representing dark hairs of the speaker’s youth, and then goes on to describe the whitening of all the rest—how they “are turning to salt:”

Even in the musky nether regions
of the south, little pale messengers
or mortality are popping up.

Directly following this more humorous stanza, Paul hits the reader with what the poem is really about—his sister and her body after “chemotherapeutic holocaust”—and we are jolted from the whimsical to the more serious in an abrupt, yet tactful shift. However, this poem finishes not on a somber note, but rather champions his sister’s survival. Once again Paul proves just how masterful he is with an ending as he returns to the brow imagery, this time speaking of his sister’s “last outposts.” He ends the poem on the strong image of them, “flying proud, like tiny flags/of life,” and gives hope by ending the poem on the word, “life.”

Dog Whistle definitely is a collection of work that brings hope through one poet’s fearlessness to take risks and to surprise readers with his traveling between worlds—both thematically and stylistically. I’d definitely say this is a book rich in content, robust in its language, and complex in its craft. That said—and while it has my recommendation—it is not a book of poetry I feel that can be easily devoured in one just sitting. If you’re looking for a book that rewards in one read, where poems’ meanings are close to their surface, this is not for you. But you have my guarantee, that while Dog Whistle Politics is not a light read, it is absolutely a worthy one. I reread it again this past weekend in Palm Springs and by the time I had finished the book’s spine had completely melted into goo—proof even the desert sun is jealous of Paul’s brilliance. He has certainly earned such admiration for creating a collection where poems do indeed throw surprise parties for one another, and where the reader is fortunate enough to be on the guest list.

—Eric Morago


For the latest news about G. Murray Thomas, visit www.myspace.com/gmurraythomas. Now available: Paper Shredders, an anthology of surf writing. Order it from your favorite bookseller.

Eric Morago is the author of What We Ache For, published by Moon Tide Press. He teaches poetry workshops to at-risk youth and is the California Workforce Association’s Poet in Residence. Eric holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach.


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