Getting ready to fly to Florida tomorrow to see family & friends, I'll take several books with me and dozens in my head. Julien Poirier recently sent me a copy of his latest book of poems, Absurd Good News, published in Los Angeles by Stan Apps and Mathew Timmons's Insert Press (no website, but the address for orders is listed as: 1715 Micheltorena St / Los Angeles, CA / 90026). As always with Julien's work, it's a powerful, distinguished collection, saturated with an optimism and humor I can't help but be won over by.
Having left Boston recently, after 8 years there, I've been thinking a lot about the continuous displacements of my life, the seemingly endless succession of cities I've always moved through. Julien is also a nomad, as is evidenced by the poems in this book, evoking cities as disparate as Boston, Los Angeles, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Miami. And yet, for Julien these all seem to belong to one eternal and witty city, language. He accompanies his poems with a series of hilarious line drawings with a shifting cast of characters including lizards, birds, crocodile-cars, potato-like heads, fish, buck-tooth elephants and hip eagles with stars on their pants. In one of my favorite drawings, a cat says to a lizard who's walking away from him: "You're on fire today, Obran." The lizard (or is it a baby gator?) replies: "As it were."
And how it is in this book is that we're being invited by the author into a sequence of individual poems that relish their separate yet accruing realms. Julien is constantly undermining the language he uses, though always for the sake of a type of sound only the poem can provide. One clue to this faith in the poem is Julien's evocation of artists from previous generations whose work holds the same visionary power as his own. Citing New York poet Frank Lima's obscure & beautiful book Underground with the Oriole (E.P. Dutton, 1971), he writes:
the wheels on this contraption
revolve in an areole
spanning a patch of cracked hydrogen
equilateral waterwheel, wallet
flames of onions took away
the potter, the porcelain
lightswitch—flow over friction...
("Frank Lima Local")
I've liked Julien's work since before we met, when I came across his poems in the inaugural issue of 6x6 magazine (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2000), where his lines grace the cover with the following verse: "The hotel is in a bad part of town." His poems that begin that issue of the magazine set the tone not only for that volume but also for the spirit of 6x6 since then. Never bound to a single or elitist aesthetic, the poetry's there for any one of us to inhabit. The reference to John Wieners in the hotel verse isn't coincidental, since Julien carries out an extension of the former's unprecedented visionary project. Like Wieners, Julien avoids the pitfalls of literary self-importance, keeping his focus on building poems that liberate the reader momentarily, while never presuming to have a set solution. The poem is a problem the poet and reader confront for the sake of beauty.
I'll quote in full one of my favorite poems in this book, partly because it engages with a distinct and contradictory part of Boston, Beacon Hill. The area that housed the center of the first major U.S. city, the mythologized "city upon a hill," which nowadays serves merely as a rat-infested yuppie neighborhood of overpriced apartments and townhouses. But also home to Wieners for several decades, the neighborhood "Behind the State Capitol" where he composed much of his later work at his modest apartment on Joy Street. Julian's poem is partly based on a visit to Boston in the early 1990s, and it goes:
MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT
Boston record shop way up on the hill
by the el. and deep shade like mirror
and rivets of skywork, in with the graffiti
the decidedly delicious brash machinery
poverty, and the lakes and what have you
keyed windows (plastic sealed) then smoke
in the night you climb all day
handling large raw chunks of smoke
trout against current—bubbled in idyl
senility, or some semblance of simple kettle
they are impossibly light and skin
to living weeds: conscious of you
In his capacity as an editor, Julien worked on Micah Ballard's most recent book, Evangeline Downs (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006), which I read recently too. I'm writing a review of the book for an online magazine that'll be out sometime in February, so I won't say too much about it right now. But Ballard's poems also have a type of visionary fervor I love in certain poetry. In a poem written in collaboration with fellow San Franciscan Cedar Sigo, Ballard writes:
& still to be found
let no one enter
this room, no thing
be left behind to find.
& seen only in dreams
might these bones
regain again their flesh
& this caveau stay closed
open only for the living
whom we put to rest.
In his study of Bertolt Brecht, Fredric Jameson identifies that poet's contribution to a radical modernism that effectively conjoins lyric and political impulses:
But it is also crucial to understand that for Brecht, these qualities which we have been enumerating—dissonance, Trennung, distance, separation, surcharge, multiplicity, and so on—also have a meaning. And it is a meaning rather distinct from that of non-identity or heterogeneity, which are the current terms of ideological celebration, even though it includes those and draws then into its own allegorical centrality. For that meaning is contradiction, and a Brechtian method is not fully realized if we have not begun to understand how the merely distinct and differentiated is gradually to be drawn into contradiction itself, or rewritten as contradiction, like a role one studies, acted and acted out in the form of sheer contradiction as such.
(Brecht and Method, Verso, 1998)
In this age of dangerous ideological excess, an aspect of the XX century we still haven't abandoned, I remain grateful to poets who avoid surety while still managing to sing with style. They offer a minor hope that we might see beyond fundamentalist impulses from the political right and left. Michael Hofmann's brilliant anthology Twentieth-Century German Poetry (FSG, 2006) is among the books I'll be taking to Florida. One of the discoveries that volume provides me is the following Brecht poem, translated by Hofmann:
This is all there is, and it's not enough.
It might do to let you know I'm hanging on.
I'm like that man who carried a brick around with him
To show the world what his house looked like.