Archive for May, 2010

Christopher Buckley — Rolling the Bones

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on May 17, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Nobody does ocean reverie like Christopher Buckley. One moment you’re focused on some fixed beach point or some behavior of the waves and then you’re telescoping out into the cosmos, then microscoping back into the minutiae of a life — often the life of 50’s California. What can I say? I’m a sucker for such movement. I have always wanted to have the stars as my mistress too.

Rolling the Bones is a book, Buckley’s 17th book of poetry, that concerns itself with the vicissitudes of life and repeatedly suggests the question — why have things turned out the way they have? This, of course, is the question on the minds of all good cosmologists, so it isn’t much of a surprise that the cosmos turns up in poems like “Poverty” [Read “Poverty” and Buckley’s commentary on it] where with his guide Cesar Vallejo, Buckley ventures into the luck that would have him possess an ATM card and a AAA Plus card while others stave off an Ecuador-styled starvation. The stars become the “rolling bones” in the fifth section.

The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice—
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On . . .
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers
of the working class—Pharaoh Oil, Congress,
or the Commissioner of Baseball—all who will eventually
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap
on the outskirts of Cleveland.

So “playing dice” is the metaphor with which we romp through the book. All of the puzzling phenomenon are seemingly reduced to the probabilities witnessed in a bubble chamber, in a racemic mix of chemical end-products. One begins to have the strange sensation as one is reading Rolling the Bones that God must have really wanted to screw with the human mind by making outcomes not so absolute as partial and dependent on initial conditions.

Buckley chronicles the risks (choices) he has made with his life, and while he disparages a few of them, he generally seems to content to be “here” (the Santa Barbara area—Lompoc, Montecito) and proclaims so in the final poem “Looking West from Montecito, Late Afternoon” where he says

The clouds keep pressing.
I have been here 54 years—
I don’t know
that I want to go
anywhere else

A satisfied life in America? Buckley clearly hasn’t looked at all the ads that come in the Sunday paper. Isn’t American life about wanting more? A faster gadget? A better neighborhood? Simonized Cadillac? He is still dreaming of the Cisco Kid riding down the avenue in a circa 50s parade rather than a gleaming new Nordstrom’s which has sprung up. Clearly if one measured a life in terms of the degree to which it has been realized (rather than some snappy cadre of shiny possessions) Buckley’s narrator would come out pretty close to the top. But since the psychological and the spiritual must take a back seat to the material wealth of a baseball commissioner, Buckley’s narrator is thrust upon the question of how it all turned out this way.

One way to dodge this question, of course, is to dwell in the past. Buckley luxuriates there, unabashed about the nostalgia he pursues. Ordinarily, this makes me feel a little uncomfortable as a reader. I ask myself why I should want to be a voyeur to a poet’s childhood (indeed, when I belong to 1970s Chicago and not 1950s Santa Barbara). However, there is a certain distance that Buckley provides on his past that prevents it from being cloying. Most of the time there isn’t any judgment placed on the past episodes. There is just the anecdote, the memory, the quotation that stands apart from any lingering evaluation of it. It is almost as if the these elements from the past appear pure, distilled, occurring before the birth of the knowledge of good and evil itself. Yes, Buckley’s childhood is innocent, but not completely so.

There is the memory of winos (or tramps, hoboes as they were one known before the sanitizing “homeless”) and the memory of a friend who says to one of the begging crew of winos, “Now promise me you won’t waste this on food, and go out and buy some real rot-gut”.

I don’t know why I so easily sign on to Buckley’s reminiscing. Am I appeasing an old-timer who just seems to let himself fade-to-50s? What do I have in common with his 50s past in California? Of course, the answer is nothing and everything. I have to admit I put on my anthropologist’s hat and try to imagine that older California when I think about the current California, a place that I, as a Midwestern boy, will never presume to have figured out. Amid the crises of capital in the capitol, it is somewhat reassuring to imagine a kind of California that is a distant cousin to the current one. Again, it affords me the opportunity of thinking of the ways dinosaurs might have turned out—if it weren’t for the roll of the bones.

There are a few glitches among the references and reminiscing which should be brought to the attention of a reader. [I normally never comment on such things if there are just one or two mishaps; however, in a book that pays so much attention to resurrecting and reconstructing the past, I think it is important for the sake of authenticity to get these references right]. It is “Voit” not “Voigt” which is the name of a basketball manufacturing company. It is “cosine” not “cosign” which is a trigonometric function. It is “Bertrand Russell” not “Bertram Russell” who is the logical positivist philosopher. It is “Puccini” not “Pucini” who is the Italian opera composer. Most of these did not interfere with the reading (except maybe the “cosine” reference—was there a pun operating here I didn’t get? I don’t think Buckley resorts to puns very often, if at all.] I must presume that these are typos more than anything else. This then is an issue of quality control at University of Tampa Press. Are undergraduates doing the proofreading there?

Throughout his beachcombing, philosophical meandering and nostalgia-waxing, a bit of the surly outsider emerges, and for me this is the bow on the top of the gift box, the little accoutrement that makes one giddy with excitement when each new volume of his arrives. I’m not sure that the turn back in time would be so alluring if it weren’t for the non-conformist attitude that comes through in the present. One certainly gets the idea that Buckley is not the kind of person who has carefully groomed each decision as though he were awaiting a Supreme Court nomination. I like this. No poet should conduct his/her life as though he/she is waiting for a nod of approval from above, an appointment to preside over some kind of heavenly chamber.

Religion plays a no minor role in Rolling the Bones also. God and the beyond is the continual foil in Buckley’s cosmological proceedings. The deus ex machina is invoked as comic relief most of the time. However, there are mentions of attending Catholic School and listening to Reverend Ike on the radio, which bring the high-minded yet wise-cracking theologian down to earth. Buckley recognizes that is hard to ignore the fleshly pursuits of organized religion. And also because he recognizes, through Einstein, that God does not play dice.

What Einstein Means to Me

I don’t give a good goddamn
anymore what anyone thinks,
just like Albert Einstein sticking
his tongue out at the press,
J. Edgar Hoover, and anyone else
poking their nose in, in his famous photo—
how it lightens my reckless and irregular heart
each time I see it.
                Not that I’m
offering any comparisons here,
having received my diploma
in Theoretical Physics from a home
correspondence course requiring
50 years of star-gazing and 500 box tops
from Nabisco Shredded Wheat.
I just admire that self confidence
that says, I’m a free and responsible agent
for my immeasurable will: there’s nothing
left for them to do to me now?
                    And I love
that image of him riding his bicycle
around Princeton in his 60s
without socks, legs splayed to either side
to better glide on the slapdash air,
and his electric white hair shocking the wind,
whose bare-backed imagination
had articulated the invisible
bones in most every particle known
and unknown, who went, over time,
2 out of 3 falls with God, regardless
of the outcome . . . .
                Spit into the wind,
we all know the speed of light, and that
soon enough gravity waves will slip
beneath each one of our doors.
in the day, it took a church key to open
a can of beer and it would comfort more
minds and hearts to hand your neighbor
a comparatively cold one than
to direct him to a numbing chorus
of In excelsis deo, a warehouse of hosannas.
No matter what stellar exposition
you subscribe to, you’ll still find yourself
living in 4 dimensions, unless you see time-
space as one more component of
a ride on a battered light beam,
the unreconstructed bits of a unified field
against which all the odds are stacked,
regardless of who is the rolling the dice . . . .

Oh, yes, Einstein said that God does not play dice when he was referring to the motion of subatomic particles. He didn’t think we lived in a probabilistic universe, that events happen according to percentages. They either are or they aren’t. That’s a fairly harsh judgmental world. Is it left over from a Jehovah-inspired world, one of wandering around in the desert with a vengeful God whose wrath is pissed down upon his followers through the unforgiving weather? This is not Buckley’s world. Buckley’s is a long way from “things happen for a reason.“ One can even argue that in Buckley’s world it is even remotely possible to posit that “things happen” with all the metaphysical swirling that takes place center stage. This kind of wrestling with the big picture has gone out of vogue as well—unfortunately. It is seen as a kind of vulgar excess these days to traffic in anything but the trivial and that having minimal effect, the entertaining. To attempt a metaphysical swipe is considered an act of audacity, bombast. Certainly old-fashioned.

But I say bring on the torch singers like Julie London whom Buckley pines after, especially the image of her copper-red hair on an album cover. Buckley seems to be saying: let’s face it—living in the past is better than living in heaven. That is the ultimate statement. Of course, there is also the possibility of such a thought being the result of too much rich food:

Driving in the Afterlife

If my dreams take me anywhere,
          tel me anything
its that we come to as much confusion
          there as here, should we
make it where ever it is we think we’re going—
          my heart folded up
somewhere like an old filling station map . . . .
It seems that little
woodsy road of childhood is where
          I’ll turn up, standing
off to the side, life’s of afterlife’s traffic
          occasionally sliding by.

And I think I see my grandmother
          in her ’53 Dodge,
a little chrome on its small tail wings,
          and that is all
I have to get around in as I find myself
          behind the wheel,
alone on the wide bench seat, the tranny
          slipping, two three-
speeds jerry-rigged on the floor. Each
          gear shifts as loose
as a stick in a bucket of water, pushes
          along just enough
to get me back to my apartment, empty
          except for a motorbike.
My grandmother’s chalky sedan disappears
          in favor of my Honda 110
with its salt-pitted brake handles and spokes.
          I take a short cut

through the living room of the larger flat
          I was too late to rent
just down the lane—in the French doors
          and out the front
over the Saltillo tiles—the bougainvillea
          clustered like forgotten
names above the doorway. I coast downhill
          on skinny tires
over to the state university on the bluff,
          and amid the cement
slabs, the residual Stalinist architecture,
          I come across a group
of my former students . . . they are still poor,
          and young, in Grateful Dead
t-shirts and Army surplus jackets, still smoking
          those thin, white cigarettes,
like they’re going to live forever. No one
          has a tattoo, or is worried
about going off to war. They are waiting
          for the bus—as unreliable
there as here—scrounging around for a party,
          an art reception, free eats.
I offer bread and cheese, some wine if they
          want to come over
to my cramped place and talk about whatever
          it was we used to discuss
all those midnights ago on the back porch?
          but how do we get there
with my lack of wheels, and do any of us
          really want to go there
now, wherever it is such roads lead, given
          the crowded streets
and the dark coming on so quickly. So
          I can take off on my own again,
and stop in the square at the post office,
          a hole in the wall with
a post mistress who looks like my grandmother,
          and just as nice. I know
enough to want to bring back some stamps
          from that long ago, a post mark,
but there’s only junk mail in my box—off season
          discounts on air conditioners,
carpet cleaners, the cosmetic dentist—which I toss
          in the can as I begin
to roll slowly back to this life like ground
          mist lifting. I don’t think
it’s really my grandmother after all in all of this,
          but I’d better have
some good reason for having her car
          and customizing
the transmission. My mother, who is 82,
          who earlier this evening
at dinner wondered what I thought went on
          over there, as she felt
she was close to finding out—are there as many
          bad, aggressive people?
And if so, why go somewhere as dubious and
          only half as beautiful
as the past you know and carry along, metaphorically,
          in your mind’s glove box?
We were out celebrating my birthday dinner, a dinner
          too rich for us both
which pulled me, at 3 am, from my dream
          and such questionable
transportation to god knows where.

I am envious of Christopher Buckley for many reasons, but mostly because he can step outside and in short order be cruising the beach for one of its many portholes to the outer galaxy. Clouds, waves, spindrift (though not too much flotsam), light and matter conspire as frequent highways to ponder “the big picture” stretched on an epic cosmological frame. I wish I could do the same as I walk out my back door where a romantic cow pasture awaits me. Perhaps I might scale down to the inner workings of E. coli or ponder the path of the ATPs as it leaves the chloroplast. Though once you’ve been through the large intestine of a cow once there isn’t much ambition to go again. Most readers don’t picture themselves wearing an anti-slime space suit hurtling through the bowels of beasts. If such a trip does not appeal to you as a reader, then you shouldn’t pick up Rolling the Bones and rocket through the cosmos as reader-astronaut. This move happens very frequently in Buckley’s work. It happens with so much regularity that some readers may be put-off by it. To me, this move by Buckley seems more like the baseball glove you put on because it feels right and you know it’s reliable. For those who are still bothering to look for the lost Eden, Rolling the Bones will reliably get you there — again and again — and when it arrives, smacking deep in the pocket, it satisfies in all the old familiar ways.

An interview with Christopher Buckley by Chad Prevost in The Chattahoochee Review


Quinton Duval — Joe’s Rain

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on May 12, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Quinton Duval’s book Joe’s Rain revels in the slow wisdom of knowing that losing one’s aspirations is a kind of achievement. The spirit of “hanging on” rises and animates nearly every poem in the book. The various speakers in the book, invariably mapped onto one shade or another of Duval, feel perfectly at home with the errant turn in life as well as reference made by the speaker to himself as “fat, bejeweled maggot.” That’d be pretty harsh stuff if it weren’t coming out of such an affable, self-deprecating guy.

Duval’s earnest and straightforward work matched the Mark Bowles Central Valley landscape paintings behind him—flatline horizons. Listening to Duval read his poems at The Art Foundry in Sacramento reminded me of an interview with B. B. King I heard recently. King’s outlook was always gracious for whatever fortune had smiled on him as he held firm to the things he claimed as his own. Duval keeps the familiar in his clutch at all times. The poems are laced with generous amounts of Central Valley ephemera and natural phenomenon. As is the frequent trope for many Sacramento poets, the familiar and home are mainstays. Sacramento is a place that inspires fierce loyalties and myriad reflections, and though happening upon the Central Valley by chance in the mid-60’s, Duval has firmly ensconced himself within the literary imagination that Sacramento’s weather and rivers inspire.

Joe’s Rain is a tidy collection. Slightly more than half of the poem titles are one or two-word titles. It is a collection of six groups of seven poems bookended by a welcoming and farewell poem. In this way it appears as though you’ve been visited by a very sociable and amiable fellow with good manners who knows not to stay too long nor say too much. These are characteristics I admire because, for me, they’re so damned elusive. One looks up after an evening with Joe’s Rain that isn’t too taxing or intimidating and discovers a relaxed feeling arriving unexpectedly. His presence is the kind one saves a special bottle for. The bottle is brought out solely for the two of you when he visits. Indeed, beer, wine and bourbon (but no saké) flow throughout the book, but in “Joe’s Rain,” another elixir is proffered.

Joe’s Rain

This late rain drives
into the dry soil
silent through the windows
that look out back.
One big robin bathes
in a saucer left out,
but that doesn’t mean much.
Two weeks ago a man stood
where the rain is falling,
frail, stooped, but standing,
forming words and making sense
about plants and birds and
what a garden does for your soul.
All the daylight is nearly burned,
smoke and ash of evening.
Lights from the house shine
back from wet concrete
this late rain has darkened.
The moon, we learn, reflects
the sun, so that’s what’s real.
I swear I hear a mockingbird
sound just like an alarm clock
mornings when I don’t have to
get up. So that is real too.
And today, wet streets
under the overpass, trucks above
barreling somewhere hurried,
a shower of cherries, shaken
from their crates around a curve
rained down in front of me
and adorned the roadway.
Farmers don’t like rain
when their crop is on the tree.
But I like rain almost always.
Bury us all near water,
scatter us all on water.
If it can rain cherries, it can rain
anything. Does this help?
Have a glass of rain on me.

Rhetorically speaking, this poem ends the way several poems in the collection do. The you understood suggests a giving of advice or a giving of directions. “Have a glass on me” is an invitation, but it s also a warning that slaking thirst can seem like a useless gesture in retrospect. The speaker knows that a glass of rain really isn’t going to help with the bitter pill, but he offers it nonetheless. In this way, “Joe’s Rain” can be offered as a kind of Duvalian ars poetica that says—“Hey, I’m just making these poems as a way to take care of what ails you, but I can’t vouch for their effectiveness at alleviating a lifetime of your pain.” Does this poem help or does that poem help? Duval isn’t presumptuous enough to even hazard a guess. However, in “Shine” he makes his humble proposal to embrace optimism such as it is.


This paper hides in back
of a book I’m reading
because it is sad and beautiful,
the last book of poetry
written by a man who knew
he was dying, and still he found
joy and life and shine in most things.
this paper with nothing on it
asks, I suppose, by its blankness,
to be filled.
I don’t believe in curses,
good or bad, rubbing off.
Maybe I have a pencil
and this paper to put down
how the turkey vulture came
straight toward the house
so I could see its red head
like stewmeat in the noon light.
Or across the bay, from this high,
a road looks like a backwards C,
like fingers and thumb showing
how much you missed something,
when what you missed by was slight.

I know, I’m not going anywhere
like the eucalyptus that waves
back at something constantly.
I can only describe what’s out there
and try to make it shine
like a ring pressing into a finger,
like the shallow water
the boats are careful to steer around,
like, like, like the sun dropping,
the blood spatter on that one gull’s beak.
Pencil on paper, I still have things
to say. Here’s to everyone trying
in some way to make shine out of shinola.
You know what I mean. It’s the difference
between the vulture’s beaded eye
behind his meat face, the rain
pouting miles offshore, the lizard
that comes out to share the sun,
the one my wife doesn’t like
but I think is a bright little motor
pulsing up and down in this light.

Here Duval sides with the little guy (doing his push-ups in order to survive). That lizard isn’t “going anywhere like the eucalyptus.” If I weren’t sure that Duval doesn’t have green skin and a tail, I’d swear he had manifested himself as this reptile sunbathing in the nude. The speaker seems to be getting at the ole accepted wisdom that there is truth ringing through all the sorrow and disappointment. A little shrine of abdications can be built to glimmer in the afternoon heat, fending off a world of menace.

Duval makes great sport of ridiculing the grandiose and celebrating the simple pleasures of common experience. Everywhere in his work there are gestures made to common experience. He is very self-conscious about sounding like a poet with a capital p, like in “Trying to Read Mythology,”—“Or more beautiful,/a pitcher of moonlight spills over/the heat-faint garden and lights up/ a fig tree laden with ancient, ripe fruit.
Maybe we should shut up and eat.” Here the poetic gesture is trumped by more basic demands. This kind of deflation is pervasive in Duval’s poems, and it tends to nestle into the body of a poem between the yearning and wrenching detail the way a cactus wren hunkers down in a scabbed-over hole in a saguaro.

In I Remember Salt Duval takes the reader to a non-descript Spanish-speaking venue—my best guess places me in Mexico, but I wouldn’t rule out Neruda’s Antofagasta plains ( I must admit, though, that this second option is unlikely as Duval usually opts for direct experience as his subject matter rather than traveling through to an imagined space). Once there, the reader is greeted by a rather harsh and bitter domain. Life is hard—sleeping and eating and laundry, the trifecta of a barren life. The scenes are working class scenes, and Duval becomes aware of his alienation in such a place where “salt is taken in kind and bitter olives yield the oil year after year.” Here again, the focus is on expectations dashed. In such a place dreams are not even worthy of idle chatter. Revealing something like a dream might get one arrested for indecent exposure. Residents of this visited place might be too familiar with the truism Duval offers in “Honey”—“we rarely get to taste the honey we’ve made.” And when we do taste it, Duval in “On a Hot Summer Day” reminds, “being grown up is accepting/the diminishing of all things/we imagined ours forever.” Duval seems specifically in tune with this sensibility of accepting the echoing sentiment of nostalgia in “Into the Sea.”

Into the Sea

Take your tarnished halo
and sail it into the pale blue
line between sky and water
this evening offers you
here at the edge of the world.
Take your faded blue shirt
and strip it to bandages
for the wounded souls
you’ll meet along the way.
Bring what you can carry
and remember that no one can tell
what lingers behind your smile.
You know some songs, yes,
but the words seem to have fallen
from the board, as the birds
this evening fall off the face
of the sky and into the ocean’s turmoil.
How many songs have you ever known
with “pilgrim” inside, wander
the directive, and the needle
pointing north? A squad of pelicans
clears the space west of you.
Your path leads to woods, a bridge,
a hill, a bluff, a bench
where rest the weary. The sunset’s
glorious, it’s not so cold,
and everything goes off, everything
except your full heart, your waving hand,
your watery eyes. Into the sea
everything goes.

At the end of the book, the reader might feel like he/she has been witness to a lemon-sucking contest. The leftover lemon rinds are the dregs that serve as reminders of tattered lives, still loved like stuffed bears with their patina of wear and tear. The hard truth of the matter, though, is that the reader is probably better off than those dismembered lemons. The Germans call this schadenfreude, joy at another’s misfortunes. It is a strange way to get to catharsis for Americans, but I presume Duval would allow for any of his readers to get there any way they might manage. Besides, all the self-deprecating humor Duval employs, Americans generally don’t get that anyway. When was the last time you heard an American tell a joke that started out, “There were these three Americans . . .” Duval is one American who might just rise to this occasion.

Originally posted by Victor Schnickelfritz on Sept. 26, 2005

Eleni Sikelianos — The California Poem

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on May 7, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Crossing over the border into Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem is like watching an epic biopic with lots of cameos by many known and unknown actors. One goes through the various scenes playing the game of name-that-face, continually familiarizing and defamiliarizing oneself as the movie continues. Mostly the actors are aspects of California’s flora and fauna, its physical landscape. At times the images appear in such rapid succession that the eye is quickly sated and the mind is overwhelmed. Kind of like Peter Greenaway is the director. Like Greenaway, Sikelianos uses many ornate multi-syllabics and the technical language (genus and species names proliferate like the animals they describe) of biologists and geologists. However, her California also inhabits the fanciful nature of the place by extrapolating the sober references and creating very imaginative Hollywood-like spaces. There is history of all sorts too. All of these are brought together via a playful sounding that is often rhyming or alliterating itself across the expanse of the page. It is a wild place one might hear someone say from the Midwest who has come to visit.

The textual variety within the book is impressive. Not only is personal autobiography present alongside of the copious amount of material on the natural world, but there are photos, the backs of old postcards, sign language demo graphics, collages, small little diagrams [see page 47 on Google Preview above] that look like they are crude representations of networks or patterns of growth among sea slugs or winged insects. Sikelianos is an avid collector of Californiana throughout the book, a hoarder of every word that washes up on the beach. Through it all though, one particularly strong current running through the book is a sense of loss, a sentimentality for the unfettered California of the past. One senses nature is being encroached on everywhere, and Sikelianos is trying to reimagine the script for its players, sometimes in chronicling the goings-on in the neighborhood of the tidepool, sometimes with a deflating gesture toward the artificial world that has been created by the humans around it.

any peasant with a dumb
cow can make whipped
cream but it takes a chemical factory
in California to make Cool Whip

Also, there is ample quotation in the piece, sometimes attributed, more often not. There are a lot of people talking, creating a strange cacophony that enforces the notion that Sikelianos seems to embrace “Suddenly, everything belongs in California.” The residents since birth are forced to be generous hosts. They accommodate by clearing more space.

The language that is used to negotiate the natural world in The California Poem is dense and profuse. Surely, there is a prodigious talent for naming and describing the natural world in the piece, so much so that it seems almost unnatural to carry around that much language about flora and fauna in one’s head. Frequently, I wondered if all this “language about nature” wasn’t a construction from scientific texts as they were applied after the fact of an experience with them. In her Jacket interview with Jesse Morse, she reveals:

Early on, I loved leafing through biology, oceanography and science books. I’ve always loved that language and its richness.

Yet, Sikelianos takes such great care to ensure that the reader is witness to the author’s experience that I was curious about how much was experienced and how much was come to afterwards, constructed in a language game. Indeed, it is not entirely impossible that where many of us see “a pretty blue shell” she is seeing radial symmetry. In fact, we are told, “At Monterey, I collected 136 hermit crabs to uncover the mysteries of population dynamics.” Is this the work of a budding marine biologist who was thwarted midstream with a growing realization that she was a sensualist? [The ecstatic Whitmanesque language throughout the piece suggests that her transformation to sensualist is complete.]

Sikelianos has mentioned in her 2005 “Live From Prairie Lights” reading at the University of Iowa that she did copious amounts of research for the book which took her some 7 to 8 years to write. She looked at the history of flora and fauna and also the rich linguistic history before the conquest of the indigenous peoples. The density of language in its Whitmanesque swirls makes it hard for me to believe that these passages are coming off the top of her head as per Ginsberg. They often feel constructed because of their density. Yet Sikelianos’s ear is so adept that rhythmically a seam never appears. The flora and fauna do seem to erupt out of her in a long effortless flow of source. The conversation is exhausting, but one is taken in by the breadth of it, the way it darts here and there after more prey for the intellect to feast on.

Her breath is Olson’s, but the absurd and surrealist-tinged turns are Ginsberg’s.

I suppose how the lines are constructed doesn’t really matter (except to a wonk like me who is perpetually interested in such technical matters). The rich, dense language, no matter how it was arrived at, serves what she says is the purpose of the piece:

mythologizing the landscape beyond recognition
like some simulacra of Saturday Night Fever

The various opossums and nudibranchia are the stars of the piece though. [Picture them beneath a mirror ball if you have to.] These and the hypnotic and expansive language that always seems to branching off to form another dendrite (symmetry be damned!). One might experience a good bit of frustration as I did when I first started reading the poem. I was lingering over each line, expecting it to deliver its weight. I read it like it was a scientific paper. When I realized the rhythm was more “Beat”, that I needed to read it like I read Ginsberg, skimming over the surface of the language, I began to settle in and enjoy Sikelianos’s topsy-turvy California where it seems

California // is the palace where we’re making continents up

          (sand, sand dollar, rock . . .) Your job is to

tell the history of each & every piece

Hers is a “Beat eye for the ethologist guy.”

The great inclusiveness is reminiscent of Whitman, whom Sikelianos mentions in the Prairie Lights reading as someone she considers to be a California poet as well. Unlike Uncle Walt, though, Sikelianos commingles with gastropods, mesa cliffs, hummingbirds and sea-hares, those citizens whom Sikelianos has deemed worthy of taking up residence in California. Whitman’s eye turned to the human activity of all the people taking part in the great democratic experiment that was the United States mid-nineteenth century. Sikelianos’s nod to the human realm is largely concerned with her personal experiences in California. She recalls where her friend Adam Davies went down in the King River. The memory of Adam Davies is then projected on a metro busker shortly afterwards, but the human chain ends there. At one point she even muses aloud:

What do I have in common with my fellow humans?

Her reverence stops short because “There [in California] reverence is a kind of fear.” One is awestruck and afraid by the complexity and multiplicity that is the many heads of California, some with jaws that bite.

Another personal bit that is dropped into the mix is a short and affecting section that seemingly sums up her teenage years in California:


I was a waitress in a white dress,
an avocado goddess in the land of Phocis
Queen of the Drought in the kingdom
          of Prop. 13
I set forth
It was four blocks to the beach
What did I see there?
    a kegger with lots of young men
          preparing to drink

Go ahead. Say “avocado goddess” three times. That’s fun, isn’t it? Six staccato bursts followed by a hissing “s”.

The sound of the line is very often generative for Sikelianos as she moves through her disparate images and kinds of texts. I’m reminded of Anne Waldman’s work whose blank spots on the page do not measure erasure (like with Cole Swensen) as much as they are rests in a musical score. This kind of presentation is a grateful reminder that the poem, at least many of the more lyrical parts, is still intended to be read aloud. It is not just an artifact bound to the page, which sometimes when I’m reading Paterson or The Maximus Poems, I get the sense they are only alive on the page. The Waldman influence would be perfectly understandable as Sikelianos cut her teeth at Naropa and was probably familiar with how Waldman could expertly perform difficult texts, her graphic presentation directing the page. Perhaps the most significant contribution that the Beats made to American poetry is the development of bop prosody, which allowed American poetry to escape the rhythms of the marching band and the ballad, and begin to explore the explosive multi-syllabic runs which allow complicated language to fit snugly inside of a line. Here is a bit for effect:

bathing bathers of the big black lake, SPACE, bodies like golden
apples hanging on the dark branch, EARTH, like
Great Alexander or Eleni or little children finding the ripest apples, last places to be within;

kissing mystical ventral surfaces, occiscles; rise up
for arboreal views
          of passionate showy brittle stars (Ophiuroidea), mirror or watery earth & sky;

Uncle Aristotle’s lantern, urchin, my mouth remains close to the rock
while the shell falls
off; enter the

sun, such the masseur bully sun
big fiery fruit in his rhymes of ray-on-stone, pounding
the flesh, the one, one, the one
sun was the
melancholy team sun in
matrices whose elements are birds
(words) whose elements are branches,
ladders, shadows, shadders, birds

Each stanza is a distinct musical thought, a complete musical phrase. Between “enter the” and “sun” (that starts the next stanza), the short caesura signals the horn solo is about to head off in another direction a la Sonny Rollins when he cuts from one recognizable melody to another or to a flurry of scales during one of his long and intense solos.

The “School of Disembodied Poetics” (as Naropa is less familiarly known) is also an influence in how Sikelianos likes to remove the speaking voice in the poem from her self. The speaker is invoking mightily throughout, the imagination careening off of the tangible minutiae of the golden State, and this expansive state of the speaker lends itself to an extraordinary amount of inflation which must be regarded as the souped-up construction that it is:

Cilia, spirochete, composite beings
          born of symbiont meanings
(humans) fall apart         Are you speaking of molecules
or cummunity interactions?     I’m speaking here
only of the heart

This direct address to the speaker and challenge to the speaker reminds me of what might be the central project of the Beats, of Whitman: to expand one’s self so that it is no longer a part of you. It has moved on without you, moved on to engage the world and to circle around and check back with you from time to time. It floats disembodied, an almost comical balloon that is so precious one cannot let it pop.

The Eleni narrator becomes an affectation throughout the piece as well. While the collected bits of personal narrative indicate that this Eleni is a marker for an experienced life, especially towards the last quarter of the book, that Eleni becomes unhinged and ready to fly away from its moorings from that experienced life. Eleni is other, one more piece of the mythologized landscape that circumscribes the California.

Like any assemblage the size and scope of Sikelianos’s California, as a reader, one is forced to do violence to it by trying to make it cohere, by trying to insert Tab A into Slot B. Sikelianos’s California is really quite resistant to this readerly impulse though. Besides the autobiography and the persistent references to the natural world, there are not many glaring motifs which are rekindled. If there are motifs, miniature stones resurfacing through the sand on the beach, they become subsumed within dream. Sikelianos’s California is a dream as much as a place to dream:

From Jacket 23

Any dream that includes/ends with Marlon Brando growling, “Get up, you scum-suckin’ pig” has got to be reckoned with.

The “filmy Vistavision” model of California that Sikelianos has created is an experiment in narrative that brings the disparate home to lodge in the self. It interrupts the stable psychological state (mirrored by the instability of the Golden State), which indicates the ego-self as more fluid than solid. Or perhaps an entity engaged in a hundred phase transitions in a single minute. The result is a surfactant able to exist in one realm while clinging to another. More modern chemistry. And like so much modern chemistry, there are many residual byproducts to negotiate within the racemic mix. California is the perfect laboratory for such an experiment. Its space is essential to sort out the chiral sprawl, the radial outgrowths of successive dreams.

Sorry. I got taken up in a little bit of Sikelianos’s verbiage, trying to extend a good hard science metaphor into the world of galloping verse. It’s easy to get carried away by this book.

I found that I was cheering for the language more and more as the book wore on. The impulse to parse all the information was stripped away. However, as I mentioned above, it was not my first impulse to read it that way. Perhaps as time goes on I will want to pick out sections for a deeper reading, do my homework on all of the obscure words found there (I’m still looking for “occiscles”). Is reading Sikelianos’s The California Poem what reading Pound would be like if he had lived in a trailer park and visited the beach?

Another point of reference for The California Poem might be Philip Lamantia’s Meadowlark West. Lamantia, also associated with the Beats, tends a little bit more to the world historical like Pound, but there is a significant amount of California flora and fauna that exists between the covers of Meadowlark Wet. The same hyperbolic language exists, and it works the same way in mythologizing the West, which leads me to wonder if it is always the case that hyperbole and myth go together. Is myth a form of hyperbole? What about writers like Robert Hass who are also trying to mythologize the West to a certain extent, but do it with a very burnished rendition of the quotidian? Would someone challenge that a poet like Hass is not mythologizing the West as much as he is documenting it? Can the documentarian and mythologizer exist in the same room together? And if they can, would they take their clothes off?

All in all, as I go back to The California Poem (and I expect to visit again over time . . . if for no other reason than to help me parse what I’m looking at in the tidepools) I expect that more of its “sense” will leak into me. I will be able to track down more and more of its paratactical moves. However, I suspect that I will be dipping into The California Poem more as a reminder of how ferocious the language can be, how intense its curvatures. I think I will pick it up to help me jumpstart my lines when I feel they are getting too stale, when I resist keeping bodies in motion for keeping them at rest. It’s a primer for how to juggle. The California Poem has so many interactive particles within it that it is a veritable cyclotron of activity. Despite the missing gluons, the particles whirl and swirl like they are in a popcorn maker, the more time spent with them, the more likely it is for each kernel to open. The bodies in motion ricochet off of each other at exaggerated speeds that make each one begin to sweat a little, cry a little, bleed a little. There’s a lot of body sauce flying around.

Other excerpts from The California Poem

From Cento Magazine

From Octopus Magazine

Originally posted on Nov. 28, 2007

Michael Earl Craig — Can You Relax In My House?

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on May 3, 2010 by Victor Schnickelfritz

After my first encounter with this Fence Books 2002 edition, I admit I was a bit dismissive. I tended to write the book off as an exercise in the imagination that never came to terms with history or philosophical or social issues. In short, it seemed to lack substance. It was a book that exhibited, of all things, a kind of rural surrealism that provided some amazing observations, some beautiful poems, but left one with a feeling of a bit of “style fatigue” near the end (though in all honesty, this could be due to a bad editor at Fence who wanted the poems to be all of one piece). The book seemed immature in that regard. Perhaps knowing that Craig was several years my junior, my own bias against those who have done what I have not (namely, publish a book) kicked in.

However, I am mending my first impression for mainly one reason. There is such a scarcity of thirtysomething poets who write well and also have something to risk (without risking it all by lumbering through the mire of disjunctiveness—more on this in an ensuing post). I appreciate the courage it takes to do that.

Also, Craig has made interesting choices in his life (just as he does in his poems). He is a farrier (I had to look that one up—it is a horseshoe maker) in Livingston, Montana. The often bizarre scapes he presents seem to return to this rural setting. He is that rarest of commodities, a surrealist in a red state.

The imagery, however, is never baroque; its minimalist bent reflects the movement of a mind across a lot of open range. Also, there is a kind of bemused wonder expressed towards the world, a childlike amazement in the attitude presented in these poems. Perhaps it is this quality which caused me to see his work as immature. The speaker has obviously stopped taking the world seriously a long time ago. From “Unto,”

I was a child crouched in a tub, fixed
in a yogic trance.

Indeed. This seems to encapsulate the speaker’s voice. He is calm, but there is very little intellect on display, a penchant for strange words at the most. However, as mentioned above, there is no attempt to take on larger historical issues. The poems exist in a kind of ahistorical place. In this way, seemingly-important-sounding place names can be invoked. These places take on the dimensions of the mythical. They exist outside a recognizable time, a recognizable politics. Perhaps it is not part of the ironic pose to associate oneself with a particular school or view or thought.

Often times the images can evoke real life counterparts, but for the most part there didn’t seem to be a lot of cross-fertilization with the real, even by implication. The pieces seemed largely entertaining. The intellectual architecture has been stripped away.

Craig resists the temptation to outline a “thinking life.” That would be solipsistic, and he doesn’t want to go there either. The most we get we are told is that thoughts are being thought. Craig is not going to risk intellectualizing anything. Apparently, there are no larger fish to fry.

Perhaps this is the right move aesthetically rather than point to a “real context” that could weigh down the poems.

Good Night, Star

You can’t step out of your tragedy, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
Neither can I.
Together we walk

and think thoughts in a cornfield.
I take my blue pencil, snap in half my blue pencil.
A thing carries out from the interior of Corn.

A thing cries but nothing rises as a crow.
You light my cigarettes, I smoke two
at a time. I lay back on the tractor

staring up at the sky.
I stare up through you
into the backside of the cosmos, the backlit

blaze of the backside
where a clean-shaven God untangles two lampcords.
That’s what one eye does.

The other trails off with the comet.
I am tired and full of sloth, you
have just shown me this.

I look a bobwhite in the eye.
A kind of insect bounces off my forehead.
I feel almost put here to lean against a tree.

Am I whole, dear star?
As my eyelashes grow down
to the ground might you braid them?

The two jarring images here that quickly point to the piece as surreal are the “God (who) untagles two lampcords” and “ the braided eyelashes.” These are very interesting images, and they involve a similar kind of action, which suggests the images are parallels of each other. I like how Craig sets up these two images with rather matter-of-fact observations that are fairly rooted in real experience. He doesn’t want to step on those two images I just mentioned and risk that the reader’s mind will not arc across those two similar images. These two pointedly absurd images serve as speed bumps in the James Wright-like delivery and pace of the poem. For this, I’m sure most workshoppers would tell him to take it out. But that’s what workshops mainly do is whitewash the odd detail out of something so that it can be more palatable to the mainstream and, therefore, more mediocre. Without those two interruptions, the poem would be much flatter, perhaps too close to lived experience to matter that much.

The New Constellation

I look into the night sky the way someone else might
look into a microscope. Let’s face it, snow
is mysterious. Beside me your pillow
fills like a wind sock, which is another way of saying
I am lonely and exhausted, not wanting any
enormous fern to wither and die.
A trolley squeaks along and then bangs
into another, each carrying its own
patient. Good luck I say, wave
and turn away, my left foot dragging a bit
on the sidewalk, making in the snow the patterns
of a foot that recently drags its man through
the snow. The snow that is difficult.
The snow that whispers down on me, that dusts
at the night and leaves its etchings
on my eyepiece. I back away.
I lean forward again and use the eyepiece correctly.
Through the microscope I can see now the new constellation
called Path to the Boathouse at Evening, floating
like a troubled school bus. Also, a field
of bright flowers and rocks
that are spotted with moss and have history.

They have history! And what kind? I can’t imagine Aime Cesaire allowing an opportunity to pass by like that. Again, the poem turns on a few absurdities. The “foot dragging the man through the snow” is the first departure from the mostly experiential narrative until that point. The other absurdity is “the snow’s etching on the eyepiece.” Invoking this image allows Craig to move the speaker to the microscope (which has transformed from a metaphorical microscope to a presumably real one) where the speaker can get at the new constellation. The leap at the end seems almost calculated for impact through the sheer wildness—“floating like a troubled school bus?” (again workshoppers pronounce the “forced simile” accusation. This seems to be the intent of Craig though. Perhaps he wishes to just mention “history” as a way of underplaying it and hinting at the notion of an imagined thing having a life of its own—with a history and everything. I am puzzled by this move, but I will not allow it to dissuade me from seeing the merit in the piece’s interesting movements and relative rhetorical ease.

The accumulation of odd and jarring details seems to be what sustains this effort. Craig often seems to be creating his own constellations of items in his poems. In this way, the poem could also be read as an ars poetica.


And because of my little tuft of hair
they called me Fetlock.

They said I cried too much
and put me in a tub and floated me
down the river. I passed a talking bush

but could not steer the tub toward the bank
so I floated on.
It grew dark and then it grew light again.
From the grassy banks people hissed
and threw tools, calling me

Inventor of Stories, and Robert.
I was a child crouched in a tub, fixed
in a yogic trance. When I dropped my rubber balls
into the water they floated

upstream. Someone called me Lamp of Philosophy.
Another called me The Ark.

A great first two lines although a little bit precious. The events seem to transpire fairly evenly until the tools are thrown and then the name-calling of “Inventor of Stories and Robert,” a detail, though humorous at first, that seems to be too clever on subsequent reads.

I agree that I am older, perhaps too old to get what this book is about at times. The idiosyncracies are intoxicating until one realizes that Craig’s habit of turning away from the reader into more fashionably odd detail gets a little thin after a while. In some ways it is like discovering an unusual little café where the customers and the menu are charmingly quaint. Everything is fine until you realize that all of the customers you have met are odd all in the same way. They’re a carefully studied kind of unique.

To be fair (is that possible for me?) to Craig, perhaps the lack of daring in stylistic approach is the result of editorial choice. However, as I go around the Web, I see a very similar tone and diction to many of his pieces. A few more pieces of Craig’s reside at Jubilat and Ralphmag 2 and Crossroads: 20 New American Poets, but with all of them the intense psychological and otherworldly landscapes persist.

In “Work Way Up the Ladder” at Ralphmag 1 the line that alludes to a real historical context is “Psychology was invented by the Germans in 1874. Quickly, however, the poem trails off from there into the same dreamy atmosphere.

The larger question here is what responsibility does a poet have to being true to history. If one contextualizes historical material within a clearly imagined realm, is this somehow bastardizing the actual historical record? Going the other way, does the mention of actual historical places and people lend credibility to the imagined realm, a credibility that might cause a reader to blend myth and fact. For my money, I enjoy it when this difficult no man’s land is entered into between the imagined and the historical. It challenges a reader’s belief system about the limits of reality and imagination. Michael Earl Craig’s project is to never have us question that we are in an odd place. This is good enough, all he is asking of the reader. Perhaps this is why, although I admire Craig’s chops, I am left a little bit wanting because of Craig’s disregard for imposing his intense dreaminess onto anything that matters.

Originally written August 16, 2005
— Victor Schnickelfritz