I click on San Francisco’s premier college radio-station, KUSF, and am met with a growling sound difficult to distinguish from the static and roar of the airwaves themselves – it is the raging, guttural voice of the DeathMetal band Sepultura’s lead vocalist, pinning my ears back with the corruption of human flesh irupting with the digested sound and fury of the world’s robotic simulcast mania.
I attend the screening of a recent Hong Kong film, “Chungking Express” by Wong Kar Wai, filled with stroboscopic bodies, faster-than-light dialogue and scenes in which the background whirls and zooms in ultra-fast-forward mimicry of Heart-On-Speedball- Mediagraphic-Overkill.
I open a slick contemporary photography magazine called, _BIG_, and am arrested by the “Diaries of Peter Beard”, a word-and-image collage hybrid, densely, intensely packed with the instant-memorabilia and quick verbal sketches endemic to the life in the fast lane we’ve all been forced to live under the Stars ‘n’ Hypes of America’s advertising-as-lifestyle hypnoinertia. Beard pictures everything from the plasticwomen of the “men’s” magazines to (sometimes juxtaposed with) childhood memory Post-Its on the InfoSuperhighway bulletin board, memory, that is, as advertising copy…
I stumble upon an exhibition of “New Abstract” paintings by Oakland, California’s brilliant Brad Johnson, paintings layered with sticky, dredged, raked, gouged, trawled, streaked mottled and smudged oils over delicate, atmospheric green-gold and fire-red patinas – the look of an excavation site: muck & mire ambiguously but poignantly gummed over the sheen of human spirit which yet streams gorgeously through like angelic light onto the curtains of Hell.
All these and more I’ve seen in every medium, art-stories of the Age of Chaos & Complexity, the Era of the False Crescendo – except one medium; what’s holding poetry back?
Why do virtually all poems written today, whether “lyric” or “postmodern”, treat the world as though the last 35 years of discovery in technology, philosophy and the other arts never occurred or are barely worthy of notice? Why will poets not tackle the Information Age (as a present and inevitable influence, not as the “enemy”), the Loss of Privacy, The Phenomenon of Global Breathlessness, the sheer impenetrability of contemporary life to sensory-processing (not as a bald-faced evil, but as a reality to cope and wrestle with), and tackle these on their own terms in the milieu of North America, 1996? Why is almost everyone writing poems as though the world were a still and tranquil reflecting pool for quiet contemplation as though grandma were still in the kitchen making apricot preserves with FDR on the radio reassuring us of the constancy of Western Civilization?
Does a continued loyalty to “elevated” subject matter still hold sway over even self-professed “avant-garde” poets? Are many poets afraid to break the “precious and proper” mold? Yes, I think so. Have today’s poets forgotten the lesson of the Beats, that there may be spiritual beauty in man-made ugliness, the lesson of the Surrealists, that imagery’s power multiplies geometrically in juxtaposition? Have they ignored the developments in a dozen other art media (including, right next door, relevant advances in literary fiction!) over the last two+ decades? – Sure looks that way!
Leafing through even some of the most reputedly “cutting-edge” journals, I am struck by the extent to which none of this has registered, or to which it has been shunted aside in favor of trendy, utterly indecipherable work which, evidently, is the stuff of high-powered “careers” in academia.
In the last two years, though, I have seen breaks in the levee – the acceptance of Kerouac’s work by a sub-group of academics, the sudden interest in certain contemporary “Neo-Surrealists” (I use the term loosely for want of a better one) such as Will Alexandere and Ivan Arguelles, whose work operates at the density-potential threshold needed to begin describing the artifice-soup of signal-matrices, jammed mental circuits and proprioceptive arrest we’ve created and in which we’ve immersed our flesh and souls, the emergence of a loosely-knit group of widely scattered poets and essayists in their late 20s through 40s, who are rocketing past and away from stale poetic tradition and trend like Desolation Zealots high on diffEQ and Laser Cryptography.
These poets understand that density, stress, overload and penetration are as essential considerations as meter and deconstruction. Their poetry weaves dense, complex tapestries of sound-meanings taken from broadcast – lan and brocaded with brightly-hued, cutting and dancing narrative, the human spirit on pins & needles threading its way in primal nobility through the layers of overlay, layers so “noise-y” as to appear aleatory at times – “Irrelevant” detail ensnared in a web of probabilities, price quotes and yearnings, with a strong undercurrent of “I-want-to-be-seen-and-there-is-a-story-to-be-told- here-dammit”!!!
Theirs is no quiet, contemplative, “broken” language surrounded by the preciousness of pregnant negative space! After all, this is not Hellenic Athens, nor 17th century Japan, nor Browning’s England, nor is it even “Modernist” America. It is the late 1990s – The Age of Writhing and Rapture Before the Anti-Sign of MediaSpeak, a conglomerate of street-ese and “suit”-talk, the color-the-world-by- numbers we call home. These poets pervert it, play with it, mutate it and inflate it to larger-than-life proportions, all with unabashed, strongheaded, but ever aware, panache. The work is jarring, incisive, deadly!
Their poems are mostly not about spruce trees, peaches and clotheslines blowing in the wind, nor are they abstracted musings on the esoteric rituals of linguistic analysis and endless self-reference. They mostly are about the human voices howling through this tempestuous, ice-hot Night of a Million Channels. Whether “lyric” or fragmentary or a combination, the peaceful, proper poem of the workshops and the “postmodern” canon is about as relevant to living in 90s North America as Elizabethan couplets or Alexandrine prosody are to the language of the City streets. The poets I speak of know this in their bones from the get go. That’s why their poems are so damn sexy!
Tricked into time's burning dress, you catch buildings in your beard of flux...//...your flack, "spatial montages" in "zone[s] of hypermodernity". Houses of impulse, disposable/ solace! Nomadness of nomads, dwelling as sojourn!// "No call-waiting for empyrean fire". Place, voracious hole, pivots with tenses...//...Disemboweled planes, kiddie-straw struts, giddy smears of/ color, aluminum sides: the self-hating home, technocracy's deathproject!//It's a managram, right? I mean, R.E.M. Cool-house?//...Delirious N.Y., delirious world (a global postman's palace). Delirious, I consume my backyard:/ unslotted panes, ground cover and jonquils, wild violets... (from David Hoefer's "Rem Koolhaas")
Their language is often breathless and abbreviated from its encounter with the void deep inside “busy”-ness in America, the very Heart of Darkness in the guise of the Virtues of Hard Work, Progress and Professionalism, the encounter with the basest, subtlest animal augmented to techno-god and Chief Operating Officer, Bill Gates as the new Satan at the core of us all, salivating as he brushes Rembrandt and Mozart into the dustbin of history in favor of the rights to their electronic $$ after-images.
The most admired person is the one who has him/herself molded into product, self-packaged and image-managed and on his/her way to your home on CD-ROM.
The blond elastic rain beneath the saw on the fuel-floor A video-inoculated child immune from the fire-storm Steers keyboard flames to a cornered matrix-man How the fire-axe open his cartoon hands and heart Each impuse-induced event on a binary switch The blowing-away release a spasm of highlight On a blackboard globe a child chalks countries in... If this were a children's book where clear picture-plates Are laid over one another each with its layer of the picture Whose question is what would it be had each never been Whose question doubles each year like silver coins... I was told to make it this way by the voice of god... The smooth screen renders dice and investment choice The laser printer purr as the options expire... It is said there are six worlds six veils six paper selves When you see the dead hold their pasts in the tunnel-face Bring a single voice bring rain some wheels of rain You are one in an age of fissure-blades and teeth A boat of broken sticks a boat of bronze a boat of flames When you identify the dead you have passed the narrows In the air in the falling cold you are in for a long climb (from Lindsay Hill's "NdjenFerno")
There are times when nothing less than a phased, seeming-chaos of appropriated high-holy words and phrases will suffice to unscramble the sacrificial noise of spirit embedded within force-fields emitting only interference-cardiography from nets swathed in tight-lipped cash-transfer, distorting…
I recline in this noble hell and pretend an appearance allows bodies to writhe in warm metal air filigree carbon or geography is a world dreaming species through Rumi ringdoves shivering mercury's stones to numb muscle sunflower diode she in twin chondria fuels the microphage, equates cool aluminum, pelvis, thistle and yew reactor's gray theater, the spiral contracts and takes root - ...[ignition steel green moonflower decides murder in a backseat, handcuffed, dismembered transplanted in half countenance emerald mandrake [(barter)]... 5. microwave assault foreshadows as an abstract of skull generators whose coils devise rust, ideogram... 7. Castor is barren from eye facile bondage until the extractor redeems with Quetzal-jade rain... (from Jake Berry's "Brambu Drezi", Part II) ...Like that. Then, the suppressed rage gasses, sparks the torch-lit appendices flaring with lost knowledge of the Cloud Comanchee: Apocalypse Now Reaches Critical Racheting Sky Come Flaming Down I mine steel-tank salvation disclosure riddled with bulletholes, licking the flames; cut-switch plies silence censored with rumbling pipes, shredded documents, sysops, begging cups; Know that rasp and tourniquet pressing blood onto static-y plastiform rushes - the ranks of the untouchables; industrial filmic coding fingerpaints switchblade lungs collapsed face-building onto a shear, the chest-knot ice blocks mirror, claws: a boneless owl stares back from muttered steam; Ebola formats Disney lymphocyte debt-management, "Should someone grunt, the scruff of the elbow groin is forfeit" - running flush with dowel-in-anus, wrangling the Dow, like, "Has anyone got a match?" FLAMMABLE GAS - DO NOT LIGHT UP ...BROOOM!! (from John Noto's "Perpetual War: Wrist Control Tourniquet Owl")
Yet, sometimes a poet must look through the sky’s dismissed ozone to fix the star-snake’s gaze and call on Circe and Athena to dispense with his/her agony and dash it on the rocks in a burst of flash powder and blood metallurgy.
Imagine, so many sweet things in such thin air, but it is not so ...It is a flat, pear-shaped garment with vertical openings that reveal the vault of heaven, and that's going to be my excuse to wallow in the mud, right?... STILL, THE SPIRIT REFUSES TO CONCEIVE WITHOUT A BODY. Perhaps because of all this, bloody bundles appear in desolate corners. obietos de seducao... That's me displaying. movable dream lab. Inside the lid: something long buried: subdued light, carpeted floors, stairs, bird beak, a couch of some kind, forgotten books, stones, dirt, water, beautiful illegible scribbles, voices down the hall narrating as if a whole new continent I have been listening to all my life passing under the roof of my mouth, inwards. (from Karen Kelley's "A Description of the World...")
So passes the old poetics into oblivion (or at least history!). An entire world and all its conceits, baubles and false promises reflex – swallowed by a new age faster than a snapping mousetrap. Let the devil meet the deep blue sea and unravel his inks in its fathoms – the flesh and the code are deposits of a god-like raiment, the pulse and resistance of the MultiPlex Fray.
Poetry, then, has been playing catch up, riding gamy, old horses in a race against turbo-charged cheetahs. At the very least, we must begin to mount Arabian stallions with night-vision and enhanced traction-control! Meet me at the stables…