Friday, April 10, 2020

Our Death by Sean Bonney

Our Death
by Sean Bonney
Commune Editions 2019 Oakland, CA.
ISBN: 978-1934639283

Please forgive us if we here in Merica learned about British poet Sean Bonney too late: He died in 2019, and Our Death is the first and only book of his published, posthumously, on this side of the Pond. Bonney comes out of the spoken word tradition and radical left politics, and although he was a lecturer at the university level, he would have been at home at the Nuyorican in New York City or the Green Mill in Chicago. All of his poetry is angry, and some of it brutal, like in "one royal car one screaming mob":

"freedom." yeh. tell me about it.
I think you mean the holes in my shoes.
but, you know, I
get to do what I want all the time
whereas you, you get all these duties, yeh
that whatever-it-is you call fucking
you bonus your job
that fish sauce you tell yourself you're eating
when really you know you're eating shit
yes, I walk around on your roofs
in my fucked up boots
whenever I want
no, not like Mary Poppins, no
demons of the cities either
you kind of don't know what I'm talking about
certain frequencies you don't get, no
I'm not jealous of you
freedom, yeh, these holes in my shoes....
you see they're special they'll never wear out
as I boot your face in over and over, as
yes as I smash it. three nails in your forehead.
special receivers in your bougie head.

Bonney tends not to use titles in these poems, but this one does a great job of already placing us in the streets, in or part of that 'mob,' protesting someone from a royal family, something you'd never hear about on the BBC. The title is also a key that the speaker of the poem isn't Bonney. The word 'mob' is never used by a group itself. Bonney seems to be the outsider, looking on, or in, though he's at least somewhat sympathetic—like newspapers, poetry collections reveal their biases in how much ink is devoted to a certain topic.

Most of the poems in Our Death are prose, many in the style of John Ashbury, if Ashbury dropped f-bombs and came from the lower-class—technically grammatically-correct sentences that don't quite proceed linearly, but rather take readers, and their minds, un-logically off in some unexpected direction, so that at the end we're not sure where we are, except not where we started. Take for example this excerpt from "On Bomb Scares":

It was a bullet replaced all history. Couldn't recognize ourselves in it—all of its dates compressed to a phalanx of immaterial noise. And then we ignited, were permanently stained. We had always guessed it would be cities that would fall, but how wrong we were, transformed in our sleep to an alphabet rearranged as a disc of cranial time. Letters were allocated. Calendars and surgery. Vowels and black clouds. Several royal bastards. They wail and screech in the lower part of the city.

We're far from Ashbury's finger sandwiches here. I'm not sure there's a definite meaning to this poem, even if there seems to be an accusation of blame at the end, towards the royal bastards, which reads like Bonney thinks all royals are bastards, maybe not literally (though in a system where bloodlines are of the utmost importance, 'bastard' is probably the worst insult you could call a royal) but in the sense that all royalty behaves awfully. Still, I feel that "phalanx of immaterial noise," now especially as I write this over the Christmas holidays, surrounded by bad music every time I step out in public.

A mini-manifesto titled (in the Table of Contents, at least) "all poetry that does not" from his first full book, Blade Switch Control Unit (2005), which I read at the same time as Our Death, helps make sense of Bonney's Anarchist-Ashbury style:

All poetry that does not testify to an awareness of the radical falsity of the established forms (of life) is faulty. Understand prosody via black bloc tactics.* No-one has yet spoken a language which is not the language of those who establish, enforce, and benefit from the facts. Language is conservative. Its conservatism issues (a) from its utilitarian purpose, (b) from the fact that the memory of a person, like that of humankind, is short.

In other words, we're all using the language of the oppressor if our poems 'make sense.' Which is not a new idea—L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets in the 80s, in America at least, were ostensibly rebelling against this same idea, though to my mind ended up betraying their middle-class-ness, sounding, at best, clever, and at worst, gibberish. Above all, their 'politics' never manifested, sounding like their poems were written from comfortable academic offices. What I mean is, they would never mention "black bloc tactics" at all, as Bonney does, if perhaps ironically or sarcastically: That asterisk in the poem directs us to a footnote: "Archaic reference, unexplained." Which says a lot of you're at all politically aware (like if you just get your news from NPR)—The black bloc folks are the ones dressed all in black, with baklavas, at protests, who are not above some destruction of corporate property, and other mischief, to shut the system down. In this age of peaceful and playing-nice pink pussy protests, Bonney's reminding us that the corporations, and the politicians they buy off, aren't scared of us, don't even notice us, and certainly don't care about us, unless we scare them, make them notice us, and make them care.

What makes Bonney's poetry 'anarchist' or 'protest', though he does use those words, is not any wisdom or 'revelation' but the settings (for example, in the streets, during protests) and especially the things mentioned, connecting him to another Merican poet, William Carlos Williams, whose admonition "no ideas but in things" is maybe the key to Bonney's poetry. The boot is the idea.

There are no revelations, nor definite political solutions in Bonney's poetry. There is only what he calls "desperation", which he addresses in a prose-poem-letter, "Dear Katarina," to Greek anarchist poet, Katarina Gogou. I'm sure many readers feel a certain desperation in American and European politics. But Bonney argues that our of our sense of desperation is  needed, necessary. That from it comes

....a way of pronouncing the language needed to help undermine the fascist tinnitus that all of our sensory networks have become....I'm telling you this because I sense something of this desperation—a desperation I'm determined not to normalize—in your work as well.

I'm not familiar with Gogou's work, Bonney talks about her in a late interview, but she isn't available in English (or not in Merica anyways). In one section of Our Death titled "Cancer: Poems after Katerina Gogou," Bonney writes what he calls "versions" of her poetry, half-translations, or more like translations of her intentions or emotions. They're anyways distinct style-wise from Bonney's other poems, with more repetition and Ann Waldman-style chanting. The title poem becomes a catalogue of fears, desperate ones:

Fearful we'll abandon our history or steal it. Fearful we'll set up borders around that history. Fearful we'll drive up the rents on that history and talk and talk about the old days in meter and rhyme while the pigs close the borders. Fearful we'll be those borders. Fearful we'll confuse those borders with songs and sit inside those songs as if they were the scars on our veins. Fearful our scars will become a lullaby and that we will turn into dogs. Fearful we'll confuse dogs with doves. Fearful of doves and swans, of corpuscles, of medical robes, of silence and smack. Fearful we're doing what they want. What silence wants. We police their borders. They know how it is. Fearful bastards. Fearful of everything. All of us. Fuck it. Do it tomorrow. No escape from the massacre.

The question is, who is the 'we'? The fears start off lower-class and anti-establishment, talking about "the pigs." But then we get a 'we' that polices 'their' borders—who is this but the pigs themselves. The answer is, I think, that it's a listing of the fears of everyone. Again, Bonney isn't the speaker here, but speaking for everyone. Everyone is afraid, and we're all acting and re-acting out of that. In this poem I see a glimmer of, not hope, but basic wisdom, a reminder to not act in fear, even if still angry. You could argue anger comes from fear. Though the kind of anger Bonney is channeling comes from a sense of self-defense: It's ok to get angry at fascists and corrupt politicians and the rich: they're out to kill us. But let us not be afraid of them.

I wrote that we learned about Bonney too late. I think I actually mean just in time. I've been looking for a response to what's happening politically, both in England and here in Merica, wondering how I could/should respond as a poet. And I don't mean pink pussy protests. The answer is not to worry about being profound and having a great message, but placing our poems in the streets, to be in the streets, fighting against the people who are literally killing us (the title is, and about, Our Death). And/or, if we introverted poets can't be front-line protesters, we can place them and their things, like their boots, in our poems.

I would have liked to read more of Bonney, for decades to come. Though compared to Rimbaud, I think he might have become a British Allen Ginsberg. Maybe there will be a posthumous collection of previously uncollected works. A Collected Works would be welcome. Remains to be seen if the street protests of England and Europe Bonney invokes will happen to that extent here in Merica.

Problems by Jade Sharma

My review of Problems by Jade Sharma appeared in WORD RIOT (now defunct) August 2016.

by Jade Sharma
Coffee House Press 2016
ISBN: 978-1-56689-442-5

I decided to read Jade Sharma's Problems because Coffee House Press is selling it as “girl meets Trainspotting,” and Trainspotting was one of my favorite books of the 90s, because it encapsulated the seedy underbelly of the supposedly prosperous 90s for the western world. I was entirely ready to be disappointed with Problems, since that's a lot to live up to. But I'm not, I'm not disappointed at all.

Maya, the narrator of Problems, is mostly unreliable. One page she's telling us (or maybe herself) that she only 'chips': snorts heroin no more than two days in a row, while a few pages later she's telling one of her best friends that she's done it ten days in a row. She's lying to somebody, probably her friend, who herself is a 'successful' magazine editor also with a heroin/crack/whatever addiction: Maya’s friend  needs the drugs to get through her job, and needs the job to buy the drugs. Thus is Sharma's critique of hipster life in New York (and maybe the rest of the country, or world).

The most radical fact about Maya, even more than her snorting heroin, is that she's an Indian-American, as in from the Indian subcontinent, snorting heroin. Or, half-Indian, but just like with Barack Obama, in America, if you're half/mixed, then you're considered, even by yourself seemingly, as belonging to the darker half. In any case, Maya dispenses with her Indian-ness fairly quickly, or wants to, and for most of the book describes herself as “brown,” making her(self) a member of the 'ambiguously brown' minority-majority that can include native-americans, latinos/hispanics, middle-easterners, mediterranean-ers, anyone not 'white' or dark.

Maya's family works hard to achieve and maintain the safe and respectable facade of middle- to upper-middle-class-ness, a fantasy of prosperity, tradition, order, and economic improvement. But Problems shatters this fantasy. Sharma is not interested in niceness or pleasant representations of the Indian-American experience. Instead she tells us the story of a young woman living single, fucking white guys, using hardcore internet porn vocabulary, and snorting heroin. It is a story not everyone will be happy with.

Given, Maya is on the surface, on that façade, living a middle-class life: ostensibly going to college, getting a PhD, and in conversation with her mother about apply for college teaching jobs. But the car wreck that we readers are slowing down to look at in Problems is whether all of this is going to fall apart for Maya. One suspects yes. The 'how' is the fascination, with the 'why' kind of secondary, because that's another part of the critique that Sharma is offering: the hipster lifestyle of New York and elsewhere is all just as much a façade as 'regular' middle-class-ness, and not sustainable:

You can't help the truth, the mundane details that frame people's perceptions of who you are, like where you were born, what your father does for a living, how many siblings you have. In our lies we offer the world a presentation of how we would be if we had complete control over our existence. That's why it's so embarrassing to get caught in a lit. It offers a glimpse into how you want to be seen. Those are the things I am insecure about. You take things off the table, clean up your stories, edit out the parts that don't make sense, and think, Now that's better.

What's interesting is that for Maya, drugs are the least of her problems. Whether that's true or not is a question, but Problems could exist as a story without the drugs, in that Maya certainly has other problems, including (but not limited to) body issues, and race issues, and daddy issues, if it were just about these things the book might verge on up into basic chick lit, whereas really it's kind of the anti-chick lit novel, or the novel for all the real women out there who can't afford to just up and head for Italia to eat, drink and pray when some dude breaks up with them.

But it's in the body issue rants or self-critiques that I feel like I'm getting a glimpse behind the curtain at what all women go through, though female readers will probably be like, 'yes, thank you, finally someone finally putting this shit on paper!' Maya feels she can't win, even from the beginning, because she's brown, and white women don't have any problems (which, is absurd, and shows how much she's in denial, because she describes white women she meets in this hipster drug world, and anyone but her can tell they're fucked up too). But I get it when Maya says she hates her big breasts and the fact that she has no ass, and wishes she could move all the weight from her top to her bottom so she could have a nice juicy butt like other women. I get that there surely is some other woman who just as strongly wishes her butt weren't so big, and that her breasts were. You can't win as long as you're playing the game of guessing what men want, of having men (even hipster men) in the position of power to be the Deciders about what looks good in women. Thus, problems.

Having a sympathetic character who is kind of a fucked up and unreliable and a liar and a drug (ab)user is tough to pull off, especially for the length of a novel. Irvine Welsh did it in Trainspotting by having multiple characters, at least half of whom weren't totally dislikable, merely pathetic. Also, he captured the world of the characters, lower-class life in economically poor Scotland of the 90s, which was kind of exotic for someone like me. The hipster drug culture of the now in New York City is also kind of exotic for me, though less so. And, both books are funny. Like this:

You live in New York, and you're so cool. You have an apartment in the East Village, and you call yourself an artist. But after a while, you forget what it was you were so excited about. There is nothing here for you. You feel like a sucker every day paying fourteen bucks for a pack of smokes. You take stock of your resources, and you don't have anything. You call yourself an artist, but you work fifty million hours a week just to sleep in a room where only a bed fits. You go to bars where you can't sit down or hear anyone talk. You're a hipster in New York City. There are a million of you, and it doesn't matter that you believe you're talented, because no one cares and you're only getting older. The thing you didn't realize when you were fourteen and thought Kurt Cobain was God was that not every weirdo with an ironic tee from Urban Outfitters makes it. There are a lot of people in their sixties, toothless, broken, and poor, who have stories of almost making it. At what point do people hear “loser” when you say “artist”?

Problems is a sign of the times: a (dark) satire, a tragedy, and a critique of something bubbling under our supposedly back-to-normal economy, where those that are still nouveau-riche-y middle-class are not that far from a hard fall into crack-whore-dom.

But still, even with Maya's problems, what I like the most is that she's unrepentant, and refuses to see herself as a victim. Her problems are her own, and she's dealing with them, and she won't take your pity. We may not agree on how she's proceeding, or if she's proceeding at all, but she is still smart, and able to laugh at herself. And if she's lying to herself as well, well, don't we all. In this she's like the characters of another favorite author of mine, Kim Addonizio, though Addonizio is stronger and more successful in the short story form. Sharma makes Problems move right along with an almost (but not quite) collage style similar to David Markson, or some Vonnegut (like in Hocus Pocus) and maybe most especially Charles Bukowski.

And so there: I've just compared Jade Sharma to four of my favorite writers of all time. I've been grumbling to my friends lately that I don't seem to like reading fiction, period, anymore, but Sharma gives me hope. I think it's that dark, seedy, satiric novels like Problems just aren't considered marketable by the Big Publishers, gone are the days when Hubert Selby Jr. was a bestseller. And so I can't find any novels like this anymore. And probably the Eat, Pray, Love crowd would not like this book. Though, that said, fans of Cheryl Strayed's Wild might. Thankfully we have indie publishers like Coffee House who will take chances. Although, they're not taking a chance. They have a great book on their hands. and they know it.

[Release date: July 5, 2016]

What I've Stolen, What I've Earned by Sherman Alexie

My review of "What I've Stolen, What I've Earned by Sherman Alexie" appeared at WORD RIOT (now defunct) February 2014.

What I've Stolen,
What I've Earned
by Sherman Alexie
Hanging Loose Press 2013 156 pages
ISBN: 978-1934909-32-4

As a break-out short story writer, then a break-out screenplay writer, then a novelist, and most recently a National Book Award-winning author of the YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, it's easy to forget that Sherman Alexie started out as, and remains, a poet, and a good one. Some of his poems have been chosen for the yearly anthology Best American Poetry, and I would argue that his success in other genres is because he is a poet, and brings to them his unique and imaginative language, that above all sounds new and fresh, and that contains his unique blend of humor, despair, exaggeration/hyperbole, such as that found in his latest book of poetry, What I've Stolen What I've Earned, from Hanging Loose Press.

Because his poetry has always been so accessible and new-sounding, I had always thought of him mainly working in free verse, forgetting that even in his first books he's at least playing with a kind of formalism, which he continues in this collection, with variations on his own invention, in what I call the prose poem sonnet, though which he simply calls sonnets. They are blocks of text in which each sentence is numbered, up to fourteen of course, though also of course he even breaks with his own rule on this when the story he's telling becomes more urgent and a numbered sentence can become a numbered section of multiple sentences, usually happening after the traditional 'turn' of a sonnet on the eight line. For example, the first part of “Sonnet, with Saxaphone”:
1. This poem doesn't contain a saxophone or any reference to music, played with or without the saxophone. 2. This poem, though written by a Native American, will not contain any reference to Native Americans or, more idiomatically speaking, Indian, or, speaking in slang, Skins. 3. This poem will not be funny. 4. This poem is very funny. 5. No, it's not....

He also sometimes breaks a poem/story into fourteen sections separated by line breaks, creating more of a collage, like in “Love Sonnet, Constructed by Wikipedia”:
1. Love is a universal construct related to affinity.

2. Affinity, etymologically, is the opposite of infinity.

3. Love and ego are incompatible....

What's interesting in any of his sonnet versions is how the effect ends up being a blend (or maybe the contemporary pop term mash-up is more appropriate?) of poetry with essay and/or fiction. In fact, many of the 'poems' in this collection could almost just as easily be labeled as flash fiction and/or 'mini-essay' pieces now appearing in some journals. And the question of whether they could be 'stories' (ie fiction) or 'essays' (ie 'true') is interesting. Poetry, unlike supposedly prose, has no fiction and non-fiction sub-categories. The difference here in Alexie's prose pieces seems to be whether the story that unfolds ends on something in reality (or real, therefore 'true'), or if he goes off into what could be called exaggeration though is really imaginative, like in “Sonnet, With Bird,” the best poem in the book, about the death of a friend:
….14. A gathering of quail is called a bevy. A gathering of Indians is called a tribe. When quails speak, they call it a song. When Indians sing, the air is heavy with grief. When quails grieve, they lie down next to their dead. When Indians die, the quail speaks.

Does that last sentence push what had been factually 'true' into fiction? Even though it is true? Is it factually true? How can you prove it's not? Does it depend on who wrote the line? Or who reads it? I don't know, but it's perfect.

In addition to form, another formalistic device Alexie works with in this collection is rhyme, along with a little rhythm. And he's pretty explicit about why in the 'poem' appearing midway in the collection, “Phone Calls From Ex-Lovers,” the longest piece in the book, which, again, if it were crammed into prose would 'pass' as an essay. Instead, it's mostly free verse in mostly three-line stanzas. And it mostly is indeed about when he was younger and an ex-lover called him, but Alexie uses that story as a starting point to talk about memory, and how or why we remember things. From there, the poem goes kind of way off track, speaking directly to the reader:
And yet, there is still something more

To say about this, and so I irritably
Reach for that thing, and I want you
To remember it, to encode it

In your primate DNA, and in order
For that to happen, my final message
Needs to rhyme. Yes, I'm sorry, but

Free verse isn't designed to be
Memorized. I mean, Jesus, if you want
Proof, just turn on the radio, tune

To a classic rock station, and sing
Along with every song you know.
Count those songs. Count the lyrics,

Count the number of choruses—rhymed,
Of course—that you have memorized
Without even trying. If you're a typical

American, you'll discover that you know
The lyrics to thousands of songs
And you know those songs so well

Because they have, say it, rhythm
And rhyme. Hell, memory itself
Works in rhythm and rhyme.

The poem then switches to prose:

To prove my point, I offer here a list of “The Top 100 Songs of 1984”....As you read this list, I guarantee that all of you, between the ages of 35 and 50, will have one specific memory associated with 93% of these songs.

And then he actually does just that. The 'poem' contains a list of 100 songs. Which, I sheepishly confess, I mostly all know, and could sing along with, just as Alexie says. As the 'poem' continues, and it switches back into free verse, he argues, again I guess, that free verse just isn't made to be memorized, nor is even this very poem, which, he claims, I guess seriously, that the poem (and not he?) “desperately strives to equal Springsteen, / Stevie Wonder, or Carole King,” and so, he returns, finally, (anti-climactically) back to the main story “Of Phone Calls From Ex-Lovers” and ends with a rhyming couplet, which I won't include here.

As a whole, the poem isn't successful, not compared to other poems in the book, but it reveals a lot about Alexie. And it's where I diverge from him. I feel his frustration that poetry isn't more well-received, and even his (disguised as his poem's) desire for recognition/fame. But I just can't take seriously his implication that Bruce Springsteen's song “Dancing In The Dark” has as much power as a good poem, and I say that as a poet and musician, a music lover, and a somewhat fan of Springsteen even. Because pop music tends to deal simplified versions of good ideas, at best, and cliches, at worse. And the rhyme almost always is more important than the ideas expressed. Not to mention that pop music has, well, music to back it up. A catchy cliché can get a lot of mileage off of a good beat. Alexie's experiment, rhyming, leaves him with just that: obvious sounding rhymes, which are all too obvious, for example, in the next poem in the book (and the worst), “Ode to Coffee”:
In the coffee shop, the dreadlocked white dude
Orders a complicated drink.
“Man, don't be rude
To that sacred liquid,” I think....

And so on. Can't be coincidence that Alexie put this rhyming poem right after his explanation of why he has chosen to experiment with rhyming poetry. If anything, the explanation/justification makes “Ode to Coffee” that much more obvious, therefore that much more worse. And it's not even funny? Even if some readers think so, poetry that relies on mere cleverness is a step down for Alexie, whose humor normally, to my mind, transcends to joy. I just don't like seeing him, seemingly hubristically, sacrificing his great sense of language for the kind of silly desire to have his poems memorized and somehow passed on to future generations.

Which makes me feel totally horrible, since most of the book is great, and Alexie remains one of my top five favorite contemporary writers. I said earlier that Alexie's poems 'could' be labeled flash fiction or creative non-fiction, but they do still feel like poems, though that may just be context (that is, they're in a book I bought in the poetry section) and Alexie's intention (that is, putting them in a book of poetry). Still, some of these pieces would fit fine in one of his short story collections. Though I say that and immediately think, well, these might stand out as being a little experimental since, however vivid and alive his short stories sound, in appearance look fairly standard.

All of which is an argument for how good a writer Alexie is, which makes me wonder why he went with Hanging Loose Press for this book, when I would think he could get a bigger poetry publisher. In an interview with Bill Moyers last year, Alexie stated that he likes to help support indie poetry presses by publishing with them, when, I assume, he could get a big publisher (of fiction) to put out his books through a poetry imprint. And that's fine and good, except I wish someone like Copper Canyon would pick him up, a company that would put a little bit more care into the design of its books. At first I thought What I've Stolen What I've Earned was an old early book of his that I had somehow missed, since it's design is so basic and bland. People do judge books by their covers, and this one doesn't do justice to the language inside. Plus I'm not sure Hanging Loose has the widest distribution range, though I could be wrong, and I only say that because I just want Alexie's poetry to be available to as many readers as possible. His is the type of poetry that appeals to hardcore poetry fans, but could also bridge over to folks that think they don't like poetry. I guarantee that anyone who has enjoyed his fiction would also like this book. Imagine if this book of poetry sold as much as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Thus, Alexie's perhaps frustration. I feel it, though he's probably one of the better-selling poets in the country. Which, I know, isn't saying much. I too want him recognized more widely. Or, that is, he is widely recognized. His poetry should be too—and poetry in general should be. But if it is, it's not going to be playing by pop music's rules. Poetry is never going to 'popular' just by its nature: it's language, ideas, thinking, on the edge of Being, forming it. That Alexie does this in such accessible language makes him one of the best poets we have.