The Persistence of Objects
It’s off the mark to refer to any branch of American poetry as surreal. If you know where in the 811 to look there’s tons of anti-rational, drug-using, sex-narrating, language-deranging literature to be had. Dreams are big business in poetryland. They turn up in every book, every journal; they have the top jobs, big homes, nice cars. But convulsive beauty? Exquisite corpses? The kind of priestly outlandish short circuited nouns and moods that would have earned the movement’s leader’s seal of approval? Nah. What gets called surrealism in America is really vaudeville by other means. There are exceptions: Andre Breton practically abducted Philip Lamantia; Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, and the poets Jeff Clark collected in Faucheuse… The bulk is this other stuff, call it surrealish, call it the word William Logan uses nearly every review he writes (whimsical), call it fluffy darkness. Disdain it if you want, but it’s your moment too. Grim candy, talk show poetry.
Richard Garcia makes poems where there’s no hiding from the fact that, in the words of Johnny Carson, if you buy the premise you buy the bit. The third poem in The Persistence of Objects begins “In my Moby Dick Captain Ahab is Hitler.” (Yes, this book is brought to you by the publishers of W.D. Snodgrass’s Fuhrer Bunker.) Sometimes the title tells you what you need to know, as in “Self-Portrait as Goya,” and sometimes it takes a stanza:
The demons of night were about to clamp
their star-capped teeth upon him but fortunately
he had recovered his Captain Midnight Decoder Ring
(“Nick of Time”)
Garcia’s poems are enjoyable, and they usually pay off, with nostalgia for the unfamiliar on the low end. The music of his lines is okay, and his tone is neither morbid nor ingratiating. Many readers will remain safely untempted to buy Garcia’s bits, which is a shame, since the sillier ones turn out to be merely a way to pass the time between what Winston Churchill referred to as “events, my boy, events”:
In Jerusalem the sky slammed shut like an enormous book.
I ran out to the balcony. A cloud, mushroom-shaped, over the marketplace.
Alice, my classmate, who had been running toward the market,
twisted her ankle, fell. She heard it too, but louder.
Garcia has a reassuring ice-in-the-veins manner about death, relaying the testimony of a friend in Beirut:
It’s the eighties, there are many explosions and she’s trying to take their picture.
Not the smoke, she tells me, but the way the air shimmers.
One night she calls during an artillery barrage — Listen, just before the blast,
the air chimes like frozen leaves in a breeze.
Not only is the business of the aesthetics of violence generally heartless, it tends to add next to nil to the minority shareholder’s value. But “the air chimes like frozen leaves in a breeze”? That’s news the market has yet to price in. A few poems later, Garcia has further information:
Just when all lovemaking possibilities
seemed exhausted, they heard the thud
of a distant explosion, which was enough
to nudge her off the tip of the precipice
she had scaled so luxuriously up the huge bed,
as if she had toppled down a water-slide…
Well-known are the aphrodisiac properties of danger, but Garcia is careful to balance his excitements with longer-term satisfactions: “Fortunately his lover was his wife and could be, / at times, whoever he wanted her to be.” Where other unnamed-here randy elders neglect to mention the less appealing side effects of this particular poetic attitude toward life, Garcia makes a clean breast of it: “That’s when a young woman / I accidentally ogle / looks at me in disgust” (“Tecali”).
You can rely on Garcia to go straight into the minefields — he hazards all three of the dreaded contemporary anti-forms, the pantoum, the ghazal, and the sestina — and reach the other side with his self-respect intact. Yours may suffer minor lacerations; if you thought the Hitler/Ahab poem was dubious, it should probably be mentioned that elsewhere he resurrects John Coltrane as a pool shark: “How do I look, boys… Dead or alive?” The thing is, and that’s a likeable line if you like movies, the farther off his taste goes in one poem, the more likely he is to come up with fresh unexpected experience in the next. (The one after the Coltrane poem is a prose fantasia about Pete Best. Oh well.) Also? His noir act is plausible:
Diane Tremayne. She’d come toward you looking up with those eyes so innocent, in her pink bathrobe with the shoulder pads and tiny waist cinched tight, and next thing you know you’re bent over her while she’s arched backward above her husband’s semiconscious body in the back of your ambulance.
These examples are only lines and images, and while Garcia can both gnomic-utterance Benjamin Peret under the table (“He considered waves staircases to the underworld”), and keep up the profane pace of a Judd Apatow character (“I ask her / to kiss the mirror when I’m taking her from behind, / she says, Honey, I just don’t love myself that much”), Garcia offers over and above the quotable what the Notre Dame Review, Pool and Blackbird want just as much as Hollywood does: shapely narratives with an arc, a change in dynamics, a turn.
Of course the quotable, if good enough, is plenty. It is, as Americans are due to be reminded every waking minute between now and November 4, 2008, the extremely compressed space in which our imaginary political lives take place. Surrealism proper, hard surrealism, the chance meeting of a sewing machine and a shot in the street, though, was originally an attempt to shock the reader into fresh perception, action, horror. Garcia’s ambition for his poems is much more compromising, American: he wants the secrets of excitement and survival and desire fulfilled. On that small stage he does fine.