Tremble and Shine
New York in the early 90s was filthy with poetry-loving musicians. Before Jeff Buckley disappeared under the surface, before M. Doughty’s Soul Coughing lost the bad band name contest to Limp Bizkit, before Beck let Satan eat his taco, as John S. Hall was noticing his penis for sale on a blanket on St. Mark’s Place, before Maggie Estep went into the fiction business, maybe about the same time the Johns of Brooklyn started their dial-a-song, poet Todd Colby was fronting Drunken Boat and cofounding Poem Phone.
As any owner of the box set of recordings of Jack Kerouac can testify, it’s de rigeur for rock bands to cite the beats as a major influence. Colby’s commitment to literature went a lot farther—while his day jobs at some of the city’s greatest bookstores placed him to keep poetry inventories moving, he developed a gleefully hostile surrealism somehow echoing both Gregory Corso and Ron Padgett.
This was, of course, the second golden age of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Colby maintained dual citizenship at the Poetry Project, writing as much for the page as the stage, a binary as dreary (and about as cryptic about the profiling it implied) as its rhyme. Was wild-eyed, spit-flecked, gross-out expert Colby a hit among performance poetry audiences? I’ll bet the collective readership of this site five dollars that Eric Bogosian sent Steve Zahn to case a Colby reading before the filming of Suburbia.* A flarfist avant la lettre, he has the poignantly American gift for suturing hideous punch lines onto flat beginnings: “Take a normal steak. If you dream of a place you actually were with another person then chances are that person will eventually connect wire electrodes to a piece of meat” (“Alien Lemon Egg,” from the 1999 selected poems, Riot in the Charm Factory). Colby’s best-remembered work tends toward the obsessive:
I could eat every cake in New York City
I can’t even go into bakeries anymore
Because I’ll eat all the cake
The dementia is generally well-larded with profanity:
The Lincoln Center magnitude of God.
The fiery chunks of God’s pink ass.
The lovely swirl of God’s gorgeous thighs.
The odd curl of God’s marble wrist.
The Day-Glo hue of God’s vitamin piss.
(“Gods Fight with Pink Fists,” RitCF)
In his first two tape-bound collections from Soft Skull, work that appears to cry out for diagnosis alternates with polite-company pieces such as “Cowboy Poem,” a collaboration with nine-year-old Alex Smith, and “What’s for Dreamer,” a series of well-written menu items, e.g., “Nicely browned skate with sweet/ turnip puree.” At first glance, the poems in the new collection Tremble and Shine appear to be a homogeneous mixture of Colby’s styles and concerns. At second glance, some of them achieve what Andre Breton called “convulsive beauty”:
I have a car with a spore
and it’s been well-handled. Crumpled at the pegs,
though still intact, it’s in tricky condition.
Guests in windows with candles. Scented oil spills
on kooky puddles. Gunk in bloom,
and a mantel for leaning on stoically. Jackass.
If you come, I mean, I have a clock, a patio,
some gherkins, and a pillow. Be prepared for
rivals like on a nature show. Certain
medicines have aftereffects such as:
dimpled boners, welts, bumps, and various
bonnets worn for hideous effect.
One huge room. Sharing the vehicle with a punk.
Bits of lint on the turntable platter. Capital Street
embossed with curled gold leaf.
You’d like it if you were a man. Mustached,
angry, and happily immersed in crud.
This may be a portrait of the author with used car or an invitation to crash; in either case, Colby’s commitment to candor is admirable. What’s reassuring to fans whose attention may have wandered during Colby’s years with the performance trio the Yogurt Boys is that, allowing for the unexperienceable kooky as a caprice and the Capital Street line as a pretty cul de sac, in this poem at least Colby’s pitch is once again nearly perfect. To use both gunkand crudin a poem that never concedes the possibility of exaltation is not a little like a double Immelman.
Context-free ranting has been supplanted in Colby’s oeuvre by frame-shifting vignettes and spirited accounts of mournful events. In “Translation” the speaker intermediates between boss and delivery guy, confiding to the guy that “ella es camino de la muerte.” “Where on Earth?” supplies trademark Colby animal guts, but unlike earlier exercises in anatomy, this poem not only discloses what leads up to seeing a deer whose “insides, bones and all/have been whipped into gelatin,” it sticks around for a dazed ending that riffs on Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”: “Light on the water is reflected from the cars on the highway/ flash fires on a black meadow—something wet on the back of my head.”
The word for this kind of development is maturing, one readers new to Colby’s work might well imagine as antithetical to Colby’s whole project (as it may well be—for every perfect junky lyric I found a deliberately dopey/dark prose piece the book could have done without). Even if Drunken Boat had beaten the odds to go on to a steady recording career, I doubt that every bar below 14th Street would be the scene of furtive debates on the relative edge of Tremble and Shine. What I do not doubt is that the audience that has followed this original writer from his early days has grown and can hear the simultaneous tenderness, impatience, and glory in “Know This”:
I could be making the grade, pulling
my weight, being a real bread winner,
and having a real good attitude about it all while I rock—
not holding your arms behind your back
so you don’t hurt yourself. How do you think I’d
feel if you hurt yourself while I was out rocking?
Do you think I’d be able to continue being a man who rocks?