Thursday, August 31, 2023

Writing On Dangerous Ground: From the Poetry of Film Noir to Film Noir Poetry

What Is Noir?

Is more than darkness. Is

Corruption of the heart. Is

behind closed doors, board-

room or street. Is fucked

Whether you do, don’t sing, 

Moan, sniff or shoot. Is a

ticket to all we have, never

enough. Is greed, lust, a fatal

kiss, the banker, cop, criminal, or

any other poor sucker who

screams for mercy. Is a

dream of autonomy, femme

fatality causality, breathing,

“Hey, baby, let’s take it all.”

Is a corpse, a handful of dust

and ultimately who cares, if 

the only punishment is death.

A poetic response to what constitutes noir, whether on the page or on the screen, isn’t as unusual as one might think. There have been, after all, any number of poets who’ve been attracted to noir fiction, and, by extension, film noir. And any number of noir writers who began as poets, stretching back to Raymond Chandler, who, even before his stories began to appear in Black Mask, was publishing poetry, admittedly doggrel, in The Westminster Gazette. To make sense out of the relationship between poetry and noir fiction and film, one need only recall the legendary French crime publisher Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester Himes in the late 1940s regarding the house rules for Serie Noire crime fiction: “Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures…No streams of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what- only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense.” A statement that isn’t far removed from William Carlos Williams’s imagist declaration, “No ideas but in things.” Like modern lyric poetry, noir, whether on page or screen, favours minimalism, a quality one sees in the films of Jules Dassin, Joseph Lewis, Anthony Mann, Robert Siodmak, and early Kubrick, as well as in the writing of Dashiell Hammett and, to an even higher degree, in Paul Cain. A technique whose precise imagery sharpens one’s focus on details and the overall narrative contour. 

Despite the attraction, poets, depending on how serious they took to their task, have had varying degrees of success in the genre. Some like Dorothy B. Hughes, Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Hayes, Charles Willeford and Stephen Dobyns, would find a home in noir fiction, and produce successful novels, while others, such Richard Hugo and Jack Spicer were destined to be dabblers, producing work of limited interest. Then there are those, like John Harvey and the late Jim Nisbet who have been able to move between the two types of writing. Some, as dissimilar as Henri Coulette, Robert Polito, Michael Gizzi and Alice Notley (Negativity's Kiss) have been heavily influenced by noir film and fiction.  Not to mention those whose poetry contains noirish elements, from Weldon Kees and Charles Reznikoff to John Wieners, and Charles Bukowski, from Lynda Hull to Summer Brenner and Frank Stanford, or, like the Irish poet Martina Evans (“As Mitchum said- Crossfire (1947)- the snakes were loose.” And “If you tell your dream, you don’t have to dream it/anymore, says Alan Ladd, Crossfire (1942) simply include elements of film noir.

It stands to reason that a poetic genre like film noir should, in turn, engender poetic responses. Nevertheless, I can’t off-hand think of another book of poetry that takes the same approach as On Dangerous Ground. Of course, there have been critics, such as Manny Farber, James Naremore, Nicholas Christopher, Robert Polito, Geoffrey O’Brien and Sarah Imogen Smith who have written about the genre of film noir in a poetic manner. A less eccentric path to follow, their writing- at least three of them, O’Brien (Arabian Nights), Christopher (Desperate Characters) and Polito (Hollywood & God), are, in fact, film-noir influenced poets- derives from a passion for film and an ability to communicate their perceptions in an intelligent, concise and perceptive manner. Yet such writing is substantially different from someone writing poems about film noir, much less with the hope of challenging the usual passive nature of viewing such films. 

My intention: to take 50 classic examples of film noir, and create a poem surrounding each of them. And, in doing so, investigate not only the  films but the world in which they were made and viewed, then and now. The poems themselves derived from whatever happened to attract my attention: a piece of dialogue, camerawork, lighting, a particular scene, a plot, an individual performance, sartorial style, the director, or simply the film’s ambiance, and its nexus in space and time. In many cases, I ended up writing about those films in terms of their politics, not quite free associating, but more like what poet the late poet Robert Duncan used to call “tone leading.” In other words, not a thought-out process but more akin to after-thoughts, resulting at times in nothing more than rants and raves about the world as it was and is. Such is the fractured nature of the world and  the poems themselves. In the end, the poems in On Dangerous Ground could be thought as distortions, often humorous, of the films under consideration, like scrambled film reviews that exist at a particular moment, distilled through time, whose shelf life will last until the next viewing, by which time another set of linguistic prompts or images might attract my attention.  

Why the title?  For one thing, Nicholas Ray’s 1951 film, On Dangerous Ground, with a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, has always been one of my favourite films, and one that has stood the test of time. But the title also relates to film noir as a genre, as well as to the position of anyone who attempts to explicate such films places, whatever their agenda. Not to mention how the title describes Ray’s film: a sadistic urban cop confronts and falls under the spell of a blind woman, although up to that point he has no conception of how vulnerable people can be, including himself, so blind to any subtleties. His own rough justice turned inside out as the various narratives reflect and refract one another. All that the snow not so much a symbol of purity as a condition of life. It’s all dangerous ground- the city, the place from which the boy-killer falls, the relationship between the cop and the blind woman. It’s a world, however modified for general consumption, in which everyone is vulnerable- cop, blind woman, child. All the product, so typical of film noir, of a cross-section of cultures, under the influence of European emigres and Popular Front leftists: Wisconsinite Ray, of German-Norwegian parentage, Greek-Armenian A.I. Bezzerides, filmed by a New Yorker, George Diskant, whose roots can most likely be traced back to Russia, and Ida Lupino, a Londoner, who not only starred in the film but directed various parts when Ray was too ill to continue.

Basing a book of poems on films might be unusual, but it didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to come up with the idea. After all, these films which I’ve long been obsessed by have always been prime fodder for interpretation, and ideal for riffing off of. Moreover, these days they are all within easy reach.  On the other hand, any subject might have served a similar function. That is, had I been a different person. All that’s required in a subject is that can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, and used as a means of investigating the culture. In my case, the poems, written off and on over some ten years, were at times no more than an excuse to watch and think about the films. But as I watched them, and proceeded to write about them, it made me view the films in a different way, as artifacts to be acted upon rather than packaged and left on the shelf. So it was a two-way process, the poems activated the films, but the films clearly activated the poems, allowing me to go anywhere I liked with them, from glossing the surface of a given film to scouring its depths, while, at the same time, addressing subjects like crime, guilt, innocence, bourgeois values, late capitalism, and gendered space. Which made the films timeless, this even though they are so much of a period. Not that anyone could deny that, in the end, they are just movies- Ju-Ju beans for the eyes. Put them under the slightest scrutiny and they reveal themselves not only as documents of the culture, but something like a series of dreams about failed utopias. Half a century on, these films- spanning the years 1941 to 1976- can still captivate, and capable of affecting us on a personal as well as political level. Film noir poetry? “Give it a name,” as they say line in Scott Rosenberg’s 1995 Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead. A title deriving from a Warren Zevon song in which that aficionado of noir film and fiction goes on to sing, “You won't need a cab to find a priest/Maybe you should find a place to stay/Some place where they never change the sheets/And you just roll around Denver all day.”  Which goes to show that the relationship between poetry and noir, whether on page or screen, can take surprising forms. Hopefully the poems that constitute On Dangerous Ground will, if nothing else,  lead to further investigations, no matter that form they might take.

Ten Films and Their Opening Lines

The Big Heat: “Shocking, only if suburbia can/be paradise.”

Dark Passage: “It’s never easy, clocking the world, driving/the back roads and waterfront.”

Fallen Angel: “That was then, when Otto could still/see in the dark, and anti-fascism was a/thing” Human Desire: “How many/doors to make a room to make/an exit.

In a Lonely Place: “A shattered world, future so bleak/it’s hardly worth the effort.”

The Killers: “Night time the proverbial/for irritable hoodlums…”

Kiss Me Deadly: “It’s the American Way, atomic/L.A. devolving into the future.”

Nightmare Alley: “Forget the reprobates, crawling parasites and/fallen angels…”

On Dangerous Ground: “With darkness bleeding into/domesticity…”

Sweet Smell of Success: A nostalgia of jazz, location shots, and barely/palatable venom.

Where the Sidewalk Ends: “A cop is basically a criminal,”/with an instinct for…legalised/violence”

(An earlier version of this entry appeared in Crime Time.)

On Dangerous Ground is available from Amazon and through Close to the Bone Press. 

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Tumbling Full Throttle Into Oblivion: The Last Songbird by Daniel Weizmann

 “This hard-boiled stuff — it’s a menace.”

— Dashiell Hammett, 1950


At the center of Daniel Weizmann’s new wave noir novel, The Last Songbird, is Adam “Addy” Zantz, a nebbish-like Lyft driver and would-be songwriter who, at moments opportune or not, can’t stop semi-composed lyrics from popping into his head. As he drives through L.A.’s streets, mean as well as meaningless, he obsesses about what might have been. He’s unable to come to terms with his ex- and former songwriting partner, having left him for a more professional songwriter-boyfriend. Nor can he relinquish his attachment to Annie Linden, a 73-year old former celebrity singer-songwriter (think Stevie Nicks crossed with Joni Mitchell), still worshipped by her fans, whom Adam drives to and from her Malibu home no matter the time of day. When her body is washed ashore in Hermosa Beach, the wrong person is arrested, and Adam feels he owes it to Annie to find the actual killer, as well as honour a request she made that he find something — Adam doesn’t yet know what — from her past. What keeps him on this two-fold case is not only his connection to a woman he regards as a kindred, if self-centered, spirit, but because she was, on the basis of a demo he once played for her in his car, the only person ever to express an appreciation for his potential as a songwriter.

Something of a Harold and Maude type of relationship, perhaps, but as any all-night cab driver can attest, unlikely fly-by-night friendships and adventures are commonplace in that line of work. Driving the graveyard shift in San Francisco in the late 1960s, every night, for me felt like an adventure, stopping only just short of what Zantz experiences. Maybe it was the drugs, at the time de rigueur for driving into the early morning light, enhancing everything, not least the paranoia that insisted on riding shotgun, on the lookout for the Zodiac or some other encrazed individual with a grudge against cabbies.  Although more fleeting than Zantz’s obsession with Annie, I remember falling for an older French woman — probably no more than in her early 30’s — straight out of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop — who read palms in Fisherman’s Wharf to pay for her and her daughter’s return to Paris. Fresh out of San Francisco State, I willingly contributed to her traveling expenses. Driving a cab is like that, the sort of job, whether permanent or precarious, that attracts a certain type, the sort who’d otherwise be writing poetry or a novel, or, as in Adam’s case, songs, and who can’t help but view their taxi as their personal theater, sometimes of the absurd, at other times of cruelty, depending on their fare, and on the way the cultural winds happen to be blowing on that particular day. It’s also the perfect job for someone investigating the culture. After all, in that line of work, as Weizmann demonstrates, contact with the world in all its sleazy glory is unavoidable, thrusting its presence on you whether you seek it out or not.

All of which is to say, what might seem far-fetched in the light of day can be ghostly real once the sun goes down, and you’re at the mercy of the laws of chance. Because once all those upstanding citizens go home from their jobs or entertainments of choice, and the streets fill up with the denizens of the night, anything can happen. It simply goes with the territory. And this is what Weizmann so ably captures, placing Addy in a world just a step outside his comfort zone and comprehension, subject, for better or worse, to the winds of fate. Consequently, The Last Songbird can be added to that swathe of crime novels, now a sub-genre all its own, that focus on taxi cab drivers, such as Lee Durkee’s The Last Taxi Driver, Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel, Fuminor Nakamura’s The Boy In the Earth, and others. Not to mention a film like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. And who can forget the anarcho-syndicalist taxi cab driver, played by Elijah Cook Jr. in Wim Wenders’ film Hammett, with a screenplay written by, amongst others, noirists Joe Gores and Ross Thomas.

But it seems like it takes more than one sub-genre to venture into the depths of present day Los Angeles. Certainly Weizmann’s first-person narrative could also be categorised as Jewish-noir. Born in Israel during the 1967 Six Day War and the Summer of Love, then arriving in Hollywood as an infant, Weizmann litters his novel with Jewish characters and vernacular. No so much in the vein of  Jerome Charyn’s Isaac Sidel novels, but more like those loosely knit narratives from the 1970s that wore their secular Jewishness lightly, such as Andrew Bergman’s Hollywood and Levine or Roger Simon’s The Big Fix. All of them highly readable and seemingly innocent regarding the harder edges of the genre, as if they’d only recently discovered the likes of Hammett or Chandler. Not really pastiche but using the genre’s tropes to explain this great big ball of confusion called the modern world. Without over-committing itself, The Last Songbird plays on those same tropes, but without the fake cynicism or wise-guy attitude, resulting in a narrative that takes the chaos of the city and the era as given.

Equally, one could claim that The Last Songbird belongs in still another sub-genre, that which investigates and revolves around the music industry. These run the gamut from Day Keene’s Payola, Arthur Lyons’ Three With a Bullet and Bill Moody’s Death of a Tenor Man to Elaine Jesmer’s Number One With a Bullet, Laurence Gonzales’s Jambeaux and, dare I say it, my own Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime. Do all these sub-genres thrown together simply indicate the lack of substance or commitment on the part of the author? Not necessarily. After all, unlike novels by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis or Chester Himes, not every noir novel requires its author to put him or herself on the line, or to dig down so deep that it is difficult to understand how resurfacing can be possible. While Addy faces his own particular meltdown, there’s no reason to suspect that Weizmann might be undergoing a similar crisis; rather, one gets the impression that he is simply putting his considerable skills into constructing a good story while saying something that might resonate with the reader.

Noir-light it might be, but The Last Songbird has a lot going for it as it moves across Los Angeles, hitting various psycho-geographical points. And in going along for the ride, one moves from strip malls and strip joints to freeways and backstreets, from suburban McMansions to sleazy inner city apartments, from the Pacific Coast Highway to beach towns and criss-crossing freeways. At times it seems as though the novel’s various characters — “Every person a song in disguise” — are creatures of these various geographical points. There’s Addy’s semi-estranged suburban sister (actually his cousin), a relatively successful lawyer who is both jealous of Addy and looks down on him; the crazy dead mother, whom Addy recalls spending her final alcoholic years living with him out of her car; Annie’s ex-husband, a misogynistic creep who “In another life would have made dynamite extra in Fiddler On the Roof,” lives in Venice where he plots his takeover of the post-Annie pie; Addys friend, Ephraim, aka “Double Fry,” an orthodox Jewish photographer who lives on a boat at the beach, monitors police calls and dishes out words of Jewish wisdom; Bix, a fall-guy employed by Annie and allowed to live on her premises; Annies feminist ex-lover who lives near San Luis Obispo; and a machine shop owner, a black guy who, way back when, taught Annie to play guitar, and lives in the last semi-industrial section of West Adams.” Add to that the assortment of young tearaways, women haters, sauna salesmen, memorabilia collectors, new age reprobates and, of course, pushy cops. Characters that seem to shape shift as the narrative progresses, none more so than Annie, both before and after her death.

In fact, The Last Songbird is the kind of novel that sneaks up on you. Before you know it, what began as an ordinary run-out written in a pedestrian style soon starts to show flashes of street-level lyricism and incisiveness. Perhaps it’s conscious on Weizmann’s part. Or maybe it just seems that way, as the novel quickly gathers steam until you feel you’re trapped in a narrative that might have been concocted by Raymond Chandler had the latter not had an elite private education and petit-bourgeois inclinations. But in the end, when it comes to a clear writing style along with the politics to back it up, Weizmann has more in common with Hammett, perhaps accompanied by the ingestion of some kind of Pynchon-pill of the Inherent Vice variety, whose effect  makes things all the more dizzying and unpredictable, until L.A. turns into his own personal Poisonville:

“Bottrell returned with a cardboard file box and dropped into his lavender chair, which had shrunk into children’s furniture under his large frame. His reappearance gear-shifted the mood to even worse- I had been badly mistaken when I read him breezy. Now, he radiated the seething noblesse oblige of the Burdened Frontiersman. With Nguyen at least, you knew where you stood: Indochinese testosterone and shit to prove. There was geopolitical turbulence in her snicker as she took the box from Bottrell and drew some ancient forms from a folder — handwritten. My handwriting.”

But Weizmann has the sense to shy away from the mock Chandlerisms one has come to expect from so many neo-noir novels, opting instead for zingers that almost always hit their target, albeit in an off-centered way. Like morphing the overused Larkin family lines, which in Weizmann’s hands become “It takes a whole family to go insane.” Or playing off those same psycho-geographical cliches regarding what it’s like to live in a manufactured paradise: Wherever you were, you were equidistant to the middle of nowhere. I tried to approximate the act of walking with an agonizing herky-jerky limp. The ape crawled up a staircase.” Okay, it’s true, Weizmann’s syntax can sometimes be a bit eccentric, defying grammar but rarely logic. At least to my ears, but then, no longer in L.A.’s linguistic loop, that could just be what passes for common usage in the southland these days. Because Weizmann never comes across as embittered or cynical, he can, suddenly shift attention away from the other to his hapless narrator:

“His organized yard, his bony shoulders and lazy hands and gold LCD watch, all gave the impression of a clam, clear mind, a sober tinkerer. But really he was buzzed on booze and propane and voltage — and he was hiding permanently in this metal pile-up. Hiding, just like the old man in Public Storage. How many of these hiders did any American city contain? I’m guessing tens of thousands. Including me.”

Having said all of that, I don’t really know how good — whatever “good” might mean — The Last Songbird actually is. All I can say is that it’s been one of the most entertaining crime novels I’ve read for some time. Full of surprises, Weizmann kept me guessing right to the end, unusual for such books these days. Nor am I sure how all the disparate parts of the novel come together. But somehow they do. This even though Weizmann takes the reader from one extreme to the other, but while doing so, never vacating the political terrain regarding gender politics, power relationships, family life, friendship, or celebrity culture. Weizmann, whose checkered past includes the anthology Drinking With Bukowski and the charming A History of Rock — A Grade-Schoolers Vision of Rock Music 1977-1980, as well as pages of new wave journalism, often filed under the name Shredder, for Flipside and The L.A. Weekly, accomplishes all of this with a light touch. More importantly, he fulfils one of the genres main requirements: that a fictional investigator, at the very least, investigate himself as much as the world around him. Although others have walked this way before, and some have ventured into more dangerous territory, Weizmann, with a nod towards Addy’s investigative future, can be congratulated on providing sufficient hard-boiled menace without tumbling full throttle into oblivion.


[Published by Melville House on May 23, 2023, 336 pages, $17.99 paperback]

The above originally appeared in On the Sea Wall.

Friday, May 05, 2023

An Outsider on the Inside: Writers & Missionaries- Essays on the Radical Imagination by Adam Shatz

"Legend has it that, in 1956, when Soviet tanks overthrew the council government in Budapest, an officer asked Georg Lukács to hand over his weapon and the latter gave him his pen."
                              (Enzo Traverso, Revolution: An Intellectual History)

For some time now, Adam Shatz has been producing informative and well-considered  essays, reportage and interviews in publications like the  London Review of Books, New York Review of Books and The Nation. In addition, he also hosts Myself With Others, a podcast in which he converses  with an assortment of writers, musicians and public intellectuals, most of whom it turns out seem to be  his friends. But what first brought his work to my attention were his articles on jazz,  deep and lengthy pieces, the kind one doesn't come across very often, on the likes of  Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Frank Kimbrough, etc.. Perhaps the latter will constitute a future volume, because it's a  subject that's noticeably absent in Shatz's excellent Writers & Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination. Instead, what Shatz has put together here is a  series of essays- most of which have appeared in one form or another in the above periodicals- focusing on writers and intellectuals and how they have been able to articulate their politics given the factions, circumstances and hardline positions that exist, whether today or in the recent past.  Related to that is the degree to which such writers manage to accomplish this without sacrificing their humanity or perspective. It's a situation that the New York-based Shatz also addresses when it comes to his own writing. In other words, faced with present day inequities, how does someone in his profession negotiate the tightrope that separates journalism from activism, reportage from propaganda.     

To this end, Writers & Missionaries kicks-off with a series of essays on a number of Middle East writers. These include Fouad Ajami, and his  winding road  from Lebanese intellectual to neocon favourite; the Algerian writer and politically liberal Kamel Daoud; the life and death of the Israeli-Palestinian director of the Freedom Theatre Juliano Mer-Khamis; and the Palestinian nationalism of the renown Edward Said. All of them nuanced in their perspective, even if none, with the exception of Said, are exactly household names. But that only makes these chapters  all the more informative, interesting and important. 

Shatz then sets his sights on  Paris with a series of finely modulated entries on three African American writers: Chester Himes, Richard Wright and William Gardner Smith. With all three having self-exiled  in Paris at roughly the same time, Shatz examines how this group of writers were able to deal with the relationship between their politics and their displacement, as well as the dynamics surrounding the racism they were escaping from and the racism inherent in their adoptive country, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Algerians and the French state, which, as exotic exiles, they did or did not notice, much less act upon. Shatz remains in France for the next section, in which he tackles a handful of  French writers and intellectuals: Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Michel Houllebecq, as well as film-makers Claude Lanzman and Jean-Pierre Melville. The latter two constitute an interesting comparison: the former an  ultra-Zionist who directed Shoah, and the latter a WW2 maquis activist, whose participation would influence his future films, whether those with a war time or film noir setting. Shatz concludes this section with another interesting comparison: that of Jean-Paul Sartre and the leftist Egyptian writer Arwa Salih, and their respective positions  regarding the Algerian war of independence, Israel and the plight of the Palestinians.    

Even if one is familiar with some of the writers discussed, Shatz’s perspective will invariably be enlightening. For instance, his reading of Michel Houllebecq might surprise those who harbour, as I do, an instinctive dislike for this racaille of contemporary French fiction. Enough, at any rate, to make any hardened Houllebecq critic consider having another look at his writing. Though perhaps the same can't be said about Alain Robbe-Grillet. After reading that particular chapter, it would be difficult for many to read this most renown of nouveau roman novelists without taking into account his sadomasochistic tendencies, turning that famous camera-eye style into something that has less to do with the cinema or hardboiled fiction than with the cold stare of pornography. It's a flirtation that, in turn, might also cause some  to feel a pang of guilt for being advocates of that particular writer, along with his proclamations regarding the future direction of the novel.  
Shatz ends Writers & Missionaries with two extended essays in which he looks at his own life: the first, from which the book's title is taken, concerns his relationship to the Middle East, and, as a non-Zionist Jew, his identification with, and commitment to, those who live there, albeit as an outsider; and, lastly, an extended essay on his teenage years as an obsessive but creative  high-end chef, which, like the previous essay, reads as a stand-in for Shatz's own political evolution as a leftist with an internationalist perspective.   

It's no stretch of the imagination to think of Shatz as one of  those cosmopolitan intellectuals that  Enzo Traverso describes in his book Revolution: An Intellectual History  (Traverso being one of Shatz’s “rabbis,” and subject of a fascinating  interview on an LRB podcast), though, if rootless, Shatz is no doubt more so in spirit than  in fact.  An intellectual in an age of informationals, Shatz certainly remains on the missionary end of the spectrum, minus the colonial baggage and dogmatism normally associated with the term. Negotiating that slippery slope, Shatz digs deep into the circumstances of his subjects, allowing them- the oppressed, the exiled, the outsider- to speak, whenever possible, for themselves. In the end, he reminds us that, though a vanishing breed, public intellectuals who double as cross-cultural ambassadors play a vital role in the function and drift of what is possible. This as opposed to the critique du siécle about which Shatz also ponders, namely, why write at a time when  the meaning of authorship is being questioned? This dialectic could be taken as the sub-structure of  Shatz's book, one  he alludes to on more than one occasion. Addressing that conundrum, Shatz holds fast to his progressive politics,  observing, explaining and interpreting, particularly when it comes to Middle East resistance movements, while zeroing in on particular activists. All the while knowing that no matter how much he might identify with such movements and activists, he, whether by profession, disposition, politics or culture, will invariably remain something of an outsider. But t’s that  self-assumed role that informs his writing and which makes it so accessible. Reading Shatz,  one inevitably discovers currents and thinkers that, considering the sharp shocks of today's instantaneous culture, one might otherwise have never known about. Speaking personally, if not for Shatz, I would never  have known about several of the Middle Eastern writers included in this volume, nor, to go further afield, would I have comes across the likes of Traverso as well as  the incredible anti-fascist forger Adolfo Kaminsky (A Forger's Life), the former a subject of a Shatz interview, and the latter the focus of an LRB article. Whether as  interrogator, journalist, public critic, Shatz remains an important contributor in a world that can be as boundary-defying as it is parochial.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Obsession in the Pursuit of Virtue is No Vice: Love Me Fierce In Danger by Steven Powell- The Life of James Ellroy


As any serious Ellroy reader knows, Jean Hilliker Ellroy was murdered, her body found early Sunday morning, June 22nd, 1958 in El Monte, California.  On that same night, in Pasadena, I recall, or at least I think I recall, that I was with  a group of fellow junior high school friends, all of us some 13 years old, a week or so into our summer vacation. We had just come down from the nearby railroad tracks where the Super Chief dutifully passed by twice a day, and were aimlessly walking down Colorado Blvd, east of Rosemead, some eight miles from El Monte. From out of nowhere several police cars arrived, sirens shrieking, roadblocks put in place, and we were told to get off the street and go home.  

Ever since hearing about Jean Ellroy's murder, I've associated it with that night in Pasadena. Did the two events really have anything to do with one another? Or was it just a coincidence? And did they really happen on the same night? To be truthful, I can't say one way or the other.  Or was it one of those dreams that, over time, slowly morphs into reality? Perhaps the police had been tipped off about a possible suspect- that "swarthy man" they were looking for- or maybe they'd been thrown into action by another case altogether?  What occurred on that evening, that is if anything occurred at all, has stayed with me for many years, even using it-  minus anything about what had taken place in El Monte- as the opening to my recent novel Skin Flick. 

Not that Powell's  scrupulously researched and extremely readable biography was of any help in disentangling the facts from my fiction, or dispelling the notion that I can definitively say I really do remember the night Ellroy's mother was murdered. Even so, it's Powell's account of his subject's early life that I found most fascinating, from Ellroy's brief period in the San Gabriel Valley to his years in L.A.'s Fairfax district, from breaking into houses of women he was fixated on to caddying at various elite Hollywood golf courses. No wonder Powell's description of those days often reads like an early Ellroy novel. Which is to be expected since, as Powell points out, Ellroy has long utilised the details of his life, particularly in those early novels, as fodder for his fiction. 

Thankfully, Powell isn't afraid to present Ellroy in all his guises: good, bad and ugly. Whether dog lover, barking manic, right-winger, womaniser, self-promoter, friend, drug addict, alcoholic, rehab attendee, etc., though, of course, the most important guise of all, that of a brilliant and feverish writer who has challenged the norms of crime and historical fiction. As well as rummaging through Ellroy's life, Powell offers up a series of close readings of the demon dog's major works. However obligatory, this unfortunately constitutes, for me, one of the least interesting aspects of the book.  Maybe because Ellroy's plots are as dizzying, if not more so, than those of Raymond Chandler. And, for some perverse reason, my instinct is to let any incomprehension speak for itself.  Indeed, I might have glossed over Powell's  readings if not for his lucid ability to deconstruct those very plots.  By the same token,  I found my curiosity regarding Ellroy's life and corresponding fiction, beginning to fade in direct proportion to his rise in notoriety and entrance into the monied world of high stakes publishing and Hollywood movie making. Perhaps that's because his public shtick had by then become  all-too predictable, his novels increasingly fragmented and dispersed, and his private demons all too obvious. Having said that, Powell doesn't flinch when contrasting Ellroy's outward demeanour with the messiness of his inner life. Not my truc, it's true, but such is the  nature of biographical writing and Powell handles it as well as anyone could possibly be expected to do.

That Ellroy's L.A. and mine are relatively congruent clearly has something to do with why my obsessive interest in Ellroy reached its zenith early on, reading, as they were  published, Brown's Requiem and Clandestine, followed by his Lloyd Hopkins series, and, in what I still regard as the apogee of his oeuvre, the first The L.A. Quartet and American Tabloid. His follow-up, My Dark Places, important as it might have been for Ellroy, and however popular amongst his fans, marked a modulation, not so much in  Ellroy's writing style- that had already been accomplished-  as in how he was presenting his writing and himself to the public. Though I read with interest the novels that followed- Cold Six Thousand, Blood's a Rover and Perfidia- I found my attention was focusing less on the plots of those books than on  their construction, contours and linguistic inventiveness.  As for murk and muck of This Storm and Widespread Panic, I have to admit I've yet to take the plunge, but expect more of the same, if not even more so.        

A friend once said, "The problem with Ellroy is that he's a frustrated poet." In fact, his writing makes more sense if one thinks of it in that way.  Particularly his later work, which might be regarded as something closer to epic poetry than to prose, as imagistic as it is scriptorial, its bullet-like lines and vernacularisms more akin to  spontaneous bop-prosody than genre-ridden hardboiled prose. And let's face it, the extremes to which Ellroy  goes when it comes to his  public persona can sometimes seem more like that of a classic over-the-top romantic poet than a writer of historical crime fiction.  

Nevertheless, I can't imagine many Ellroy readers who won't want to read Love Me Fierce.... And well they should. Because, even if you thought you knew Ellroy, there will be something in Powell's book to surprise you, something that will offer a greater understanding of Ellroy  and how he's  been able to turn the complexities of his life and the world around him into the totality of his fiction. In the end, this is as  clear-headed a portrait of Ellroy as we're likely  to get.  Moreover, one comes away from Powell's book reassured that the richness of Ellroy's fictional world-building can't help but provide an access to institutional machinery- whether the police, politicians, the underworld, Hollywood producers, up-market publishers, high rollers and power brokers- and, by doing so, fills a gap separating the market from the realities of everyday life.  Though, if you'll excuse me, I can't help but think about that summer's night in 1958 still convinced it might be true.   

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Reading Robert Kelly: A City Full of Voices, A Voice Full of Cities

"The mind loves the unknown." 

It wasn't in a poetry magazine that I first came across the work of Robert Kelly, but in the underground film house-journal Film Culture.  It was sometime in 1965 that I happened upon Kelly's short entry on Stan Brakhage's Art of Vision (RK: "Mind at the mercy of the eye at last."). It was some months later, while living in Mexico City, that I first encountered Kelly's  poetry, El Corno Emplumado's edition of Her Body Against Time. Up to then I was primarily reading Michael McClure and LeRoi Jones/not yet Baraka, with Olson and Dorn waiting in the wings. Nevertheless, I would carry Kelly's book with me from  Mexico to New York to Los Angeles and, finally, San Francisco.  
Brakhage, in turn, wrote two published letters to Kelly, which I was certain I had also read  in Film Culture, but apparently not. But both those letters and the Robert Kelly's essay can be found in A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (2014) and A City Full of Voices: Essays On the Work of Robert Kelly (2019). Edited  by Pierre Joris, Peter Cockelbergh and Joel Newberger, and published by Contra Mundum Press, these books are clearly works of love, whose editors who have not only gathered together Kelly's many contributions, but have enlisted an army of contributors, all clearly au courant when it comes to Kelly's work, coming at it, as they do,  from different angles. Which makes these two volumes a heavy lift, whether metaphorically or literally; in fact, some 1400 pages in all. Though so prolific has Kelly been that even that  number would no doubt  pale compared to what might constitute his collected works.   

Reading Ken Irby's review of Her Body Against Time in A City Full of Voices, I began to wonder if I had come across that review when it  first appeared in Kulchur, before I'd read Kelly's book. It's possible... But even as a  poetry greenhorn, I remember being impressed by the depth of Kelly's vision and the how his poetry was not only his world but how the world seemed like fodder for his poetry.  A condition echoed in lines- purloined from Jed Rasula's excellent "A Book On Line and Measure" in A City Full...- in a later lengthy poem entitled  The World, in which Kelly reminds us that "there is no/form not/organic no/mind not mine."

Or it could have been that any poet who wrote about Brakhage, and, in turn, any poet that Brakhage found important enough to write about, was going to be of  interest to me. So infected was I at the time by the visual poetry of what was then called the New American Cinema.  The common denominator  being the investment both placed in seeing, not to mention their articulation of that investment.  As Kelly writes in Her Body..., "how much more/will I see/ or see again..." Couple that with their take on Olson's "'You go all around the subject.' And I sd, 'I didn't know there was a sub-/ject,'", and it's no wonder that I would fall under Kelly's spell, just as I had been by Brakhage's films, not to mention how both were able to dissect their own work and that of others.      

For some reason my reading of Kelly's work tailed off sometime after the publication of his book length poem The Loom (Black Sparrow). Around which time I heard he'd been appointed poet-in-residence at Caltech, which of course prompted fanciful notions that such an institution, in my home town at that, might be giving this particular poet space to practice some kind of Duncanian alchemical magic, while, at the same time, hoping it wasn't an indication that it was trying to revive its  sleazier roots personified by the likes of arch-huckster L. Ron Hubbard and rocket-man and dark arts dabbler Jack Parsons. Now that I think about it, what kept me from continuing my reading of Kelly's work was  that I simply couldn't keep up with the volume of his output,  though it should be said that my interests around that time were solidly Dornian. It goes without saying that reading Kelly is no small matter, but entails a level of attention that not everyone is ready or willing to give to it. Still, for me, Kelly's notion of "the city," or "polis," as Olson would have it, would continue to resonate. That is to say, the  city as a place of discovery, not just in Paul Goodman's sense of an Empire City, but a modernist twist on the Augustine's  belief that "outside the city man is either god or beast;" which is to say, a place in which one is allowed to discover a poetics out of that experience.      

Fast forward  half a century and I find I'm once again attracted to Kelly's work, or, at least for the time being, his essays. Call me perverse, but for some reason I've always had  a weakness for  prose written by poets. Which, for me, makes A Voice Full of Cities such a delight. By the same token, it's invariably interesting to read those who write about Kelly, covering as they do in A City Full of Voices a range of interests and ways  of thinking about Kelly's poetry.          

Even had I been able to do so, it would have been difficult to keep up with Kelly's incredible output. After all it constitutes a life. As Guy Davenport has written, "There is no end to a Kelly poem...It's a cataract of energy." His essays, reviews, stories and novels (unfortunately his fiction isn't included, but perhaps would constitute a volume on its own) are much more than an addendum to his poetry, while, at the same time, squelching the notion that prose is necessarily a more literal or less poetic form of writing. But here they are, his essays, which, if nothing else, demonstrate once again the breadth of his work. 

Now in his late 80s, Kelly has moved  from the articulation of a working poetics (deep image) to an autobiographical and investigatory poetics, which necessarily includes the aesthetics of various poets, film-makers, artists, novelists, philosophers, friends, etc.. The  common denominator here is the relationship between seeing and vision, turning, as Brakhage did, a physical deficiency into a personal aesthetic.  And so Kelly's essays, moving from  the late 1950s to the near-present, constitute a map of thoughts and images- if one can separate the two- making these two volumes a celebration of Kelly's poetic life by a range of respondents, each with their own insights, from early takes by the likes of Olson "not imageS but IMAGE," Creeley, Blackburn, Irby,  Sitney, Eshleman and Davenport to later writers like Joris, Cockelbergh, Quasha, Silliman, Fisher, Yau, and Chernicoff. Proving that no single person has the definitive word or ability to encompass Kelly's oeuvre.  As Billie Chernicoff asks at the beginning of On Robert Kelly's Seaspel, "How does he do it?" To which she says she has no answer. I would agree. One can only shake one's head and wonder, while marvelling at the flow of words, the intensity of thought and vision.  

Click on here for a short interview with RK by George Quasha.:

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Ted Berrigan's Get the Money: The Collected Prose (1961-1983)

It was 1963 or '64,  in the library at Cal State L.A., that I came across my first Ted Berrigan poems. At the time I was solidly into the likes of Charles Olson, LeRoi (not yet Baraka) Jones, Michael McClure and Frank O'Hara- in fact, just about anyone  in Don Allen’s New American Poetry- but I'd never come across  anything quite like Berrigan's poems. They seemed so off-hand and playful, with none of   the heaviness and obscurantics associated with  Pound and his various poetic progeny.  Naturally, I thought about writing like Berrigan- who wouldn't? His work  seemed so natural in its reach and drift, so easy to emulate. Well, if only...  A year later at San Francisco State I was handing over a clutch of Berrigan-like poems to John Logan who, for better or worse, had been hired as the college's in-house poet.  He looked at the pages like they were pieces of rotting fruit, quite likely the product of an idiot.  Not that I cared. After all,  Logan wasn't someone I'd ever thought of emulating, nor even considered interesting as a poet.  He was, I thought at the time, just another old guy who had a decent line in self-pity. 

Still mining the open stacks, and with nothing better to do, I started to peruse back issues of Kulchur, enticed as I was  by the magazine's masthead and table of contents carrying such names as Sorrentino, Corso, Di Prima, Dorn, Don Phelps and Fielding Dawson. And, of course, Berrigan. Not poems this time, but  reviews.  Open, humorous, but also deadly serious, Berrigan's prose turned out to be every bit as beguiling as his poetry. So much so that it sent me back  to the poems, this time his  Sonnets, or what I could find of them, since the Grove Press edition had yet to be published. So of the moment were they that as the moment passed, so eventually did my attention. Which led me to wonder whether poems like his were even meant to last. But if poetry wasn't  of and for  the moment, then exactly what was it of and for?  Posterity? I wasn't really sure there was such a thing. 

But that kind of speculation soon faded, replaced by more immediate concerns of a personal and political nature. Fast forward thirty  years and five thousand miles away,  I was willingly forking out  twelve quid for a secondhand copy of Berrigan’s Collected Poetry. Those same poems, I discovered, had in the intervening years turned into  heart-wrenching reminders of a particular time and place, and the promise of what could have been and might still be. Sure, they were submerged in a certain kind of quotidian immodesty, but, despite time and technology, that is very much part of their charm.  Like a great deal of art of that period, those poems represent a community and way of viewing the world. With his polaroid exactness Berrigan's poems, like those of O'Hara, Paul Blackburn and Philip Whalen, wear their intelligence as lightly as possible, never making a thing out to it, which, in fact, was typical of  the New York/Tulsa school (Padgett, Gallup, Brainard). Always in search of the sweet spot of everyday reality, less a product of the street than of windows, galleries, poetry readings and the work of other writers.     

Much the same could  be said of Berrigan's criticism and journals, both  of which are abundantly represented in Get The Money: The Collected Prose (1961-1983), published by City Lights (eds., Edmund Berrigan, Anslem Berrigan, Alice Notley, Nick Sturm). In entry after entry, Berrigan pursues and captures the presence, and more often than not the essence, of whatever he scrutinises, whether a painting, poem, novel, or person, always in search of its fundamental is-ness. Not defensive "in the presence of the spontaneously beautiful," but, as Berrigan writes in a review of Ron Padgett's In Advance of the Broken Tone Arm, but which might be applied to  himself, "Padgett doesn't really take any chance in beauty's presence; he is simply there." That being the case, Berrigan, as the title of this volume suggests, mockingly pursues payment, knowing that what he is advocating and producing will most likely have little if any monetary value. Though who would have been able to say that there wouldn't one day be a market for what was then thought to be unmarketable. That Berrigan has nothing to lose or gain makes his critiques all the more honest, cogent, personal and playful.  This in an era when the apparent chaos was such that most criticism, with the exception of magazines like Kulchur, were lagging behind, or simply didn't get, what Berrigan was promoting.          

Coming in at just under 300 pages, Get the Money!, with entries on the likes of Kenward Elmslie, FT Prince,  Red Grooms, Alice Neel, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Anne Waldman, Jim Carroll, Tom Raworth, Joel Oppenheimer, and much more, will surely be this year's favourite commodity for any fetishistic punter with an inkling for  Berrigan's work, or, for that matter,  the New York poetry and art scene during those years. All proof that Berrigan's prose is never less than an extension of his poetry, indicative of his engagement with what is going on around him. As the Whitehead quote Berrigan inserts as the epigraph to his journals, reads,  "What is going to happen is already happening." That word, happening, for better or worse, so synonymous with the era and its sense of community. Likewise, behind the dash-it-off, who-gives-a fuck attitude, Get the Money attests to someone lasered into the push and pull of both public and private with an apparent recklessness that never fails to connect.  Or one could equally say that Berrigan's critique is never less than an extension of the object being criticised. Even if that object is no more than  an opportunity for him to demonstrate his literary chops. As in his "review" of Burroughs' Nova Express, which could be read as a flexing of Berrigan's literary muscles, or as a conscious, if overly enthusiastic, extension of the novel.  Even though, at the other end of the scale, "Frank O'Hara Dead at 40" comes across as a completely straight and touching, but  manufactured, tribute. A case perhaps of Get the Money for real, but not without  feeling.  Just as the occasion dictates, but tame when compared with the following, written in a more familiar manner: 

"In fact, it would be much easier for me to get something said about this book if I could briefly turn into Charles Olson or John Lennon or Martin Luther King. Then I'd just lean forward into the TV camera and intensely, 'If you really want to know what it's all about, read Frank O'Hara, that's right, FRANK O'HARA... Whereupon...Joe Levine would rush production on his new movie, Life on Earth, the biography of Frank O'Hara, starring young James Cagney as Frank... and Gig Young as John Ashbery, Rod Steiger as Jane Freilicher. What excitement!"

All of which makes Berrigan if not political, at least doggedly democratic in his merging of subject and object. Though sometimes it does seem like he's the focal point, cheerleader and barker-in-chief of a semi-secret society. Democratic, thenbut only in a world within a world within a world, exemplified by the various entries about Berrigan's friends, Berrigan himself, or Berrigan and his friends. But wait a sec... Wasn't that what poetry communities, significant or otherwise, were about in those pre-internet age? Even at the risk of over-reach, or, in this case, over-sell, as Berrigan shamelessly tests the limits, however playfully, insisting as always on le droit du poete. A tendency that, in today's world of identity politics and territorial armour, might be questionable. But this is now and that was then. Whatever the subterranean politics, Berrigan remains as large as life, missed by many and forgotten by no one who inhabited that world and its margins. All of which leaves one to speculate about Berrigan's letters, which, if gathered together, would undoubtedly complete the picture of this most late twentieth century of twentieth century poets.