Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Explaining the Inexplicable: Another Dream About Fielding Dawson

"I mean that if I chose to make the most wonderful thing that I could make, I would make whatever I am, and it would be invisible, because it would have to be invisible, because what I would make would be whatever it is..."
                                                                                                 "Krazy Kat"


In the dream I was attempting to explain to poet  Ed Dorn the extent to which I liked Fielding Dawson's writing. I think I was making sense, but, then again, it was a dream, so who knows. However, whether awake or asleep, I tend to think I have a bit of form on this particular subject. After all, there was a time when I could think of nothing better than to wallow in Fielding Dawson's  free-flowing prose- which for me worked in the same way Dawson's Abstract Expressionist friends at the Cedar painted, or the way his beloved be-boppers constructed their solos, with sinuous lines, improvised yet based on theory and practise. For me, Dawson, no mean artist himself, was one of the few writers able to catch what others have found so elusive- which is the ability to move between the inside and the outside, perhaps what Dawson's fellow-Black Mountaineer Dorn referred to in an early narrative- was it Idaho Out or The Land Below?- as the insidereal/outsidereal.

I guess Dawson-mania first hit me in the early 1970s, with his first, and I still believe his best, collection of stories, Krazy Kat and the Unveiling, published by Black Sparrow in, I think, 1969. Even now I find those stories remarkable, particularly when one thinks that many were written by someone barely in their twenties.  Other writers, similar in age, locale and temperament, whether Lucia Berlin, Douglas Woolfe or Robert Creeley in The Gold Diggers, were able to explore a similar  terrain, but none were able to own the territory so definitively as Dawson. He not only moved seamlessly between extremes- inner and outer, emotions and situations (exemplified by the title of his Franz Kline book: An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline)- but he did so with an intensity that made it seem like his words were about to singe the pages on which they were written. All this while maintaining a conversational manner and  matter-of-fact tone, willing to entertain the everyday as well as the near-miraculous.  Krazy Kat... was,  of course, followed by other collections  and   novels- A Mandalay Dream, Penny Lane, Virginia Dare, Open Road and  A Great Day For a Ball Game- though, for me, only a handful approached KK's power and intensity. Which is not say that I did not hungrily consume every book  as soon as I could get my hands on them.  

Perhaps it was inevitable that, over time, Dawson's writing would become less intense and introspective, and, in the process,  more chekovian, which is what Ed Sanders had once said about his writing, an assessment  I initially dismissed. Indeed, some of Dawson's intensity would be channelled into other work, which began in the early 1990s, namely teaching writing to prisoners, first at Rikers Island, then other New York institutions, becoming, in the process an advocate for writers ensconced in the prison system. Though maybe Dawson had written himself out, which would be understandable, or it could be that he found a pursuit that was just as,  if not more, fulfilling.

By early 1990s I was, for some reason, no longer reading Dawson.  Maybe I was too involved  in politics, or maybe it was a matter of my tastes and concerns having changed.  Then, one morning in early January, 2002, I woke up realizing it had been over a decade since I had last read a Dawson story or novel and suddenly wanted to reread him, as well as find out  what he'd been writing in the intervening years. So I ordered his two most recent books, then googled him, only to discover that two days earlier Dawson had passed away. Though his death hit me hard, I didn't find  it altogether strange that I should be thinking about him only a couple days after he'd passed away. Probably because I'd always felt a strong connection to his writing. And, if the dream in which I was trying to explain my liking for Dawson is anything to go by, it's a connection I clearly harbour to this day. One thing I do regret is never having had the opportunity to  meet the man, nor fortunate enough to ever hearing him read live. Still, I've recently managed to make do with the handful of readings archived on sites like Penn Sound. And while I'm not sure how Dawson is regarded these days, I notice there's even a piece of music one can hear on YouTube by composer and one-time Bjork-associate Nico Muhly entitled Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio. But, for me, it’s the stories on the page that matter. The rest is simply life, as we know it. Or maybe  a dream in which one tries, and fails, to explain what might be, in the end,  inexplicable.


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Friday, December 09, 2016

Noir Favourites, 2016




My favourites of the past year,  in no particular order 

1 It’s All One Case- Ross Macdonald, Paul Nelson, Kevin Avery, Jeff Wong.  


3 You Will Know Me- Megan Abbott 



6 El Nino- Mercedes Lambert


8 The Hight Life- Jean-Pierre Martinet

9 The Sympathizer- Viet Thangh Nguyen

10 Spook Street- Mick Herron



10 favourite pre-2016 books read in 2016

1  Hubert’s Freaks- Gregory Gibson


3 Simenon- Tropic Moon 

4 The Deepening Shade- Jake Hinkson

5  Immobility- Brian Evenson

6 The Whispering Swarm- Michael Moorcock

7 We Gotta Get Out of This Place- The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War- Doug Bradley and Craig Werner

8 Manchette's Fatale- Max Cabane, Doug Headline

9 The Archer Files: The Complete Lew Archer Stories- Ross Macdonald

10 Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing- Charles Bowden



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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The man in the maze; the maze in the man: The Archer Files by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan

I can't remember reading anything quite like Tom Nolan's introduction to The Archer Files- the complete short stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator.  In fact, Nolan's "Archer In Memory" must be the most complete, and possibly only, biography of a fictional private eye. And one taken entirely from the writing of some guy called Ross Macdonald, who seems to have devoted an inordinate amount of time writing about Archer. Reading this biography which runs to almost fifty pages,  Macdonald's name doesn't appear until the final few pages, making one think it's Archer who is real character and Macdonald a fictional invention. But, then, that's because Nolan, in this biographical sketch, does what he can to give Archer his autonomy, a notion not all that different from what any writer might wish on his or her protagonist.

Nolan has certainly done his research.  Which is what one would expect from the man who wrote Ross Macdonald's biography. Nevertheless, Nolan comes up with facts even the most ardent Macdonald reader would probably not have known. As someone who has read at least a dozen Macdonald novels, I would be hard pressed to say much about Lew Archer's past. Sure, I know that in his earlier years he had been a cop, had a drink problem, was married and divorce and had served in the armed forces. But that's about it. Perhaps that's because Macdonald conveys such information so seamlessly. Or maybe I'm always so locked into the stories that I'm nearly oblivious to such information. Which is ironical, since so many of those stories are similar, to the point that, for me, the titles lose their significance and the books tend to constitute, to use the title of Avery/Wong/Nelson's recent book, one case. However, Nolan knows his subject so well he's able to dig deep and bring all those Archer personal asides together.  It's quite a feat, one that couldn't be repeated for many other  hardboiled protagonists, including Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade. All of which makes Nolan's  The Archer Files a more than worthwhile investment. And that's not even counting the  Macdonald stories that follow.

Nolan's "Archer In Memory" is, in its own unassuming way, literary enough to seem Borges-like in the way it reconstructs a particular world. Though Nolan sticks to the facts, he ends up doing a bit of speculating, particularly when it comes to Archer's final days. Could it have been Alzheimer's,  a malady that struck down Macdonald- after all, Archer becomes increasingly forgetful in his later books. Or did Archer, always a moving target, succumb to gun violence in a city where, according to Nolan, handguns are nearly as plentiful as new cars. But Nolan leaves questions hanging in the air, and in the place of answer he postulates a simple fade-out and a  poem comprised of lines from  Macdonald's books, though the words could have come from some forgotten song by Macdonald's old pal Warren Zevon, a man who knew Archer as well as anyone:

"See Archer at night then, one last time, parked perhaps in his car above Mulholland, a single human cell in that luminous organism of an endless city, while a God's-eye camera pulls back and back and back- and the internalized soundtrack of a benignly fraying mind yields pieces of stored-up memory:

The man was in the maze; the maze was in the man.
The problem was to love people, to try to serve them...
-wish I knew who you were-
Got to take  a sentimental journey...
You'll have to learn a trade.
A man is only as good as his conscience...
Ora pro nobis."


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Friday, December 02, 2016

Reconstructing Goodis: Retour Vers David Goodis by Philippe Garnier

If any single person is responsible for post-1980s interest in David Goodis, it's surely Philippe Garnier, arguably the first to write at length about Philadelphia's favourite noirist. While a handful of others have tried to thumb a ride on Garnier's coat-tails, he remains, at least when it comes to Goodis's retreat from oblivion, the primary investigator. Not only has he done the ground-work- interviewing the relevant parties and scrounging the archives- he's conveyed what he's  found with no small amount of panache. That goes for David Goodis, Un vie en noir et blanc, or his "translation" of that book David Goodis, A Life In Black and White (my review of that book can be found here). "Translation" because A Life... is anything but a word-for-word translation of his earlier book, rather an adaptation meant English-speaking Goodisites.


The same in reverse could be said for Garnier's latest,  Retour vers David Goodis (published by La Table Ronde). Like A Life..., Retour... is hardly a strict translation into French of a book translated from the French.  That doesn't seem to be Garnier's truc.  Rather,  in his own words, it's plus serein, mois énervé, plus informé than his previous book. Regardless of whether one considers Retour... a revision or stand-alone, it has a great deal to offer in the way of new material. Whether that material has been gathered together since the appearance of those earlier volumes, or retrieved from  the cutting-room floor hardly matters. Because one finds here what seems an assortment of new informants, central as well as peripheral, all of whom, in their own way, add pieces to the puzzle which constitutes Goodis's life. And if that's not enough, Garnier's latest includes some high-quality images- photos book covers, stills, etc.- which makes the  book quite a bit more interesting visually than previous Goodis volumes.

By referring to, and expanding upon, earlier books, Garnier, consciously or otherwise, implies that discovering Goodis could be an on-going process, shifting with the latest research, and offers that can't be easily refused. Whichever the case, Retour... dives deeper than ever into the murky waters that constitutes Goodis's work and world. Of course, this, in turn, necessitates new angles and digressions, the kind one has come to expect from Garnier, and an aspect of his writing- moving in and around his subject- that makes his work as interesting as it is informative. Likewise, one can't help but wonder  if and when  Retour... might be "translated" into English, and what that "translation" might look like.  In the meantime, anyone with  a rudimentary knowledge of French, shouldn't hesitate in giving this one a go.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black Night Falling: David Goodis On Central Avenue



A version of my talk given on October 29th, at NoirCon 2016, in Philadelphia, is now up at the L.A. Review of Books. Here's how it opens:
THE 1940s was, by anyone’s reckoning, a decisive decade for noir master David Goodis. He married and divorced Elaine Astor, scripted for radio serials, wrote a number of screenplays, and published three novels, including his breakout hit Dark Passage (1946). Although his work and his fate are irrevocably bound to his native Philadelphia, he spent the larger part of the ’40s in Los Angeles. As a lifelong devotee of jazz and of the world surrounding it, he reputedly made periodic visits to L.A.’s Central Avenue, when the music played there — an amalgam of jazz and blues later packaged as Rhythm and Blues — was at its creative peak. It’s a music and a place that I tried to evoke in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime:
They drove.
Into the heart of the matter.
Central Avenue.
Once the Harlem of the West.
Back when black night was falling and white punters were pouring down like a shower of rain.
Of course, by 1960, when Cry For a Nickel is set, the lights on Central Avenue — a.k.a. the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, or simply The Block — had all but gone out. Most of the clubs were boarded over and the music had been co-opted by corporate and criminal concerns. But in the mid- to late 1940s, Central Avenue was still a vital thoroughfare for African-American music and culture.
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Wednesday, November 02, 2016

From Little Sandy to the Blue Hammer: It's All One Case- The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives by Paul Nelson, Kevin Avery, with Jeff Wong

Way back when, before I began reading Ross Macdonald, I was already well into Paul Nelson's writing, mainly through his and Jon Pancake's folk music magazine, Little Sandy Review. I was probably one of all of 200 subscribers. At that time, the magazine was, for me, the arbiter of taste in early 1960s folk America.  Nelson's reviews were both conversational and erudite, as likely to cite Bergman, Truffaut and J.P. Donlevy as Uncle Dave Macon. It took Nelson a couple years  to get to grips with his contemporary and fellow-Dinky Town contemporary Bob Dylan. Probably because it was hard for Nelson to move beyond traditional types, and dedicated disciples like the New Lost City Ramblers. But when he fell for Dylan, he fell hard. I remember in particular Nelson discussing the cinematic imagery in Dylan's The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

A few after my foray into the realm of Little Sandy, I crossed the rubicon and begin a long descent into the world of  Ross Macdonald. It was Macdonald, along with Hammett and Himes who would be my introduction to hardboiled noir fiction. Which is to say,  corruption in high places, accompanied by the poetry of street-level circumlocutions. To this day I still can't tell one Macondald novel from another. They really are all one novel, all one investigation and, as in the title of Kevin Avery and Jeff Wong's book, all one case. Which is say, they are all about the culture and its discontent, particularly when it comes to families, and how, as the man said, they really do  fuck you up.

I stopped gumshoeing Nelson in the 70s, though I remember reading some of his rock criticism in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, always finding it interesting and eclectic.  Because for him, as for Macdonald, it was also all one case- fiction, film writing, westerns, noir, music. Whether Gatsby,  John Ford, Hammett or Warren Zevon,  it was all part  of the same American landscape. But instead of using his multiple interests and talents to take him to new heights, Nelson would apparently find the combinations so overwhelming and intense that they would eventually silence him. Or maybe he'd said it all, was unable to say anymore. Or it could simply be that he could not edit himself any longer or make it all cohere. Capable of so much, Nelson would end up delivering much less than he could have. Even so what he did manage to produce was always interesting and often brilliant, whether  zooming-in for close-ups of his favorite musicians or writers, or panning-out for wide shots of the culture in general. Unfortunately, he could never get it together to write that elusive novel or film,  until it all went silent and he ended his days as a reclusive clerk in a video store. Not so different from the way a young Quentin Tarantino began his career. And there is  a little bit of Nelson in Tarantino.  As for Macdonald, I would over the years revisit his work,  occasionally picking up one of his novels only to marvel at his writing, the depths he was able to reach, all of which reminded me that this was why I got interested in this type of writing, because it's capable of saying so much. Of course must have felt much the same way.

Kevin Avery's biography of Nelson expanded on the information I had previously gleaned from Nolan's biography of Macdonald, namely that Nelson had conducted a marathon interview with Macdonald, pitching up his tent in Macdonald's house for some weeks.  I remember writing to Kevin saying, just as so many others had, something along the lines of  what, there's hundreds of hours of interviews Nelson did with Macdonald. Shouldn't they be made available. He assured me that they soon would be.

But I had no idea the material would be presented so exquisitely, thanks largely to graphic designer Jeff Wong. In fact, with the exception of photos by Kurt Vonnegut's widow, Jill Krementz, virtually all of the images in the book are from Wong's personal collection garnered over the years, many of the items  from Nelson's personal collection, bits of it purchased by Wong when Nelson was strapped for cash.  And the interview definitely lives up to its billing, covering, as it does, not just Macdonald's books and writing but a range of related subjects. I suppose one could call this  the ultimate noir coffee table book. Because one could spend hours simply looking at its superb reproductions,  and an equal number of hours reading it. Of course, you have to be a fan of Macdonald's fiction to fully appreciate it. And if you also happen to be one of those who also harbours a more than arcane interest in Paul Nelson's writing, It's All One Case is going to be irresistible.  It's already in serious contention for my book of the year. A big book- with a short forward by the great Jerome Charyn- in more ways than one, and worth every penny. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Friday, September 30, 2016

It's Algren Time Again

From "Single Exit" (first published in 1947) in Entrapment by Nelson Algren:

"He walked down endless flights, turning at last into the hotel entrance to the bar. Juke music funneled out through the entrance in a roaring bass, beating out 'Blues in the Night' in a vocal that rang hoarsely, like a manacled madman's voice full of hoarse glee at his own pain. Beneath it, standing in the doorway, Katz heard the fast and slippered shuffle of the same shoes he had heard whispering so lonesomely away, down an uncarpeted hall and out into the lonesome street. A soft-shoe shuffle! Would there be applause to greet him? And many friends? He brushed down his coat and hurried in. As the juke died out on a troubled whine.

The dancers all had gone. The singers all were still. There was no one but a sweatered fellow placing chairs along the bar.

Katz stood shifting restlessly from one foot to another, trying to down his disappointment at forever, all his life, arriving just a moment too late for everything.

'Closing up?' he asked diffidently.

The fellow moved on toward the back without answering, drawing chairs soundlessly across the floor, tossing them slowly, without effort, along the bar, so that no matter how carelessly he moved, they fell, softly, into neat rows, and stayed so strangely motionless, all along the bar.

Above the bar mirror a neon kitten flashed two suggestions off and on, in bright and blood-red steel:

GET UP A PARTY
FEED THE KITTY
GET UP A PARTY
FEED THE KITTY"


Why doesn't anyone write like this anymore?

Maybe there are those who do, but, if so, they are most likely on the margins of the literary world. Because most writers, including crime writers, haven't the nerve to put themselves out there like Algren did, while, at the same time, doing so with all their heart and soul. Not, at any rate, if they intend to sell books or, for that matter, get published. Of course, there are examples of extreme literature, but it's usually pretty sterile stuff in comparison, too ironic or pretending to be tough and in your face. Few are willing to be as overtly political, literary and as cantankerous as Algren. Always concerned about those at the bottom end of society. This even though Algren believed that his work had no effect on the culture. Nevertheless, Algren won the National Book Award for Man With a Golden Arm and was, for a while, a best selling writer.

Algren, based on the stories, essays, poems, prose poems and fragments of a novel in Entrapment, and much of his other work, could be arrested for incitement to intelligence, much less riot. In fact, it's almost impossible to comprehend that Algren could have been so popular during the 1950s and early 1960s. We have Otto, Sinatra, Kim to partially thank for that, though Algren's popularity started before that. Yet Man With a Golden Arm was such a mess of a movie, at least compared to the book, that it ruined the novel for many subsequent readers. Nor was Walk on the Wildside, with a script by John Fante (aided by Ben Hecht), much better. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine how anyone might be able to capture Algren on film, that is without sacraficing so much of the literary quality of his novels. Maybe it's just that Algren, with all his ruminations and characters who move from the comedy to tragedy, sweet wise yet so innocent, can't be filmed.

Algren was part of a generation of writers that included James T. Farrell (in fact, there is a short piece in Entrapment which constitutes Algren's apology for dissing Farrell on ideological grounds and recognising that, though Farrell was not a great stylist, Studs Lonigan affected a generation of people), John Dos Passos, Richard Wright whose last remaining personage was probably Studs Terkel. They were all political radicals with a sense of the street and literary enough to hold their own with more established types. Algren has been compared favorably to Faulkner, and one can see why. Okay, so maybe he's more erratic, but at his best he is every bit Faulkner's equal.

I might be alone in thinking his early writing, particularly his short stories, constitutes his best work. Not that I didn't enjoy his later novels, but they are just a bit too contrived for me. I like him best when he is in Whitman/Farrell mode, railing against the rich and the stupid and the reactionary, and doing it with his heart and soul.

Entrapment- the title comes from Algren's unpublished final novel, a semi-autobiographical work about the love-sick- is already one of my favorite books of the year. One wishes Algren, capable of breaking your heart with a single phrase or sentence, had been able to finish the book. But, as the editors, who have done an exemplary job in putting this collection together, say, it was far too close to the bone. Likewise, I wish he were around today to comment on what was going on in the world. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Friday, August 19, 2016

New York Noir


“Cities are made of desires and fears.”
Italo Calvino


In that not so distant era of mean streets, dangerous dames  and post-war angst, New York was known as the noir capital of the world, containing all the  ingredients- neon lights, gangsters, corrupt city officials, fast-talking newspapermen, lost souls and an avaricious skyline- associated with the genre.  Though the period in which classic film noir flourished lasted only  some fifteen years, it was enough time for the Golem to turn into the flaneur, and for the Thin Man to exist alongside Mike Hammer, Dutch Schultz and The Shadow. This in an era  when New York was still considered the most, rather than the least, American of cities, and when the country, moving from the  politics of the Depression to that of the Cold War, had assumed a position of unprecedented power, accompanied by fears of reds under the bed, the atomic bomb and economic insecurity.  
  
 












                No other city has been as noir as New York. And no other city in film noir is like New York.  It was not only where  the Old World met the New World, but where German Expressionism met hardboiled Hollywood melodrama. Romanticised it might have been, but it’s depiction drew on reality. With its cultural mix and nightlife centered in hotspots like Times Square, 42nd Street and Harlem, Gotham  would be associated with an assortment of conditions specific to the genre, whether paranoia (Phantom Lady), claustrophobia (The Window), agoraphobia (Nightfall),  vertigo (Side Street),  alienation (The Gangster), or despair (Edge of Doom). 

 













So evocative is New York of that era that it was able to push film’s narrative to disastrous conclusions, and even, as in The Naked City,  assume the role of  protagonist. At the same time,  New York noir, for all its features and faults, has never been overly reliant on an all-knowing detective or tough-guy perspective; it’s noir atmosphere has been enough, relating less to a wise-guy  behind the wheel of a car than to the pedestrian left in the hands of fate. Since, in New York the ambler is king, something unfortunate is more than likely to befall that person set in their belief that their assigned role comes with an automatic right-of-way.  No wonder Albert Camus, visiting the Big Apple for th"e first  time  in 1946,  said, “Everybody looks like they’ve stepped out of a B-film.” True,  all New Yorkers appear to be  part of their own low-budget noir narrative, if not guilty of crimes they perhaps have yet to commit. As Jerome Charyn, author of novels featuring New York Jewish cop Issac Siddel, writes in Maria’s Girls (1994), “Psychosis is everywhere, in your armpit, under your shoe...How do you measure a man’s rage? Either we behave like robots, or we kill.”



















As Charyn would maintain, noir New York has long been an immigrant’s city.  Protagonists like John Garfield in Force of Evil, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Farley Granger in Edge of Doom and Richard Conte in Cry of the City  come from specific communities, while petty crook Richard Widmark in Pick Up on South Street and enforcer Robert‡ Ryan in On Dangerous Ground deal with these communities on a daily basis. Yet immigrants were often cosmeticised for the sake of mass consumption. Abe Polansky, a native New Yorker and blacklist victim, would alter the Jewish names in Ira Wolfert’s capitalist-indicting novel, Tucker’s People, on which  Force of Evil is based. While in Gordon Wiles’s 1947 The Gangster, any outward sign of the Jewishness permeating Daniel Fuchs’s Brooklyn-set novel Low Company, from which that film derived, was conveniently exorcised. Blacks were even more peripheral, a rare exception being Wise’s 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow in which Harry Belafonte, the most acceptable African-American in show business, plays a Manhattan nightclub singer who takes part in a small-town bank robbery.  

















Yet it was through multicultural New York that European noir directors  Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Premminger, Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer  travelled  on their way to Hollywood, carrying with them ideas aÂbout old world montage and mise-en-scéne. In turn, New York would  leave  its mark, leading to Big Apple films like  Wilder’s Lost Weekend,  Lang’s Woman in the Window, Siodmak’s Cry of the City and Premminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  And it was during a visit to Manhattan  that Ulmer decamped in Harlem to make  low-budget films about Yiddish and African American life. There he learned enough about American culture to become a Poverty Row pro, directing Detour and Ruthless, both of them partly set in New York. While Lang, after visiting the city for the first time in 1924, was so affected by its skyline that he decided to make Metropolis. A decade later, Jean-Paul Sartre gazed at the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building¥ “pointing vainly toward the sky,” and concluded that “New York is about to acquire a history, that it already has its ruins.”



















These ruins seem like they have always figured in noir images of the melting pot known as New York, the seeds of which were present in narratives like Stephen Crane’s  “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1896),  Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925),  Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), as well as in Weegee’s 1940s street photographs.  Weegee’s work roughly parallels the history of film noir, influencing The Naked City, whose title derives from his 1945 book of New York photographs. Illustrating his relationship to the genre, Weegee would appear in Wise’s The Set Up (1949), a boxing tale in which he plays a ringside timekeeper, and a film that would inspire former Look  photographer Stanley Kubrick when it came to making The Killer’s Kiss (1955). As for the ruins suggested by Weegee and others, their extent and historical significance  would not be  realized for some  years to come. 




















In fact, film noir might never have existed without New York.  After all, film, much less film noir, was born in New York City, where it thrived until World War One. Though New York studio pioneers Zukor, Fox,  Goldwyn, Laemmle, and Mayer, had vacated the city by the late 1940s, the financial backbone of the industry remained in Manhattan. Hollywood backlots might have been three-thousand miles away, but New York noir was still in fashion, which meant studios had to send photographers and production designers across the continent to record sites vso they  could be replicated in Tinseltown. In Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the interior shots of Gotham watering holes like Toots Shor and The Elysian Room were recreated on Stage 8 at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. This, along with the film’s location shots, added to the ambience of Alexander MacKendrick’s savage critique of the world of tabloid journalism. With a script by Clifford Odets which pretty much deconstructs Ernest Lehman’s novella, the film presents a different side of the city from the tenements and working-class neighborhoods depicted in Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949) or John Berry’s He Ran All the Way (1951).  

As suburbanisation became the 1950s norm, the Big Apple pedestrian was  eclipsed by the Sunbelt car owner, quickening the pace if not the pulse of the  narrative. Essential to, but separate from, the rest of the country, New York would become the city middle-America loves to hate, its streets portrayed as darker and more dangerous than they might actually be.  While some believed New York to have  held the promise that was once America, others saw it as a vertical dystopia, not quite American, its height indicating its vulnerability,  and, with citizens living on top of, rather than alongside, one-another, a sign that profits will invariably precede people. 

All this feeds into the city’s noir character, revised in the 1990s by Andrew Vacchs, whose  over-the-top  crime fiction seems to  imply that New York is mostly populated by criminals, muggers, hustlers, psychos, perverts, and, by now, terrorists. But New York noir, particularly since the early 1970s, has long sought to exploit pathology and fear of the other. This is the case in neo-noir films, from Seigel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Winner’s Death Wish (1974) to Scorssese’s After Hours (1985), and derives partly from social classes rubbing shoulders with one another,  not to mention the failure of trickle-down economics, and animosities created as one group replaces another in a given neighborhood. Of course, this also makes New York an ideal setting for narratives regarding disparities, unease, chance encounters  and the vagaries of fate.  

 

















As the years progressed, New York noir would be depicted in ever more paranoid terms. And why not? For its recent past includes not only terrorist attacks, but riots, racial antagonisms, zero tolerance, bankruptcy, gentrification and extreme urban-planning. Consequently, one  can track the fate of New York noir, and New York itself, by following the circumstances of protagonists from the classic era to later  films like The Warriors, Taxi Driver, King of New York, New Jack City or 25th Hour. Or noir fiction, from Cornell Woolrich, author of  narratives like Phantom Lady, The Window and Deadline at Dawn, to Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels; from Wolfert’s Tucker’s People  to Nick Tosches’s Cut Numbers, Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. The classic era may be over, but New York’s relationship to noir remains no less pertinent. With the post-9-11 era assuming ever nastier  proportions, it’s understandable that, in this era of perpetual fear, some will opt  for a more romanticised, if not innocent, view of the city. 

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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

At the End of the Road: Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

It could be argued that Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (NYRB) is one of the most modernist of spy novels. What can't be argued is that there could possibly be another spy novel so saturated in paranoia. Serge was born in poverty in Brussels in 1899 to émigré Russians after fleeing the Czar. He became a political activist and was jailed before arriving  in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. Climbing the hierarchy of the Comintern, he fell foul of Stalin, went to prison, followed by exile from the Soviet Union. Unforgiving Years would be Serge's final novel, destined, as far as he was concerned, for the bottom drawer. And you can see why. It's a dark- perhaps his darkest-  and most extreme book. Paranoid, unrelenting, brutal, poetic, surreal, hallucinatory, the book moves from pre-war Paris to Leningrad under siege to Berlin during the last days of the war to Mexico (this last part reads like a B. Traven story). Serge's translator, Richard Greeman, in his  introduction, suggests that D, the main character, is based not only on Serge himself, but on two others: a defector- in fact, the head of Stalin’s apparatus- Walter Krivitsky, who met with Serge in Paris; and Soviet agent, Ignace Reiss, whose Trotskyism led to his murder by Stalinist agents was he was about to meet  Serge in Switzerland.  Krivitsky would later die in Washington hotel room  under mysterious circumstances.

One might also view  Serge's novel as an antidote to Celine's Long Day's Journey...,  particularly when it comes to the horrors of war. But, of course, Serge's novel delves even further into the shape-shifting psychology of that period.  Translated into English for the first time, Unforgiving Years tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. It's a world in which no one can trust anyone, and circumstances alter personalities and allegiances. No wonder there's so much paranoia. But what's surprising is how much Serge's writing changed over the years. One can only suppose that the war altered the way he viewed the world, and so had to find a form to fit that view. I would also recommend his earlier work, such as  The Case of Comrade Tulayev (reprinted by NYRB as well), about the reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Like Unforgiving Years, it was one of his last books, and another one that Serge never sought  to publish during lifetime. Though, for me, Unforgiving Years is the more impressive of the two. It's the sort of novel that contemporary writers in the genre would die for. After all, Unforgiving Years is the real thing, a view of a world in ruins derived from lived experience. Anyone after a post-apocalyptic novel should start here. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nostalgia For the Future: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

I'm willing to bet James Sallis would appreciate Lavie Tidhar's novels. That is, given, Sallis's fondness for writers who cross genres, influenced by those  sci-fi writers of the past, who, like their hardboiled counterparts, published their work in cheap paperback editions and magazines. Not to mention a fondness for writers who, in saying something different, are laws unto themselves. No doubt about it, Tidhar delights in pushing the envelope labelled contemporary science fiction to the hilt. Almost two years after reading it, I still find myself raving to people about his remarkable His A Man Lies Dreaming (my review of which you can read here). And most recently Central Station, a novel that's appeared in bits and pieces in various magazines over the last few years. Likewise, it's a bit of a  jigsaw puzzle of book that reads like a prose poem based perhaps on some barely recognisable or remembered mythology. Perhaps something along the lines of  a 21st century version of Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human crossed with Tanith Lee poetic-realism. Based on the four Tidhar novels I've read over the past couple years, his work seems to get better and better. And even though I've come to expect a certain range and unexpectedness, Central Station was still full of surprises. But, then, that's been the case since his 2011 novel Osama (I've yet to read his daunting but no doubt readable steampunk trilogy The Bookman Histories), the title alone demonstrating the author's willingness  to go places  few others would dare. One gets the feeling that Tidhar, who grew up on a socialist kibbutz in Israel, followed by long spells in South Africa and elsewhere before ending up in London where he now resides, couldn't be dull if he tried.

Actually, Tidhar's London connection is relevant when it comes to Central Station. Because in many ways, the novel is radical enough to be a kind of throwback to those sci-fi outlaws editing and  edited and contributing to the London-based New Worlds back in the 1960s. That is, writing with one foot in the future and another in the present. In Tidhar's case, he accomplishes this through a  narrative that revolves around a small set of people living in a future city situated between Tel Aviv and Jaffa where virtual reality pretty much the reality.

"[That] vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. It happened amidst the arches and the cobblestones, a stone-throw from the sea; you could still smell the salt and the tar in the air, and watch, at sunrise, the swoop and turn of solar kites and their winged surfers in the air."

Just as contemporary populations have gravitated  towards urban centres, or, more recently, European safe harbours, so those in Tidhar's novel have gravitated towards Central Station, living in its shadow, presumably for purposes of protection, communication, access and survival. It's also where all travel emanates from. At the same time, the surrounding bazaar-like streets remain old-world in appearance and atmosphere. Though a country unevenly divided between those with the data and those without, it is, nevertheless, a multinational, cross-cultural society-  Chinese, Israelis, Africans, Vietnamese, Somalians, Thais, Arabs, and other aliens jostle side-by-side. It's a world in which children are made as much as born, products of cowboy genetic engineering. Where distant wars, to whatever degree forgotten,  constitute part of everyone's DNA. Where ex-soldiers dispense mind altering drugs and children communicate with the touch of a finger. And where the population is, for the most part, linked by node implants and the super-internet-like Conversation. Into this diverse, inter-related and claustrophobic mix, Tidhar throws a data-vampire infected by the Nosferatu Code who sucks memory from her victims instead of blood; an African book dealer who loves the vampire almost as much as does pulp paperback fiction; the owner of a Shebeen, whose adopted son- his actual mother having succumbed to an ailment, perhaps culturally-induced, called Crucifixation- exudes strange powers;  a god artist who, in between creating deities out of thin air, performs cicumcisions; a robot priest; a rag and bone man called The Lord of Discarded Things; and  a doctor who oversees births and has daddy problems, who returns to Central Station from Mars, pursued by the vampire, discovers his father has a dementia-like mind plague.

As with A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar has created a poetic, dream-like, even nostalgic, world that, however foreign, is all too imaginable. Which might well be the hallmark of any good science fiction story. Beneath it all Central Station yearns for a place that once was, or maybe never was save for someplace deep within the author imagination... And like a disturbing and complicated dream, it's a novel that, like A Man Lies Dreaming, will haunt any appreciative reader long after he or she has turned its final page.  

"Once it had all been orange groves... he remembered thinking that, as he went out of the doors of Central Station, on his arrival, back on Earth, the gravity confusing and uncomfortable, into the hot and humid air outside. Standing under the eaves, he breathed in deeply, gravity pulled him down but he didn't care. It smelled just like he remembered, and the oranges, vanished or not, were still there, the famed Jaffa oranges that grew here when all this, not Tel Aviv, not Central Station, existed, when it was all orange groves, and sand, and sea..." http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Monday, June 20, 2016

Where the Past Is Buried: Willnot by James Sallis

It doesn't take much to make me want to devour any James Sallis novel that might come my way.  And Willnot, his latest, certainly does not make me want to alter that opinion. So what that, even for a Sallis novel, it's farther away than ever from what one normally thinks of as crime fiction. That's okay with me. After all, we live in a criminal culture, so anything that exposes that fact or digs into the culture, constitutes, as far as I'm concerned, crime fiction. On the other hand, Sallis has always used crime fiction, as any writer of his calibre might, to talk about other things- finding one's place in the world, how we seek some kind of community despite feelings of estrangement, finding solace in literature, music and relationships, no matter how transitory those things might be.

And Willnot is yet another Sallis title that, like Drive/Driven, suggests a grammatical pun, if not parsing. Here it's not just present and past that matter, but a contraction that goes right to the  heart of domesticity. But let's not be too hasty or silly in calling the book and town it's named after Won't, even if that contraction expresses the condensed small-town reality, the obstreperousness and marginality of those living in what appears to be such a convivial atmosphere.  It's in this town in some unnamed state that  Dr Lamar Hale and his partner Richard, a schoolteacher, reside. The book, sprinkled, as often the case, with references to Sallis's favourite  sci-fi writers and hardboiled writers, opens with Lamar called out to deliver his verdict on a grave uncovered on the outskirts of town containing several bodies. At any rate, that's simply the hook on which Sallis hangs his novel, and not the commencement of some tough-guy crime narrative. But, all the same, prescient, not only about what's to come, but the fact that this is a novel about what lies just beneath the surface- whether a grave or history itself- and how everything impinges on everything else. As for Lamar, what better investigator than a doctor; that is if  one's intention is to investigate the human condition and that thin ice that separates  past and present, life and death, sickness and health, fact and fiction. With a license to speculate as well as to cure,  a doctor here is the ideal substitute for the perceptive private eye now so familiar to readers that, exceptional circumstances aside, one  winces whenever they appear on the scene.

And a word must be said about the way Sallis  treats Lamar and Richard's relationship. Which he does this with  a  matter-of-factness befitting the era we live in, and  a casual humanity that reminded me of the way the late Kent Haruf treats his characters in novels like Plainsong and Eventide.  At other times, Willnot's wit comes across as  a stripped-down, albeit more meditative, version of one of Andrew Coburn suburban noir novels like Voices in the Dark or No Way Home. And like Haruf's Holt, Colorado, or Coburn's Bensington, Massachusetts, Sallis's Willnot is not quite the idyllic place it appears to be. Yes, it's a place that attracts odd but decent people in search of tranquility, community and small town life. But, like any place else, it too is  affected by outside events and circumstances, be it war, austerity, malaise, or the whims and crimes of others. Still, anyone who stops off in Willnot, whether house hunter or female FBI agent, can't help but be affected by the town's somewhat dated ethos.

Willnot is, in fact, an extraordinary book, not just about place, but the interaction between past, present and future. So one moves lightly over a terrain that includes those graves, pulp sci-fi books published by Lamar's father (in a twist on the usual parent-child relationship, Lamar's dad is disappointed when his son announces that he wants to be a doctor rather than a writer), and the past,  including a study of early American utopian communities by Richard's  twelve year-old student. At the centre of it all, smack in the present- though he does have penchant for meandering  through his past- is Lamar, dispensing information, making diagnoses, performing minor operations and writing prescriptions, while Richard performs teacherly tasks, while joking in the face of a world rapidly melting around him. Meanwhile, a veteran of the Iraq or Afghan war, whom Lamar once took under his wing some years before, returns, bringing the war with him.  As customary in a Sallis novel, there are various casualties and any number  of aphorisms pointing the way, perhaps the most fitting being one not included, Gramsci's The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions without becoming disillusioned.  This might be one of the saddest of Sallis's novels. But, in its recognition of the fragility of everyday life, it also just might be one of his most humane. And maybe one of his best. As the narrator says, "Going on is what it's all about."

(a version of this review can be found at the Crime Time website) http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Friday, May 20, 2016

The First Novel Is Poetry...: Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg; Gravesend by William Boyle



Ever wonder how Megan Abbott's precocious teenagers turn out? You can catch a glimpse of one or two in Sunset City, a first-person narrative by poet Melissa Ginsburg.  Set in Houston, the novel centres on Charlotte, a barista, whose life is turned upside-down when she is told by a handsome cop that her  childhood friend, Danielle, has been brutally murdered. Both Charlotte and Danielle come from dysfunctional families. Charlotte having grown up in an apartment with a ill, often drug-addled single mother, Danielle with a wealthy, self-obsessed, single mother. Since then they have more or less gone their separate ways, Danielle having served time for drugs, then acting in porn films, Charlotte still dependent on others, casually consuming drugs, going with he flow, and not sure the degree to which she is being used by others. After Danielle's death, Charlotte buddies up with Danielle's best friend, and others in her circle, her life, despite the intervention of the cop investigating the case, spinning out of control. Charlotte might be in her early to midt-wenties, but this is still a coming-of-age novel, and filled with some excellent passages and descriptions. Such as the following:
"I thought about the dust-on top of the fridge, and other dust that I couldn't see-fan blades, window frames. I imagined I could hear it gathering, a tiny army collecting in troops. When my mom was alive the house was always dusty, a mess everywhere, especially around her favourite chair. On bad days she might accidentally knock over a glass of Diet Coke and not even clean it up. Right now I could relate."
Compulsive reading for sure- think Megan Abbott crossed with Sara Gran,  I still found myself wanting Ginsburg to delve even deeper into her characters and subject matter. I kept thinking- and perhaps this is unfair- how the late noir poet Lynda Hull might have handled Ginsburg's characters and subject matter. But that's a minor criticism, because this is an excellent first novel written with a poet's eye.
                                     

Even grittier and more evocative of place is William Boyle's Gravesend. It's the sort of book that one might find buried beneath the rubble of an early Springsteen song. In inhabiting that working-class terrain situated between Selby and Pelecanos, Gravesend is a street-level portrait of suburban Brooklyn working class, Italian-Catholic life in an increasingly homogenised world. There are at least three interweaving stories here. One belongs to Alessandra, having recently returned from Los Angeles, where she'd been pursuing an acting career, to look after her father; another belonging to Conway, also caring for his father while trying desperately seeking revenge on Ray Boy, the man who some years and a prison sentence earlier, had caused his brother's death; and the third belong to troubled teenager Eugene, Billy Ray Boy's nephew, who looks to his uncle as a role model while trying to make his mark on the world. Every bit as poetic as Sunset City, Gravesend conveys character and place as well as most seasoned writers, and with a fresh, heart-wrenching reality.
"After hanging up, she just stared at herself, feeling like she'd run her life far off the rails and wondering if she should just wallow in the mess at the bottom of things. Drink every day at The Wrong Number. Say to hell with work. Become one of these neighbourhood ghosts, old allies in wrinkled black clothes that just skeleton around on feet like broken shopping cart wheels. When it got real bad, she could just dig in trash bins for bottles like the old Chinese, haul them down to Waldbaum's for drinking money, live int his house until her father died and they took it away from her and then she could go to a home, the one over on Cropsey, where she'd wear Salvation Army clothes and lose her hair and teeth in the sink. An actress? Forget it. Once maybe, in another city and another time. Just wispy bones and yellowing skin now. The old boozer that kids throw rocks at for kicks."
These are both first novels, and reading them made me wonder if it's true that a novelist- particularly a writer of noir fiction- writes his or her first book in a kind of fevered dream that resembles, and sometimes is, poetry, followed by books inevitably written with a more conscious and prosaic eye.  I hope not, because it's the former that I like when I read noir fiction and which both these books so ably demonstrate. Needless to say,  I'm looking forward to reading what comes next. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Writing Life: Blood, Bone and Marrow- A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner

Harry Crews has long been one of my favourite writers. He's also one of the few writers whose books I've, over the years, avidly collected. I count myself fortunate in having spoken to him on a few occasions, if only by telephone.  One time was for a Guardian  article, which, for some reason, the paper decided not to publish. The other occasion was about a screenplay I'd written for The Knockout Artist. Despite his reputation, he was generous with his time, and, according to my wife who answered one of his calls,ever the gentleman. I had wanted to know about the status of The Knockout Artist, and if Sean Penn still had the option on the book. He told me Sean Penn would  come up with a workable screenplay for his novel. "The trouble with Sean," he said, "is he can't write." Now I learn from Ted Gleaner's excellent and readable biography published by University of Georgia Press, exactly what Crews meant by that statement. Because, according to Geltner, Penn's screenplay ran to an incredible 800 pages. No wonder he never made any progress with the film. As for my 110 page screenplay,  it  still sits in a desk drawer, waiting for someone to read it.

 Of course, there are many stories about Crews, not many of them all that flattering.  Not that Geltner shies away from detailing them. He also details Crews' early brushes with death, which most readers will know about from Crews's incredible autobiography of his early years, A Childhood. No matter how disreputable Crews's behaviour- the drugs and alcohol abuse, the physical and verbal confrontations, etc.- he was still able to churn out one excellent novel after another, mostly about outsiders and freaks. After all, that was how Crews viewed himself. Like his novels or personal behaviour or not, Crews, who learned his craft from rewriting Graham Greene's Heart of the Matter but is more likely to be compared to Flannery O'Connor, lived to write and wrote to live. Granted, the quality of his books tended to tail off somewhat, becoming slightly cartoonish, towards the end of his writing career. But even the likes of Mulching of America is a delight to read and no Crews fan would want to pass it by. And his journalism never failed to be interesting. Some say- I'm not one of them- that he was at his best when writing for one up-market magazine or another. And he could be, as Michael Connelly in his introduction, suggests, an inspiring teacher. This is a warts and all portrayal that will  interest any dedicated reader of Crews's fiction and non-fiction. It also adds to Crews's autobiography of his early life. With interviews with all the relevant parties, and straight forward prose, this is probably as thorough a biography as one can expect about this eccentric, self-destructive, but excellent, even Swiftian, writer, who, in novels like The Knockout Artist, Scar, The Gospel Singer, Scar Lover, Car, The Hawk Is Dying, delved as deep as anyone into the heart of America.

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Inside the Outside/Outside the Inside: Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney, Poetical Works 1999-2015 by Keston Sutherland


When it comes to testing the poetic space squeezed between Tom Raworth and Jeremy Prynne, Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland must be ranked amongst the most adept, not to say amongst the most interesting. In negotiating that terrain, they don't exactly shy away from exposing their individual styles, defined not only by their limitations but what the contours of their work allows. This they do from different perspectives, addressing, for one, the political world at a personal level, and, for the other, the personal world at a political level, yet without sacrificing anything so obvious as poetic content.

Insistently, even obsessively, political, Sean Bonney, on the basis of this superb collection, seems to move within the crevices of a public language, on the inside of the outside, while discoursing on the immediate, particularly when it comes tocivil insurrection, present and past. To do this he references poetic responses (Baraka, Henderson, Sanchez, etc.) and music (Cecil Taylor, Coltrane, etc.) accompanying the black uprisings of the 1960s, but also back to the likes of Rimbaud. Written with a sense of urgency, these poems respond to recent British history, whether the riots in the recent past, the police shooting of Mark Duggan, or the corruptions of the current Tory government, whether David Cameron ("The songs of heaven, the secrets of history, the kidnap and murder of David Cameron. Steal away.), George Osborne ("his little mouth moving at unpleasant angles") and Iain Duncan Smith ("that talking claw"). Though here Bonney's preferred mode is the mock-letter, his poetics delineated not so much by stanza, line and image but by paragraph and page.

"Memories. It was like we were a blister on the law. Inmates. 
Fancy-dress jacobins. Jesters. And yes. Every since one of us 
was well aware that we hadn't won anything, that her legacy 
'still lived on.' and whatever other sanctimonious spittle was 
being coughed up by liberal shitheads in the Guardian and 
on Facebook. That wasn't the point. It was horrible. 
Deliberately so. Like the plague-feast in Nosferatu. 
I loved it. I had two bottles of champagne, a handful 
of pills and a massive cigar, it was great..."
                                         (Bonney, Letter Against Ritual)

Not that he neglects the more customary form. Taken together, it all goes to further his inquiry, which he clarifies at the start: "the possibility of a poetry that only the enemy could understand." Though concentrating his anarchist ax on the likes of  Teresa May ("remember Teresa May, that guillotine/Unemployed families were slaughtered/remember Teresa driving through London in crackling human Tar/about legal channels, hot pink and petrol flare"), he lets no-one off the hook, not least New Labour.
"I bet she did I bet she
 got up & performed his ambitions
 my malevolent shine
 gonna build me a log cabin
 night of the living dead
 jokes about gordon brown
 something called the english democrats
 on fire..."
                    (Bonney, Set One, The Commons)

Of course, Bonney isn't so gauche as to make false claims about political poetry changing the world. Rather,  he  seeks "an absolute distribution of the senses." Revising Rimbaud as revolutionary, his Season In Hell writing in tandem with the Paris Commune, and "I is an other" a call to collectivity, not to mention ammunition when confronting neo-liberal austerity:  "Poetry is stupid, but then again, stupidity is not the absence of intellectual ability but rather the scar of its mutilation." In an era of corruption and criminality, Bonney demands the right to make essential poetic statements, filled with not only rage but humour.

The more mid-Atlantic Keston Sutherland,  no less political, takes a different route in his articulation of a politics not dissimilar to Bonney's. More responder than proclaimer, Sutherland, unlike Bonney, prefers deploying a private language to express public concerns, working  on the outside of the inside, shifting between the personal and the political. Yet his work, such as when addressing  the war on terror, contains images from the world of porn, fast food and haute cuisine. While his odes to white goods convey the world in metallic form, implying that commodity fetishism might just be another form of torture, and torture remains the most blatant expression of the free market.


"This is the honest account of the passion of Ali Whoever, read it
 deep in the words, general Vampire, fashioning from this trance
 in metal colours an idiot life to blank, taking the time that
 declines to rhyme in synchrony with yours conscious forever
 of limits and where in the end they lie, general jurisprudent,
 the limits to meaning and power, and as innumerable stresses rise
 in a pyramid of lyric ash and flame, keep your eyes out."
                                                 Sutherland, Stress Position

Sutherland opts for articulating his concerns in the form of  verbal onslaughts, semi-torturing the reader with their unrelenting linguistic fury. Sometimes pornographic, brutal, manic, demanding, manic, even lyrical and often humourous, he prefers to focus on the body as it intersects with the machine. The result is a series of  poetic interventions more often than not scatological, but constituting a potent weapon never more than a linguistic cluster away from the abyss. However, it's his Odes to TL61P- the product ordering code for an obsolete Hotpoint washer-dryer- that represent Sutherland at this most effective, if only because it was the first work by Sutherland I happened to come across.

"Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
  and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
  in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
  hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
  grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer..."

Bonney might be more direct and the less satirical, but Sutherland loves to shift gears on the page, tweaking divergencies with an abandonment bordering, if it were not for sheer pleasure of his attack, on the megalomaniacal. While Sutherland creates an intricate and ingenious framework of false equivalencies, structures which, despite their penetrative nature, work to obscure a familiar form of address, Bonney prefers to put the reader, as well as the culture on trial.

"obviously they read books in hell:
 they are passionate and scared,
 intersected at bitter angles /
 the British anarchist movement
 its scales and documents
 splintered under a false full moon"
                                        Bonney, Set One

"In 1983, over 13,000 workers'  compensation claims
 to Erato I stutter this bloodless anathema
 a veto on forklifts'  trussed talons in face scrub
 tossed out of the world
 of which you were actively sick,
 waxing anaemic, brandishing fire-hose,
 social with anxiety but actually sick."
                                  Sutherland, The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts

Together these two poets represent opposite sides of a poetic coin, whose value is non-negotiable, but legal tender when it comes to poetry as an extreme sport, whose currency demands redistribution, one according to need rather than means, the other according to the weight of the word. While Sutherland might cloak the plainly political in the clothing of aesthetic sensibility, if not distance, beneath that cloak lurks a dagger of lethal shape and sharpness. Bonney, on the other hand, feigns dispensing with  the cloak, though never completely abandons that apparel.

"Our money is where your mouth is, clammy as that
 strict blip of successive exit holes, into the light over
 which is dubbed the light in filth-blistered orthognathic 2D flying
 elf neon crossbar 261. To buy it if you see
 what we mean is to see by it: nothing matters more
 any time, just kick back / any time, in moccasins..."
                                           Sutherland, Roger Ailes

"I've been getting up early every morning, opening the curtains and
 going back to bed. There have been rumours of anti-unemployed
 hit squads going around, and I don't want some fucker with a
payslip lobbing things through my window. Especially not when when
I'm asleep. Though I don't expect to be able to fool them for long -
my recent research involves an intense study of certain individual
notes played on Cecil Taylor's 1966 album Unit Structures..."
                                           Bonney, Letter On Work and Harmony

Whether by appearance, linguistic material and juxtaposition, line of attack or implication, these poems have their roots not only in the Cambridge school but in the  debates from some six decades back in the publication The British Intelligencer, which briefly appeared in the mid to late 1960s, centred around the likes of Crozier, Peter Riley, Prynne, John James, etc..  Discussions that, amongst other matters, focused on the fact that aesthetics are invariably as political as they are verbal. To their credit,  Bonney and Sutherland update  the parameters of that discourse, taking it to its most use-oriented point. While dealing with current use and abuse, whether eulogizing a machine or destroying a decaying body politic, both tend towards the justified block, rhythmic in the extreme, influenced by music, as the body moves through a thick mire of repressive politics. This is how such murkiness will be negotiated. Their differing line breaks, even when inhabiting familiar territory, become, in that context, irrelevant, because the impact is so sharp, so similar and so engaging, at least to anyone who might still content that aesthetics (the poem) and ethics (the politics) are, or should be, one and the same.



For a detailed history and discussion of the extremely important if short-lived British Intelligencer, see Alex Latter's Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer, published by Bloomsbury, and Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer, ed by Reitha Pattison and Luke Roberts, published by Mountain. The latter is an anthology of BI prose, while the former is more a historical analysis of the publication.

And here you can watch Bonney and Sutherland participate in an over-lapping reading:




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