Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dreams From Bunker Hill: on Robin Robertson's The Long Take

THERE HAS BEEN, for some years now, a special relationship between writers of hardboiled noir fiction and poets. Noirists as diverse as Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Hayes, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Charles Willeford were also poets of some repute. Even Raymond Chandler, the master of off-the-wall hardboiled similes, published verses in The Westminster Gazette decades before his first crime story appeared in Black Mask. Presently, Stephen Dobyns, John Harvey, and Jim Nisbet move between the two types of writing with apparent ease. Perhaps not so accomplished were hardboiled efforts by poets Jack Spicer and Richard Hugo. Then there are those whose poetry contains noirish elements, from Weldon Kees, Charles Reznikoff, John Wieners, and Charles Bukowski, to Summer Brenner, Lynda Hull, Frank Stanford, and William Logan.
To make sense of the relationship, 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 Duhamel’s Série Noire:
Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. 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.
All of which isn’t far removed from William Carlos Williams’s imagist declaration, “No ideas but in things,” or André Breton’s insistence that surrealism is based on “the fundamental crisis of the object.” Like modern lyric poetry, noir favors minimalism, a quality we see in Dashiell Hammett and, to an even higher degree, in Paul Cain. Their technique is cinematic in nature, fusing precise perceptions into suspenseful narratives, sharpening the reader’s focus on details, as does poetry.
Scottish poet Robin Robertson is the latest in this line of generic bedfellows. His contribution is a book-length narrative poem that examines the relationship between a specific historical period and film noir. On the inner jacket, his publisher describes The Long Take (2018) as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” And indeed, although The Long Take is definitely a poem, I can’t think of anything quite like it. There is, of course, Kevin Young’s recent Black Maria (2005), and back in 1928 we had Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, adapted into films by Robert Wise and James Ivory respectively. But The Long Take, set mostly in and around Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill from 1946 to 1957, and subtitled “A Way to Lose More Slowly,” is considerably more modern, complex, political, and, though cinematic, probably less filmable than March’s narratives. It’s also more sustained and situated in the real world than Young’s excellent episodic endeavor. 
(The remainder of the review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books
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