Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Arcana- A Stephen Jonas Reader

Too bad critics like Donald Phelps, Gilbert Sorrentino, Guy Davenport or, for that matter, William Corbett aren't around to write about Arcana- A Stephen Jonas Reader. All no doubt would have revelled in writing about Jonas and the subterranean world he precariously inhabited. Ever the poete maudit, Jonas would emerge seemingly from nowhere to play an integral role in the 1950s Boston poetry scene. And it would be no understatement to say that he was one of the most important mid-20th century poets to not be included in Don Allen's ground-breaking New American Poetry anthology. Arcana is ample evidence of what many readers have, over the years, missed out on. It brings together work, published and unpublished, including large sections from two collections, Orgasms/Dominations and Exercises for Ear- titles that reflect their poems which can move in a flash from in-your-face to subtle- and individual poems that originally appeared in small  magazines of the 1950s and 1960s like Measure, Origin, Floating Bear, Yugen and Caterpillar.

The two collections and individual poems differ in content and approach. Likewise accounts of Jonas' life. A gay African-American, Jonas (1921-1970) seemed to be  an enigma even to those who knew him. A man of various institutions- not academic, but military, penal and mental- Jonas could be described as the link connecting Pound and Olson to John Wieners  Joe Dunn, Robin Blaser and, when it comes to the deployment of the serial poem, Jack Spicer.  Spicer would acknowledge Jonas by basing his character Washington Jones in his detective novel Tower of Babel  at least partly on Jonas. Furthermore, according to Blaser as quoted in Ellingham and Killiam's Poet Be Like God, Spicer would dedicate his "translation" of Lorca's Ode to Walt Whitman to Jonas because it was "Steve who taught me to use anger (as opposed to angry irony) in a poem."An autodidact and man who inhabited the margins of the culture, Jonas was, on the one hand, well-versed in the classics, and, on the other, au courant with the language of the street. Above all, he was a jazz poet, with  various  references to musicians like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, and a finely tuned ear that depended on precise timing and a be-bop control of both line and attack.

                            "....not so much for receiving
                   stolen goods
                                      as for placing the junk
                                                                            dead as the world
                  before the senses
 In such times
                     one is put upon within
 You know how we squeeze today
                                                       for meaning
  the few words we have left to us
  Here in a word is the sea before me
                         but the sea cannot be squeezed
  So I sit as close to it as close as safe
  The sea speaks if speech be sound
                        but speech is not sound
                                                                      so turn for meaning
   to the Poem..." 

I can't recall when I first  read Jonas- sometime in the late 1960s. Perhaps it was  then or later that I came  across the Ferry Press'  Transmutations, followed a few decades later by  Jonas' Selected Writings (1994). The latter was, for me, something like an incendiary device, almost too explosive to handle. Just a cursory look was enough to let me know that here was someone who had taken on board Pound's crankiness, a Black Mountain lyrical quality, and  Spicer and Duncan's obsessive pursuit of the occult, all of which articulated in his own  version of Olson's Projective Verse dictated by breath and the notion, now something of a cliché, that "polis is eyes." With  references, on one hand, to Greek myths, and, on the other, to street level  prostitutes, gay hustlers, petty thieves or junkies, Jonas' poetry sounded  like it could have come straight out of the pages of a book like Genet's Thieves' Journal.

"Spain is located somewhere between Polk Street & Laguna Beach/
                as you cross the Oakland Bridge into Portugal/
 Oh, that Spicer/
                            he was a flamenco, that one/
                                                              for wld save America from
             the abuses of rime. Like Lorca (our Fedy) was 'gipsified.'
  Heard 'Bird's' playing & for three years
                        didn't know the taste of meat. sd. he didn't know
    music had attained to it. A tear & one blue note upon yr brow..."

One can be forgiven for thinking that, for Jonas' work, the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. But any close examination will reveal that the parts are more than resilient and equal to the task, capable of standing on their own. The determining feature being Jonas' use of space, margins, parenthetical enclosures, line breaks and the exploration of breath and rhythms that power the poem, making him sound like the most cultured of that era's hard-boppers. Particularly in Exercises for Ear, the fragments of which display a hip intensity informed by an eye and ear that's never less than accurate, and lines that are seem like nuanced objects, existing somewhere between anger, observation and a sly sense of humour. Forget schools of poetry, what it all comes down to is the eye, the ear, how one views the world, and the manner in which that view reaches into every crevice of the poem.

Although Jonas had advocates such as Gerrit Lansing, he would in his lifetime never receive  the recognition he deserved. Published, yes, but, until recently, rarely written about. The exceptions being Lansing's Preface to Exercises for Ear, Torra's introduction to the Selected Poems, Garrett Caples' interview with David Rich, and the late critic, poet and translator David Rattray's 1991 essay  "Lightning Over the Treasury," that would appear in his How I Became One of the Invisible (Semiotexte).  Though it should be said that  Rattray's essay focuses less on Jonas' poetry than on his eccentricities, as he, Rattray and others tried to negotiate a world in which  drug taking, all night conversations and cultural circumlocutions were the currency of a close knit group of marginal figures.

"the set-up of a poem
           may not always please
the eye;
          but the ear can be
      conducted along
             surprising causeways
where the hither-to un-
             (one might even venture un-
                  comes in-
                                  to prominence."
                                        (Exercises for Ear LXIV)

All of which makes the publication of Arcana is not only welcome but long overdue. And City Lights has to be commended for getting Jonas' work out there.  Likewise, the book's editors Garrett Caples, Derek Fenner, David Rich and Joseph Torra.  Their introductory remarks and postscript have managed to not only gumshoe Jonas' life- a noir existence by any definition of the term- but to place his poetry in a historical context.

Of course,  Jonas, like many a poete maudit,  had personal problems. These no doubt fed into the occasional off-the-wall sentiment- though none worse than Spicer's anti-semitic diatribe, or Pound's WW2 rants- not to mention run-ins with the law. But Jonas was never one to take an easy turn, much less turn-of-phrase, or allow himself or his  poetry to become an object of public consumption. Strip away some of the excess and what is left is a beauty and sense of being in the world that runs deep.  As  I mentioned elsewhere, no matter good you might have thought Jonas was, read this volume and you'll discover he was even better. One hopes Arcana will succeed in placing Jonas' work before a wider  poetry reading public.

     "i have come to
chew up yr language

to make more palatable
the L's & collaterals

               (at the service
                        (CVIII, Exercises for Ear)

You can hear Stephen Jonas reading (from around 19 minutes) in Joseph Torra's excellent talk on Jonas.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: On Dangerous Ground (1952), Out of the Past (1947)

On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

Why do you punks make me do it
growls the cop as he beats the shit 
out of a pathetic street hood. As if
the same old same old, aggressor
blaming victim, perking watch and
wonder. Law and order cracking as
inevitable as the saturated light, an
apartment filled with testosteronised
artifacts: what once was, will never
be. Violence, as always, feeding the
conundrum. If only it wasn't so addictive,
or family of last resort. A jones exiling
him to a sparsely populated snow-
ridden town, viewed- a movie within
a movie- through a windscreen, the
schtumed backseat viewer cachéd
in their own private critique, bleached
out by the death of a young girl at the
hands of a teenager barely knowing
better. With darkness bleeding into
domesticity, a match is lit for unblinking
eyes, and a wounded plea to locate
her brother before revenge can freeze
his tracks. Frightened, the kid invariably
slips from higher ground, recycling a
geology of clichés, footnotes in an 
expurgated history of crime and 
punishment. Fifty years on, the screen-
writer, blagging in his local coffee shop,
tells a redacted story: how he'd simply
wanted the cop to return to the city a
different person. But the studio’s arc was
non-negotiable. After all, the politics of
money dictates that only a miracle can
suffice. A capitulation, however generous,
not quite more than barely nothing at all.

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

It’s all about that hat, and the
light, Acapulco golden, straight
outta the sun, fat man staring,
one last cramped tete-a-tete
with Mitchum. Throwing down
mis-coined phrases: like it's a
small world or a big sign for a
dame with a rod or a guy with 
a knitting needle. They say no
one is all bad, but she comes
close. serial betrayer. Who
never claimed to be anything
other than herself. Gallows
steadfastly high. That's how it
works if it works at all. She
walks into a bar and finds you
there, not even capable of
hatred. Dream on, have another
Cuba Libre on me. You know,
like one for the road that never
ends, that is until suddenly it does.
Double-murderer, sans chapeau, 
dressing as a nun, pretending
she has the Big Guy on her side.
But isn't it true that it's always
the psychopath who take charge.
Machine-gun hidden behind 
tree, cash on the floor, blood on
the wheel. And simpering Ann
now free to marry her childhood
Rotarian. Mitch aside,  it can 
only be a losing battle, with
everyone no one in disguise.

Friday, March 22, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: Night and the City (1950), Nightmare Alley (1947)

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

Warning: when blacklisted, better to become an export,
like a bottled beer. With a never-to-be-read novel tucked
under your belt. The point being there was no point.
The shadows, all too familiar. Urban sleaze slicing up
a foreign landscape where it's always night and the city
is still the city.  This time a depleted London, where Dassin
is sent to recoup Zanuck's frozen profits. Shooting fast,
the most expensive scenes first, to keep the studio “on
the hook.” Harry Fabian, whether unlikeable corrupter 
or fast-talking wide-boy,  traipses through dark alleyways
and pocked bomb sites. There's rationing for everyone
save those who would follow the money. Kersh’s novel
bought, still unread, by Charles Feldman for $45,000, 
then selling book and script to Zanuck for $175,000. 
A tasty return, but, hey, turnarounds are what Hollywood's
all about. So long as one can milk the dregs: in this case,
Fabian, the Silver Fox and wrestling, punctuated by
dawn-and-dusk photography,  and a litany of geo-exotica:
Soho’s Richmond Buildings, St Martin’s Lane and in-the-Field, 
Waterloo Bridge, the Shot Tower, St Paul’s, Charing Cross
Road, Trafalgar Square, County Hall, Leicester Square’s
Cafe Anglais, and Hammersmith Bridge, where, a half-hour
of light, Dassin, using six cameras, completed twenty-two
shots in eighteen minutes.True to its title, though more
so had anyone been interested enough to read the novel.

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

Forget the reprobates, crawling parasites and fallen angels
who some say have flown too close to the ground. Only to
lose yourself amongst their wounded ilk: barkers, freaks,
dodgy mind-readers and cross-dressing shrinks. Each with
a sideshow of their own. No way out, other than to turn into
some ill-fated geek, down on his luck, his cage littered with
bottles of rot-gut, sleepless nights spent howling at the moon.
Gresham first heard about such creatures from Doc Faraday,
an ex-carny, who, like Gresham, had thrown in his lot with
the Lincoln Brigade. “I can’t understand how a man can get
that low,” says Stanton, as he takes another wrong road to
 nowhere, reading the signs but never their significance.
How easy to fall, in an era before euphemisms became a
language spoken beyond the beyond. Back when cops still
smiled as their truncheons split skulls, owned or borrowed
by the discontented or dispossessed. So basic the desire for 
world of one's own. Can he hack geekdom? “I was born to
it,” Stanton declares. Words inked at the Dixie Hotel, Coney
Island, the missus in the arms of some high church author.
No passaran, though the darkness surrounds us, but no god-
damn big car for the effort. The rope breaks, but eventually
he's just  another suicide statistic. As for Goulding, paranoid
the blacklist would come knocking, his peccadilloes revealed,
a studio mark, who would never again walk that razor's edge.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Philly and South Jersey Gothic: On Jay A. Gertzman's Pulp According to David Goodis

Hard-boiled noir fiction has produced more than its share of cult writers, but pulp novelist and periodically successful Hollywood screenwriter David Goodis is in a league of his own. His status, first nurtured in France through Gallimard's Série Noire imprint, has grown steadily since Francois Truffaut;s film Tirez fur le pianiste, based on Goodis's novel Down There (1956), was released in 1960. That book would be reprinted in the United States a few years later by Grove Press, retitled, to capitalize on the film, Shoot the Piano Player (1962). What success the latter garnered no doubt had less to do with Goodis's name and reputation than with Truffaut's, though Henry Miller's blurb gracing its cover might have given the reprint added heft. Yet even before Down There's initial publication as a Gold Medal paperback in 1956, Goodis had some 14 novels under his belt, including classics like Dark Passage (1946), adapted for the screen by Delmer Daves in 1947; Nightfall (1947), adapted by Stirling Silliphant for Jacques Tourneur in 1957; and The Burglar (1953), filmed by Paul Wendkos in 1957 from a screenplay- his most accomplished- by Goodis himself.

The publication of Philippe Garnier's groundbreaking Goodis, la vie en noir et blanc in France in 1984 went some way toward confirming Goodis's status as a cult writer. Nine years later, James Sallis's Difficult Lives (1993) placed Goodis in a select pantheon alongside two other cult noir writers, Jim Thompson and Chester Himes.  Goodis would also feature heavily in two of my own books, Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (2002). The last three volumes all owe a debt to Garnier's investigative work, which turned up a number of people who had been close to Goodis throughout his truly troubled life.

(You can click here to read the review in its entirety on the L.A. Review of Books website.)

Friday, March 01, 2019

Finally: Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick's The Blues Come to Texas

It seems like I've been hearing about this book for ever. The Blues Came to Texas was, and is, intended as a definitive history of Texas blues.  It was first  conceived way back in 1959 at a time when blues scholarship was still in its infancy, by two of the most renown blues scholars Paul Oliver, author of, amongst many other books Blues Fell This Morning and Songsters and Saints, and Mack McCormick, "discoverer" of Mance Lipscomb and Lighnin' Hopkins, also known for his research on Robert Johnson and, for legal reasons, perhaps the most infamous blues research project, on Johnson entitled The Biography of a Phantom, never to see the light of day. For various reasons- health problems, mistrust and the difficulties of transatlantic communication in a pre-internet era- the book has languished in literary limbo ever since 1977. Thanks to Texas A&M University, the project is now available, thanks to researcher, photographer and film-maker Alan Govenar who, after conferring with Oliver during the last years of the latter's life. revived the project. Urged on by the likes of  Tony Russell and Arhoolie's Chris Strachwitz, Govenar, in turn, brought on board the noted musicologist Kip Lornell to assist him in putting together the final manuscript.

Their collaboration certainly does not disappoint. It really is the definitive history of Texas blues, and though a large format, relatively expensive book, this is hardly the coffee table book its size implies. Instead, the text  predominates, along with a handful of photographs. No doubt this book is really meant for a small band of blues scholars, but I think any blues enthusiast, particularly those interested in the southwest variety, will want to give this volume serious attention. This even though  the publisher notes that what is now available is, in fact, more like a literary artifact, a draft of what was, and is, a massive research project. Certainly,  the unfinished format of the book- chapters listed as sections in alphabetical order, notes in which Oliver queries McCormick, missing texts, grammatical inconsistencies, etc.- would back up the publisher's claim. Though that hardly detracts from the book's importance.  Though hopefully a more affordable format will one day become available. Nevertheless, The Blues Come to Texas is finally here, and the wait has been long but well worth it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Naked Kiss (1964)

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Back before noir was noir, and only a
stained melting-pot, Spade had a thing for 
vernacularisms. The young hood a gunsel, 
Yiddish, guncil/gunsel, for thief, catamite, 
or young tramp. Though deployed earlier
byTully and London who opted for gonsil. 
Relating to gonnof/gonif, also meaning thief, 
originally a pickpocket, and corruption 
of gazoon(e)y. Derived from garcon or the
Irish gossom. Prior to that, deployed by
Dickens and Chesterton. Though for them
it was Dutch- the language of a trading
nation- in origin, also referring to a sodomite. 
Which makes one wonder: does that imply
all thieves are sodomitesor all sodomites
thieves? Joel Cairo is certainly fat cat
Gutman’s gunsel. And, surely, Gutman
makes use of gunsels or gonnifs as required. 
As for Spade?  He was doing it for Miles
Archer, whom, it's said, spawned a son, Lew,
as told by a K. Millar, aka Macdonald. And
Spade’s thing with Brigid? Spoiler alert, she's 
murderer, the bird’s a fake, and Spade,
besides tweaking prefixes, has no problem
shopping her. Because,“When your partner 
gets killed, you gotta do something.” As for
Flintcroft, neither gunsel nor gonifclose
call makes him the same but different, his dis-
appearance a vernacular of a deeper dilemma.    

The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964)

Jazz, jerky camera, “I’m drunk, Kelly!” 
Not even Maggie could handbag quite
like that. The pimp pulls  her hair. Fuck
me, it’s a wig.  Kelly, bald, knocks him
to the floor, takes his wallet. “I’m not 
rolling you, you drunken leach" (or is
it lech?), I’m only taking the 75 dollars
coming to me.” Slaps him,  stuffs the
cash into her bra, delivers a final kick,
grabs a photo, looks in the mirror, and
re-wigs. Then the credits roll. Kelly
calmly applying her make-up.  Suspended
disbelief, no, makes that animation, bound
to be just another lamb to slaughter. Yet
there’s more: cramming money into
the brothel-keeper’s mouth; finding her
rich fiancé, Grant, molesting a child;
a one woman vigilante, she beats him to
death with a telephone receiver; tells Griff-
his friend, and her final john- that Grant
was a naked kisser, the sure sign of a
pervert.” Though why or what is never
explained. Only Sam knows for sure.
Walking through that crowd, like some-
thing out of Night of the Living Dead. 
Seeking redemption as much as revenge.
However lachrymose, a tabloid fantasy,
in which depravity is never far away,
and negativity, something like schmaltz 
and loathing in small-town America.

Friday, January 04, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Lady From Shanghai (1947) The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

After the rescue, the inevitable: flirtation,
employment, sweet talk on hubby's yacht.
Eyes irresistibly twinklingIn the real 
world, Cohn green lights the project only 
after assuming Welles’s fifty grand debt.
As usual, it's all power to the capitalist class.
But, then, Cohn is said to have created Rita, 
husband number one pimping her while
still a teenager. Of course, in Hollywood
everyone is owned by someone. Undeterred
in dreamland, Michael's brogue historically
screams murder. Ne touchez pasGrisby,
wonders if he'd be willing to do so again?
Riffing on the cause du jourMichael 
simply says,  I'd kill another Franco spy. 
After which Grisby repliesWould you kill 
me if I gave you the chance? Should he, 
given Rita, even deliberate? Would you?  
Contemplating a life in Patsyville, Michael
remains philosophical, reminding Grisby 
that Everybody is somebody's fool. As for
the mirrors, they only go to show that any
reflection is merely a state of mind, another
image of itself or something else. Splicing
the film to pieces, Cohn obsesses over 
Rita's hair, demands more close-ups and, 
of course, Gilda-like song. What else 
might intercedealbeit disfigurement, and 
a world in which everything cracks, breaks
or is already broken. As Rita's doppleganger 
says, You need more than luck in Shanghai.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

It’s okay with me, things are what they are,
even when they’re not. A surfeit of shrugs, 
wisecracks, topless hippies, alienated
wealth, crooks, quacks, or steroid-enhanced
thugs. It's the me-culture minus the stench
of fuck-you geckonomics. Marlowe, no
longer a lapsed petit-bourgeois oil lackey,
but a cat-loving, chain-smoking mumbler, 
supermarket insomniac, secular Jew, singing
Mammy in blackface to the cops. Purists
have never had time for such revisionism,
while the impure amongst us can't decide
whether to laugh or cry. A blank slate,
Marlowe’s knightly virtues, naturally at
odds with a culture that could care less.
Not down these mean streets but across 
road-raged freeways. Stylish bungalows
replaced by vertical brutalisms, glassed-in
beach front properties like centres for the
murderously insane.  Walking down that
tree-lined avenue, harmonica-in-cheek,
it's Hooray for Hollywood with an Astaire
shuffle. Such is the corruption, and cynicism, 
gumshoeing into the distance, tarnished, ad
infinitum, beyond the before and ever after.