Sunday, February 11, 2024

BELIEVING IS SEEING: On Writing On Dangerous Ground

What Is Noir?

Is more than darkness. Is

Corruption of the heart. Is

behind closed doors, board-

room or street. Is fucked

Whether you do, dont sing, 

Moan, sniff or shoot. Is a

ticket to all we have, never

enough. Is greed, lust, a fatal

kiss, the banker, cop, criminal, or

any other poor sucker who

screams for mercy. Is a

dream of autonomy, femme

fatality causality, breathing,

Hey, baby, lets take it all.”

Is a corpse, a handful of dust

and ultimately who cares, if 

the only punishment is death.

I began writing On Dangerous Ground, a book, for the most part,  comprised of 50 poems based on classic examples of film noir, sometime around 2012. At the time I’d no idea Id be working on the book intermittently over the next ten years. I knew I wanted each poem to be accompanied by an image from the film that was being considered. My intention was to write solely about the images, what they contained and implied. But it wasn’t long before I found myself shifting from that remit, deploying, instead, the images more as starting points, which, in turn, allowed me to move outwards, into the world surrounding those images. Which is why the images became a kind of memory theater, setting off thoughts, reactions, rants and investigations, coherent or otherwise. A tangential process that dependent not only on the images, and how, as a viewer, I responded to them, but on various aspects of the films themselves: dialogue, lighting, set designs, and the role directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and producers. While some might take the poems simply as eccentrically humorous, fractured and perhaps contentious reviews and reactions, the intention was, on the one hand, to comment on the world around the films, and, on the other hand, to invite the reader to launch his or her own investigation into this or any subject that might reveal as much as it hides. 

As I rewatched the films, and began writing about them, I found myself viewing them in a different light, as artefacts to be acted upon rather than packaged commodities existing in a static environment. And so  the writing of On Dangerous Ground became a two-way process: the films activated the poems, but the poems reanimated the films, allowing me to go wherever I liked with them, from glossing the surface to drilling down into them, addressing subjects like crime, guilt, innocence, bourgeois values, late capitalism, and gendered space. 

Given that much of my past writing- thirty years in the trenches of noir fiction and film- why suddenly turn to poetry as the basis for my investigation? Admittedly, at first glance, it’s a slightly off-the-wall direction to take. But, for me, it was fitting. Primarily because, prior to writing about noir fiction and film, as well as writing novels that inhabited that terrain, poetry had been my first port of call. Not that my relationship to poetry  hasn’t, over the years, succumbed to a series of disgruntlements and separations. Blame it I guess on the term “poet,” and the bad faith it often entails, or absolutist dictums as Pound’s about poets being the antennae of the race (about which one can only ask, what race might the great poet have been referring to?). Even so my relationship with poetry was never to escalate into anything approaching a full-fledged divorce.  And so I still carry the baggage, if not the scars, stretching back to the mid-1960s, in Los Angeles, then San Francisco, with various publications and a range of mentors, from the academic-  Henri Coulette, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert- to the peripatetic- Michael Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka and Ed Dorn. Though in recent years any interest has seems to have veered towards the more linguistically-oriented, such as Clark Coolidge, Michael Gizzi, and Tom Raworth, not to mention political screeds by the likes of the  wonderful Sean Bonney and Keston Sutherland.  

In spite, or maybe because of that, I’ve always felt there exists a relationship, however tenuous, between poetry- at least the  kind I tend to favour, that moves outwards into the world while conveying a degree of linguistic wit- and film noir. By negotiating that thin line that separates romanticism from fatalism, film noir can often be said to be as poetic as it is stylised. One need look no further than the obvious, films like Robert Wise’s The Set Up (1949) and Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958), both of which were originally rhymed narrative poems by Joseph Moncure March, or, for that matter, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), whose screenplay was written in blank verse. It could even be said that poetry and film noir share certain elements: they rely on set formats, tend to manipulate narrative coherency, and often proceed by implication rather than by anything more blatant. As for the doomed film noir protagonist, it’s not unusual for him, and it is usually him, to have the temperament of a thwarted poet, from the sadistic cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) to the soda shop gangster Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) in Gordon Wiles’s The Gangster (19470, While, Slavoj Zizek, in his essay from the 1990s, “From Courtly Love to the Crying Game,” insists that film noir’s proverbial femme fatale can be traced back to the Troubadour poets and their objects of obsession, though few of the latter could have been as deadly as Kathy (Jane Greer) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) or Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Jack Bernhard’s Decoy (1946). 

Added reason why On Dangerous Ground was a logical step from my previous books like Pulp Culture and Heartbreak & Vine, Cry For a Nickel Die For a Dime and Days of Smoke. Of course, it could be that the transition seems unusual only because there are few, if any, poetry collections that centre on film noir. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of poets who’ve established a working relationship with such films. Amongst those influenced by the genre one could name poets like Alice Notely, Robert Polito, Geoffrey OBrien,, Nicholas Christopher, and, moving back in time, Weldon Keyes and Kenneth Fearing. Even Raymond Chandler began his writing career as a young man composing doggrel for the Westminster Gazette, while the great Dorothy B. Hughes garnered the Yale Prize For Younger Poets long before she wrote such classics as In a Lonely Place or Ride the Pink Horse.  

On Dangerous Ground opens with an epigraph from Edward Dorn’s hilarious mock-epic of the west Gunslinger- “Ontology! I’m just/telling you a story/about this projector, that’s all.” Metaphorically-speaking, that’s the idea behind the poems in On Dangerous Ground. Which is to say, the images project the poems and their derivatives onto the page, in a manner not dissimilar from the way Gunslinger’s  literate projector is meant to turn images into text. At least that’s the idea, however fanciful and playful that process might be.  Though such an enterprise isn’t without its pitfalls. After all, Dorn’s projector is literate, not literal. Likewise, On Dangerous Ground makes no pretence at being objective, much less literal. If objectivity were the end result of such a projector, it’s function would be limited to turning film noir images into either prurient prose or stale criticism. Rather, On Dangerous Ground seeks to take those images and manipulate them for all they’re worth. Albeit in an era of algorithms and AI, where subjectivity remains the name of the game, and illiterate projectors threaten to proliferate beyond control. 

And so the poems in On Dangerous Ground become increasingly convoluted, which, all else being equal, might reflect  the apparent contradictions regarding the machinery of Hollywood and its place in the structure of corporate America. It also points towards why the images, in pursuit of those contradictions, seek the uniformity of a block form, once referred to as a rhetorical figure. It’s a form mostly influenced by how the poems appear on the page, though never at the exclusion of breath, rhythm, sound, justified line breaks and other impingements and internalities. To be sure, giving the appearance of poetry while casting doubt on whether it is or isn’t. All this to avoid anything resembling the obviously poetic or constructed. At the same time, it’s something of a ruse. Because what looks like poetry might, in fact, be prose if it were not something called poetry. However much the poems embrace or reject their status, in the end it comes down to language and its deployment, what Robert Duncan used to call tone-leading. Though in this case nothing quite so highfalutin: just words and phrases that grind out further words and phrases, not excluding puns, irreverent asides and exploratory gestures, that leads to something that might resemble meaning, be it nuanced or otherwise,. What makes film noir amenable to this approach is its range of possible interpretation. Hopefully not unlike the poems themselves, embedded in their own interpretive, jazz-inflected whirlwind, political for some, though perhaps mere pop-corn inducing enjoyment for others.  

Why title it On Dangerous Ground?  Besides it being one of my favourite movies, film noir, from the end of WW2 to the end of the 1950s, really did find itself, cognisant or not, trespassing onto dangerous ground. By which I mean so many of those films reflected and questioned the values of the era, from consumerism to the paranoia regarding the cold war and the bomb to fear of women in post-war society. Created, in large part, by leftists (Nicholas Ray, Jules Dassin), soon-to-be black-listed writers and directors (Joseph Losey, Abe Biberman, Dalton Trumbo, John Berry), and European exiles, influenced by German Expressionism (Jacques Tourneur, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak), their movies might have been screened in black and white, but the world they depicted was anything but. At least not in hands of such cinematographers as John Alton, Burnett Guffey and Nicholas Muscuraca; or screenwriters like AI Bezzerides, Daniel Fuchs and Ben Hecht.  But this was back when film noir had license to embrace its rough edges and romantic notions regarding the criminal, the cop, the private eye, the musician, the psychopath, the patsy, the autonomous woman, and other such subjects, a genre that  yet to be categorised, commodified and eventually stripped of its populist concerns and politics, . 

A word about the films selected for the book. For the most part, they are obvious choices, with one or two outliers. Films that might appear in anyone’s list of noir favourites. The collection as a whole is bookended by two poems unrelated to any specific film: one which introduces the book and the final poem which reminds the reader there is always, as Columbo was wont to say, “One More Thing.” Though, full disclosure, there’s a clear discrepancy between the poem that opens the book- in this essay entitled “What Is Noir?” but, in the book simply called “Preface”- and the subsequent poems in the collection. As well as serving as an introduction, the primary function of “Preface” is to preempt the question that comprises its title in this essay, one that’s asked wherever the subject of noir fiction or film is discussed. Moreover, it’s the sort of poem, with its late-night, tough-guy attitude, one might might expect to find in a collection of film noir poetry. Despite its loyalty to the usual tropes, the poem is really an act of misdirection, to entice the reader- the sort who might admire films like Kiss Me, Deadly and Detour and such writers as Himes, Goodis and Thompson, but who has never delved all that deeply into poetry- to turn the page and be surprised, perplexed or interested in the linguistic onslaught that follows. All of which is played to the hilt, right up to the final page, when, once again, the screen goes blank, and the reader, formerly the viewer, is left to their own devices.

“Heat, Sleep, Steal, Night, Knife, Goodbye. This one

goes out to who would remain anonymous, their

ships lost at sea. Continents long since absent,

as insomniacs out of the past darkly. Falling

adjectives like confetti between more frames

per  second than reality can ever hope to count.”

(from “One More Thing”)

(an edited version of this appeared in On the Sea Wall, which you can find here)

Monday, January 22, 2024

Inside the Mind of an Improvisor- The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins, edited by Sam V.H. Reese (NYRB Books)

The great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins will be 94 this September. Until a few years ago when pulmonary fibrosis forced him to retire from playing music, he was arguably the preeminent improvisor in jazz, and had been so for a number of decades. Ironically, Rollins, who grew up in Harlem, his parents having relocated there from the Virgin Islands, has always been not so much a loner as the music's supreme individualist, insisting, over his long career, on going his own way, whether that meant honing his chops on Brooklyn Bridge, cutting his hair Mohican-style, appearing as a cowboy and recording I'm An Old Cowhand on his 1957 album Way Out West, or his penchant for solo performes. Ironically, even though he has played  alongside just about every in-demand post-WW2 musician, Rollins, unlike  Coltrane, Coleman, Miles, etc, is perhaps singular in not being associated with a stable group of musicians.  In other words, there is no definitive Sonny Rollins quartet or quintet that comes to mind when thinking of his music. As pianist and writer Ethan Iverson has pointed out, Rollins' bands are not his music. 

"It happens all the time, I know- but it's not going to happen to me.You guys have forgotten that you are here to play for me. You're supposed to be playing for me. Accompanying me. Helping me to do something." 

More evidence of Rollins' individualism, someone who was constantly testing the waters, changing line-ups according to the occasion and the evolution of his music.  Through it all the one constant feature of his music has been his increasingly powerful sound, straight out  of the islands through Harlem, influenced by Coleman Hawkins ("My musical idol.") as much as Louis Jordan or Charlie Parker. Not to mention a unique sense of improvisation and timing, and a wealth of material- his own as well as the Great  American Songbook, to dip into at a moment's notice. One can literally listen to Newk for hours without hearing a single cliché save those he emits with a sense of humour and irony.    

"There is today in existence a fraternity of people. People who were all irrepressibly drawn to the 'horn of horns,' 'the instrument of instruments,' the saxophone. Within its proportions we saw a better and more beautiful world. We saw, and see the means towards a better human being; towards the perfection of ourselves."

The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins, edited by Sam Reese (to be published in April 2024), provides an insight into what makes this incredible musician  tick. The notebooks, which begin in 1959 and end in  2010,  cover the greater  part of his musical career.  Naturally, much of it is about music- some of which might be  hard to grasp by non-musicians- but many of the entries veer off into other interesting and unusual directions, taking in matters  spiritual, political, dietary, physical (breathing and playing exercises, yoga, fasting), medical (the effect of dentistry  on his playing), and cultural. There are also various personal reminders to himself as well as letters to such dignitaries as Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton. With such a range of interests and intellectual depth, it's not surprising that Rollins, aware that everything changes and all things must come to an end, would be humble enough to accept his transition into retirement. 

"The idea of 'teaching' music in the prescribed manner is our attempt to present people with a view of that finer side of their nature which  is akin to such things as trees, grass, sky, among other natural phenomena."  

Are there any similar notebooks by jazz musicians? Off-hand, I can't think of any. Though what did come to mind while reading The Notebooks... were those two pieces of paper on which Thelonious Monk wrote out guidelines (see below) for his, or any, musicians. Then I thought about Ornette holding forth in Stephen Rush's Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman. The only other comparative book  that comes to mind is the more conventionally organised  A Power Stronger Than Itself by AACM musician and composer George Lewis. However, Rollins' Notebooks is more substantial than Monk's wonderful instructions, easier to grasp than either Rush's book, and  easier to read than Lewis's incredible history of the AACM and American Experimental Music.  

"Someone once said 'the easiest way is not always the best way.' Although no doubt this quotation  was well intentioned it is in fact only half correct. In truth and in all practical applications...the easiest is the best way."

In the end, The Notebooks show Rollins to be what we have long expected- a person of  intelligence, with a wide range of interests, and no small amount of wisdom. The world is lucky to have been graced by his music- from his playing with Bud and Richie Powell, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk to  Herbie Hancock, Tommy Flanagan, Jim Hall, Don Cherry and Bill Higgins. Actually, it's hard to imagine a world in which Sonny Rollins' music does not exist.  Of course, as with anyone's notebooks, you have to have some interest in, and appreciation of, the person making those entries. But since Rollins remains one of the best known  names in  jazz, there should be no shortage of listeners ready and willing to turn the pages of this volume that weighs in at only slightly more 150 pages.  With all that it includes, it's  the ideal book  to read before, after, or alongside  Aidan Levy's biography, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins, along with your favourite Sonny Rollins tune playing in the background.   

"No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up."

"'Technology is the means of going backwards faster.'- Huxley"

"I like to play and let the crowd settle and then lull and then wake them up with something outrageous... [So] that just when they begin to lose interest I shock them back to reality... the reality of me, me and my sound, my communication through ancient ritual sound."

        "Invested with sanctity


             The order has been whispering to me at just such times as I would lose vision. 
             Reaching me in a deeply personal revelation of a universal principle, testifying
             to the impersonality of character which I seek."

Monk's Advice to Musicians

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Waiting For Robert Johnson

We've been waiting for this one for something like half a century. Was it worth the wait?  Well, yes and no. These days, however important, it's only one more brick in the Robert Johnson wall, now a cottage industry all its own. Johnson's been mythologised by everyone from Samuel Charters and John Hammond Sr to Bob Dylan and John Hammond Jr. as well as demythologised by Elijah Wald. Through it all one sometimes forgets that  that real people have been, and still are, part of Robert Johnson's legacy. Perhaps McCormick's book, after all these years of waiting, was always going to be anti-climatic, all the more compounded by the author's personal problems. Yet I was enthralled by the book, even if there were times that I began to wonder about its veracity. Still, given McCormick's work in general, I was more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

Biography of a Phantom could easily qualify as a crime novel. Not only is it an investigation, but Mack’s style and approach to Robert Johnson, is obviously based on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the tropes of hardboiled narratives.  Okay, the book is flawed, as was, of course, McCormick's approach. His mistreatment of Johnson's relatives, such as Carrie Thompson, cannot be dismissed. Which is why I think it's important to quote the book's editor, John W. Troutman,  when he writes in the book's Afterwards:  

“This book...ultimately is less about the life of Robert Johnson than it is about the human hellhounds and psychological phantoms that affected everyone involved. Their impact and reverberations seem interconnected and boundless, beginning with the lynchings and other racially motivated violence that terrorized and jeopardized Johnson’s family as well as Black communities throughout Mississippi during the early 1900s. They extend to the ineffable consequences of entombing Johnson’s humanity in a mythology that ascribed his musical brilliance literally to the doings of the devil, rather than to recognizing the labor of his craft, and the allusions and allegory in the poetic wellspring of Black songwriters that Johnson was drawing from and replenishing. They manifest in the historical plunder and exploitation of Black music and musicians by the record industry, and the toll weighed on Johnson’s family members as they endured decades of litigation over Johnson’s recordings and likeness. They manifest in the condition that both fueled McCormick’s manic research production and vast assembly of knowledge, and that also relentlessly tormented him, constraining his ability to make good choices, and then expanding the suffering of all those around him when his choices were bad. It is a story of tragedy, suffered by all, where mental health plays a role, but so does racism, greed, and the instruments of white supremacy in the legal system and corporate structure, in which the concerns of Carrie Thompson were so easily and consistently dismissed."

Friday, December 08, 2023

My Favourite Music of 2023


Hasan Ibn Ali, Reaching For the Stars

Jesse Mae Hemphill, She Wolf

Qasim Naqvi, Wadada Leo Smith, Andrew Cyrille

Jeff Parker, Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Favourite Books of 2023



In no particular order:

-Cruz by Nicolas Ferraro (Soho Crime). 

-Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper (Faber) 

-Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music by Henry Threadgill (Knopf) 

-Biography of a Phantom by Mack McCormic

-Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman (Fitzcarraldo Editions) 

Death Watch by Stona Fitch (Arrow Editions)

-The Last Songbird by Daniel Weizmann (Melville House)

-Revolution- An Intellectual History by Enzo Traverso (Verso)

-Writers & Missionaries by Adam Shatz (Verso)

-The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster)

-Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy by Steven Powell (Bloomsbury)                                

-The Crystal Text by Clark Coolidge (City Lights)

-Skeletons in the Closet by Jean-Patrick Manchette (NYRB)

-The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright (Library of America)

-Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger (Faber)

Thursday, August 31, 2023

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

What Is Noir?

Is more than darkness. Is

Corruption of the heart. Is

behind closed doors, board-

room or street. Is fucked

Whether you do, don’t sing, 

Moan, sniff or shoot. Is a

ticket to all we have, never

enough. Is greed, lust, a fatal

kiss, the banker, cop, criminal, or

any other poor sucker who

screams for mercy. Is a

dream of autonomy, femme

fatality causality, breathing,

“Hey, baby, let’s take it all.”

Is a corpse, a handful of dust

and ultimately who cares, if 

the only punishment is death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Films and Their Opening Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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