Wednesday, December 18, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

Knocked-out loaded, ingesting a tried and true drug of choice,
contracted to punch past his prime. Sparring with shadows on
the bleak side of capitalism, bopping until dropping, dancing
and countering until only the scars remain standing. Smoke and
cigar tissue blur multiple crimes, in the name of defending one-
self at all times. Stoker, pleading for one more payday. Though
anyone who's been down for the count has heard that one be-
fore but never quite like this, in real-time (again, as opposed to,
what? unreal time?). Accompanied by those rounds of bruised
neon. So you ask, how much is a poem worth? It depends.
In this case, RKO parted with $1000 for Joseph Moncure March’s
middleweight narrative. Though a black boxer just out of prison,
this is post-war Hollywood, so forget that popular front bullshit.
Just grab a mouthpiece and deracinate where necessary, what-
ever to butter the popcorn, titillate fancies and  secure a place
on the under-card. Stoker's manager, Tiny, furtively shtum, 
having taken a punt against his fighter. But, hey, isn't that
Weegee keeping time, Stoker giving as good as he gets, ducking
without diving, his lethals broken by Little Boy, the crime boss-
synonymous with the punch that kayoed Hiroshima four years
earlier- exploiting sporting flesh. Wise had to travel all the way
to Long Beach to sniff some working class sweat, a hustler giving
a blow-by-blow to a blind man. Wise wanted Blondell, but
Hughes was drooling for more glamour, so opted for the
unglamorous Trotter, her critique at ring level, “Don't you see,
Bill, you'll always be just one punch away.” A split decision,
their lives depending on it. Chasing a final round, the low
blows, clinches, jabs, hooks and everything we claim to be true.

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Face down in the proverbial amniotic, the swimming pool seen
from below. Us ordinaries, reflections in a mirror, might also be
dead. Yet who writes often cannot read. Lest one assumes the
role of screenwriter who narrates from death to an era when
Hollywood, if not the world, was so innocently tacky. In Wilder
moments there will always be a wholesome sucker, and even a
European butler, some former director fallen from grace, have
broken his proscenium to graft for an ageing star he discovered
years before. Taking a murdered actor and actress whose butler,
no less, murdered that actor. On the one hand, it's all smoke
and venom; on the other, something approaching the human
condition. Necessarily on the run from a repo man, because
debt, in the end, is what makes the world go round. Mistaken
for an undertaker whose c.v. includes burying chimpanzees.
“The dream...desperately enfolded her," like art imitating
barely more than nothing, the past uncomfortably present.
Watching Queen Kelly, the chimp unwillingly chimes at
midnight, in "your standard monkey funeral shot." A willing
gigolo, partaking of Sennett-style diversions and old-school
poker games. Louis B. to Wilder: “You should be tarred and
feathered and run out of Hollywood!" Wilder: "Go fuck your-
self." File under occupational dissent, with a dash of alienated
labour and commodity fetishism thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Poem as an Incendiary Device: Our Death by Sean Bonney

The following was written just days before Sean's tragic death.

"The last song has run out we buried it and died. Now we are turning blue.
 I think we are in a hospital but it is really a bar. Lets call it the felon ward.
There is no hell there is only the law. Behind every border the law."

Can a poem be an incendiary device?  There are those- poets and politically minded readers of poetry- who might answer in the affirmative. Though the thought that a poem can be so dangerous, that capable of blowing apart the culture, much less one's concept of the poem, seems, in an era of crypto-fascism, corporate greed and surplus offerings, to have currency only amongst those on the margins. After all, it's as dangerous to preach what you practise as it is to practise what you preach. And it so often results in a multitude of wounds, whether state or self inflicted. Perhaps it is as it has always been. One need only consider Rimbaud, or poetry written during the height of the black power movement. Given this era and conditions we've inherited or created, it shouldn't be surprising that there are still those who still carry that torch, pursuing a poetry whose language, imagery and content come together to reshape one's perception of the world, not on some superficial level, but  down deep where real change is possible.

Sean Bonney is one of those who, for some time, has been intent on embracing this fiery tradition. Accordingly, there are few whose poetry is as incendiary. This was the case with his previous volume, Letters Against the Firmament, and even more so in his recent collection Our Death. I can't think of many whose work demands that readers question to such an extent their relationship to poetry and the state of the culture in general. In Our Death Bonney takes the reader on a journey through the wreckage of present day neo-liberal, from Poundland to Deutschland, and does so from the perspective of those on the margins, as potential outsiders and resisters. Though the poems are as angry as they are dark, they also have a celebratory ring to them, if only because they insist that resistance is possible; likewise the construction of a language and form of attack that facilitates a way of defending oneself, linguistically as well as  literally. Which makes these poems very much of their time and yet out of time, part of a lineage that includes not only the likes of Rimbaud but Baraka, Artaud as well Pasolini,  ranters from William Prynne to Valerie Solanas, not leaving out one of Bonney's favourites, the Greek anarchist poet/actor/activist Katerina Gogou, whose poems are liberally translated or interpreted- perhaps there is little difference between the two in the area of this particular poetry- by Bonney in this collection. Or spoken directly to the late poet. Likewise, these  however angry and dark, manage to be exquisitely lyrical, while never failing to cut close to the bone.

The exemplary poet Keston Sutherland, himself practising a radical form of subterfuge, describes Bonney's poetry as one of hatred, but I would think the better term would be rage.  A rage garnered from being in the world, and seeing how it is organized. That has to be a hard road to travel. And partly explains the tone and condition of these poems, seemingly written late at night, fuelled by drugs and cigarettes, alcohol, composed after wandering across urban boulevards, back alleys and dank streets. Or after watching any number of unpunished crimes committed by cops, corporate sleaze bags and political con-men. All things that can easily make anyone pursue dark thoughts, drugs, alcohol or suicide. But there is also a strength in these poems that manages to turn the darkness inside-out.  Which makes them ideal artifacts for the barricades and front line, perfect for fending off the state, whether vocalized on the street, in run down cafes or airless basements.

Not that these are easy poems. They bear the mark of too many scars to make for facile, or even pleasant reading. Add to that Bonney's reluctance to incorporate the customary compromising gestures regarding his work or  politics, not when it comes to the powers that be. At the same time, Bonney purposely avoids the overtly populist, be it in terms of content or form. These are compact and linguistically dense poems, as intriguingly personal as they are intense, hitting the reader from a variety of angles. They are, indeed, rants of the highest order. "A rant is a haunt," writes Bonney, and indeed these poems read as though they are haunted by both the future and the past.  Inspirational and international in scope, historical in nature, embedded apologetically in the present, right in keeping with a geographical gregariousness one might expect from a Brit living in self-imposed exile in Berlin. If some of the poems make for hard reading, it's because they carry cut so deeply.  Sure,  it's hyperbole to call a poem an incendiary device, but, in Bonney's hands, it's an apt description. That being the case, no close reader can possibly escape these explosive poems unscathed.

RIP, Sean Bonney...

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

All the Crimes Fit to Print: Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide by Barry Forshaw

Readers of Crime Time and various broadsheets will already know that Barry Forshaw is pretty much the go-to person when it comes to all things fictionally criminal. Not to mention that he has long been a prime mover when it comes to promoting a range of crime fiction in the UK. His two volume Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction remains a landmark publication, indispensable to anyone interested in the history of the genre. Likewise his handful of other titles, their subjects ranging from Nordic Noir to Italian Cinema. With a keen editorial eye, his reviews are customarily pithy and invariably on the money. His latest contribution, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide might be described as a condensed version of his Encyclopaedia, only cheaper and easier to negotiate. In fact, given its pocketable size and format, it is as comprehensive a reference book and guide to what is purchasable that one is likely to find. 

That is, given the economics of publishing, at least as suggested by the book’s evocative cover, depicting, on the one hand, a well-trodden pulp fiction trope and, on the other, a reminder of crime fiction’s past and how it has changed over the years- becoming more acceptable, literary, blatant, marketable and diverse. These days crime fiction is more profitable than ever. In fact, it’s been at least sixty years since the term pulp fiction could be used to describe even a portion of the genre. This is reflected in the market place itself where, in the intervening decades, the price of a typical paperback has gone from the 2’6 of those orange Penguin crime novels, to 30p for the green Penguins, up to the present when a typical crime paperback costs in excess of £15. To say nothing about the price original pulp paperback crime novels in decent condition. It’s definitely a seller’s market, with crime fiction on display in all parts of the world, and with every country having their own crime writers with their own particular spin on the genre. In his forward, Ian Rankin claims Forshaw’s book “covers crime fiction from every part of the world.”  Well, almost, but the book is undeniably, and perhaps understandably, UK/US-centric, with a nod  to Europe, particularly Scandi-Noir, not withstanding the token Chinese or Latin American writer thrown in for good measure. 

Which shouldn’t be surprising. Adding even more writers, from a greater range of countries to the mix would have only made Forshaw’s book all the bulkier and considerably less easy to negotiate. As for the chapters themselves, they are general enough to include just about any crime novel one can think of, regardless of place, but, at the same time, specific enough to highlight the genre’s touchstones: from the origins of the genre to its Golden Age; from Hardboiled/Pulp fiction to private eyes and cops; from professionals (lawyers, doctors, forensics) to amateur investigators; from  psychological narratives to psychopaths, criminal protagonists and organised crime; from crime and society to espionage; from domestic noir to cosy crime and blockbusters; and from comic crime to historical and foreign crime. Interspersed within which are boxed-in entries on selected topics and authors, from Agatha Christie and to Raymond Chandler, from radio crime fiction to film noir. Each section contains a plethora of books along with Forshaw’s precise and concise comments and synopsises. The book concludes with a series of appendixes, the first of which consists of the author’s favourite Scandinavian and political thrillers. That’s followed by two outside critics, J. Kingston Pierce and Craig Sisteron, who list the authors that, in their opinion, should have been included in Forshaw’s book. It’s not only a nice democratic gesture on the part of the author, but it’s also a fitting way to end what a book that is bound to be at least partly subjective.

Because anyone conversant with the genre will have their own list of omissions and perhaps quibbles with the text. For me, I would have liked Forshaw to have included the likes of Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jerome Charyn, Ross Thomas, K.C. Constantine, Dorothy B. Hughes, Paul Cain, Andrew Coburn, Leigh Brackett, Peter Temple, Bill James, James Curtis, Arthur La Bern, Robert Westerby, Cameron McCabe, Horace McCoy, Gil Brewer, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Brown, Buzz  Bezzerides, Samuel Fuller, Joe Gores, Lionel White, Harry Whittington, Jim Nisbet, Scott Phillips, Kent Anderson, Stephen Greenleaf, John Franklin Bardin, Dolores Hitchens, Frederic Dard, Tonino Benacquista, Thierry Jonquet, Boris Vian/Vernon Sullivan,  Pieke Biermann,  Massimo Carlotto, Patricia Melo, Ricardo Piglia, Claudia Pineiro, Leonard Padua, Paco Ignacio Taino, and Santiago Gamboa. And, to make it truly international, what about those Tamil pulp writers published by Blaft, or the wonderful Nigerian railway station books, collected in Life Turns Man Up and Down, published by Pantheon? Come to think of it, why not a section on small presses which, free from the economic constraints of corporate publishing, are publishing some of today’s most interesting and edgy crime novels. Or a page on books that address the subject of crime fiction itself? But, then, all of this might have been outside Forshaw’s remit, much less his word count. Because, in the end, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide is what it is, a useful and nearly comprehensive study that deserves a place in the library of all serious readers of crime fiction. 

(This article will also be appearing in Crime Time)

Friday, October 04, 2019

Cracks, Crevices and Small Revolutions: Sarah Jane by James Sallis

A new novel by James Sallis is always cause for celebration.  Sarah Jane is certainly no exception. His latest might be a slightly more subdued effort, but it's no less affecting than any of his past seventeen novels. But what struck me while reading Sarah Jane is the degree to which much of the action, essential or otherwise, takes place off the page. It's like a noir version of Chekhov or something one associates with some French new wave films. Perhaps this is true of past novels, but it's only now that I realised this particular technique. Whether deployed consciously or not, it's an effective technique, humanitarian and democratic in nature. Moreover, it allows the reader to call on his or her imagination, while respecting the motives and inner workings of the characters within the novel. Consequently, Sarah Jane,  a cop with a complicated past, spends her time reacting to events that happen around and away from her, not to mention those events from her past, whether instigated by her or by others. Of course, things happen in the novel, but Sarah Jane is more about she and others react to what happens to them. And that reaction manifests itself in the novel's dialogue and inner thoughts are sometimes tangential and at other times perfectly to the point.

Near the end of the novel, Sarah/Sallis writes: of an admired teacher "who said of words when they played well together: 'There is a small revolution going on in that sentence.'" I wondered while reading this if this Sallis hinting at his game plan. If so, why not?  Because that sentence might well describe what occurs in Sallis's own work, whether regarding his dialogue, description, or narrative drive. Sarah Jane then goes on to comment on how language in all its manifestations, might define the person. Including documents surrounding that person's life.  All of which is dependent on the person reading them. This goes not only for the investigator but for the reader. Likewise, each line of dialogue, image, inner thought, constitutes, in its own way,  a small revolution, one that builds on what has already been written, described or discussed. Documents- a birth certificate, a book, a memoir, an image- that constitute one's life can say everything or nothing, depending on how those documents are interpreted. 

This state of affairs might well be what I have always liked about Sallis's work, but have never realized before. That his work is as cumulative as it is defining. Of the characters in his novels as much as the culture in which those characters exist. and how they reflect the culture in which the reader and writer live. So of course each book builds on the last one, from The Long-Legged Fly to Cripple Creek, Drive/Driven, Wilnot and now Sarah Jane. Each book seems to want to add to that revolution. And before you know it you have a way of thinking and way of regarding the world that is, in its own quiet way, revolutionary.  What's important in Sarah Jane, as in his other novels, is not the plot- pointless to recount and and often difficult to remember- but what exists in the cracks and crevices of the book. Not just how the characters regard one another and themselves, but how they react and what they say to one another.  It's up to the reader to fill in the details, exemplified by Sarah Jane's  first sentence-  "My name is Pretty but I'm not." - and allow things to build from there, one revolution upon another, an on-going process that, through the written word, as well as the cycle of life, death and everything in between, never ends.

Monday, September 23, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949), Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)

Perhaps everyone desires something similar. Hiding
home-truths as much as falsehoods. Neither unseen
nor unseeing. A historical reference mainly lost on
the white world, never mind it's derivation. Crossing
a bridge connecting Balboa to another world. Behind
dark glasses. To a sleazy hotel, a gambler and mink-
toting blond, bass propped against the wall, just below
a boxing poster. An interloper, not even a femme fatale,
to confront the creep who's messing with her seventeen
year-old art student daughter. Casually exercising a
droit du seigneur bluntness: as in, how much you willing
to pay to make me go away. Tells the tearaway daughter
he's only into her for the money she can generate. She
lashes out. A reasonable reaction, likewise her desire 
to escape her island of surplus capital. He falls, hits his
head. It's not murder, but it's not bad, more a piece of
messy performance art, left to her mother to curate. So
how does the soft-spoken Irish black-mailer hear about
it? Or did I miss something? Inserting himself into her
life until she can produce the cash. Which requires the
approval of her husband, no more than a moan-and-groan
out-of-towner. “Quite the prisoner, aren’t you?" says
the blackmailer, himself barely in the loop, whether
amongst criminals or old-world revolutionaries. Yet
smart enough to know that on this beach of milk, honey,
and good housekeeping, appearances must be maintained.
She's called Lucia, but he prefers Lucy. It's not love but
it's not bad. Less about the danger of not having a man
around than what life is like in the dark, the past like
falling dust and and how easily things can fall apart.   

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

For the meek shall inherit clichés, scams and false
modesty. While, in the shop window, democracy is
once again placed on the auction block. As always,
it's about class, selling the dictatorship of taste and
art world pretentiousness to the masses. Easy targets,
if not for the human element, humdrum never more
than skin deep. Sunday painter, Christopher a sitting
duck gabbled by Kitty in her see-through raincoat,
and amuse-bouche approach: "You know those art
galleries on Fifth Avenue? I saw one little picture that
cost fifty-thousand dollars. They call it, uh, 'Seezan'."
Christopher, his invisible sign- "Another sucker born
of middle-class manners"- hanging from his neck,
"You can't put any price on masterpieces like that.
They're worth, well, whatever you can afford to pay
for them. " Kitty: "I bet I saw some of your pictures
there and didn't know it." Christopher: "Oh no. I, uh...
I don't sell my pictures." Kitty: "Well not in New York
you mean…I bet you get as much for your pictures in
France as those Frenchmen get right here in New York.
You're never appreciated in your own country." Less
a social comedy than an ice-pick to the heart. Whether
gallery fascism or a seller's market, the only guarantee
that everyone will get fucked in the process. A scam, somewhere between a stick-up and Say's Law in broad
daylight. His face, her body, wistful window reflections,
pain and punishment for the person he has become.      

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Manchette Quotes: from Nada (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

"Four in the morning. The proletariat was sleeping with one eye open in its suburbs; middle managers for their part were sleeping like dumb logs in their luxury co-ops overlooking the Seine. The late-night pizzerias in Saint-Germain-des-Prés were closing up and shooting out languid, ravishing transvestites. Daughters of the well-to-do, stupified by drink and hashish, were getting fucked in Paris's western outskirts and faking orgasms to mask their nausea. Bums were passing around venereal diseases under the bridges. La Coupole had closed, and intellectuals were parting company at the Raspail-Montparnasse intersection and promising to phone one another. At the printing houses the Linotypists were working away. Headlines concerning the killings of the morning before were being composed. Editorials had been delivered with headlines varying according to the opinion of the particular paper: WHY? or BLOOD or HOW FAR WILL IT GO? or VICIOUS CIRCLE or FOOLHARDY JOE BLOW VS. STORM TROOPERS IN PEAK FORM."


"'I made a mistake," he said abruptly. "Leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of...'

He hesitated.

'...of the same mug's game,' he concluded, and went on right away: 'The regime defends itself, naturally, against terrorism. But the system does not defend itself against it. It encourages it and publicizes it. The desperado is a commodity, an exchange value, a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint. The State's dream is a horrific, triumphant finale to an absolutely general civil war to the death between cohorts of cops and mercenaries on the one hand and nihilists armed groups on the other. This vision is the trap laid for rebels, and I fell into it. And I won't be the last. And that pisses me off in the worst way.'"

Monday, September 09, 2019

Proletarian Roadkill: Colin's Asher's bography of Nelson Algren- Never a Lovely So Real

WITH THE PROLETARIAT, to a large degree, having morphed into today’s precariat, midcentury writers who sought to align themselves with the dispossessed tend to be a forgotten, if not extinct, species. Which is unfortunate because, until the onslaught of McCarthyism, they were a vital force in American cultural life. These days few people read the work of radical authors like Benjamin Appel, Tom Kromer, Meridel Le Sueur, Josephine Herbst, and Mike Gold, all of whom depicted the conditions of those surviving on the margins — indeed, declared their solidarity with those unfortunates, extolling their virtues and idiosyncrasies. Writers who survived that tradition with their proletarian credentials intact were, to a large degree, those — like Jim Thompson and David Goodis — who were able to convey their portrayals of the underclass via hardboiled pulp fiction. After all, they were themselves working writers, laboring in obscurity, grinding out paperback originals to make a living. By contrast, left-leaning authors such as John Dos Passos, James Agee, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright had literary connections and writing ability that allowed them access to the upper realms of respectability. Rarer still were those writers who found themselves stranded between proletarian fiction and mainstream literature, yet who could nonetheless sidestep the pay-by-the-word pulp market. Notable among such talents was Nelson Algren, who, no matter how celebrated in his day, would eventually pay the price for adhering to that precarious position.

Born in 1909 in Detroit, Algren (née Nelson Ahlgren Abraham) moved with his family at the age of three to Chicago, where he remained for most of his life. Like many of his fellow writers during that era, he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, dividing his time in the 1930s between professional writing and organizing work for the Communist Party–inspired League of American Writers and the John Reed Club (and later, during the New Deal, for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project). Always a dedicated, if individualistic leftist, he went on to raise funds for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), then, some years later, for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; not to mention voicing his opposition to creeping conformism (code for McCarthyism), the Vietnam War, and the false promise of consumerism. It was during the Great Depression that Algren, inspired by books like Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Aleksandr Kuprin’s brothel-set novel The Pit (Yama, 1915), as well as by witnessing the plight of ordinary people, kicked off his writing career. Like many during that era, he took to the road, riding the rails and hitching rides, ending up in Texas, where he hooked up with some petty criminals and eventually manned a rural gas station. It was at the local teachers’ college that Algren, seeking to hone his literary chops, stole a typewriter, was arrested, found guilty, and given a two-year suspended sentence.

(You can find the remainder of the review at the LARB website)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Pushover (1954)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

Lana’s lipstick rolls into the future, past 
Garfield, into a land where we forever grow 
bold, then punished for our pains. Where 
luscious legs and white shorts, suggest a 
sleazy tennis queen, rather than a bored hash-
slinger. Where instructions are such that not
even a postman can comprehend. An indelible 
mark in a city where door-bells are essential, but 
ill-used, whether twice, thrice or, if not, Ice. 
Where loose change clinks payment in kind, 
and firewater seeks its own Production Code. 
Chiming noblese oblige: the customary 
murder, a hint of sado-masochism, maladroit 
lawyers and insouciant insurance investigators. 
Living in a less than wholesome world, a sad 
universe ruled by sleight of hand, swerving 
whiffle balls and working stiffs. Where
cynical private replaces that indifferent insurance 
investigator, where Frank and Cora are guilty 
as sin, sentenced to tear each other apart. That's 
the American way, insisting the world be set to 
rights, but not caring about the consequences. 
To counter unfavorable publicity, Lana is 
photographed on the set with two-year-old Cheryl
Twelve years later, the blood seeps from Lana's
big dong gangster-boyfriend, the stains forming 
question marks of suspicion. Laughter at a post-
shoot party Lana presents Garnett with a fur-lined 
jock-strap, while the ambivalent Cain inscribes 
faint praise in a leather-bound copy of his novel: 
"For my dear Lana, thank you for a performance 
even finer than I expected." Though he had never
expected much. Surely, when the doorbell rings, 
hints of honesty disappears through the letter-box; 
with no special delivery, to assuage the weak,
second-class ignorant, or recalcitrant hoi-polloi.

Pushover (Robert Quine, 1954)

You don't have to be a sleaze-bag to carry a
torch for Kim, twenty-five years Fred's junior,
strutting that June-bugged street where you 
live. A cop with a hard-on, so why wouldn't
she keep him on a short lead, playing him for 
far more than he's worth. Anything to off her 
crooked boyfriend, grab the cash and fade like 
bad surf. With the line: “Money isn’t dirty, just 
people.” Yeah, but,  if it isn't dirty, why bother 
to launder it? Reeling him in, the bait and 
switcheroo, forget the dosh, it's really love. 
That might play in Azusa, but it's a sucker-punch 
on the demeaning streets of Burbank, a push-over,
knowing it's only money through which  he can 
possess- I mean, own- her. That story has been 
rehashed so often it might as well arrive with 
its own breakfast menu. Looking up at her, 
the wounded Fred says: “We really didn’t need 
the money, did we?" Kim scoffs, would that be
rhetorical, or you just happy to see me. Stopping 
short of stupidity, not quite laughing, much less
spitting, in his face. A scene straight out of 
The Indiscreet Charms of the Petit-Bourgeoisie. 
But, wait, one mustn't ignore the sub-plot: Dorothy 
Malone, stalked and spied upon by another cop, 
the weird Phil Carey, who works overtime to turn 
Dorothy into a suburban homemaker. No wonder 
it's not to him, but her hostage taker, the wounded 
MacMurray,  to whom she scurries. As though 
Stockholm Syndrome has become a cultural 
necessity. A revealing moment, but no more so than 
Kim’s dress, an ideal commodity for scum-sucking 
purveyors of public decency, or those who seek 
clean surfaces,  in a Pat and Mamie kind of way.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

What I Learned from Bruce Cornforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow's Up Jumped the Devil- The Real Life of Robert Johnson

I would bet against there ever being a better and more informative Robert Johnson biography than Bruce Cornforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow's Up Jumped the Devil. Impeccably researched- something one has  come to expect from Wardlow in particular- the book sets out  to tell the story of Johnson's short life, and, in the process, fill in the various gaps in what is known, and to address those parts of his life that have remained a mystery. To the authors' credit, they have accomplished this, and, in doing so, have put together a highly readable and informative narrative. And it's about time. After all, Johnson has long been one of the greatest of the Delta bluesmen, but, at the same time, overly romanticized something which has  tended to obscure his place and even importance in the history of the music.

 In setting the record straight, Cornforth and Wardlow track Johnson from birth to death. They do so by citing friends, family, and Johnson's contemporaries, including the likes of Johnny Shines and Calvin Frazier, who not only knew Johnson first hand but played alongside him. Some of the material here has been collected by others and has appeared in past publications. However, there is a great deal here that is new here. And nothing, according to the authors, that is not corroborated. Although I've read most of what has been written about Johnson over the last fifty years- until this book, the best being being Elijah Ward's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues- Up Jumped the Devil is going to be invaluable to anyone interested in Johnson or Delta blues. Having said that, I thought I'd put together, pretty much off the top of my head and in no particular order of importance, a list of what I learned, or maybe knew but  forgot, from reading Cornforth and Wardlow's book: 
Son House

-Johnson was already proficient on guitar when still a teenager- though he was playing what is described by Cornforth and Wardlow, or their informantm as folk blues, rather than the deep blues with which he is  commonly associated. That Son House's famous assessment of RJ had  to do with the sudden realization that he now faced a competitor in RJ.
-That RJ went by a variety of names and nick-names, that he was subjected to what amounted to physical abuse by his step-father Dusty Willis. The latter wanted young Robert to work in the fields instead of playing music. Not surprisingly, RJ hated field work. Also, he enjoyed school, liked to read and was  sophisticated in his taste in music. 
-That RJ was capable of playing complex chords, had a near perfect ear, could hear a piece of music on the radio and reproduce it at gigs later that evening. He was also capable of playing in the jazzier style of his musical hero Lonnie Johnson. According to Calvin Frazier and Johnny Shines, RJ could play practically any type of music, would play  tarantellas at Italian weddings, Jewish music at at Jewish weddings, etc..
-Though RJ heard an array of Delta musicians, including House and Patton, and learned from them, his main influence was a local musician, Ike Zimmerman.
-That RJ  traveled widely, not only to Memphis, where he had immediate family, and Texas where he would record, but Chicago, Kentucky, New York, Detroit, Canada both on his own and in the company of Shines and  Frazier, to play music.
-That RJ kept a notebook, worked out renditions of songs and rarely varied the lyrics or melody.
-That RJ turned against religion after the death of his first wife and child while giving birth. He was nineteen at the time.
-That RJ's ambition was to play on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, in the hope that it would be a springboard to national notoriety.
- That RJ didn't face the wall during his recording sessions out of nervousness but because he wanted to hide what he was doing from a group of Mexican musicians. He is reported to have often turned his back on musicians if he thought they were trying to steal his licks.
-That John Hammond Sr  kicked-off the misinformation surrounding RJ in his article that followed on from his Spirituals to Swing concert.
Johnson's death certificate
 -That much of the material on RJ in Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began is, for whatever reasons, fanciful.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is clearly a great deal more in Up Jumped the Devil that's both surprising, illuminating and new. Interestingly, rather than simply debunking the various myths surrounding Johnson's life- meeting the devil at the crossroads, etc.- Wardlow and Cornforth spend time investigating the various beliefs common to the African-American culture at that time and in that place that behind such stories. Likewise, they do the same for some of Johnson's more obscure lyrics. While it remains debatable as to whether Johnson is the greatest of Delta bluesmen, when you finish this book you will not only know more about him, but you will definitely have a greater appreciation of him as a musician.

Monday, June 10, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: Phantom Lady (1944), Point Blank (1967)

“Ontology! I’m just
  telling you a story
  about this projector, that’s all.”

                   Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

Oh, Phantom Hat, worn on the 

wrong side of a disturbed mind.
Even poor Henderson, cops
lingering in his apartment, wife
strangled, recalls a hat no one
will corroborate, reduced to:  
"Maybe I only imagined that
woman."  Hats like nobody's
business, blatant, yet universal,
real, if fanciful, with a credit of
its own. Chapeau-noir worn at 
a non-existent angle by Jack, his
psychopathic pal. A euphemism
for bonkers? If not those who 
bonk? Like Kansas, the secretary 
not the state, more than a match 
for Cliff, the drummer not the
precipice, who, having absconded 
with Jack's money, paradiddles 
himself into a frenzy. More 
perturbing is that fucking cop, 
Burgess, who, like a spit-roasted
Republican switches sides with  
the flimsiest of alibis. Perhaps it's 
the heat, back when courtroom 
settings had not yet been turned 
into  series of air-conditioned 
nightmares. No sweat, but saturated 
shadows and oblique confrontations. 
None so unsettling as Burgess's reply 
to Jack's suggestion- self-flattery, of 
course- that the killer might well be 
genius. "No," says Burgess, "he's 
paranoic. It's not how a man looks, 
but how his mind works. Some day 
we'll have the sense to train the mind 
like we train the body." To which one 
might reply, if the hat fits, why in the 
world would anyone want to wear it. 

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

If it really does all take place in his mind, had he, 
or the film, not been shot on AlcatrazOr turned 
to pulp by a literate projector (invented by E. 
Dorn, circa 1970). "A dream, a dream." In a land 
of sleep-walkers, where only the exhausted will 
be culpable and insomniacs reign supreme. Every-one else, irrelevant or speed-balling down the interstate. Riding shot-gun alongside bevy of
eroticised women, their eyeballs drawing circles, 
drugged, then examined for flaws. A tin ear for 
Walker's footsteps echoing through LAXplanes 
whining like badly educated mosquitoes. A woman's voice: “Can’t sleep, haven’t slept, keep taking 
pills, dreaming about you, how good it must be 
being dead.” What about that under-achieving 
nightclub waitress: "Walker, are you still alive?" Or Angie, switching on every produit blancecstatic 
under the sign of commodity fetishism, advising 
Walker, “Why don’t you just lie down and die.” No, not until he wreaks havoc on the corporate world: 
gangsters, outsourcers, accountants, and a car sales-
man. With glass partitioning the cruel from the 
sadistic, the kind from the  catatonic, and Walker 
from a freight train of thought. Through glass half-
empty, elliptical as a  Borgesian tango. Chasing 
shadow fading to all points blank, the money 
just yards away, untouched, a torch song turned 
to ashes, swept out in the mourning, this ghost of 
a chance, inherited hardboiled America forever.

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.