Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bea (st) (uty)

Up to about a month ago, I was sure that no piece of writing could genuinely shock me. I was so sure of this I wasn't even aware that it was something I thought. I knew it in the way that I knew that night follows day, water is damp, etc. I was also wrong, and the man in this photograph proved it. That's Osvaldo Lamborghini. He was born in Argentina in 1940 and died in Barcelona in 1985. In 1966 or 1967 he wrote a story that may also be a poem called "The Proletarian Boy." About a month ago I read it and it took me two weeks to recover.

The piece begins with a rough sketch of the life of the average proletarian boy. It's funny in a grim way. The boy's father is always beating him with "a beatchain," for example, and everyone is drunk and miserable and poor. In the middle of this the narrator says, "I congratulate myself for not having been born a worker..." There's some more description of the proletarian boy's life, then the narrator says that there was one in his school, and goes on to describe the hard time said proletarian boy has there. Then there's a page break.

The second part of the piece shifts from the general to the specific. The narrator and two friends see the proletarian boy coming toward them. They stop him and start to beat him up. What follows is a long sequence in which the three "bourgeois boys" violently assault and rape the proletarian boy. They push him in a ditch, slash his face and slice his anus with a piece of glass, and it gets worse from there. While the first of the three boys is busy raping the proletarian boy, the other two stand aside and watch and eat each other's vomit and shit. Then they take their turns. That done, they strangle him. The End. Total length of about 4 pages.

The sex and the violence in "The Proletarian Boy" are so extreme that they can hardly be described. It is an orgy of the darkest, most disturbing variety, and it comes out of nowhere and takes the whole piece over. I read it and there I was: shocked, really scandalized, and then I read it again. I had to.

Cause here's the thing: as disgusting as it is, "The Proletarian Boy" is a great piece of writing. Lamborghini's talent is immediately apparent and undeniable. He is a great stylist, a skillful manipulator of both his reader and his material, he is funny as hell and it is obvious that he is doing something more than simply trying to shock the reader with violence or homosexuality. Here's his response to an interviewer from the journal Lecturas críticas, who asked what he was trying to say with "The Proletarian Boy":
I was trying to say things like: why should I come out like an idiot and say that I'm against the bourgeoisie? Why shouldn't I manifest what bourgeois discourse would be and carry it to its limits? What would be compromised?

And a little further on in the interview he elaborates on the, literary, reasons for the murder:
Western culture consists of killing a child; everyone's thinking all the time about how to kill a child.

Since I read that first piece of Lamborghini's, I've read another story ("The Fjord"), a handful of poems, and an unfinished novel (Tadeys). The quality of the writing is always very, very high. The other work, especially Tadeys, is extremely funny, though I doubt that I can convey exactly why or how. Here's a list of things that happen in Tadeys, all of which are, I swear, hilarious in the context of the book.

1. A man anally rapes his wife to death after she confesses that she has, for years, been laboring in secret to turn their son into a woman, doing such things as repeatedly referring to his anus as his vagina while he was bathing.

2. Two local officials, a psychiatrist and a prison warden, team up to solve the growing problem of violent young men committing crimes. Their solution is to take a spare oceanliner that's sitting in the harbor and transform it into a "womanizing ship." The young thugs are brought on board, raped for a week straight, then otherwise manipulated psychologically so as to literally turn them into women. This endeavor is phenomenally successful. The local men fall instantly in love with "the little ladies," so much so that no one minds that they all still have very small penises.

3. Jesus Christ is sodomized at his own request and loves it.

4. A rich old man has a fetish: he likes to ejaculate in young women's hair immediately after they have washed it. This gets him in trouble, so a relative steps in and buys the old man a private brothel where every type of hair in the world is represented. Problem solved.

5. A man walks into a room to talk to a friend. The friend is busy fellating a homeless person. The man sits down and watches. When the friend gets done, the three of them sit around and talk. The homeless man is named Bummy.

All of this takes place in a country which is bigger than China called La Comarca. The country's biggest industry is the raising of an animal called a tadey. They look a lot like humans. They are eaten. They are also widely used by men as sex partners, because they are "the most sodomite of animals," and also have a second tongue in their anus that they use to great effect at the decisive moment.

The presence of such an animal has influenced everything in La Comarca, the economy depends on them completely, possession of the wealth derived from the tadey trade separates the classes, the fact that everyone has sex with them has loosened taboos on homosexuality, almost all the men in the book have homosexual sex at some point, though most of them also denigrate their partners with an astonishing variety of slurs.

In other words: the book is set in a country founded and functioning on the basis of the hypocritical exploitation and murder of dehumanized homosexuals. Put that way, the subtext in Lamborghini's work (which is everywhere buried under piles of irony, never spelled out or simply stated) becomes a little clearer, and with it what he's doing, intellectually.

It seems to me that Osvaldo was, by the end of his life, out to synthesize Marx and Lacan. His definition of the word "proletariat," a word which comes up again and again, is a very broad one. Not just workers in the old school sense, but all exploited people generally, especially homosexuals. His obsession with Lacan has been well noted, and informs his use of sex throughout his writing. He is constantly radically scrambling all categories of identity, especially gender, through the use of extreme forms of sex. Osvaldo is most reminiscent of De Sade and Bataille, especially the former. Osvaldo is the only writer I know of who can match, and sometimes surpass, the old Marquis in the sheer joy he takes in transgression. Which is what makes Osvaldo so much fun to read.

Unfortunately, if you don't read Spanish you're out of luck for the time being. We had a few of his poems in the latest issue of Calque, though nothing very racy, and there were a few poems in another small journal last year. That's it, as far as I know. At least for now.

The question is: will any American or British or Canadian publisher be willing to publish this stuff? I would tend to think probably not. This kind of writing will put a picket line of Christian nutjobs outside your door, but even beyond that I have a hard time imagining some publisher reading a fifteen page sample of this stuff and being anything other than horrified. I guess we'll see.

Lamborghini's last work was an immense cross-genre project called Proletarian Chamber Theater composed of writing, collage, painting, just everything. It was, like all of Osvaldo's work, put in shape by Cesár Aira and published a few years ago, in an edition of 300 copies selling for 130 Euros a piece. What is that, $250? Yeesh. If you click here and scroll down you'll get the best look at it any of us are ever likely to get.

Friday, April 17, 2009


1. I would like to take a poem written in English, translate it into another language, say Spanish, then from Spanish into French, from French into German, and so on, through nine versions in nine different languages, ending with the tenth and final version being a translation back into English.

2. I've been on a Andrei Tarkovsky binge lately, just finished watching one of his movies a few minutes ago, in fact. If you have not seen "Mirror" yet please do so now. It is unspeakably beautiful. I read a book he wrote called "Sculpting in Time" recently as well. Very interesting. Full of quotes like "The purpose of art is to prepare a person for death." He talks about art and movies like Theodore Dreiser, I mean he sounds like a "realist" or a "naturalist," art is about examining life, helping people, beginning with yourself, understand where and why they are, etc. Then you see his movies and you expect to see "Written by a hypnotized Robert Desnos" in the credits. What gives? Well, one thing the book showed me is that Andrei was working from a really broad definition of the word "life." At one point he explicitly says that he considers his own movies more true to life than typical Cinema Vérité or literary naturalism a la Zola. And I have to say, I agree. What I like most about his movies is that there's no point in even talking about them or trying to analyze them when you can just watch them again. Hence the binge. This site has a lot of interesting Andrei-related stuff.

3. I was in the mountains recently, in a house full of books and my friend Bettina Drew. She goes to bed as soon as the sun goes down, I stay up all night reading random things. One was a book by Donald Hall called "Their Ancient Glittering Eyes," a title which is so hoaky I almost didn't type it. It's basically a memoir of his encounters with various poets, some of whom he studied under, others of whom he interviewed when he was poetry editor at the Paris Review. I read a long essay about his interview with Ezra Pound in Rome in 1960 or 61. Pretty interesting. Pound was falling apart by then, this was right before the start of his long silent period. Hall and his wife took him out to dinner and Ezra, not wanting to go home yet, took them all out for gelato afterward. Another thing I read was Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, in which he flat out says that 1. God, as in Old Testament God, is and has been punishing the United States for "the evil of slavery" and 2. in this context "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether," and would be even if the war went on "until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." I know there's a lot of distasteful Lincoln Porn going on lately, but still, if you think about it, that's a pretty intense thing for a President to say, especially at that time, when the war was still ongoing.

4. And while we're in Bettina's neighborhood, she has an interesting essay up at the Missouri Review about her encounters with Ted Berrigan and Elizabeth Smart near the end of their respective lives.

5. This site has everything Van Gogh ever did on it. All the paintings, drawings, letters. All of it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Yolk All Over Everywhere

Get the Fuck Back into that Burning Plane
by Lawrence Giffin
Ugly Duckling Presse
20 pages, hand-bound with letterpress wrap

Here's the thing: I hate theory. Excuse me, Theory. I hate it. I think it's asinine and silly. If you watch the way it plays out over time it starts to look a lot like fashion. The arguments it gives rise to are about as manufactured as the yearly post-season drama in any sport you could name. It's jargon for the specialist, no different from that of banks or governments or insurance companies, designed to draw a line between insiders and outsiders, as well as create a growth market in explanations. It is, in my opinion, far too much recipe and not nearly enough cooking, especially at a time like this, when people need so badly to eat.

About the only thing I can think of that I dislike more than theory itself is theory disguised as poetry, poems that exist solely to advance theoretical ideas and concepts. The kings of this are, of course, the Language Poets (boo!), and their various contemporary imitators. What makes these poets especially fun is that they're all Marxist and shit, they're so down for the Revolution, which is apparently going to be accomplished through the elimination of capitalist syntax and the judicious application of the Fibonacci sequence. They're going to undermine the bourgeoisie, perhaps by stealing each other's car keys or something. These people are tenured university professors. They are the bourgeoisie. Why would my dad, for example, want to hear about what the working class needs to do from some college professor with soft hands? No college professor is going to listen to his thoughts on poetry or teaching, even if he does spend all day theorizing about it.

Predictably, theory answers questions like this by asserting it's own supremacy over things like experience (usually written in quotes, to emphasize its illusory nature), setting up a situation in which only theory can show us the way. And of course our friends the theorists will be there to explain it all, to manage things, so that they work properly, which is very very different from being a ruling class. Pretty convenient.

These opinions have put me in a small minority among my contemporaries, which is fine. I was also unpopular in school, so I'm accustomed to it. My friends who are really into theory regard me as some sort of Magic Savage, while I in turn think of them as Magic Eggheads, and we all get along just fine.
None of the above statements are going to surprise my Magic Egghead friends. I lay them out here for the sake of clarity, so that the general reader will understand the surprise the Eggheads will feel when they read the following sentence: I just read Get the Fuck Back into that Burning Plane by Lawrence Giffin and I really liked it. Eggheads have just exploded up and down the coast.

Poor sweet categorizers, settle down. I'm not having my road to Damascus moment here, but what can I say, it's a good poem. I get the impression that I differ politically with Mr. Giffin almost as much as I do with, say, Newt Gingrich. But you know what, fuck politics. I also get the impression, based on this essay from Jacket that Giffin wrote, that he is a long way from sharing my antipathy towards theory. Shrug. Still a good poem.

First of all, that title is great. It's catchy, yes, and I have an inordinate fondness for the word fuck, but it also sets up the poem very well. When you read it, you are immediately informed as to the poem's basic subject and outlook on that subject.

The poem itself is really interesting. It is extremely political, almost Amiri Baraka levels of politics, where everything the poem is saying and doing is inseparable from its politics, which I'd call a sort of hip, post-Situationist despair, basically how I imagine Guy Debord must have felt the day he shot himself. We are fucked and getting fuckeder. Forever. Fuck it. This obviously makes it difficult to just say “fuck politics” and ignore it, but the poem works for me mostly because it regularly subverts the conventions of this kind of poetry.

Such as by being funny, as in the poem's third section, where the voice of cable news speaks, and what it says is the poem's title. This section also includes a passage where the poem questions Toby Keith as to what he meant to say with certain of his lyrics; “did you really mean to imply / that America is a cage?” This is very funny and beyond clever, taking the poetics trope of “interrogation” about as far as it will go. There is silliness: “I put the Prada in Gucci, / the dada in Susan Lucci.” There is even a pun, in spectacularly appropriate bad taste, which refers to Bill Clinton as “Baal Cunton.” This is a long way from your average, dry theory-poem, however much theory might be in there as well.

Humor can be difficult to pull off in poetry on the page. At a reading, you inflect the lines and the audience will pick up on the fact that you're being funny and laugh. On the page, that's gone and all you have to mimic it is word choice and line breaks. There are various points where Giffin breaks his lines perfectly, producing the same effect that voice cadence achieves in recitation. You can hear the audience laughing from your kitchen. It's very nice work.

Also nice work is the way that all of this humor and playfulness alternates with the more sobering ideas and reflections in the poem, such as “The choice, whether or not to live life / to any capacity is not afforded us.” “Anyone needs a reason to live, / not least of all because there isn't one.” This line of thought, centered in powerlessness, extends through everything, daily life, the personal, the social, even poetry itself, “whoever's moment of clarity through / creative writing that may turn out to be.” Giffin can juggle these seemingly opposed moods, humor and despair, because they are basically two sides of the same coin. They are both rooted in the political ideas that inform the whole poem. As politics, meh, but as the use of a theme to drive a fairly long poem, again, very nice work.

There are, of course, some things I'm not so fond of here. I find the bleakness of the poem's vision a little over the top, implying as it does that human society is something close to a monstrous conspiracy out to enslave the shit out everyone for the sheer sport of the thing. The poem strips the individual of all but the most futile agency in the face of this situation, and implies (along with Giffin's Jacket essay) that any possible solutions will be collective as opposed to individual. Having seen the practical results of this basic Marxist emphasis on the collective over the individual, this troubles me. In the poem's more theory-heavy sections, there is a tendency to use very long words like “phenomenology” that clog up the line.

But most this stuff is personal taste and none is enough to be a deal-breaker, because the work on the whole is very strong. The thing I am most interested here is Giffin's willingness to take on someone like Toby Keith in a poem like this. You're much more likely to read a poem that “engages” some Slovenian philosopher. Giffin puts a nutjob country singer and cable news on trial here, along with capitalism or spectacular society or what have you, identifying and exploring the links between them.

My favorite thing about the poem is the way that Giffin captures, at various points, the insane levels of cognitive dissonance that have defined the word “reality” for as long as I can remember. The way I felt the first time I heard that goddamned Toby Keith song, which is how I have felt again and again in the last ten or fifteen years, is well replicated here. That's important, because it's not the sort of thing that's going to make it into history books, it's too elusive, but it can go into a poem, which can not only preserve it but actually make the reader feel it. I had almost forgotten how that felt until Giffin reminded me, and it's not the sort of thing I feel comfortable forgetting.

By the end of the poem, Giffin has brought the reader to the point of engagement with his ideas. Real engagement. You sit there and you think about the implications of, for example, the passivity that characterizes his descriptions of modern existence. You read the poem a second, a third time. A fourth. You ask yourself and the poem questions. And if, at the end of the day, you decide that you can't really get quite all the way down with him on some of this stuff, you're in a position to make that decision at all because Giffin has reached you with his poem. He has communicated, and there is therefore dialogue. And that's basically what we're after, on both sides of the writer/reader divide, is it not?

Note: Giffin will be reading with Nico Vassilakis at the Poetry Project on April 24th.