Thursday, July 7, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

I always hoped to grow up to be a drifter

and woe and blue to you if you are 70
when you ain't yet 30 and the light
like egg whites troublin' over clay
and the blue yodeler's lung for wheezy hat
just plain winds your mind to wear the thing

Everything about this book feels like it was written under a neon beer sign with a whiskey nearby in the last hour before the bar closed, as a probably futile alternative to violence or tears. I saw Abe Smith read from it one afternoon, in a ping-pong bar in DC. He slid behind the microphone, nodded at the applause and, without seeming to take a breath, proceeded to rant like a Baptist preacher. When he finished it seemed like he’d read the entire book without having taken a breath. The room broke into the kind of noisy, hooting clapping you hear from a poetry crowd when they all know they’ve just seen IT. I tried to buy the book then and there, but there were no copies left. So I did the cheap snake thing and begged a free one off the publisher, Action Books.

When it came I found that, on the page, it reads a lot like Abe sounds: it hurtles, wailing like, oh, I dunno, a freight train. It’s broken into sections that have roughly the length and feel of your average canto, though the poems are not called that. They’re not called anything, having for titles something along the lines of “#$#$%%%$#$#” or “@!&&&*!@#$.”

Technically speaking, that hurtling-freight-train effect is the result of the way Abe uses line breaks in combination with an utter lack of any kind of punctuation. No periods, no commas, nothing, so you’re left with the line itself and how it’s cut. There will be a handful of lines, all phrasal, usually enough of them to establish a rhythm in a reader’s head, a pattern of comprehension tied to the phrasal breaks. Then the enjambments start. Having gotten accustomed to the phrasal pattern, the enjambed breaks send you practically leaping to the next line, looking for the phrase’s end. Usually you get dragged through half a dozen lines until you finally find it. Then the whole thing happens again.

So there’s the poetry wonk stuff for the spondee fetishists. There remains the question of the book’s content and its implications.

First of all, I hope Abe isn’t cherishing any notions of being a big hit in New York any time soon, cause I can’t see it happening. That, to me, says more about the poetry (sub)culture in that city than it does about the book. There’s too much blood in this book for New York. And one might plausibly conclude that Abe means it, which doesn’t play well out that way either. Also, this book is largely about the South, a region of the country that can hardly be said to fascinate our friends and colleagues in the, repeat it wearily with me now, Greatest City in the World. Abe also doesn’t sound like he’s high on cold medicine when he reads, and they love that in New York.

Too bad for them, cause what’s going on here is really interesting. First of all, this is not a book that is about Hank Williams so much as it’s involved with the life and aesthetics that Hank represents. Through the whole thing I kept thinking it was more like Townes Van Zandt covering Hank than Hank himself, an idea that gets a brief wink toward the end of the book. Hank is more a lens used to look at the South, a sort of guiding spirit who hangs around like an old 8-track in the glove compartment, a reference point that Abe circles back around to, to reconnect the threads he’s following all over the place.

There was a point in this book where I read the expression “gas rag.” Now what that is? It’s a rag, usually very cheap, that is used by people who work on cars to wipe up gas that gets spilled on the engine or elsewhere. That’s all it gets used for. It had been probably 15 years since I’d heard the term “gas rag,” but as soon as I did, there I was, in a garage with my dad, being asked to pass him one, or being told to keep it separate from the other rags, or to put it with the other, older gas rags, in a spot plenty far away from the space heaters. What we’ve got there is a well-observed detail, one that sketches the contours of a rural, poor, Southern culture, the same one that Hank Williams came from and came to represent the way the Virgin Mary represents womanhood to a Catholic.

And that’s the culture Abe is looking at, questioning, teasing, observing, writing down, in the present. And the book is called Hank, I suspect, because it is very difficult to move in this culture for even an hour and not bump into him somewhere, especially in Alabama, Hank’s home state, where Abe spends a fair amount of time. To take this culture and its major symbolic figure as the material for a poem as avant-garde as this is, to me, a pretty big deal. The result is an aesthetically progressive piece of work, as sophisticated as anything I’ve read in the last five years. But by virtue of its subject and themes, Hank is one of the few aesthetically progressive works I’ve read in the last five years that is not essentially about the problems of bourgeois identity. It’s about the poor, and the sub-poor, and talks about us unprogrammatically as though even we could be beautiful, as fucked as we are, as devoted as we shall probably always be, to a skinny pill freak who could sing like hell.