Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Our Common Project

While I was away on what seemed like another planet a lot of good books came out. Now that I’m back, it’s hard to know where to begin, but because this book is one I took with me in my suitcase, I will start with Mike Scharf’s Telemachiad, out this year from sugarhigh! The book brings together a number of tendencies, awarenesses, provisos, difficulties and achievements that evoke what Kevin Killian called, on the back of the book:

“The debate that engages us most today … how to let poetry and emotion co-exist, and even more so, actively to fructify the other. And some of us go to greater lengths than the rest to make sure this occurs. And no one goes as far as Michael Scharf, who in the nightmare of war trips across the fragmented ferment that is our common project today.”

The idea of this project as a common one surprises me, and yet I don’t deny it. The strange sincerity of this book and equally strange (estranged) range of its esthetics make Telemachiad an interesting case in point.

The book’s gorgeous cover -- Brandon’s Downing’s haunted nighttime photo Sacramento Tree – evokes the British version of Robert Duncan’s Roots & Branches for me, not merely because the Duncan figured prominently among the ones in my suitcase, but because there is a suggestion in Scharf’s book of what Taylor Brady recommends we don’t call lyric. I have at times referred to such work as highly prosodized darkly connotative textual units. (And I couldn’t agree more with Taylor, having noted recently the lyric call to arms made by conservative writers who shall remain nameless here because I can’t remember their names.) However, the differences between the Duncan and Scharf covers are more telling than the similarities. The cover of Roots & Branches is a swirling allegorical reproduction of a classic illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whereas Sacramento Tree is, one assumes, a Sacramento tree. It does swirl and suggests for me the Latinate rhetorical flourishes the writer occasionally allows himself, the odd bit of actual Latin, and a suggestion of -- let’s call it a tonalism. This quality, this tendency to create highly prosodized darkly connotative emotionally nuanced textual units might be what distinguishes this work from that of writers Scharf calls “the sons of Bruce” -- referring to the close association with the noted Language writer Bruce Andrews maintained by several of the local boys.

While it is clear in the text, thanks to the talky NY school influence, that Scharf is friends with some of these writers – Miles Champion and Brian Kim Stefans are mentioned, it is also apparent that, though he knows the rules of this Andrewsian discourse, and in some ways achieves its familiar dense surface of smart, dissonant, overdetermined irony, he also breaks, interrogates, questions and outrages these rules:

“I pipe orphically;
I burst into song;
I cry at the sight of abject men

The explosive trees
quietly popping into bloom,
pooping on the toilet—
and those talking birds
must have been little girls.

Schreber, Schubert, Sch – Don’t touch it!
Endured countless “honest moments”
I am coming into my own!

You’re not listening
And the trees, for all their spread, couldn’t
Really give a crap. But little by little,
The talking birds reassert themselves,
And Schreber’s relationship with his dead

father resolves
Into brotherly affection, before his

too, dies and Schreber
offers himself
to the rays of God.
Lighting farts in burnt offering ...

So there is that and then there are short pieces, redolent of the old Modernism:


I called; I
held; I feel

True remarks
course through
closed cans,

low clowning, cave
and cape;


The kind of fun you have when you read these poems makes Scharf’s references to Jack Spicer (who figures in several pieces in the book) and George Oppen make sense. And the fact that the book is blurbed by two West Coast writers – Kevin Killian and Juliana Spahr (we claim Juliana while she is out here) adds to the West Coast feel. However, like the writer, this work can be many things to many people.

So if you are interested in contemporary poetry, the poetry scene, New York, San Francisco, love, family life, death, being modern, being Jewish or have read Jack Spicer, you might want to read this book right away. It is work by one who knows the pointless, anguished danger of being a poet and is one anyway.