Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The General's Fiction: A Military Internment of Literature — No. 2

Note: Today, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria. He last joined us to explain how Christopher Hitchens should burn in hell, how we can help Andrew Breitbart get there and how killing Bin Laden was the last spasm in the American fever dream.

Pavane For A Dead Country: Mark Brendle's Radio Fragments

You probably know the holiday blues, if not personally, then at least by reputation. And you probably know them more acutely when the celebrations end, when there's no one left to lie to—winter without the trappings. Wallace Stevens wrote, "The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us," and in the twilight of an economically corroded and spiritually bereft America, it is more vital than ever that artists shine a light. Mark Brendle, an Oregon-based writer and colleague here at Et Tu, Mr. Destructo, has published a new book of poetry, Radio Fragments.

Radio Fragments consists of a few dozen prose poems beneath a lovely illustrated cover, depicting a cordon of riot cops forming a human abatis, as a ribbon of radio waves bends and curls between them. How is Radio Fragments? It is superb, because as an author, Brendle gets the stakes. This poetry is neither for the aloof liberal who sets great store in a few clean tweaks, nor the reactionary clinging to his long-dead liturgy. Radio Fragments is sad, strong, crystalline, beautiful, like the thick ice atop a dark lake. This is poetry for people who, in Andrea Dworkin's words, "Don't find compromise unacceptable—[they] find it incomprehensible."

The book's strength comes from its unity of vision—a dire one. In one of the book's final poems, "An Elegy For Cinna The Poet," the speaker plainly doubts the ability of any creative work to puncture the violence and anomie that has come to dominate our lives: "What are words to the angry mob, or anyone else for that matter? The patricians have been fighting with each other over their toys again." The poet is ignored, Caesar gets whacked by his equally loathsome usurpers, and "atomized, dissonant voices howl in the marketplace." As Brendle writes in another poem, "The equivalence of words brands us with proper nouns like Charlemagne, Babylon, Gilgamesh, Constantinople, Prospero." Let any dissidents bay; they've always been ignored in time for the next collapse. What change could a poet possibly effect?

These days, in which the zombie doctrine of capitalism staggers on, discredited yet undead, lacking any competing vision capable of finally clogging Reagan's rancid heart, it is not only easy to be disheartened about our capacity for change, but sensible. And what is perhaps most grotesque about the "discarded cultural tatters" of Brendle's poems, is the manner in which the "song of selfishness" that characterizes our culture has vulgarized every possibility of action—from owning a pet to watching TV, from sleeping in late to sustaining romantic love. Brendle's own description of the book is thus appropriately self-effacing: "It is a collection of words describing itself and other things. It will one day decay into radio waves along with everything else."

In the stagnant, shallow muck that passes for a literary life in America today, this recognition of the book's impermanence is enough of a radical departure; there is none of the dingy entropy, of book advances and preening interviews, that constitute our "literary culture." But Radio Fragments wouldn't be interesting if it simply concluded that humanity will not stave off the inevitable. No, that is is merely the starting assumption; Brendle's never gonna be in the New Yorker, and we are better for it. The country is dead, and what remains is the post-mortem; as elucidated in the early poem "Insensate," the "millenia when waste will survive its creators approach."

Read: we're dealing with a culture of garbage here, folks, and everything and everyone is larded with the wages. Don't believe Brendle? Spend half an hour parked in front of the McDonald's drive-thru and watch the discomfort, the sadness, the low-boiling anger. You watch a 60-hour-a-week, 50-year-old fast-food manager picking up garbage off the asphalt and tell me that this should be the cost of doing business. It might sound Pollyanna-ish to "serious people" to be angered over these everyday humiliations, but the best poems in Radio Fragments can indicate these deep wells of feeling with only modest tells. As Brendle writes in "Parallax of Intention," in a "competition to see who can endure discomfort longer, we both lose." As far as I'm concerned, for the deracinated nobodies who provide so much of the subject material for Brendle's poetry, this is the only rule of the game that ever applies.

Nietzsche said he could "only believe in a god who dances," and having promised a refreshingly squalid portrait of "Potemkin men in Potemkin villages," Brendle must now show us his technical chops. If his overarching vision of a deeply alienated, fearful society remains powerfully sculpted—and unfortunately relevant—the execution of the 91 individual prose poems is more uneven. Some of this is attributable to the form, the prose proving a less musical, supple creature than rhyme. But more often it is the high dudgeon of an omniscient speaker, steeped in the clinical language of postmodern theory, which drowns out earthier, more interesting voices. Moving forward as an artist, Brendle's greatest task will be to cultivate the allure in the best of these poems, to further isolate those moments Joyce called "epiphanies," and to do so in a voice that rings as clearly as his own and shies away from the rescuing tendency to whisper to the audience that the author is aware of himself.

One of his best poems, "Chicxulub," is an indication of where I hope Brendle's artistic energies migrate. First of all, it is very funny; a guy getting a lift jabbers away, uninterrupted, about annihilation, asteroids, "careening across the void in timeless motion," occasionally interrupting to direct the driver when to turn, and how far away they are from home. This is a rich comic scenario, and though we are only exposed to the speech of one party, the absence of the driver is itself funny: the passive straight man, focused on the mechanics of driving, entirely unable or unwilling to respond to questions like, "Who kisses Jupiter's bruises?" Smashing the inexorable, astronomical journey of mankind's annihilation against the willfully deaf inevitability of an everyday car ride—this is the voice to be developed: the tragic, feckless American, grasping at the truth and usually slipping on a banana peel.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, we think, as we see mass murder routinized into the motion of a joystick, or the poorest Americans falling over each other to revoke their right to unionize. We seem to regress, natural selection sweeping backward, winnowing the kitsch and trash into the common denominator, into a conventional wisdom that can't be arrested. But while Brendle's poetry never recoils from confronting "the way we actually live now," with a gimlet-eyed cynicism that Serious Writers would never accept, this does not mean all is lost.

If Brendle's execution sometimes disappoints, his scabrous perspective does not. There is a fire inside which cannot be surrendered without our consent; barring this loss, even in the wasteland, the misbegotten people of his poems can gain some power over the possibility of things. The folly we call our lives is not necessarily a tragedy in Brendle's world, where our actions will reverberate against the farthest penumbras of the universe, in the ineluctable legacy of radio fragments. In the words of Philip Larkin, "What will survive of us is love."

(Editor's Note: For related commentary, see Brendle's review of the poetry of, like, alienation. And stuff.)

Rating: What does a number even mean?
And why would you trust it? We know Brendle. Not personally or anything, but there are layers and layers of corruption at work. Why would you even trust the above review? Maybe everybody made out and rubbed each other in a belt-wise southward manner. Maybe we all met in the same Klavern.

Just buy his fucking book or don't. I don't have the slightest patience for you. You make me sick.