Uppercut: A Review of Alex M. Frankel’s Birth Mother Mercy
Lummox Press, San Pedro, CA
Review by Steve Goldman
102% of American families are dysfunctional.
Robert Bly in casual conversation
… A birth mother does not kiss
With iron heart and easy petal she flees…
Alex M. Frankel
Reviewing Alex M. Frankel’s poetry collection Birth Mother Mercy is by far the most painful and difficult reviewing I have ever been called upon to do. And I hope it remains that way forever. Not because it is so mordantly brutal and bursting with rage, describing the terrible matters it does, but because of how completely I identify with it – because of the great pain I feel in revisiting all that in my own life. Perhaps because I’ve written my own such cathartic book – I really don’t want to read this one. But this is “special pleading” and no commentary on the quality of the book at hand, which is superb.
But Birth Mother Mercy along with its dryly and nigh perfectly contoured “sharp stick in the eye” language, is honest and not excessive. The autobiographical poetry here is not about family life or relations such as you’d see on Leave It to Beaver. Rather, we are talking about hideous emotional and psychological abuse in family history. Total rejection a priori, attendant betrayal of any decent or even minimal human support and affirmation, ceaseless schooling in your own vileness, killing and sui generous loneliness, depression, substance dependency, legal or otherwise, social dislodgement, economic murder via fraudulent interdiction of rightful inheritance and being driven to crazy measures to somehow compensate, to name a few.
The vile developmental aspects of Alex’s life earn the strong pejorative treatment noted and to say the least, I don’t know how he could have written this book any other way. Here vituperation becomes art, goddamned honest art. I once saw a kitchen sampler which read: “So work your grief into art and it will leave you”. I hope writing and publishing this book has helped Alex, as I know my almost identically themed book has helped me, and I hope it helps anyone reading it, as discovering Sharon Olds helped me.
OK, a digression. Here we are on about autobiographical poetry; a term arrived at independently by me and the aforementioned Sharon Olds. The point is that this is not “confessional” poetry. Alex, Sharon, I and multitudes of others have nothing to confess. We are not criminals, we are not crazy, we are not worthless, and we are not illegitimate. And that Reader is the fundamental point, that and conversion as best possible of the indelible stigma of family damage: to recover our endemic dignity
A blurb on the back of the handsomely mounted book notes that Alex’s images make an “uppercut – punch use of language”. This guy (Eric Morago) knows whereof he speaks; uppercut: hardest punch to see coming, because only usable at very close quarters or in a clinch, with a unique vertical trajectory and devastating when done right.
So here we go. In the first lines of the first stanza of the first poem of this book namely The Growth we find:
Snug inside the wet flesh of a girl
there’s a stowaway curled up
bundled in a bubble safe from scandal,
it must not be seen, it must think small, smaller, smallest
even when its eyes are wanting to explore
“…stowaway…”!? This guy was rejected prenatally. Even before birth, before being “thrust into the world” (geworfen – a la Heidegger) with, like all of us, neither his own permission nor intent – he is instructed and structured to become “small, smaller, smallest” in a dark pregnancy, the opposite of growth, of gestation, of nurturance. And mom-to-be must physically conceal her “shameful” pregnancy. Hell of away to enter the world, wouldn’t you say? In a poem of my own, I designate myself as being “technically legitimate// the bastard save only in name“ Nuff said?
Oh yes, it is now definitively known to medicine that a mother’s mood during pregnancy can affect the development and personality of the newborn to be, that and whatever genetic predispositions are at play. My own mother was chronically depressed. The family life there was one of ceaseless shrill screaming to me about how wrong, evil, incompetent and disingenuous I was. I was literally born and bred for depression. I know what Alex knows, and reading this so painful a book, it provokes as noted my own reminiscences. The upside is that I don’t feel so alone. How ‘bout that folks: in utero depression?
So then, let’s just brush by some of these related concerns, or should I say agonies?
As for depression, clinical depression (my own specialty – I majored in it in college) I will leave to your discretion, Reader, to sample these horrific wares. Alex speaks frequently throughout the poems of Prozac, Welbutrin, Cozar, Aldactone, meds. For depression and stress, in one instance “…liquid Prozac on my jeans…” Let’s let that suffice: all I can say (and you won’t understand this if you haven’t experienced it, and if you have you don’t need me to tell you): it is the direct experience of the Void which is beyond the grasp of language. I can’t tell you. It is literally “unspeakable.” Take it from me.
There is however an 80% correlation between poets (a certain brain chemistry, make you no mistake) and clinical depression. (An NYU Study). Thus, Alex’s book implicitly forwards the understanding of poets and poetry categorically, which is desperately needed in this country to wit.
Loneliness. A haunting and thwarted loneliness pervades this book – the ongoing desperate need to “connect.” Erotic imagery not excluding lust, abound in red-hot passages here. In fantasy – from the poem The Long Happy Flight of Asa Smallidge Streb, the speaker lusts vicariously for his airliner seat-mate: “Even the way he yawns looks macho and youthful. Big strapping nameless jock of the unexamined life…” Once elsewhere, the accidental touch of a market cashier’s hand gets the juices flowing. And franker still, from Cum Laude (as if on the internet) “Hey boyz 9 inches here uncut / hard as hell / someone help me with this load…”Amongst its many virtues, frank and deftly rendered eros is a preeminent one and a liberating one at that.
Desperation. In When the Queer Chat Room Closed… Alex, so desperate for contact outlines crazy chat room scams representing himself as a girl, in some kind of hysterical hope that a girl might be treated better by the faceless co-conversant on the net. “How easily I knead my breasts into being// when, instead of typing ‘48/male’/ I lie a bit, write 20/female…” The yearning and conjoined lust just sizzle through.
The Pleasures of Relinquishment with its recurring line “seven pounds of shame were shed today” sums up the tone of the book, Emblematic in its way of the whole book; this is not merely satire, not analysis not exposé, but polemic. “Here, here” say I! Vitriol! And while we’re at it (get a load of this!), this very poem is a villanelle of all things! Villanelle? An obscure French poetic form, strictly dictated, needs recurring lines, specific rhyme pattern, leaving no room whatever for divergence from. None! (I marvel that Alex doesn’t have a sestina in here too.) I don’t actually know all the rules for the villanelle and I DON’T WANT TO. But this kind of thing is immensely difficult to write, let alone so tellingly, where the great skill does not obtrude on the sheer immediacy of the “punch.” And this brings me to another major point.
Which pleases me near to the point of giddiness. Alex is a master of verbal acrobatics: notwithstanding formal verse, he rhymes too! This book is redolent with rhyme, and the usual accompanying rations of form, meter and rhythm. Here in form and rhyme etc. – he demonstrates nothing short of virtuosity.
And limericks, yet.
There is something simply triumphantly whacko about writing “serious” limericks if you please, about dire and ugly family shit. This is to me a post-modern evidence of what I call ‘metaphysical vaudeville’ which I personally propound and find only otherwise, by and large, in Thomas Pynchon. How the hell else you gonna handle the virulently poisonous nuclear fallout of family doom? Long romantic lugubrious verses? Not hardly, them days are gone forever. Standard English usage and prosody by themselves are inadequate to express, render and convey what is so excruciatingly at stake here. Hence limericks! Nu? Compared to this, black and gallows humor are kids’ stuff.
Whoopee! And another digression, if you please. Note: the grand tradition of rhyme, meter and rhythm has been dissed after the great moderns, and held in unctuously condescending disdain by poets, critics and academic alike. Why do people fail to realize that before say, Eliot, poetry was rhymed, and that the Great Moderns, even as his contemporaries: Yeats, Auden, Frost, Jeffers (?), Housman, Robinson, all wrote rhymed, metered poetry and at the end of an incalculably long historic tradition of same.
And not realize as well that in many quarters rhyme is regarded as an invention to facilitate memorization? How do you think father to son transmission takes place down the centuries – of the great national folk epics? Old men reciting reams of the Great Poem, which rhymes. And poetry is an oral phenomenon first.
Rhoda Goldfarb (a limerick,)
A gold digger clung to my dad.
To want her he must have been mad.
And when he was dying
No sense in her crying,
As long as she got all he had.
An actual person’s name, even the wicked stepmother’s – in a poetic diatribe? This is a bill of particulars; this is a j’accuse – no less!
Nor is Dad exempt,
At Pop’s Grave (you guessed it, a limerick)
I seldom come here with a wreath
For the gentleman resting beneath
Who lies grimacing, doomed,
By a sweetie with vaginal teeth.
Jesus Christ! A friend of mine, a learned sort (Michele Celine Ph.D.) said that “growing up, my mother had one ball, my father the other.” What more need be said of the towering rage that suffuses this whole book?
In Larry Quint’s Birthday, a list of only evocatively related but shatteringly contrived one liners, Alex renders a personal hell of exclusion, desire, pain and hopelessness on par it seems to me with Hieronymus Bosch’s painterly visions of hell, but in personal terms, driving around W. Hollywood and environs – as the “fuel gauge” gets progressively lower. “…Never been so alive in all my alone// tired so tired…22 miles to empty… nice bag boy(at Von’s) too// about the age my mother was when she got rid of me//lucky if I see her once a year…tastes grow baser as the hours pass…God if my students could see me on my knees,.. 17 miles to empty. .Res ipse loquitur, folks, the thing speaks for itself. O, and here too, we see the apparently futile but compulsive need for re-joining the mother. Which, btw, is implicated in Freud’s “yearning for the oceanic feeling” replicating that of liquid cosmos of the womb, to say nothing of the broader psychological notion of the” mother wound”. Read this poem early in your reading. It too is a hell of an introduction.
All right: I hate this book. But read it. If you have need of such things, and most everyone does, and you need to unload more of your terrible burden and perhaps feel less alone, and who doesn’t? – this is an indispensable book. Read it if you dare but read it in your stronger moments.
This is an ugly book. Buy it. Can art be ugly? Think of Picasso’s “Guernica.”
© 2014 Steve Goldman
Steve Goldman exists.