from Robin Wyatt Dunn’s Farewell Ode to L.A., Carmina Burana

Here are the first few cantos of a book-length poem, Carmina Burana, by Robin Wyatt Dunn, who recently left Los Angeles and now resides in New Brunswick, Canada. The whole poem is read by the author on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVAN0i0CJMI

Carmina Burana

by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Come, come, come!

You old wastrels; bored and beautiful. Bountiful and diseased men and women of Los Angeles.

Bad men. Wanton women. Lackadaisical omnipaths! Ritual seekers and golf caddy sundressers.

Bogey men. Bench-sitting men. Black white and yellow, red. Ocean red.

Gay and straight garrulous hulks, masking mad fakirs orchestrating disaster, who are you come to?

What pork and pasture milks your great orison, bad chalker, mercurial disaster. Who walks the name out of your feet, and writes his peace into your sleeve, black blistered and calked into the sea of asphalt, attenuated. Broad feet, no mare, in east coast hats and west coast hair, lost to memory.

Philter philanderer of drugs; teetotaler. Ritual garbanzo bean. Maze being.

Come into the maze with me for a minute; it won’t be long; I’ve seen you before, scab.

I’ve seen you in your mighty hat, old gun, oath keeper, totem breaker, salt mine son, who was it hurt you, in the mud and main drag, over my beckon and breach, dear heart, I told you, in the taxicab, that it was I who made your mother scream, such tremulous things, written over the yellow yellow yellow city;

Well, maybe it wasn’t you. But you could be guilty anyway. You never know.

We’ve been keeping count, on our phones, like a metronome, for the right hour to speak. The right name to forget. The ordination.

Which is it, priest? My mighty priests and priestesses of los angeles!

You horrible cultists!

We’ll have a song for you.

Humming under the sleeve.

1.

O Fortuna

Ritual mad!

Written in lightning!

gabled and garmonized!

Glee goat and gull!

Hull me under your two bottom car, noxious methamphetamine afternoon somewhere in echo park in your gangster death.

O Fortunate Angel!

Cut into squeak.

Set sail to hair.

O Fortune

Riotous rumor

Over the telephone

Who heard your name

Who photographed your face

whose history

muddled and forgotten

in your changed name

in your new religion!

Cut down your hair!

Let out your semen!

Open your legs!

You’re in Los Angeles!

2.

We’re counting now; underneath the blue daisy. Where the hot plate has been heating the water but will not boil it; where the squirrel has stolen your avocado; because it was his avocado. But then it was your avocado.

Where the black man from Rhode Island explains that he will make it big honestly, and will prove it, right before he leaves in his white Acura, never to return:

No love song for you!

Not yet.

We must sing of your ambition!

ambire, ambire, delicate child, around the mountain!

Come around the mountain with me!

She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, so demon eyed, made into music.

LA Woman, snakes in her hair.

Radiant and with no comeuppance, archangel cut into the weight of the cut of the book in wood, lightning and red, shaped into memory for your children, some story they never heard.

It wasn’t your story, not from the angels.

No rhyme with reason with your fury woman, for we’re going to burn you at the stake again, and every night, on the pier.

burn well and heavy for our dreams.

3.

We’re counting now;

We’re counting up

We’re counting to the memory of the event.

Some black space in our minds, filling with regret.

There is no sweeter regret than in Los Angeles, where we all came to die. I died for you in Los Angeles, like Jesus Christ, and you died for me too here, that fucking child rapist, improbable divine, made over the Emperor a lover, and sign from god, or at least some good graffito on the toilet, a good bloody mob death, to please the finest nobility of the land, in El Sereno and Highland Park, and even in grumbling Glendale, where we came to sun, and persecute our enemies, we’ve heard your name, your glorious name.

We salute you in your absurdity, bloody red, racist capital of the world. holy rocker, lone and old, broken on the cross of love.

© 2018 Robin Wyatt Dunn

A Song of the Cliffs

This is an ambitious, unwieldy fragment from 1993, then 1997, then 2001, then 2005. Interestingly, I still haven’t given up on it! I decided to publish it here on my blog so it will live somewhere, until it gets into my story collection. The one person who enjoyed “A Song of the Cliffs” was my dear friend poet Ann Vaughan-Williams, who lives in London and is just a train-ride away from the cliffs at Beachy Head. Partly as a result of her encouraging words, I decided this torso should find a home online. If you’d like to make your own suggestions on how to rework/improve the suicide-note story, you’re welcome to leave a comment below…or perhaps you’ll be inspired to write your own story/suite of poems…

Beachy Head

Beachy Head, England
December, 2199

I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.
—Jerzy Kosinski

 

A female soldier from the Third Persian War     4 Dec. 2199

The hills stop abruptly as if sliced by a colossal carving knife. The fields drop, gape down to sea and rock. All those who jumped before stand with me, as if to give me courage, as we look out at a lighthouse that hasn’t beaconed in decades.

 

A teacher

All I wanted was a dog, a little one. That would have made the difference. I can’t keep up. Moths are spontaneously generating out of old bags of tea in unclean cupboards. The loo stinks and the whole place stinks of loo, no matter how much cleaner I pour in. All day I’m demolishing moths, bills appear on my screen, journals appear on my screen that I no longer read, my toenails are out of control, the phone hasn’t rung in weeks, I never ever hear from Father Paul. But I keep your hair in a jar, it’s holy and soft. Thank goodness you let me trim your young hair the last time you came by!
I couldn’t fight for myself. I always believed there would’ve been hope for me back in the twentieth century, people were kinder then.

 

A man

Dear Keyon,

I thought I was getting better. I hardly have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t even get excited about a voyage to Europa and Callisto.  I can’t stand this anymore. When i think i hit bottom it just gets worse. There was someone in my life for such a long time, and she keeps trying to reconnect, even though she found someone else. No one gets how bad this loss has been.  I’ve tried everything to feel better and nothing is working. Everyone just goes about their business. And I’m expected to show up for work. I know you have your own load. Tonight for the first time I realized I can’t go on. This is the only way. I’ve walked for hours to these cliffs. I hope they are high enough. I am anxious to see the other side.

 

A bedlamite with a tin plate on his arm 13 Dec. 2199

ABOUT PHYSICAL TORTURE: I’ve had acid put on my feet while I slept, and mosquitoes on my back. I’ve had a rope put around my neck and was choked till I had rope burns. I have endured beatings, some severe. I’ve been dropped on my head onto concrete. My neck was gouged by two different people. My education was sabotaged. I was molested by a neighbor when I was seven years old. First time I was gassed with poison I was 17. Knowing I would be looking for a way out, and not telling me what it would do to me they hooked me on t.c.o. When I tried to quit they poisoned me severely. Now that I’m at the Cliffs I know I can escape. I was terrorized into a nervous breakdown. Then I was raped. I’ve been framed. I’ve been robbed. I’ve had three m.r.n’s sabotaged and systematically destroyed. I’ve been unlawfully sued. I’ve been turned into a freak. I’ve been blackmailed with manufactured evidence. I’ve been a victim of mass psychological oppression. I’ve been made to nearly freeze to death without a blanket 70 nights in a row. I’ve been cheated out of all the basic Fundamental Human Rights you take for granted, I swear on all that I hold as good and true that what is written is 100% the truth.

 

A man, 56

Friends:
I walked in my sleep again. The same bad dreams of swans on fire and Mother’s inflated feet. In the emergency room everyone was sleepwalking. “You have a deep bruise,” said the sleeping doctor. “Rest,” he said, and wandered off.
Lesions on the mid-face and trunk. A proliferation of bacteria. Drooping eyelid and other complications. Unilateral pain. Tingling. Burning. The infection of the brain by parasites spreading dementia and quick decline.
Paleness. Confusion. Bone pain. Worsening of the lesions. Crackles in the lung, unease, numbness. The malignancy. A pernicious hoarseness and drooling. The beginning of disfigurements. Blindness.
Dear friends, they say people always change their minds as they fall, but I don’t know. I would have gone to the Golden Gate Bridge in America if it was still intact, but this will have to do.
Bodhi

 

A mother and her mongoloid daughter 13-12-2199

A magpie flew into the house the day my little girl was born, so we brushed her face with a rabbit’s foot to keep away the Evil One. For good luck we stole a bone and set it on a windowsill.
It’s no use going on, for with the new M.E.R.C.Y. laws sooner or later they’ll find out about her and take her to one of the Dignity Camps. I’d rather we end peacefully, by the old lighthouse.
I’ll leave this note on the edge, tidy in a shoe.
Look! An orange balloon! When I was wee I thought that all the stars were balloons that had floated up to the sky.

 

A young lady

Dear Vihaan,
Congratulations on your marriage. I hope you and Lathan find happiness.
By the time you get this you will probably have heard. Maybe you’ll get the news in the middle of one of your parties. I have come to the Devil’s Chimney.  I see your face, Vihann, I see only you.
I love you,
Aleydis

 

 

An old-fashioned poet

The decimation of Tashkent
did not stir up much deep lament—
don’t folks in turbans count for less
than Nicky, Peter, Ted or Bess?
The loss of Rome from Fire and Quake
was harder to assimilate.
But in our compound all went well
far from city, bomb and Hell.
You flew to work, you flew back home,
pollution lurked outside a Dome.
You had a child with flaxen hair
by filling out a questionnaire.
Everyone was smart, magnetic
fast at math and so athletic.
If bombs went off up on the Moon
the pundits would be feuding soon
in smooth and cultivated tones
while you went on with tea and scones. . .

Well, such was my life until Doc said
“Son, you’re one of the Infected.”
They handcuffed, stripped and branded me,
there was no time to plan or flee.
They forced me into quarantine,
I felt like that sad Florentine
who went down deep into the Earth
a thousand years before my birth.
But at least he had a friendly guide,
I had no one on my side.
A sports arena and a cot—
this was my home, this my lot.
I hardly slept for all the noise,
families, kids, infernal toys
that bleeped and blipped the whole night long
and then at six that horrid gong!
But worse than all the idle chatter,
they never gave us reading matter.
So I began to lose my mind—
a thing, once lost, you rarely find.
They did more blood work, all agreed:
no harm in letting me go free,
but “freedom” meant a rooming-house
with bedbug, roach and sickly mouse.
I looked for work, clerks shook their heads—
some days I lived on milk and bread.
Since Eastern wars lurked in the dawn,
I thought the army’d need some pawns,
but at the Ministry of Discord
I was courteously ignored.
I sat in pubs for the Infected
where I never once connected.
The coup d’etat of ninety-three
at last got rid of Royalty—
now Good King Hal astutely rules
a large estate in lush Peru.
But funding’s gone for those in need,
it makes no odds how much you plead.
Flop-house days were never sweet
but they were sweeter than the street.
Then I thought of this white cliff
renowned in pop song and in riff,
I got to thinking of Release—
that “time” when everything will cease.
Preludes to the Afterlife
are played all thru our routine strife.
A taste of Death’s when you despond,
Death is watching others bond.
A hint of Death’s in notes you get
from Committees That Regret:
The Panel has decided
your petition is misguided. . .
I knew a priest once, Father Paul—
three years since he’s returned a call.
“I’m here to listen anytime”
he’d tell me while he drank his wine.
Very moody, very odd,
hardly ever mentioned God.
He loved to say “You’re not alone”
then loudly yawned into the phone.
Nature? Clouds? Where do we flit to
when a body’s work is through?
Is Death a general anesthetic
or wild and whistling and electric?
But light a flame, watch till it’s spent. . .
no one wonders where it “went.”

All we wish for, all we shun
from cradle to crematorium
is no match for that great Space
we always crave but can’t embrace
not in waking, not in dreaming
not till we fall to riptides screaming. . .

 

The acclaimed artist Steve “Trystan” Sweezey

Viveca, my love,
When you succumbed to plague, and our son with you, long ago, I grieved in a frenzy of self-pity but now I know it was better that you didn’t live to see this war and what has become of me.
It is most curious that my pushing of one button should be the cause of misery to so many millions.
I tailed the Uzbek jet. It was a passenger plane. Four hundred twenty-one people. I can’t write this properly, Viveca. I received the order to fire. I had to obey, I had no choice, otherwise it would have meant a court martial, do you see? I pressed the button. The airliner was hit, mortally, it took seven minutes until it slammed into a mountainside. And the thought of those seven minutes has occupied my life.
In a sanatorium after my breakdown, they encouraged me to draw. And so I took up painting, imagine, Viveca! And for years painting was to be my obsession. The war went on in Central Asia, but I was out of it forever. After my release I stayed in Mama’s little flat, in a room all to myself. I painted. I, the cause of all  this war, sat in a quiet room painting. I painted everything I had done. I painted panic, screams, above all screams, tried to get voices on canvas. Over and over. Giant canvases of screams, terrified eyes, blood, bedlam. The room filled up with these things, overflowed with them, soon I had to move out, to a bigger space in the suburbs. I painted like a madman, worked twenty hours a day, it poured out of me, I never abandoned my cabinful of sufferers, never. How much time passed like this? I do not know. But one day by chance my work was seen by someone. And then by another. And then by another. This third one owned a gallery, and bought six of my paintings. I was grateful for the money because I was running out of paint. He later offered me a show, and I accepted but all I wanted was to paint. The show led to other shows, I still had to get more horror out of me. Soon there were many shows, and many distractions, people began to disturb me. I got a cottage far out but even there they kept trying to see me. I needed to focus on my obsession. So I came to Sussex where they didn’t know me. I worked and worked until I collapsed.
I was institutionalized again. When I left the mental home, I had no more painting in me. And still I felt trapped in a cabin with all the innocents I had slaughtered. I could not paint away my guilt.
So I have come here to fall now. Fall as they did. This is my answer. What awaits me? Have I done penance enough for my crime? Wind blows mightily, all I need to do is stand on the edge and the wind will help me over. Viveca, my beloved!    –Steve

 

Interlude: A Closer Look at the Wreckage

Earlier
much earlier
rivers
bathed people quick ice-cold
above glaciers summer high
and miles   miles of wings     wide     long
where butterflies—

Correct: Man extracts the fang and tooth of nature
Incorrect: Cattle know no pain

Heat    rioting    rotting

Correct: The rain remembers green and coveted slopes
Correct: Valleys shape voices that shape valleys

The damage to light itself

Woods are pulled to desert
Words tremble on the verge

Correct: Ferries are waiting for evacuees to take them to the other side
Not Selected: Feral parrots flutter in the ruins of St. Paul’s

 

A young man with a suitcase contemplating the foam below

Dayesi,
With my Father—and at his expense, of course—I have traveled. How do I look? I’m filming this for you: so you will see the work you’ve done.
In Paris the boys are wearing Mars boots and flaunts and riding about on little jeepneys, just like you. In Cairo, a city of thirty million, a mess of mosques reaches up to a dirty sun: I left my father dozing in the Holiday Inn and wandered through reeking shantytowns for hours until I found a youth who would help me forget you for half a crown. Afterwards he asked for my watch and I told him to fudge off. In Delhi one of my father’s business friends took me to a bowling alley. All I could do was think of you and remember how graceful you are at anything athletic, so I tried to imitate you. All the Indians laughed at the English ladybug. We spent a week in the Cantonese countryside. While my father talked business in the icy lobby of the Hyatt I toured with a group by landrover. We came upon a massive fish market teeming with strong brown youths like you, but it wasn’t they who excited me, no, no, it was the smell: the whole place smelled powerfully of you. Life is for the young.
Dayesi, I was never good enough. When I started exercising, when I added hair, when I changed my name to be more hip for you—it didn’t matter, there was nothing I could do, there was nothing.
Lately a mother went over the edge with her deformed daughter in her arms. The innkeeper at the White Horse told me tourists were taking pictures of the dead child’s expressive face staring up as it was being devoured by crabs and insects and whatnot. Bodies stay down there for days. Scooping them up is no priority with all that’s gone wrong.
In Bangkok, after an interminable meal, I wandered thru the gardens of the Imperial. A cat began to follow me. I told it: “Don’t! I’m nothing, why are you following me? Dayesi longs for others.” So this mustn’t be called suicide, since you have already succeeded in demolishing what was left of me. But still that cat followed me. “Why are you following me?” I repeated. “I’m nothing. So I thank you, Dayesi, for helping me to know my place. I will leave this camera on the edge. Will it pick up the body break-up, do you think? This is for you, so enjoy. I’m going to dive. See me dive. Athletic!

 

A young seer

Beachy Head Dec. 21, 2199

Dear Mohammed,
When you went to your cave in the mountains, did you ever get lonely? My name is Alicja and I am thirteen, and all my life I have been your servant. At first when my Gift was discovered it was a blessing for my family, with my father and brothers on the dole, that was six years ago, when they found out that everything I said would come to pass really did come to pass. I was put on Channel One, and this caused people to be excited, and overnight all my family could live with enough good things. Only they stole my childhood. I told the world three years ago about Mt. Etna, I described the beings on Triton long before the astronomers found them, I predicted the fires of Teheran and Tashkent. But no one has listened to me when I greeted, no one has thought about what has been taken from me. The Wonder of Humankind is a quill who’s got no friends, who’s never had dolls or sat in a treehouse or sucked on popingel. So I often think of you when you went to your cave to pray and when God called you to be his prophet. Was it ever lonely? I have had one last vision, and this one I can’t bear.
I saw the earth overgrown with plants, I saw butterflies and dragonflies, deer and rabbits and toads. I saw Sun and great big clouds, I something of the world my great-great-great Grandpa remembers. But I saw no grownups or boys and girls. I saw the Houses of Parliament spread over a field covered in ferns and moss, a world of serpents and turtles and crawling things. The dogs, free of their masters, explored the crumbling theaters and empty stations. Sheep without shepherds wandered, wounded. Ornamental birds and ravens became the cities’ lords. The only human speech still uttered was what the oldest parrots could recall: Hello world! I’m Merlin! Wow! Hello world! Wow!
Twenty billion people are asking Where is Alicja? I think I don’t know where Alicja is, or where she will go. But I’ll leave this note on the edge.
I want you, who sit next to God and talk to Him, to ask Him to forgive me for what I’m about to do, perhaps He will understand and bring me to Him to console him if He mourns and greets and help Him turn His eyes to other Worlds.
Alicja

 

Father Paul on Christmas Eve, to his counselor

Dear Seraphina—

I know how hard you worked to help me heal.
If it hadn’t been for you I’d long ago have quit.
When you hear about me, don’t give up, please.
It’s just that even when I cover my ears
the news gets worse: in Asia a million corpses left to rot,
and Rome destroyed, while in Britain one man

wallows in years of couch introspection—one man
comes twice a week at five hundred crowns an hour to heal
a hurt inflicted long ago, clean out the rot
that spreads inside the mind and never quits,
even in sleep: ten years of insights that go in one ear
out the other. . . no, I won’t stay on just to please.

Perhaps you’ll miss the turmoil of my case, but—please—
(now it’s me who’s counseling you): I’m just one man,
there are more out there who need an ear,
who need a way to heal and can be healed
and, unlike me, they will not quit,
they will not waste your time by talking rot.

We built a Byzantine basilica with all my rot:
rich mosaics of dream, spires of lapsus linguae, pleasing
to the mind of an intellectual kind of man
who seeks a couch and shelter from the world, quits
the fray in search of understanding if not healing,
a soothing female voice and well-trained ears.

Did I progress or did we go in circles?—How my ears
freeze in this wind! An old-time lighthouse rots
among the rocks ahead: too late for it to heal,
they ought to knock it down, it’s no sight to please
the eye of any wholesome or morbid man
bent on falling off the edge of England. . . “Quitter!”,

I never felt a true Calling, now all I know to do is quit.
Two steps more and these ears
will hear just my own voice crying out to no man,
no Son of God—that’s all a myth, let’s face it, dead and rotten.
I’ll just drop into empty expanse—please,
let that be the long-sought healing.

I trust you won’t judge me for quitting this place, rotting
with war and pestilence—inside me I hear only pleas
to stop the pain, a pain no Son of Man can heal.

 

An aged gentleman

Dear Samaritan:
Indeed you were there when I needed you. Near the precipice your number stood out on the lone phone box with the message WE’RE ALWAYS THERE, NIGHT OR DAY. I phoned you, but my arguments were better than yours. Samaritan, you have not studied your history or your biology.
I am not going to recycle any of my arguments here. This world no longer seems like home to a civilized man who remembers the way it was. I am one hundred forty-one years old. I have lived enough. I cannot imagine what Earth will be like in a century from now for billions of the unborn.
Please do not condemn me. The work you do is worthwhile; you must get results with some. Your voice sounded so young. The voice of a generation I am out of touch with. I hope you will accept the enclosed donation and trust that it will do something to help save the lives that are meant to be saved.

 

Age and gender unknown

I’ve got no dreams left.
My brother made it, I failed.
I want death so much.

 

Another Interlude: At Sunset

We’re looking forward to a journey, crushed liver
twenty-seven broken ribs,
a journey
to that undiscovered country, bring us to the brim,
the fishermen like mice below and a lighthouse dead for decades.
Need someone to talk to? Day or night,
we’re always there, so choose LIFE and CALL US,
poor Tom shall lead thee,
within a foot of the extreme . . .

lungs collapsed, damaged spleen

We’re looking forward to a cliff
whose high and bending head looks fearfully, electrodes on the body showed
it suffered . . .
as day mulls into night
as hills and waters rock the gulls
to undreamed-of serenity,
a pair of running shoes points out to sea,
It’s only the edge of England
but it looks like the edge of the world

and there’s a note:
“I feel certain I’m going mad again.”

Neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

Keep the porch light lit for those expected late,
wait for them by the window fingering curtains,
wait alone for the constable’s call
(Family often have an inkling says the coroner)

Light candles, buy carnations and take them to the edge.

“I feel I can’t go through another of those terrible times and I shan’t recover.
I know that I am spoiling your life.”

Carefully choose a friend, a rabbi, a priest, someone who is likely to listen.

We’d like you to call someone, now. You are not alone.
Crushed spleen, twenty-seven broken ribs.
“If anyone could have saved me it would have been you.
I don’t think two people could have been happier.”

Act your old age. This won’t hurt.

 

A woman 25 Dec 2199

I was just bored with everything & eight years of treatment did not ease my addiction in fact it got worse & I had to get away had no one left in London so I went off to France with the money I came into after Mum died & I opened a creperie in St. Malo I don’t know what I expected I thirsted for something but from the first day on first it was the movers imagine I’d moved into a quaint walk-up in the old quarter & I offered the two sweat-soaked Young Men refreshments when their work was finished one was Algerian the other Nigerian & I plopped down between the two & giggled and they grinned worked their hands under my skirt & I threw rubbers at them & they laughed and tossed them out & the Nigerian took me from behind the Algerian from the front & we did it there in the sitting room ah moments of insane wedlock & one of them said “This is the closest two men can get and not be ladybugs!” & when it was over I made them Turkish coffee oh that was my first day in St. Malo & I’d thought things would be different why didn’t the treatment cure me France is dark now with Arabian and African machos my first August I binged on eleven in one weekend an army corporal on leave from the Central Asian Wars a goateed tea importer from Brest a diver with the whitest teeth he was sixty but looked thirty-nine after just one procedure and there were more I can’t remember them all why didn’t the treatment work I couldn’t stand the emptiness I couldn’t but I won’t go on & on because listen whoever reads this listen it happened in the train one night he was wearing a Jo-burg Olympics T-shirt & shorts & sandals he had a criminal sort of face the other passengers were sleeping & he grabbed my hand & pulled down his pants “We’ll go to the loo” I whispered but he shook his head & we did it there among the sleepers it was degrading it was beautiful males have never loved me even though I’ve been with 2,000 or more I was no more than a release for them not all males are that way just the ones I want & that night I got home I couldn’t bear the solitude of my flat the relentless stillness & that night I got a message from the only person I still correspond with & she wrote that a priest we have both known for years Father Paul has leapt from the cliffs in Sussex I was stunned he would give such solid advice such a comfort she mentioned drink and possibly he’d tested positive but he was a well-liked man & seemed so sane I can’t understand what the world is going through & he wasn’t the first there was Bodhi Malone the media personality of course & so many others no one ever gave me a good reason to go on perhaps it was foolish of me to expect that from the treatment but what I want to tell you who are reading this and don’t give a damn is that the Cliffs began to call me as well I can’t put into words how I felt or words would make it small & so I got on the next train to Sussex I hurried because I heard they want to close off those Cliffs to the public forever too much death but I thought I’d try & the old barman in the pub looked at me perhaps he could sense something & we began to talk he even asked me my name & I thought how new really novel in this world a barman asking your name & I told him I lived in Brittany & he said lovely country there’s nothing like it left over here but I didn’t feel much like chatting yet I was moved by his humanity & he didn’t look at me the way most Males do & I almost forgot to feel alone but once again I heard the wind out there & I walked out of the pub without a word I ran towards the Cliffs & the grey sea was heaving & the rocks were waiting & what I heard as I stood out there was like a faint choir of all the jumpers before me & all the jumpers to come & I’m looking over the edge & the water & the dead lighthouse where the lights must’ve gone out half a century ago & I know I need to do it now now otherwise I won’t I can’t delay it I have always been courageous the rocks down there look miles away & suddenly I hear the voice of the barman from the pub it’s his aged voice like thunder he’s calling my name I don’t know why but at last someone is calling my name “Aviana! Aviana!” he’s shouting & running towards me at last I am hearing the sound of my name & it’s something more than a caress or a fondling it’s something more than a moment of insight in treatment or even the lights of meditation for in the end all that is solitary and pointless but this man is calling my name and it is a beautiful sound as I hover on the edge between the known world & the depths—

 

Uppercut: A Review of Alex M. Frankel’s Birth Mother Mercy (Lummox Press)

 Uppercut: A Review of Alex M. Frankel’s Birth Mother Mercy

Lummox Press, San Pedro, CA

© 2013

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.

So:

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,

   Ground-up, half-consumed

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.