Happy Thoughts!: The Poetry of Kevin Davies
The table of contents in The Golden Age of Paraphernalia lists five poems. Three of those poems, however, are listed without page numbers. Instead, each is keyed to a character: a bullet dot, a vertical dash, a number sign. Sections of the poems are interleaved throughout the book, each bit identified by its signature character, a textual equivalent of the station-identifying logo in the bottom right of the screen: "we'll have the younger scholars working/on | the Bush crime spree for generations"; "If/it isn't sex/why are we thinking about it? • Our prosimian ancestors/less than one ounce,/ankles smaller than rice grains./Scooped up and eaten by owls./Having just done the/wild thing"; "13./You can tell/a lot about/A dialect/by how it uses pigs in insults."
While it's possible, once you catch on, to follow each poem by flipping forward, as if reading a choose-your-own-adventure in which you have no choice, there's not much more to be gained than by reading the book straight through. In either case, the effect is that of watching TV while someone else pilots the remote--maddening, then soothing, then maddening again. If you've made it this far in the review, you're probably one of the few people who would read these shuffled poems in your own idiosyncratic way, perhaps back to front, sideways or alongside the work of another poet.
There is, however, and pace Paglia, a work, a single poem, at the heart of this book. A twenty-six-page tour de force of indirection, vituperation and rhetoric for rhetoric's sake, "Lateral Argument" borrows force from the desperation-inducing corporate career phrase "lateral move," shorthand for stagnation and deprivation. It is a cheerful title, as was The Waste Land. Pitched somewhere between Sisyphus and Prometheus, the poem begins as all good long poems do, with an epigraph: "Persons exist/as practical ways of speaking about/bundles." This is attributed case-in-point fashion to Paul Williams, a name belonging to no fewer than seven authors as well as several musicians ("Just an Old Fashioned Love Song") and more than a few English footballers. From the opening line ("They awoke in a bookless world...") it's all alienation, all the time; by line eight Davies is asking, "Who here has access to liquor"; and it's only the third page when he hits what for most dark-night-of-the-soulers would be rock bottom:
The papier-mâché Potemkin
village we've spread, spreadable
cheese over the surface of
what we call Earth.
There's a space. You fill it,
but it's not you.
You're not it
either--in fact you're not you.
Four pages later, however, Davies investigates the possibility that this is a literal alienation: "Suppressed memory: We have all survived crash landings,/wandered here and invented plausible pasts..." If you're expecting him to carry the candle to the back wall of the cave and shine a flashlight on the primitive drawings of a plausible past, be assured that it is cave--and irony--all the way around. But in marked contrast to the rest of the work in the book, "Lateral Argument" only resembles a monologue at the Comedy Store of the damned. As with the other poems in Paraphernalia, context and narrative are AWOL, and the speaker's negative whimsy is left alone to fill the space. And this time it does it in as shapely a manner as anyone has outside a Mike Leigh film.
Using epistrophe, anaphora and other parallel list forms, Davies piles humiliation on absurdity like a punk rock Thomas Bernhard: "We could build an entire civilization,//but that would be a mistake./It is impossible to make a mistake./Ask Palestine./Ask Palestrina./Ask dead Buddha stinking up the bicycle-//repair shop." List follows list, annihilating paradox ("Skill at games/of chance"), leading up to average outcomes ("A wondrous feeling of emptiness engulfs the extras/who are everyone not currently engaged in a real-estate transaction"). If you hear about the last guy, you will hear about the new guy, then the next guy. A plausible observation about today ("I can't work today because I am crazy") will be followed, sooner or later, by an excuse about yesterday (see the extended quote at the beginning of this review), and then by the revelation that the speaker is being interrogated about last Tuesday. An apparently offhand bit of scene-setting prompts numerous other possibilities in similar syntax. The deferrals and delays, as in a masterful novel, build up the pressure of expectation. And then, toward the end of the poem, they all start to explode in a series of defamiliarized polysyllabics equally reminiscent of Dante and Monty Python, as in this spot-on account of a Google-ized globe:
[...] Any surface at all, inside or out, you touch it and a scrolled menu appears, listing recent history,
chemical makeup, distance to the sun in millimeters, distance to the Vatican in inches, famous people
who have previously touched this spot, fat content, will to power, adjacencies, and further articulations.
And each category has dozens of subcategories and each subcategory scores of its own, all
meticulously cross-referenced, linked, so that each square centimetre of surface everywhere, pole to pole,
from the top of the mightiest Portuguese bell tower to the intestinal lining of a sea turtle off Ecuador, has
billions of words and images attached, and a special area, a little rectangle, for you to add your own comments.
It is the great work of a young-adult global civilization, a metaliterate culture with time on its
prosthetic tentacles, at this point slightly more silicon than carbon, blinking vulnerably in the light of its own
It is true, and too bad, that we have been conditioned not to expect commentary this trenchant from our poets. There are others where Davies came from. Many of them are also published by Edge, a small press in Washington, DC. As it happens, Davies is one of the best. Paraphernalia is Davies's third book in sixteen years. His first, Pause Button, came at the close of the Reagan/Bush I era, and his second, Comp., on the cusp of the Clinton and Bush II eras. We can only hope that the next eight years give him almost nothing in the way of familiar material.
To which the Davies of Paraphernalia might reply: "Zeno was half right."