Are you better off than you were four years ago? This is, for better or worse, the fundamental question of American politics. It is a trick question. In The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, Canadian-American poet Kevin Davies observes that the average answer would be about the same if the number of years was replaced with eighty or, for that matter, 13,000:
Yesterday? I stayed in out of the heat, washed dishes
Read a book
Remembered a cow
That as an ignorant boy with a board I walloped
For breaking into our yard
Eyes first puzzled then pissed off
Bellowing near my asparagus patch
Or was that later
After the big cedar fell and destroyed the fence
Or possibly when we mutinied, refusing to follow
Alexander farther into the subcontinent
Just wanting to go back to whatever inevitably temporary homes
With the baubles we’d collected and our blistered skins
Eat an entire sheep with a group of cousins
Maybe build a hut
Imperceptibly alter a grammar
Stand in the midst of barley
In Alexander’s army, no doubt, there were Macedonians given to specifying the quantity of sheep eaten at a feast. There may even have been some given to introspection and malingering. I vouch that none practiced diachronic linguistics. It is a joke, and one dry enough that if a comedian were to tell it, critics would say it passes for poetry. When a poet is dry, though, it’s news.
The occupational hazard of working in metaphor is that nothing can ever simply be itself. Even poets’ definitions of their function in society take the form of sullen comparisons. Percy Shelley saw poets as “unacknowledged legislators,” and T.S. Eliot remarked that “the poet aspires to the condition of the music-hall comedian.” Though Davies will likely be appalled to hear it, he often achieves both bogies, writing poems that one can easily imagine being declaimed by John Cleese or Al Franken.
Since the decline of patronage and the rise of the English department, high-minded poets from Ezra Pound and Charles Olson on through the Language poets have spent much of the energy they might otherwise have devoted to vocables and sense to writing essays of noisy, semicomprehensible worry–about poetry’s place in society, society’s place in poetry, poetry’s place in poetry. Davies’s poetry is mercifully free of that kind of self-regard, which it has replaced with an even better, more archaic form of self-regard: alienation and self-loathing. This is actually a promising development. For all its proclaimed devotion to negativity, the poetic avant-garde has until now had no curmudgeon with the charm or persistence of a Philip Larkin or Dorothy Parker.
In the twilight of what our major critics agree is “the Age of Ashbery,” genial surrealism has gradually replaced grand mania as the period style (a shift that tracks the change in Ashbery’s manner over his past seven books). I’m not saying it’s easy to make funny poems. For starters, the jokes have to be funny. Then, too, the poems have to be good. Often poets take this second condition to mean that the jokes must turn out sad. More often, they take both rules as guidelines. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are poets (Ron Padgett, Paul Muldoon and Alice Notley come to mind) who routinely succeed on both counts when they choose to. Frederick Seidel would be the funniest living poet if his jokes didn’t entail bodily harm. August Kleinzahler would be the funniest living poet if he were funny. Some poets are humorous, if not quite funny, while others have the opposite problem. For his part, Davies is glumly oblivious to the issue.
As with the best stand-up routines, Davies’s best poems sustain the reader’s attention without providing context, narrative or any kind of framework beyond our unstable environment, the perennial duplicity of authority and the waste to which our psychosocial landscape has been laid. Surely there are some readers who have been conditioned by at least the past eight years to share this perspective: and for them, this poetry says it’s OK to laugh about it now.
Or is it? Davies has a gift for finding bad news in every section of the newspaper and delivering it with lines broken to induce maximum wince: “Something/put in the gas/to make the air better/has made the water worse.” “The mayor’s city’s/almost up to code/aside from asbestos grade schools and rotting projects/of a previous order.” A compassionate nihilist, he goes easiest on the section of the paper that chronicles failure every day without exception: “It has been a year/of missed extra points in the landscape/of college football.” The bad news recombines in the dreamlike way it often does in poems, only this time, to borrow Freud’s terminology, the day residues are instantly familiar and nearly intact: “Spider silk in the milk of goats,” “Refusing to acknowledge/the legitimacy of the mudslide,” “Let’s bury radioactive garbage in the desert for/several thousand years/Or shoot it at the moon/and Mars along with bacteria,/see what happens.” Happy thoughts!
Nanotechnology is a favorite subject here, specifically the fear that self-replicating microscopic robots will knit themselves into a gray goo that destroys all life. This is a token of a more general fear of the subliminal, of loss of control. Rather than dismiss these fears as so much irrational death wish, like a good American, Davies burrows into them to the point where they almost imperceptibly alter his form. He is a master of off-the-rack avant-garde tropes, such as parataxis, in which non sequitur is the basic rule for getting from one sentence to another. He is especially handy with allusion and substitution. Robert Frost’s remark about home (“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in”) is transformed into “That place/where/when you go there/they have to cast you out.” Edward Lorenz’s butterfly effects and tidal waves become “a moth/in New Zealand, rustling the ear hair/of Franco triumphant in Madrid, letting loose/the vampire priests, the werewolf nuns.” The ultimate hero of this line of argument is Herman Melville’s one-man strike, Bartleby, whom Davies recasts as “load-/bearing walls composed of particles/that prefer not to.”
Critics have charged contemporary poets with neglecting the unity of the individual poem in favor of presenting a consistent and recognizable style–a brand, if you will, more or less extruded into slightly differentiated shapes on the page, which they update and repackage every few years in a new book. Despite originating with Camille Paglia, it is a fair criticism and one that at first glance could apply to Davies. Davies therefore does the comically astute thing and turns the liability into a book-length joke.
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.”