Thursday, December 4, 2008

an alien here

leah angstman. an alien here. Cambridge, Mass.: Propaganda Press, 2008. Pocket Protector series book one. 64 pp. 2”X 2.75”.

This is a “teeny tiny poetry book” that was sent to me by my fellow chapbook revolutionaries at the Alternating Current Arts Cooperative in Massachusetts. I learned of this press, and the publishers, through Doug Holder’s Boston Small Press Poetry Scene blog after he posted a notice to the UB/UPenn Poetics email listserv, and where I read his extended review of Ed Galing’s chapbooks, which the Co-op publishes. Reading Holder, I felt an immediate “zip” of recognition for what I had once thought of as “street poetry” when I was a constant regular at the Brady’s Cafe poetry marathons in Kent, Ohio from 1996-1998. There was a retired chemistry professor (Edmund?) who used to stand at the microphone and, in a labored, earnest voice, read endlessly bad poems about a younger woman he’d fallen in love with. Holder’s review of Galing’s books worked on me as only that kind of nostalgia can: poems that are remarkable not because they reinvent the language or enact brilliant theoretical stagings of density and prowess, but because they are intensely vulnerable in their articulation of helplessness: a poverty of language, a simplicity of statement, and basic, conventional emotional states for some reason so obvious that I feel relief somebody is bothering to articulate them at all. But am I guilty of patronizing? Of course, Ed Galing’s work is a kind of writing, and a reading style (if read in public), that has a number of real and palpable drawbacks. It is the seduction of one’s critical capacity toward slumber that is the most suspicious component in work of this nature. In terms of rhetorical persuasion, the stance of innocence and candor is odious to a more literary perspective simply because, in hearing or reading it, one feels compelled, even coerced, into admiring the poet for having staged a private, interior space in the public one of the poem, or at a public event. But how is it that intellectual friends of mine can ridicule a poetry like Galing’s and turn around and rave about the films of Sam Shepard or John Cassavetes? Part of the effect, even power of this performance, lies not in the generosity of the poem, or poet, but in the realization that the artifice of a private world is being built up even as it is torn down by the implied honesty of the feeling expressed: “I felt this, therefore I trust it more than anything else.” We have a lot of names to use for this dimension in our poetic culture—confessional poetry, or School of Quietude—and I even learned this year of a semi-organized group of poets proclaiming a “new sincerity”. My own seeming liability as a reader, poet, and writer, is that I do not reject this kind of poetic outright, or on principal. I was once asked by a friend (and by way of suggestion) to accept the idea that my having been “rejected” by the academy, or having been rankled by the experience of years-long & fruitless application for work, was fully meliorated by the “consolation of lyric”. I think my friend even said that lyric was my “consolation prize”! As if the whole of one’s engagement with academic intellectual work was really, and in fact, a space of competitive antagonism where the achievement of rational discourse, the ability to reason, could only be achieved at the rejection of that human dimension we call “feeling” as a kind of residue; and that, moving onward from there, one had to reject all poetic works that would assert a fact of sensibility, in whatever pathetic form it momentarily held, as painfully naive, gullible and just, too, well, pathetic.

This is a lot to say as a warm up to describing leah angstman’s book, and it doesn’t really arrive at the kind of thesis one would hope from an objective critic, able to bring his diverse & many years’ experience as a reader to the work at hand. But the work here is quite specific, and intent on its communication, as in the poem “i don’t respond to hey baby”: “for a minute i forget you/and am a little disappointed/ at my cap’s nakedness”. There are a number of issues I have with this book. But the issue isn’t with the fact that almost every poem is directed toward a specific individual (and here is the itinerary: a lover who smokes, a “you” who is in fact the speaker in the poem, a lover who is compared to Spiderman, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots, someone the speaker is infatuated with, a recent ex-boyfriend, “everyone”—in the poem “on the level”—which is one of my favorites, a personified drug—maybe heroin, the author’s grandfather, an absent partner, a creep on a bus trying to flirt with the speaker, a sex partner, the reader, someone attractive and eight years younger than the speaker, an old friend, and then, in the last three poems: nobody, nobody, and nobody!). And my issue isn’t with how beautiful and simple this tiny book really is. My issue is with the effect that the pop culture references and products mentioned in the book have on me, which is the same effect a beer commercial has on me, or a scene in a romantic movie when the music begins to swell and I feel my tears start to form against my will. And my issue is not with the poems, because, as I made my way through the book, I realized that the poetry was getting better and better—I especially enjoyed the extended narrative poem “1926” that forms the centerpiece to the book. And when the poems ceased trying to address a specific individual, I begin to feel less closed off from the words and imagery, because I no longer had a problem trying to identify with a “you”. angstman has the capacity to describe scenes with flair: “driving through spastic june cottonwoods/like snow in summer rainbow days/and speckled tori amos days/and robin eggs/broken at my feet”. I found myself abetting these early 1990s musical and cultural loci—found myself caught in a nostalgia for something I never really had, if only because I like cottonwood trees for the same reasons mentioned here. The simplicity of angstman’s line is pleasurable, just as Bukowski is pleasurable, by making the implied spaces of the poem move with a determined, if singleminded, need or perception. But I guess I should try to identify what these poems would offer to someone never acquainted with what are familiar signifiers for me. What would they offer to the “alien” indicated in the title? I guess I could say that there is a real place inhabited within the book. The poems are narrative, each is self-contained in its theme, and unified toward the complete delineation of the sense evoked. Erotically charged and sensible at the same time, it provides a cumulative and composite portrait, and the identity, foregrounded in this work, while “imperfect”, is in every case palpable—mainly because the voice is one that persists through shades and nuances of tenor, of motion, of estrangement, of experience and of acceptance. These are poems as “easy goods”, yes. But in guessing what source was mined (and minded) to make them, there seems nothing more difficult in the world to achieve. I am made mindful of the basic antagonisms prevalent in the human universe just as readily here than I am in a work, say, of Rodrigo Toscano or Joshua Clover. While angstman’s poems take up stakes on a plane of language separate from these authors, for me, at least, the sense of accomplishment is equivalent.


  1. When I saw that stage production of Cassavetes' "Opening Night" and thought it sickeningly confessional it was because, I'm sure, without the chilly presence of a screen between me and them I felt forced to interact with these characters so intent on demonstrating for me their pathetic, sloppy, inwardness -- making it exterior for my sake -- which is something that I, as detached critic, have no use for. It is not my problem. Faces on screen don't give us their problems, they and I inhabit two different worlds which face one other but pretend never to intermingle. They do, though. The screen gives me the freedom to identify without limit and in secret. But the poem -- I mean this kind of poem -- is a place of stinky hot intimacy. If I'm alone in a room with Leah Angstman's voice -- which I recognize as I hear it and even see what her face looks like despite the fact that I've never met her -- I'm being presented with all of the Tori Amos feelings that I don't want but, since this relation is an intercourse, have to accept. And I must then give her all the Tori I've been harboring in the deepest recesses of my own heart because, you know, "I have a hiding place when Spring marches in"

  2. Your comment really knocks over all the straw men I set up in my post.
    Namely: you dissolve the screen--one that I put as much faith in as does the delighted theatergoer. Yet, the poem can be seen in a number of ways, and you bring them to mind when you hone in on a couple of loose assumptions I've made & deliciously work them even looser: the assumption that poetry is an intensely intimate experience (it is), but that something changes in its circulation (the reading of it in public).
    But above all I now feel prudish, or that I've not made my points very clear. Angstman's poems are hot and sticky--there's a lot of sex in there--but other poems in the book are not, which may make it, as a book, a kind of uneven experience. But is the reading of erotic poetry masturbatory or an intercourse? Does it in some way futher objectify sex as a "use"? Is my reading as implicitly an objectification? Your comment dramatises, very forcefully, the voyeuristic dimension in a lot of our experiences of art--cinema, TV, internet, and poetry. I did not at all mean to say that Cassavetes or Shepard are privileged by the intimacy/distancing of film, but i did imply that film is given a pass on its indulgence more often than a poetry reading is, for certain audiences. Is it that sticky scene of a poetry reading as too palpably intimate that diminishes audiences for poetry? Perhaps my enjoyment of both "an alien here" and Ed Galing's work succumb to a voyeuristic tendency that also implies exploitation. But I DO identify with characters, all of them, and too heavily. Maybe a more intellectual aesthetic saves me from having to question my indulgence. So thanks for the comment--and i regret not being able to address this adequately.