Thursday, May 06, 2010

I brought The City Real & Imagined by CAConrad & Frank Sherlock with me first because I was planning to spend the afternoon in Bartram’s Garden, one of those only-in-Philadelphia destinations on the order of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Duchamps in the Philadelphia Art Museum or Kellys Writers House. Bartram’s Garden is the oldest surviving botanic garden in the United States, having been founded in 1728 and operated continuously since then. Driving down the entrance path onto its 46 acres, located in one of the poorest nabes of Philadelphia, is rather like entering a time machine. The garden includes the only surviving member of the three original gingko trees first sent to America in 1785, and it was the Bartram family that rescued and cultivated a tree they named for a local small press printer, Ben Franklin, Franklinia Alatamaha, having discovered it in the wild in Georgia in 1765. Franklinia has not been seen in the wild since 1803 and today all examples of this lovely flowering tree in America are descended from this garden.
I also brought with me the only book I have that actually refers by name to this place, Jonathan Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree: Selected Poems 1957-1967. I knew of course of Williams’ special importance to Conrad, as a gay man with a wicked wit & the publisher who initially had planned to bring out Conrad’s Frank before Williams’ failing health got the better of him. The garden was pretty empty that afternoon – the weather was still oscillating between spring & late winter – and I got to sit & read awhile. Sure enough, an echo of Williams, his use of epigrams & quotations, jumps right out at me in the first five lines of this collaborative poem:
“Or I’ll tune out and put a
‘MEAN DOG’ sign in front
of all my communications!”
– Ryan Trecartin,
Philadelphia filmmaker
As openings go, The Cantos this is not. If Pound, say, was a modernist symphony that ran into the buzzsaw of history, The City Real & Imagined lets you know instantly that it’s going to be more on the lines of Lady Gaga as heard through the ears of Spike Jones, or maybe Weird Al as filmed by John Waters (or Elvis as impersonated by the late Sylvester of the Cockettes with costumes by Chris March).
Just the jackets of the two books gives you some sense of the difference, even against the poet of The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ (my favorite of Jonathan Williams’ titles & a brilliant book in itself). An Ear in Bartram’s Tree has as its cover image William Bartram’s drawing of the flower of the Franklinia, gray & white on a pale gray background, a classic instance of New Directions’ decades long fight against interesting book covers. The City Real & Imagined is navy blue beneath the black stripe of the Heretical Text series, with Zoe Strauss’ iconic photo of mattress sale – an imagine that screams or sings of the Philadelphia region every bit as clearly as the Liberty Bell. It’s deadpan, colorful & filled with humor, yet unmistakably communicating an orientation toward class that makes you realize how a photo of mattresses can be said to have a politics. It’s the perfect cover for this book.
In addition to Jonathan Williams, The City Real & Imagined has a couple of other patron saints hovering close by. One is Philip Whalen, especially of his riding around the city journal poems – more evident in On Bear’s Head than his other collections – whose death in June 2002 is marked in the composition of this book. The other is the collaborations of Ted Berrigan. This aspect is especially visible in the contributions of Frank Sherlock, whose lines step & dance across the page, making great use of white space.
But there is nothing faux New York School about this book. It could not have been written anywhere else, not just because of specific references – Thomas Eakins, Love Park, the Ben Franklin Bridge, Broad Street, City Hall, even (full disclosure)
We saw
Ron Silliman
on 17th Street and
walked fast to catch up
but it wasn’t him
Rather, there is a tonal shift across the 96 pages of this book, one that only David Shapiro among the NY School poets might have been able to make, from the “I did this / I did that mode” so familiar to post-avant poetics over the past half century toward something much darker & more political. It’s not, as one might imagine for a text crafted largely (entirely?) in 2002, a reaction to September 11, but rather because both Sherlock & Conrad are deeply political creatures, tho not in any way that would have been recognized (or at least greeted with open arms), say, in a union hall in the 1950s. Some of it is sexual orientation, but more than anything its class. Conrad is quick to tell everyone exactly how hard his youth was, & Sherlock was certainly no Main Line scion. Which means that they bring a tone to an already familiar poetics that really comes across as quite different. Contrast this, say, with another Berrigan-inflected lefty, such as Louis Cabri. Cabri’s work is theory rich, where Sherlock & Conrad could not care less. Their politics of instanteous reaction to insult & discrimination is far closer to the observational immanence one associates with Berrigan & Whalen (two poets, mind you, who were also always painfully aware of just how few pennies they had in their pocket).
These come together in the most startling of combinations, say, the choice of a word like “trustafarians” or something whimsical, like
Ben Franklin
(sexy nerd)
though I Love
him so
did NOT
invent the
In a work where Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture (and its surrounding park), and the subject of blowjobs (including the cost of blowjobs) are continually reiterated themes, this simple passage actually is dense with other layers, but it’s that final word in this stanza that totally sells it.
I’ve been quoting Conrad here mostly because his stanzas, which tend to cling tighter to the left margin are easier to yoke into HTML than Sherlock’s airy field poetics. But it’s true also that readers will very quickly learn to recognize the two voices – there’s no attempt at ventriloquism here. Sherlock’s is lighter in tone – he’s the one who reminds you of Whalen. Conrad’s stanzas are more dense, and more apt to be angry than sad at the world’s injustices. Between these two poles, tho, is where the magic in this book really happens. It can be loud, joking, rude, quiet, alert, brassy, smart, tender all in the course of a couple of pages. It’s a terrific read.