Friday, September 10, 2010
Worst. Book. Ever.
The Pill is, as a rule, averse to superlatives. I have, when pressed, been heard to aver that Ardbeg is the best single malt Scotch whisky and that British Air is the worst airline on which to fly to or from London, but that’s about it. So it is with some hesitation that I tell you that Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life is the worst volume of poetry I have ever read, but tell you that I will. And Gentle Reader, I have read this.
It’s an ugly book, and I don’t just mean the awful and illegible cover, the bizarre trim size or the off-putting Quemadura typeface (though those are all bad enough). I mean the poems themselves.
I’ll get to the ugliness. But first I’ve got to admit to some simple confusion. Are these poems dramatic monologues, with speakers distinct from the poet? I kept hoping so, especially when I came upon a solecism like this (from “Fat”):
I have wandered for six days with no bread, drank lemon water
This, my fellow lovers of the language, is incorrect tense usage; the sentence begins with the past participle form of the verb (“have wandered”) but slips, after the comma, to the simple past (keep the "have" in your head when you get to "drank" and you'll hear the problem). A deft and economical way of characterizing a speaker, suggesting sloppiness of thought through intentional sloppiness of language? A moment in which we are subtly invited to join the poet in her ironic distance from this linguistically slovenly speaker? Would that it were so. The same poem includes banal lines about writing poems:
I have written poems about the flesh of scientists
But nothing in their science speaks to me about my art.
Oh dear. But wait. It's worse. Examples abound. Here’s another, from “Ars Poetica”:
Yesterday my boyfriend called me, drunk again
And interspersed between ringing tears and clinginess
He screamed at me with a kind of bitterness
No other human being had before to my ears
And told me that I was no good.
Perhaps he meant her grammar, for the “interspersed” in the second line suggests that what we’ll find between the tears and, ahem, "clinginess" is a noun, not the verb phrase “He screamed.” Something, rather than some action, is interspersed between (or, better, among) other things.
Pedantry? OK. I’ll accept that. But Ezra Pound, who was woefully wrong about many things, was right, I think, when he wrote that poetry should be as well written as well-written prose, and these here Black Life poems are emphatically not.
What they are is chopped-up bad prose about how hard it is to be the poet (and these poems never, ever let the reader forget that they were written by a real, live poet):
I am a great woman, I have the wiles
That make the poet
But I am also gentle
And when I kiss a man I really mean it
Have you felt this too, upon my kisses
That I gave you in the nightsky
As your eyelashes hung over the moon?
Or were you too young to see it too,
My little feverish butterfly
Oh, the cheap cummingsy runtogetherness! Oh the sappy Chagallery! Oh the missing terminal punctuation! Oh, the humanity!
One is embarrassed for Lasky at a moment like this. Or like this here other one, from “Jakob”:
Readers, you read flat words
Inside here are many moments
In which I have screamed in pain
As the flames ate me.
One's critical response is reduced by such lines as these to the head-shaking repetition of "Oh dear." But, OK, these are just run-of-the-mill bad, the sort of awful self-obsessed, craftless crap that smears a thousand workshop tables in creative writing classrooms and MFA programs around the country (and soils, one admits, far more notebooks whose sophomore owners have the decency to keep them out of sight and, perhaps, when the writers come to cast mature eyes on their late-night, wine-fueled drivel, consign them to the cleansing flames). I got halfway through the book just irritated by the fact that this stuff got slapped between those ugly covers instead of being sanitarily flushed.
And then I read “Ever Read a Book Called Awe?”
[Gentle Reader, this humble blogger pauses now to ask you to recognize that, though the following might at first blush feel intemperate, great restraint in fact was brought to bear in the composition and revision of these sentences.]
It's bad enough that we're treated to the navel-gazing bout of self-absorption in which the poet asks if we've read her previous book, in which she goes on to describe, in a sickening faux-naif tone, the publication process, and that this wince-inducing anecdote is made somehow to stand for love as it's juxtaposed to "Some people I love / Don't love me." (Yeah, I threw up in my mouth a little there, too.) What transforms icky to full-on revolting is the next juxtaposition. Sometimes, you see, people love the speaker (I'm going to retain this persona/poet distinction, though there's precious little evidence to support it), and, as the poem has it, "That's good," and then the Big and Important Generalizations appear:
When you sit in a landscape of snow
And you're a bird, that's Awe
When you look over a big green field
And the dead soldiers like all around you, that's Love
And when you shift from your navel and your precious little undeserved career to the Capital-H History figured by those dead soldiers, whose vintage, by way of that "Awe," seems to be in the 2003-present category, that's stealing some unearned gravitas from the fatigue pockets of casualties like a camp follower grabbing wallets. And it's disgusting.
Bad poems, Gentle Reader, are bad enough. This book is worse. It's ugly.