Failures of the Imagination
-Brett Eugene Ralph
“Before I can stop him, / my pet ferret gobbles / down the sliver of / hot pepper I accidentally / drop on the floor.”
-James R. Whitley
“The entrance sucks you right in -- the large, open space invites you to travel up the stairs to each floor to view the art. There's a really cool new gift shop to the right side that sells all sorts of modern knick-knacks and take-home art.”
-from reviewer Jenna R.’s write-up on Yelp about the (new-ish) Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago
I am tired of fooling around with twee “confessions”; unquestioning consumption of the reality-structures encouraged by corporations (no joke: “think outside the box” is somehow deemed an acceptable response to the challenge of creating a philosophical platform from which to operate); sloppy considerations of what language and art-making mean in the context of contemporary life; complacency. I will call this problem, and all problems related to it, “Failures of the Imagination.”
The Art Institute of Chicago opened a new Modern Wing in May. The “event” at large was somewhat notable, as it meant a more strained and complicated future for the local (less worldly) Museum of Contemporary Art and because the Art Institute has a well-deserved reputation as a gigantically important institution. The response, locally, at least, has been positive and embracing. The architecture is sleek, so clean -- and so appropriate for a city that fancies itself an Olympic contender. The curatorial theory at work seems to be 1) crowd control and 2) numb, unimaginative display of an expensive and enormous collection. The museum has cut back its free hours, added convenient zinfandel -filling-stations, and, ultimately, created a friendlier Ikea in museum-form. What I find most disturbing about the experience of the Modern Wing is that several of the Joseph Cornell boxes (dioramic dreamscapes, surrealist collage) -- in particular the ones that require an electrical connection because of an internal light that suggests the otherworldly glow of the pieces (and previously installed in a small, dumpy, charming room in the “old” modern wing, with simple “on” buttons on the wall) -- are awkwardly and unexplainably behind glass. The end result is an uncomfortable glare -- and the inability to turn on the built-in light, which means, obviously, the inability to see the piece at all. It’s just a weird blur of information. And although I admit that it is, after all, my taste for Cornell that makes this failure so offensive, the effect of the whole endeavor (the path one makes through the poor arrangement, the sterile and overly familiar architecture, etc.) is a Failure of the Imagination.
I don’t like to attack poetry in reviews. I can do that at home. I like to identify what is happening in the reading experience -- and then finesse the information into useful and interesting claims. I pride myself on this ability. But I am starting to feel that silence on the matter of Failures of the Imagination is condonation.
I am disturbed by the tendency of poets and readers of poetry to create false boundaries around their own curations and tastes; this seems, to me, a kind of deluding process by which the thinker justifies (and therefore preempts the need for expanding) her or his own ideas. Three months ago, Bookslut ran a feature in which a poet argued (among other things) that grabbing John Berryman over Jorie Graham on the way out the door was somehow an ideological position that she had to defend. The conflict here seems moot, a half-awake gesture. While teaching in a Creative Writing institute this summer, I listened to a guest speaker contend that there are currently just two kinds of poetry: Narrative (good, interesting, comprehensible) and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (bad, confusing, jibberish-esque). In his estimation, the poetry world allows a lot of confusing stuff to be published, and he would, of course, prefer to read and write “things that communicate” with the reader. A peer, in a very small poetry group, denounced an Aase Berg poem I had selected for an exercise; she said that she “would never read that again because it made [her] sick to [her] stomach.” In short, rather than identify the metaphorical landscape of the piece, she felt physically ill from the mention of eating guinea pigs (note: read the link to see the strange misreading present in such a literal reaction). A friend of mine was told, years ago, while attempting a friendly writing exchange with two classmates, that a poem’s job is to offer clarity; otherwise, they demanded, what’s the point?
The point is this: contemporary poetry, as the massive and unwieldy thing it is, should be encouraged to re-shape our realities. Why bother consuming information that simply reinforces the things we already know and feel? I am not arguing for canon-negligence or firmly placed camps (if “Narrative” and “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” are the only options available to readers and writers, then there is a serious problem). I understand that straight language and plainsong and the telling of stories in poems can provide edifying experiences, but I am not sure why we can’t also think aggressively (intellectually, imaginatively) about what is “serious” poetry (a notion I think I am stealing from Susan Sontag) and what my aforementioned friend calls “prose broken into lines.”
Black Sabbatical, the debut collection of Brett Eugene Ralph, is, at moments, engaging and entertaining. Ralph is indisputably cool (Will Oldham and Harmony Korine provide two of the blurbs on the back of the book). The publisher, Sarabande Books, put out the very good and very comprehensive Legitimate Dangers in 2006; the editors there don’t waste a drop of Ralph’s cultural cache: “When asked about his influences, Brett Eugene Ralph points to three enduring sources: growing up Southern working class in the 1970s and 80s, playing in punk rock bands, and practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Not a likely combination for a poet, perhaps . . .” Really? It’s not? I bristle at the sort of Whitman-thing they’re marketing, but, ultimately, the coy back matter is secondary to the problem of Ralph’s poetics. Beautiful: “all those desperate gestures / we collect and call the seasons,” a man in one poem turns into an owl and flies away, a girl is pushed off her bike and her “school books [are] splayed / like poisoned pigeons on the pavement.” Problematic: the poems read like prose broken into lines; there is a sometimes clumsy reliance on simile; the unpleasant tone is that of a self-aware, self-congratulating maverick. It is blindly irreverent. The poetics, in the end, do not make any kind of argument.
James R. Whitley’s book This Is the Red Door suffers from some of the same problems. There is, again, a rather engaging voice: a dash of confessionalism, some very apparent anguish and recognition of others’ anguish, and a kind of charming lack of “art” in the phrasing and structure of each poem. By “art,” here, I mean: overt “handling”; the poems feel spoken and natural. In “Nights of Gin and Ashes,” the speaker (one can’t help but assume that Whitley is present, but I will not assume that here) recounts a love affair turned drinking relationship turned excess/addiction turned separation. It’s honest seeming. And well crafted. But it almost appears as if Whitley is not aware of the sub-genre (or trope, maybe?) of art (music, especially) that already does this cliché. It ends: “I wait on this worn barstool for a round with you again.” (Nancy Sinatra? One Shot of Happy? Doesn’t Harry Chapin have something like this?) Whitley has a tenderness for the lyric image, as evidenced by “Primal” in which he reads increased reports of shark attacks as evidence of “the feeling that staying / where you are could, eventually, / seem like moving backward” and that such a thing might “reek of surrender” -- but I think that this poetry, along with Ralph’s, suffers from what it lacks.
If poetics does not ask the reader to re-negotiate how one reads, if it does not attempt to cast new light on all that came before it, then why bother? Outmoded “schools” of poetry must be transcended so that we might effectively evaluate what does and what does not alter reality and why and how.
Black Sabbatical by Brett Eugene Ralph
This is the Red Door by James R. Whitley