Drunker/holding ember by Raymond Farr
(Blue and Yellow Dog Press, Ocala, Florida, 2010)
Often in Raymond Farr’s Drunker/ holding ember “words” seem to “become dissidents” against legible intention, and “they Molotov like cocktails” (18). In “A Language I Study to Resemble,” for example, phrases like “a lob that is missing” (10) simultaneously undermine and underscore visible presence and even existence. Where, if anywhere, is the lob that should be “here”?
In the couplets, “Looking up dice/ I cantilever over// The wall is a voice/ I see with my hands” (11), the opening gerund can mean either that someone is in a position to see the inner material of solid objects physically above him/her or that the person can try to discover the significance of these agents of chance by looking elsewhere. To “cantilever over” involves a lateral move dissimilar to usual modes of walking, running, and driving—perhaps a use of metonymic association rather than linear thinking or straightforward narrative development. Farr is as interested in obstruction of communication as he is in intersubjective successes; in the second couplet cited above, a barrier “speaks” to the persona—if such a traditional term should be used—through synesthesia involving displacements among three of the five senses. Speech in this book frequently comes from an unusual place to create odd miracles: “My henchmen’re herons whose gonads/ Speak ladders” (57). The speaker is poetically enabled by stately birds which articulate an elevated state through sexual desire. But my stilted paraphrase leaves out the breathy impact of “h” alliteration, the preponderance of concluding “s” sounds, and the assonance linking the last syllable of “gonads” and the first of “ladders,” both words in trochaic form.
Within the continual disruption of ordinary sense and continuity in Farr’s poems, which range from two to six pages and which often go a third or a halfway down the page, a few persistent themes can be discerned. One topic is (often laudatory) exploration of sources of aesthetic inspiration: “Dada’s a fire door/ Open when closed” (59). As in much avant-garde work, limitations and proscriptions open up fiery departures from convention. As the title of “Dear Dali, You Are Super Inflammable,” Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting is so “flammable” that it transcends whatever resistance would damage or destroy it:
4 am: eine indische dichtung
Fiery in red bedclothes I go up
Spiffy as a cardinal
I Dali a crucifix
I am clawed ever bellicose
I woe woe woe my boat till speech is a pen colder than Norway
Is painting a motor?
I culminate a truth carved out of mangos
& climb. (26)
Metrically, most of the poems in the book bundle small units of perception/language by alternating between monostichs and couplets, with an occasional tercet, but this passage includes a quatrain along with the one- and two-line strophes.
First, Farr cites the subtitle of Hesse’s Siddhartha, which translates into English as “an Indian poetry,” as though, a European understanding of the historical Buddha’s life is hovering around a scene that will turn out to represent the culmination of Jesus’. The “fiery”-pajama-clad speaker, rising very early or perhaps dreaming lucidly, is “spiffy,” in contrast to Dali’s richly spectral colors, and the suggestion of his “crucifixion” clashes with that of the painter’s mostly naked Jesus, because the former is linked either with a bright red bird or a Catholic prelate in a red hat. But “going up” is not necessarily to a crucifixion; it could be ascent to a surreal experience. The fourth line in the passage can be read as three noun clauses without a verb, indicating an appositional identification between “I,” the painter, and the dazzling crucifix to be found in one of Dali’s paintings. But “Dali” could be a verb that suggests that Farr makes symbolic use of a crucifix as the painter does—to jostle ordinary associations and to express “woe,” not so much about the persecution of Jesus, but about what modern Christian institutions do to human imaginations. Extremely “cold” speech/writing takes “bellicose” action against tepid linguistic or pictorial norms, yet vibrant energy (“a motor”) and sensual celebration (“carved out of mangos”) are both the sources and effects of the artist’s remarkably inventive process.
A fascination with and rage against contemporary commercial culture is an important thematic component of Farr’s book. In the final tercet of “Ravage Poetics Fences Haiku Breathing on Metro,” the poet’s desire to “goof with” the hegemonic power of TV and the web is aptly revealed: “My elixir’s gone mad/ I goof with the signal/ The cable’s my guide” (42). As “Spare Room Goes Up in Dust Mites” has it, “AUTO MAKERS bleeding stock market dough/ Is not good enough a poem” (43), but a poem that exposes the “bleeding” without allowing the polemical to override the “drunker” reaches of language at play may be “good enough.”
In “Call ‘It’ a Nightmare’s Budding Couture,” fragments of quasi-sensible reference and quasi-narrative evoke the nightmare elements in the existence of one who lurches through consumer culture, satisfying small impulses only to encounter new ones and bathing in advertising fantasies of pseudo-abundance: “In fantastic swinging azure fact(or)(y)/ Of daydreams” (21). The poetic elegance of “azure,” as in Mallarme’s work, is reduced to a component of media manipulation, and a “fact” is chopped into a “factory’s” productions of “factors” that push the consumption of this “or” that (“x” or “y”).
Unlike surrealism’s effort to free the unconscious from conditioning, the media (and perhaps conventional religious institutions that utilize it) “stage” the dreaming process in advance for consumers, or one might say that “hooked” dreamers submit to the staging:
Staged dreamers ogle heaven’s tv
Hooked for clues it gives
Stampede my demons across deli fromage
Into rippling muscles
Of alien wind chimes. (22)
The second strophe concisely notes how ad culture links presumptions about desire to those about individual identity, but then the speaker’s aim is revealed, not to stamp out “demons” but to get them vigorously “across” the consumption of “deli” cheese (spruced up with a French translation) into synesthestic confluence of kinesthetic heft and what is usually an ethereal auditory experience so that they can either be exercised or exorcized.
Farr is adept at presenting images of cultural entrapment in situations of repetitive media bombardment—“Eternal reruns/ Of savage Brillo commercial advantage” (23)—and psychological habit that feels physical: “I too am much too o’clock/ Revolving like ravens locked in a cloud” (24). Note the surfeit of “o” and “oo” sounds in the first line of the second passage, and the marvelous play on solidity/airiness in the second line.
He also displays a strong awareness of how easily oppositional impulses are coopted: “It’s caption me time in counterculture” (22).
In Farr’s work, which uses the “I” liberally only to fragment it, “language” is “spurious as identity.” The reader who is “holding” each “ember” of sense and non-sense may get burned but can also find these “drunker” uses of language socially illuminating and imaginatively charged.
Thomas Fink is the author of six books of poetry and two books of criticism. He is also co-editor of a 2007 collection of essays on David Shapiro. Marsh Hawk Press will publish his next poetry collection, Peace Conference, in 2011. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.