Monday, May 31, 2010

Lynda Hull, Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2006)

At the end of last summer, I received an e-mail from a graduate student in Chicago who was working on an essay about the poetry of Lynda Hull. The student had read an interview online in which I mentioned how much I admire Lynda’s writing. Unsure of how helpful I might be, I wrote the student a lengthy reply and attempted to explain to her why Lynda’s poetry has been influential to me over time. I enjoyed having the chance to ponder this and articulate it in writing, so I thought I'd share my comments here as well.

For those unfamiliar with Lynda Hull’s life and work, she was an American poet originally from Newark, New Jersey, and she was the author of three books: Ghost Money (University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), Star Ledger (University of Iowa Press, 1991), and the posthumously published The Only World (HarperPerennial, 1995). During her late teens, she ran away from home to live on her own, and she also struggled with drug addiction for much of her life. She died in an automobile accident in 1994. Twelve years later, a volume of her Collected Poems was published by Graywolf Press.

Here’s some of what I wrote to the student in my response…

Back when I was a young gay man who'd just moved from suburban Ohio to the city of Boston for college — and who had also decidedly run away from home for good — I related to the sense that I found in Lynda Hull’s poems of having to be independent at too young an age. Her poem “Maquillage” ends with the poignantly understated line, “But that was long ago. I was only seventeen.” She was too young to be working in a bar at that age, but she didn’t have a choice, and she ended up loving it and caring about the people she met there anyway. Like so many of her poems, the tone is sorrowful and nostalgic, but breaking the syntax by putting a period into the middle of that last line saves the poem from being merely nostalgic. In a very simple and also fairly complex way, it becomes a philosophical statement about time itself, and how human relationships intertwine with and stand separate from the movement of what we call time.

There’s also the pure sense of “gayness” in her poems, for lack of a better word. Decadence, ruined luxury, drag queens, wigs and makeup and outfits, obsessions with lush decoration and artistry, exploring the world at night, the “vampire” hour — these are all classic gay symbols, archetypes, and motifs that take a prominent place in her poems. Feeling slightly tortured about all of it, upset about not entirely fitting into the normative, daylight world, yet equally able to look that world squarely in the eye. Maybe telling it to go fuck itself now and then, yet still able to find and extol the beauty in it — both the sordid and the authentic beauty. One of Lynda’s closest friends, the writer Mark Doty, has quoted Lynda as saying that she sometimes felt like she was “a gay man trapped in a woman's body.” I’m able to experience a sort of cross-gender queer kinship through reading and deeply relating to Lynda’s poems.

The poet David Wojahn, Lynda’s husband of ten years, comments in the foreword to her third and final book, The Only World, that “the ferocity of her poems comes not from sorrow and defeatism but from a hard-won and urgently expressed spirit of wonder.” Without question, that’s the aspect of her work that’s most significant to me, and the aspect that I feel makes her influence perhaps more present than any other writer’s when I think about my own poetry. The sense of wonder that her work conveys, while being just as honest about the world’s harshness, offers the reader a kind of redemption or reprieve from that harshness. When I was 20, I craved that feeling of relief and understanding, even if I had to get it from a book. It also made me want to write poems that showed the cruelty of experiences openly, while making an even greater effort to demonstrate, to myself and others, why exactly that cruelty might be worth enduring.

Perhaps that’s one reason why I knew intuitively to keep myself away from alcohol and drugs. I knew that I needed something to take the edge off, and that my desire for that relief was dangerous in itself, so I feel lucky to have found my outlet in poetry and written expression, in reading and thinking, in music and in movies and art. In a way, Lynda Hull’s work gave me that gift. Having lost and suffered so much herself, she gave me (and many other people) three books to save me, an alternative to the real dangers that the darker world can offer, which will bring only more suffering, as she had learned too well.

But back to the beauty and wonder, and more specific comments about a few of the individual poems. Desire is at the root of Lynda’s work, and in some Eastern philosophies, desire is also a primary cause of suffering. Yet why does something that makes us feel good also cause pain? Should we show the enjoyment or the pain more? Because she was such a fine poet, Lynda Hull knew well enough to show them both in equal proportion.

The first poem in Ghost Money, “Spell for the Manufacture & Use of a Magic Carpet,” is no coincidence; she introduces herself by weaving a litany of enchantment. She knows her body of work will be a dark joyride under the stars, though as we careen across shattered buildings and desolate, post-industrial cityscapes, what we see spread out beneath us may not always be comforting. But it will always be exhilarating, dazzling, and a sort of prayer: "Ask then / to discover the secret thing you seek, / gazing out always over the diners and arcades / to the cities of New Jersey rising / white, small beyond the Palisades."

I think Lynda Hull’s three books of poems are structured like music, something I aim to do with my own books. They’re somber song cycles. They’re also symphonies, with the requisite internal movements. The three poems that close each section of Star Ledger — “Adagio,” “Utsuroi,” and “Black Mare” — are brilliant in their subdued tone and precise placement. Each poem is centrally concerned with surrendering one’s self: to addiction and pleasure, to change and transition, to unavoidable loss. I don't need to shoot up heroin because “Adagio” shows me exactly what it feels like, just before the poem surrenders, in its haze of hallucination, to the next section of the book. “Utsuroi” fully embodies the ineffable Japanese metaphor of “delicate transition,” becoming a delicate transition itself. And “Black Mare” relies on skillfully arranged, irregular repetition to evoke the quietly dramatic end of a relationship (“that / terminal hotel” where “it was never warm”), an inevitable close that precipitates inevitable regret, just in time for the book itself to close. These are a composer’s strategies, a musician’s strategies. From the standpoint of cinematic montage (edits, jumpcuts, slow fade-to-black), they’re a filmmaker’s strategies, too.

I’ll close with a few thoughts about her final, posthumously published book, The Only World. When I once read the opening poem, “Chiffon,” to somebody whom I didn’t know very well, she curtly responded, “Why does it have to be so realistic?” My take on it is that when Lynda was being “realistic” (heatwave, gang rape, etc.), she was brutally so, the same way the experience itself would feel. That’s one thing good writing does; it conveys directly and specifically. In “Rivers into Seas,” she won't turn away from the starkest unpleasantness: “How rats swam to their raft, soaked cats, spirits / she said, ghosts....” Nor will she turn from the starkest, simplest moments of beauty: “Voyager afloat / so many months, banks of sunflowers he loved spitting / their seeds. Tick. Black numerals on the sill.” (That poem is dedicated to Wally Roberts, Mark Doty’s partner of twelve years, who died of AIDS-related complications in January of 1994, just months before Lynda.)

Because I love how expertly she “times” her endings, the closing poem in Lynda's final book, “The Window,” is my favorite of her poems. I think that most of what she was trying to accomplish in her work is consummately encapsulated in this poem. Again, we find the rhythmic repetition, the slowly unfolding cinematic montages, distant screeches of trains threading through the night, invading our dreams, alone with only our memories of the past and those who've peopled it, “[l]iving on nothing but injections & vodka, a little / sugar." As in “Black Mare,” the final poem of Star Ledger, she knows it’s the end, she knows that someone’s leaving. And at this particular, terminally infinite point of departure, she knows that she herself is the one who’s leaving: “Soon, soon, I shall stop upon that platform // & you will meet me there, the world rosegray beyond / the scalloped tops of buildings & we shall seek / that thing which shines & doth so much torment us.”

Compare those last couple of lines from her poetic career, “& we shall seek / that thing which shines,” to some lines from the opening poem in her first book: “Ask then / to discover the secret thing you seek.” By the end of her life, Lynda had figured out where she wanted the trajectory of her body of work to go, while remaining under the mysterious spell of longing itself. Her three books together form a perfect, hallucinatory, fantastical circle, a circle that remains open even as it seems to close. If only all poets could aspire to this demanding level of structural integrity. That intricacy is part of what makes her books so meaningful to me.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Lover Speaks (A&M Records, 1986)

Pop music and philosophy rarely ever converge. Maybe that’s because at its heart, pop music is all about skimming the surface, admittedly. Look too deeply, and you risk breaking the illusion, ruining the enchantment. Actually, almost breaking the illusion is a risk that most great pop songs are willing to take; that’s part of what makes them great. Philosophy, on the other hand, often won’t even admit that there is a surface.

I can think of no mainstream pop album inspired entirely by a single book of philosophy — especially not one that spawned a chart-topping hit — except for the self-titled, long out-of-print 1986 release by the English synthpop duo known as The Lover Speaks. Sure, some other British pop outfits that were assembled during the New Romantic era of the mid-1980s, such as Green Gartside’s brainchild Scritti Politti, wanted to make sure we knew that they’d paid close attention to lectures on cultural criticism during their days at university. They also wanted us to know how much they genuinely loved the philosophical ideas they’d encountered, and that they could prove those ideas might feel right at home in the lyrics of a pop song, unlikely as it seemed.

Whereas Scritti Politti, still a successful and quietly lauded band today, cribbed its moniker from Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci and recorded an early song in praise of French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, The Lover Speaks, comprised of musicians David E. D. Freeman and Joseph Hughes, based its one and only officially released album on Roland Barthes’ treatise A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Freeman composed the lyrics for all ten of the album’s songs, so the links to Barthes’ text can be credited to him. In fact, three of the songs’ titles — “Absent One,” “Of Tears,” and “This Can’t Go On!” — are drawn directly from the various subtitled sections of Barthes’ book.

“No More ‘I Love You’s’” is the most recognizable of the album’s tracks. Though it experienced minor success in The Lover Speaks’ original version, peaking at #58 on the U.K. singles chart in 1986, former Eurythmics’ vocalist Annie Lennox revived the song for her cover album, Medusa, in 1995, taking the song to #2 on the U.K. charts and to #23 in the United States. The connection between the two acts was Lennox’s Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart, who had initially been instrumental in getting The Lover Speaks’ demo tape into the hands of Jimmy Iovine, the legendary rock producer made famous by his work with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, The Pretenders, and U2. Iovine’s sterling production values are usually cited for giving The Lover Speaks its distinctive and rather timeless sound, balanced somewhere between addictive rhythm-guitar hooks, synthesized basslines with discreet R&B underpinnings, and ’60s girl-group doo-wop choruses. (As a B-side for “No More ‘I Love You’s,’” The Lover Speaks turned in a skillful, pounding rendition of Dusty Springfield’s dramatic “I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten.”)

But back to Roland Barthes and his book’s effect on the album’s overall tone and themes. Near the beginning of his text, Barthes proposes that his study will present a portrait and “a discursive site: the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.” Not among Barthes’ most referenced or celebrated works, A Lover’s Discourse is an abstract, elliptical rumination on the things we say to ourselves, silently, when under the spell of the person we most desire. The album The Lover Speaks opens with the tongue-in-cheek observation, “I am a spy, spying on myself. / A tragic subject.” The songs that follow share the same state of mind that Barthes evokes: romantic, somber, ecstatic, obsessive, tortured, erratic, ever swooning on the verge of nearly losing control, but somehow managing to keep things together, for fear that seeing you fall apart would surely make the loved one flee.

Perhaps the album’s most impressive aspect is how precisely it echoes and embodies through its very form the premise that Barthes sets forth. Each song is a public declaration and vocalization of feeling, yet it’s also understood that these vocalizations are a kind of interior monologue, inside the head of the artist/singer, and also inside the ear of the solitary listener. The lover “speaks” by singing — his thoughts and emotions are fully realized only as they’re sung — both to himself and to a silent, distant other, the recipient of his musicalized missives. In an extended discourse on an important, vexing little phrase, Barthes suggests, “I-love-you belongs neither in the realm of linguistics nor in that of semiology. Its occasion (the point of departure for speaking it) would be, rather, Music.”

The realm of popular music itself, of course, would probably never have existed without those three little words, nor without all of the requisite bliss and havoc that they leave in their wake. Barthes reduces them (“Je t’aime”) to a single word, sign, or concept, “a sublime, solemn, trivial word.” This jaded sensibility is highlighted in the chorus lyrics of “Every Lover’s Sign,” the opening number of The Lover Speaks: “Every word, every lover’s sign we make has been made before. / Every squeeze, every tricky touch we feel has been felt before.” There’s something reassuring about such an endless, cyclical history of human emotion, but there’s also something disquieting, boring, and absurd about it. Romantic love, even at its most authentic, is always on some level a worn cliché — hard to live with, yet equally hard to live without.

That inherent contradiction shapes the litany at the core of “No More ‘I Love You’s,’” which attempts, like the majority of pop songs, to process the stages of heartbreak in love’s aftermath. Here, David Freeman does so via the linguistic trajectory outlined by Barthes, rejecting the lost attachment not entirely actively, but with a clear sense of relief and resignation, liberation and sorrow. Between repetitions of the title, Freeman contemplates, “A language is leaving me. / A language is leaving me exiled. / Changes are shifting me outside the words.”

The character whom Freeman enacts in these songs is always aware of (and made weary by) the ridiculous tensions produced by the lover’s predicament. The first verse of “Still Faking This Art of Love” best describes the situation: “Stampeding feelings is an art today. / Cry-nervous flirtings of a modern sonneteer. / Valentino eyes — such a drama! / That haunting smile, could it try to be more charming?” Yet the tone never fully veers into cynicism or away from sincerity.

Strikingly, Freeman’s sometimes restrained, sometimes wailing vocals are counterpointed throughout the album by those of a female singer, June Miles-Kingston, an ex-girlfriend of the band’s instrumentalist, Joseph Hughes. The way in which their vocals intertwine and often seem to blend into one another brings to mind one of Barthes’ key points about the gender divide in traditional heteronormative relationships. In his section titled “The Absent One,” Barthes writes, “Woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises). It is woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so…. It follows that in any man who utters the other’s absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized.” Granted, this sexist notion is somewhat outdated now, but it still holds sway in the majority of heterosexual pairings.

As an argument against this idea, Freeman sings on the languid, down-tempo “Absent One,” in a mournful voice that’s unmistakably masculine, “And here I am again, waiting.” At other points on the album, Freeman’s impassioned delivery climbs far beyond his standard register, blurring the lines of gender even further by intentionally soaring to rather “feminine” heights of longing in falsetto.

“Of Tears,” the closing coda of The Lover Speaks, is sung — or cried — almost exclusively in that lofty, pain-stricken range. Freeman offers an explanation of the song’s vocals alongside its printed lyrics in the album’s liner notes: “I decided not to sing the lyrics here, but instead to image the written ‘I’ by means of an expressive falsetto which, for me at least, speaks more of tears than had I performed the vocal. Fidelity to the song, however, invites me to include the absent words.” Aside from songs by such vocalists as Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins and Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós, who choose to sing in half-imagined languages of their own devising, I can’t recall any other pop/rock song that’s presented entirely in this fashion. It’s a fascinating move, one that’s both literal and poetic. Barthes ends his section “In Praise of Tears” by citing Franz Schubert’s popular 1818 ballad “Lob der Tränen,” a musical setting of a poem by August Wilhelm Schlegel: “Words, what are they? One tear will say more than all of them.”

Speaking of poetry, David Freeman also authored a book of erotic verse, Voices of Passion, which was meant to coincide with the release of The Lover Speaks’ eponymous debut album, as a kind of extension of the album’s lyrical motifs. The brief biographical note on the book’s back cover mentions that David Freeman “is singer/songwriter with The Lover Speaks,” and the volume of poems is also plugged in the liner notes of the single for “No More ‘I Love You’s’” (although there’s no mention of the book in the liner notes of the album itself). Published by T.L.S. Publishing in 1987, this tiny collection of poems — somehow overwrought and under-wrought at once — must be extremely scarce these days. I was fortunate to purchase a copy inexpensively from a dealer of rare books in London; it’s a wonderful novelty item of ’80s New Romantic memorabilia, even if the poems aren’t nearly as distilled as the lyrics that found their way onto The Lover Speaks, where they have the music that’s necessary to cushion them.

What’s most apparent about these erotic poems is that they’re young. One of the poems even begins, “I am proud of my youth. / I will be young or nothing.” Those lines capture abundantly the reckless beauty and short-lived feeling of invincibility behind the whole New Romantic movement. The Lover Speaks is an album that could have been created only by someone young enough to stay unfazed by the successive treacheries of the lover’s discourse. But it could also have been created only by someone who’s right on the cusp of outgrowing his youth and youthful escapades, bidding them farewell with a sigh of relief, a final utterance that can still be savored today as a blatant, exquisite reminder.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My Introduction

Greetings, world. I’ve never been very good at keeping a journal. Something in me lacks the daily discipline required for it, or perhaps I simply resist telling myself my own thoughts in writing. My head usually feels like an ongoing journal anyway, so why write down everything?

Earlier, I took a stroll through my neighborhood in the middle of the night, between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. I live in a wonderful area called Cambridge, just across the river from Boston, and the beauty of the place is heightened for me when everybody else is asleep. I love the stillness and the quietude, the dim glow in windows of the silent houses that I pass. Even on a Friday night (or early Saturday morning), I saw only three other people on foot in over half an hour, and only five cars driving along in the dark. My mind can wander wherever it wants, listening to my iPod on shuffle. It’s like a form of walking meditation. And so, despite my failed attempts at writing journals in the past, I decided at some point during my walk to start this blog.

For a number of years now, I’ve written pop culture reviews of various kinds for a few different publications. It was always just freelance work, something I’ve enjoyed doing on the side. I wrote a pop music review column for a newspaper for a while, and I still write some book reviews on occasion. A good portion of my life so far has been devoted to reading books, listening to music, watching movies, going to the theater. In some ways, art has been a companion; in other ways, it’s kept me alive.

Rather than let my thoughts about art stay in my own head, where I’m sure they’re quite happy, I thought I’d begin to assemble some of them more cohesively for a change. Writing reviews for editors can be a useful experience, but it’s also usually somewhat limiting. The advent of blogging, and the gradual acceptance of it as a legitimate venue for journalistic expression, has begun to eliminate the need for more formal print journalism, and by extension the need for editors. It’s a liberating feeling, of course, and I want to embrace that.

(I’m also far from being an avid technology buff. To this day I’ve still never owned a cell phone, and I bought my very first laptop less than a year ago. Yet another change that I’m trying to embrace.)

As the blog title “popsublime” suggests, the reviews that I post here will be all about praise, with some commentary of cultural value, hopefully. I considered the possibility of trashing some things, too, or being very critical of stuff that I don’t like. Trust me, there’s plenty of art that bothers me, especially when it’s more in service of commerce or image or attitude or politics or social networking than aesthetics. Those who know me also know that I’m not at all shy when expressing my opinions about that. But in a public, online forum, a level of decorum is key. Part of what distanced me from blogging until now is the kind of sniping that goes on routinely in the blogosphere. People often don’t seem to realize that their posts and comments are public and permanently visible, or maybe they just don’t care?

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” Praise can be a worthwhile goal in itself. This is even truer if the critic seeks to situate the work of art in a place of posterity, a way of helping the art to find those who might encounter it sometime in the near or distant future.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll start posting some reviews, hopefully at frequent intervals. I currently teach college for a living, so the summer months give me lots of leisure, thankfully. The art and popular culture that I’ll critique will be from any point in time — the past century, last decade, a year ago, yesterday. My taste has always been a bit left of center, but with a clear notion of where the center is, as well as a sense of affection for it. I’ll focus on movies (mostly independent, along with some mainstream fare), music (mostly pop, and all that it entails), books (especially poetry, since that’s what I studied and write myself), and theater (shows that I’ve seen either in New York or London). Art that’s moved me, inspired me, haunted me, perplexed me, and most importantly, stayed with me for some reason, even if the rest of the world barely took notice of it: the memorable, ephemeral, euphoric, and sublime.

Maybe I’ll also hear from some of you who share my feelings about the pop culture that I’ll be critiquing? If so, then I’ll have achieved something else that I’m trying to embrace. Thanks for reading.