I initially thought to begin this piece as a straight review of Philadelphia poet CA Conrad's collection The Book of Frank [Seattle: Wave Books, 2010]. The title had been rumored to be--or quietly announced as--in-the-pipeline at Jonathan Williams's Highlands/Jargon Press for quite some time, and given Williams's unusual and unpredictable tastes, it was worth wondering just what had impressed him enough to take up this then as-yet obscure young Philadelphia writer's work. But The Book of Frank never appeared from Jargon, and Williams died (apparently) before he could realize this project.
The book did finally appear, from another publisher, and I located a discarded review copy at a local used book emporium last month, to curiously inquire of it what it consisted. Ron Silliman had praised Conrad in his blog on several occasions, beyond the usual regional or personal obligatory gestures, though it appeared clear, on the slim evidence of the few quotations of Conrad's work I did read, that he was not a formal innovator, but a writer whose primary interest was in the projection of a conflicted self, seeking to overcome a set of natural disadvantages which fate had placed on his shoulders. His personal avatar--"The son of white trash asphyxiation, my childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for my mother and helping her shoplift. I am the author of several books of poetry, and I am a recipient of a 2011 Pew Fellowship in the Arts for poetry"--seemed calculated to evoke an empathetic reading, the usual ring of the confessional stance, familiar to readers of American verse throughout the post War period.
Confessional poetry has a range, from high to low condition. At the top end, you have Lowell and Seidel, gnashing their teeth over the curse of privilege, and at the lower end, well, you have people like Bukowski and Peter Orlovsky, wallowing in degradation and smut. A poetry which depends for its effects upon the vicarious curiosity of its readers about the shockingly different or sadly tragic personal lives of its writer(s) is bound to be distracted by the personal narrative, from other purely formal questions. It's as likely to be about dramatic action and theatrical performance, as it is about intriguing ventures into technical practice--no matter whether it's celebrating a conspicuous consumption, or the enlightenment of self-denial or involuntary deprivation. Everyone has at least one story to tell, though the accounts of middle class poets are almost always less diverting than those at the extreme ends of the social, economic or political spectrum. It can be confusing, too, when the rags-to-riches (or from obscurity to fame) cycle, goes full circle, putting the once-destitute freak into the lucrative limelight, or the spoiled scion of wealth manages to squander everything in a devoted pursuit of the flowers of evil. In CA Conrad's case, the initial emblematic self-deprecation (a low mimetic) is one in which the individualized plight is romanticized as a poetic profile--as in the Blakean sense where salvation is achieved through devotion to a higher good (such as artistic aspiration). Childhood is a Platonic state in which influences and conduct are imposed by an evil society (a la Dickens), and the child's salvation lies either in the altruistic intervention of a superior beneficent power, or through some inspired initiative (such as art or religious application).
Conrad's physical being--of a bloated, effeminate, slightly skanky queen--is foregrounded as a symbolic projection of its own hopeless quandary. If art is about beauty and grace and control, then such a fallen state of affairs can only inspire pity or amused indulgence. But of course art--and much religion--is also about the salvation of the forsaken. The poet Larry Eigner, born physically deformed and impaired, was saved by a familial care and attention which allowed him to generate a body of significant work over a lifetime of productivity. One's deeper proclivities may be concealed behind or inside a contradictory body, leading to a desperate pursuit of ways to validate that difference, to be accepted for who one is, or would choose to become. Art as self-transformational or redemptive vehicle.
Of course, self-imposed limitations may be as damaging and problematic as those we inherit or which are handed to us in childhood. Part of the romantic paradigm in American culture has been the exploitation of the outsider profile, as in the vaunted negative Beat stereotype of a wounded or hopped-up drifter with no well-defined connection to the society at large. The Gay subculture adopted a version of this, familiar to readers of Allen Ginsberg's or John Wieners's work. And Conrad's personal projection seems an hybrid adaptation of this, cobbled together from senses of Rimbaud, Selby, Rechy, Genet, Warhol, O'Hara, Spicer, et al--a sort of contemporary, slightly oversized American Quentin Crisp. The insistence upon an un-closeted, unashamed sexually ambiguous stereotype, unrepentant and demanding to be acknowledged, has become familiar in public life (think of Michael Jackson).
In a faux-therapeutic sense, if you can't help being what you are, another option is to convince yourself, along with the rest of the world, that your difference is an undeniable fact of the culture, and not something to be despised, or excluded. The role of the artist is one way to provide a validation for such differences, insisting that the special preconditions or qualifications for a valued uniqueness provide the justification for celebrating them; which is precisely what the Gay subculture has been striving to achieve over the last three decades. In the academy, as well as in the political realm, the campaign for multi-cultural inclusiveness, and textual relativity, continues to welcome wave after wave of groups previously regarded as excluded from the mainstream: Racial and ethnic minorities, Gays and Lesbians, the Disabled or physically deformed, the mentally disturbed, etc. Artists and writers can be leaders in the struggle for equality and justice. But difference itself is not an achievement per se, and anger and frustration and jealousy and bitterness are not in themselves beautiful.
One of the consequences of insisting that poetry be a "public art" where the poet is front and center in the media focus of public readings, recordings, interviews, demonstrations, conferences, and the like, is the emphasis upon the physical, the theatrical. Poets become actors outside the realm of mere textual composition; they become characters in their own drama, or in the larger forum of public consciousness. Rather than letting one's words stand alone, one fashions a persona, presented to the world as an integrated phenomenon, finished and perfected. For someone like CA Conrad, the challenge to emerge from the shadows is both a blessing and a curse. The choice to project a confident difference, instead of an ashamed eccentricity, becomes subsumed within the larger campaign for an unqualified acceptance. Critical exception is treated as prejudice, and anything less than full entitlement is regarded as bigoted rejection. Comforts derived from the approbation of a confederacy are sweeter than simple technical successes. The projection of an artist profile as simultaneously a badge of resentment, resistance and of celebration, however, involves certain formal difficulties.
If we look to Conrad's poetry for keys to this paradigm, however, we're likely to be confounded. The Poems of Frank appear to be about the objectification of a number of psychological conundra, no one of which makes a clear enough statement of its own purpose, in order for us to delineate the outline of an argument or finished portrait. The "Frank" of the poems is a personification without any specificity, indeed one of the purposes of the work seems to me to involve a de-personalization of the consciousness inside the poems, allowing for an automatized voice which places the reader in the position of both witness and participant in the events which are portrayed. Things happen to someone named Frank, but who Frank really is, and what the crucial facts about his existence are, is deliberately withheld from us. Is the Frank of the poems an alter-ego for the narrator, or a fictionalized poetic dramatization of the nightmarish delusions of a patient in a mental institution, recounting events which occurred in a hazy pre-institutionalized life? If such speculations seem external to the spirit of the work, it's best to remember that every reader brings something different to the reading of any text, and one man's normal may be another man's para-normal. Art can provide the platform upon which delusional or surreal apperception is played out; and if you want to be a player, you need to expect the worst.
In one of the early pieces in the collection, on page 24, Conrad makes overt ironic references to Berryman's Dreamsongs [New York: 1964; and New York: 1968]. The Dreamsongs is an interesting analogue to the persona'd approach Conrad has taken here--
Frank met Huffy Henry sulking in a dream song
and zapped him
with the miniaturizing gun
Henry was kind of small anyway
Frank decapitated the
old boy with a pinch
tied his body on a
stick for a slingshot
and sent the little fucker's
screaming head up to
the great knee of Orion
Aside from the fact that some significant portion of Conrad's audience might not even get the reference--not being familiar with Berryman's work--there's an obvious effort made here to spiritually dispose of the elder figure. In Berryman's poem, the persona Henry is a kind of partial stand-in for Berryman, not exactly an alter-ego, but a kind of cast-puppet for attitudes and sayings necessary to the poems' argument. Henry, "a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof." Superficially, Berryman's poem sequence bears remarkable similarities to Conrad's, in that both are in the "Henry did this, Henry did that" or "Frank did this, Frank did that" mode. Berryman's much more subtle use of the interwoven conscious, unconscious and interjecting voices aside, Conrad's poem could be described as a spiritual stepchild of that earlier long, narrative poetic drama, stripped of plot and the larger contexts of reference. Berryman was a classical scholar, as well as a meticulously finicky poet, and there is much thinly disguised personal detail in his poetry. The disingenuous use of presumed autobiographical detail in Conrad's book is less well integrated into the dramatic framework he sets up. Conrad's work can be summarized, I think, by dividing up these Frank poems into three general groups:
1) Psychological trauma
when Frank was born
Father inspected the small package
the nurse handed him
"but where's my daughter's cunt?
my daughter has no cunt!"
Mother leaned from the bed
"this is your awful son Dear
your son has no cunt"
"why doesn't my son have a cunt?
what has happened?
what a WICKED world!
on its one
2) Surreal event or detail
cut him open
3) Bad jokes
Frank loves his Coca-Cola bottle
she loves him
he loves her fine lean waist
she loves his rock hard nipples
he shoves his cock in her little glass mouth
she cracks and
they're both in trouble
Visions like these balance uncertainly between tasteless vulgarity and horrific psycho-drama. But in the context of a live coffee-house reading, such anecdotal pot-shots are undoubtedly effective, if a bit monotonously repetitive. It isn't that performance "makes them come alive," as much as that the nervous laughter and mild embarrassment they inspire are often taken to signify assent, rather than mere stimulation. In Eileen Myles's Afterword, she states "Surrealism implied among other things the disassociative and destabilizing states of sex . . . in the work of CA Conrad . . . the space he enters as a poet — on the page or in the room where he reads is invariably radically altered . . . to specifically vague [not sure what "specifically vague"means here, but . . .] social ends. Yes he’s queer. But aren’t you? Conrad is undeniably a gay man who is reacquainting us in a quiet time (quiet about almost everything except the money — everyone’s busy moaning about the money) with the wildness and inclusiveness of the original impulse behind the gay liberation movement, and even the implicit possibility it carried then and now that even you, yes even fuddy duddy, uncategorizable, rich, poor, young, old you are welcome here." I'm not at all sure that that inclusiveness is really the point, as it might have been construed, say, in the work of Whitman, whose magnanimous embrace is always unmistakable, though a bit blurry at times.
Myles again: "These are not men’s poems, any more than they are women’s poems. They’re not straight poems any more than gay ones. The writer is male, and the writer is homosexual. And the writer comes it seems clear from a less than privileged background. But the scope of the book includes so many kinds of ventroloquized selves, an abundant puppetry. Like that field of haikus waving. An active and morphing fictionality amends, abets and broadens the scope of the poetry inside 'Frank' and even out there"--with all of which I'd agree, except for the bit about broadening the scope of poetry, as I see nothing technically or formally new in this work.
The Book of Frank asks to be taken on its own terms, that is as a collection of set-scenes of recollections of a disturbed or abused childhood, which flower in adulthood as a sardonic obsession. The poems exhibit little or no formal ingenuity, they're rather like notes made on the run. Written as prose, they'd be somewhat less incremental in their effects, but the essence would be the same. They're quick, cute, and mostly trite cartoons. The composite character they build is perhaps less self-pitying than direct confession would be--and less portentous, of course. Take your pick.
James Wright constructed a poetic persona for himself in The Branch Will Not Break[Wesleyan, 1963] and Shall We Gather at the River [Wesleyan, 1967], which he used to great effect, in a manner not unlike that which Berryman used in the Dream Songs. But both of these poets understood the parameters of investing in a semi-fictionalized projection. For them, it was possible to establish a spiritual relationship to an imagined alter-ego, that was not trivial or condescending or simply designed to elicit a quick shock. In my view, there's nothing at all wrong with wanting to confront your demons in your writing, as long as you take responsibility for whatever clever maneuvers or masks you put up to deflect a clear view. In Conrad's case, I think he wants to have it both ways: He wants you to buy into his bad childhood, while at the same time excusing him for the aesthetic defenses he's built to insulate himself from any sense of responsibility for how he dealt with that--by which I mean that the lack of a formal integration makes it impossible to judge the book using anything like discrete aesthetic criteria.
Ultimately, we don't need any excuses for the excesses of art. What matters is the final effect and significance the work realizes. My one caveat to that would be that confusing the public persona with the sullen, private condition of solitary work may lead into aesthetic cul-de-sacs. Allen Ginsberg wrote one great poem, and perhaps five more very good ones, living for most of his later adult life on the reputation he'd built while still in his twenties, maintaining a public identity and authority far beyond that of most people with his education and insight--sustained by a purely artificial scaffolding of notoriety. Ginsberg "played" the media game as well as anyone, manipulating it in exactly the way it manipulated him, but in his case, this symbiotic relationship was a pragmatic bargain with necessity, i.e., Ginsberg had exorcized his demons in private, and could "afford" to front for the counterculture from an avuncular, professorial platform. He knew exactly what he wanted, had sorted out beforehand the issues he needed to present.
With Conrad, one has the sense that his struggle will never permit this sort of integration, despite the flippant, hackneyed incivility, the poker-faced absurdities. Any question about whether to consider the significance of content separately from its realization as form, seems irrelevant, since formal considerations seem beside the point. Myles, who attempts to rationalize this issue by framing it as a metaphysical-religious act--"This kind of . . . screaming to God is a demand for the most primary honorific of having a name, a frame--access to a sense of self in the world"--is simply playing to her audience.
"'Frank' is an ardent howl." By summoning Ginsberg, there is an implicit agenda: "the Frank poems are a triumph of multi-positionality . . . it's our good fortune especially at this moment of quiet cultural crisis to have this book by C.A. Conrad--one following Whitman and Stein and Allen Ginsberg who came to us horny and abundant in their different ways demanding that he or she be construed as all men."
If a Gay or transsexual sub-text is not merely the starting-point, but the whole point of writing these poems, the agenda must be treated as a deliberately political act. The notion of idealizing some conceptual entity of "difference" as an objective aesthetic quality has its roots in the political attitudinizing I referred to earlier--the movement for multi-cultural inclusiveness. But if the choice is to be neither male, nor female, nor even some vague composite of the two, in the end the work must redefine what it means to write at all, since we can't imagine an omniscient authorial voice as being a-sexual. Poly-sexuality, or ambiguous sexuality is an unnatural condition human, or at least an abnormal one.
We can break down the stereotypes which psychology and religion and folk wisdom have constructed, but what do we put in their places? Sexual difference is not a conspiracy against humankind perpetrated by some indistinct infernal power, but a direct inheritance from the riddle of biology. In The Book of Frank, we don't have the choice of simply appreciating the performance, because the terms of the apprehension are so pugnacious and uncompromising.
Free-form surreal Kafka-esque mini-nightmares written in a petulant, sardonic tone. They don't even possess the self-respect of modesty. By which I don't mean the modesty of shyness, or of courtesy, or of "good taste" or any of that. It must be, out of a degree of self-loathing so profound and irredeemable as to constitute symbolic immolation, that the prayer of redemption--the naked cry of I am--is the only gesture left. But there are more choices, more options than just love me for who I am or love me for what I have made (or imagined). Writing poetry isn't just about deciding which political (or racial, or sexual, or ethnic) agenda you want to front for. So-called minority artists who trade on their presumed persecuted difference deserve to have their work treated as such. The soldiers in any conflict may choose to turn their own work into propaganda, and of course all creative endeavor is in some respect a form of self-justification. But you have to prove your thesis. Self-loathing may be the unfortunate starting-point for some creative artists, but it's not where you want to end. You confront your demons every day.
Reading this book, I had trouble thinking of it as poetry at all, since it has so little of what I consider to be the stuff of poetry. Unless you consider hard-edged stand-up comedy poetry, or even if you can, then I think it simply fails on that standard as well.
from the menu
of dead authors
dumplings and the
braised thigh of
his wife orders
ring finger with
caviar and the
candied genitals of
Kerouac's erection arrives
shimmering in gravy
"Mmmm" she says
nibbling the tip
Ha ha ha.