Archive | March, 2013

Donald Ray Pollock and the hard knock school.

18 Mar

Mid-March, and it’s snowing outside.

I’ve been in a re-reading mood. First The Sandman; then two by Bolano: By Night in Chile and Nazi Literature in the Americas; then Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I also found some time for new stuff, including Manchette’s Fatale and Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff.

A collection of linked stories set in the tiny town of Pollock’s youth, Knockemstiff is strong stuff indeed. Pollock’s a powerful writer, masculine, blunt and spare. He’s also unsubtle, vicious, and overpowering. Think Winesberg, Ohio, only marinated with rape, drug abuse, misery, and mental dilapidation matched only by the physical squalor.

Pollock is part of a newish wave of authors who toiled in working class jobs before entering MFA programs in middle age. (He worked in a paper mill for thirty-two years.) Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, and F.X. Toole—who published his first short story collection when he was in his seventies—belong to this crop of tough dudes. They have, as a group, eschewed the small, ponderous short fiction that has dominated American literature for the last fifty years. Instead they write gritty, cornpone noir, stories of excess, soaked in spit and blood. There’s no room for redemption, heroics, integrity. The characters are too busy getting drunk, intimidating their families, ruining their lives.

Pollock is the strongest, but he’s strong like a pint of rotgut whiskey. Reading him burns. He causes harm. You know you’ve read something in Knockemstiff—it really is a visceral experience—but it feels like being slapped in the face, kicked in the shins, beaten up and humiliated. Like swimming in bilge water. Or getting doused with plastic jugs of white vinegar. I felt hungover through half the stories.

Stories linked by desperation and squalor.

Stories linked by desperation and squalor.

Bitter, cruel, dilapidated, unbearably trashy, the town of Knockemstiff emerges as a squalid hamlet abandoned by God and possessed by the devil. Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson and Jim Thompson duke it out in these stories. Reading them is to be immersed in a bleak, violent place, all the more unsettling because of its banality. Repugnant, dank, rotting interiors matched only by the decaying bodies of its characters.

The strongest stories are “Schott’s Bridge” and “Bactine,” although all the stories in the collection are of a quality. He can flat-out write:

“We broke in through the bathroom window. Pressed into the gray scum of the tub, our boot prints looked like fossil feet frozen in rocks that my crazy cousins said the Devil had planted all over the world to trick people into believing we came from frog shit and monkeys.” And later,

“The pills were wrapped in a sheet of bloody butcher’s paper that had Chuckie’s Hog Brains writ on it with a blue crayon. Somebody had already eaten the brains.”

But there’s the form—descriptive and evocative and sparse—and then there’s the goddamned content, slimy and icky and nasty. Still, definitely worth checking out.

In Memoriam: James Barfoot, the holy poet.

3 Mar

1.

Jim Barfoot was a philosophy professor at AUM, my alma mater. He was popular, known as a witty, funny, irascible teacher who trafficked in conundrums. He was also a poet, and it’s as a poet that I knew him. He died a few weeks ago, and although I haven’t spoken with him in over a decade, I miss him terribly. The world feels lessened by his absence.

My first job was as an editorial assistant at Black Belt Press. My boss (and later co-author and friend) Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa had a poetry manuscript there titled The Nudes of God. Black Belt always had forty or fifty projects going at once, a fabulous juggling act that was dizzying, exciting, overwhelming. But Nudes stood out. Three hundred or so poems and, as Randall said to me the first day I looked at it, “There are poems in there that will knock you flat on your ass.”

Six months into my first year, investors illegally fired them both, I quit, and a few months later Randall and Suzanne hired me on at NewSouth Books. New offices, new energy, new job title. Many of Black Belt’s manuscripts followed us to NewSouth, including Nudes; it became one of our first books.

I met Barfoot around this time. He was short, compact, with a devilish smile and delicate, sensual hands. There was a touch of the Buddha about him. He walked slowly but with a dancer’s syncopation and balance. His voice was melodic. His eyes were large and bright. I knew of him from school. His wit, charm and implacable agnosticism. (This last turned out to be a constructed teacher persona.)

He had whittled his manuscript down, and it was time to get into the nuts and bolts of it. As the number two editor (of two), I was assigned the job.

He had a peculiar editing style. He would sit by my side. We would read the poems aloud, one page at a time. He would make subtle changes, interspersed with jokes, anecdotes, questions, puns, explanations. He was profoundly well read, in philosophy, ancient literature, poetry and mythology. (At this point, I still basically only read novels and civil rights histories.) He loved movies, too, and leant me videocassettes of the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials. He was big-hearted, silly, indelibly southern, yet sophisticated and clever and erudite. The South has loads of these oddballs, accomplished intellectuals who sound like extras from Hee-Haw.

I played a supremely minor role; I added exactly two parenthesis and one paragraph break. Yet working with him remains one of the great creative exchanges of my life.

2.

I met him at an odd time. I had a foot in two worlds. I was shaking off the last remnants of childhood, and trying to figure out the adult thing. I had finished my first two novels, and they were terrible. I was tasting failure of the adult kind. The rumblings of later loss, the fragmenting of my community, an invasion of bitter existentialism. Separate from the binding routines of soccer and school, I felt adrift. I was a bundle of confusion. I didn’t want to live in Montgomery but didn’t know much of anything else. I felt the pull of big cities, even though they scared me. I wanted to travel to Europe, but didn’t have any money. I was stasis, I just didn’t realize it at the time.

I was paralyzed in my philosophical life, too. I was quickly shedding my Christianity, but was uncomfortable in the spikes of unbelief. Blame literature and history, if you’re inclined. I went to church sometimes but felt alienated from the whole belief system, profoundly uncomfortable. I felt doomed, abandoned. Ingmar Bergman became my favorite filmmaker. Everything seemed to resonate with God’s silence. He was gone from my life, I was grasping at sand, and yet I couldn’t figure out how to live without Him.

Enter Barfoot and his book.

Barfoot loved the cover. "The book is her face," he said.

Barfoot loved the cover. “The book is her face,” he said.

Barfoot’s poems—sexy, erotic, spare, lusty, irreverent, yet saturated with an abiding love and understanding for humanity and a deep-rooted belief in mysteries of the cosmos—re-animated my spiritual self. Reading these poems and hearing his own thoughts on them re-awakened the spiritual being in me that so often atrophies in our 21st Century life.

Working on the book reinvigorated my sense of self, my engagement with the world. His poems were the first of a series of realizations that physical pleasures  are not only not evil, but part and parcel of living a good life. That desire can be good. That carnal things don’t have to destroy us. And that the quest doesn’t end.

And I don’t even like poetry that much.

It’s an odd thing to say, but I fell in love with him for those few weeks we worked together. He stole away with my fragile heart. And returned it whole, intact, glowing with the contact.

3.

In another dimension, Barfoot would be an important figure in the world of poetry. His death would have been noted in various magazines and journals, perhaps written up in the New York Times. His one book is incredible, a piercing, funny, insightful, devastating, sexy as fuck volume that can be read like a novel or an autobiography. Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m given to enthusiasm and superlatives. But this is the real thing.

Nudes is a wicked volume of religious poetry as written by Pan, inspired by Apollo, translated by St. Augustine. It echoes Rumi, Ovid, Dickenson, Whitman, Berryman, Updike and Parker. The big thematic influence is probably John Donne. It’s an earthy, holy, ribald little book, lucid and spare and devastating and hysterically funny. One of the poems is titled, “How to Pick and Prepare, Present and Enjoy, the Cometwat that you’d Slap Your Grandma For.”

He clearly loved women, saw in their historical plight some deep, primal truth. The book is threaded with overlapping images, reoccurring themes. Loamy earth, stalks of sugar cane, bedroom antics and first-person confessionals. Lust, love and lust again. The afterglow of sex as a stand-in for holy epiphany. The bedroom as a holy place. Dew, manicured lawns, women suffering through the exquisite pain of walking through the garden of earthly delights.

Nudes is a desert island book for me, the only poetry book I would take. (I don’t count The Iliad or The Epic of Gilgamesh as poems.)

The book would have sold like hotcakes. Barfoot was a great reader of his own stuff and NewSouth had planned a strong book tour. But at the eleventh hour, he retreated to the ivory tower; he returned to teaching philosophy. Why, I’ll never know. Perhaps he was more like Emily Dickenson, despite appearing to be like Walt Whitman. He was sensitive and vulnerable; perhaps he feltthe book tour would be a disheartening ordeal.

For my little memoriam—a very strange thing to put on the blog, I know—I picked out fifteen or so poems, but whittled it down to these two.

Here’s a sample from “When Jesus Dined Alone in Galilee”:

The single bare crepe myrtle tree

Stands cold

Beyond the window pane.

I see it all.

The rough thin bark.

The branches

Short and thin.

Here at this table I will settle things.

The tree will be my public notary.

And, here, in “Teleology”:

A sweet noetic nude sits in my lap

Allowing me to freely trace her waist

And then

Below her waist

Her hips and thighs

The middle place

Where I will gently lace along its line

The end of my left thumb above the nail

As if her flesh

And lip

And rosebud tip

Were drawn in clay by my soft steadiness.

And often there my left thumb gives me ease

And pleases me when I feel she is pleased

And gives me pause to wonder whether she,

In bringing her warm middle place to me,

Allows me an occasion for my thumb

To do what God intended thumbs to do.

4.

We talked, near the end of our few weeks together, about the future. I asked him, what’s next? Why not a novel? (In those days I was always trying to get people to write novels.)

“I’ll write another volume for Nudes,” he said, smiling and content. “And then maybe one more. Just one large, multi-faceted, multi-part book. My life’s work. And that will be it.”

As far as I know, many of those poems have already been written, but they won’t be published. The world’s loss. But Barfoot wouldn’t mind. Like most poets he knew his work, and everything really, was transitory and impermanent. “The ground beneath the girl will open up,” he writes, “And everything but she will disappear.”