Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lewis Warsh's The Origin of the World

A seasonal time/energy deficit choked off the posts I meant to write on the strong run of readings in Portland lately: David Wolach with a laptop, Rachel Zolf with a Boykoff, Joshua Marie Wilkinson with a banjo, Katie Degentesh with unexpected sunshine, Mathias Svalina with surprise high school buds, K. Lorraine Graham with spangles, Anselm Berrigan with Sebaldliche syntax, Karen Weiser with Swedenborg, Alicia Cohen with autumn leaves, Kevin Sampsell with an SPD tee, Paul Maziar with a Catholic childhood, Standard Schaefer with false purgatories, Mark Wallace with lines for each audience member, Joseph Mains with skillfully held-back feedback, Les Fig with a pet caravan, etc. 

Those reports wont ever get written, at least not by me. But I did manage to write something about the Lewis Warsh books I got in advance of his reading, which I liked a lot. Soft rock and cowbell’s bound to sound like a diss out of context; I hope you can hear that its not. 
Lately, I hear ‘70s “soft” rock on the radio and wonder at the craftsmanship. It takes a lot of chops to sound that easy-like-Sunday-morning smooth, and measured against the digital wizardry that’s come since, the production seems warm and honest, not MOR-slick. Once in a while a sharp bass lick or drum figure bubbles up through the flow, and I picture the studio musicians who gave everything they had to hits that got plenty of airplay, but little critical respect.

Warsh’s poems from the ‘90s work sort of like that lick. You move along absently tapping your toes across the registers—“She drove up to Boston & bought a handbag on sale at Filene’s”; “Don’t be afraid of hurting my feelings by telling me/you hate me”—then suddenly, a sentence that pulls you up with its subtle vernacular majesty:

“Mansions where executives once lived with their families will
be split into apartments for the families of the workers”


“I plant the symbol of order, Neptune’s trident, on the opposite
side of the achipelago & set forth under warm skies to a
new terrain, spellbound by the possibilities of the future
& the shadows of the strange birds hanging motionless
on the horizon, but I don’t know the name of the boat
I’m aboard—it’s like a shadow of some other boat
that went down in the storm of the Isle of Good Hope,
where promises of love were made only to be broken
the next day, where marriage vows were spoken
in the shadows of an empty cathedral, where friends
& relatives gathered to wish you well—could
anyone of them, or you, predict
this spell of cold weather
we’ve been having recently?”

That last one’s from someone who owns a few Ashbery albums, but within the context of the assured, direct, observational comedy-like zingers that surround it, it leaps out with an intensity that’s all Warsh’s. If second generation New York School is Zappa, and Language poetry’s The Clash, and theory is techno, the poems here remind me that sometimes a reader just needs more cowbell.


Allison Cobb said...

What an apt evaluation of Lewis's work, Rodney, thank you! Along those lines, I've been listening to the Bee Gees lately with a much deeper appreciation. I think they might have duende.

rodney k said...

Hi Allison,

The trouble deepens when you start to hear the ostranenie in Hall & Oates.

Welcome to blogland!

Guillermo Parra said...

Yeah! Warsh is fantastic. His Ugly Duckling Presse book, Flight Test (2005) is a favorite of mine. It's true what you say, he makes certain lines seem so plain & effortless, even though they're not.

"Leave what you said in parenthesis / so we can read it again"