Scorched Earth — Robert Kramer (American Book Review, Jan/Feb 2017)
This collection contains some elements rare in contemporary poetry, but also an attitude, an atmosphere, quite familiar from Twentieth Century American culture.
The fresh features include vivid imagery, with emphasis on visual experiences keenly observed and precisely captured in language. These scenes may be of human forms and human interaction, or aspects of nature—living creatures and the environment they inhabit. Thus the intense and careful scrutiny, together with a meticulous choice of words, gives the book a hard, sparkling quality.The more familiar trait is evident in the overall tone—sparse, restrained, laconic, hard- boiled, skeptical, ironic. Even in the portrayal of what would seem to be deeply emotional situations, an atmosphere of “cool” prevails, reminiscent of much American prose fiction of the Twentieth Century since Hemingway, through film noir and Mickey Spillane, to the present.
At first glance the pages look as if they held verse, with indentations, shortened lines of irregular length, and separate stanzas. But on closer inspection it is apparent that these are mostly pieces of prose broken up to look like poetry, and generally lacking in elements usually associated with poetry—rhythm patterns, rhyme, rhetorical tropes, etc. Of course, this is nothing new. Many poets since Modernism have discarded traditional poetic devices. But despite this absence, Tomlinson’s language vivifies the book. The careful selection of details together with the precision and aptness of the individual words produces a taut and heightened effect. Verbs, for example, are never merely the direct, obvious, generic choice. They are slanted, oblique, fresh, and often unexpected. Here goldfish do not merely “rise” to the surface; they “kiss” the surface.
However, Tomlinson does make use of one poetic device frequently and effectively—simile. Some examples: “His iridescent slacks / shone like gasoline on a puddle,” “barracuda / flash silver as new dimes,” “Mezcal sizzles his ulcers like clams / in a wok,” “anemones limp as gloves half off hands.” In their own context these usages do not so much call attention to themselves, but rather heighten the animation, shedding light on the whole scene around them, providing a fresh view of the subject, and reminding of the bigger world outside that is always present and surrounding.
With few exceptions, the basic form of these pieces is the anecdote, a tale told in a bar, a brief descriptive sketch, a meaningful, funny, or grotesque incident. The later poems are sometimes more reflective, linking past, present and future, disappointments, joys, expectations, worries, doubts. By and large the book is structured chronologically, with the individual poems following roughly the various stages of a man’s life. The first poems portray childhood experiences in the New York area, focusing on parents, sometimes siblings, grandparents, cousins, neighbors. These are followed by pieces describing the narrator’s itinerant adventures living as a laborer among the poor and down-and-out in various locations such as New Orleans, Florida, the Caribbean, the Western United States, Long Island, and again New York City. Some of the most moving poems are those that depict incidents from boyhood scenes of a distant father, sought, feared, deeply troubled. Equally disturbing are the accounts of bored middle-class American youth—rebellious, bitter, destructive, at times sadistic.
The poems set in New Orleans are low- down, earthy, funny, vulgar, but not as poignant as the poems of boyhood. They are mostly anecdotes involving bar life in the Vieux Carre’s. The very title of the New Orleans sequence, Stool Samples, suggests its flavor. For it represents an amusing pun on the meaning of the word “stool”—referring both to specimens of feces, as well as the human specimens found perched on the stools of the French Quarter.
The poems show little concern for contemporary social and political events, except indirectly, in the portrayal of society’s failures and victims, or as a brief flicker on a television screen.Abstract thought and abstract statements are generally avoided, but certain attitudes become apparent that could be seen as philosophical positions. Yet the whole approach is experiential.
Several sources of philosophical unease cast their shadow throughout the book: identity, how to live, authenticity, and the suffering of others. But suffusing all of these areas are two underlying attitudes—a Whitmanesque sense of acceptance and openness as well as an ultimate skepticism and need for deflation. For with Tomlinson nothing seems to be rejected out of hand. The utmost crudeness and vulgarity can be embraced with pleasure and laughter. On the other hand, there is always a final hesitation, a stepping back from any statement that would seem too affirmative or too absolute. Many of these pieces end with some laconic phrase that deflates the high spirits that had gone before.
The poem “To Sleep Well” attempts to provide helpful instruction for readers, urging them to give up their false self-image and allow the true self to emerge. It turns out that the false self is the one that acts responsibly, goes to work, arrives on time, and follows the rules. The true self is the one that “rides bikes/no hands through traffic,” gets drunk, stones birds, and smashes doors. And yet this advice is somewhat relativized at the end of the poem when the author wrote: “At least that’s what you’re thinking/on a couch away from home, unable/to sleep well.”
In the long poem “Anniversary,” a chatty account of the narrator’s meeting with an old friend in Provincetown, all sorts of doubts arise about the sexuality of the friend he thought he knew, eventually leading to questions about his own identity and the meaning of sexual identity in general. Another poem dealing with identity is “The Goldfish,” almost a Zen parable, where the point seems to be that one is a different person at different times, that there is no fixed identity, that identity is a flux.To the question “How to Live?” Tomlinson would answer” “Live dangerously!” The poem “Gulf Stream” proclaims this in its statement of the purpose of art. Art is for “getting us away from anything that keeps / us from entering the deepwater.”
These tight-lipped poems do not shed many tears. But they display an awareness of the suffering of others and of the injustice in the world, not shouted, but clearly recorded. “One day on the way to the Gym” reports of an old man loudly, cruelly, and publicly berated by his fashionable daughter. Poems about third-world bordellos imply sympathy for the prostitutes victimized there. American veterans, also victims of a system, become the close friends of the narrator.
Perhaps the most affecting and also the most polished poem in the collection is “If Wishes were Horses,” an anecdote about a boy on a ranch who is repeatedly beaten by his father. His curiosity, his enthusiasm, his love for the horses are captured powerfully and succinctly. The conclusion is playful and humorous, but brimming with compassion.
Sexual desire bubbles through these pages, whether at home, on the urban street, at work on the railroad, at a blood bank, in a pizza parlor, at dinner in a restaurant, on the ferry, at the beach, and always and constantly—in the bars. It is not romanticized, not sanitized, not condemned, but accepted and embraced in all its forms—but often accompanied by laughter.
In fact, humor permeates the book, often understated, often a bit raunchy—but real. Occasionally it is satire, directed primarily against middle-class propriety, in other words, against complacency, phoniness, and hypocrisy.
Then there is the humor in creative language itself, in off-color poems and obscene metaphors, in ingenious synonyms, such as in “Thursday Nights in New Orleans,” which begins: “Looped, wrecked, knackered, bent / shit-faced, blotto, twisted / out of my fucking tree / gourd, skull, off my coconut,” and continues for six more stanzas in the same merry vein, interspersed with snatches of inelegant bar chatter.
And yet in an earnest prose poem dedicated as a memorial to his late mentor, entitled “American Hotel Revisited,” the narrator seems to feel some doubts about the course of his life. Perhaps it was not all so funny and not merely fun. “He taught me to question the myth of Jack Kerouac, and alcohol, and rock and roll, and pussy, pussy, pussy.”
The most joyous passages in the book occur when the narrator is alone with nature, with the sea, observing appreciatively the creatures of the sea, yet himself not far from danger, dependent only on his own survival skills. Several poems describe lovingly and in precise detail such solitary experiences. Yet these same poems are tinged with regret at the oil spills caused by humans, and now devastating that lovely undersea world.But Tomlinson is not sentimental about nature. Even amidst this beauty, he knows: “Everything benign / is predatory. Everything passive / lies in ambush. It is a world you understand.” The skepticism and acceptance at the heart of the book remain.
The unusual title of the collection comes from an elegiac poem with the same title, a long apocalyptic vision, a listing of all that was destroyed in the [imaginary?] conflagration, a detailed, realistic account of the people, places, and things that constituted a boyhood environment, looked back on now with both contempt and pity.
Reviewer’s admission: There are several links and parallels between the poet and the reviewer. Both had families living around the eastern end of Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. Both, as teenagers would frequently hitchhike on Route 25A through Queens and Nassau and Suffolk along the North Shore of Long Island. Both, for a time, inhabited the French Quarter in New Orleans and became acquainted with the exotic bar scene there. Both have been denizens of New York City, over in Bay Ridge, uptown on Columbus Avenue, down in the village on West 4th St, and often traveling underground in the subways. However, they have never met.
Robert Kramer is a widely published poet, playwright, critic, and translator of European literature. He is the author of August Sander (1980) and The Art of Kasack (1968), as well as numerous articles on the history of art and literature. He was formerly coordinator of the New York Poets Cooperative.
Requiem For The Tree Fort I Set on Fire — Tim Tomlinson
Winter Goose Publishing www.wintergoosepublishing.com/ requiem-tree-fort-set-fire/ 132 Pages; Print, $11.99