Beams by Adam Fieled is an e-book from Blazevox. It is a multifaceted work that is both formally and typographically inventive, as well as being linguistically intriguing. To do full justice to the poetry in this volume would require a much longer and detailed review of essay length; such is the complexity and multifaceted nature of this work. So all I will attempt in this review is to isolate certain features that can be readily recognised.
Beams comprises four titled sections: ‘Beams’, ‘Apparition Poems’, ‘Madame Psychoses’, and ‘Virtual Pinball’ (this latter being composed with poet Lars Palm). Each of these sections contain poems stylistically different to those of the other sections. An important aspect to the ‘Beams’ section is Fieled’s poetic aesthetic regarding it. The poems in it represent his concept of the poetic “beam”. The following is an extract from his exposition of this poetic, which can be read at http://artrecess2.blogspot.com/2005/08/beam-hypothesis.html:
[A beam is] a short poem, 8-20 lines [not] necessarily impersonal or personal, but it must transcend mere subjectivity […] single lines interspersed function as “beams of light”. They’re pure shots into poetic space, flashes of imagery, insight, gist-phrasing, etc. Light-beams illuminate built-beams [ie architectural structures], built-beams support and buttress light-beams. Together, they posit the BEAM as a kind of “light-house” or “light-structure”. The manifestation of this poetic aesthetic in the ‘Beams’ section applies to all of its poems, but other aspects tangentially related also pertain, particularly where colour (light) and matter (objects) are made to amalgamate in such a way as to produce an almost iridescent affect which draws attention to the “variability” that underlies phenomena (according to quantum theory). The aesthetic result is that material objects are seen to display less than palpable qualities: light becomes semi-palpable in ‘Creep’ (p.7) were it is described as ‘Sponge-light’, and in ‘Leaves’ (p.12) matter becomes semi-iridescent:
Leaves tonight are leaning
spots of light […]
The use of such affects serves to give us a sense of the underlying subatomic volatility that forms the objects of the observed world. It has a sort of Blakean sense whereby the visible world is seen to envelop a subtler one. The world is not all it seems to be. In doing this with words, Fieled makes almost tangible to our senses what can but remain only rational inference if we are reliant on same from a study of quantum physics. No small achievement for a poet.
However, the poems are not limited to such affects. They also manage to concisely represent the vicissitudes of human experience in all their variations. In ‘Razor’ (p.8) we find lines such as,
edged like needle-scars along arm-veins
everything I can’t puncture is there
which in association with the lines,
bottoms grow hardened from rubs
& sharpness be a baby’s candy
not only produce an interesting juxtaposition, but also represent birth and death. They suggest the bitterness, regret, and frustration that is the lot of humanity, yet they also suggest hope in that we become hardened in order for that suffering to become almost as acceptable to us as candy is to a baby.
Throughout this collection, a recurring motif relating to sexual struggle is evident. In ‘Sex Hex’ (p.9) we have a deft account of man’s unremitting desire for sexual fulfilment described in almost “biological determinist” terms, yet alluding to the nuances inherent in any discussion of male dominance within a given society, as is suggested by the mention of Foucault:
take her up, stroke her belly
she’ll think of Foucault
The biological controlling impulses of the male driven to physical action is counter-balanced by the cerebral passivity of the female who, by thinking of Foucault, both gives in to the male’s seduction ploy but also demonstrates an intellectuality that is not evident in the male at this particular moment in their relationship.
The problematical relationship between the sexes is further evinced in terms of consciousness in the ‘Madame Psychoses’ section. In ‘Sarah Israel’ (p.33) we see how memory almost reinvents or remodels the past regarding a yearned for “other”:
I saw her in a seeing not seen by any eye,
& the “I” that saw, saw my eye not at all.
Here, identity and perception become entwined as the punning of ‘eye’ with ‘I’ demonstrates. This punning acts as a poetic device to illustrate the very real inextricable union that identity and perception must necessarily have. It is a union so binding that the two become mutually exclusive causing the poet confusion as he struggles to wade his way through something of solipsist maze. In ‘Paula’ (p.37) we see the ultimate expression of male sexual and emotional yearning that represents the lot of Everyman:
chaos, order, clipped bird-like into
wings & cries. I could only ever
think; paula. all the thrusts &
pumps that could never be. “all”
that must be withheld, & that
it might be better that way.
you gave me the gift; savouring
wanting. how it really was you
I wanted. not a body but a soul.
I tell myself I’ve “been through
you”, forever & never. zero here,
same as two. empty.saturated. dark
I have quoted the entire poem. Such is its universality pertaining to male desire any commentary by me would be more than superfluous. Indeed, it would not be outlandish to suggest that in this poem Fieled has articulated more than John Donne allowed himself to in those poems of Donne’s that evince similar concerns.
This piece archived on Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Jeffrey Side’s Collected Argotist E-Book.
In 2004 and 2005, a group of young artists who called themselves the Philly Free School staged a series of performances at the Highwire Gallery, in the now-demolished Gilbert Building on Cherry Street, Philadelphia. The stated goal of these performances was “multi-media”: as such, they involved poetry, music, fiction, films, and different hybrid/mutant versions of these. What I want to address, specifically, is the poetry aspect of these performances. These seem relevant to me now because multi-media presentations of poetry are, to many, significantly more interesting than standard poetry readings, which are (I would argue) an impoverished form of public expression. What constitutes the impoverishment of poetry readings as public art events? Let’s put the question in different terms: what does a poetry reading offer an average audience?
An audience at a standard poetry reading is offered an anti-spectacle— a single man or woman, reading from sheets or a book, often looking down at this book while intermittently gazing up at his or her audience. Why look at something or someone static, and (for the most part) inexpressive? This is the first level of impoverishment. Then, as to the contents of poems read in a public context: are most poems compelling enough, as works of literature, to merit public airing? The truth is that most serious poems do not read that well out loud— poems (good ones) contain enormous amounts of compressed data, which necessitates slow, ocular engagement. Lines that need to be read three or four times to be properly processed pass with such rapidity, in a reading context, that they might as well be Greek as English. Moreover, attendees have two options— to make an earnest attempt to understand things instantly, or to drift off into reverie. The latter has consistently been my choice (and I have, fortunately or unfortunately, sat through dozens of readings).
But the Philly Free School artists (of which I was one) started from the presupposition that poetry could be mixed with Artaud; that public poetry is, in fact, better as a side-dish than as a main course; and that the possibilities of “spectacles” were (and remain) more exciting than more conventional poetry contexts. As such, the Philly Free School shows (which were well-attended but received little media coverage) presented, in general, little in the way of conventional poetry performances; poetry was mixed with video and music to create novel effects. I was proud to contribute to these performances, because they had not only young energies but principles behind them. While I would not deny that results were mixed (some ideas came off, some did not), I have yet to see another concentrated attempt to make poetry multi-media in a public forum. We were using artful language as texture, the way a painter might use brushstrokes, and an inquiry into this usage (language-as-texture) revealed untapped possibilities as regards making poetry interesting to audiences, who may or may not find poetry interesting to begin with.
When language is used as texture, as a constituent part of a spectacle that also includes sound and images, the audience (ideally) feels itself immersed or engulfed in a dynamic collage; as such, this kind of performance is an extension of the Modernist ethos. Fractured things can be more compelling than wholes; this was one tenet that motivated Pound, Eliot, and the rest. For an audience, sitting in a darkened room (and the Highwire offered two main spaces, a conventional gallery space and a warehouse space), this sense of brokenness could be interpreted many ways, but the essential thing for us was to present something that was dynamic, rather than static. The most elaborate of these presentations involved music, images, and poetry at once; while it would be reasonable to question whether the total effect was bombastic or not, the responses we received encouraged us to believe that what we were doing was significantly more exciting than an average poetry performance. Live poetry, I would argue, only works as texture to begin with; it is in the mix of things that live poetry comes alive. In the specific performances that I was personally involved with, I did, in fact, read entire poems; if I had it to do over again, I would not. It would have been substantially more appropriate to read fragments or even to improvise. The video collages were put together from foreign movies, Internet, music video, and photography bits. The musical elements alone were entirely improvised. Although I am proud of what the Philly Free School accomplished, it was merely a beginning. Thinking about it now, we could have been much more rigorous. Our ideas of spectacle were naïve, and needed development.
What would a completely successful poetry spectacle, in the Artaudian sense, look like? Artaud, of course, became famous for his idea/ideal of the Theater of Cruelty; a spectacle that confronts an audience with its own mortality, in an unflinching, persistent way. What kind of poetry fragments could add, textually, to such a spectacle? It seems to me that the poetry would have to be written specifically in conjunction with, specifically for, the music and the images. They would have to function, in other words, dramatically, as carriers of a certain kind of drama, just as dialogue in a theater production does. What can poetry contribute that mere dialogue cannot? Poetry has in its arsenal a capacity for incantatory power that dialogue does not; an ability to build, to create rhythms, melodies, and cadences that dialogue cannot. Anaphora is one method by which this kind of fragment could work; rhyme is another. This is texture that creates stimulation; with other elements, the potentiality for genuine spectacle, cohesive spectacle (rather than naïve, haphazard spectacle) arises. As to what the spectacle addresses, there is no real limitation, other than the impulse to compel attention, hold it, and overwhelm at once. Certainly the apocalyptic conflicts in the Middle East, our flagging domestic economy, and the status of the environment are all fertile (pardon my irony) ground. Then, there are things standing in the way of this kind of spectacle: time and budgets are big ones. Many poets just skirt insolvency; serious spectacle (unfortunately) often involves serious funds. The Philly Free School were lucky with this, more so than we realized; the Highwire let us use the space for free (though they took a cut of the door). But to come up with ample space, time, and funds is a real challenge, which cannot be solved overnight. It may come down to a collective, like the Philly Free School, to make this happen, if it does ever happen. To my mind, it would be a tragedy if it does not. There are, in general, too few poetry readings that have any capacity to stimulate, and too many that wind up being “snooze-fests.” The irony, for one working in an experimental context, is that avant-garde poetry readings tend to be even more boring than mainstream ones— abstruse poetry out loud, which shuns narrative, is more difficult to follow, and often registers as little better than gibberish. But I will simply say, for myself, that the desire to create a genuine spectacle with poetry has not perished, and I hope other kindred spirits are “waiting in the wings.”
Here is the piece as it originally appeared in Otoliths 16.
And the piece in full text.
Wordsworth and De Man is a piece initially scribed for a Temple University graduate seminar in 2006, later revised and put into circulation in the Teens. I remember being excited at the congeries of the ideas around the piece in the fall of 2006, around the time I did my Derrida lecture, at first glimpse into the deeper workings of Deconstructionist discourses and their possible chiasmus with Romanticism.
With the remnants of the twentieth century still surrounding us, it may pay dividends, as the twenty-first century takes off, to take stock of these remnants and begin to make judgments. Newly ended centuries tend to leave detritus; this can create a hostile environment for artists who wish to sew new seeds and blaze new trails. Few seem to remember that when Wordsworth and Coleridge put out Lyrical Ballads (though the release and dissemination of this pivotal text spanned the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century), it received hostile reviews and a good amount of indifference, as well. With hindsight, we realize that this was the text that almost single-handedly initiated British Romanticism. The early twentieth century was also inconclusive; William Butler Yeats was only beginning to receive the recognition that would lead to laurel, Walt Whitman’s poems were yet to receive the blessings of posterity, while a host of lesser lights congregated around minor poets or reveled in the just-dimming glow of Decadence and Aestheticism. What do we see around us in 2010? It is a poetry world stumbling for direction, still largely lost in the theoretical wilderness of post-modernism, which espouses, among other things, the notion that distinctions between high and low art are both superfluous and illusory, that high art is the imaginary creation of hegemonic white males, and that artists can safely toss history in the dustbin and create out of momentary impulses, that have a better chance of capturing authentic effects than the backwards/forwards time-warp effect that Modernists like Eliot and Pound thought efficacious.
I would like to argue, firstly, that the demarcations between high and low art need to be reinstated. My reasons for this are manifold, but the simplest is this: I do not believe that much English language poetry composed after 1943, the year that Eliot’s Four Quartets were released, deserves the title of high art. Before I explain why the twentieth century, post Four Quartets, was mostly a washout for English language poetry, let me explain what distinctions I believe subsist between high and low art. High art is defined by a sense of aesthetic balance; a host of factors must be present and accounted for; technical competence is a necessity, breadth of vision (so that any narrowness of focus is soon dissipated into fusions with larger wholes), narrative solidity (even when, as in Four Quartets, it is a loosely woven narrative, that makes frequent subtle shifts in different directions), and, most importantly, continued serious engagement with serious themes. If this harkens back to Matthew Arnold’s emphasis on truth and seriousness, and if this seems regressive, remember that, in poetry, the impulses of post-modernism have all but flushed these constituent elements. Low art impulses often maintain a stance that technical competence is unnecessary, that breadth of vision is too ambitious, that narrative solidity is a remnant of the nineteenth century (and, to the extent that Yeats and Eliot, the only two twentieth century high art poets in the English language, had strong nineteenth century affiliations, this may be the case), and that “seriousness” is an outdated and outmoded concern. So that, the notions of high art and low art have been both displaced and misplaced, with disastrous results. We are surrounded by detritus that attempts too much with too little; that encompasses not worlds but narrow grooves; that shies away from responsible, serious engagements, or courts these engagements with such brow-beating incompetence that the matters were better left alone; and that uses sly evasions to explain its own horrendous deficits.
Back to T.S. Eliot; what is it that makes Four Quartets high art, and almost everything that followed in the twentieth century dross? Four Quartets, however sententiously, starts from a high ground; the artist is coming to grips with the limitations of living in space and time. Eliot flattens space and time out in the context of an investigation of four places, each with its own peculiar resonances, which birth separate and discrete impulses in the poet, resulting in slight shifts in perspective and emphasis. Four Quartets is useful, also, because it demonstrates the loosest narrative emphasis possible in a poem that attempts to achieve and maintain the durability and permanence traces of high art. Narrative is the backbone of serious poetry; Four Quartets has an “I” that dictates terms, but in such a way that “I” is not an obtrusive presence. If there is an imbalance in Four Quartets, it is or may be a sense of oscillating perspectives that leads to a less than unitary presentation, or a loose sense of coherence that sometimes meanders away from central points. However, there is a sense that this is redeemed by a spirit of inquiry that balances philosophical concerns with concrete details, fragments of colloquial speech with natural imagery, traces of humanity’s past with visions of possible human futures. That Four Quartets spans all this ground does not, in and of itself, make it high art; but that Eliot’s language is taut, sinewy, disciplined, and rich makes the whole of Four Quartets ring as a solid, major work of high literary art. If another such work exists that was released between 1943 and 2000, I haven’t seen it.
The Objectivists, the Beats, the New York School (first and second generation), the Confessional poets— what do these poets lack, so that the appellation high art does not affix to their work, nor the appellation high artist affix to them? For many of these poets, it is the ragged lack of discipline in the language of their poems themselves. Trying to read Beat poetry is like trying to eat raw slabs of uncooked red meat. Thematically, the Beats might have been redeemed by an egalitarianism that harkened back to Whitman; formally, they were creators of tremendous Babels that are even now beginning to collapse. The Objectivists did have ambitions consonant with the approach of high artists— but their panoramic viewpoints were undermined by impoverished lines that displayed little heft, music, and which demonstrate, rather than the rawness of uncooked red meat, an overwhelming brittle dryness. The New York School poets evinced significantly more delicacy, thematically and formally, than the Objectivists and the Beats; however, the primary perpetuators of New York School poetry tended to get lost in certain extremes: either language so steeped in colloquialisms that it lost its sense of itself as art, or language so bent against narrative that it lost its sense altogether. Had the Confessional poets widened their scope, they might have gained a sense of consonance with poetry as a high art form— but the narrowness of their thematic scope precluded a sense of serious engagement with issues that transcended the personal. As such, they, along with the Objectivists, the Beats, and the New York School poets, fall squarely under the rubric that covers minor poetry and poets, when placed next to the scope and achievements of Eliot and Yeats. Other groups, like the San Francisco Renaissance poets and the Language poets, seem like a mélange and a mish-mash of these styles. Minor Modernists (Pound, Williams, Stevens, Stein) initiated many trends toward disjuncture and colloquialism; because the high art balance of Yeats and Eliot was (and remains) more rigorous and more difficult to achieve, it has inspired fewer immediate imitations.
High art balance, as such, depends on serious engagements with the history of poetry, and also with a sense of discernment. Though Eliot did dote upon some minor French poets, his knowledge of the history of major poetry artists, as expressed in his early essays, was complete and solid. It allowed him vantage points that set his sense of aesthetic equilibrium on a high level. Because he had the discerning impulse to separate wheat from chaff, he could accomplish the major feat of moving poetry forward in innovative ways while also conserving the best of poetry that had come before. Yeats’ engagement with history was no less complete; though he lacked the theoretical bent that defined Eliot, it would have been unthinkable for him not to know the Romantics, the Neo-Classical poets, the Metaphysical poets, Elizabethans, back to Dante, Chaucer, and beyond. Yeats also had a comprehensive knowledge of Irish mythology, which added an ancillary resource to his repertoire. Put simply: these are men that did their homework, on any number of levels. Because they maintained a sense of discipline and responsibility about their traces, moving forward meant taking history into account at each juncture. The idea that history is a flush, that the canon of English language poetry was largely created by and for white males and so has a built-in obsolescence, is pitifully shallow and ultimately pernicious. If this canon is not yet a fully multicultural canon, it is nonetheless an indispensable resource; it is the only true measure we have of how far our own arrows can sail out into the universe. Century XX encouraged poets, after 1943, to eschew the essential challenge presented by Eliot and Yeats; how to move forward and conserve at once. As the twenty-first opens, it is this dual impulse which again presents itself as our brightest hope to rise to the challenges presented by a rich, if increasingly distant, past.
Adam Fieled, originally published in The Argotist Online (ed. Jeffrey Side) in 2010
Here is the piece as it originally appeared in The Argotist Online.
And the piece in the Wayback Machine.
As much as I was, and am, a participant in the Philadelphia Renaissance, there is something to me very inscrutable about it- probably because, as an organic conglomeration of socio-aesthetic energies (rather than a calculated, “bought out” bid to occupy cultural and commercial space), its movements (backwards, forwards, and sideways) are unpredictable, even loopy. Thus it was that by 2009, my attitude towards Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Renaissance had undergone many modifications. Because I was moving up in the ranks as a heavily published and publishing avant-garde poet (my first print full-length text had come out through Otoliths in 2007), and was doing so with no particular support from the university whose fellowship was largely funding me (Temple), I was in a very ambiguous social position. The cohesive, “Highwire” mid-Aughts form of PFS had collapsed; Mary and I united again for ’07 and then separated by ’08; I had largely lost touch with Abs. The Philly avant-profs seemed undecided as to whether I should be recognized by them or not; by this time, I was not only publishing alongside them, but when a lengthy review of my second print book appeared in Jacket Magazine 37 that summer, it seemed to me that I had brokered a high enough position for myself that I would be fine, thank you, with or without their sanctimonious blessings. The popular series I had going on my blog Stoning the Devil at the time, regarding post-avant as a possible movement in poetry, confirmed this- I figured prominently in dozens of high-level theoretical online arguments, and my name was being used in conjunction with many older poets, from established generations.
Then, by August, my final hook-up with Abs coincided with the beginning of my second fellowship year. I didn’t have to teach, and had already passed the dread comp exams, which did its sometimes wonted task of upping my IQ. As I prepared to move my writing into interstellar overdrive, it was difficult not to notice that the rich personal life I had enjoyed all through the Aughts had dissipated into a fragmentary state. Mary, against everyone’s advice and wishes, had left Philly to do an MFA in New York; but we corresponded, and she left comments on my blog with some frequency. The absence of Mary, Abs, and the other PFS characters left a vacuum in my life, now filled by a rigorous dedication to forging ahead on all fronts as a writer and theorist. What I wanted to do was to expand the Apparition Poems section of my Blazevox e-book Beams into a full-length manuscript; and to do this by broadening the parameters of what could be called an Apparition Poem. I noticed the poems getting richer, more assured, both formally and thematically, towards an attempt at the timelessness I loved in Keats’ Odes and sonnets:
Why does no one tell the truth?
Because the truth is (more often
than not) absurd. No one wants
to look absurd, so no one tells
the truth, which creates even
more absurdity; worlds grow
into self-parody, systems grow
down into gutters, whole epochs
are wasted in perfidy; Cassandra
finally opens her mouth, no one
listens, they want her to star in
a porno, set her up with a stage-
name, she learns not to rant,
visions cloud her eyes, cunt —
Despite what I write, there’s
not much sex in the world —
walk down Walnut Street,
take an inventory — how
much sex are these people
getting? This one fat, this
one ugly, this one old, this
one a baby, a couple married
twenty years, or ten, or five —
not much sex in these lives.
But media, movies thrive
on representing this tiny
demographic: single, young,
promiscuous. Crowds come.
All through September and October, an eerie feeling hung in the air around me, and around Center City in general- a sense of something misplaced, and of energies moving in strange subterranean directions. For two weeks in November, Philly enjoyed unusually warm weather- I couldn’t write, and suffered a minor nervous breakdown- strange visions of grisly murders, alternating with a sense that Center City was suffering a major, unwanted L.A. invasion; and that many of my new acquaintances were stooges of one form or another. If blood had been spilt around me, I hadn’t seen it- but, by late ’09, I felt it intuitively.
By Thanksgiving, my feet touched earth again; and that’s when Apparition Poems really started to take shape, especially when I hit the twin towers of the collection:
terse as this is, it is
given to us in bits
from rocky slopes,
of this I can only
say nothing comes
with things built in,
it’s always sharp edges,
crevices, crags, precipice,
abrupt plunges into “wants,
what subsists between us
happens in canyons lined
in blue waters where this
slides down to a dense
bottom, I can’t retrieve
you twice in the same
way, it must be terse
because real is terse,
tense because it’s so
frail, pine cones held
in a child’s hand, snapped.
Two hedgerows with a little path
between — to walk in the path like
some do, as if no other viable route
exists, to make Gods of hedgerows
that make your life tiny, is a sin of
some significance in a world where
hedgerows can be approached from
any side — I said this to a man who
bore seeds to an open space, and he
nodded to someone else and whistled
an old waltz to himself in annoyance.
I discovered then that the ghastly view from my studio apartment at 23rd and Arch (I looked out at parking lots, billboards, and the big black PECO Utilities Building) could be improved by bringing down my slatted shades, which created a “noir” effect and made these winter months (and those in years to follow) more bearable. This is also the specific moment when I discovered online the cache of masterpieces which Abby Heller-Burnham had left through the Aughts- I republished many of them on Stoning the Devil instantly, and hailed Abs as the genius she was. Abs by that time was haggard, and ten sheets to the wind- I don’t think she noticed, and if she did notice I doubt she would’ve cared. The cumulative weight of this congeries I called “visionary deadness”- built into it, the allure of states of decomposition and decay, the macabre, and the fight to survive in a blasted landscape. The recession by this time was entrenched, and bearing down on all of us. As of four years later, many of us still occupy this space, as we wait for some sun to peak out from behind the clouds; though we also know that states of decomposition and decay can make for more than decent art, as Abs foretold in a prescient way in the mid-Aughts.
What “noir” signifies, in popular culture, is an aesthetic condition of extreme stylization. Look at the elements which configure, say, the average Raymond Chandler novel, and which do not change from book to book; stylized elements- a hard-bitten detective (Marlowe) pursuing a treacherous villain, encountering a standard cast of characters. There’s the coy femme fatale, attached somehow to a criminal underworld or with underworld connections; dirty and double-dealing cops, who may or may not be trustworthy, and in on certain hits; and innocent bystanders drawn into matrixes of crime and hustle against their will. What stylization implies, as a kind of mold for artistic forms to fit into, is homogeneity, and the solidity of homogeneity- we, as readers, never need to wonder what to expect from Raymond Chandler. To the extent that more serious artists develop individual and individualized aesthetic concerns and formal-thematic, consistent topoi, stylization in their work becomes inevitable- this is how we know Picasso from Manet, Manet from David; or, in literature, Milton from Byron, and Byron from Browning; etc. If I am interested in “noir,” and in poaching “noir” from American popular culture and granting it another context, it is because the stylistic elements of my Apparition Poems series shares, in the kinds of moods, impressions, and ambience generated, something with noir, and noir stylistic conventions. All three major Apparition Poems collections cohere around a set of imperatives, which lean towards the revelation of shadows rather than light, dark tones and hues rather than bright ones, and labyrinthine complexities rather than scintillating clarities. Levels of cognitive awareness, represented in texts which seek to boast some philosophical import, particularly in regards to ontological awareness in the midst of extreme (even pornographic) vulgarity, separate the Apparition Poems drastically from the rote, pop culture consonant facility of Chandler’s books.
Indeed, the chiasmus between noir and serious, sustained intellection is, as far as I know, a novel mode of stylistic inquiry and exploration. My equivalent of Chandler’s shocking plot-twists and peripeteias are linguistic innovations which multiply meanings and make key words and phrases serve dual, or triple, ends; so that these words and phrases are set in place, figuratively, to “split the heads” of their audience, towards recognitions of hidden semantic-thematic depth, and against surface (“surface-y”) orientations and sensibilities. That’s why I call my version of noir “deep noir”- the Apparition Poems are crafted, on some semantic levels, from similar molds- towards chiaroscuro and the enchantment of multiple meanings. It is also easy to notice that the Apparition Poems are, in fact, haunted by coy femme fatales, dirty-dealers, and an interrogating, interrogative protagonist (“I”), who attempts to sift his way through mazes of psycho-cognitive, and psycho-affective, complications. The poems shudder towards satori-like head-split semantic inversions; and whether any give satori ends its poem or not, the ultimate stylistic effect is to startle, unsettle, and re-wire the minds of the audience who reads them. Chandler, in a pop culture context sans intellectual heft, is far less unsettling. The Apparition Poems create mysteries and remain centered in them, in a negatively capable fashion, while Chandler’s level of stylization insures easy, unchallenging comprehension. Still, I like “noir” as a stylistic formulation around the Apparition Poems nonetheless, because they do create and maintain a “shaded” ambience, which is recognizably itself from poem to poem and book to book. I have spoken of the “body heat” passed from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, in spite of the new century’s reservations- and, as one level of inheritance which takes the Apparition Poems to a secure hermeneutic locale, “noir” and “deep noir” both work surprisingly well.
As to the issue of why, in 2014, a “noir” aesthetic, inclusive of formal-thematic depth, would be of wide interest once placed into circulation- the reason is fairly simple. On many levels and in many variegated contexts, few sensibilities other than “noir” could be generally and widely representative in America, against the facile breeziness of post-modernity. The Recession has created a climate, both within and without aesthetics, of entrenched circumstantial darkness and shadowy languor. Untold, unreported catastrophes may have wiped out entire sectors of the population- yet the media chirps away as though nothing has changed. American pop culture is in an advanced state of erosion and deterioration- there are no new rock stars anymore, and new American cinema not only isn’t selling but is divested, for the populace, of the perceived glamour which used to enable it to sell. The secret passageways which used to make America interconnect have largely been severed; even as the Internet has created new labyrinths and passageways which often amount to a subversive conspiracy against the normative. The truly noir facet of the Internet is that it allows the American public to understand how and why its been duped; and what’s left of a thinking American populace is cognizant of these things. The Apparition Poems were written to hold down a cultural fort radically on the side of haute culture and high art, scribed by a single author from within the bounds of the United States. For those watching closely, and who know how the American literary landscape has largely been configured over long and short periods of time, this congeries of circumstances is a rebellion and an innovation. That the Apparition Poems are not only indigenously American (if standing, aesthetically, on the shoulders of historical Europe) but indigenously Philadelphian is another innovation- the creation of literary Philadelphia, in the twenty-first century, has to do with the noir elements already built into Philly as a mythological construct.
Philadelphia, much more so than New York (which offers, to my eyes, nothing labyrinthine beneath a bold, brusque surface) is perpetually ravaged by contradictions and conflicting internal imperatives- the Main Line surface/patina is all about the prestige of old money; South Philly prizes blue-collar, ethnic simplicity, but falsely and disingenuously (against the complex and baroque machinations of the South Philly mob); the mob also runs at least partly other suburbs supposed to be middle-class, and standardized to American suburban norms, which they are not; and the “noir” sense, at the end of things, is that Philadelphia is a shadow-plagued city, and what you see is certainly not what you get here. The representatively Philadelphian surface/depth tensions are what make the city fertile ground for high art, rooted in formidably intellectual narratives, slanted towards the stylized chiaroscuro of noir symbolization and signification. Make no mistake- Philly makes a more than reasonable microcosm of the United States, because Philly has many things to hide. Every thoughtful Philadelphian has their own Philadelphia narrative. That Philadelphia is often represented as simple is one of its noir allure-features. Philadelphia, in fact, may be taken as the secret capitol of America, and much of America’s internal darkness is exteriorized/embodied with precision in our labyrinths here. From a certain angle, for Philadelphia to produce representative American high art is no stretch at all- higher art requires higher faithfulness to complex human truth. Because complexities are difficult, both to perceive and to assimilate, they are, or can be, dark. If my version of noir borrows stylistically from the likes of Raymond Chandler, the substance of the art is uniquely set within its own thematic manner/mode of confused, perplexing darkness. Yet attempts to unearth deep truth, when performed skillfully, are always cathartic, as pitiful and terrible as the deep (“noir”) truth can be, and in this, this art finds its strength and metier.
Adam Fieled 2014