Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Keeping It Real:  Thoughts on John Yamrus
doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon’ (Epic Rites Press, 2010)
‘Can’t Stop Now’ (Epic Rites Press, 2011)
 There’s a strand in American writing that seems to combine a suspicion of an easy articulateness, a too easy intimacy, with a torrent of volubility. “Call me Ishmael”, the narrator of Moby Dick says curtly before launching into his wonderful flood of language; “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”: thus Holden Caulfield at the beginning of Catcher In the Rye; or take, even, a poem like Creely’s ‘For Love’ where the difficulty of writing the truth of something becomes the way into keeping going in the struggle to approach that truth:

              Yesterday I wanted to
          speak of it, that sense above
          the others to me
          important because all

         that I know derives
         from what it teaches me.
         Today, what is it that
         is finally so helpless,

         different, despairs of its own
         statement, wants to
         turn away, endlessly
         to turn away.
In John Yamrus’ poetry too, you often get a narrator who gets in your face with a terse statement about writing or life or death, who wants to give the culture at large something it needs, not what it wants, and who won’t allow either himself or his readers to evade the authentic claims of dailiness by escaping into the illusions of formalism. And yet, underneath the toughness, there is the unexpected lyricism of ordinary speech asserting its insights in anecdotes from talk , the conversations the poet has with others and with himself.
 Here is a poetry which is resolutely anti-cerebral, a kind of street-zen-writing, an attempt to keep practicing what Yamrus calls “this beautiful,/ monstrous thing”. He slaps you in the face, sometimes roughly, sometimes gently, like one of the old zen masters whose only goal is to wake you up the life that you’re living, right here, right now, a life that’s always full of humor, ugliness, exaltation, pettiness, stupidity, brilliance, dejection, good sex, bad sex, sickness, love and dogs.  In the following poem from doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon you find that world encapsulated in a funny and strangely wise vignette:
                        this morning
                        i was
                        nearly killed
                        by a
                        speeding through
                        the parking lot
                        at the
                        liquor store.
  The self-deprecating humor here is typical of Yamrus, and in a world full of chance happenings for good and ill you either “play the hand/ you’re dealt”, or you’re in danger of becoming a self-important, unholy fool; as the poem ‘in the job interview’ from Can’t Stop Now puts it:
 never really
 go away, do they?

 they’re always
 out there,

 their business
 behind their own
 locked doors,
 desperately hoping
 the world will one day
 prove them

The way I read Yamrus, even if the world will never prove you right in any ultimate sense, that’s no reason to quit, to retreat into cynicism. The act of writing poems, making art, making music  is, perhaps. all we have to keep chaos and old night at bay, however temporarily.  “the main thing is/ to keep it/ real.”  We simply don’t know our ends, but how we choose to go on really does matter;  this stunning poem from Can’t Stop Now  says as much and more:
something simple,
but making it
can often be
a thing of
today, i watered,
pruned and re-arranged
our potted plants,
i thought

 As a very public poet Yamrus, unsurprisingly, writes a good deal about poetry itself.  He acknowledges Bukowski as an influence, but it would be unfair to Yamrus to say that his work is derivative of Bukowski in any facile way. I think, actually, that what they have in common, at their best, is an ability to look at and listen to the commonplace and transfigure it; it remains commonplace but it’s allowed its own peculiar eloquence as each small everyday happening is verbally refracted through these two individuals. Yamrus, in fact, is generally sparer in his articulations than Bukowski, and in my opinion he shows a surer touch in most of his linebreaks than Buk. If, for example,  you examine the ‘this morning’ poem above, you’ll notice how the tone of the last three lines depends on using the linebreaks as slight pauses to give each word of the phrase equal weight, and modulate them towards humorous irony. Or take the lines I quoted from ‘in the job interview’--  there is genuine philosophical depth behind the various usages and positionings of “they”, and “they’re”, and look at the marvelous sets of multiple meanings Yamrus gets from “doing/their business”  and from “prove them” solely by where he chooses to break the lines. Yamrus knows what he’s doing “and,/ for some / strange reason,// it/ works”. 
  The other aspect of poetry he deals with is how other people respond to it, other poets, interviewers, and people who seem incapable of understanding its art. My favorite of these is the poem ‘he looked at me and’ from Can’t Stop Now where the poet/narrator is asked in a TV interview “in your writing/ don’t you even care/ about musicality?” He reacts better than I would have, actually, to this question “that didn’t even deserve an answer”, and he says
            there’s something
             good about being hated.
it’s as real as

 I’m interested in the verb “hated” because from Yamrus’ point of view it’s not overstatement. Many of the encounters he documents in his poems relate to people who seem to hate poetry, or at best can’t cope with its manifoldness and its anarchic energies, and take on the anyone-can-do-that attitude of defensive dismissal. Mainstream culture sneers at poetry as marginal (how many times have we heard that poetry is dead?), or tries to corral it safely inside the academy.  But poets like John Yamrus keep working, keep fighting, doing their cartwheels on the edge of the abyss of conformity. Can’t stop and won’t stop. Loving it that “right around the ninety minute mark/ the poetry reading/ got nuts”. Can’t stop and won’t stop. Keeping it real.
© Ger Killeen

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: 'We're No Butchers' by Rob Plath

Review: We’re No Butchers by Rob Plath (Epic Rites Press, 2011;

 The theme of the dysfunctional, self-destructive family runs through modern American drama like a sparking powerline. From O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night to McDonagh’s The Pillowman to Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, major American dramatists have illuminated the many ways that familial madness and violence lie hidden in plain sight; a craziness so well disguised, in fact, that a substantial American social movement can, without a trace of irony, claim to want to uphold and restore “family values”.
  In Rob Plath’s short ten-scene play all the family values skeletons come roaring out of the suburban closet in the characters of the son, Butch, the uncle, Dante, and the parents, Otto and Mia. From the moment the action opens on a typical Sunday morning, we are blasted by their free-floating anger and resentments. And these people are terrifying, not just as hyper-anxious individuals shackled to each other by genetics and the sad symmetries of psychodrama, but as representative figures of a rot at the heart of the body politic. Here the mask of blandness is off and we are confronted by pure anti-kitsch, by violence, by a stunted vocabulary of second-hand obscenities, by infantilized relationships, by a world of shit.
 There is something brilliant in the way Plath refuses us any real relief from the high tension exchanges in this play. The language itself grabs us, in a theater-of-cruelty way, and will not let us turn away from this slow motion carwreck of a family. Even those moments in the play when, as in Scene 7, with the arrival of Otto and Mia’s dinner guest Mo, the dialogue starts out tamely and superficially genial, Plath manages to foreground its frailty as a means of communication, of connection. Like the high energy exchanges between, say, Butch and Dante, these people connect only by cliché, by narcotizing cultural referents. And when these fail…look out; hell hath no fury like an adult infant.
 Even though most of We’re No Butchers takes place in a fairly cramped domestic space and the plot involves a working through of the stunted personal relationships of the main characters, Plath’s play has, of course, a larger social and political dimension to it. To put it bluntly, if you want to know something of the inner lives of those people who voted for George W. Bush twice, who wield the cross of Jesus as a battle-axe, who think Norman Rockwell is a realist, and who sputter racist slogans as they chew on their barbecued chicken wings— this play will confront you with them. In the volatile atmosphere of a suburban living room Otto bellows at Dante: “WE’RE NO BUTCHERS. IF WE WERE BUTCHERS YOU’D BE DEAD, YOU MOTHERFUCKER.” And Butch, his name almost “Butcher”, like Otto and Mia is no literal butcher. But in the body politic, the psychology of this pesudo-intellectual, pseudo-libertarian man-child is writ large: it brings us Guantanamo, waterboarding, massacres, and a thousand casual cruelties. Rob Plath won’t let you escape from any of this. I hope that cutting-edge theater companies everywhere will consider adding this powerful work to their repertoire.

©Ger Killeen, 2012