Choose, Selected Poems by Michael Rothenberg
(Big Bridge Press, Guerneville, CA, 2009)
GHOSTS OF THE JOURNEY:
CHOOSE, AN IMPROMPTU SELECTION OF THE POETRY
OF MICHAEL ROTHENBERG
"With the nomad, on the contrary, it is deterritorialization
that constitutes the relation to the earth...."
-Deleuze & Guattari
According to Freud, people live in repressed worlds, the visual aspects of which are a skeletal, twisted translation of imagery that rests forgotten in the mind's inaccessible compartments. Probably Freud would agree with Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh in their poetry collection, 237 More Reasons To Have Sex, Reason Number 123: "Then you said, 'Everything is about sex, except sex which is actually about power and money'." A popular saying is, "Where you go; that's where you are." But Freud might interject: "Where you go; that's where you aren't." It's common to visit where you are comfortable, rather than where anxiety tears you to naked pieces.
In society, repression is exclusion. An example might be racial prejudice and antagonism, but, in my view, a much more general and insightful way to look at exclusion is as a problem of self-fulfillment. Individuals and individuality are excluded. Ideas are excluded. It seems to me that the obstacles that the ecological movement faces are brought about less by materialism than by what materialism implies: fear of failure, 21st Century-style. The origins of greed and wastefulness might be in apprehension, because our clearest and most sincere aspirations are generally locked in the fortress of polluted pessimism and a situational realism that is acknowledged by the world.
So what, you say? So this. If that same self-aggrandizing, fiercely monitored realism makes out that civilization in 2009 has reached no landmark or shows no signs of resolving itself into any strand or along any path, is just a random hunt for survival, then a possible retort is that no landmark or strand should be expected to appear. These will be excluded, suppressed. They would be--and are--unacknowledged and obfuscated.
Even so, rather than saying what that strand or landmark might be, what I want to point out is that Michael Rothenberg's slight, buoyant, believing, hurried, likeable recent selected poems, Choose, published by his own Big Bridge Press, seems to me fruitfully viewed as a revealing Freudian dream or series of dreams about civilization. In saying this, I am praising its craftsmanship, the way its one-page poems sum up millennia, the way childlike juxtapositions reveal subliminal themes, the way temporal detail traces out a momentous and discernible landscape.
Rothenberg's poems have the quickness and clarity of a dream. Yet, like a dream, they are in no way mundane. They seem to ride a rippling current toward some exciting mythic destination. They are like gazing at the ocean and seeing an absence, a journey. They are like seeing, as Rothenberg writes in the poem "Elegy For The Dusky Seaside Sparrow," "the demise of the river,/ the fanged beast at the door of the sea." Or they are like seeing, as in the poem “Polarizations,” that we are “walking/ between abstraction and magic.” Like seeing
A skittish ghost-herd
On Champs d’Elysees
Now under deconstruction
By The New Pound Projective
And the Magicians of Jazz Street
The epigraph for “Polarizations” from Mohammed Mrabet is, “A madman doesn’t need success. All he needs is a good hospital.” To be motivated only by the censored values that result from a bad dream, to worship only the acceptable visible icons of our repressed much vaster libidinous inner workings is, as Freud tells us, madness. Thus, in another way, the madman does need success. Indeed, success is his madness. It is the insane asylum in which he lives. And this journey of absence, too, is an asylum, a prison. For
This day belongs to panic
Jets & 7,000 reruns of suicide
Anthrax in Florida
India hijack hoax
Russian plane downed
320 million dollars of U.S. aid
goes to Afghanis
Ten killed in Palestinian-Israel clash
A bus driver’s throat is slashed
(From “Apocalyptic Yearnings”)
We must "get away." We must have more than what is approved. Rather than self-justification (“success”), this journey of absence, this journey on which we are forced to embark is the “Manifest Destiny” of “Infinite Justice.” Rather than “platitudes” about murderous destruction (Hurricane Katrina), we must travel to a diffuse though still truly felt tangibility that battles “separation and exile.” Rather than “movie stars,” we must encounter Economists, poets, L. Gustave Moreau, Dizzy Gillespie, “mineral springs,” Redwoods, “a boy/ Who peers between shadows,” “people ‘actively dying’.” As Michel Foucault says in Madness and Civilization:
Water and navigation certainly play this role. Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to that great uncertainty external to everything. He is a prisoner in the midst of what is the freest, the openest of routes: bound fast at the infinite crossroads. He is…the prisoner of the passage.
Sanity is our destination. As long as “home” is a symbol of repression, as long as the ocean on which we gaze is an absence that we wantonly refuse to recognize, there is imprisonment and exile. As long as our allegiance is to distortion, the journey and the “infinite crossroads” remains. As long as no one is interested in the strand, then "the land he [the madman, the "Simpleton," writes Foucault] will come to is unknown--as is…the land from which he comes.”
I can't say what I've seen exactly
Patterns as if stenciled, traced
upon wild fields of abstract, spectral motion
Color in celebration of chaos, pure blues
Simpler than apple hues and flesh
White flowers, wings. The Apparition
Man and woman. "The Chimerae"
Suggestions torn by invisible hand
reaching through awe-open mouth, a breathless
naked, deathless magic of creative will
(From "L. Gustave Moreau")
The title of Rothenberg's collection, Choose, is closely derived from current political debates. The idea of being “Pro-Choice,” its expanded implications in terms of Democracy and allowing people to decide about their own lives. But once through the text, the reader begins to associate “Choose” with a much wider and perhaps less politicized set of ideas. Choice becomes responsibility. It becomes a courageous willingness to accept the vegetable planet as it is. It becomes an admission that
I used to be someone else
Out for a cigarette
Bourbon & weed
It becomes an understanding of “broken vows,” of poor responses to natural disasters and local energy problems, of trustworthy and untrustworthy politicians, of an obligation to "be there" for the sick and elderly. Rothenberg gives a succinct list in “Core Sample 1,”
Lice, fire, flood, and disease
A candy shop of holocausts
Bubble gum pops on the face of a deity
Toying with the physics of tension
Birth and assassinations
A dish mop, filter, sponge
Window frame hung on a wall
What then is the remedy? Like postmodernism, which for me is poets such as Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Jarrell, Sexton, Bishop and a host of others; and like Beat writing also, Rothenberg grapples with this deceptive aura of order with various sorts of efforts to be inclusive. So that "choice" stands for the modern way of thinking, even extending to the inability to choose. Choice represents quantum “difference,” duality, the peaceful assurance that acceptance wins for sanctity of all life. It represents a course that has no clearly prescribed frame of reference or standards of actions. In books like Berryman's Love and Fame or Lowell's Life Studies, like the Beats' moral border-crossings that beatify junkies into saints, the notion of what is sacred becomes secularized and "prosified" to make everything clean, included and meaningful. To me, the title Choose suggests an evolved lineage; it suggests "Chosen."
I have a clue
Monkeys like to be left alone
They don't smoke cigars or play poker
Prefer not to dress up like The Three Bears
But a man's got to do what a man's got to do
Sunflower seeds, bananas, peanuts
Making industry out of ecology
10,000 years of giving up
Now we're supposed to compromise
So we take what's left and split it
Take what's left and split
Until everything is in ownership
And no one can live
Because there are too many fences
Up to the moon and across the cosmos
And, from "Day Trip,":
Never turn your back on the sea.
In this way Rothenberg moves from the outward. the iconic, the visual, the monolingual to filling the molds, the rejected forms, the questionable objects with an unexaggerated, denotative profusion taken carelessly from the daily.
In the poem “7 Days in Darien,” (referencing the film “Seven Days in May”?) Rothenberg writes:
Spanish moss. Live oaks, resurrection ferns
Fort King George Motel
Reading Bhaghavad Gita
Todd reads the turtle news
“Leatherneck Nesting on Sapelo Island”
Apple passion fruit juice, peanut butter cookies
Shower, shave, and go to sleep
In a poem with the gratuitous but still appropriate title “Rosemary Clooney Died Today,” the cream filling is provided in casual lines such as these describing Rothenberg’s friendship with the poet Philip Whalen:
Agates, buddhas, books and very little else
over 78 years, but tons of friends
Who admired him, never knew
how to talk to him, or ways to take care of him
Protect him in his grand vulnerability
He was after all a cranky guy but so what
if that was his worst aspect
then give me more Philips
Instead of the brickwork of an illusory--selfish, hysterical--cogency the reader is presented with the paradoxical, autonomous limitlessness of the universe at hand. Instead of quatrains for "what war?/which war?" there is "more fun" and "NOW" at "the Cosmic Hotel."
Choose contains thirty-two poems selected from 1992 to 2008. Like Beat writing in general, many of the poems appear deceptively ordinary. However, there are several that especially stand out: "Persistence Of Ectoplasm," "Apocalyptic Yearnings," "Katrina," "XLVII. The Eiffel Tower,""Redwood Floodwatch," "Phantom, Come Hither."
"XLVII. The Eiffel Tower," Rothenberg's poem about a rainy night that he spent in Paris taking a metro to the Eiffel Tower and back to the apartment where he was staying is particularly a high point. In repeating the phrase "I never want to forget..." throughout his recounting the experience, Rothenberg convinces the reader of more than merely his excitement upon seeing the fin-de-siecle landmark in the city that has meant and means so much to Western culture. He convinces the reader of his sincerity as a human being, of a certain willingness to sacrifice for others and a missionary eagerness to share life's wonder.
I never want to forget how far down it was or how
Big the tower became once I came closer to the earth again
How beautiful and unreal, big and bright and impossible, the tower!
I walked down and down then on the ground
Looked back up at the skeleton of infinite illuminated erection
Caught a glimpse of myself watching the glowing
Skeleton reaching, filling
Gray-green cloudy night sky, watching
I never want to forget the thrill
Of watching The Eiffel Tower
Phosphorescent organism in the sky
Above branches of low trees
As I looked back toward where I'd been
Rain falling in my face
As I turned back walking to the metro
Yet, at the same time, in this complex psychic tapestry of absences and elsewheres, of towers, erections and icons, of millennia and grungy, random lost weekends, it seems that there is also a certain uneasiness and reticence. Rothenberg's intense emotion, like a recurring Freudian dream, could be construed as speaking of places that are notable for their being unmentioned, either in the poem or the collection, places such as Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel. Would he be as effuse in writing about his native Florida or his more recent residence in California? Would controversies about the Eiffel Tower, were they to arise, menace him as intensely?
Rothenberg's poem about the Eiffel Tower is like Edwin Rolfe's poems about Spain during the Spanish Civil War: Rolfe uses the same phrase, "I never want to forget..." yet the reader notices that the poems are written as a foreigner and soldier. In his poem, Rothenberg admits that there is much he's already forgotten about the Eiffel Tower. I think that what Rothenberg's epiphany expresses is a concern more about humanity itself, the journey to and the exile from peace and fulfillment (the journey we have been talking about; the journey to overcome madness and servility) than any geographical place. It's Rothenberg that "wonders where God is" because he can't shake the idea that "You love everyone but can't live with yourself" and because the absence that he sees, the silence that he hears is still haunted by the troubling "Expatriate utterances of stolen voices."
Tom Hibbard has had many poems, translations, reviews and essays published on and off line in places such as Word/For Word, Big Bridge, Fishdrum, Jacket, Otoliths, Milk, Cricket, Moria. A poetry collection, Place of Uncertainty, is available online at Otoliths Storefront. Bronze Skull published a chapbook of Hibbard's poetry in 2008 titled Critique of North American Space. A long piece on "Linear/Nonlinear" appears at the Big Bridge archive. Upcoming publications are a review of a Jacques Derrida tract in the spring issue of Jacket (reprinted from Word/For Word) and two poems in the online "Green" issue of Jack.