Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review


Arthur Mortensen

"D'ye know I'd like to be an iditor," said Mr. Dooley.

"It must be hard job," said Mr. Hennessy.  "Ye have to know so much."

''T is a hard job," said Mr. Dooley," but 't is a fascinatin' wan.  They'se nawthin' so hard as mindin' yer own business an' an iditor never has to do that.  He's like mesilf.  I'm sick iv th' perpetchool rounds iv examinin' th' beer pump and countin' up th' receipts.  I want to put on me hat an' go out an' take a peek at th' neighborhood.  How's Clancy gettin' on with his wife?  Is it thrue she hates him?  How's Schwartzmeister's business?  Whin is Flannigan goin' to paint his barn?  After I get through with my investigations I come back here an' give y me opinyion on the topics iv th' day...."

                       -- from "An Editor's Duties," Mr. Dooley's Opinions,  R.H. Russell, 1901

The use of someone else's dialect to express opinions is an old tactic in more than one literature.  The opinions are not necessarily what is spoken, in fact are often found in how they are spoken.  However, a satirist making fun of how someone speaks is usually engaging in cheap shots.  More often, a dialect popularly held as contemptible (as an Irish brogue was at the time of Russell's popular series) is used by a satirist to express opinions which in a standard dialect might leave the author open to charges of libel or sedition.  This is certainly what Russell did in his entertaining series.  Attacks on the press, Populist politics, opinions on Christian Science, reflections on Wall Street, examinations of Supreme Court opinions -- they were all done as if in conversations at a bar in an Irish ghetto.   After World War I, and the emergence of the Irish in the Ivy League, and later in powerful positions in government and business, the Irish version of these faded away.

But in a country with so many groups vying to get into the mainstream (efforts now scorned in the academy, the reverse process of re-ghetto-ization described as "ethnic empowerment" as it used to be by Botha in pre-Mandela South Africa), the tactic emerged again and again.  Even in so egregiously racist a satire as "Amos and Andy," the backhanded opinions often targeted one sacred cow after another in mainstream society.  By the 1970's, Ishmael Reed's fiery satires, such as Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, The Last Days of Mississippi Red, Flight to Canada, The Terrible Twos, Reckless Eyeballin', or Mumbo Jumbo, used apparently similar characters to rip open prejudices, stereotypes, culture-wide infantilism, and politically imposed ignorance, in the process angering an entire spectrum of critics, some of whom were constituents of policies that, for all their liberal appearance, were creating little more than new ghettos.

Stand-up comedians have used the same tactics forever.  In a quick sketch, dialect differentiates characters at first hearing, if not authentically, then theatrically.  Jonathan Winters, Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, and many others have made this a successful strategy.  One may find historical roots for it in vaudeville, further back in the Commedia and beyond that in its medeaval predecessors in minstrelsy.  The usual course of "playable" material is predictable.  When a dialect begins to belong to a class of people becoming part of the mainstream, it quickly fades from use except in the hands of either a master like Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams, or in those of someone who belongs to that class, such as Richard Pryor or Chris Rock.  As a result, such material ages quickly.  Carol Burnett's use of a cleaning woman to mock powerful men became problematic when the powerful in the office began to include far more women.   These days it's a good idea to check the names on the senior management list before making blanket statements about "the men in charge."   Rochester disappeared with Jack Benny, not long after Brown vs. Education.  Similarly, an old stock character of comedy, the housewife who's smarter than her husband by several orders of magnitude, has fallen on hard times.  For a while it was replaced by a new stock character, the woman in the office smarter than all the men. But satirical targets shift rapidly, whether from fashion, politics or changing conditions.

Dialect-writing has other uses.  O'Neill used dialect for authenticity (the plays he wrote that way, particularly Anna Christie, suggest that he may have been wrong; this critic can't sit without laughing at contemporary productions of this old beast.)   Mark Twain may have been doing this with Jim; for the last fifty years this strategy has yielded unending efforts to bowdlerize or ban an otherwise uncontestedly brilliant book.  The conjunction of a contrived dialect with expected contemporary usage, however, leads to much more interesting results, as Anthony Burgess demonstrated in a long career of writing novels in this manner.  It leads to play, in particular, word play, that great bane of the plain John or Jane lurking in the Puritan halls, whether of ivy or of IBM.

Play is irresponsible, often wildly so.  Burgess's gang in Clockwork Orange, a vicious band of savages even the most liberal police officer would be thrilled to arrest (perhaps with the added attraction of gunplay), is the most interesting collection of characters  with the most entertaining and fascinating things to say and manners of saying them.  Without their madcap, poetic dialect, they'd be as interesting as the drab sociopaths that populate plays by Sam Shepard.   The drill sergeant in the late Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, in his amazingly creative variations on scatalogical and sexual insults and curses, was so much more interesting than any of the other characters that Kubrick had to kill him off in one of the film's worst scenes.  Kubrick himself, when he cast the actor (who had been a Marine Corps DI), said "I couldn't help myself; he did the same thing in a screen test and it was poetic!"

However, as well as satirists and comic writers fare onstage, in however favorable a light such play is regarded onscreen and occasionally in the novel, the grim face is a generic one in the world of American poetry.  In a fresh century and, for some, a fresh millennium, it would be a pleasure to find new opportunities for satire, wit and humor from poetry publishers -- a new face in the poetic crowd.  John Barr, a former sailor in the Navy, now a business person, presents himself as this face in Grace, a sort of epic about a Caribbean gardener named Ibn Opcit.  Beginning in a trial, the story introduces Ibn Opcit as a material witness in a murder for which witness, in short order, Opcit is condemned to death by torture.  (It is often like that for messengers.)

Much of the rest of the book is comprised of Ibn's monologues delivered from jail.  A random segment, from "Part II: I Been to New York. Once."

De country laid out in Bakelite strips,
edged with Gas to Go, Motels to Stay.
Off road, de countryside retain with difficulty
its capacity to glitter after rain.
From sticky pantoons and outland flats
rise Dallas like a glass salute, rise
Chicago like a seat of phosphorescent dreams,
rise towns with names like lamentations.
Omaha with its defrequented stockyards,
Oshkosh imprinted with alleys, Kenosha with sad swept streets
cause us to read "Minnesota Town Requests Right to Die."
A land where factories de size of Michigan discover
over and over dat humans don't make good machines.
Cause us to say, here was destiny made manifest.
People of de Southwest reduced to squeezed-down expectations.
Southern folk stay mad.  Midwestern folk, knowing dere place
an acquired taste, strive to love the dirt between dere toes.
(All along de border farms in Iowa
we hear dem mutter, We half in Illinois.)
People of the Northwest I am told
do not exist and California live in Japan.

America?  A country bated in the trade winds
of humanity at its most.  Huge in the feeding,
in the grip of its sensation hugely impatient,
on to the next -- WOP -- thing in a was of doing.
A country of Whoops and Waitaminute
where no one take time to find good footing
and the ambulances all spell backwards.

America through the eyes of poetry slams and Dom DeLillo!   While roller-coasting on the interaction of absurdities seen from the perspective of a man condemned by an irrational justice in another alien republic, the monologues may turn sharply into cold, brilliant pictures:
His bullet, delivered of a small-bore pistol,
was directed wid care and concern.  It give de Convulser's heart
something to work on.  It work, but it can't spit up
de metal pebble, it finds itself in full paroxysm.
His aorta he embrace as he embrace his fate.
Again, Etan give him a remembrancer, right between
de eyes.  A man wid holes, he revert
to de waxen state, a tinkering machine at rest.)
The picture of a cellmate on this island death row swiftly introduces a warden with a gift for terrifying poetry:
"We think of the body as a weather vane in a hurricane.
Think of the melon skull atop the neck stalk.
Think of the crucible skull (therein the rinse of brains)
atop the supportive spine so prone to dislocation.
Think of the eating hole and the breathing hole sharing
the same cave, so prone to the surprise of asphyxiation.
Think of the hand, the manipulative five.
Think of the fingers, soft palps of overreach:
ten random acts, ten opportunities to do better.
Think of the demispheres of the 'gluts,
met above the uneasy exit with its slick of shit.
In the time it take to say, you go from Good Morning
to a mumble of miserichord.
You just have to tell us when enough is too much
and we will make a miniseries of your pain."

One thing about Etan, he don't ride de rear
of de deference bus.  He say, I say joss to dat....
Wid barely disguised animalistic glee de Warden say,
"When a dog dies, de universe is smaller by a German pup,
but you gonna be smoked history and de universe
will not be one wit less. You'll be famous for being dead
and dat's de blister truth."  Etan give a binary blink:
"I been busy but I been good. I don't litter. I save de empties."
"Dis not so difficult as trigonometry," de Warden say.
"Let me talk to you in a language you can understand.
We gonna spare you the stress of an unmade bed.
We gonna manifest your destiny.
We gonna show your head in an exploded view...."

In the late, lamented "Homicide: Life on the Streets"  Andre Braugher's character often rose to similar rhetorical heights.  And anyone who's taken to slam poetry will recognize the jazzy rhythms, the playful and intense juxtapositions, and the feeling that this is being made up on the fly.  And of course nobody really talks this way.  And the dialect is not really real.  Inmates and wardens tend to be dull careerists, and even if they have a propensity for gallows humor are likely to conceal it for fear of offending the wrong people.  Crime and its victims are not funny.  And capital punishment is fatal.  But who would doubt the life in these lines, the conviction of their author, the narrative movement, and the sense of achieved art, perhaps even of naturalism (quite a different beast)?  Though progressive apartheid's many advocates on the Left would decry its theft of a dialect (one largely created by Barr, built on Caribbean models) and its presumptions about an island society (again, largely contrived by Barr), and it is probably fortunate that there is not a photograph of Barr on the book (publicity is not always a friend), the contrivances he uses build a character, a circumstance, a place, and a story that is as unforgettable as it is variously serious and mad (one must take care in reading which is and which is not).

One might argue that he carries this on too long.  But, he's not writing a sketch or a joke.  And if it gets too intense, do what you would with any novel.  Put it down a while, and pick it up again later.  You will be much rewarded.  Ibn Opcit's reflections on sex and reproduction (III. The Opposite Number), delirious, giddily offensive riffs reflecting on sex's irrationality, are worth the cover price:

Suppose you walkin' down the road one day,
when who should amble up but Amber Wunt.
You remember her, young, to have de souvrain polyps
and rudderless void.  For brains, she at the poverty line,
but from an early age she exhibit sexual comprendo.
Today she have a face to make de sybarites sing.
And dressed for presentation.  Plumped
in de fabric hold of a nictitating peau de soie
she walk with a considerable jiggle; the wind
flap the flag of her skirt, ah oh. Oh ah.
It puts you in mind of her pelvic stance,
the inward tow of her tell, her gentle divides.
You look down to see your folly, normally the size
of bucket bait, is now de size and shape of a trout.
She invite you to her place to "join in de fight for birthright."
Dere will be a meeting at her home, she say,
for purposes of discussing internal combustion.
On dis trip, she say, your head is not invited.
This will probably not win the Catherine McKinnon Award for presentable sexual description, but it is difficult to ignore.  Some may argue that only a man would regard sex in this fashion, as a nearly unconscious connection where neither party is quite in control of its ultimate agenda.  Some argue a lot of things, such as pigs have wings, and that Kansas is a nice place to learn science.

Every page has something.  As all satirists will do, including Voltaire and Lem, Barr occasionally lurches into sophomoric humor (a cynic might describe satire as sophomoric humor for adults), particularly in the names of characters.  Further, I don't think it would have been that big a leap for Barr to work this more carefully into meter (such might have made some of the effects and images easier to develop and explore).  But that's caviling.  Grace, from Story Line Press, is highly recommended.  If you're easily offended, however, and humor seems more like a cultural cancer than a therapy for it, stay far, far away.

                                                       Arthur Mortensen

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