Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

Frederick Pollack
Story Line Press: 1998
Citations (except the first one)
are from Happiness by Frederick Pollack and
may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of the author
review by Arthur Mortensen
(author's response below review)

In these times of disinheritance,
we feast on human heads....
            Wallace Stevens

Wishful thinking is as much a part of science fiction as it is of satire.  Oftentimes, the two genres fuse, as in Voltaire,  in Turner for the last twenty-five years and Lem for the last fifty.   Further, it is often hard to tell wishful thinking apart from satire; this is not a problem, however, as both are facets of one jewel of thought, that things ought to be different.   And how things ought to be informed Voltaire as much as it informs Turner and Pollack, however one might disagree with their proposals.   And further, a frequent combination of satire and wishful thinking is also suggestive of a sensitive and perceptive mind unable to miss the contradictions even in what it hopes for.  It's good that Pollack is one of those minds; otherwise this could be a very silly book.  Why?

In a time when the Left has become synonymous with universal defeat, to write an epic about how things might be if the Left had really had its way is as odd as Le Monde's Horatio-at-the-bridge stance against international currency traders and for the revival of national capital controls.   One strongly suspects that the author of Happiness, as perhaps the editor of Le Monde, is more engaged in fantastic amusement than in serious examination of alternatives.   Or one thinks of the Clinton Administration's toying with such political fancies as L. Guanier's "taking turns" notion of representative governent, which had about as much chance in the fire and brimstone of a Republican Congress as Pollack's fancied vengeances, miraculous banishments and magical re-education have of an independent existence outside of his poem Happiness.   Why bother?

Such storytelling's apparent resignation (as Voltaire's in Zadig, or Lem's in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub) has a powerful, if paradoxical, effect.   Voltaire's strongest message in such stories was that "it may be that the world should be better, but it never will be."   Pollack's triumphant characters, depending as they do on the deus ex machina of a magical science (that the modifier contradicts its noun is part of the point), tell us nothing so much as "it was a pipe dream from the start."  Whether Pollack (or Voltaire for that matter) actually believed this as they wrote is irrelevant; the impact of a solution requiring a  magical event is little different in emotional impact than Voltaire's wise-man-gets-whipped-for-his-trouble endings.  I suspect Pollack was more than conscious of this.  After all,  it is no news, to him or to anyone else, that in Leftist musings of the 60's, 70's and 80's, there was a perniciously childish perception that adult concerns, such as self-interest, could be eradicated with either rational debate or mass confrontation.  History, as Happiness,  suggests otherwise, history by demonstrating that neither debate nor confrontation can change people the way debaters and confronters propose, Happiness's fiction by making political correctness a completed project only through an act of "scientific" magic.

A sort of wall has appeared dividing the universe into the world once known and into a sort of heaven (the assault on heaven as pure superstition by Marx himself should not be forgotten here).

    The wall was
    ugly. Colors
    entered the mix -- neon
    greens, electric

    pinks -- lacking even the
    doubtful beauty
    of fractals,
    but would not settle

    into white
    or mud.  Shapes
    appeared, meters,
    kilometers across

    and vanished.  They resembled
    the contents of full,
    or ulcerous, rotting

    or clotted alveoles
    bronchae.  Sometimes
    something like a

    crash appeared,
    head-on, immediately obscured
    by fire or
    metal; and sometimes
    grotesque recoiling faces,
    cartoon-like hands. No one
    could gaze at
    the Wall without

On the other side of the Wall are the bad old days and bad old guys.

    "When people

    die here,
    they return behind
    the Wall," I said.
    "They're alive there.  That's why

    the body

In this paradise of vengeance and political correctness, even the moral consequences of revenge have vanished because even the more horrible, mutilating and fatal punishments are only temporary (sort of like the deaths in Terminator... movies or other escapist entertainment).   For the scions and believers in the Revolution, vengeance, the healing hand of the narrator (who literally rewrites old wrongs with a magic glove), and the Wall are real, much as in Dick, Gibson and Sterling's virtual worlds where the avatar of a person outside the 'Net becomes at that person's death the person himself, as alive and in as real a world as before.   In those virtual worlds, the absence of real consequences is much the same as in Happiness's magical environment.   Not only is everything better, all diseases cured, and all rages ended, but there is no apparent cost.   Wishful thinking?

It sounds like satire to me.   Everyone who accuses is always telling the truth.  Justice is always done.  Things always get better.  And we know, don't we, and word by word, that this could never happen.  And if it can't, why is it being presented as good? It wasn't just power politics that impelled Machiavelli to support the prince that pursued what was possible over the one who pursued what could not be; it was the desire for action, for a leader  to have an impact other than with an open mouth.   Pie in the sky, whether it's apple, IBM or Marxism, is never more than a palliative, a sweet taste of happy endings that disappears before the first bite is processed.  Does Pollack give away this game or are we left with guessing?

He gives it away generously.  Pollack has not written a post-Modern mystery, with word games within word games.  He's written a straightforward fantasy about the American "Left," such as it is, and drawn direct parallels in its magical solution to those of the departed Soviet Union.  Exile beyond the Wall?  What is this but a close approximation, with even less cost, than what the Soviets allowed in the early days of occuping Eastern Europe?  They allowed the "scum" (i.e., those people still devoted to the notion of means and objectives considered "bourgeois") to go into the western sectors of Berlin, and across many other virtual walls.    It wasn't until nearly half a century after the Revolution of 1918 that the Soviets closed their borders with actual walls in Berlin and began ruthless enforcement along their other borders.   The same strategy was used by the Cubans.   That such bankrupted the intellectual and economic systems of the Soviet Union and of Cuba was of little concern.  Purity (not of bodily fluids but of ideas) was the essence, or so went the popular claim.   The cost of purity, despite the strongest efforts to avoid the murderous excesses of Stalin, was the entire system.   Pollack's fantasy does not go that way; in Happiness,  this brave new universe is simply an experiment that fails.   That's the one weakness of the satire, in fact.  After all, embodied in the Marxist experiment itself were not only the means but the manner of its destruction.  Pollack almost gets it though; in fact, in terms of the story he sets out to tell, the experiment's final disaster is the only possible resolution.

After all, as in the illusions of the Soviet Union and its wall in Berlin, the magic of the Wall in Happiness eventually falls because it was never quite right theoretically, as in the USSR because the egg laid by Lenin and Stalin had opened without either yolk or chick.

One may find satire about more than the fairly easy mark of the American Left -- about Americans in general.   For instance, the notion of technological nirvana is the commonest theme in American political philosophy, such as it is.   Worried about war with the USSR?  Build more hydrogen bombs and a sky shield.  Worried about discomfort on the Interstate?  Build more air-conditioned cars.  Distressed about too much bureaucracy?  Automate the paperwork.  Worried about corporate control of information?  The Internet will save you.  Technological innovation is waved about like a fairy godmother's magic wand; we smile and suppose that everything will be better in the morning.   And there's always Stephen Hawking, who lingers in this book, in imagined conversations and in action, as if he were Merlin (or some latter day Mr. Science).  Finally, of course, something goes wrong.  Doesn't it always?  (Murphy's law)  Then what?

Recriminations, second-guessing, the odd question as "was this ever possible?"   Pollack works this ground with considerable elan and, for its Voltairean exploration of what is or should be politically correct, Happiness is a good new title from Story Line and is highly recommended.
One complaint:  Pollack, as one who has read his work in the latest Pivot can attest, can write a supple blank verse that has a  modern sound (Maxwell Anderson showed this could be done; see Winterset in the 1930's).  However, in Happiness, Pollack breaks up the verse into fragments as small as a word.  The results are 4-line stanzas that  don't contribute to the poem's readability, an increasingly common problem in all free verse, usually under the banner of "it's natural". It's a mild disturbance in an otherwise sharp, well-detailed and well-plotted narrative.   And it is fair to note that this irritation lasted until I ignored the line breaks and stanzas; then I really enjoyed Happiness, which, as noted above, is highly recommended.

Story Line Press is Pollack's publisher.  They are to be commended for bringing out a narrative book.
                                Arthur Mortensen

The author responds:

Dear Arthur Mortensen,

I'm glad you liked Happiness; your enjoyment of it and an intense engagement with it come across.  No writer can ask more of a reviewer.  I would have no compunction about telling people to read 
your review. 

At the same time, it seems to me that you spend much of your review spinning a riff about Happiness - talking about an aspect of it that interests you, and which may even be "there," but which is not, as I see it, the major aspect. You see the book as satire.  The subject matter of satire is gesture - actions that are incomplete, incoherent, somehow wrong.  Motives in satire are generally simple, or viewed as such; they are merely the causes of absurd actions.  One could say (someone probably has said) that satire is tragedy minus sympathy.  The more deeply a work considers motives, the more pathos or complexity it grants them, the less satirical it is.  Happiness spends a lot of time on the motives of its characters, an aspect you ignore.  More important, you seem incurious about the motive of the work as a whole; for you it is either satire or straightforward wish-fulfillment (in which case it would be "silly").  This analysis elides the last third of the book - the "reborn," alternate life of the protagonist - which is a) a wish-fulfilling utopia, b) quite beautiful, and c) not satirical in tone.

No good poem is only about what it seems to be about.  Yet readers who seek the most farfetched arcanae in any lyric assume that a narrative poem has none.  They also assume that politics, if mentioned at all, are a work's horizon of meaning.  At the dramatic center of Happiness the hero imparts a Gnostic myth.  Sitting at Ric's place, Renata, Evan, and Keith describe their own lives (and motives) and wait for the Captain to do the same. Instead he tells a  story about an evil God, a distant good god, the latter's messenger (the Gnostic "aeon," who may forget his own nature and mission), and a coming cosmic avenger.  The context of this strange, intense sermon includes, not only the show trials on television, but an appointment with someone who is never identified; Part Two ends when this figure doesn't appear.  It seems to me that an inveterate poetry-reader would ask: Is the appointment with the expected messenger ?  Does the latter not appear, perhaps, because he's already there?  How does the myth relate to the Revolution (or, as Keith would have it, the coup)?  In my correspondence with Mark Jarman I discussed the Gnostic framework on which I've been building poems for years, and which in Happiness is quite visible.  In his introduction, however, he too ignored this issue, and treated the book solely as a political fantasia.

I yearn for a reviewer to say, "This is a Gnostic poem," or "This is a religious poem by an atheist."  But even if one avoids this dimension, a closer political reading should raise questions.  My protagonist is as hostile to rock-and-roll as to the decor of tract houses.  Whether through magic or science, he acts out that hostility.  He is as dismissive of multiculturalism as he is of fundamentalism and simply banishes them from people's minds.  His tastes in art, music, and  poetry are unabashedly elitist and he imposes them too.  He has as little  patience with group-think as he does with orders.  You seem to read  this aspect of the poem as satirizing what used to be the imagined elan of Stalinism: getting things done NOW (or, as Shaw said, "There is  nothing for it but Bang").  This is not an unfair reading; the Captain  tells the Arts Administrator that he imagines the art of the future as  "vast Stalinist processions, but without lying."  But you also call what  is happening in the poem the "completion of the project of political correctness." The Revolution in Happiness is far from politically  correct.  It is far, also, from both traditional marxist politics and what currently passes for leftism.

It would be interesting if a reviewer said "This is a fascist  poem.  It relates to works like Marinetti's 'Untameables' and Wyndham  Lewis's 'Enemy of the Stars.'"  Against this interpretation I would  advance, again, the last third of the book: the ideal society portrayed  there is neither hierarchical, racist, warlike, dogmatic, or  male-dominated.  You could say, then, that Happiness is a satire by my  definition: an action (my Revolution) fails to connect with its intention  (a good society) and is therefore incoherent, "gestural."  But the  motives behind that gesture, the emotions connected with it, are  neither venal nor absurd, and this fact seems to push the work closer to 
tragedy.  Specifically the tragedy Shelley mentions in The Triumph of  Life: that of "why God made irreconcilable / Good and the means of good."  Let me add that I see Happiness, and a large aspect of my work to date, 
as a Bloomian "misprision" of Shelley.

About the style.  You say that your "irritation lasted until I ignored the line breaks and stanzas"; then you "really enjoyed" the book.   That's fine with me.  The fact that you ignored the line breaks doesn't  mean your reading wasn't affected by them; that your experience would not  have been different had they been cut differently.  It is not meter that  makes poetry, but condensed and polyvalent diction.  In free verse, the  latter generates its own rhythms; in traditional verse, it must overpower  the metronome.  When I write in blank verse I strive for colloquiality  and precision.  In free verse I want a jagged, syncopated rhythm that  keeps the reader on edge, off base, and rushing forward.  From what I can  see, I achieved it in your case.

Some last remarks on politics.  You refer to the "failure of the  Marxist experiment" as being "inherent within it."  If by "the Marxist experiment" you mean the Soviet Union, I'd probably agree.  If, however, you mean that either Marxism or socialism can be reduced to  Stalinist totalitarianism, I think you're wrong.  At the risk of sounding 
quixotic, I feel that if multinational capitalism and international speculation continue unregulated, we are doomed.  Doomed in the short run  to an ever greater likelihood of disoriented, wasted, hate-filled,  menaced lives.  Doomed in the longer run to die in heat and filth; or,  ironically, to a final totalitarianism in which every sip of water and 
every breath of air are rationed.  The point of socialism was that the  people, not a small group, would have control over their environment, in  every aspect.  The disaster of Communism does not devalue this aim, or  prove that it must be left to the market.  

Finally, about Turner, whom you mentioned.  I'd like to distinguish my view of poetry from his. I value his attempt to broaden the concerns of poetry, and to do so by reviving the epic.  Any art that precludes reflection on our common fate is doomed to triviality - not merely in the eyes of "politically correct" ideologues, but those of history.  As I understand Expansivism, the preceding is an Expansivist tenet, and for that reason I'm glad to appear in an Expansivist journal.  (The Captain himself - hopefully this won't alarm you - might approve.)  But I could never call myself an Expansivist, in part because of the prevalence, within the movement, of Frederick Turner's ideas.  Under the banner of classicism, he purveys a Pollyannaish addiction to what you 
call "technological nirvana"; a distorted, Ayn Randian image of economic life; and a narrow taste in art, verse, and music, for which he finds biologistic rationalizations.  No ideology in itself makes a poetry bad.  In Turner's longer narratives, however, these biases lead to a simplistic mythology and an insipid concept of the hero.

Again, Art, thanks for the review.  You were honest in it; I've been equally honest in response.  And I'll never turn down an opportunity for exegesis.

                                    Frederick Pollack
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The Reviewer Answers:

Let me say first that Frederick Pollack’s book was shortchanged in my review.   I have to be the first to admit it because no one else has volunteered.   But seriously, the complexities of a book like this require far more than a "riff’ for a review to be called adequate.   Pollack’s remarks are interesting and suggestive.  I strongly recommend that readers pick up Happiness and find out further for themselves; it is well worth the journey.  I recently completed reading the book for the third time.

As to the line breaks, they seemed arbitrary, not free.  "Overpowering" the meter is not how blank verse works, anymore than overpowering the beat makes John Coltrane an interesting saxophonist.  What free verse writers since the originators of the form have forgotten is that if you're going to give up a steady pulse, you have to provide an alternative.  I didn't find that alternative in the arbitrary 4-line stanzas.  Whatever phraseology is used to rationalize free verse nowadays, it almost always ends up being verse written for the eye instead of the ear.  The prosody constructed around meter was always intended for the ear; I like to hear poetry.  However, many people don't..

On remarks about Marxism’s failure being inherent, I don’t suggest nor do I believe that socialism leads to totalitarianism.  However, the assumptions underlying socialism, where it works, as in Germany and France (albeit raggedly from time to time), were drastically changed under "bourgeois" democratic governments, because rule by one class doesn’t work, whether the one class is the one with the big houses and the Mercedes Benzes or the one with the Hyundais and 3-room apartments.   Further, the transmutation of Marxism in the last thirty years, particularly in the US, to a program of reforming human types rather than restraining human acts has led to an almost universal rejection of the Left except at universities (as the Soviet hallucination about the "New Man" led inexorably to its retirement there).

On Frederick Turner, he does look at the lighted side.  The shadows of ambition, greed,  and the will to power have made a mockery of the phrase "post-industrial" society -- post-industrial to whom?  Surely not to the Maquila districts just south of the Rio Grande, choking on industrial waste -- on this, I don't disagree with Pollack’s critique.  However, in the creation of a new human world, as on the ‘Net, in the capacity to create self-contained industrial processes, and in the idea of whole cycle accounting (from material to product to waste and back again) lie the possibilities to recover gains of industrial society -- computer, heated house, telephone, electricity, etc. -- while securing industrial society against its own shortcomings.   Turner suggesting that this could be done (instead of the institutional Left's traditional handwringing and defeatism) is not Pollyanna-ish, but a message which those of a more radical bent ought to take to the line.  There is no reason for us to continue 19th century practices or 20th century resignation to them; we have the information, the money and the method to act differently.   Why we don’t is the subject of a political discussion, which Turner might not agree with.  Neither might the builders of the Wall in Happiness.  But, this old believer in democracy would suggest that action on the monumental scale of a re-writing the universe, as the re-writing of the human psyche, can only be described as either an act of gross hubris or of fantastic stupidity, judgments likely to rain on both "societies of exappropriation" (as Hannah Arendt described socialism and capitalism in The Origins of Totalitarianism) if people who know better don’t act with more intelligence.  Of course to write a story about such an act might also be an essay into satire....

                            Arthur Mortensen

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