David Larsen, The Thorn (Faux Press, 2005)
Where the utterly absurd and ironic, especially as they relate to our contemporary political milieu, generally produce poetry that places its author and its reader at a safe distance from danger, damage, risk, and involvement (as in, generally, Flarf), David Larsen uses them as motivating energies to set off chain reactions of thoughts and feelings whose earnestness is bound up with their self-sabotage, itself in turn a far cry from the safety of the earnest political poetry of liberal acknowledgement of one’s own complicity.
When Larsen begins “Portrait of Gerard Malanga” with “Osama Bin Laden is the most beautiful / man I have ever seen,” later claims that “he is in daily communication with angels,” and in-between asks, “BUT SHALL I TELL YOU / WHAT BEFELL THE PANCAKE VENDOR, / ON HIS FINAL VISIT TO OSAMA’S / MOUNTAIN PRECINCT?,” it certainly doesn’t seem as if we’re to take him seriously.
The whole poem, however, never seems to slide entirely into kitsch—I think I’m being asked to feel what these thoughts would be like to genuinely think—and it seems pretty serious when it throws off a series of other poems, ranging from the promised account of the pancake vendor’s execution (itself linked to a frightening story about the vendor’s wife’s encounter with Bin Laden’s followers) to genuinely informative meditations on religion and to the presence in other (less directly related) poems of parodic prayer language, considerations of masculinity, devotion and idolatry, and mourning.
The book forms a loosening and tightening serial set in which such systems of relationships activate each other retroactively, so that the poem before “Portrait” (its title scratched out) appears in a different light by virtue of the cultural associations of its proper name:
with nothing to lose
can be able to want to
will over the dam
a feeling to let spatter and
turn no wheel.
He throws the shells of the nuts he eats.
Alawi, turn a friend of mine.
How did you wind up
Through such resonances the wide stylistic variety of the book, which initially makes it seem like a series of pleasurably all-over-the-place independent works, comes to seem like a wild, unstoppable energy carrying important material in all kinds of directions.
This energy is expressed in the handwriting in which many of the poems are presented, in the use of obscenities, and in the surprising swerves between lines in a great number of the works, like “My Star is Rye:”
Plants and I
look back on it.
We’re fucking choking it, and
I’m poured all over the lawn in broths,
steaming. My star is rye
and forearms at the edge
of dampness, straining
in the math scores of
the state in which I am visiting.
Eighth graders, and Krishna in his bower
also did well on the test, and that is when
I decided to become a
Toronto Blue Jays fan
Among the book’s themes are friendship and death, and they state the argument of the book’s mode in an amazing way in a handwritten poem consisting of a numbered list of items like:
1.THE GLORY OF GOD
3.TOO MUCH SPERM
4.NOT ENOUGH SPERM
6.NARROWNESS OR SMALLNESS
IT TAKES A LOT
TO KILL A YOUNG PERSON
FOR ANN SIMON (1968-2003)
The ridiculousness of the listed items, it seems to me, embodies an intensity that is as appropriate as any, maybe more appropriate than anything more emotionally intuitive, to commemorate and protest against the loss of a beloved human being.
This intensity reaches its apex in the amazing “Wild Speech” (the fulcrum of Dana Ward’s Typing Wild Speech, the subject of my previous post), which activates nearly all the tendencies of the book and amplifies them to a degree that takes my breath away.
The Thorn should be absolutely required reading for anyone interested in poetry that engages with our contemporary worlds of pop culture, religion, politics, humor, education, interpersonal relationships, and the irony that plunges into an acknowledgment of the messes we’re in while all too rarely exhausting its many strengths in an attempt to live through and in spite of them.