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Gillian McCain, Connie Deanovich, and Brenda Coultas

Gillian McCain
Tilt

Hard Press (The Figures)
P.O. Box 184
West Stockbridge, MA 01266
86 pgs, $10.00

Connie Deanovich
Watusi Titanic

Timken Publishers, Inc.
225 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10012
76 pgs, $12.00

Brenda Coultas
Early Films
Rodent Press
available through:
Small Press Distribution
1814 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702-1624
77 pgs, $10.00

The poetry known as New York School continues to exert a widespread influence on contemporary American writers. From its beginning, New York School poetry focused on the chaos, intensity, and disjunctiveness of daily life, particularly as it was and still is lived in New York City, where at any given moment there's too much going on to absorb. While it has a strong sense of immediacy and personality, New York school poetry can be readily distinguished from confessional poetry, which limits its investigations to the "personal" life of a given poet, often without much awareness of anything outside the typical family romance. Also, while confessional poetry usually intends to impart great and even melodramatic significance to its endless tales of parents, marriages, and children, New York School poetry usually flattens even its most flamboyant stories into a casual offhandedness. These are just the things that I've been doing, it seems to shrug--make of them what you will. In seeing itself as part of the flow of experience rather than as a call to self-obsession, New York School poetry avoids the aggrandizing postures that so often mar confessionalism.

Thankfully, the tradition of New York School poetry, which has been with us for fifty years now (even more if one counts precursors like Edwin Denby, who started being offhand some time in the late 30s, early 40s), continues to change as new writers find value in it. Three recent books, two of poetry and one of fiction, show how the influence of the New York school can be extended to different concerns and environments while still remaining lively and contemporary.

With its casual conversational tone and engaging personality, Gillian McCain's Tilt is in some senses a classic book of New York School poetry, although filtered through the environment of a young woman living at a time when hostility and prices are higher than ever. McCain is also the coauthor of the recent Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and the prose poems in Tilt feature a similarly ironic chattiness, one that is a turns charming, suspicious, and angry. Like almost all New York School work, the sensibility of Tilt is irrepressibly contemporary. But in this case, that's not because McCain necessarily wants it to be.Tilt[ Click to Order McCain's Tilt (soft $) ]    

In fact, one of the remarkable things about Tilt is that it calls into question the value of the new in a way that New York School poetry has rarely done. In Tilt, the new has become more likely to be an advertisement, or an anti-depressant that doesn't work, than a life lived more fully or authentically. Pound's "make it new" may have been the cry for much poetic innovation in this century, but in McCain's world it's a phrase that any salesman can bark, as the poem "Self" shows:

Scenic railway dividers. When the content of a whim or
impulse fails to be modified by stable aims it becomes primitive
and bare, and tends to shift erratically. The lines disconnected
or diverged. It would be superfluous to quote any specific
examples. Lurking within every tourist is the same point of
departure: the nose (21).

Here, the "content of a whim or impulse," so often the basis of a poem by the New York School's legendary Frank O'Hara, has turned into simply another method of creating alienating products that claim to be "scenic" when they're really "superfluous." In such an environment, intimate contact with the flow of experience, however chaotic, simply isn't the answer:

It was necessary for me to detach in order to become reattached.
And what makes you think you're any different? Reciprocating
motion, separating us into compartments. Then the tunnel... (21)

Rather, the poet (and what makes you think you're any different?) requires an alienating detachment in order to feel anything at all, although the effort is just as likely to leave everyone stuck in compartments.

A further element of such problems is that those moments in Tilt that have the kind of intimate details most characteristic of the New York School are perhaps the most alienated: "Zeke in slow motion. Winds of change had fallen upon him, and he didn't dig it one bit" (36). "I can't come. It's these anti-depressants" (43). But McCain still manages never to sound like the whiny narrator of some self-proclaimed new Prozac nation. Rather, the distancing, anti-immediacy of the poems, working in tension with the offhanded immediacy of their tone, reveal a rather formidable social criticism, which one might almost miss because they seem so casual.

"I prefer the old world but that's just me," McCain writes in the book's last poem, "Cup," and the line comes as a kind of shock (84). There are few greater heresies in contemporary literature than to claim a fondness for the past, yet it's said with the same casual irony that makes every statement in Tilt call the world around it into question. What she actually prefers remains unclear, perhaps because it's irrelevant, perhaps because nostalgia is as phony, really, as anything else: "I managed to relocate to a kiosk with a Grover's Corner atmosphere" (84). In fact, a desire to pin down whether McCain always means what she says is itself a kind of phony nostalgia, in a world where sincerity has no relation to past or present. Tilt seems an accurate dissection of all that's not as present as it would like to be, while at the same time offering a chance for what seems real conversation, never pointless, although it may not get us anywhere. For myself, I'm happy just to listen to her.

Watusi Titanic[ Click to Order Deanovich's Watusi Titanic (soft $) ]     Another example of phony nostalgia would be the idea that the influence of New York School poetry can only extend to New York poets. Chicago area poet Connie Deanovich dismisses this idea with gentle but firm irony in her first full-length collection, Watusi Titanic. Deanovich's poems are generous and large-spirited, and while the world around her seems at times as claustrophobic as that of Tilt, Deanovich's poetry strives to find, and to create, a space where human interchange remains lively, like that of the bar scene that opens "Athletic Competition":

"There's a lot of glamour here tonight," Carnell said
And there was
The bar that on Tuesday held an urban softball team
on Saturday was the haunt of lesbians too glamorous
to throw the ball (21)

Deanovich's irony has a truly admirable ability to respond to, and accept, the foibles of others, while at the same time she is not willing to let serious limitations go unchecked. Thus, "Athletic Competition" is both large-spirited and critical, sentimental in a compelling way because it never avoids ugly realities, as the end of the poem shows:

I return from these
scenes of glamour
in name only
speckled with wisps
of glamourous mud from the Wheel of Fortune
status symbol of the dirt road
that leads to paths of glory (21)

One must understand, that is, that Deanovich calls "these scenes" glamourous only because they so obviously are not. But in so doing, she does uncover a life really being lived, despite the fact of its subjection to media notions of glory.

Watusi Titanic is full of the casual reflections on daily life that are the hallmark of the New York School, but here those reflections have been displaced to a Midwestern city obsessed with the White Sox and Cubs, family restaurants, and questions like whether it can have real punk rockers. Maybe, Deanovich muses in "Xylophone Luncheonette," it's time to move out to the highway:

We'll own this place
and paint a sign for I-90:
Free Coffee and Donut
to Honeymooners (30)

In the hands of a less subtle poet, these lines might read as typical urban mockery of country folk. But Deanovich's generosity shows up the limitations of such urban conventionality, while at the same time poking fun at white flight fantasies. By the time the poem reaches "You're my lucky penny/got me off the highway crew," Deanovich has done something more astonishing, which is to make even the worst urban snobs feel that perhaps the Xylophone Luncheonette offers something that their own lives don't--a chance to achieve with the help of others some measure of self-determination, however ironic and limited.

Ultimately, in poems like "The Clothes of the Sick and the Dead" and "Old Shawneetown Illinois 1810-1960," Deanovich reaches beyond a concern with the daily to incorporate a historical sense: "From the thrift store/we wear the clothes/of the sick and the dead" (66), "Because it once haughtily refused Chicago a loan because/it thought it too puny/ Shawneetown died" (72). But even these poems don't abandon her love for, and criticisms of dailiness; rather, the reader is always aware how history impacts the present moment, as immediately as one wears the clothes of someone who lived another life.

By the book's closing poem, "The Narrator," which leaves open the question of whether Deanovich herself is "a woman in a red blouse/blushing to have to admit my/glowing autumn moon/has left the large backyard" (75), Deanovich's insistence on dailiness has opened us to a world that is both wondrous and degrading, often at the same time. It is a world that can be, at turns, frighteningly closed and suddenly open.

Brenda Coultas' collection of formally innovative fictions, Early Films, seems like McCain and Deanovich to be influenced by the casually flat tone of New York School poetry, but also like them in wanting to use that tradition for new ends. Coultas also shares with Deanovich a concern for ordinary middle American folks. But where Deanovich treats her characters with generous irony, Early Films is gloriously vicious. This is not a book for the faint hearted. Indeed its concerns with pathology, murder, and all sorts of country bumpkin (and urban bumpkin) grotesquerie reminds me most, perversely, of the cheap thrills of a horror genre writer like Joe Lansdale.

In fact, Coultas can stay with Lansdale chop for chop in the realm of misogyny, racism, perverse sexualities, violence, and brutality. But where Lansdale does it for the titilation of a decidely white male audience that enjoys coming face to face with its own bankruptcy, Coultas reaches deeper, going for the heart of the perverse psychology that makes her stories seem ultimately not horror thrills but social realities, as in this incident from "Falcon":

Two girls named Polly and Molly went too far. They were found in
a drainage ditch. On their way home from a pj party, they met two
boys in a park, who drank beer and fucked them. The boys killed
Polly and Molly afterwards so they couldn't tell. A girl shouldn't
tell said all the girls in her group. No one should squeal on anyone. (21)

The irony here is that it isn't clear whether this particular anecdote, set off in italics from the rest of "Falcon," is meant, within the story, to be something that actually took place, or is simply a campfire horror tale told to reinforce misogynistic social norms as a way of keeping girls from having sex. In either case, the way the tale is told certainly has the function of reinforcing such norms, while at the same time indulging its listeners in the grotesque fantasy world such norms help create.

In such an environment, even mutually consenting sexuality becomes ambivalent at best, as in the one paragraph story "car," quoted here in full:

I got into a car with a stranger. He asked me to blow him. I
said, "Okay, for a Coke." This didn't seem strange to me at the
time even though what I really wanted was a Pepsi. (30)

Coultas provides no clue whether to read this narrator's experience as an attempt to achieve some sexual freedom, or as simply a further extension of the pathologically repression of sexual freedom. Perhaps it's both, perhaps neither; perhaps it's misguided even to give such a reading to a narrator who claims only to be thinking about soda.

The height of the carnage in Early Films comes from "basketball story," fourteen pages of gruesome anecdotes, all of them easily a match for the horrors in Lansdale's books like Mucho Mojo. Yet Coultas weaves such horrors in and out of a broader social landscape, the end result being the exposure of violently repressed social fantasies, rather than their indulgence.

Taken as a whole, the stories in Early Films raise a number of significant social questions. How does repression act on the human psyche? What consequences are there when a rural culture becomes a suburban one? What role does a film industry devoted to misogynistic violence play in structuring the fantasy life of Americans? Is there any sexuality in America not marred by violence? Yet to say that Coultas raises such questions by no means turns her into simply another moralist social critic. The wonder, duplicity, and impressive contradiction of her book is that, like Lansdale, she really is revelling in this stuff, while at the same time showing readers, unflinchingly, where all the ugliness comes from.

Guest Reviewer: Mark Wallace
This review previously appeared in The Washington Review.



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