Monday, October 15, 2007

Béla Tarr Has Feathered His Nest by Bradley Lastname

Béla Tarr Has Feathered His Nest
by Bradley Lastname
The Press of the 3rd Mind, 2007
64 pages
Reviewed by Eleanor Goodman

What is the purpose of poetry?

(...loud silence...)

An easier question: should poetry be a serious intellectual exercise, full of references to Homeric mythology and dense obscure terminology? Or should it be fun, ridiculous, a mirror of the modern condition in which stimuli comes howling in from all directions?

I have no answer, but Bradley Lastname does, and it is emphatic. Perhaps the title of his latest book, Béla Tarr Has Feathered His Nest, gives a clue as to which side of the argument Mr. Lastname subscribes. In fact, “Mr. Lastname” alone should be enough to make a guess.

These are poems in the loosest sense of the word, ranging from paragraphs of absurdist prose to a piece like “Pythagoras’ Recipe For No-Bean Chili,” which is, as far as I can tell, a recipe for no-bean chili. Do not read this book if you are hoping to find traditional verse. Do read it, however, if you have a sense of curiosity about how far a nonsensical premise can be pushed within the space of a page or two. And read it if you have a sense of humor and are open to moments of hilarity.

The piece “Classified Dossier on the Inflatable Floating Phrenology Head” begins with the refrain “You scare me, Mr. Inflatable Floating Phrenology Head.” I do not know what this means. Nor do I understand this stanza: “A secret Swiss safe deposit box houses a magic bone / that you obtained by boiling a live ferret, and this / bone enables you to fly through walls.” Still, every time I read the poem, I find myself laughing. If the mark of a work of art is that is produces an emotional response, then this is art.

Mr. Lastname understands language, and occasionally he manipulates it to produce something not only amusing, but surprising, and because of that surprise, illuminating. Here is the beginning of “Cliché Association Test” (the quotes in the text are the author’s):

“mind over matter” “empty your bladder”
“athletes with ringworm” “rappers with blingworm”
“the flies you catch with honey” “the crabs you douche with vinegar”
“sloppy second” “New York minute”
“yab*yum” “pond scum”
“crying over spilled milk” “dying over spilled mercury”
“assume vivid astro focus” “vivid astro focus, I presume?”
“Dr. Livingstoner, I assume?” “Dr. Deadsober, I consume!”

The move from the hilarious “rappers with blingworm” to the sobering “dying over spilled mercury” and later, the juxtaposition of “family size Ripple” with “fetal alcohol cripple,” demonstrates not only linguistic flexibility but emotional flexibility, which is no small accomplishment.

A piece that more resembles a poem, “Poem Written During a Commonwealth Edison Power Blackout” feels to me like a missed opportunity. Here it is, complete:

The rose in the vase on the kitchen table is still red in the dark.

The chessboard in the den is still checkered in the dark.

The throw rug on the living room floor is still paisley in the dark.

The sink handle in the bathroom is still chrome in the dark.

The ghost that haunts the foyer is still transparent in the dark.

The Ad Reinhardt painting on the wall is still black in the dark.

The stuffed 2-headed cow named Fluffernudder is still furry in the dark.

The premise is interesting: do objects change their physical attributes in the dark? Does seeing the object – like the old chestnut about a tree falling with no one to hear it – in some sense make the object real, or at least define its characteristics? Mr. Lastname’s details are wonderful, here and in other pieces, but the poems often do not resolve to a satisfying conclusion, a conclusion that contains more than the sum of the words. In Robert Frost’s oft-quoted dictum, a poem must begin in delight and end in wisdom. These pieces are full of delight, but to my eye, light in wisdom.

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