Wednesday, December 22, 2010

James Liddy, Fest City

Photographed above is James Liddy’s latest poetry collection, Fest City. It has just been published by Arlen House (launched last month in Dublin) and features cover artwork by Kyle Fitzpatrick (click on the photo to zoom in). It is also worth noting that it’s Liddy’s first posthumous collection. Because I wrote the Afterword for this book I’m not in a position to review it, exactly, but I will say that for me personally I think it is some of James’s best work.

My Afterword, titled “In James Liddy’s Country,” begins like this:
It’s been two years since James Liddy’s death. But with Fest City I return to Liddy’s country, as I often do through reading his work. Liddy’s country is a wondrously singular place. It is not Ireland, as much as it often resembles it, and it’s not America either, as much as it resembles the latter as well. But that’s one of the reasons why I like Liddy’s country so much – because it reminds me of these familiar places, and yet it’s something distinctly else. Liddy’s country is poetry. A poet has to make his own country. His country is self-created, or recreated, through the medium of poetry. To put it another way, the poet creates himself through poetry. I’m sure that something like this has been said before, but if ever there was a poet who exemplified this dynamic, it was Liddy. In fact, in many ways, his life and his poetry were virtually indistinguishable. Both his everyday speech and his written work, at least by the time I got to know him, seemed to me to occur on a similar plane; it all seemed to come from the same place, from his own country of poetry. His letters too were like poems, with gossip and tidbits of news included. And his poems sometimes read like letters (often they are addressed to particular people), delivered via the Muse from his mind to the page stamped with international postage....

To read the rest, but especially to read these great poems, do please order the book. It is available from Kenny’s Bookshop in Ireland, and distributed in the U.S. by Syracuse University Press.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Wasted Talent

From 1981-early 1984 I was in a hardcore punk band called Wasted Talent. Without going into the whole history here, we released a tape, a sort of cassette album, called Self Rule, in 1982. In 1983, three of the songs from that recording were included on the compilation album The Master Tape Vol. 2, released by Affirmation Records, a Midwestern label, in 1983.

Wasted Talent is mentioned a couple times in the American Hardcore book by Steven Blush, our symbol/logo (which I designed in my bedroom as a 16-year-old kid) is included in the flyleaf of the book, a flier drawn by my brother for a WT show is reproduced there, and the band is also represented in the American Hardcore film.

Writer of both American Hardcore projects, Steven Blush, has also put up a web page called 24 Hours of Hardcore, which includes streaming MP3s of a ton of hardcore bands (911 songs!), including Wasted Talent. Titles are listed alphabetically (though one can sort by title, band name, year, or album title). Scroll down to the song “Off to War,” and click the link to play. Tracks can also be downloaded.

A blog site called Noise Addiction has a brief history of the band and links to rare Wasted Talent recordings.

[Incidentally, American Hardcore incorrectly lists the band as being from Harrisburg, PA. In fact, WT was from State College, PA.]

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Irish Collapse: Sicíní Coming Home to Roost?

So the curtain has finally come down on Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” era. I lived in Ireland for a period that roughly corresponded with the worst excesses of its economic boom and witnessed the symptoms — property speculation, rising rents for smaller spaces, an obsession with mobile phones and the newest technological devices, and ridicule of anything that reminded one of Irish nationalism (conflated generally with the bad old days of Ireland before, say, the 1990s). I remember one Easter in the early 2000s, walking down the streets of Galway and overhearing two youths who had picked up a leaflet some group or other had had printed of the text of the Easter Proclamation. The two were reading it out loud to each other, but exaggeratedly and ironically: “...of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom....” Laughter ensued. I can’t say that I blamed these kids, who couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 at the time and who clearly had come of age in a society quite alienated from the ideals of the 1916 Easter Rising, a society concerned more about car payments and holiday homes than history and independence struggles. But it did serve to provide a stark example in my mind of where Ireland was at at that point in time.

Interesting then to note that, as Ireland’s present-day ruling class and its bankers have driven the country’s economy into the ground and have in essence sold its sovereignty off to the IMF and the European Central Bank, The Irish Times would suddenly gesture toward the language of patriotism, 1916, and of Irish republicanism in a recent editorial titled “Was It For This?” (Nov. 18):
IT MAY seem strange to some that The Irish Times would ask whether this is what the men of 1916 died for: a bailout from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side. There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Their representatives ride into Merrion Street today.

[...] A nation’s independence is defined by the choices it can make for itself.

Irish history makes the loss of that sense of choice all the more shameful. The desire to be a sovereign people runs like a seam through all the struggles of the last 200 years. “Self-determination” is a phrase that echoes from the United Irishmen to the Belfast Agreement. It continues to have a genuine resonance for most Irish people today.

The true ignominy of our current situation is not that our sovereignty has been taken away from us, it is that we ourselves have squandered it. Let us not seek to assuage our sense of shame in the comforting illusion that powerful nations in Europe are conspiring to become our masters. We are, after all, no great prize for any would-be overlord now. No rational European would willingly take on the task of cleaning up the mess we have made. It is the incompetence of the governments we ourselves elected that has so deeply compromised our capacity to make our own decisions....
There are a few things I would observe about this. For one, yes it does seem a bit strange. The Irish Times, similarly to most newspapers, of course has its own agenda and republicanism is not usually part of it. Though I have always considered The Irish Times the Irish newspaper of record, something like the New York Times, it has always seemed to me fairly anti-republican, in fact, and very D4 upper middle class. Nonetheless, this editorial pretty much hits the nail on the head, I have to say, even though it’s about 15 years too late. Ireland has indeed been sold out, but I don’t recall the IT being quite so vocal in its patriotism when, for example, the government twice re-ran referendums on European Union integration treaties when it didn’t like the initial “No” results.

Irish Times columnist John Waters responded to his employers’ apparent hypocrisy with a piece called “No Use Whining or Talking about the GPO Now” (Nov. 19):
Emerging from the mists of the 1950s, and finding ourselves with an undeveloped economy and no clue how to make it function, we decided to sell off our natural resources and bits of our sovereignty in return for folding stuff. Then we hit on the idea of offering Ireland to the multinational industrial sector as a cheap location in which to operate, no questions asked, which meant that our people could be provided with jobs without any expenditure of indigenous effort. Then we joined the euro and thought it no more than our due when Ireland was flooded with German money looking to turn a trick.

Surrendering all levers and mechanisms by which we might have continued to exercise control over our own collective destiny, we lay back and subjected ourselves to the whim of world capitalism.

Now the casino has collapsed on top of us, why should we be surprised, still less embarrassed? When you place your fortunes in the hands of transnational gamblers, you should expect to see stars every once in a while.

The point is this: we are not the masters of our own destiny and have not been for many years. That’s how we wanted it. It is a bit rich, if I may use that term in this rather inapposite context, for those who led the charge to have us give away everything true and useful about ourselves to now be whining about the loss of sovereignty.

When you have conditioned people for years to turn their backs on the past and think and speak only about “Ireland Inc”, it might be wiser and more edifying to say nothing about the GPO.
Good point. And as someone who has myself spoken out over the years in my own humble way against the course Ireland has taken, I reserve the right to do so again, even if it entails reviving some degree of contrast with earlier history. Not that anyone would really have had reason to listen to me, an unknown poet, but back in 1998, I wrote a letter to the same Irish Times, which attacked “this age of encroaching European blandness.” I noted that Ireland was in some ways still dealing with the effects of British colonization and rhetorically asked whether the country was now “really going to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire of EU hegemony” in a vain attempt to demonstrate what I felt to be a mixed-up notion of “self-confidence.” I say it was a rhetorical question because clearly the answer was already yes. My letter then went on to bemoan Ireland’s plan to join the euro: “Isn’t anyone bothered that we’ll be giving up that particular Irish sensibility that sees fit to put animals like the horse, the salmon, and the bull on the country’s coins in exchange for utterly characterless maps of Europe?”

Though my concerns in this most likely glanced-at-then-quickly-forgotten letter were partly articulated in the realm of aesthetics, and infused with an obvious cultural-nationalist perspective, I sensed that what Waters speaks about in his more recent column would probably come to pass. Nationalism has no intrinsic value for its own sake I now realize, but arises in response to political, cultural, and/or economic oppression by outside forces. It can be a quite powerful bulwark against said forces. (This is not to say that I no longer see inherent value in Irish culture, language, and so forth, because obviously I do.) Only now have those forces become apparent to The Irish Times, it seems, in this new context of sudden economic collapse, as the IMF’s and the ECB’s “representatives ride into Merrion Street.” But I would suggest that in Ireland such forces had never truly disappeared, and as the IT correctly observes, inhabit the minds of Ireland’s own native ruling class and probably certain sections of its people. They are not only outside, but in.

I have long thought that Ireland is still going through a series of phases in response to its former colonization. During the period of 1916-1922, after hundreds of years of exploitation and cultural disembowelment, it asserted and gained its political independence. The nationalism that was theretofore valid and inspiring began to ring hollow when Ireland quickly became an economic backwater and was essentially raising its children for emigration. Suddenly by the 90s, through some rather dubious strategies (as Waters succinctly describes above), Ireland became the “Celtic Tiger” and the country was transformed into a bastion of nouveau riche who shallowly imagined that a few years of success could erase everything. It was always inevitable, I thought, that there would be a shocking return to hard times, and that perhaps this would force people to reassess, and maybe then would Ireland finally be itself having weathered this new turn. Something like thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

Well, whatever about such grander theories. The immediate problem now is that Ireland is pretty much screwed for a while. It has been pimped out to German banks and to the EU. Instead of punishing the property speculators, the bankers, or the people who secretly made the decisions which got the country into this situation to begin with, it is the average person who will now have to suffer in the government’s soon-to-be-imposed austerity measures, which seem likely to include deep cuts in health care, social welfare, the minimum wage, etc. That is, if the government lasts that long. It looks like it will be brought down sooner than expected. But then what? Fianna Fáil obviously deserves to be voted out, if not run out, of office, but its inevitable replacement of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition won’t be any better. Fine Gael is simply Fianna Fáil Lite, and they have had their own corrupt politicians over the years, their own cronyism. Labour long ago ceased being the party of Connolly and Larkin and have in recent decades been nothing more than a prop to one or the other of the two big Civil War parties.

It can only be hoped that the anger and resentment the Irish people currently feel will somehow evolve into a new politics, perhaps elevating one of the smaller parties — Sinn Féin, perhaps — into contention. Or perhaps some completely new party or movement can yet spring up. If Sinn Féin is in the mix, though, they cannot continue to rehearse their previous platforms which have worked in the North (as sympathetic as I have been to them) if they want to make a difference in the Republic. The old opponents have morphed. They are no longer an easily, politically identifiable British Empire, but instead, as they are the world over, the shadowy forces of uncontrolled corporate greed which operate both extra-nationally and indigenously. The recent protests were good to see, however, in an Ireland which has been asleep for far too long.

When you cede control of your monetary policy to the EU, you become prey to the more powerful forces that control it, and this is exactly what we’re witnessing now. Not that Ireland should cut its EU ties, and it’s probably true that a small country like Ireland cannot go it completely alone, but it's worth observing that the country became economically successful while the punt was still in existence. The euro is not necessary. The present economic model of the EU has shown to be wanting, and it was a lie that countries would have to give up sovereignty in exchange for economic certainty. Ireland did all of that, and this disaster has happened anyway. In light of this, the economist Paul Krugman has briefly laid out a possible scenario for exit from the euro:
I used to be a full believer in the Eichengreen theory of euro irreversibility, which said that no nation could even discuss leaving the euro, because it would lead to the mother of all bank runs. But as I wrote in April,

But now I’m reconsidering, for a simple reason: the Eichengreen argument is a reason not to plan on leaving the euro — but what if the bank runs and financial crisis happen anyway? In that case the marginal cost of leaving falls dramatically, and in fact the decision may effectively be taken out of policymakers’ hands.
Krugman goes on to write that we’re not at “crisis-level yet. But the ghost of a possible ejection from the euro is starting to become visible.” This is apparently not an isolated opinion, as Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has today noted, “It’s our common currency that’s at stake.” Only time will tell if such a thing might happen, but for Ireland, things are pretty bad. I guess, though, it would ring hollow for me to invoke the spirit of 1916 since The Irish Times has already beaten me to it, or even as a poet to say that Yeats would be rolling over in his grave or something — because this is a new situation, a unique point in history and time. But it sure appears that the chickens and the stylized Celtic birds which used to grace the old 1-pingin coins may finally be coming home to roost.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pharoah Sanders live!

Caught the Pharoah Sanders show at the August Wilson Center last week (Nov. 13), and how really great it was. I was surprised firstly by how bop-focused it was. While my sense of Sanders is overwhelmingly tied to his late 60s and early 70s free-jazz work on Impulse! (and also from his intense free stuff with Coltrane in the mid-60s), his bop sensibility on the night was impeccable. I know this is not news to anyone who has followed his post-Impulse! career. That’s not my favorite period of his career, but this performance maybe made me rethink Sanders a little bit. Pharoah’s band, consisting of his touring pianist William Henderson along with the Pittsburgh rhythm section of Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Roger Humphries (drums) and George Jones (congas), held it down solid, and I suspect their own bop sensibilities at least fed into (if not drove) the vibe. I say this partly because, in the advance article in the City Paper, Pharoah suggested that he would go with the flow of his band: “We’ll just get together and start playing....I might just call a key: F-sharp minor, and that’s it. Everybody just blows. It’ll always be right.” So I initially expected the set to be freer, more spontaneous. Instead it was very directed and very much in the bop mode, and it only makes sense that Sanders would play to the band’s strengths.

I was surprised secondly also by how Coltrane-centric this set was (again, I probably shouldn’t have been, since Sanders has recorded late-period tributes to Coltrane). The band opened with a marathon version of “My Favorite Things” (at one point, I thought, incorporating the theme of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” which resembles it in a way) and finally closed, as an encore, with “Giant Steps.” Henderson’s piano-playing was often reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, utilizing his signature block chords throughout most of the evening. That said, there were also some quite original progressions on his part, Monk-like in their mathematicality, but in what I guess I should call even a Henderson-like mode. Broadly speaking, though, this was very Coltrane Quartet of the early 60s — bop structures but with free, exploratory solos.

Pharoah himself was not quite as guttural or shrieking as in his earlier days. But the tone of his tenor is so uniquely his own, and that in itself was what was revelatory about the show, to hear it live, in front of you, rather than the ultra-intense bursts of energy contained on albums such as Tauhid, Jewels of Thought, Izipho Zam, Black Unity, or Village of the Pharoahs. Those bursts were still there in this set, however, from time to time. Pharoah would occasionally toss them out, or alternatively work up to a certain level, where, it seemed to me because he is so immensely talented and skilled, he can just let go and let the spirit move him (so to speak) to heights of beauty. Equally beautiful were those rare moments of squawk or overblown notes. Pharoah has always been so good at playing overblown notes that he can even play them melodically. At a couple of points in the set, also, he stopped blowing into his horn but continued to work the keys, allowing the air that was inside to be moved around by them, finally producing a quiet but unmistakable feedback-like sound. It was an inspired stroke, almost as if he was saying that he himself was but a vehicle for something else, the music, which is in the breath of life, existing on another level, actually outside of the person, occasionally allowing itself to be directed, though, and brought out into our world.

At age 70, Pharoah seemed to tire at times and would wander off-stage to take a break while the band did their thing(s). Well, who can fault him? But it was always a great moment of anticipation fulfilled when he’d walk back out, tenor at the ready, to renewed applause from the audience, and begin playing again. While the backing band was great, it was Pharoah we had all come to see. In the second half of the set, he once or twice stopped playing to dance around and dig his musicians, and the crowd would urge him on, some yelling, “Go Pharoah, go Pharoah!” And then he’d move back to his spot and blow some more. This was what it was like to hear and to see the greatest living tenor player. Perhaps Archie Shepp is a close second, but that accolade has to go to Pharoah Sanders now, and this show was proof.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Begnal Poem at Dark Sky

I have a poem titled “Dear _____,” online at the site of Dark Sky Magazine and Books. I really like this journal/publisher/blog and so am very pleased to appear there. Many thanks to them. And do go check it out, maybe leave a comment, etc.

Monday, October 25, 2010

David Stone, The Bloodhound Works

I’ve written a lot about David Stone’s work already (see here, here, and here), but I just received his newest chapbook in the mail, and it is another great installment in the corpus of one of our most original poets. The Bloodhound Works (published by Propaganda Press/Alternating Current) is subtitled “Selected Poems 2009,” and marks Stone’s response the present economic upheaval the world seems to be undergoing. While his bio at the end of this 4¼ x 5½” pamphlet states that Stone “lives on some scraps from the financial crisis,” many of the poems themselves evoke it: “Bus passengers/ crashed in orbit./ Marauders and pirates/ scanned the premises of hell./ The bloodhound/ found the trail/ of body parts/ and blood/ in lit streets/ and open fields/ and demanded food/ on the diner/ parking lot” (“The Bloodhound’s Work”).

Thursday, October 07, 2010


A poem of mine titled “Dithyramb” now appears at Todd Swift’s online journal/blog site Eyewear. Read it here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Today is John Coltrane’s birthday —

we mythologize and love our heroes
and propagate their images,
quantum leaps of evolution —

The best musicians, writers, artists for me are the ones who, either steadily over time but perhaps in radical bursts, change their style or approach, each work in part an attempt to surpass the previous. If you’re just going to be content to repeat the same old thing over and over, what’s the point.

For me, Coltrane exemplifies the artist who strives to surpass himself. It was no accident that one of his albums was titled Giant Steps. Call it arrogance, or call it the truth. In actuality, Coltrane from what I can tell was greatly humbled before the gift of his own talent, and felt it was his duty to explore it to the furthest extent possible. Sometimes that meant disappointing or exasperating fans, but for those who were willing or able to go along with him....

Coltrane, in this regard, has an analogue in Joyce — each of his works was a radical advance on what came before — each great in its own right, but compare the style of Dubliners to Finnegans Wake. Compare Blue Train to A Love Supreme to Live in Seattle — each great, but representative of the time and of the artist at a particular stage in his development. The only constant is change, and in that regard the art reflects life.

There are some who see staying the same as some kind of virtue, wanting to remain the same as long as possible, who therefore look to the past and wish to live in the past as a refuge. While I think there must always be some kind of core sense of who one is which is carried forward (and yes there are also great artists who do one thing all the time and do it really well, such as the Ramones or Charles Bukowski), the inability to evolve to me means a kind of death.

Death means things are fixed finally in time and that there are no more possibilities, no hope of the future. Coltrane is dead, but what he and his art represent — life and its concomitant change, the possibility of striking away what is stale and stultifying and taking up new and further explorations, the progression of the same artist only in a different form —

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

2 Poems in Poets for Living Waters

Poets for Living Waters, edited by Amy King and Heidi Lynn Staples, is “a poetry action in response to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico begun on April 20, 2010, one of the most profound human-made ecological catastrophes in history.” Its site states that, beyond its current Web existence, a print anthology is also planned.

I am pleased to have two poems now online as part of this very worthwhile project. The poems are titled “Yellow Wave” and “The Black Gulf.” I was also asked to contribute a “Statement,” which came out as a third poem of sorts, a short, manifesto-like prose-poem perhaps.

It’s satisfying to note the high quality of the other work appearing on the site as well, most of which is cutting-edge, progressive, and veers away from the maudlin or hysterical hand-wringing that one might perhaps expect from lesser editors. Not that people shouldn’t be angry about the spill itself (they should), but what I mean is that there’s some really good, and often experimental, poetry here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poem in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A poem of mine titled “Submerged Town Reappears” is published in today’s edition of Pittsburgh’s newspaper of record, the Post-Gazette. It appears in both the print and online versions of the paper.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers

Harmony Korine’s latest film, Trash Humpers (2009), is one of his best, and is his most experimental and non-linear work yet. Its setting is similar to that of his earlier film Gummo (1997) — American waste — but is even more extreme and crazier. I suppose “setting” is a questionable term in this case, as Trash Humpers is barely scripted if at all (apparently some segments were loosely scripted, but most of it was improvised). The filming took place in Korine’s native Nashville, in its back alleys and abandoned parking lots, highway service roads and overgrown backyards. It depicts three people, sometimes four, two to three men and a woman, in old-people’s masks or make-up, who go around doing just what the film’s title implies — simulating sex with garbage cans, dumpsters, and other objects, sometimes fellating tree branches or plants. When not involved in this, they smash objects like cinder blocks, tv sets, and fluorescent lights while drinking bottles of cheap wine. But don’t make the mistake of looking for a “story.” There is none. Part of Korine’s brilliance is his having freed himself from the tyranny of linear narrative. There are recurring elements, motifs, but thankfully no story (not that story can’t be done well, but here it would inevitably be hokey). In this regard, Trash Humpers as an abstract film evokes life more faithfully than any conventional film can. It is a series of unrelated events connected by nothing more than the chronology in which they have occurred. From what I have read, the scenes as we see them are presented in the order they were filmed. Perhaps, though, the mere presentation of these random scenes can be said to create a kind of narrative in itself. If so, so be it. At least it is organic and, dare I use this word, real.

Certain scenes verge on disturbing. The characters take a hammer to a baby doll’s face, repeatedly, or drag it behind a bicycle. It sounds innocuous enough, tacky even, but through the repetition of these scenes an odd sense of pathos begins to develop for the doll, which is heightened by the later introduction of a real human baby. In another scene, shot in a room of a house, a kidnapped man is killed in a very realistic-looking manner. These are not necessarily nice people (nor were the kids in Gummo). But in their seeming nihilism, there is meaning to be found. I hesitate to make this an essay on the meaning of the film, because I think the meaning is supposed to be, at least according to Korine, secondary to his filmic concerns. As with the films of David Lynch (who also tends to deny any underlying meaning in his work), though, it is there. It has to do with being an outsider in American society, being excluded from it, as one of the characters articulates towards the end of the film, asserting that most people would envy the freedom their lifestyle bestows because their own lives are mundane and predictable. (Ironically, ironically, however, the character who posits this is wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt.) In all this Trash Humpers is vaguely reminiscent of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), both of which also depict small but tightly-knit groups of people who reject societal mores by acting in their own particularly bizarre ways — but who are ultimately seen to be flawed people.

Korine himself has said the following about the characters in Trash Humpers: “It’s kind of like an ode to vandalism. There can be a creative beauty in their mayhem and destruction. You could say these characters are poets or mystics of mayhem and murder, bubbling up to the surface. They do horrible things, but I never viewed them as sad characters. They’re comedic, with a vaudevillian horror element to what they do. They dance as they smash things and set them on fire. They’re having a great time.” And it’s true. There’s a great and satisfying sound when the fluorescent bulbs explode, when the cinder blocks hit the tarmac, when the firecrackers are set off. There’s a visceral, unsettling effect to the shrieks added to the soundtrack, to the roughly-cut videotape on which the film was made. Korine’s medium here, video, is a critical element. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the film that it is if it wasn’t filmed/cut on video. In many ways it has the feel of contemporary home-shot video escapades made famous by tv shows such as Jackass. But beyond that, the video itself adds an aesthetic aspect that takes Trash Humpers to a whole other, lyrical level. Just as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) was deliberately shot on expired film stock, Korine’s medium here is crucial. Streetlights burn their light into the videotape like midnight suns. The strange flowing water in an industrial yard reflects clouds and sky in an unexpectedly heightened dream-like manner that almost seems counter to the cold, clear expectations that video implies.

Well, let me get to the point. As a statement, this is one of the best avant-garde films of our era, and possibly all time. Korine is our most ambitious director, our most experimental. Lynch has to be considered here too. But what sets him apart — this point John Menesini recently made to me — is that Korine is the quintessential American director. Not quintessentially American in the sense of Walt Whitman, but I would suggest more in the sense of William Carlos William (“The pure products of America/ go crazy—”). In the conversation with Menesini, I countered by saying, But Lynch’s themes are also quintessentially American. John said, Yeah but there’s something European in his technique; and I guess he’s right; Lynch is a descendent of surrealism. I love surrealism, but okay, that gives him a European influence. Nothing wrong with that (and maybe there’s even a kind of surrealism in Trash Humpers too?), but it leaves Korine as the one who is probably more naturally immersed in the American idiom. Korine’s America, though, is (almost) at a dead end. These characters are people with nothing much that is positive or generative to offer (the real baby that appears later in the film is stolen/kidnapped; old people humping trashcans is the antithesis of sex). Where Williams ultimately sees some kind of ongoing potential in the American people, Korine seems to be suggesting that America has become the wasteland (to continue the poetic metaphor, the wasteland of T. S. Eliot) that Williams rejected (in, for example, “Spring and All”). But Korine is not his characters, and I think the ultimate statement of Trash Humpers is that there is unexpected beauty and art in the overlooked back places of America, and that it takes a filmmaker like to Korine (or a poet like Williams) to find it. And is there not something generative and life-affirming in the act, in the improvisation? In a kind of filmic destruction which has imbedded in it the potential for subsequent new creation?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Jandek (Pittsburgh Thursday)

On Thursday, August 5th, Jandek played a show in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It was a good venue for a show — an outdoor patio enclosed by a tent-like structure. I have now seen Jandek twice (and have written about the other show here). For an ostensibly reclusive musician, he actually plays out relatively often now. I suppose he has had to wrestle with the opposing concerns of maintaining his personal privacy and getting his music out to a live audience. I think it is possible to strike that balance, and from what I could tell the Pittsburgh crowd mostly left him alone. When he finally exited the stage after playing for two-and-a-half hours, there were no autograph hounds, no groupies rushing up to meet him. The kind of person who would go to see Jandek knows what he is like, and hopefully respects the fact that he doesn’t want to be bothered.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Before the music started, I was in line to buy drink tickets and overheard one local fan remark to another, “I never thought this day would come.” There was real appreciation of this show. There was also a something of a “scene” element to the crowd — every “outsider” music fan in Pittsburgh must have been in attendance — still, there was a range of different people there too, including also poets, aging revolutionaries, a couple of children, parents, fellow musicians, artists (one woman, wearing a large bow tie, was later to be observed sketching the band as they performed), and perhaps a few curious onlookers. All of this being said, it was not quite a capacity crowd, which meant that there was a comfortable lack of jostling or jockeying for position closer to the stage.

Jandek suddenly took the stage, walking through the crowd, at about 8:15 PM. Whereas he played guitar when I saw him last year, this time he played keyboards. The backing band consisted of Pittsburgh musicians Dean Cercone on guitar and percussion, Spat Cannon on upright bass, and Andrew McKeon on drums. The quartet opened with an instrumental, and there seemed to be some concern about whether Jandek would sing or not. After this intro, though, Jandek intoned lyrics to every piece. He does not sing per se, but rather reads in an idiosyncratic manner over (and in complement to) the music. The subject matter seemed largely to deal with the ways in which people alienate and are alienated from each other in contemporary society.

Musically, I would describe this performance as ambient, but not in an electronic sense. Yes, Jandek’s keyboards occasionally had a synthesizer sound, but mostly they sounded like an analog piano or sometimes an electric organ. Spat Cannon’s bass, as previously mentioned, was the big old-fashioned upright instrument and hinted at jazz. McKeon used brushes (and their wooden nub-ends) on the drums. Cercone’s guitar playing — often executed with a drumstick — reminded me at times of Thurston Moore’s, though this is possibly a superficial observation. The sound was generally atonal — the band seemed to play in response to each other rather than together (which I do not mean as a criticism), but occasionally there were convergences. At one brilliant point, Cercone suddenly matched the note of Jandek’s held, off-kilter vocal with his guitar. Cannon occasionally fell into a hypnotic, rhythmic bass figure, which Jandek would briefly entrain with. But overall the sound was jagged and disjointed, which accorded well with Jandek’s words. After a whole two-and-a-half hours of such improvisations, Jandek unceremoniously began to pack up his things and walked off the stage, back out through the crowd, to the musicians’ rooms somewhere downstairs in the Arts Center building.

The show was organized by the novelist, poet, and publisher of Six Gallery Press, Che Elias. Pulling off the unwieldy event was a small triumph on his part, and at one point, not long into the set, while there was still some daylight and before the colored lanterns hanging from the ceiling of the tent were turned on, I observed this image: The sun had started to go down and hung low on the horizon; it had suddenly become visible (but for only a few minutes) at a long angle through a window flap to my left, bright red-orange so low you could look upon it and not have to avert your eyes in pain or blindness; it was this brilliant bright glowing pre-twilight red orb, glowing right above Che’s head as he stood there momentarily rapt in this music of Jandek which he had helped to bring to this place and point in time. For me, the image sums up the feeling of the night.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Philip Lamantia

Above, a poem by Philip Lamantia. “Memoria,” from Semina 3, 1958. Source:

Lamantia’s selected poems is Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems, 1943-1993 (City Lights, 1997).

Some more Lamantia poems here, and some other writings (including poems) here. But his very best poems (at least the best ones in my opinion) don’t seem to be online.

Lamantia is commonly categorized as both a Beat and a Surrealist, with good reason (published in View and by André Breton in VVV at age 16; took part in the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955). But these categories don’t matter so much as whether his poems are any good, and what they’re like, and what it’s like to read them. Titles of Lamantia poems can perhaps suggest what he’s like: “Man Is in Pain,” “In a Grove,” “Hypodermic Light,” “The Ancients Have Returned Among Us,” “Interior Suck of the Night,” “Isn’t Poetry the Dream of Weapons?” Isn’t it?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

BP: Wanted for Murder?

The BP oil disaster goes on, and so too does the consequential mass killing of animals caught up in this. It is to be hoped that the lawsuit against BP by Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center will be successful. They are taking the suit on the basis that the Endangered Species Act prohibits the harming of endangered animals. And, clearly, BP’s actions have harmed many.

While the suit is inherently bound by current law, I would like to suggest that on the ethical level, BP may perhaps be guilty of murder. While current law does not recognize an animal as a person (and therefore does not recognize the killing of animals as murder), the day may not be too far off when it does. In 2008, for example, a Spanish parliamentary committee agreed that the rights of life and freedom should be extended to great apes. More recently, and more directly related to the Gulf disaster, in January of this year a team of scientists declared that dolphins are second in intelligence only to humans and have called for them to be treated as “non-human persons.” Dolphins and other whales are now known to have a cognitive sense of themselves as individuals, to have complex social structures and culture — they can teach each other new innovations and skills — and, importantly, to have the capacity of language. The time has come for us to realize that we don’t have the right to slaughter creatures such as the dolphin simply because we are “people” and they are “animals.”

Let’s not forget that this disaster resulted first in the deaths of 11 crewmen, in the initial BP-leased Transocean oil rig explosion. It remains to be seen whether BP will ultimately even be held responsible for their deaths in any way. So the idea that they might legally be considered murderers for the deaths of the countless dolphins, sea turtles, sea birds, and other animals that are dying due to the pollution of their environment is far-fetched at this point in time. But when, for example, the Love Canal disaster unfolded, the responsible companies (Hooker Chemical and Occidental Petroleum) were eventually sued by the EPA and also settled numerous residents’ lawsuits. Certainly something like this will have to happen in the case of this BP Gulf oil disaster (prosecutions, hopefully). And perhaps, sometime in the foreseeable future, we will also come to view this situation for what it really is.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Begnal in London’s Poetry Library

My poem “Silver Ghosts” is Poem of the Week at the site of Britain’s Poetry Library/Southbank Centre in London. That poem and two others are archived in the Poetry Library (“free access site to the full-text digital library of 20th and 21st century UK poetry magazines from the Poetry Library collection”) with the journal Iota. The poem is linked right on their homepage through Sunday. It can also be accessed directly here. Check it out....

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Blue Canary 17

Blue Canary 17, possibly the last issue of the Blue Canary, is out now. It is a tribute issue to James Liddy, the great Irish and Milwaukeean poet who died in late 2008. Editor Jeff Becker explains, partly humorously, that he published this issue for the fun of proving James wrong (James had told him, “When I’m gone, there won’t be any more Blue Canarys”). The front cover features a photo of Liddy (very similar to the one shown here) on Kilpatrick Strand, Co. Wexford, 1996. The back cover has one of him a child, circa 1944, and there are a couple other interesting photos in there as well. But of course it is the poetry and the prose reminiscences that make this essential for anyone who knew Liddy or who has read his work. The editor has arranged these pieces quite interestingly, I see, so that there seems to a progression or a linking of themes throughout the issue. For example, a poem by Liddy himself notes that “Jesus’s commands bring up the question: seduction and conversion merge” — and then several pages later in the magazine there is a cartoon by Bill Meyer depicting Jesus and James in bed together in heaven, post-coitus (yes, really). Fr. Ronald Crewe’s religiously-minded piece notes that Liddy, though a Catholic, “was not perfect,” and then immediately following is Paul Vogel’s portrait of Liddy’s less-than-perfect side (which I will only say is hilarious reading). It is editorial acumen like this that makes this Blue Canary so good. If it were merely a drab, respectful encomium, then it would really not do Liddy justice. (None of which is to say that any one contribution undermines the other, as Liddy was a multi-faceted person, as most of us are.) The journal, like James himself, will be missed. To obtain a copy, I recommend contacting Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Stooges (some thoughts on three recent releases)

The question of which band is the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time has perplexed humankind almost since the invention of the form itself. While a quite convincing case could be made for the Rolling Stones, for me there has never been any doubt — the Stooges are the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time. For many years, though, they have existed strictly as an underground phenomenon (the original group having disbanded in 1971, and the reformed group in 1974), despite Iggy Pop’s later fame. So in a way it’s been weird to see all the recent Stooges activity, the reunion, the re-releases, the demos and live shows being given the official treatment, their acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Weird, but good for them, and good for Stooges fans that more of their work has been made available.

The 2010 Rhino Handmade Collector’s Edition of the first album, The Stooges (1969), is notable primarily for the inclusion of the track “Asthma Attack,” which has never been available up to now. It brilliantly exemplifies the Stooges’ free jazz side, which came to the fore on their next album, Fun House (1970). In fact it is very similar to “L.A. Blues.” Some may see the noise jam as an inferior form, a throwaway cut on an album, but I think “Asthma Attack” is a great piece of music, and while it sets a tone for things to come, it also harks to what the band sounded like before they got a record contract and decided to write some actual songs. The vocals on “Asthma Attack” consist of the word “Tonight” sung several times, followed by a coughing evocation of a real asthma attack, followed at various points later by Iggy improvising (he always was an amazing improviser of lyrics). At times toward the second half of the piece, Ron Asheton’s guitar recalls Sonny Sharrock, who played on Pharoah Sanders’s Tauhid album, which Iggy has noted as an influence on the group. It would have been really interesting if The Stooges included “Asthma Attack” as its closing track, à la the sequencing of Fun House.

In fact, it would also have been interesting if the album had used the full uncut versions of the songs, some of which are included here, instead of the more familiar shortened and faded-out versions. “Ann,” for example, continues for about twice as long as the faded-out version on the original album. There’s a version of “We Will Fall” here which also continues on a bit further, with some extra flourishes of John Cale’s guest viola, and other nice tidbits such as outtakes of “Real Cool Time” and “Little Doll.” But all of that said, this Rhino package leaves something to be desired. For example, the versions of the John Cale mixes are slow. For some inexplicable reason, Rhino decided not to speed-correct these tracks, as they did do for the ones included on their 2005 re-release, and that is a serious mistake. I’m not a huge fan of the Cale mixes (the guitars are too low, and while the echo on Iggy’s vocals is interesting, it all comes off as Cale’s attempt to make the band sound more arty and less brutal), but not rendering them at the proper speed makes their inclusion here almost worthless. The vinyl 7” version of “Asthma Attack” is a nice touch, but since the track had to be split onto two sides, who’s going to actually listen to it over the intact CD version? This is still a must-have because of “Asthma Attack,” but something of a lost opportunity in other respects.

Last year, Easy Action released You Want My Action, which contains the only known recordings of the Stooges in 1971. These four very similar live shows (including the two now-famous Electric Circus shows in New York City) display some of their best material ever, in my opinion, and it makes the fact that they were dropped by Elektra Records before they could make a studio album of it all the more a travesty, and a tragedy. The 1971 version of the band is truly a missing link, including both Ron Asheton and James Williamson on dual guitars. The set’s opening song, “I Got a Right,” was later recorded as a demo when the reformed band was rehearsing for the Raw Power album in 1972. But these 1971 songs sound amazing. They are violent and aggressive like all of their material, but also have some of the groove of Fun House. “You Don’t Want My Name” and “Fresh Rag” are mid-tempo songs and with a garage-rock feel over which Ron and James lay down some blistering guitar solos. “Dead Body/Who Do You Love?” is somewhat slower and is perhaps reminiscent of the song “Dirt,” being based on a single repeated bass riff. “Big Time Bum” takes it back to a faster metallic vibe, and then the band moves into “Do You Want My Love?” which, with its intensity of guitar playing and feedback, almost achieves something of an industrial feel — but with a chugging rock’n’roll beat underneath it.

Because of the extremely low-fi nature of these 1971 recordings I have found that the best way to listen to them is turned up loud on computer speakers, with your head right between the two speakers. This almost makes it seem like you are there and somehow gives more separation between the two guitars. The vocals are, unfortunately, often less audible and buried in sludge. Still another reminder of the loss, the fact that these songs were not properly recorded before the band imploded right after this tour. The album that they could have made in 1971, and which I envision in my mind, would have been a masterpiece. You Want My Action at least gives a big hint at what could have been.

This year, Legacy Recordings released a repackaging of Raw Power (1973) which brings the album back to its original David Bowie mix, after the debacle of Iggy Pop’s 1997 remix (which I think pretty much sucked, and buried Williamson’s leads). That is Disc One. Disc Two is a live show from October 1973 recorded in Atlanta, here titled Georgia Peaches. There are lots of live recordings from 1973-74 out there, but this is indeed one of the better ones, both in terms of sound quality and playing. The opener, “Raw Power,” comes in sounding almost like a raw Velvet Underground track or something, and then the band plays “Head On” which was always one of my favorite Stooges songs from this era. Here it almost seems as if Scott Asheton is playing an all-snare-drum shuffle through the main riff (but I think it might actually be some kind of hiss that gives this impression), and Scott Thurston’s boogie-woogie piano adds a crazy aspect to it. Ron Asheton on bass drives everything forward, and Williamson’s guitar sounds heavy. Iggy is full of rage, and at the end of the song a girl in the audience is heard to say, “I don’t think he likes us!” Then we hear Iggy shouting at someone, “Hey you wanna get your little fucking face punched out, little cracker boy? Come up here! Come up here little [word unclear, ‘bitty’?] boy, I’m sick of your shit!” It’s similar to the atmosphere on Metallic K.O., but here there’s more of a sense of musical cohesion. One of Iggy’s improvised lyrics in “Gimme Danger” goes, “And if I gotta live in danger, just to live a real way, then I’ll break the law and die tomorrow, but I’ll live my way today.” This pretty much sums up the Stooges’ attitude, from day one on through to the end.

The bonus tracks on Disc Two are “Doojiman” (an outtake from the Raw Power sessions and essentially a single blues riff propelled by “1969”-like tom-toms and Iggy’s screaming and scatting), and a rehearsal tape of “Head On.” There is a deluxe version of the Raw Power package which includes a further disc of rarities, outtakes, and songs recorded only live or in rehearsals. I didn’t get the deluxe version, but I have much of the material on other discs, and it is worth having. Like the 1971 collection, it makes you wonder at what might have been. It’s too bad the Stooges weren’t able to record a follow-up to Raw Power before they broke up in early 1974. Their new material was great stuff, as this package demonstrates. The post-Stooges Iggy Pop and James Williamson album Kill City, which I hear is slated for its own re-release treatment soon, is great in its own way, but it’s not the album that could have been made with the Asheton brothers in 1973 or ’4.

Post-script: A couple of nights ago I sat in Kelly’s Bar drinking pints of beer (and at one point a Pimm’s Cup), and suddenly the bartender went over to his iPod and switched the song to the Stooges’ “1970” (from Fun House). Then immediately after hearing those initial Ron Asheton guitar chords, he turned it up some more, and it was loud. And it sounded good, the bass thick and heavy, the drums piercing. And “1970” is the song in which Steve MacKay’s tenor saxophone first appears, when his soloing starts and Iggy keeps yelling “Blow!” and things on the album suddenly get even crazier. It filled the bar, and it felt good to drink beer to, and I was reminded once again that listening to the Stooges is a good thing. It is always a good thing. And aren’t these moments what justify living?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

We Are All Dead Pelicans

The above photo could almost be beautiful, if we didn’t know what it is — a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This catastrophe continues to get worse and worse every second of every day, and now that it has emerged that the pipe is apparently ruptured underneath the seabed, it is likely that the gushing oil will simply continue to spew out indefinitely — for months, perhaps years — further destroying the ocean, the marshlands, the beaches, the animals that inhabit these environments, and the fishing and tourist industries of the regions affected. Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know how awful it is.

The question now is what to do about it. I am far, far from being an expert on this, but a few things seem clear. One is that, as a basic first step, offshore drilling has to be banned permanently. If this is not a wake-up call to the dangers of offshore drilling then I don’t know what is. Almost incredibly, though, we now have Republicans like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and disgraced Senator David Vitter calling for the immediate resumption of drilling. Other right-wing Republican figures such as Rand Paul and Sarah Palin, as well as “independent” billionaire Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, have actually come out in defense of the BP murderers. In the face of such an enormous and unfolding catastrophe, their stances would seem nothing short of insane. Sadly, they are not insane. Quite to the contrary, they know full well what they are doing and why. To them, corporate profits simply rank higher than any possible concern for environmental destruction, animal suffering, or lost livelihoods. Vitter and Jindal, for example, claim that they are motivated by the need to save jobs in Louisiana’s oil industry, yet seem to care very little for jobs in the fishing or tourist industries. Palin’s husband Todd Palin has actually worked for BP as a production operator. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here....

As always, it’s all about corporate interests. Can anyone really be surprised? No, but this shows how hard it really will be to accomplish any real change in regard to oil policy, even when we see so starkly the consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. It would be nice to think that, for example, a boycott of BP could be effective, and perhaps it is a good way to register one’s anger, but I suspect ultimately it will come to nothing. Remember how horrible the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska was (and still is to this day)? I remember hearing stories on the news of people cutting up their Exxon credit cards and boycotting Exxon, but that corporation is still going quite strong. A lot of people were angry about Shell Oil’s activities in Nigeria and its involvement in the execution of Ogoni anti-Shell activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, but none of the subsequent anti-Shell boycotts have really done anything to change things or to affect Shell’s massive profits.

As understandable and necessary as it is, boycotting only one oil company is short-sighted — those who drive cars will still have to buy their gas somewhere. All oil companies are just as bad as each other, and they’re all in cahoots, along with the Congress-people and government officials who enforce (or rather don’t enforce, as the ongoing BP mess is revealing) the regulation of the industry. President Obama initially seemed like a ray of hope with his touting of a clean energy bill and so forth, but before this BP thing he had come out in favor of off-shore drilling as a sop to the Right, and to the disappointment of many of his supporters. While Obama is clearly preferable as a president to any Republican one could currently imagine, his story is yet another demonstration of the virtual impossibility of effecting change through government, when government itself is in the back pocket of the industry causing all the damage in the first place.

So watching all these horrible pictures on the news of animals dying, of fouled beaches and marshes, while people like Jindal, Vitter, and Palin run around trying to defend big oil — well, things seem bleak to say the least. We can have no faith that even Obama will do much to change this fucked-up state of affairs. Real change will only come when enough people have made it known that they will not stand for it. It will only come when a critical mass of the people forces this country to change its energy policy, when we in a sense boycott all oil companies and change this economy from one dependent on oil to the green-energy economy that Obama pushed for as a candidate. That means there will be no quick solution to any of this, but rather an ongoing process of demonstrations, publicity, elections, more demonstrations. Thankfully there are some groups out there such as Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, and many others who have been proactive in this regard. In New Orleans, a group called the Krewe of Dead Pelicans has been organizing protests in response to the spill. More of this, much more, is needed. Or we may all end up like dead pelicans, in one way or another.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

“‘To Be an Irishman Too’: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection” in JSTOR

My article on Jack Kerouac and Ireland — “‘To Be an Irishman Too’: Jack Kerouac’s Irish Connection” — from the journal Studies, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Winter 2003), is available through the JSTOR academic database here.

An abstract from the Studies site describes the piece like this:

Jack Kerouac’s assumption into the literary canon in America may have taken longer, because he tended to be regarded as some sort of all-American rebel-without-a-cause. But the “all-American” epithet is simpliste. French-Canadian, Kerouac had Breton ancestors; these in turn hailed from another Celtic stronghold, Cornwall — and traced their own distant forebears to Ireland. (“Kerouac” may be a synonym of “Kerwick” or “Kervick” — Ó Ciarmhaic: “dark son”). The Celtic oral tradition (speculates one biographer) may have something to do with his natural storytelling ability and extraordinary powers of memory.

As one of the working-class settlers south of the Canadian border, Kerouac knew what it was to be marginalised and discriminated against — and any Irish heartstrings in him were struck by the similar plight of the U.S. descendants of Ireland's post-Famine immigrants. (He also identified with Mexicans and black Americans — experiencing themselves as an underclass).

Explicitly, Kerouac accords recognition to his Irish heritage in the matter of literary influence. He renders homage to Joyce — and (among the novels) actual instances are to be found of experimental wordplay, as well as of multiplicity of authorial voices. He also alludes to Yeats’s isle of Innisfree — casting Ireland in the role of a fount of creativity. (The hero of one of the novels applies similes from the Irish landscape to the girl he loves — a landscape which, in real life, Kerouac had only managed to admire from a passing ship).

Meeting him in New York, Brendan Behan had no doubt that here was a soul-mate. Kerouac's influence is felt in the work of contemporary Irish writer Colum McCann, and is openly acknowledged by Cathal Ó Searcaigh. James Liddy quotes Patrick Kavanagh as saying that “the only people in America that are alive are men like Jack Kerouac” — and comments: “Both Kavanagh and Kerouac have in their language the sparkle of epiphany”... So Kerouac would seem not only to have picked up some Irish echo from “way back”, but to have made it resonate anew in Irish sensibilities.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hunger (2008)

Steve McQueen’s film Hunger (2008) touches on some of the wider issues surrounding the hunger strikes by Irish republican prisoners of war in the H-Blocks in 1981, but focuses primarily on the figure of Bobby Sands, who was the C.O. on the blocks there, and who became one of the central figures in modern Irish republicanism. A brief recap of history is given at the beginning of the film. Republican prisoners are protesting for recognition of their political status and thus refuse to wear prison uniforms or do prison work like common criminals. McQueen employs excerpts of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s public proclamations that “crime is crime is crime” and so forth, and succeeds in making her sound ridiculous simply by letting her speak for herself, in her arrogant, slightly sarcastic tone. Ultimately it is Thatcher who stands behind all of the misery and the horror inflicted on the prisoners. She is like the ghost in the machine, the voice that informs the brutality of the H-Blocks, although it is the screws, the prison guards, who enact her will. It is this will that Bobby Sands will finally have to confront. Though he ended up dead, and Thatcher still lives, Sands has emerged in history as the true victor. And while McQueen is concerned to portray the common humanity of everyone involved in this conflict, he also clearly sees Sands as the film’s hero.

McQueen cleverly takes his time before we encounter Sands (played by Michael Fassbender). It is a non-linear approach (which made me think of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line somewhat). The opening scenes are of a screw (a prison guard) suffering the negative repercussions of the oppressor in an oppressing situation. He wants to pretend his life is normal — there is a scene of a breakfast, in painstakingly slow detail. But there is no conversation between the man and his wife, who serves him. Instead, in a moment of brilliance on McQueen’s part, our view is suddenly below the table (yes, we are now viewing the situation from the beneath the dining room table) where we witness some crumbs falling on the man’s lap. The clarity of the shot is shocking. Our perspective is off-kilter but clear. How else are we to view such a fucked-up situation? Something is not quite right here. The house is like a morgue, a dead environment; there is nothing to say. The action that occurs is below the level of human communication; crumbs fall silently. Upon leaving for “work,” the guard checks under his car for explosive devices, as many had to do at that time in the fractured society of the North of Ireland, Belfast, circa 1981. The wife looks worryingly from the window as he gets in and drives off to another day of torturing. Yet these people too are human beings — human beings in a society in conflict, who have consciously taken a side and a role in that conflict.

After the guard enters the Maze Prison (the H-Blocks), the point of view changes. Now we observe a republican prisoner by the name of Gillen being checked into the Maze. He is made to strip naked as two or three screws eye him almost, no not almost, salaciously. The process of undressing is painfully slow and deliberate. McQueen does not let us hurry through this. Being a prisoner of war, the man refuses to wear the uniform of a common criminal so is branded a “non-conforming” prisoner, is given a blanket (which will be his sole garment), and joins the no-wash blanket protest presently underway in the jail. The one and only moment of the film that seems a little off occurs when Gillen meets his cellmate, a long-haired, blanket-clad, fellow IRA man. For some reason, he is cold towards Gillen, when he probably would have been glad for the comradeship. And when the man speaks in Irish, Gillen seems confused, as if he’d never heard the language before. In actuality, even if he didn’t speak Irish fluently, he’d have been well aware of it from his school days and from the numerous Irish-speakers in the republican movement and the wider nationalist community. He would also have been well aware that the prisoners in the Maze spoke it as often as possible (and even conducted classes in it for those POWs who were still learning).

We can easily forgive McQueen this brief lapse. The bleak reality of life as an Irish republican prisoner throughout Hunger is portrayed with precision and a keen aesthetic sense. With few other means at their disposal, the prisoners in rebellion smear their cell walls with shit; inedible food is dumped in a corner and becomes a spawning ground for maggots. The piss from the prisoners’ slop buckets is poured under the door and out into the halls. Someone’s job is to clean it up, and McQueen again tests the viewer’s comfort level by showing this process from start to finish — a prison worker suited head to toe puts down some cleanser, scrubs with a type of broom, inevitably pushes the urine and chemical mixture back under the cell doors. Meanwhile prisoners are routinely beaten, given forced baths with harsh detergents, forced haircuts, and are anally raped under the guise of “strip searches.” The amount of abuse is incredible, but the prisoners, intensely politically motivated, resist. They endure subhuman conditions with nothing but a blanket to wear, they pour urine out their cell doors, they smear their shit on the walls, they smuggle communications written on cigarette paper in and out of the jail, they speak the Irish language, all at great risk to themselves. The amount of physical pain they are willing to endure in their struggle is incredible. The British administration and the screws cannot stop them. This is the crux of it — the British prison system cannot control the POWs’ minds, so they attempt to control their bodies. In the H-Blocks, the body itself becomes the site of the struggle. Ultimately, with no further recourse, this situation will lead to the hunger strike.

But it doesn’t happen right away. An earlier but key moment of the film to my mind occurs when a prison guard, in head-to-toe protective suit and mask, enters a vacant cell to water-blast the shit off the walls. A circular design swirled in shit catches his eye, and he pauses to look at it. It seems to resemble something like a cave painting. The man even takes off his mask for a second to get a better look. Where he initially appears robotic, outfitted as he is, we suddenly get a glimpse of his common humanity. But then he pulls the mask back down and begins the cleaning. The circle design slowly disappears. It is an amazing scene, and one that is resonant with meaning. At the most basic level, McQueen seems to be saying, this is a conflict of the artist versus the machine. The prisoners, even in the most dire of circumstances, are still in their essences artists. Bobby Sands himself was a poet and writer, who smuggled his work out bit by bit on tiny pieces of paper. One of the books he wrote in prison, One Day in My Life, is in part the basis for this film. One thinks of other Irish republican leaders in this context. Pádraig Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, for example, leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, were also poets. Here the artistic urge is expressed in a form of painting, a primal design that alludes to our earliest ancestors. The prison worker seems to puzzle over it for a second, as if asking himself, “Me too?” But he chooses to suppress those feelings, puts the mask back down over his face, and starts spraying the water jets. The round swirl slowly fades as the emerging white wall blanks everything out. It is a destructive impulse, as opposed to the prisoners’ creative impulse.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating the point. For one, this scene forms the design of the movie poster and the DVD cover. The actual disc features the shit circle too, in full brown, as opposed to the poster/cover which shows it in the process of disappearing. A number of earlier reviews of the film criticized McQueen for supposedly aestheticizing the struggle. Similar accusations were made against Francis Ford Coppola when he released Apocalypse Now, that he was aestheticizing the Vietnam War. But I think Coppola’s response also applies here. Coppola noted that Vietnam was a television war, that it existed for many people as television images from the start. McQueen mentions in an interview included in the DVD’s special features that he remembers as a child seeing images of the hunger strikers and of Sands on television, and that this stuck with him (he also mentions that he innately sympathized with the hunger strikers). The hunger strikers knew full well the propaganda value of their almost Christ-like images. Not in any cynical way; they were people who were involved in a political struggle, who were doing everything they could to gain public support not only for the immediate cause of the prisoners, but for the aims of the republican movement on the wider scale (those aims being the defeat of the British government and unity of Ireland). They were conscious of aesthetics, partly for political reasons, but partly also because some were artists too. McQueen is not therefore “aestheticizing” the struggle in Hunger. He is saying that the struggle itself is aesthetic, that in some way it actually is a form of art (Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist” comes to mind here). As awful and bleak and brutal as it often was (the initial prison guard character gets assassinated in front of his mother in a nursing home), the impulse to smear a spiral of shit on the wall represents something essential in all human beings. And the impulse to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others, through the deliberate wasting away of one’s own body, as emblemized by Sands, is a tenderness beyond comprehension to most, including me.

The film’s pivotal scene is the no-cut 22-minute back-lit shot of a conversation between Sands and a priest named Fr. Moran (played by Liam Cunningham). A number of things stick in my mind about this scene. One of course is the length: 22 minutes (I’ve also read 17 minutes), with no cuts, of intense, incisive dialogue. This is when Sands announces his intention, and the intention of other prisoners, to go on hunger strike. Moran tries to argue him out of it on moral grounds, and a sort of battle of the wills ensues. The other aspects that resonate for me are what clinch the argument for Sands: How do we know Sands has the strength of will to carry this out? After all, other republican prisoners had recently attempted the same thing, and it ended in failure and disarray. Sands conveys his resolve to Moran through a parabolic story from his childhood, a story redolent of poetry. Bobby and some other Belfast lads go to Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal, on a school trip. Off in the woods, they find a fawn stranded in a stream, near death, but still alive. They debate about what to do with it — put it out of its misery, attempt to rescue it? Bobby and the others go into the water. Just then, the priest arrives, orders them all back, and the boys are in trouble. Bobby, however, strangles the fawn to death before the priest’s very eyes and takes responsibility for the whole thing. He gets the priest’s wrath, but he is satisfied that he’s done right by the fawn. He has taken action. The story is conveyed solely through dialogue, yet the viewer feels as if he is watching it unfold. As the conversation comes to a climax, Sands makes himself unambiguously clear — the time now has also come for action, a purity of political action. There can be no more fence-sitting. The hunger strike is going to happen, and you are either with us or against us. In defeat, Moran lets it be known that he and Sands will not meet again, and that is that.

The rest of the film is an awe-inspiring display of both McQueen’s feel for poetic imagery and Fassbender’s intense act of body-modification (which I would venture to suggest surpasses even that of Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull — De Niro only had to put pounds on; Fassender loses them to the peril of his own health — and this further serves to raise the thought: what of the real Bobby Sands, and the physical torments he went through? — and Margaret Thatcher scoffed!).

Despite McQueen’s protestations (no doubt necessary in public interviews) that he explores the trauma endured on all sides of the conflict in the North of Ireland (and in fact he well depicts this in practice; we all know that the oppressor is affected in untold ways by his inflicting of oppression), this is not a film that anyone can be neutral about. As Sands himself says here in no uncertain terms, you cannot remain on the fence about this. You either support Sands and his fellow hunger strikers, or you support British occupation and oppression of Ireland. You either support Sands, or you support anal rape, beatings of prisoners, forced baths and haircuts, concentration camp conditions. You either support Sands, or you support the negation of art and poetry, the negation of humanity. You either see the greatness of this film, or you do not know film.