Friday, November 16, 2007

Chicago Review: The Complicity Issue?

I've had my head stuck way, way too deep into the murky mists of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria to think straight lately, but now that I think I may just be able to blog a bit, given that I'm currently jacked up on a heady three-part combo consisting of:

  • the leftover adreneline from a 16 mile bike ride through a Chicago-area November that feels like a frozen outtake from Dr. Zhivago

  • a giant tub of coffee from the corner Vietnamese coffee joint

  • Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros

    Since it's been a topic of recent discussion by my sharp new colleague and my subtropical intellectual hero, let me start with an observation or two about the latest Chicago Review. Though I haven't read the whole thing yet, here's my preliminary hypothesis: the current issue (vol. 53, nos. 2&3) is the complicity issue. There isn't an official theme, and I don't think there's been any deliberate attempt to set the content of the issue in orbit around any particular sun, but through some fluke of the zeitgeist (or some mammoth act of projection on my part), everything I read seems to come on as some kind of riff on complicity.

    When I saw John Peck's name in the table of contents, I turned immediately to his poem. Hell, I may even have yelped slightly for joy, alarming the good people standing near me at 57th Street Books (I don't know why I don't subscribe to Chicago Review, since I make a point of buying every issue). Peck's poem, "Book of the Dead? We Have No Book of the Dead" begins with a quote from the "Declaration of Innocence" from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Google makes reading John Peck about 85% easier than it used to be): "I have done no evil ... I have not caused pain ..." etc., then works its way elegantly around a few central images, taking us through scenes of mischief and calamity, even to Hiroshima, all the while working over phrases of denial: "No, no, we didn't do that" or "no, not us," until we come to the end where, after a clear demonstration of human guilt and hypocrisy we hear " is human to say, No, I have never sinned, no, not barefaced to the powers." So: complicity is our theme here.

    I next flipped to the second part of C.D. Wright's "Rising, Falling, Hovering," but seeing how long it was I left it for later and dove into some of Larissa Szporluk's poems, including "Adoration," which somehow manages to use its odd, even goofy, sound-echoes to devastatingly skewer our complicity in, and hypocrisy about, violence. Here's the ending:

    Truth is that cowards

    are bung, cowards are bung,
    and when the gold light

    of eternal life
    pours through the ham

    of the done deal,
    we hang in the sagging bum,

    a pendulum of bowel
    walls, tied to the dark

    with a stout string
    and pass our lilies out

    on the spot where the boy was slain
    and would be slain again

    because bung's own bung
    is the only sacred thing.

    That's an odd kind of ouch, but it does sting, the way it indicts our self-concern in a world of violence.

    Other complicity-oriented items I've read in the issue include:

  • Michael Robbins' review of Frederick Seidel's wonderfully creepy Ooga-Booga. The complicity is Seidel's, not Robbins' — though Seidel is all about celebrating his rich white guy complicity in a world of privilege and inequity.

  • "Poetry Magazines and Women Poets," Bobby Baird and Josh Kotin's article on the degree of inclusion of women poets in major literary magazines. I love anything that looks like empirical data about Our Vague and Misty Art, so this was a particular favorite of mine, although the statistics are as grim as you'd expect. What makes this an examination of complicity is the inclusion of stats for women poets in Chicago Review itself: 37% of contributors, a point below the sad average of all magazines surveyed.

    And now for a moment of personal complicity of another kind: as a guy who has moaned about the institution of the poetry reading, it now looks like I may find myself in the ironic position of being one of the guys (along with Patrick Durgin) who ends up organizing the massive group reading at this year's MLA. More on that as, and if, it develops.