All Roads. . .But This One by Jon Cone, Claudia Grinnell, klipschutz and Albert Sgambati
(Luddite Kingdom Press, San Francisco, 2006)
The beauty of the printed word has an illustrious history but in this age of the internet, blogs, online zines and e-books it is easy to forget this fact. We do live in a time when diy publishing was never more abundant than it is today. However, most publications made with the diy ethos are printed using laser printers and so forth. As much as I am an advocate for e-publishing and chapbooks printed cheaply, and I am indeed, I still can’t help but fall in love with a gorgeous, lovingly hand-made book such as All Roads. . .But This One.
Essentially this book is a four-part anthology of chapbooks by Jon Cone, Claudia Grinnell, klipschutz and Albert Sgambati. Each poet writes in their own individual style and there is no thematic unity to the whole book. At least I couldn’t find a single thematic element that ties these four poets together. However, rather than trying to piece the poets together with a single idea I let the words travel thru me like I would as if I were watching a favorite film anthology such as George A. Romero’s revisionist essay of pre-code 1950s era E.C. Comics, Creepshow (1982). The structure of the film is cohesive enough for the disparate tales within the movie’s narrative arc, much like the poets’ work found within the pages of the book under review. What holds these poets together is the beauty of a hand-made book. The publisher loves books and loves these poets had printed and bound this book with such finesse and delicacy that I’d not be surprised to see a copy under a glass case in a museum.
I don’t want to make it appear that this book is such a rare and delicate item as to become precious. It is not. The book was made to be held, fondled and most importantly, read. No matter how beautiful the book itself might be what is of primary importance are the contents found within its pages. If that is the only criteria then this book is a huge success. Two of the four poets are previously unknown to me, Claudia Grinnell and Albert Sgambati, while Jon Cone is a personal favorite having discovered his work a few years ago and klipschutz is a kick-ass underground writer whose been on the small-press scene for a number of years now. If there are no themes uniting these poets there is a tone that each of them share and that is a quiet despair of urban and suburban life in our early century.
Despair done right can sound like a triumph. I’ve no idea why depressing works of art can create such a lift in spirits to the reader, and yet they do. Cone is a master poet, hands down. His collection is titled, Factions of Mischief, and the poems take a special care in moving outward as well as inward. Cone’s despair is like an alchemist transforming tin into gold. The poem ‘The Cosmology of My Seizures’ might appear to be a confessional piece from the school of say Lowell and Plath. Rather, Cone fuses biography into the larger realm of our veritable human being as it ends with a summation of will at odds with circumstance:
Under the gaze of orbiting strangers,
friends, family emergency technicians,
I will myself awake --
like a sun
at the center of the universe.
No wilting postures here nor does the poem strike a chord of narcissistic bravado. Instead, Cone crafted a poem of firm resolve that is necessitated by a sharp measure of nearly Zen detachment. Cone’s poems are a remarkable achievement.
Grinnell’s collection, Off Course, follows and cedes to the art of losing like Bishop had instructed Write it! in order to become a master. And like Bishop’s best poetry Grinnell offers a well-spring of generosity amply evidenced in pieces such as ‘Waiting Room’ which is, again, a generosity that is more than tinged with despair. However, Grinnell at her best conjures sensual images that offset the negatives. Take for example her poem ‘Soup Is Back.’
Soup is back, the sign says. I didn’t know soup was gone
but I am glad it is back. Soup is good for all kinds of souls,
a sort of perfection between too liquid and too solid,
a perfection of middleness: a shape on a spoon,
a few letters of the alphabet, a broken word.
The t slides off the ladle, back into primordial chicken, back
into grease eyes and anonymity. The t likes that.
Other letters rise to the surface, elbow for space.
They dance to a boil, flip and turn. They can’t see
their own metaphor, what they become in the great salty
marrow, the carrots and peas slipping and regrouping,
slipping and waiting: a shape, a coincidence, a story of heat.
The ‘perfection of middleness’ which again reminds me of Bishop at her best and thus the art of losing is so ably mastered by Grinnell.
If Grinnell is a poet of evenness then klipschutz is the poet of the zig-zag. His sardonic verse varies a great deal between being the jester and being the reporter which is best described by the title of his collection, The Grand Parade of Life Marches On. In pieces that detail such individuals such as Michael Kelly, who was the first journalist to be killed in Iraq, and ’Oliver Othello King Jr.’ whose grand name is not only the title of the poem but part of its subject as well.
As expected of a poet who writes about the particulars of a person then it is no surprise to find within klipschutz’ lines a deep empathy for the inhabitants found in our collective lives. But for me klipschutz comes alive when he is playing the jester. Word play, wit, humor and an earnest desire to change the world that is often found in top comedians are promptly demonstrated. Check for example his poem ‘The Long Goobye’ which comes from a series of poems with “Goo’ in their titles.
In haute pursuit we chase
The tails we thought we’d ditched.
Come back! we cry, to each
Species, era, birdsong, forest sound.
We challenge every word
Without a scented pedigree.
Something effable is gone,
The contrail colder
Than a glass of chilled Blue Nun.
I’ve no idea what Blue Nun might be but I would gather from the data of this text that the drink is probably similar to the fortified wine that Fred Sanford, character of the ‘70s sitcom Sanford and Son and played by the late comic Redd Foxx, favored and is, I surmise, named for its effect of taming the wild waves of our days into a mere Ripple.
Further along are the poems of Albert Sgambati whose texts are studies in the type of suburban despair the novelist John Cheever often wrote about. And like Cheever’s finest work, particularly his short stories, Sgambati’s poems imbibe in a clarity so rare as to become nearly a hallucinogen, as if suburban life was seen and refracted thru the after-image of an acid trip. The name of Sgambati’s collection is Siege of the Beau Monde.
With titles like ‘Fucking Bastard’ and ‘Portrait Of The Artist As Dead’ Sgambati features a world of dead-end jobs and the grit it takes to make it thru an ordinary day. Even more debilitating are the emotions of these characters as they graft sickness unto health. Happiness is far and away and Sgambati is keen to shout his displeasure in short sentences. However, it is a displeasure tinged with both defiance and resignation which is fully realized in his poem ‘My Kind of Town.’
A home run cleared the fence the day Chicago burned. They blamed it on a cow, which would have been a grave offense in India and is recalled by the Yankee announcer screaming, “Holy Cow!” every time the ball sails over the fielder’s head at the warning track. The city bursts into flames giving it credibility. The ball is crushed to half its size as it hits the bat. There is an instant in which it seems to stop completely but doesn’t. At moments like these it is possible to question the existence of Chicago at all. Maybe if they chopped it up and served it on a bun. Gave everyone a piece of something totally unnecessary in the middle of nowhere with its blazing lake and made them pay. A city of steam and AM radio, its closets filled with seersucker suits and porkpie hats. A place of such little hope you had always hoped a place like this could never exist the first time you see it. Then you make peace. Come to love it. Call everyone Jake and Babe and celebrate their funerals with kegs of beer and think what it all means. Put the kids to bed. Get real.
Edward Hopper would also find a home in that kind of town too. So would writers of hard-boiled detective fiction and makers of film noir. I imagine it is always night in his city and the streets are slicked with wet. Sgambati’s poems are traces of lives within the margins of hope. A happy few make their homes within these margins and these are the people Sgambati often hymns.
Finally, rounding out All Roads. . .But This One is a broadside titled One Red Cento printed in an edition of 200 copies by verdant press in Berkeley. This broadside is sleeved on the back page of the book and is a collection of the lines of all four poets found within the pages of All Roads. . .But This One and fashioned into quatrains. Like the book itself One Red Cento is a beautiful piece of printing in red ink. This collaboration of poets feels like a gift to both the poets themselves and to the reader. Every now and again a publisher will take time, money and energy to craft a gift of poetry. All Roads. . .But This One is such a gift.
richard lopez has a dyslexic heart. he's published a few chapbooks and hopes to publish more. you can find him at www.reallybadmovies.blogspot.com.