Saturday, May 16, 2009



Complications by Garrett Caples
(Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2007)

[First published in Talisman, #36-37 Fall 2008/Winter 2009, Editor Ed Foster]

One cannot live without complications. As soon as there is desire, there is conflict. Entanglement, injury, turmoil. To make an art of language is to confront this situation with transcendence and play. There is a serious side to play and that is its impulse toward flight. When a work is unburdened of its own need for manufacture, it takes flight. It heaves with idea. It delights in the realization of its internal possibilities. Collision becomes collusion. It is this quality of complication, this soaring aloft in contemplation and play of the world in its multiple forms that appears most salient in Caple’s work. I say all this mainly to avoid using the phrase “word play,” which I hate, because it is so trivializing, and there is so much more going on Caple’s Complications, more than the mere membra disjecta of existence.

But yes, there is word play: puns and anagrams, rhymes and palindromes. A carnival on paper. Kant’s purposeful purposelessness festooned in mirrors and lights. For instance, in “Synth” we have a pairing of words like “inlaws outlaws,” “thumb tuba,” “range of anger,” and “got there/ got ether/ together.” Words commingled in words reveals the basis of linguistic pliability: synthesis. Combination. Language is nothing without combination, and poetry is impelled by combination. A play on words is both an acceptance of the symbolic laws holding language together combined with the transgression of that law for the purpose of renovating it. And what poet would not like to renovate the world? The poet’s capacity for renewing the order in which she/he is inescapably caught up is linked with a capacity for enjoyment. We are all subject to biological constraints as wells as social norms. This is one of life’s inherent complications. Poetry is that impulse taken to a jubilant extreme in linguistic behavior. This is why Caples likes so much to caper. “i have/ to behave,“ says Caples in “Chanson De Googoo,”’ “like the/ boneless/ boy/ of the assiniboine.” Silliness is holy. Language is a gumbo gamboled into transcendence.

Caples is not always silly. Far from it. Some of his complications are quite serious. “Written On September 11th, 2001” is pure rage. It is not even poetry. It is a statement written in prose. It reads like a manifesto, a seething indictment of the unbridled capitalism and reckless imperialism that created the context in which that event took place. There is no fooling around here. He’s really serious. “Today’s attacks,” he says,
prove that death isn’t sexy like an event [Pearl Harbor] that occurred some 60 years ago in period costume. It’s grisly, and even if I wanted to take pleasure in a comeuppance as ghastly as the crimes our own nation has perpetrated against humanity -- you name it, the death of millions of Iraqis from our 10-year embargo; the slaughter of Serbia; our economic exploitation of third-world countries to maintain our inflated standard of living; our blithe disregard for the irreversible environmental damage we’ve caused; our tacit support of Israeli and Turkish efforts at genocide, you name it -- even if I wanted to view this “terrorism” as comically just, hits on corporations and the industrial military complex, I simply can’t; there’s no way to calculate how many innocents were killed -- or how to decide what even constitutes innocence -- and we have to give the major news media credit, it’s kept the people of our country uninformed and insulated to such an extraordinary extent, the few true disclosures of our activities abroad that filter through serve no more than a built-in margin of error.

It’s significant that Caples mentions the complicity of the American news media, because it serves to dramatize how severed and disconnected the public has become not just with their government -- which ceased a long time ago from being their government -- but one another. Protest is now a matter of pixels and blogs. It used to occur in the streets. Which it still sometimes does, although you would hardly know it, since the media barely covers it. Caples is young. He was born in 1972, the year of my first divorce. It amazes me that somebody as young as he writes poetry at all. When I began writing poetry figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Angela Davis and Jean-Paul Sartre were well-known figures, a part of popular culture. People were well-read. They understood the subversive energy of linguistic play. The few, the happy few who still do, continue to sponsor readings that have begun to feel like Quaker meetings. A time when aberrant paths of communication were valued or at least got the attention of a substantial portion of the public seems as distant to me now as Egypt’s Golden Empire. This makes one of Caples’ prose poems in this collection, “I Have Seen Enough,” appropriately part of the section called Elegies, so moving. The piece is about the passing of the poet Philip Lamantia, a poet associated most closely with the Surrealists (he edited Breton’s View at age 15) but also the Beats, especially Kerouac. Caples has been entrusted with the prodigious task of looking after Lamantia’s literary estate. His observation of the deceased poet’s apartment is a highly detailed, candid, and touching tribute to a literary genius. It is more than a tribute. It is a renewal of contact. A desperate avowal of retaining what is most essential, what is most vital to the life of a young person in this late stage of neo-liberal capitalism: “these are the poet’s ashes, volcanic and smoldering still. to lose this scent is to enter permanent exile.”


John Olson's last publications include Backscatter: New and Selected Poems, from Black Widow Press (2008), and Souls of Wind, from Quale Press (2008), a novel about the exploits of poet Arthur Rimbaud in the American West. His essay, "City of Words," which appeared in Vol. 13, No. 2. of The Raven Chronicles, was recently nominated for a Pushcart prize. He is also the recipient of an annual genius award for literature, in 2004, from Seattle's weekly The Stranger.


  1. Another view is offered by Brett Duchon in GR #11 at

  2. Another view is offered by Jeff Harrison in GR #16 at