Reviewed by Brian Strang
“The firefighter” is an overdetermined sign that receives disproportionate adulation, an adulation that has turned to worship since 9/11, a celebration of the paramilitary protector. The firefighter is a self-congratulatory symbol of male preparedness, strength and protection--though women do the job as well. It has become controversial to suggest anything resembling a criticism or parody of this sign because of the increasing association of firefighters with militarism, which is often confused with patriotism. One can now find firefighter coffee table books--emblazoned with icons of multi-headed axes, nestled among similar books on the four branches of the military with similar symbols on the covers--in heaps at the local branch of a mega-bookstore chain. But curiously absent are books like these on police.
One might expect that our society would bestow similar praise on law enforcement; after all, police put themselves at a similar risk of physical harm in service of the public and are just as much symbols of authority and paramilitary. In my own city, Oakland, currently the fourth most dangerous city in America, the police department has been trying for years to fill vacant jobs, but when the fire department announced that it had a few open positions, it got thousands of applicants. While firefighting is understood to be unambiguously good, police work is messier, more entangled with social issues. Most people have mixed feelings about police because they (or someone they know) have unpleasant run-ins with them at some point in their lives or because police are perceived as sadistic enforcers of an unjust social order. But, whatever one thinks about police and how they fit into our society, law enforcement is a job that requires all sorts of interpersonal skills, traits that are far too human. Few people spit on firefighters (as they do on police); our society wants icons, not people.
The firefighter is a hero in the Greek sense, a demi-god, a superhuman who risks life and limb for the greater good. The reality, however, is that firefighting doesn’t even make the list of the top ten most dangerous jobs in the country; fishing and logging are consistently at the top two spots. And other important jobs that involve risk and sacrifice--garbage collecting, high-school teaching, bus driving--do not have the same heroic associations, even if some of them are every bit as important to the successful functioning of a society. Watch how quickly things go haywire when garbage collectors go on strike, for example. Still, the firefighter icon remains unambiguous, simple, a strutting flag, an externalization, a desperate search for reductive clarity in a complicated world.
But in order to apprehend and understand the world accurately, one must see complexities in their fullness. I would argue that we need far fewer and radically different models for the traits we find beneficial, and we need no hero-worship in a culture that has become narrowed by the reductive fascination with icons. To worship icons is to become inhumane, because one no longer looks toward the difficult and messily human, but toward a clean and reductive symbol. Reductionism is a pervasive influence in our society, and though it may serve certain purposes of clarity and understanding, when it becomes a philosophy or all-encompassing way of being it leads to simple-mindedness. The iconoclast is necessary to crack the iconic shell and restore a complicated dimensionality, but it is a counter-dependent stance, one not always adequate to the task of deeper understanding. Smashing icons is no less reductive than building them. To engage with and live in a more accurately complex world, complications must be embraced or dealt with in their fullness, not merely denied. To resist, it is not enough, for example, to hate firefighters or police, but to understand them and their symbolic representation fully.
All of this is a way of saying that I really like Garrett Caples’ new book, Complications, less a direct confrontation of icons than an attempt to wrestle with, and rewrite, the complexities inherent in twenty-first-century being. In The Garrett Caples Reader (Black Square), Caples was an iconoclast without a trace of Victorian limitations who, with his libertine erotic surrealism, was willing to take on anyone or any thing. This book contained poems with lines like, “We were looking for a place on a street not named Euclid: where lightning unzips the sky or two lips open like an eye.” And it had essays that, like a carnival sideshow, covered a range of the freaky and bizarre, with titles like “Humped by Barrett Watten” or “Celebrity Wettings,” a piece that examines the sexual fetish of watching well-known people caught in moments of incontinence. In this way, one could see Caples as a kind of contemporary Tristan Tzara, an antidote to the messianic death dreams of our times. Tzara’s words helped me understand Garrett and his work: “The individual . . . lives poetry every moment that he affirms his existence. The poetic image itself, as much as experience, is not only the product of reason and imagination, it is valid only if it has been lived. Every creation is therefore, for the poet, an aggressive affirmation of his consciousness.”
Seven years later, in Complications, Caples is no less bold but perhaps more measured in his approach. Rather than scything down icons of repression, he uses a more complex approach to his “permanent revolution.” The self-congratulatory externalization inherent in many of our reductive cultural assumptions is necessarily and methodically dismantled with wit, clarity and heart. But I don’t want to give the wrong idea; Garrett has not been defanged or housebroken, a fact that becomes immediately apparent in the first section of the book, “All Chemical: Symbolist Poems.” In it the reader finds the characteristic voice that permeates his short-lined works:
my body should not be
but somehow it always is
I’m a red girl
I don’t remember
to the balls
of my feet
Caples bends, twists and jumps through images and voices, but manages to maintain a sense of narrative and narration, however indeterminate. Far from being a mere collection of ironic syntactical collisions, this mode of his poetry, while often ironic and funny, coheres as it advances. It does not move in straight lines but, rather than being atomized and scattered, clearly demarcates a weird and wonderful movement that at times even attains lyrical grace:
like a handkerchief
caught on a line
on soft and unlikely wings
Often in his work, Caples takes shots at cultural icons, and in this collection, he takes a friendly swipe at Michael Palmer in “Chanson de Googoo,” a piece that is as much an indirect critique as a poem in its own right. This piece is both sincere homage and send-up, an “amorous elbow” and, therefore, dimensional: “lucid cloud / i owe you / one.”
Caples grapples with and snips at the cool, international figure that is Michael Palmer--whose work is always beautifully measured and potent--with jabs at his immersion in theory, “my buyer says / sell theory now” and, perhaps, his public reading persona: “i needa nodoz / from your prose / but you pose / in those robes / like rousseau.” In lines like this it is Caples’ humor that creates surprise and allows him the position he takes on. André Breton said “that the black sphinx of objective humor could not avoid meeting, on the dust-clouded road of the future, the white sphinx of objective chance, and that all subsequent human creation would be the fruit of their embrace.” Caples seems happy to stand between the gaze of these two lionesses and welcome surprise. Barbara Guest claimed that, “the element of surprise is a poem,” and throughout his work Caples surprises with each twist of the line. In the end of “Chanson de Googoo,” he comes to a conclusion about poetry that, strangely, does justice to Palmer in a way that only could have come from Caples:
its a set
in the lobby
of a library
This critique should, I believe, be read more as one of Michael Palmer’s readers, those who speak in hushed reverent tones, than Palmer himself. Anyone coming to this poem for affirmation has come to the wrong poet. In his humorous way, Caples has taken on the complications that reading someone like Palmer creates. For decades now, Palmer has been at the top of the experimental poetry heap, deservedly so, for his poetry is spare, lyrical, apocalyptic and mysterious. He has also translated extensively and written important and influential criticism. His influence has already been great and will most likely continue for decades. So who is Caples to be poking him with a stick? That’s exactly the point: Palmer’s position in the current poetry world makes him iconic and heroic (and therefore dimensionless) to some readers. And he deserves to be read more clearly than this. Caples’ work at times even echoes Palmer’s in its sound and shape:
There is much that is precise
between us, in the space
between us, two of this
and three of that
(Michael Palmer’s “Baudelaire Series”)
Perhaps precision between Caples and Palmer is revealed in Palmer’s designation for this poem, “after Vallejo.” Caples has a Surrealist lineage in common with Palmer, however the two might seem to differ at first glance. As such, Caples approaches poetry as a set of dentures, not as a series of urns: his poems bite, lovingly, in order to elicit a human “ouch.” Our reading of Palmer is altered slightly after Caples’ poem. The inhumane icon that some readers might otherwise make Palmer out to be is now replaced by something messier. We begin to feel Palmer from Caples’ strange, subjective and deeply human angle; this is Tzara’s “aggressive affirmation of consciousness.” And the reader becomes more immediately aware of the intimacy in Caples’ critique, because as surprise and humor lead one along, one must question one’s own complicity in it. Did you laugh? If so, where does that leave you in relation to Palmer? If you didn’t laugh, why not?
What makes Caples’ poetry unique among his peers is the ability he has had to transcend the current cultural segregation in poetry between the hip-hop and ‘experimental’ communities. Few writers from the latter have more than a passing interest in the broad proletariat movement that has been working its way deeper into the mainstream for the last 25 years. Hip hop is no longer exclusively a culture of the outsider--any political ideology now seems to have been replaced by the Republican mantra, “life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money,” currently personified in the dying star of 5o Cent. But those with their ear and heart closer to the ground, like Caples, know that the underground is alive and well, especially in the Bay Area. Caples is a well-known hip-hop journalist who dives deeply into the local scene, a music he sometimes refers to as folk music. He continues to do the Bay Area’s most insightful articles on these musicians and the cultural context in which they live, rap and sometimes die (his article for The Bay Guardian on Mac Dre’s memorial is both homage to the man and an editorial about the tragedy of handgun availability in communities like Vallejo, Richmond and Oakland).
So in his poetry, it is fitting that one can practically hear the slap, pop and beat of hip hop (“sonic nipple / can you feel sound,” he asks in “Synth”), and his poems include many hip-hop conventions, such as in “Dub Song of Prufrock Shakur”:
i’m on a
in a pink
from the early
with a pair
oughta hate me
cunt to me
a mack ho
lord save us from
In a passage such as this, most readers likely to come across Caples’ book will squirm, having their sensibilities jarred by the mixture of misogynistic language and political commentary, even if the Haitian “pair of ladies” lands here in Caples’ work strictly for their rhyming potential and cartoonish content. Few readers would probably identify the word “grapes” as slang for marijuana, though they would easily accept the political content. Poems like these are linguistic intrusions (rhyme itself is an intrusion) from an unsanitary world, one not so different from that of the blues (which is now safely archived and revered by academics). Yet the language of the Bay Area’s underground hip hop, specifically, arises from its social conditions, where sexism, poverty, fear and profound suffering are commonplace. One need not accept or celebrate this language, but its political context cannot be separated from the social conditions which give rise to its unsavory and offensive characteristics; to do so would be to engage in overgeneralization and cultural hegemony. Placing this poem in the first person, Caples is inviting trouble for the reader, the problematic layers of experience that add dimensionality to the work, and creating a demand to reconcile the first eight stanzas in the selection above with the last seven. The latter fall flat (into an all-too-familiar trope) without the strange and uncomfortable incursion of the former. What’s remarkable about the passage is not just the servile dynamic between the narrator (presumably male?) and the two women, or the corresponding characterization of an economic plan as “mack ho,” but also the surprising turns the passage takes in 66 words, touching on the coded, silly, erotic, bizarre, familiar, offensive, political and religious.
Caples addresses political and social issues in a clear-eyed manner in the essays this collection includes, especially in the prescient “Written on September 11, 2001.” In these works, one finds Caples’ beliefs stated plainly. They help to contextualize and counterbalance the poetry, especially the prose poems, where his humor is often most evident (“Robocop Imagines Accepting Other Roles” is the funniest). Caples discusses the Surrealist conception of black humor directly in “The Delicacy of Ambrose Bierce.” In the prose poems, the multifaceted approach of his lined poetry is still there, with similar themes, as in “For Thom Gunn” which begins, “i’m sorry you had to die at a time when evil’s got this country by the balls, cracks them and sucks them like eggs,” and later continues, “i’m so happy i’m suicidal, like a psylosybin trip that’s moved in for good and his name is george bush.” As a whole, the book gains quite a bit of range by the inclusion of the essays and prose poems. Such range is an essential talent for a writer taking on such diverse tasks. It’s a wild, wonderful trip.