Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, the Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila, and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation, by David Kirby. University of Georgia Press, $19.95.
Reviewed by Meg Hurtado
If David Kirby’s book of essays on various cultural topics proved nothing else, it would prove that a book can be judged by its index. In the case of Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, the Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila, and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation, the index borders on fabulous, ranging from Verlaine to John Travolta, from Kafka to West Side Story to Wittgenstein to Yosemite Sam. An index of half its length would make any culture-lover swoon, but Kirby possesses an extraordinary talent for collecting ideas, personalities, and physical details. And the essays themselves live up to the eclecticism promised by the index, but never ostentatiously. Kirby achieves this by overloading the reader with cultural name-dropping in the First Words section of the book, which for some reason he refuses to call an introduction. His explanation for a book on various “colossal topics” includes Florence, African refugees, an Auschwitz survivor, television, Goethe, Gutenberg, Whitman, football, Emerson, several Italian Renaissance masters, and so much more. After an opening like that, most of his uncanny or ecstatic cultural references seem perfectly organic.
But even in this multitudinous diorama of our artistic and historical world, Kirby has arranged a particular cast of characters to act as guides and gauges for his philosophical ventures. Shakespeare, Whitman, Odysseus, and Ishmael/Melville are the favorites, but Ginsberg, Rothko, and Dante also surface and resurface in several of the essays. At times, one has to wonder if he’s trying a little too hard to make everything blend together. For instance, in the book’s very first essay, he compares an inmate of Folsom prison to a “shape-shifter” from the Odyssey. It’s an imaginative analogy, but probably a bit of a stretch for most readers. Perhaps Kirby has just introduced his dramatic technique of comparing everything to everything a little too soon in the collection.
Eventually we begin to see that even such dramatic comparisons play a small role in his overall aims for the book. In spite of the crazed eclecticism of subjects and metaphors, Kirby has several specific agendas which he defines clearly in the book’s “introduction.” He makes clear that he wishes to address “the only question worth asking--what’s good?” Second, he wishes to pursue this question from an original, American perspective, which in turn asserts a respect for multiculturalism and for the institution of language: Kirby says that “part of seeing the world from an American standpoint is recognizing that our culture is as many-sourced as the English language itself.” Kirby certainly fulfills that requirement in his essay “The Meaning of Everything,” in which he pays homage to the Oxford English Dictionary and the tireless etymology-philes who created it in all its twenty-volume glory.
Though these are the official aims for the book, Kirby’s greatest accomplishment is his insistence on a non-linear, overabundant progression of culture. In this task, his cast of characters proves its mettle, allying nationalities, time periods, and various spiritual, historical, and cultural realities with each other. For instance, Kirby compares Walt Whitman rather convincingly to the ancient Hebrew writers of the Psalms, and to the psychedelic rockers of the ’60s. Kirby proves the cultural point closest to his heart--the universality and democracy of genius. He freely announces that “My subjects are things which are valuable because everybody values them.” Appropriately, he attributes this sentiment to two cultural giants, Goethe and Leopardi, and adds his own “post-theoretical” twist: “for a cultural phenomenon to be truly colossal, it has to be valued by everyone not just briefly but repeatedly and over time.”
All of Kirby’s essays retain this egalitarian sentiment, but never hypocritically so. He talks frankly about life as an intellectual, about living and writing in Paris and Florence, and about signing a contract with CBS. His awareness of the fact that he’s better educated than most of the people he writes about is neither arrogant nor guilt-ridden. He proves his claims in this book’s First Words that it takes “large mind” to truly appreciate and articulate the world around us, but he also talks with convincing sincerity about his experiences tutoring Travis, an underprivileged nine-year-old struggling to pass the first grade. Kirby admits that he wasn’t motivated by charity alone, that “[he’d] like to know how people learn to read. Memory is of no use, since I can’t remember ever not reading. And since I spend my days in a rarefied atmosphere of reading and writing at the highest levels, I feel as though I should know how I and the professionals around me got started.”
In the end, Kirby’s status as a poet powers him through this ambitious collection of tirades, elegies, and investigations. Not all of his subjects are automatically fascinating in a scandalous, pop-culture way, but in every case his genuine research and enthusiasm thoroughly wins us over. The dithyrambic ecstasy of Whitman doesn’t qualify as dinner-party conversation to the average American, and Kirby admits this in his discussion of poetry’s historical place in American culture to an unsuspecting businessman, who would eventually “drift away to the bar or the newsstand, sorry they ever brought the topic up”. But even in his most colloquial subjects, and even in his best successes at rendering the non-colloquial ones palatable to any reader, we wait for his moments of extraordinary poetic outburst, which strip away, in a burst of self-consciousness worthy of Whitman, the analytical mask. As he says in his essay on the sexual lives of St. Teresa of Avila and Emily Dickinson, “For in the midst of that bright fury, the universe is still.”