From Jack K to James T // September summation

Even though it’s mid-October. September’s reading contained both the pulpiest of pulp and an important encounter in big L Literature. First, I ran through a few Jack Ketchum titles. I haven’t gotten to his masterpiece GIRL NEXT DOOR yet, but tore through and reasonably enjoyed RED and OFF SEASON and OFFSPRING, the first two entries in the Dead River sequence. This is no-frills formulaic writing with extreme grisly violence, and I must say I prefer this kind of lean storytelling over Stephen King doorstops, if we had to choose between horror writers steeped in the Northeast. Ketchum just has a clean, hard, clause-by-clause style that I never tire of. But a peculiar technique in each book is the reference to a story in the news.

Early in OFF SEASON, for example, Marjorie reads the New York Post in her Manhattan apartment. “There were two stories in particular that she read, so odd that in spite of herself they commanded her attention. In one a 45-year-old laborer in Paramus had tried to set his wife afire, having gone out to the garage after a drunken squabble to fill his glass with his glass with gasoline. He’d doused her with the gas but then, police said, was too drunk to light a match properly. In the other story a man in Virginia had hanged his beagle puppy from a tree in the backyard because it wouldn’t obey him.” Sure these vignettes lend the impression of a mad and violent world just like the real life news. But what’s interesting is how precisely off-set these stories are: the first one acts as a foil for the novel’s plot about straight couples under external threat, and the second is like a reflection of the horrendous act that kicks off RED. Speaking of which, the protagonist in that book (which otherwise doesn’t trade on sexual violence) also remembers “reading in the paper not so long ago about a woman in Florida who had orchestrated a strip-show in her home for some of the local teenage boys, with her fourteen-year-old daughter as the star attraction. She’d turn down the lights and turn on some music and her daughter would take off her clothes and then the woman would leave the room and her daughter would have sex with the boys on a first-come, first-served basis. There didn’t even appear to be money involved.

Why anyone would want to do that he didn’t know. But then he didn’t necessarily believe that age brought wisdom. He didn’t understand a lot of things. Figured he never would.

And Ketchum wasn’t the only splatterpunk read last month. I dabbled in the stories of BONDING, Maggie Seibert’s collection with Expat Press, which are wonderful and punchy. And even Jo Nesbo’s THE SNOWMAN might qualify, given how the titular Norwegian serial killer chops up and poses the corpses of his victims in theatrical ways, making him a Nordic Jack the Ripper meets Michael Meyers–though this fellow has plenty of psychological motivation, explained after the fact a la PSYCHO. Formulaic once again, but this sadistic noir is addictive reading. I consider it the segue into my sudden interest in Norwegian literature, ignited by Jon Fosse.


Feeling the fatigue of reading only novels the last few months, I restarted my poetry reading with some later Tate. What a tricky poet. His absurd anecdotes are delightful, though people are wrong to call it prose poetry or flash fiction. The are still definitely lineated. The photograph of the last poem in his typewriter included in GOVERNMENT LAKE shows how he set up his margins in such a way that they almost run flush to the right edge. But his actual prose is recognizably that. His situations undermine themselves often at the last second. They incorporate mundanity and genre tropes. They’re deadpan lyrical poems, usually just a page long, that can get a laugh a minute sometimes, like stand-up. Tate is so appealing on the surface but it’s hard to “get into” the enjoyment of the work in a practical-critical way; the meaning gets lost in the ironic absurdities, and the closer you look at the text the more weird things you notice, like sudden changes in tense or a possible missing sentence. The ending of “The Photograph of Lincoln” from DOME OF THE HIDDEN PAVILION, is a perfect example of his bathos and laugh-out-loud humor.

I headed
back the way I had come. On the mountain a man with a rifle
in his hand standing in the middle of the road stopped me. He
came over to my door and said, “My five-year-old son has been
captured by bears, or at least I think he has. I was up on
the mountain hunting with him by my side. The next thing

I know he’s gone. You’ve got to help me. When you get down
the mountain go directly to the police and tell them. They’re
the only chance I’ve got.” I looked behind him. The boy was
running down the mountain yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, why did you

leave me?”

People online are so quick to miscategorize Tate’s poetry since his use of storytelling seems to run counter to the rest of American poetry, even if he uses the same kind of diction and starkness. The lyric is the hegemonic form, similar to how stand-up comics don’t really tell jokes anymore, since it’s all observational humor. The focus on everydayness is as big a part of modern American poetry as the “visionary” aspect to it, which comes through in these lines by Stevens from “Of Modern Poetry” in PARTS OF A WORLD

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

In Ashbery’s “Dangerous Moonlight” from CAN YOU HEAR, BIRD we get these lines from a professor speaking that are even more specific, and suggests an idea of the poet who can concentrate something out of common human experiences (sees and breeds) in a precise way (unlike enharmonics in music where you can call a C-sharp a D-flat if you want) 

There is a poetry in mere existence,
the kind that shopkeepers and people walking along the street lead,
you know, and evenness, that fills them up to whatever brim
is there, and stays, transient, all the days of their lives.
Such enharmonics are not for your poet-person. He sees, and breeds:
Otherwise the game isn’t worth the candle to him. He’d as soon rhyme breeze
with breathes, as walk over to that fire hydrant in the grass
to examine it, see what it’s made of, make sure it’s not an idea in some
philosopher’s mind, that will bruise and cloud over once the mind’s
removed, leaving but a dubious trace of itself, like a ring of puffball dust…”

It’s not all spontaneous creation, since the poet should still avoid clumsy language and trite expression. Lastly it seems the poet is searching for that which hasn’t been fully rationalized by society yet, and make sure their content is not already the speculative product of a philosopher, something which the imaginative space of poetry may refuse to sustain.

But the fact that these difficult and canonical modernists have suddenly lit up for me may prove that Tate is the accessible poet (or anti-poet) who makes the other great poets a little more accessible. 


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