SplitLevel Texts: A Cruel Nirvana and The Treatment of Monuments

Patrick James Dunagan

SplitLevel Texts Covers

As a new press, SplitLevel Texts makes a bold maneuver with its initial publications bringing out books by poets Jerome Rothenberg and Alan Gilbert. It was only in 2011 when Futurepoem books released Gilbert's "star" first collection of poems, Late in the Antenna Fields; while Rothenberg is an inarguable major force to be reckoned with. His contributions to both the fields of Ethnopoetics and American Jewish poetries are unmatched (not to mention the “literary canon? What literary canon?” busting Poems for the Millennium anthology series, along with abundant other anthologies such as the ever necessary The Book of the Book).

Both Gilbert and Rothenberg’s books share salient features; each collection is composed of four sections, nicely mirroring and complimenting each other, but the paper quality and layouts leave the discernible eye wanting. There’s a waxy sheen to the bright white covers, along with the guts, which give the feeling that it is as if they were produced via a new systematic instant book-making fax machine. Hopefully, this doesn't represent future production standards for more small presses. If so there is a definite need for book arts programs. Presentation counts: as physical objects, these books leave much to be desired.

Rothenberg's A Cruel Nirvana is a collection of material, for the most part, all separately published from the late 60s on up through the 70s. This reverse chronological arrangement gives the opportunity for a fresh assessment of the work. There is no need for readers to be previously familiar with Rothenberg's work. If there is interest in gaining a broader understanding of the original context in which the writings came to be, Aaron McCollough’s brief Preface offers a bang up job of sorting such matters out. These poem-series arise directly from Rothenberg’s work on his seminal anthologies Technicians of the Sacred and A Big Jewish Book, which is evidence to how exposure to poetry's oral traditions, while compiling the anthologies, bled directly into his own poetic practice.

Some of Rothenberg's poems are based more heavily upon direct source material I’ve never found truly compelling. The “Realtheater Pieces”, as McCollough notes, “detail brutal rituals that bleed a 'primitive' view of Native American practice (reacting perhaps to the sensationalized depiction of Sioux initiation in the 1976 motion picture A Man Called Horse) with the rituals of Christianity (itself a death cult)”. While they arguably present a synthesis of correspondences between cultural backgrounds, they do not break away from the flatness of the page. The following is from “Realtheater Piece Two”:

Action Three
When the trees have started burning, a group of five men enters. They wear white like the attendants but drawn tightly across their chests & hanging down to their feet. They are bareheaded (heads perfectly shaven) except for one, The Leader, who wears some kind of exotic headdress such as a turban or mitre. The Leader carries a baby’s rattle in his right hand, an oldfashioned hurricane lamp in his left hand. The four others carry (1) a metal cooking pot, (2) a miniature plastic Christmas tree, (3) a large lady’s fan, & (4) the left hand of a store manikin. At a signal from The Leader, the attendants choose a volunteer from the audience and lead him (or her) to the center of the performance area. The five men place their implements in the ground in front of the table, then use the ribbons, paper flowers & scissors to adorn the volunteer. Once he is adorned, The Leader helps him climb into the hole, over which the attendants put the wooden grating back into place. The Leader remains beside the hole, while the other four lead the audience in singing a miscellany of songs, preferably church hymns like Gladly the Cross I’d Bear.

This textual abridgment of earlier traditions and accompanying totems with some of the Modern era, paralleling them together thereby propelling a possible meeting in the imagination, leaves the writing feeling more like sketches towards scenes not acted out; a script for a dress rehearsal never to be. They lack the immediacy of the poetic act.

Such immediacy can be found throughout Rothenberg’s “The Notebooks” poem-series. For instance, “12/75/a discourse on Lilith” enacts a similar merging of traditions and time periods, as do his "Realtheater" pieces, and amply draw upon original Jewish source material “of traditional ritual energies” (McCollough), while successfully channeling that into the creating of an unquestionably strong poem. Here are the closing lines:

estranged from Eve the wife our Lady of the Contract
Lilith breaks loose on the other side
—o moon
rages in the laundry
roaming through your house at dawn
a poltergeist
she hurls dishes from cupboard
sits among them scraping at your sores
sometimes a comfort
otherwise a joke
an old obsession
like that furry animal who pisses in your soup
free spirit

When Rothenberg comes on this strong, there's no doubting his abilities. As he claims in the opening paean “A Cruel Nirvana”: “I can hear / a water song / close by my ear / & track it / where it leads me.” 

Alan Gilbert's poems in The Treatment of Monuments fall into what has become a pretty steady hum of output in poetryworld: a reliable disjunctive cut between lines striving to appear randomly organized in such a manner as to hit an achievable means of maintaining a balance between light jokes and occasional cultural commentary. Gilbert displays solid mastery of this technique. The jokiness is undeniably bizarre:

… There was
also that time a 400-lb Andean
hummingbird chipped off parts of

the hillside Hollywood sign looking
for nectar and expectorant.

(From “Pretty Words Made a Fool Out of Me” a long poem composed in a series of tercets.)

However, the cultural commentary remains pointedly targeted, even if at first it is indirect:

Yet any view can later be changed on screen, so I’d begin by
airbrushing out the more prominent stitches and scars.
There’s a Pizza Hut on one end of Main Street and a Burger King
on the other. A fairly uneventful afternoon passed in between,
except when a statue of the town’s heavily armed founder
was toppled by a bunch of bored kids with a pickup truck and winch.
Confused vultures circled above, unsure if the shards were edible.
A proud nation stood grinning and transfixed, its image beamed
from church to school to chamber-of-commerce breakfast mingler.

(One of a series of paired-off stanzas from “More Morphine”)

From possibly referencing digital touch-up of Playboy or other scantily clothed, surgically enhanced female models to the monotonous scenery of fast food restaurants on any cross-country road trip, these lines zip right along. Things quickly get switched up with a mixture of what could be the kids from E.T. (or maybe Red Dawn?) re-enacting American forces toppling Saddam’s statue in Iraq, but then asking themselves, "what if it was happening in America?" The irony of it all is heavily smeared on, concluding with the quick run-down of how patriotism moves about and gets passed along within the communities in Red States.

Gilbert also manages to mix the jokes in with the commentary:

…A blind taste test compared
microwavable quiche and skiwear. The bird
metaphors read differently in the wake of
avian flu and monogamous penguins living
mostly separate lives.

(From “Multiple serving size” out of the series titled “Bye-Bye, Big Wow”)

At other times, Gilbert offers a juxtaposition of images that are eerily haunting and uneasy in their suggestiveness:

Exhaust fumes make palm trees jiggle.
in the distance.
Voices inaudibly argue
on the other side of bulletproof glass.
(From section "19" of "Relative Heat Index")

Gilbert’s poems paint a world it’s difficult to believe anybody would choose to live in. Too bad they powerfully represent exactly the one many of us do live in. I'm uncomfortable with Gilbert's poems, because they reflect everything I despise in this pop-culture-obsessed period of ours. I hope that's his point, but I can't help feeling the digs he makes distract from any hope the poems have of ever being greater than bits of minor commentary. Despite being well-crafted, Gilbert's poems in The Treatment of Monuments have the feeling of another Hollywood gloss that is already so prevalent in poetryworld.

A Cruel Nirvana
By Jerome Rothenberg
SplitLevel Texts, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9858111-1-2

The Treatment of Monuments
By Alan Gilbert
SplitLevel Texts, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-985-8111-0-5



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