Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Power Ballads by Garrett Caples (Released by Wave Books, 2016)
it takes a
lot out of
me to be
the one to
see the mortal
remains remain but
someone is to
blame for the
indescretions hectoring me
from “Zen of Nez” (65)
It only takes several seconds on a search engine to answer some of the 2016 questions of poetry: why do people read it now and what does it offer in our latest age of consumption, in our latest age under the threat of authoritarianism? To some poetry is supporting and healing. To some it is about creating perspectives, offering images and lessons of hope. Much of what fuels poetry is the expectation of newness, always. A consistent looking forward, a continued reviewing of what has come before in hopes of describing what might be and what might continue to be. Power Ballads by Garrett Caples serves the reader in just such a way. As a collection of works mostly looking inward, works Caples has constructed as representation of the self or about representation of the self, especially in a world of excruciating absurdity and/or/because of madness, this book serves as one of many books of poems enjoyable to read in 2016.
Despite the lingering haze of an institution of privilege throughout the book, which I discuss below, the poems that make up Power Ballads are a reflection, at their core, answering the why of poetry needed today. Poetry as needed in everyday life by everyday people, poetry as needed to represent the full range of human experience, poetry as humor and critical commentary. Poetry as past and present and future, as thorough reflection of the self and the world beyond the self. These and more are the elements that go into poetry, that gives us reasoning behind why poetry exists, and why poetry is so valuable in an age of uncertainty, insecurity, and transition.
For poems to be enjoyable they must be pondersome, but also they are to evoke emotion: the positive lightning of laughter, the endless realms of sadness and pain. Poets do this, but how? For Caples, in both the book and the individual poem, the inquisition and the core emotive qualities are provided through significant anchoring. These anchors come in forms. There are anchors to love, like in the opening “Avid Diva,” which is a 2016 version of the call to the muse, the chorus before the flood of experience. The sonic qualities in this opening poem remind me of the convergence of seriousness and playfulness within the deepest forms of love: “avid diva, visit me / dispense divine advice / o radiant deviant” (1). Crisp lines like these are planted throughout this poem and the book as a whole, offering a sobering anchor and offering a way to trust Caples as the provider of significantly heavy, engaging poetic experiences. Other thematic anchors throughout Power Ballads include: social humor, a personalization of cultural history, and a revolving (a retrospection) around the self, to name a few. And in writing those anchors down, I ask myself: “what poets don’t do these things?” and “are these universal qualities to poetry?” Sometimes more so than others. Caples comes through here, though, and provides us with a presence of his own craft. Consistencies allow us a healthy, engaged romp through the relatively brief 31 poems in 83 pages, a small book that, despite a few exceptions which I mention below, has no need or calling to be significantly larger.
my lamp is damp
with doggy dew
squish beneath my feat
laughter in my slaughter
house drowns out
touch of mothertough
from “Dark Candle” (19)
“Dark Candle” is like many of the poems in this book: it is the about the area between the self and the world we encounter. In this case “we” is a very individualized, personalized voice, that anchor I mention above. Most poems by Garrett Caples are very obviously about or through Garrett Caples, a quality I admire and have been influenced by for years, in my own writings. The sonic arrangements he provides create an extraordinary perspective through voice alone, while also offering descriptions of what it means to live, observe, and be. It is the primal quality of humanity. It’s the core of who we are as blips in the otherwise anonymous collective, ghostly crawling through our own maps of reality.
Moments such as those in the poem above are moments that are constructed out of the poet’s relationship to place. How we go about being in a place, describing it, using our faculties to describe it. As Caples illustrates in poems like “Love is Made of Sky” and “My Black Diary,” the poet is fully capable when going beyond the individual moment and wrapping up the context with the powers and effects of time travel. Humans come from some space, move into the current space, and move on. And how that entire arc of arcs falls into place is one of the major resolving qualities poetry has in its reflection of humanity. “My Black Diary” is a lovely, endearing look at this phenomenon of time, or Time, and why it is so necessary in cultivating the intimate and the personal in a place in our greater timeline that evokes darkness and terror:
a congressional address. an elegy for a musician including a line from renoir’s the river. an elegy for an apartment. an elegy for a poet. an elegy for a relative. an elegy for my best friend. an elegy for myself. it ends in 306 one-word lines composed entirely in four-letter words. (25)
What has come before, what still is (including all those memories), and what could be: the states of our endurance and our witness. The documentation and exploration of the incredibly personal in is met with the larger universe and that, at least for me, is the high-point (the highest quality) in Caples’s writing. In “Oakland,” a semi-epic homage to the incredibly-storied Bay Area city, Caples explores the ranges of urban and home identity through the process of being in that city fulfilling many roles and identities. Arguably “Oakland” is a poem that deserves a book of its own, an extension that continues where Caples has started it, if only because of the love that is bound to this poem as a poem representative of so much existence.
Similarly, in terms of tone and serving as a rather vicious exploration of criticism against authoritarianism (in all the right ways), “Margin of Terror” represents the activation of citizenship and commentary on what society is for and who acts within it:
a safecracker. a safe cracker. a man with his tongue in your ears. a spider who enters your internet. a government. an earwig drawn to your underwear drawer. your transvestite gettysburg ip address. a pistol palace with raunchy guards. america’s varicose veins, the bloodclot in its brain. (44)
There are moments in Power Ballads that bring the rhythm and song of the lyrical verse into a prose form, and in the cases of the list poem (as seen in “Margin of Terror”) these moments are welcome. However, some of the continued socio-political perspectives showing themselves in prose writings like “Parable” and “Self-Portrait as James Bond” fall sullenly short. The writing does not suffer in these works individually, but when paired with the immensity of the heart throughout the book, my inner urge was to reject these pieces for being coarse, misplaced, or perhaps even misled in their silliness and pairing with the other poems which more profoundly affected me. Despite the disharmonious juxtaposition, these pieces, as well as the rather-epic inspection of Marlo Brando in “Gut of Brando” are light and humorous and genius, and are not terrible to read. And perhaps that is Caples’s intention all along: to provide an anchor of ease at crucial points, a light spirit that balances our reading experience, a “why so serious” punctuation, perhaps?
Near the end of the book, there are two poems that overwhelmed me with empathy and optimism, which I believe serve as keystone statements for the book’s place in our fragile American society (and other fragile societies too!). First, in one of the ten poems Caples writes for Philip Lamantia, we see the role of the poet as individual and fellow human among us all: “you show me / you. it’s enough” (69). Second, in a poem called “The Cantos, Then Tacos / (Dictation from Barbara Guest),” Caples gently places, almost secretively, a line that describes just how important poetry and language reflect onto our life and relationship to the past, the present, and the future (all which help shape us): “the poem / becomes / los angeles / by means of / mental geometry / rigid grid / on fluid spine / the colossal / squid’s giant / eye” (76). These lines and so many others crop up when least expected and contribute value to the canon of American poetry and I hope they will be remembered as such.
At the beginning of this piece, I spoke of the haze of an institution of privilege, and it reads as though I am personally judging Garrett Caples and his work in this book, but that is not true. It is not a judgment upon Caples or other individual writers of poetry existing in this haze. The poems work. The poets work. These things and these people are effective. Instead, I wish to spend this last moment in this review talking about the bigger picture. We are at a point where the privilege of creating books that lack greater context, explanation, and lack an explicit expression of goals and intentions serves as a demeaning counterpoint to the works and the workers themselves.
We cannot ignore the short explanations Caples and other writers provide in their books (whether notes leading into the book or footnotes at the end). These comments provided on craft and references are nice and partially descriptive, and though I love the general sense of mystery that floods the book from the smallest to the largest references, from the smallest to the largest experiences, what Caples is capable of deserves more space, deserves more explanation. I really wanted to know the larger context and how this book of poetry, like so many other books of poetry, aims to contribute to humanity. I wanted “beyond the poem.” And maybe this desire is what poets like Caples want us to read the poems to learn. Maybe. But maybe also there simply deserves to be more context, greater sense of why with these otherwise ghostly books of poems. Because I have Caples wonderful book in my hand, but as I shelve it, what symbolic urges will spur me to take it back off the shelf again, rather than some other book for some other obscure reason.
The books that warm our hearts and push us fiery into the future through strategies of empathy are the books that serve as a precursor to what is possible, and what readers of poetry and survivors of oppression deserve. I thus defer my criticism and judgment to the mode of the liminal, and uplift this book for what it is in this age and how it falls in-line with how poets and publishers create works today. While Caples is part of a cast that is fully capable of outputting brilliant poetic works into the readers’ domains, this book and others like it show us that so many poets will have continued energy to move forward and delimit the status quo, so that poets and lovers of poetry alike can be taken forward in the embrace of humanity and its love, and know not just that we like to read poetry in an age of uncertainty, but why: why this poem, why this book, why this power ballad, why this whatever, but why this in particular.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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