Review by Jamey Hecht
This is a grim book, unabashedly autobiographical and laced with memories of sexual abuse, alcoholism, violence, and despair. The title denies that all of this has made for a miserable life, so it performs a little test on the reader, of the rabbit-vs-duck variety: when you finish the book, close the cover, and get struck again by the odd title, do you hear in it mere denial and repression, or some hard-won transcendence of pain? It can't be the latter, since the title doesn't say, well, things sucked but I'm over it now. It says that somehow he started out--and remained--happy in a life that sounds like a horror show. So our choices are denial on the one hand, and a miraculous unshakeable contentment arising from innate good cheer, on the other. As Wittgenstein said in his business about "aspect-seeing," you might be able to see both the rabbit and the duck, but not at the same time. I suspect that the title is a kind of lie; that Pietrzykowski (that would be PYETER-ZOO-CUFF-SKI) knows that we know it isn't true; and that the denial here is shot through with pathos, as if to say, look at this: a predicament that can't be coped with except through denial. Here's the opening poem. Check whether the book's title rings true:
One of the points I try to make as I go through the world scribbling and chatting is this: there are many, many kinds of good poem, and if something flops as one type (say, my favorite: the condensed, serious, hypnotically musical, semi-political poem of private intensity and public issues, with internal rhyme, memorable formulations, and hard-hitting closure), it can succeed as another (say, the flowing and charming "Ultra-Talk" poem of a David Kirby or a Mark Halliday). I feel as if the poems in this particular Pietrzykowski book are successful along a literary axis that holds success of any kind in contempt (see the back of the book for an example). I do not like these poems, but I respect them--a lot. They are the truth about a shitty existence in a dying country. If Life Studies and The Dream Songs were purely private lyrics I might not keep on reading them, but I do, in part because the individual lives they articulate with such terrible beauty are shaped by America's growth and decay which I find permanently interesting. Pietrzykowski is at his best when the public implications of his life rise to the surface. To my mind, this is the meaning of the closing line in A Good Toss. What happened to the community of intersecting interests that was supposed to protect people from the demons inside themselves and each other? What happened to the traditions, the institutions, the relationships that usually prevent people from torturing infants? "I don't know where everybody went, John said."
There's beauty here: "...as though an ocean / Had formed from all the stories poured / Into the helpless mouths of the dead, / Overflowing them with the shared memory / Of a golden age that never happened..." The golden age that never happened is both a public and a private one: public, because the normative culture that the kid rejects is based on this bogus utopian myth (and the claim that if everybody is a good little jingoistic Cub Scout, everything will remain golden forever); private, because the golden age of a safe childhood (the "improved infancy" Hart Crane wished for) never happened in this person's life.
It's hard to tell whether this amounts to a sane longing for Buddhist detachment, or a crazy death-wish. As for the hand up his ass, two things come to mind. First, this is an old-time American issue, as old as the Emersonian puzzle about whether we can really become Democratic, Edenic new people, or if internalized European culture will keep our minds English and Feudal. The cosmic version is in Melville: "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, god, or Who, that lifts this arm?" Next, consider these lines of Pietrzykowski on his grandmother: "She used to catch me alone / And dig a fingernail into the soft skin / Of my anus like she was trying / To get the last olive / From the jar." It seems several questions are being asked at once here. Am I my own authentic, self-governing identity, or am I the puppet of a toxic national culture? Or the puppet of my own childhood traumas, the literal source of the hand-up-ass metaphor? The poems are the actual answer, one which does not resolve the question; the process of making them is a substitute for the imaginary answer that would. In a poem called How About A Little Fire, we hear another version of this question: "I would overextend / Myself sooner or later and have to choose fast / Between imagining I was worth / What we chose to call love / And feeling at home in the absence thereof." I call this the same question because laying claim to love is hard when the self is just a product of socially constructed codes and dismal fate.
Nobody in this book is equipped to talk to anybody else, and the most touching passages are generally about failed communication. Here are the last lines of And We Moved Like Heat:
That's the height of social evolution in the world of these poems: a Hobbesian nightmare of insomnia and tears in which every dog in the neighborhood barks at all the others. With those lines in mind I read the poet's 2004 essay "On the Privatization of Poetry," in which he's critical of Enlightenment assumptions about why people do what they do:
Yes, the prevailing wisdom of American capitalism is bullshit. What's interesting is that, as the poet says and knows all too well, (a) people do not always do what their "best interests" would indicate--since, for example, they can be found poisoning themselves, as in the striking poem Lost in the Land of the Holy Ones, whose first section is called "Smoking Crack on the Loading Dock of Michael Jordan's Restaurant"--and (b) an ideology that sees only rational choice, and is blind to irrational passions, has made a culture more marked by hatred and neglect than by love and deference. The speaker of that poem is neither a bourgeois seated at the table, nor a prole toiling in the kitchen (anymore); he's a socially dead person with no destiny, a person whom America has failed. Note that the speaker of any poem is not necessarily identical to the author, who may be a very different man. I close with lines from Pietrzykowski's Maukin at the Harvest Home:
...and the whole time I was quite happy is a good strong book which I confess I hated. It is well worth reading, and it will make you thankful for such love as you've got.
Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.