April 14th, 2008

Review by Jamey Hecht

by Marc Pietrzykowski


Zeitgeist Press
1630 University Avenue #34
Berkeley, CA 94703
ISBN: 0-929730-86-0
67 pp., $12.95

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:


Uncle Patrick thought it'd be funny to get the baby drunk,
But Uncle John was too drunk to do any laughing.
Aunt Cathy, the babysitter, was in the backyard with a mescaline grin.
Cathy's boyfriend Frank cried cause he pissed on a tree and heard it scream,
So he covered the trunk with shaving cream.
Uncle Patrick poured schnapps into the baby's throat--
The baby smiled and then pissed and shit all over the bed.
Uncle John was snoring. He was in the La-Z-Boy
When Grandpa came home and found the house nearly empty,
The booze all gone, Uncle John asleep, the backyard littered with bottles
And shaving cream, and the baby lying naked
On Grandpa's bed, lolling in a puddle of urine and feces.
Grandpa always made his bed like he'd done in the army.
Grandpa always made it bounce-a-nickel taut and no one dared touch it.
Grandpa grabbed the baby by the neck and threw it in the closet.
Uncle John woke up and heard the baby crying, then heard it stop.
Annie came home from the movie and asked where her baby was.
"I don't know where everybody went," John said.

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."
Get On With It is an anecdote about a Cramps concert that took place when the speaker was a teenager, followed by some interesting statements:


By the grace of the pituitary I hit
Six feet tall and fifteen years old
Simultaneously, and with a bit of fuzz
Glazing my cheek as well the fake ID
Was just convincing enough to get me
Past the junky bouncer and inside the bar
Where The Cramps were playing. Ian
Brought blue microdots, so small
I took three, washed 'em down with MD
Twenty-Twenty in the alleyway--and so
Punk rock changed my life, or maybe
It was all the acid, or else when I saw
The lead singer stick his fingers up
Into the drop ceiling and yank down
At least half the tiles and then start
To club the bar owner with a bottle
I knew, sure as spit, that I would rather
Rise up with ribaldry, stage flytings
And fight over beer than spend
One more day receiving the word:
This is how we behave in public,
This is how we make America proud,
This is how we excel at standardized
Testing, this is how we bury our scent
Under pastes, sprays and powders.
It was difficult to convince those believers
Who'd invented my own best interest
That I wanted none of their logos,
That I was more than a little bent,
That I was plain crooked... still, I managed,
And just in time to see the word
rising like the tide
All around me, 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--
It has always been this way, of course,
All puppet and no string, so that the hand
Going up my ass and making my mouth
Move and my eyes roll is surely my own.
Or maybe not. The hardest thing
Is trying to make it be still: a boat
With no captain. A tree too gnarled
To give shade. A thing among things.
That's the trick, the one I keep failing
To learn, and so make poems instead.

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.
Get On With It is a poem of social death, in which the speaker loses his place in the community not by becoming a slave or going to prison, but by hiding inside a false dichotomy: either be a sociopath or a model citizen. At the cusp of adulthood, a rite of passage transpires: the kid gets into a bar using a fake identity; sees a band beat their host and trash his establishment for no apparent reason; eats a huge amount of LSD; and makes what Lou Reed's song Heroin calls "a very big decision." He decides to identify with the cruel slobs around him, as though that were the only way to reject America's myth of the golden age and the "believers" who would harness him to it. Of course, the horrible behavior of his original abusers happened because they made the same sort of decision in the past, to become outsiders to decency and, in the name of their own wild freedom, let the baby lie in its own shit, "a thing among things." The speaker seems different from his uncles and grandfather in that he's sometimes quite interested in life. But the "fake ID" problem is not over with, and the poem's ending is a tableau of confusion about who the speaker ultimately is, and just where his decision (a preference, really) has left him:

It has always been this way, of course,
All puppet and no string, so that the hand
Going up my ass and making my mouth
Move and my eyes roll is surely my own.
Or maybe not. The hardest thing
Is trying to make it be still: a boat
With no captain. A tree too gnarled
To give shade. A thing among things.
That's the trick, the one I keep failing
To learn, and so make poems instead.

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:

And so we sobbed quietly in our beds
Like the grownups did, putting one leg out
From under the sheets to keep cool,
Listening to every dog
In the neighborhood bark at all the others.

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:

The root theory underpinning the push for increased privatization of public services is the Rational Choice model, which is based on the idea that, all things being equal, individual human beings will perform rational cost/benefit analyses of any and every situation before choosing a plan of action that best satisfies their individual needs. This is a very old idea, of course, and was the guiding principle behind Adam Smith's attempt at describing a science of economics, since, as he asserts "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." Anyone who has taken Economics 101 in the last twenty years has learned the Rational Choice model, and its continued influence on economic theory is due primarily to its simplicity: once human relationships are reduced to a system of exchange, all aspects of culture can appear mathematically explicable. The fact that the Rational Choice model consistently fails to predict human behavior certainly helps explain why its advocates rarely subject its predictions to empirical testing, since its appeal rests primarily on pretension to scientific authority.

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:

We were young, and so believed
That through disorder we might escape
the plots numbered for us on the far field,
That way of going down into the earth
without disturbing the slumber of a single rock or root--

...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.


Jamey Hecht is a Development Associate with Red Hen Press, and a Senior Staff Writer for From the Wilderness. (www.jameyhecht.com)




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.