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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

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The Wobbling Pivot
by Skip Fox ||
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Kevin Young
To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor
Zoland Books, Cambridge, MA.

Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor immediately put me off. A poetic biography of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat where the "poetic" consisted of the repeated use of a single form with relatively minor variations. As boring in concept and execution as anything by MacLeish, Benét, Warren, or Berryman, I thought. The bio on the flyleaf, with its gab of prizes, ploughshares, and NPR, reading like mud, depressed me further. Why had I agreed to review this book? Three-hundred-and-fifty-fucking pages! I don't have that much time left, as they say. Then I began reading. It soon became apparent that Basquiat was not so much the center of this book as the main dynamic representative of a presence in the cultural-historical montage that was America in the twentieth-century, a presence rendered protean by Young in the text's sightstream as boxers (such as Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali), singers (Billie Holiday), musicians (Charlie Parker and Lester Young), blues artists (Robert Johnson), folk painters (Bill Traylor), and writers (Langston Hughes), each an articulation of the echoic possibilities and hardships, life after life, of our morphing protagonist. That's the "center." These figures are not the foils of Basquiat (though perhaps Warhol is), but the confluence of such lives which testify to the intelligence and courage with which they confronted the crude accommodations of their age. In common their confusion, frenetic activity, pain, and self-destruction. In common as well, their vitality, vision, and openness (from amid the wreckage, a naivete yet peers, etc.). Most often the very real possibility of "making it" and "after a fashion" (given some "accommodation of spirit") in the white man's world is proffered, only to be inevitably withheld (the way an armed robbery is a withholding), with the resultant failure in any terms other than their lives might attest or such a book measure. Not so comfortably conceived as I first thought.
      And the measure in its most obvious form is the terse triplet, unrhymed, generally four words per line or less, often nouns and noun phrases flying at the reader who must, if he will attend, realize these flailing clusters (think of cummings' grasshopper) in their multiple connections and witness the articulation of these joints which often seen to move, like the thumb, several ways gracefully at once. The lines themselves are bright, frenetic things, generative clusters of mind thought, cultural jabber, and luminous observations as they flow circumstantially yet inevitably through a representative life, as though each was an experiment; lines luminous with a language (Young's tongue here the sieve of culture itself) drawn from movies, ads, signage, headlines, idioms, jargon, argot, and common phrases from newspapers, labels, cartoons, and the blather of our time, the inane contiguous with the intelligent. Each noun cluster flowing into the next or interrupted by the following in the three-line time of Young's remarkably versatile tercet into an intuitive, associative, and dynamic montage of the possible and its injection into the actual world, usually with brutal results. In the hands of Young, the three-liner is an instrument capable of highly various and nuanced effects both in its isolation and as it runs through the poem, through the book.
      The intelligence of the montage (which is sometimes both overlay and sequential) is fast and facile, flying in the face of aesthetic standards based on a consistency, narrowly conceived, of tone, riding a generative engine of chance, wordplay, jokes, memory, references spawning references in parallel phrasing, as well as biographical and meditative furtherance. Amid the whiplash of reference and recognitions, Young's poetry floats just over the center, as above the rotating blades of a helicopter, almost pacific, with one or another of his figures. And over the center, as well, a faith in art itself, not just Basquiat's or his own, but the art of living as achievement, a wobbling pivot to be certain, but a pivot nonetheless. That is the diorama of the culture and these lives pivots, drunkenly, to a series of conclusions, each deadly serious. Yet in toto the work is oddly optimistic. Asserting and reasserting the fact that such men as Robert Johnson and Jean-Michel Basquiat are possible, that their lives and work engage the most essential portions of themselves despite the oppressive and ubiquitous hostility or ignorance of their time. That the world is, finally, regenerative.

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