SEPTEMBER 18, 2013
ONCE, AS A TOURIST, I fell asleep in a Parisian cathedral during mass. I don’t understand a word of French, and so, lost in the sermon of the priest, I dozed off. With only half of my mind in some dream world, I could still hear him, and his words began to stream through with sparkling clarity. I started laughing. As soon as a friend sitting beside me jammed his elbow into my side, the illusion dissolved — but the afterglow remained.
The experience of reading Adam Fitzgerald’s debut poetry collection, The Late Parade, casts a similar, singular effect. A trancelike pantoum starts, “My ode to failure begins like a girl who awakens in a dream,” sparking an electric mirage. Though the words “dream” and “sleep” appear on nearly every page, these poems wriggle out of an easy, narrative fantasia in order to enact the sensation of dreaming. Engineering these states of dreaming allows Fitzgerald to avoid the tedium that comes from hearing someone else’s airy dreams:
If my markings were a liberal-minded act
in this splooge of too-mobled monuments,
they’d first have to convene at a hospital-amphitheater,
unaware of plugged arm and chastened soup —
the [dematerialized] neuter and such; the thronging
but for black electrical dawdling.
another mawkish pine, perorates with superb verb.
(from “Sometime, Even Later”)
The range of vocabulary startles. From “mawkish” to “splooge,” Fitzgerald ambles along his choice of words like a wholesale shopper in an overstocked Costco. The tone tumbles from essayistic, to joking, to philosophical, and back again. When sense escapes, an arpeggio of sound controls his poems. His grab bag diction stretches the tendons of the English language and even has the eerie effect of turning the words foreign. What look, at first, like exotic neologisms reveal themselves as simply English. The familiar, dreamed differently.
The playful touchstones of The Late Parade span eras and media — from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The book’s title comes, curiously, from a misheard lyric of Cat Power’s “The Greatest.” His poems suck up cities, historical figures, and lines of other poets into a stunning funnel that reveals its sources while twisting into an original voice. “I frequented streets / in dreams, or in the paintings of dreams,” writes Fitzgerald in “The Map,” echoing Ashbery: “The room I entered was a dream of this room.” Later, in the same poem, Fitzgerald’s lines roam far from the Ashberian mode and bleed into the alarming headline of a CNN news ticker: “Icecapes are melting / they tell me. The sea’s loosening its / girdle. The night has lost its prescription.”
I’ve gotten to know Fitzgerald over the past few years, and the atmosphere of his readings around New York has evolved to reflect the atmosphere of his poems: a three-ring circus of the cerebral and comic, punctuated with some inevitable lecture on his influences. His book launch included a healthy swath of rare, poetry-attending non-poets who packed the room and stretched into the hallway, suggesting the wide net that Fitzgerald casts for his audience. And at these readings, Fitzgerald has repeatedly cited one influence particularly apt for discussing his work: David Lynch.
The famous dream sequence room from Twin Peaks.
It’s been seven years since Inland Empire, with no mention of a next feature, and, strangely, David Lynch remains nearly as popular as he did in the 1990s. Any recent activity from Lynch, whether a musical collaboration with Lykke Li or his first post on Vine, sets the internet abuzz. I suspect this popularity has to do with the poetic Surrealism of his films: sharp juxtaposition of genre tropes from one scene to the next (noir melts into slapstick); incongruous sound with image; and on-set script improvisation. All contribute to a feeling of freshness. All contribute to what it means to be “Lynchian” (see David Foster Wallace’s exhaustive “David Lynch Keeps His Head”).
Lynch’s calling-card style owes much to the original Surrealists. Nearly any woman talking on the phone — Isabella Rossellini or Patricia Arquette or Naomi Watts — appears in an uncomfortably close close-up, with start shadow and bright lipstick. Her lips appear to float in space. The similarity to Man Ray’s photographs “Observatory Time” and “Tears” is uncanny (and, actually, the promo-poster for Mulholland Drive with two women kissing begins to seem far less exploitive if seen as a reconstruction of Man Ray’s “The Kiss”).
Wild at Heart briefly displays three obese — and nudely amorphous — women laughing and flicking their wrists with jewel-toned fans on a bald stretch of lawn that looks remarkably like a landscape by Yves Tanguy (whose photograph, come to think of it, looks unsettlingly like Jack Nance in Eraserhead).
In the recent music video for Lynch’s “Crazy Clown Time,” a man lies down on the ground with a distinct Dalí moustache while another man lights his mohawk on fire, a reflection of the burning giraffes that Dalí called the “masculine cosmic apocalyptic monster.”
Parallels appear everywhere.
A nod to Surrealist Dali in “Crazy Clown Time.”
A brief history may be in order: the word “surrealist” now often means simply “bizarre,” and it’s easy to forget its origin in a movement. Borrowing a word coined from Apollinaire, André Breton conceived of Surrealism in reaction to the nihilistic Dada and the devastation of the Great War. Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto trumpeted the use of the everyday, juxtaposed in surprising contexts with a transparency of thought: automatic writing, collage, exquisite corpses — each process reenacted the richest source of unbridled thinking: dreams. It was this belief in the engine of dreams that drove the movement until Breton’s death in 1966, or sometime after. Though Surrealism’s direct inheritors in visual art are debatable (such varied works as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle and Basquiat’s frenetically improvised paintings owe something to Surrealist thinking, for instance), the United States’ most popular contemporary Surrealist must surely be David Lynch.
Surrealism may seem more muted in words, but The Late Parade certainly walks within this light. “In a ventilated computer shop, we carry / yesterday’s orders, detour over to some / tourist’s stolen ear,” writes Fitzgerald in “Soviet Pastoral.” In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Kyle Machlachlan finds a severed ear crawling with ants. Both draw the image from the Surrealist collective unconscious. Dalí’s “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” depicts a colony of ants swarming the ear of a woman. His “Sistine Madonna” depicts Virgin and Child inside a disembodied ear with tiny, insect-like dots. The mix of common image — an ear — in a new setting — disembodied, with or without ants — enacts one of the core thoughts in Surrealism. Fitzgerald’s effect is unsettling, since you’d have to make a conscious effort to dismember an ear, a la Van Gogh, though the added detail of “some tourist” adds a comic edge. In short, it’s Lynchian.
“Two Worlds at Once” contains one of the most vibrantly Lynchian moments in the book:
Still, a testament thins itself over dubious, envious
strings. A chill swaddles up and down circumvented
blinds, and in this gasping late evening mess hall,
particular contortions of how foreign bodies once
disposed themselves in minatory dress, eager for
close-ups, powdered in all the right and wrong places,
somehow says at least something about the procedure.
The poem drops the reader into an uncertain scene, refusing clarity. What “procedure,” exactly? We’re thrown into the mystery of noir only to come into the clearing of theatrical comedy with “powdered in all the right and wrong places.”
Both Fitzgerald and Lynch share the same control over the evocation of the weird. That is, the specific weird — not just for the shock of weirdness, but as potentional for significance. And this, I think, lies at the core of compelling Surrealist imagery.
Fitzgerald’s brand of Surrealism never feels like an imitation of Lynch. The poems do not disturb in the Lynchian way that, say, Willem Dafoe blows his own head off with a shotgun, but with the crabwalk of associative logic taken at face value. The Late Parade bathes the reader in the sheer delight of accumulation. “Collection Agency” — indebted to sculptor Joseph Cornell, himself indebted to the Surrealists — feels like a glorious stroll inside a Google image search:
The pleasure of cratered statues. Flowers of fractures cubes and mannequin bouquets. Creams, Latin grammar manuals and the seams of torn fabrics. Yarn from childish dolls and little brittle hairs.
This Bretonian-like collage is a kind of — to use a word from “Once More, With Feeling” — “über-mundanity” which creates significance in odd juxtaposition. Nothing in Lynch’s “Crazy Clown Time” looks weird by itself (a football player, some trashy white kids, a flaming grill) but all the elements thrown together and sustained with little or no narrative — now it’s surreal.
Likewise, for that surreal aura, sometimes it’s just a trick of the lighting. In one of the most suspenseful moments from Lynch’s Lost Highway, Bill Pullman walks down the hallway of his own home. He somehow moves from bright lighting into the deepest black of shadow, then reappears, as if entering from another dimension. Patricia Arquette follows in the same unnatural way. Nothing happens — yet — but the shadows play with the familiar to recontextualize the setting. Similar moments slink through Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Inland Empire.
A nighttime jog transforms into a nightmare by the quality of lighting.
I can’t help comparing this cleaved shadow and overexposure to the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico is another visual influence for Fitzgerald and, though he’s never stated it, surely for Lynch as well, who, let’s not forget, was trained as a modernist painter in Europe before experimenting in film. De Chirico’s landscapes often depict a quiet Italian piazza with a clock tower, a passing train, or a Greco-Roman statue. The subject matter should feel peaceful. Instead, the landscapes speak the unrest of Europe during wartime, a eulogy for a simpler age. And it’s in the lighting: shadows stretch across the plan of “Piazza d’Italia,” and only two figures are present, who, in this sunset relief, look conspiratorial.
In his paintings, de Chirico wished to preserve a sense of Italian heritage. In the same way, Lynch’s films pastiche American drama — the 1950s through the Hollywood vapidity of the 1990s. Fitzgerald’s poems, in turn, ooze a curious nostalgia for America in the digital age, less in setting than in their tone of thought:
We bench-press archways with our eyes
recalling a time when we actually had eyes.
Yes, that was eons ago, gazing inside at TV
bunkers as Shock-&-Awe hunkered down
for supper, a roseate ghostly assembly line
producing but bruise. I could use a good one
come to think of it. And nickeled-and-dimed,
halter-top waters rise.
(from “The Late Parade”)
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the cover of The Late Parade is a painting by Emilia Sanchez, whose severe shadows on the side of a Brooklyn building resemble an American breed of the Italian piazza.
In Lynch’s Wild at Heart, creepy-teethed Willem Dafoe does not rape Laura Dern, as we might expect, but enacts a more mental violation. Lynch anticipates the expected and reroutes his viewers into the uncharted. After Dafoe leaves, Dern lingers in the middle of the room, wounded, though not physically. The effects seem to have happened in her mind.
Though not brutal, Fitzgerald’s poems anticipate similar expectations, both aural and visual, and march around them, bewildering with warped psychoacoustics. Different words than the ones printed present themselves:
Chance had its
narration, the way our story continually evolves against
iterations — Germanic in origin, infecting, ruminatory
perhaps for a sweet morsel that’s still dinted along
a bedpost sometimes sanctioned in the sleevelessness
that besets us best. What do you think of this postcard,
Emil? In an op-ed I penned sometime in the mid-80s,
I decreed I would never stanchion myself in either tether.
(from “Mountain Story”)
At first glance, both “sleevelessness” and “Emil” look like typos. Suggested by “bedpost” and “postcard,” my mind sees “sleeplessness” and “E-mail” instead. The word “rheumatism” haunts the line “Germanic in origin, infecting, ruminatory” like an auditory hallucination.
Sound leads the way in these poems, and they remind me of William H. Gass’s admission that “sound sometimes rushes ahead of sense, and forces such sense, gasping and panting, to catch up.” In this way, his poems approximate an experience of pure sound with false starts of thought, heard clearly in the disorienting “Ho’oponopono”:
I have perigees for your flare, O prom-thing one.
After jouncing around, you should discover me
in this breech of peopled changes, like a gilt slit
on a bodily macadam where cockscombs spill.
Anyone who assumes that Surrealism already had its moment with no lasting relevance in 21st- century letters has clearly never received a mysterious auto-corrected text message. One odd word mashed into casual syntax can send the mind reeling — at least until the error is clarified. These surprising pathways to the unrealized, via the route of seeming mundanity, are what Fitzgerald is after, what Lynch is after, Dalí, Ray.
Fitzgerald begins one of his poems, “I didn’t always have this douchebag haircut” — a risky, lowbrow dig that’s intricately rescued with the next line, “Trestle of colonnades, the Arc of Avenues.” In fact, that sharp dip in diction helps to foreground the elegance of the second line.
David Lynch’s comparable lowbrow dips are, perhaps, his most surreal moments: his commercials. Lynch has written and directed many commercials in signature style that include otherworldly spots for the NYC Garbage System, designer perfumes, and, most recently, a 16-minute Dior ad starring Marion Cotillard in which a blue handbag appears in her Shanghai hotel room via a cloud of smoke. His brief ad for PlayStation depicts a duck and a mummy sitting on a floating couch without any obvious context — this marketing tactic apparently proved far more effective to test audiences than a standard commercial.
A Lynchian Doritos commercial appears exactly how you might expect. “A chill swaddles up and down the blinds” — almost literally. A lone man cowers in a perfectly nice apartment, checking the blinds like a paranoid schizophrenic and munching a bag of Doritos. (Use of mundanity in a new context? asks Breton. Check.) Any overt attempt to sell the Doritos is absent, and the whole thing smacks of parody.
The uneasy humor that drives these commercials actually makes them more effective, and Surrealism falls flat today without its comic possibilities. Inland Empire is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen — how can I forget the desperate prostitute who stabs Dern in the side with a screwdriver as she ambles helplessly, crying, to the middle of the intersection at Hollywood and Vine? — and yet, despite covering my face with my hands for a good portion of the film, in other spots I laughed harder than I have at a movie in years.
One of the great moments of Inland Empire is the chorus of girls-gone-wild prostitutes who dance to a choreographed version of “The Locomotion” in Dern’s living room, and then vanish. However, the scene is not exactly as non sequitur as it appears at first. Train whistles sound throughout the film, and the scene functions as a much-needed release of tension. As Dern contemplates core ideas about identity and existence, Lynch provides an externalized vaudeville act, a kind of living room soul train that undercuts the melodrama of the scene.
The poems of The Late Parade cleverly employ comedy as a tool for establishing tone (or razing it), and evoking moments of significance:
We are all of us forging ahead through
The garden furiously alone. What awaits?
The profundity of these two lines could stand alone, but threatens to rust in its rhetorical metaphysics. The question for Fitzgerald is not rhetorical. What awaits?:
Pants-suits, haunting brochure-snippets …
The comedy here works not as mere levity, but, unfortunately, as a dark über-mundanity of truth that awaits many of us in domestic American life.
Laura Dern is hit with the reality of the news in a comic scene from Wild at Heart.
A comic sensibility runs wildly throughout contemporary American poetry, but it’s rarely handled with such dual strength of shock and gravity. Often, the shock value overpowers. For instance, Frederick Seidel is either America’s funniest or most disturbing poet, depending on who you talk to: “You’re a miracle in a whirlpool / In your blind date’s vagina / At your age. Nothin could be fina. / You eat off her bone china” (“The State of New York”). If this aggressive persona is, indeed, facetious, the sing-song tone conjures a cartoonish view of the world that’s difficult to connect with anything significant. Perhaps that’s the idea. And if it is, it seems to be either a reflection of meaninglessness — a loss in the trust of words — or an exercise in pushing the envelope.
Similarly, Michael Robbins’s recent Alien vs. Predator masters a kind of buzz-word throttle, appropriating quotations in a similar process. In a poem published in Poetry Magazine he writes: “I write about cats. Cats, when you read this / write about me. Be the change you want to see” (“That’s Incredible!” Poetry Magazine). Robbins highlights the over-quoted Gandhi line as if to mock the poetic expectation of wisdom, but he never offers an alternative. Should we put the book down and leave it at that? Irony floods the line with a laugh — but I wonder if the line resonates beyond that. Irony seems less of a tool in Seidel and Robbins, and more of a subject.
In contrast, Fitzgerald’s frivolity uses irony sparingly. From pop art to internet memes, irony has become such an expected tone as to be less effective as communication of experience. Fitzgerald’s phylum of comedy contains the Big Questions about existence, human nature, and responsibility in the world. In their surreality and humor, the poems offer a glimpse inside our distracted minds: “Nanny outfits and monster-trucks preoccupy us. Other ideas, intangible as sapphire, like this abominable war soon to begin again.” The first part of the line is jokey — but it’s certainly not ironic, and it accurately mirrors the normalized way one might have three tabs of a browser open to The New York Times, Facebook, and porn.
“We are still living under the reign of logic,” wrote Breton. One hundred years later, the same can apply to the defaulted American way of life. “Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of madmen. And note how this madness has taken shape, and endured.”
It seems miraculous that the work of David Lynch has infiltrated the core of the American culture machine (in commercials, blockbusters, and TV), that so many Americans are challenged by his alternative to the logical narrative, and that they welcome that challenge.
Yet as people walk all the time
in the same spot, a path appears: our very own
Adam and Eve, for what worries you
masters you. Two players, two sides: one
light, one dark, and everything is nothing
but a dream. Reasoning and arguments are
of no use. Everyone pays the price now….
(from Fitzgerald’s “Poem for John Locke”)
Among a swirl of logical distractions and time-saving apps, “[e]veryone pays the price now.” Surrealism and its inherent comedy offer relief, lest, in dwelling on the efficiency of our era, we go insane. Goethe was once noted as saying, “Only the perverse fantasy can still save us.” I would like to append that, and add that the comically perverse fantasy may save us yet.