Sunday, August 30, 2009
I remember exactly, precisely, when I first met Garrett Caples—1995 in the lobby of the Berkeley Art Museum, pushing a friend of his, Paul, in a wheelchair, and wearing a cap. We’ve actually only met in person four times. The other times were when he read at Double Happiness, raw full-on more nervous then perhaps I've ever seen a poet at a reading, then again when we met at a café near Moe's during my visit to California in 2003—he was reading The Garrett Caples Reader when I walked in, and he said, "I forgot how this is pretty good," which I found narcissistic and totally anti-narcissistic at the same time—and then last year when he gave a beautiful rhythm-layered read at the Poetry Project. We had gone out to eat beforehand at that super-cheap Japanese restaurant on St. Mark's with the giant panda thing out front with the flashing red eyes. (My encounters with Garrett have always had interesting backdrops). What I hadn't known through three of our meetings was that Garrett not only wrote poems with force in both sound and content—and here, inspired by a reading that his close friend and collaborator Brian Lucas gave, in which he flipped through Poems for the Millennium reading lines at random, I'll open a page or two at random from Complications and let my eye fall upon a few lines:
Barbara tell it on guitar
this tale of wunderbar
Those are from "A Young Girl Recalls Meeting Erich von Stroheim," dedicated to Barbara Guest.
And one more flip, falling upon a few lines from "Chanson de Googoo," dedicated to Michael Palmer.
And lest you think all Caples' poems are dedicated to someone or another (where's mine, Garrett?!?), I'll make a choice at this point, from "Dub Song of Prufrock Shakur." Oh, wait, this one is for Philip Lamantia and "secretly for Creeley."
now more than ever
no more than ever
Anyway, but what I didn't know until our last meeting was that Garrett also wrote about hip hop. He is the author of The Philistine's Guide to Hip Hop and I imagine the complex, abstract yet emotional soundscapes of his poems, percussive and multitonal, take from hip hop, as well as the surrealists, Ted Berrigan, Guest, Lamantia. I know in the 1990s a lot of poets were interested in hip hop (called rap then) and its potentialities with speech and rhyme and stage presence, but somehow that all got lost in a widening division between the Poetry Project/Language poets and the Nuyorican scene. Now hip hop isn’t acknowledged much nowadays in something like, say, flarf, even though it probably opened some of the doors that flarf enters. Garrett looks at a lot of things—poets, music, art—with unshuttered eyes; I always learn a lot from him and like to catch up on his gossip of the surprising. I look forward to the fifth visit.
I met Garrett first through his work and later in person because we were friends of Barbara Guest. In the few years before she died, Barbara was made happy by her associations with those she called "the young surrealists." Garrett visited with her frequently. I don’t know when Garrett began his explorations in surrealism, perhaps through his friendship with Philip Lamantia.
Garrett's poetry seems to embody several qualities modernists received from poets of long ago—particularly Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and the spirit of late nineteenth century séances. Sometimes it seems he is being witty about the occult, but it can also be a serious matter. Madame Blavatsky might have issued a warning to Garrett because his poems go deep and sideways on a path, they speak from below, with the Poe in poetry. The poet is a man walking on his hands. The world of Garrett's poems is the world of dreams and childhood, of the unexplained—a place where the fable meets the riddle.
Sometimes he delicately separates the small bones of a sentence ("Synth"). I appreciate the chemistry of word-pairings in his poetry. Words can stroll in twos like girls to a matinee: "coal/goal//lone/lust//tone/dust" ("Four Tune").
Or create a magic tumble: "stars are wet with children dressing."
When the demonic enters his work, I am reminded of Baudelaire’s interest in flowers: "Baudelaire's favorite flowers were neither daisy, carnation, nor rose; he would break into raptures at the sight of those thick-leaved plants that look like vipers about to fall on their prey..." (W. Benjamin quoting Champfleury in Arcades Project).
In their raids on the beyond—including writings of homage to artists who have died—Garrett's poems often show tenderness (the piece on Thom Gunn) and so create passageways between apparently private worlds.
The work of Garrett Caples has always seemed to me a form of "anti-work," in more than one sense: "anti-work" as in "anti-aesthetic," demonstrated by his refusal to conform to any of the present trends of poetic practice, post-avant or otherwise; but also "anti-work" as in "anti-task," reflecting a sensibility that revels in the primacy of play, that rebels against the careerist call to order of the school bell or the MFA factory whistle. Instead, Caples's poetry manifests a laughingly dark umor (a paradoxical condition, first defined by Jacques Vaché, in which the power of death is reclaimed for amor). Here, the melancholia of the reality principle is swallowed whole by the pleasure principle, as if it were a Plutonian drug. What results is a kind of ecstatic doubt, a state of suspended fall: "The sun doesn't rise so much as light surrounds us until we ascend into night. We killed people, it's true, to adjust their attitude, but could you have lived in their town? A house that was eating itself before it was even home? My bed was in the fireplace," Caples testifies in the prose poem "Untitled," from his latest collection Complications. Throughout, Caples's lower-case "i" cases the lower casements of the real, returning in Orphic style, knowing that "the hole in the mirror laughs" (as he puts it in his prose poem "Orpheus"). In both of his full-length books, The Garrett Caples Reader and Complications (both featuring provocative designs by Jeff Clark), Caples purveys a poetic "synth" that fuses the lyric, satiric, and elegiac modes, and refuses the standard format of "the poetry collection" by including short essays and other prose statements. Indeed, Caples proves himself the trickster at every level of the poetic act, taxing the sins of syntax and turning the merely semantic mantic, as in the snakelike slyness of his phrase "Turning on the Tongue" (the title of a poem in Complications). Especially in his poems with short lines, Caples goes round with sound to found and confound meaning: "i nose / for noise," he confesses in "Dub Song of Prufrock Shakur." In phrases like "lamplit armpit" and "sup on pus," Caples bathes in high bathos, tickling the ridiculous until it sublimes. As the poet avers in "Gauntlet of Two" (from The Garrett Caples Reader): "It was simply a case of lost absolutes. A game of cat and mouth." He is is the brash actor who rushes unannounced into the action of the play of language (violating the script). He is Garrett Caples, agent of mad love.
I first met Garrett Caples at the Taiwan Restaurant on University Ave. in Berkeley, CA in 1996. I had (or was about to) publish some of his poems in my magazine, Angle. Lunch was served and we ate heartily for about $3 each. We never returned together to Taiwan Restaurant for various reasons that have, at times, haunted me.
The one poem by Garrett that I like is "All Chemical" and this only because it is dedicated to me. I also enjoy the poems he has yet to publish, ones that I've heard read in the living rooms of our various friends in common, poems that if not dedicated to me I will pretend not to have heard.
Garrett continuously moves through phases, the most recent could be compared to Captain Beefheart jamming in Sun Ra's Myth Science Arkestra with an appearance by the Heiroglyphics. Garrett's words are open to everyone except the uninitiated. To become initiated would take iron lungs and a fondness for blue silk shirts.
I'm pleased to see he has been getting some attention in Pennsylvania because he's worn us out here in California.