Academic journal article Chicago Review

Music and Suicide

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Music and Suicide

Article excerpt

Jeff Clark. Music and Suicide. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004. 80pp. $20

Egon Schiele's Two Women Crouching depicts its eponymous two women indeed crouching against a formless, sickly green background. The women are naked (Schiele may be the painter who most fully grasped the implications of Manet's Olympia, viz. the pornographic impulse implicit in all representational painting). They face the viewer with eerily remote expressions, akin to the dead twins in Kubrick's The Shining, and large patches of muddy, furry brown appear where their vaginas should be. One can imagine the stir the painting caused in 1912. It encapsulates in a single image the themes that define Expressionism and its wayward descendent Surrealism: an obsessive, anxious sexuality; a yearning to express an innerness repressed by traditional formulas of art (and life) in tandem with a persistent skepticism that such innerness even exists, or could ever be expressed; and a depressive insistence that experience tends inexorably toward disintegration.

Herein lies the inevitable question for anyone who, like me, regards Jeff Clark as one of our most significant younger poets. Clark unabashedly inherits the tattered cloak and frigid garret of Expressionism. His work abounds with haunted, obscure sexual encounters, mysterious transformations, fat black spiders, and a poetic protagonist tortured by the very possibility of referring to himself, by the lie that such an attempt, mediated by consciousness, language, or the distortions of publicity entails. Consider this passage from the prose poem "Teheran":

Ride a motorcycle into a house, up a staircase, into a little room where two couples are cooing at babies in prams. I excuse myself overpolitely and maneuver the motorcycle through the room, down the stairs and back outside.

Mom and Dad screwing, she looking back at me.

Meet someone named Jeff Clark.

The passage is easily recognizable as the transposition of gestures pioneered by the likes of Rimbaud, Breton, or Cocteau into a contemporary American idiom (though we should also note the "overpolitely," the mark of a signature American gawkiness that runs throughout Clark's writing). Doesn't he realize that he's a century or so too late?

Clark's second book, Music and Suicide, is most exciting to me, and most clearly an advance from his debut The Little Door Slides Back (first published by Sun and Moon in 1997, reprinted last year by FSG), in its explicit grappling with the viability of his project. Not that the book is without missteps, lapses into a perfunctory pastiche of high decadence (most frequently, to my mind, in the shorter, primarily sound-driven poems like "Spirals"). But these lapses are excused by the depth and difficulty of the question at the heart of the book, none other than whether poetry can survive as a living art. Clark's answer, paradoxically, is that it can do so only through necromancy. Only out of the corpse of its exhausted history can poetry be reanimated. Given the numbing automatism of the major poetic ideologies on offer today-a mannered and hollow formalism, no more deserving of the name "conservative" than its political analogue; a positivistic and attenuated vanguardism, threatening ever more daily to collapse into its own brand of formalism; and the empty consumerist pluralism of the "post-avant"-the ability of Clark and others like him to articulate and enact an alternative vision has the highest possible significance for our poetic moment.

So what is a necromantic poetics, and how could it possibly achieve such grand ambitions? I find the beginnings of an answer in "Shiva Hive," the long prose poem/dialogue at the center of Music and Suicide. The poem presents itself as a correspondence between a naïve and romanticizing epigone and a mentor with the linguistic and philosophical tics of a Blanchot or Levinas, instructing the younger voice on the complexities of obsession, desire, devotion, and recognition. …

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