Friday, February 4, 2011

A Review: Terminal Diagrams by Garrick Davis

Terminal Diagrams
by Garrick Davis
2010, Swallow Press, $13.56 ($5 ebook)

It is possible that in Terminal Diagrams we have been given a rare bird--a collection of poems that seems at once Christian and reactionary (as in rejecting this modern age). I believe that Don Colacho would be fond of much of this work.

This is not to say the collection is flawless--indeed, like the sinners that it drinks with it has flaws and, I would argue, is aware of them.

One is alerted to the "different" nature of this book from the very cover--we have Mr. Davis and a lovely lady coming out of a gleaming Maserati--made more gleaming by the book's silvered cover. It is telling that a collection of poems that as objects on the page look unflashy and full of "quietude" that the cover and content should be so unashamedly forceful.

The first poem is the book's epigram, in which we find the terms "mechanical," "pandaemonium," and "sotto-voce." Unlike many, this is a useful clue to the contents of the poems within--wefind in the collection a syzygy of the temporal, the canonical, and the classical. Though Davis's poems engage Eliot more than Milton, the Revelation imagery that presents itself in the volume's final poems stretch his depth of influence to a refreshing pandaemonium.

In the poem's second epigram we are told by T.E. Hulme about "the relation to machinery" that "vital art" must reconcile in this modern age. Though this epigram serves the first poems well, by the end of the volume it clear on which side of modernity this book's bread is buttered.

The opening poem "Ultramodern" gives us in the first two stanzas a hint of what I find most expertly done by Davis, that of the apt word, phrase, or juxtaposition. Even in a poem that I might otherwise find middling, there is a gem so perfect that it requires a reevaluation of the text surrounding it.

In "Ultramodern," people are "paid/to sit and wait for someone to speak" but they only listen "when the clock says they can leave." If you've not experienced this, simply call an 800 number and try to get help--either from human or machine. The poem continues in its description of our modern maladies, from lights that "switch night to utter asphalt" and "tabloid lines" that "plead/This Is Not A Hoax!"

Indeed it is not. I would like to add that the poem ends with what I would call one of Davis's flaws: "Who shall stand in the wrath to come?" Here Davis chooses shall over what, by all modern and alliterative rights, should be "will." It feels as if Davis here is choosing propriety over poetry--but it may be simply choosing the past over the present; either way it's a note too far.

"New Bohemia" is one of many poems in which Davis seems to be both channeling Eliot "at the absinthe-hour, I scribble these lines" and, inexplicably, me "a black-leather dandy of nightclubbing" (though my unpublished work--so unless Mr. Davis is a mind reader, I suppose we have just tugged on the same invisible literary lines). With its final "orphan of the oracle," Davis taps in to the "fatherless sons" vibe so present to a post-Fight Club world.

"Lila" and "At the Underground Club" are solid works that stolidly tell of the process of aging without achievement; again the pre-Ash Wednesday Eliot is never far from the surface in these poems.

"Metal Machine Music," with its title cribbed from Lou Reed, gives us "the pre-millennial tension" of "blips and beeps/instead of notes" and introduces us to the important symbol of "muzak," here "a muzak-of-the-spheres." Muzak, that elevator symphonist, runs throughout Terminal Diagrams, reminding us of the artlessness of modern art.

"Aubade" is a bit of a misstep, with its "flesh deflating" too very. I did find the end of the poem, the "piece of its mirror/in which I can't see anyone alive" to fit well with the book as a whole, but in the collection it seems out of place.

"Techno" and "Pastoral" are workable poems, with the possible criticism of "or what is left of it" being redundant--again the endings, especially escaping "the horizon's/fine thread of telephone lines" connect the poems to the book. "Unrestricted Development" is one of Terminal Diagram's many short poems, all of which are pleasurable and many profound.

"Cost-Benefit Analysis" and "Disaster Report" are two excellent pieces that from cubicles and the evening news put fire to the meaning and value of modernity--it is in these poems that the "mass market appeal" that seems so inevitable in the prior works is first challenged.

"Drive Song" is one of the first poems that I delight in, though it is a despairing delight as the poem tells us of the "choked tears in driveways" of those "charged and mortgaged to the marrow."

"The Art of Drifting Through Los Angeles" fully plants Davis's work in Eliot's "Unreal City"; though Eliot would never have chose, in 1922, LA, it seems clear that the city, in Davis's view, has built itself upon "The Waste Land." Speaking of waste, it is in "On Passing the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant" that Terminal Diagrams begins to embrace its symbolic structure, adding "Moloch" to the mix. The biblical allusions arrive in the second half of the collection, and modernity becomes place, and finally overshadowed, in the context of the past.

This symbolic structure continues in "Christmas Shopping at Horton Plaza" where the season, stripped of meaning, is rebuilt "by thin ladies" "as acolytes." The poem has my favorite description of Davis's commercial world, which I will simply quote:

The eye of God peers from its dollar,
On each indulgence bought at the mall.

As I stroll and sing an ad-jingle
a plane, towing brand-names, blocks the sun.

Next follow "Zone" and "Revelation," two of the collection's stronger works. It is in Zone, which we are told is "after Apollinaire," that Eliot rears his head (or shows his own influences) and that we get what is, perhaps, the collection's clearest line:

I lived like a fool and wasted my life.

"Revelation" is simply spot-on from start to finish. In it we are "entertained to the end" by the devil in the cables. This sentiment is continued in "Deus Ex Machina," wherein "time is kept by launch code and fuse" and "science is a liturgy," in "" where we are "awaiting/a glitch in the millennium," and "While Reading the Revelation of St. John the Divine, I Turn On the Television," where "each day the world holds by a hangnail."

This despair is brought to its conclusion by the collection's eponymous poem. In "Terminal Diagrams," "one cannot buy the letters," and "history now belongs to the vanquished." Here Davis demonstrates clearly the inescapable dangers of this machinery Hulme warned us of--"box-office receipts form our Bulfinch" and "we have old episodes for classics."

"Gone" are "beautiful manners," "tradition," and "foundations." The poem calls for "some Jonah" but is convinced that no prophet is coming or would ever again be heard.

The poem, and thus the collection, ends with two of the most delightfully enigmatic lines I have read. They work with both the poem and the collection as a whole:

I see the end is near, the flashing signals,
As that last man, crossing the Rubicon.

I have in my notes three questions, none of which is it possible to answer--and that may be the value of the entire work that Davis has presented us with:

is this poem finally embracing the loss of all that is beautiful? That is, does the collection end on a 1984 note? Do we love modernity? That is, is this last man crossing the Rubicon simply aware that Caesar has already crossed (and Sulla and the Gracchae before him) and that there is no going back?

Is it simply the acceptance of the inevitability of the conflict between past and present and the rugged willingness to join that conflict?

Or, finally, is it one more soul climbing Parnassus? What was Caesar fighting--to change or preserve?

As a classicist who cut my poetic teeth on modernism, I must say I dearly love this collection. It does what all good poetry--what art--must do--it presents the world in new ways and, as poetry, translates the unspoken words bound upon our modern tongue.

1 comment:

AnnAsher said...

I think it means the end of the world is near.