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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part II

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Patricia Lockwood, “What Is The Zoo For What” (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013)

We continue our look at Neil Young’s appearances in contemporary poetry with this poem from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

What Is The Zoo For What

The word “zoo” is a zoo for the zoo.

A fountain is a zoo for water, the song
is a zoo for sound, the harmonica
is a zoo for the breath of Neil Young,
vagina is a zoo for baby.

Baby, girl baby, is a zoo for vagina.

The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose,
the smell of the rose rattles its cage,
the zookeeper throws something bleeding
to it, the something bleeding is not enough,
a toddler fell into the cage of the rose,
the toddler was entirely eaten. His name
was Rilke, it was in all the papers.
A Little Pine Box is a zoo for him now,
it said in all the papers.

Then all the kids started doing it. Falling
into the violet’s cage, approaching the cave
where the smell of violets slept, getting
their whole head clawed off by it.
Neil Young did it to a buttercup
and his face got absolutely mauled.

The music that was piped into the zoo
let all the longing escape from it
and it ran riot over the earth, full
of the sight and smell of a buttercup
rearranging the face of Neil Young,
attacking pets at random, attacking
me in my bed as I slept, attacking
the happy wagging ends of my poems.

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

I’m going to leave it there.

The first thing that struck me about the poem was, Why does it even mention Neil Young? The poet needs the name of a well-known harmonica player, but surely, for any contemporary American poet, there’s someone a little closer to hand than Neil Young? No, not Toots Thielemans. I’m thinking, of course, of the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself: Bob Dylan.

Why not mention Bob here? Has Neil Young eclipsed him as the iconic harmonica-blowing folkie in the contemporary pop culture imagination? (And if so, what a victory for Canada!) Does the poet simply prefer Neil’s music to Bob’s? Is is for the slant rhyme with “song” that “Young” provides? The last is perhaps the best reason, though rhyme doesn’t seem to be a major goal of Lockwood’s; in fact, she uses direct repetition in places where one might expect rhyme – if one expects anything at all. (Though there is a fascinating music in “violets slept … clawed off by it … buttercup.”)

But notice how, once she lets Neil Young into her poem, she can’t get rid of him. The reference to Neil’s harmonica seems like a throwaway, and the poem appears to be moving off in another direction, with children getting attacked and devoured by flowers (or the smells of flowers?) – and then suddenly there’s Neil again, getting mauled by a buttercup. And there he is again in the next stanza, his face now not “mauled” but “rearranged” by the buttercup.

At this point Lockwood seems to realize that Neil Young is taking over her poem, and we get that odd little two-line stanza:

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

Neither of these apparent questions actually ends with a question mark, but we’ll try to answer them anyway. Yes, you can put Neil Young in a poem, but no, he won’t get trapped in there forever; in fact he’ll take over your poem, make it all about him, and then roll off down the open road with his old friend, the white line. And how refreshingly un-Canadian that behaviour is; considering how often we’re saddled with the reputation of being overly polite, it’s rather exciting to see a Canadian behaving badly, even if only by overstaying his welcome in a poem that seems to want to be about something else.

A Further Reference

I was doing some “research” for this post on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitter page, and I couldn’t help but notice this:

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The context is that she tweeted about giving her parents weed brownies; someone replied that that was illegal, and she replied with the tweet that mentions Canada. I’m not sure how much I want to read into this remark – is it just absurdist humour, or does some idea of what Canada is like lie behind it? That our country itself is somehow fond of spreading misinformation? That we’re overly respectful of parents? That we live in a socialist nanny-state with laws regulating every aspect of interpersonal behaviour?

I think I’ll just leave it alone.

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part I – UPDATED

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Michael Robbins, Alien vs. Predator (2012)

I feel I need to begin by apologizing for the Toronto Public Library: they clearly affix their stickers with no regard for how they affect the aesthetic appeal of a book’s cover. And this book really does have a striking cover design; it’s a shame to see it marred. On the other hand, I can’t afford to buy all the books I want to read, so I have to put up with these minor indignities.

Moving on…

Canada may or may not have immense cultural cachet, but it’s clear that one Canadian does: singer/songwriter-folkie/rocker Neil Young. We’ve discussed him before, but it’s never a bad time to talk Neil. Michael Robbins’ book contains at least one reference to him:

Second Helping

I dare not speak my name, it is so long
and unpronounceable. I enforce the thaw
here among the timbered few. We despise you
and whatever you rode in on – is that a swan?
I’m not really like this. I’m over the moon.

Still, we jar marmalade. We plow.
We don’t need Neil Young around anyhow.
Your tribe’s Doritos are infested with a stegosaur.
That Forever 21 used to be a Virgin Megastore.

Scott Baio in full feathered glory
was everything I’m not. I am everything I am
and then some. I’m coming along nicely.
Don’t stick your fork in me until I’m done.  (14)

It’s a bit difficult to tell how Neil Young relates to the rest of the poem – in fact, I find it a bit difficult to tell how the different parts of the poem relate to one another. No doubt this is the point: the poem makes it impossible for you to say what the poem is “about,” because talking about what poems are “about” is old-fashioned and tedious – as are poems that are “about” something to begin with.

Nevertheless, we’ll cling to our illusions, however old-fashioned they may be, and give it a try.

The word “anyhow,” at the end of the Neil Young line, might be some sort of clue; it’s a turn of phrase that seems to indicate Neil Young has been around, but has now left – but who cares, we didn’t need him anyway. This sounds like false bravado – compare Coriolanus and his “there is a world elsewhere.” Is the speaker secretly going to miss Neil’s folkie guitar strumming? Will Neil’s help be missed at plowing time? Does this association arise purely because he put out an album called Harvest, and then another called Harvest Moon?

I don’t think I’m going to reach any satisfactory conclusions.

UPDATE

This may be a first for us here at Wow – Canada! (perhaps because most of the authors I write about are dead) – what appears to be an author comment. Someone known as “MR” (Michael Robbins?) has stepped in in the Comments to inform me (or should I say gently chastise me for not noticing?) that the Neil Young line in “Second Helping,” above, is actually a quote from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama”:

(Look out for the Confederate flag drop at around the 1:20 mark.)

I’m familiar with the song, but not familiar enough to pick up on references to it. Or perhaps I suppressed the memory, out of my eagerness to find a reference to Canada in the poem?

I suppose this means that “Second Helping” doesn’t really contain a Neil Young reference, or that it does so only at second hand, so to speak. Nevertheless, I’ll let the commentary above stand – and we still have Michael J. Fox (see below).

Finally, just to show I’m not toally off base in terms of Michael Robbins dropping Neil Young references, here’s a more recent poem of his, That’s Incredible, also linked to in the comments, and containing a direct Neil Young reference.

A Digressive Disclaimer

Does my commentary on “Second Helping” make me  sound like I’m down on Michael Robbins? I don’t mean to be. I actually enjoyed this book – it’s full of great lines: “I have eyes/in the sack of my dead” or  “Let’s get this seance started,” or “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z,” to pick out a few.

Just in the poem I quoted above, there’s the line about the swan, sharpened by the internal rhyme with “on”; the rhyme of “stegasaur” with “Megastore” practically jumps off the page. But can Robbins’ technique produce more than isolated great lines?

Without question, there are poems where Robbins manages to sustain his zany inventiveness throughout: the title poem, or the final poem in the collection. If I have a quibble, it’s that the poems in the book all feel like exercises in the same technique; a few work beautifully, but a lot of the rest just don’t seem to add up to much. Now, to produce a poem as good as “Alien vs. Predator” is more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, so I won’t sneer. Perhaps, for my palate, a couple of poems like that are enough. (I think someone said something similar about Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “One poem like that is enough. It purifies the language.” But I can’t remember who.)

In any case, my purpose here is to look at references to Canada, not to attempt to analyze the poem as a poem or the book as a book. If you want to read some intelligent commentary on Robbins’ poetry, I recommend Michael Lista’s review of this collection.

A Possible Neil Young Reference

My general practice is to quote poems in their entirety as much as possible, but in the case of Robbins, I’ve decided that relevant sections can be broken off from the whole without causing them undue damage. So here’s another possible Neil Young reference, from a poem called “Material Girl”:

You’re coated with salmonella. Or am I
confusing you with the kitchen sponge again?
A beautiful phrase, cellar door,
but I prefer You win. Prefer to sit and spin.  (22)

I say “possible” because when I see the phrase “cellar door,” I immediately think of the  Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which begins, “Caught you knockin’ at my cellar door.”

(For reference, here’s an acoustic performance from Toronto in the fall of 2012:

I think that might be the Hank Williams D-28 (subject of the song “This Old Guitar”) that he’s playing.)

Robbins, however, seems to be thinking of the fact that “cellar door,” particularly as it would be pronounced with an English accent, is considered, in the field of phonaesthetics (did you know there was a field of phonaesthetics? I didn’t), to be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language, so this might not actually be a reference to Canada.

Another Digression

Just to close the circle on “cellar door,” there was a club in Washington DC called The Cellar Door. There’s a live Miles Davis set from 1970 that was recorded there (here’s a sample), and guess who else is coming out with a live album, also recorded at the Cellar Door, and also in 1970? That’s right: Neil Young. (Sometimes the connections are almost too much for me – I feel overwhelmed – “What splendor, it all coheres!”)

This, I believe, marks the second Neil Young live release from a venue where Miles Davis also played at around the same time, the first being the Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970 album. In fact, as you can see from the cover photo, Neil’s and Miles’ names appeared together on the marquee:

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So clearly there is some sort of harmonic convergence taking place in the universe; or at least there was in 1970, when Neil and Miles played the same venue at least twice, on both occasions recording material that would later be released.

That felt like an exhausting aside.

Wait – Another Canadian Celebrity!

Returning to Alien vs. Predator, there’s one further reference, not to Canada but to a Canadian celebrity, that I might as well quote while I’m at it. This is the final stanza of the poem “The Dark Clicks On”:

Michael J. Fox talks Parkinson’s
with the former Miss Arkansas.
The clouds are there for them
to be sick on. Those European
stairwells with the lights on a timer?
You get halfway up and the dark clicks on.  (26)

The near-rhyme of “Parkinson’s” with “Arkansas” gives an idea of the slightly unconventional music that Robbins creates in his poems. Does Miss Arkansas come in for any reason other than to provide that gorgeous near-rhyme?  Is any other reason required?

So…What Does it All Mean?

As a collection, Alien vs. Predator is riddled with references to celebrities, actors, musicians and pop culture generally, and it’s hard to say that Neil Young or Michael J. Fox are brought in for their “Canadian-ness,” or even that Robbins is particularly aware that they are Canadian. Perhaps they are famous enough that they transcend being Canadian, and are simply celebrities that Americans have more or less adopted as their own. And this tells us something about the attitude of Americans towards Canadians: they see us as similar enough to themselves that they can absorb us into their culture so completely that we cease to be different at all.

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