(Alice James Books, 2009)
Last Thursday Roberta and I went to attend the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona staged in the Seattle Center Theatre. As soon as we entered the Seattle Center fairgrounds and headed in the direction of the Center House, I noticed something missing: the Fun Forest. The area it had formerly occupied, a zone sandwiched between the Center House and the hideous Experience Music Project building, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which, from a distance, resembles a cross between a plane wreck and the bear house at the Woodland Park Zoo, was sadly, pitiably, eerily empty.
The Fun Forest had been a small amusement park. Nothing remotely on the scale of Ohio’s Cedar Point or Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, the Fun Forest had something eccentric and slightly seditious about it. It was small, but had a dimension all of its own, much like the amusement park in Rumble Fish, with its louche seductions and voluptuous deliriums. The rides were nothing to write home about: a modest roller coaster called a Windstorm with 1,430 feet of track mounted 59 feet high and a maximum speed of 30 mph, a gaudy Pirate Ship that swung back and forth, a contraption called an Orbiter that consisted of articulated arms radiating from a central rotating axis, and a few other rides calculated to stir the senses and lighten you of your money. In its later years, the Fun Forest had grown woefully moribund. The bored teenagers hired to operate the rides outnumbered the customers on a ration of five to one and spent most of their time doing their nails or text-messaging friends. This was sad to see. I remembered the Fun Forest from days of the World’s Fair in 1962 when it was jammed with people and crackled with hormonal energy. If you watch It Happened At The World’s Fair closely, you will see Kurt Russell in the Fun Forest, aged 11, kick Elvis Presley in the shin, and ask him if he’s drunk.
I love amusement parks. I love them for their noise, their strange seductions, and their unabashed extravagance. They are magnificently vulgar. They are unbridled and profligate. They are radically empirical. They embody the spirit of poetry. The velocities, the chrome and splashy colors, the hilarious distortions, the chaos, the turbulence, and underneath it all, holding them together and powering them, an engineering of great ingenuity and balanced forces. Torque, tensility, angular momentum. Mass, relativity, quantum leaps. Sonnets, quatrains, free verse, sestinas, omoioteleton, canzones, spondees and sprung rhythms, are all elements and devices in the cerebral amusement park that is poetry.
Which brings me to Pageant, a recent collection of poetry by Joanna Fuhrman. Fuhrman, who lives in Brooklyn, is in the tradition of poets such as Ron Padgett, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. That is to say, hers is a poetry full of bizarre images, excitements and enthusiasms, handsprings and conversational aplomb. Reading O’Hara, one quickly gets a sense of someone who really enjoys the city, needs the city, needs it for its diversity and culture, its dynamic idiosyncrasies, its bombast and talking and hilarity. Pageant is a good title for this work because it is full of whirlwind reflections and verbal spectacle.
“I devoured every radio/ eating the wires,” she writes in “The Summer We Were All Seventeen.” “I hooked my veins to the electrical current/ and wrote emails to Gilgamesh twenty-four hours a day.” The appetite for life is palpable. It helps explain why some people become poets. Need to be poets. We have rock ‘n roll. Thank goodness for rock ‘n roll. And Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Eine kleine nachtmusik. That’s the kind of energy we humans need to burst out of ourselves, transcend the deadening purviews of the routine and mercenary and banal, and live intensely, bombastically, unreservedly. The reference to Gilgamesh is apt. It is Gilgamesh who, after all, travels through the perilous darkness of the double-peaked mountain to find the soul of his dead friend Enkidu. Passions this enormous are the stuff of poetry.
“And Yes, I Would Like Another Ghost-shaped Truffle,” is set at a proofreader’s Halloween party, and becomes a reflection on genital piercing: “A woman across the room dressed like a sexed-up pirate/ is talking about genital piercing, the stuffed parrot on her/ shoulder shaking at her every word, and I am feeling a little/ repulsed at the thought of her clitoris or any clitoris exposed/ under the red light of the highway piercing parlor, all the strangers/ in the dim waiting room turning the pages of celebrity magazines/ hearing her yell out, and yeah, I know my revulsion is not/ a very compassionate emotion -- and I remember once seeing/ the number of Americans who are into genital piercing/ and thinking that there are more people who are into genital piercing/ than read contemporary poetry or read any poetry --- “ Fuhrman’s reflections here took me a little by surprise, but they strike a chord because she is touching on something that I find strangely disturbing, young women who are not content with one or two tastefully positioned tattoos, but who tattoo their entire arm, and make of it something freakish and ugly. To continue my earlier trope of poetry-as-a-form-of-amusement-park, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island Of The Mind, Fuhrman is exploring a level of vulgarity that has lost its more Felliniesque earthiness and gusto, lacks the more refined decadence of the French Symbolists, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysman, and has lapsed into a heavily commercialized narcissism, a kind of shopping mall paganism. It is like making a sudden leap from the poetry of Rimbaud’s “parade sauvage,” to the craven, tabloid escapades of Britney Spear’s shaved head, Paris Hilton’s infantile scribblings in jail, or garish bling bling of this week’s rap star.
I will end with “A Question.” “Is one still kosher/ if they replace/ part of your heart/ with a pig’s?” jokes Fuhrman’s mother, “about her upcoming/ aortic surgery.” I am not Jewish and in no way able to answer that question, or even if there is an answer, or requires an answer, but it sure gets you thinking. Fuhrman concludes this little poem with a wobble: a pain in her heart “like a working class/ fashionista/ fake leather/ stilettos/ wobbling up/ the subway’s/ broken/ wet/ escalator.” Life is not a residence, but a riddle. Nobody gets out alive, as they say. And as for the meaning of it all, there is probably no answer for that either. We are all in this life for a brief while, along for the amazement, along for the ride.