Book Review

Jeff Menne

A Carnage in the Lovetrees
Richard Greenfield
New California Poetry Series
University of California Press ($16.95)

You’ll most quickly find the heart – the heart external, that is – of Richard Greenfield’s debut collection of poems, A Carnage in the Lovetrees, by cribbing vocabulary from Donna Haraway; i.e. by examining ‘the situatedness of its system.’ Greenfield comes to us with two ready associations: his book shows up on New California Poetry’s roster as an implicit term in its ongoing argument for a new poetry, but he also comes with certain claims made on him by the putative movement of New Brutalism. So in terms of critical reception, these two facts will do the early mediating.

To consider first his press, Greenfield is a clever fit for New California’s mission statement, which persists in being the flypaper for whatever useful aesthetic debris can be sifted in the wake of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Meaningfully, they’re a continuation of, rather than a corrective to the “Language” innovation. New California, in their own words, seeks “works that help define the emerging generation of poets – books consistent with California's commitment to the Black Mountain tradition and reflective of California literary traditions – cosmopolitan, experimental, open, and broad-ranging in their intellectual makeup.“ Greenfield certainly shares in the average Language poet’s phenomenological bent, positioning himself as the observer whose disinterest is each moment being keened, glad if perplexed to watch “the familiar machinery of language moving by”; but at the same time, he seems invested in mimesis and Romanticism. As an amalgamation – the mongrel pet of critics – he’s James Wright mixed with Lyn Hejinian. He makes good sense as a New California poet, shading more to the Haryette Mullen and Fanny Howe end of their spectrum than to the Geoffrey O’Brien and Myung Mi Kim end. But he negotiates each end, and his middle ground proves credible.

Greenfield’s other association, the more dubious of the two, is with New Brutalism, originally a reading series that has come to be mistaken for a movement. The movement counts among its practitioners James Meetze, Kasey Mohammed, Noah Eli Gordon, and Cynthia Sailers. Greenfield appears to be only obliquely attached to this movement, and perhaps this arises from his participation in the reading series, or perhaps from his collaboration and friendship with Joshua Corey. However, the obliquity of this connection may be for the best. New Brutalism presents itself as movement by fiat alone, and, at best, a cyber-age lobby for visibility by the lumpenliterati whose addiction to blogging can cloy – if you let it.

Greenfield’s book on the level of ding an sich, however, transcends its associations. It’s not that smart to group him as a New Brutalist, which is pure marketing, but it’s always wise to place a poet in a tradition, which is intertextuality (“Because each prophet is aggregate of the other prophets, the forthcoming song came from the ruinous literary kin”). In this regard, he bears many of the marks of the Romantic: the real stuff of knowledge is phenomenological, not social, except that for Greenfield, language, which is socially-held, presents a din from which we both make/are made and know/are known (“but the making of my self was not distinct from the knowing of myself”); a consequent sense of isolation (“The three stages are not loving & not being loved, loving & not being loved (the present case) and loving & being loved—“); and, finally, a focus on the primacy of youth and childhood memories, not only as the matter of poetry, but as the unchanging quantity from which all thought is stretched.

Of course, Greenfield’s allegiance to the Romantic tradition is outspoken: “I want the costly moon, the romantic among the landscape, the bifurcated lineage that became catalog or compressed lyric.” An awfully PoMo move on the poet’s behalf, to identify his velleities of poetic habit as a prolepsis to full disclosure of the “real world”: “Instead the desert opens with a cynic’s raked history.” The interesting half of his Romantic impulse turns out to be the half that desists, the half that finds the world—phenomenological or not—failed by the demiurge. Greenfield bankrupts the demiurge as the first term of his poetry; any reader hoping to visualize a field of Romantic forces sans the demiurge may randomly conjure the barren space of his poems, the craggy desertscapes that hold impalpable cities aloft (L.A. and Las Vegas, in this case), where the quenching blue one expects of both water and heaven has left behind only the ambiguously-charged word ‘blue’ (surely the most frequently occurring word in this volume, unless it be outnumbered by ‘memory’ and its variants). As one suspects, then, the word ‘heaven’, too, obsesses over the demiurge that has made it a “heaven so in love//with its own perfection, it was selfish, hovering above the cries, above the bodies of pain.”

This is, I maintain, the point of departure for the book. The first poem, both nominally and thematically, offers itself as map and legend for the entire collection. “Schema” begins:

In the field of traumas come the base savannas—crosshairs tighten
on the flaring pink of the evening.

Recognize the world. After the bit of blue, after a window opened
to air and the portioned stereo of love and grandeur, after—

The lines amount to an establishing shot, with memory yoked together by the violent pitch of trauma, and what follows is the zoom shot of a shattered landscape made quintessentially American with but a few deft strokes:

Traffic flows or stops on elevated structures in denial of the seven-

and in the aftermath of advertising, children wander the highway in
search of litter.

Greenfield takes for his locus the depredated countryside that demiurge hasn’t the reserves to fix. And this is where he tunes-up the solipsism of Romanticism: the book strives to calibrate the subjective history, the plotting of an individual life (as in the Romantic credo, enunciated in Jeremy Taylor’s spiritual language “We confess it in our lives”), to social history, the history we profess in our textbooks, across our silver screen and flickering on our TV screens. It’s the poetic wish of a wandering boy under the sign nihil, and ex nihilo comes: “another, liminal language through the wall.” Comes: “Heartbreak after ha ha heartbreak.” Comes: “a muscled romp, off-key and funereal.” While Greenfield goes on draping sentences over the ruin, sketching what seems to have been a terrible childhood against this desperate backdrop, he’s recursively drawn to the redemptive factor in music. It’s his melopoesis that will save, not the demiurge that will match our vitiated object world to the world of eternal forms. It’s mere music that coheres in all the clatter. Even if the music gets divined by a drug-addled parent –- his father is played off Judy Garland thusly: “My father, kitchened in the need of his veins… he sleeps in amphetamine gloss” versus “Then Garland’s contaminated song.” No matter where the music comes from, its power is felt: “the volume shakes my body on the floor. First there is music. Second there is music. Third there is music.”

Whether Greenfield “will help define the emerging generation of poets,” as New California hopes, is left to the future’s domain. He does offer a possibility, at least. The editors at New California seem to be selecting poets that can be arrayed on the two poles of Language poetry, as Charles Altieri sees them represented in Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein. Hejinian points to a possible fusion with the Romantic, but made anew. Greenfield advances her suggestion with a book that, while howling with loss, is blessed with survival instinct.