Sunday, February 06, 2011

Jim Crenner's "Drinks at the Stand-Up Tragedy Club" (2008)

Picked up this hardback at Housing Works for six bucks, after warning myself on entering the bookstore not to buy any books. The first poem "The Problem of Meaning" pulled me in and the book never really let go. Crenner is fascinated, bemused, by the dualities of experience and meaning, mind and world, living and writing. The poems are witty and charming. They are also laced with the poet's abiding sense of his approaching death.

There are poems here written in the poet's own voice, as a grandfather, a baseball fan, a gardener, a visitor to the marble quarries of Carrara, a voyeur at Amsterdam's red light district. The poet writes about his reading, a consolation of old age. The poet writes about writing, a hoary and sterile subject in most hands, but productive and entertaining in this poet's. "Negative Capability" is the funniest poem I have ever read about writer's block. There is a series of poems, scattered throughout the book, about looking at various paintings by Vermeer. These ekphrastic poems do not try to transcribe the paintings (a pointless exercise), nor do they try to interpret them (a tendentious one). Instead, they look so deeply that looking (and not looking) becomes their true subject, and so in that way approximates most closely the painter's own concerns. They are some of the best things in the book.

Then there are poems written in other voices. "Melpomene at the Singles Bar" near the beginning of the book speaks in counterpoint to the harassed mother in "Mnemosyne Orders Her Supplements at the Vitamin Store" near the end of the book. Other accomplished acts of ventriloquism include Teiresias, Caliban, Bartleby, and Superman. There is even an audacious attempt to write as Emily Dickinson. "The Blue Fascicle" is supposed to be a sheaf of lost erotic poems. It is not an altogether successful sequence: it lacks the originality of both Dickinson's and Crenner's verses.

Far more vital are the re-workings of Greek myths from unexpected points of view. Such as re-telling the story of Narcissus and Echo from the perspective of the pool's reflection. And my favorite poem of the book "The Swan, Afterward," which begins after Zeus stripped his swan disguise off himself "like a soiled condom." The bird, bewildered by his love for Leda, a complicated mammal, a person, becomes an alcoholic outcast among his avian kind. This book is full of such memories, sweet and sorrowing.

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