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Songs of Experience

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say

Anthony Madrid
Canarium Books 2012

I was only a few pages into Anthony Madrid’s new book, reading the lines

Punishing young woman, fueled by a river of burning stones,
Put up your black snake whip, set aside your thorny iron ball on a stick.

when despair overtook me. “Nuts,” I thought with glum resignation. “I’m in the clutches of an incandescent young man!” You know the type – starry-eyed purveyors of loose-limbed, shamanic, pseudo-Ginsbergian verse aimed at trying to get other young persons into bed. The poetic equivalent of a bantam cock crowing not to say, “Wake up! It’s morning! How lovely!” but rather, “Wake up! It’s morning! I’m lovely!”

Thankfully, my worries ran well ahead of the reality. Madrid’s poems are not so falsely Ginsbergian as all that. They serve up the Beat poet’s preening, but also his puckish self-deprecation, his expansive love of the vulgar and sacred, his humanizing refusal to recognize distinctions between the two. And while sex and the sexes are a foremost concern here, Madrid sees the comedy and mortality inherent in those concerns, as well as the animal happiness of lust. Poems that at first blush seem nothing more than macho handwaving turn inwards on themselves, petting as much as they push. As Madrid writes, “crows too have a means of purring.”

Nonetheless, shouts – oracular, joyful, sarcastic by turns – are the main dish here. A representative sampling:

These able-bodied lovers! What an afterlife they’re earning!
They don’t know that, for every embrace, we have to write a 200-page defense.

*

I used to think I favored the old horsetrader’s attitude toward beauty:
A squinting, shrewd, and capitalist eye.—What a lie!

*

And now MADRID’S ascending into heaven! Here’s our chance to look up his dress!
Oh, but God! the thing I see there—! It’s like a shark shaking the life out of the back
wheel of a tractor!

These whoops and admonitions are fueled by Madrid’s choice of form – the ghazal. Traditionally associated with Arabic and Persian mystics, the ghazal is at home with spiritual pronouncements and wild-eyed holy fooling. It also creates the conditions for the digressions, circularities, and call-backs that characterize Madrid’s poems. The couplets of a traditional ghazal are linked by a repeated end phrase or rhyme, but narrative is eschewed in favor of driving slantwise to a koan-like conclusion, tacking into the resisting wind of the reader’s mind. While Madrid does without the repeated end-phrases, he retains the ghazal’s casual digressiveness, and often, though not consistently, he maintains the ghazal’s convention of naming the poet in the final stanza. As if relishing the religious associations of the form, and wishing to capture them for his own work, Madrid also renders certain nouns in small caps, giving them the dramatic emphasis of the Biblical Lord, and puts accent marks over words that wouldn’t normally call for them, giving the words a faintly archaic presentation:

The MADNESS OF LOVE takes many forms. In me, it’s the illusion
I am Abul-Majd Majdud ibn Adam Sanai Ghaznavi.

Hé wanted the whole universe to be an unconjugated verb.
I won’t say which, but I’ll let you guess. Ha!—right on the first try.

Religion doesn’t just show up in the niceties of the typesetting. Besides Sufi poet-mystics, like Sanai Ghaznavi, Madrid’s poems name-drop Hindu avatars, Buddhist monks, Christian saints, and Greek demigods with a gleeful disregard for their separate origins – or for the reader’s likely familiarity with them. From wry, churchlike diction, Madrid drops his gears down into wise-guy jowling:

Am I supernaturally eloquent? Yes, if you’ll give me a minute. I have to
Confer with my favorite author: John of Patmos.

MADRID is just now examining Scripture with certain of the Lord’s children.
Pull up a chair—

For, if hearing a single verse of the Diamond Sutra was enough to enlighten Hui Neng,
Imagine what listening to the whole thing’ll do for a bright guy like you.

Winking, whirling, mocking both his own and the reader’s self-importance, Madrid nonetheless offers nuggets of wisdom for incandescent young men and the rest of us, too. Here’s a good rule, regardless of your personal qualities, as delivered by “a voice from the Unseen”:

And if you would speak the Ultimate Truth, I will tell it you, once and for all.
It’s that the trick is not s much to get rid of your vices, but to turn them to good account.

Madrid saves his keenest lessons for those seekers dazzled by human beauty into either forgetting themselves:

A beautiful girl—beautiful!—despite her buck teeth. She says,
With her eyes on fire, that she’s never felt this way before.

She’s never felt this way before, but she’s only nineteen.
Get over yourself, MADRID. She’s never felt any way before.

or into failing to realize that pretty people are people, too – with all attendant complexity:

Pygmalion had the right idea. He deserved his reward. For he had a statue but he wanted
a girl;

Most guys have a girl but want a statue.

Beauty is the central concern of I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, particularly the complications and limitations of physical beauty. This is not as odd as it might seem for a book so misted with religion – esoteric traditions are chock-a-block with descriptions of divine beauty as physical – even startlingly carnal. St Teresa of Avila famously was visited by a comely angel who repeatedly stabbed her with a burning spear, causing her to moan with the sweetness of God’s love. And yet, in one of those reversals in which religion is rich, many faiths warn adherents strictly against the “pleasures of the flesh.” If the road to hell is proverbially paved with good intentions, many of those intentions likely begin with the endearing curl of a lip, the turn of an ankle, the light catching on a lock of hair…

But I am remembering the half hour, the minute, wherein I was young and brave and beautiful,
And how all the old guys, no hair and twice my IQ, used to lick their lips and stare…

O tempora, o mores! The more things change, the more they stay the same – beauty comes to each of us, in ourselves, but is fleeting. We see it in others and it leaves them in turn. But it is always somewhere. The trick, again, is not to rid yourself of the vice of chasing beauty, but to turn it to good account. This requires us not to worship beauty in itself, that the ego be punctured:

The plush underlip of the Great Male Beauty is tense, has lost its color!
The Sensuous Hands are trembling, look! They’re turning back into hooves.

*

Let the poet boy write his own language, and I don’t mean his mother tongue.
Let him write the language that results from having his precious ego SOCKED in the eye

Ecstasy may seem an odd word to use here, but it’s that I think Madrid is going for here in relation to beauty, one that ties neatly in with the spiritual grounding of his book (Saint Teresa’s vision is often referred to as her “ecstasy.” Ecstasy is frenzied – it is not neat or tidy. Above all, it is not the product of overthinking things, and Madrid decries the pursuit of wisdom – or rather, the cold and intellectual pursuit of knowledge masquerading as wisdom – as a way of dimming our eyes to the ecstasy around us:

You IDENTIFY with Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger – but as for me,
I’m through with these wise men who smile and condescend.

Madrid writes, “{t}he illusion of understanding these things prevents our transportation.” Whether truth is beauty or beauty truth, pitfalls abound. While beauty and knowledge may point us in the right direction, they may as easily steer us wrong:

And VIRTUE is not what we thought it was. It has nothing whatever to do
With the pursuit of Athletic Athena or Jackrabbit Aphrodite.

If virtue is not to be found in either beauty or wisdom, then what is it? Through all the rapid-fire chaos of his ghazals, Madrid seems to be advocating an essentially middle-ground position. We must appreciate and cultivate beauty, without falling prey to it. We must appreciate and cultivate knowledge, without making false idols of our own intellect. And if this seems easier said than done, we always have the old fallback of simple kindness on which to rely:

And if somebody asks my secret, I’ll say: “Friends, it’s just nothing.
I have neither beauty nor courage nor wisdom; all that I have

Is a firm devotion to kindness, to the bankrupting of all revenge,
To the point where I never say to anybody, Just get over it.

Madrid’s poems return repeatedly to this theme of virtue’s relationship with beauty and wisdom, but the ghazal is a discursive form, and some of this book’s chief pleasures come from interpolated observations with little, if any, immediate connection to its spiritual concerns. I begin to feel here a bit like Marianne Moore, who was criticized for turning in reviews that consisted mainly of quotations. But it’s difficult to resist sharing sentences like

Of the many things in this world that are not love at first sight, one is playing chess
With a hostile alcoholic Math PhD who happens to be the father of the bride.

or

In this generation, the RIVAL is always a Katie or a Caitlin,
Always a hundred-pound gamine with a lot of eye makeup . . .

It’s not all unalloyed pleasure, though. Some of the poems here, despite adhering to the ghazal form, seem shoehorned in – exercises that don’t quite rise to the level of the other poems, perhaps because they diverge too much from them in tone. “Rhymes,” for example, one of the few poems not simply titled after its first line, marries a sing-song beat with unrelenting cynicism:

Oh orange, orange, yellow, black. A passionate fuck to patch the crack.
A narrative designed to attract | children and other retards.

With its lack of any countervailing hopefulness and its driving rhythm, the poem feels like it was imported from some other project altogether. The problem becomes more pronounced in the book’s later sections, as though Madrid were losing control over his virtue-struck meta-narrative, and attempting to regain it through ever more hostile and aggressive gestures – poems that bellow and fidget, with verses that resist gelling into the unlikely compromise that betokens a successful ghazal. These poems, rather than getting, even obliquely, to a point, terminate in declarative sentences that sound like endings – but the ending, the sense of completion – isn’t there.

Early in the book, Madrid writes that

Whoever reads more than a dozen ghazals at a time will be overstimulated.
After a certain number of hits, one is simply wasting a precious drug.

Perhaps the same is true for the writer or compiler of ghazals. You can only string so many together before they try to escape the bounds in which you would hold them, before the pressure of keeping so man plates spinning overwhelms the author. Still, Madrid regains his composure, his capacity for productive surprise, in the final poems of the book, even while admitting that “the taint of the PSEUDO-MARTYR is upon me.” In a salvo that tears at our conflation of a beautiful face with a beautiful soul – with beautiful art, he asks,

O you beautiful young readers of poetry, and especially you beautiful young men—
Have pity on my dried-up talent. Forgive my reveling here in this light.

I have lived one hundred ninety-five years, each one boring-er than the last. Yóu
Have all the satisfactions of anonymity before you.

before stating that “anyone can see/How much better this poetry would be if it were written by a twenty-five-year-old punk.” The incandescent young man, again! Like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, he haunts this book. It may be that you can’t resolve people’s puppy-dumb attraction to beauty, and beauty’s own preening pride, just by pointing it out. But that doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying, or in laughing – at others, at oneself, at the world – along the way.

____
Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poems, Applies to Oranges, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2011.

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