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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Stephanie Baker reviews

Bread & Fish by Mark Terrill

The Figures 2001

Mark Terrill’s 57 prose poems in Bread & Fish host a brain spill of concrete detail and conscious realization. Moving from the broken lines of previous collections of verse (Kid with Gray Eyes; Love-Hate Continuum), many of these poems have found a more suitable home in the block of the prose poem. This is a leap for Terrill; his bent towards the cinematographic moment is better-suited to this frame by frame movement. As a result, the poems are miniatures of moving pictures whose sum total is a drama about the experience of awareness and its concrete crystallization into thought.
      Jack Kerouac’s Beliefs and Techniques for Modern Prose and Essentials for Spontaneous Prose seem to have been a raison d’être for Terrill’s writing. He has traveled the world and worked an infinite number of odd jobs in a way Kerouac certainly would have approved: grave digger, band manager, merchant seaman, welder, postal worker, factory worker. Terrill utilizes these settings and experiences to tell, as Kerouac advises, ‘the true story of the world in interior monolog.’ In Bread & Fish, a lifetime of travels — from the California coast to the Panama Canal to the rural backdrop of Northern Germany — seem to have built up and erupted, spewing out the details of conscious moments in a seamlessly constructed spontaneity.

Terrill cover art

      The spontaneous moment of conscious realization is re-constructed in the best poems like ‘Acceleration’ by the use of two simultaneous ‘screens’. There are two films in the mind’s eye playing at once. The first one has images which move at a slow speed — this is the outside perception of the experience, the consciousness of consciousness which could be called conceptual or abstract thinking. The second ‘screen’ runs faster and is the rush of precise details and images without abstraction.

‘...when did the curtains ever part to reveal you sitting there next to me in our old BMW while crossing the bridge over the Stör on a clear winter afternoon with a sky like blue glass scratched as you said from all the various jet trails you turning your head to the right looking off towards the western horizon across all those flat green acres of northern Germany me glancing over at you without you being aware of it seeing you sitting there content in the warm sunlight coming through the windshield absorbed in your own personal thoughts of god knows what & then the attendant cascade of psyche-encompassing emotions that suddenly engulfed me as I caught a glimpse of the tiny set of wrinkles at the corner of your eye immediately remembering how seriously you took your fortieth & most recent birthday then me being catapulted into that crushing orbit of conceptual thinking dealing with time & age & destiny & what it means to be alive & what it means to be in love & how we all deal with getting old & the passing of time & the laying aside of certain dreams & desires in favor of various creature comforts & predictable easiness into which we all are slipping deeper & deeper from day to day ultimately precluding even the remotest possibility of any manifestation of true happiness or satisfaction...’

In ‘Acceleration,’ the play of rushing concrete images subsumes the abstract, much as the speaker’s old BMW on the autobahn eats up miles of highway.

‘...& then us coming down off of the bridge & onto the autobahn me putting the gas pedal calmly & purposely to the floor leaving what I had been thinking about behind us like the clouds of blue exhaust as we accelerated in a mechanical rush of pure power & motion the tachometer & the speedometer both rising steadily the car hurtling forward on the smooth asphalt temporarily eclipsing all thoughts of time & the passing thereof & cleaning bringing to an end the inner spectacle of today’s particular drama in a manner so thorough & final that it’s bordering on the surgical.’

This is the futurist flux of our contemporary, post-industrial lives which are continually propelled by machines. A space for meaning, abstraction, reflection has been created outside the clock’s ticking and the world’s rushing. For one moment, the effects of time have been transcended in the quiet space of conscious awareness and realization. But then, the machine returns, and the moment is bloodlessly decapitated by the ‘rush of pure power & motion.’ Incidentally, it is difficult to excerpt these poems, since much of their impact depends on their momentum. As tessellations, they require the reader to absorb them both as discrete units and as a totality.
     ‘Bread & Fish’ (the title poem) also dramatizes the moment of awareness as the speaker pauses amidst ‘hurriedly’ writing out a shopping list with only the words ‘Bread & Fish’ on the list. Again, there’s the concrete spill of images (‘A rainy winter Thursday morning in the German countryside & it’s barely even light out but there’s garbage to be taken out...’) and the interruption of the abstract:

‘...lean back to consider what I’ve written & see the two words BREAD & FISH alone on the little piece of paper no milk no cat food no toilet paper none of that usual everyday bullshit & suddenly the stark elemental nature of these two words is overwhelming me with their bare essentialism approaching the metaphorical like the title of some exotic novel or the lines of a poem or something from the bible...’

The dramatization of the abstract realization is effective because the poem has become a vehicle for the moment itself. Art is what drives, motivates, pushes, and  brings into being these moments of consciousness.

‘...I get up & put on my Southern Comfort baseball cap & start pedaling through the rain towards the village market thinking about how art & beauty & metaphors are constantly working their strange magic on our lives altering their very nature turning even the most mundane existence into a window on a world of incomprehensible aesthetic depths expanding the parameters of consciousness & thus impacting everything with a meaning that outweighs all such chickenshit concepts as God & heaven & hell turning our lives into truly magical experience more valuable more significant more purposeful than the greatest novel the most moving poem the hippest dub song so why does the baker look & act like a total zombie when I buy my bread why does everyone else in the market all look like extras from Night of the Living Dead why does the woman at the fish stall give me that fake-ass smile while simultaneously shortchanging me why is the rain running down my neck where is the sun where is the light that I know is waiting to illuminate each & everyone of us with its gentle caress of warm glowing photons like in some old dusty Rembrandt painting?’

The blocks of prose become rectangular wheels pushing the speaker into awareness of what surrounds him. As Kerouac says, ‘the object is set before the mind,’ and the poem allows the awareness to deepen and bottom out until it becomes an awareness of something else. No matter what order the poems are read — if one reads all 57 in a sitting — they become parts of the same experience of consciousness. After leaving them, the reader will notice how she continues in the same vein, noticing, listening, abstracting, awash in a sea of meaningful awareness and observation of the quotidian.
     Terrill’s ‘method’ (again, echoing Kerouac in Essentials of Spontaneous Prose) is to write without punctuation. He utilizes the ampersand as a ‘measured pause’ which allows the reader, like the musician, to breathe while playing/singing. The ampersand also serves as a fulcrum between the abstract and the concrete in poems like ‘Bread & Fish.’ This divide helps the reader shift into the accelerated momentum of the concrete or slow down into abstraction.
     The poems which do not participate in the tension between the abstract and concrete remain exquisite crystallizations of detail. They act as a foil to the theoretical moments of the other poems by dramatizing the reverie of travel. There is a lack of abstracted self-awareness in the narrative of a travel-poem like ‘Lusitanian Afternoon’ where the speaker witnesses a street-bullfight in Portugal:

‘...I’m watching a young mother sitting nearby searching for lice in her daughter’s hair as the bull goes thundering down the street chasing a pack of would-be macho revelers while sending others fleeing & climbing trees & lampposts & jumping over walls & the mother finishes with the one side & roughly yanks her daughter’s head around & starts in eagerly on the other side as the bull stops suddenly in the middle of an intersection & kicks at the pavement with a shiny black hoof while dropping his head & snorting & grunting & flinging long strands of glistening saliva high into the azure expanse of the Lusitanian afternoon & a drunken villager decides to take up the challenge & approaches the bull with an open umbrella...’

Some of Terrill’s narratives in this vein are nostalgic; they recall doomed relationships at the moment the failure is recognized. They describe the youthful disillusionment of ‘The First Time’; they long for long-gone beatnik days. They idealize tough-guy, bad-ass culture with a wry absurdity, where the macho pose presupposes the macho confrontation and the final macho fall-from-grace. Because of its entertaining self-awareness, the reader can easily forgive its romanticization. Who knows when the next epiphany will interrupt the flow of adventures in poems like ‘Panama vice’ where the speaker’s ship has been waiting for clearance through the canal for five days?

‘...the four-to-eight oiler with the big mouth & the minuscule brain finally says the wrong thing to the wrong person & gets himself kicked down a flight of metal stairs & at the bottom four more guys are waiting with pipes & wrenches to finish up a job that’s been a long time coming & I look on caught up in a crippling stasis of spectator-sport voyeurism while they rearrange his face snap a couple of fingers & break his right leg...’

In all the poems there is a sense of deep satisfaction in the excavation of the moment. ‘Satisfy yourself first,’ says Kerouac, ‘then the reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.’ There is no insecurity here, no confessional overwhelm, no full-blown existential crisis for the speaker about whether these experiences are meaningful or worth reflecting upon. This narrative ‘I’ has already satisfied itself and the result is a contagion of ‘meaning-excitement.’
     Terrill’s beautifully spun poems transmute the deep and fulfilling experience of the moment through the prose poem. They successfully do what Kerouac calls ‘the free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement.’

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