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Philip Metres reviews

Morning Constitutional, by Michael Magee

Philadelphia: Spencer Books/Handwritten Press, 2001. $10.95.
ISBN 1-889793-09-4

This piece is 1,300 words or about four printed pages long.

Equal parts philosophy and free jazz, standup and rap, Michael Magee’s roving first book, Morning Constitutional, is a chorus of Gertrude Stein and Ralph Ellison, Frank O’Hara and Ben Franklin, lifted to a rabbled pitch, and set to a language that careens off the confines of the page. Schooled in experimental poetry, philosophical pragmatism, and jazz theory, Magee melds an anarchic energy with a willingness to try anything in poetry; like a jazz soloist, Magee has the audacity to hit sour notes, with the conviction that he can bend them back into song.

Witness ‘Stateside,’ an absurdist poem about gender bending, nipples, and essentialism, and the battle of sexes which begins, ‘That guy is my mom,’ and follows with the equally vertiginous: ‘the nipple is officially an orifice.’ Or, ‘A Rhetoric of Examples #7,’ parodying Frost and the nature poetry tradition:

Why had I been there? There were the trees then, and the many little trees, and there were the several trees scattered about as well. I could remember thinking deeply of trees while looking up into the vast trees; such thoughts always lead me back to those days among the trees when I would sit lazily on the limbs of trees or half-gallop through the maze of trees, finally breaking out into a plot of trees. Trees were all in those days! Now, as I hunched in the trees’ shade, I could not help but be reminded of trees despite my sincere effort to put trees behind me, and set out for the trees which awaited me, patiently, like a forest.

What begins, perhaps, as a parody of ‘Birches’ (and the host of poems imitating ‘Birches’), soon gets caught up in the opaque oddness of the word ‘tree’ itself, as if one could get lost simply in the four letters thus clustered together. Language, initially employed as satirical club, becomes almost too heavy to wield and threatens the knock down the wielder himself.

Similarly, in ‘The Short Story of Her Life,’ the main unnamed character always eludes the poem’s narrative grasp. The poem opens:

she either had a family episode or had watched an episode of ‘All in the Family,’ no one caught it. In any event, they put her away. In 1958 she’d married Trevor’s law partner — a close family friend, also named Trevor. In the lingo this became known as ‘The Trevor Series.’ Later, the rest of the family settled nearby, just outside of the lingo.

The poem is Derrida by way of Groucho Marx — speaking to the slipperiness of language through the relentless use of puns, cultural references, and innuendoes. But the poem is not just a goof, finally; how does one speak about a life, in a world so mediated, narrativized, and virtualized that sitcom characters and chatroom voices are all real as our family members?

What ‘The Short Story of Her Life’ does to narrativity, ‘Delta T’ does to politics — it finds a way of metaphorizing revolution by any poetic means necessary, in an invented form that I can only describe as a exploded sestina. Here are the first and last stanzas, in full:

Things ain’t ever going to change.
Little girls always wearing brown, little boys ruffled sleeves.
The globe sliding an egg-timer
on a slope of buttermilk.
The weather was going to be hot, and then was.
This makes us grumble.
Women are fussy, men: fussy.
Noise made by gathering coffee grounds in the toes and stomping.

Mickey Rooney’s egg-timer. Tree-climbing cowboys.
A shivering potato-bug named Mary Cassatt. Little girls
buried to their necks in coffee grounds. Island dogs
with ruffled tails. Fat men watching television.
Women neither fussy nor unfussy with boys in green on their shoulders
in order of their appearance. There is no such thing
as a knock-knock joke. The Queen will forever be
referred to as Fred. There is a constant which we will call K.

Over the course of this exploded sestina, the principal sentence — ‘things ain’t ever going to change’ — has crumbled, word by word, down to ‘things.’ By the end of the poem, the staid, fatalistic pre-industrial images of life of the first stanza — where gender and culture are unchanging entities — have turned inside-out, into a carnivalesque of images at once surrealist and late capitalist realism. The mastery of the poem — how it transcends a conceptual framework — is how it works both as a kind of manifesto to progressivism and as a real portrait of the pageant of American life. Magee’s poems succeed most when the language itself threatens to overcome the ideological, conceptual, or geographical triggers that instigated the poem in the first place.

If language itself functions as the main character of these poems, geography may be its sidekick. ‘Place is a real event — where you are is a law equal to what you are’: Robert Creeley’s words speak directly to Magee’s poetics, obsessed as it is with locations, locales, and locationality. Philadelphia, Detroit, and Florida all become characters in these poems, but Philly is the hero — ground zero of the republic and urban blight, soul music and needle exchanges, cheesesteak hoagies and the ‘sci-fi/landscape of Philly industry.’ The central sequence, ‘Morning Constitutional,’ traces the journey of the poet from his house at 10th and Spruce through various personally and nationally symbolic sites — from Ben’s Diner to the Ben Franklin House to Independence Hall — and ending, significantly, at the North Philadelphia Needle Exchange.

In section six, the poet describes the scene outside Independence Hall — the usual statues and tourist signs, perhaps a protest. Magee’s description riffs on the Declaration of Independence, Gil Scott-Heron’s Ur-rap ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’:

a human course which, the cops say, becomes necessary to

dissolve: to which replies and petitions for a decent respect, a
declaration of the causes which impel this castigation     no

truths self-evident, no equal lanes, though all this will end
up on a commercial  the revolution will not be full of eyes

the revolution will smell of lies, the revolution will not be
Hellenized, the revolution will relativize size, the revolution

will not be these guys, will not be Mellonized, will not revise
revolution rhymes: of, by, for, not of before; of, by, for, and not before [.]

Magee’s obsession with the nation has the rhyme-mania of Heron and Dylan, but the poem does not act as agit-prop as much as it is enact protest itself. The poem becomes a symbolic action of dissent, even though the poet knows that dissent always seems to end up as the soundtrack to capitalism (a fate, sadly, of both songs echoed).

In ‘Pledge,’ sixteen poems all echoing the Pledge of Allegiance, Magee continues this theme, doing to the Pledge what Jasper Johns did to Old Glory, and what Kenneth Koch did to Hamlet (in Koch’s ‘Transposed Hamlet’, the famous soliloquy begins ‘Tube heat or nog tube heat; data’s congestion’). This is the first:

I plug elegance
two thief rag
off-Dionysus tastes of America
in tune theory public
four widgets hands
one day shun
on dirge odd
ring the busy bell
with lip hurting
and just this
for all

Perhaps the most personal poem of the collection, ‘On the Highway It’s Raining,’ alludes to the poet’s ‘debilitating condition’ — the dissolving of the myelin sheath known as multiple sclerosis:

         myopic eyes but my
is dissolving   “to merge” implies solution


but also thinning.     Hey, you fuck,
this isn’t
          a race!   if it is
                               I’m an eraser
breakdown lane cum fast lane   speeding ticket chaser

That the highway drive in the rain signifies the journey through life almost goes without saying. This poem’s poignancy, however, derives from the way in which the speaker rides a language that veritably gallops to the ‘emergent sea’ — at once signifying emergency, the onset of disease, and the general direction toward which we all are moving, constantly and willy-nilly.

Jacket 22 — May 2003  Contents page
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