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The Hidden Word

Tom Hibbard reviews
Marijuana Soft Drink, by Buck Downs

71 pp. Edge Books, Washington D.C., 1999
This piece first appeared in The Washington Review, December 2000.
It is 1,500 words or about four printed pages long

The idea of ‘document’ seems to have a promising fascination for the twenty-first century psyche. Buck Downs’ new book of poems, Marijuana Soft Drink, might be called a document. It doesn’t say things in a conventional sense. It isn’t narrative. It maps and gives verbal evidence of the up-and-down, complex psychological and ethical landscape of its times. I don’t say the book is not uniquely the author’s own. It seems to me that the words are often combined and selected in this collection according to the way they are charged with idiomatic meanings that society has bestowed upon them. The author may be putting these words together with his own subtle plan, but the words and phrases themselves are those he has observed huddled in the spotlight. The book is a cemetery of words. It is more a collage of words than grammatical sentences, exhibiting ‘wordfulness’, the constructive and destructive creative power of the word in general.

The document nature of the book is symbolized by its title. It could be that ‘marijuana’ means marijuana, drugs, some sort of literary smoke-in for the legalization of the venerable weed and its body-relaxing, mind-expanding properties, but I would suspect that it rather has a symbolic meaning of ‘illegal’ in the sense of non-legal, not confined within the legal order of things. Coupled with ‘soft drink’, what is referred to is the benign illegality of life itself, the unexpected, topsy-turvey weighty significance of it that only makes people laugh or cry but over which the notion of right and wrong, in the end, seems to have little control. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it was. And though as we read we find ourselves asking ‘what is this book about’ and ‘what really happened’, it seems the light of life shines through in a way that tells us this unspoken, unspeakable sense is what is really most of interest.

In fact, the title of the first poem in the book is ‘worth’, and it begins — ‘worth is the story of the val/ ue of money & women’. Worth — and lack of it — is what comes through. But, except in this evidentiary, document type way, which is becoming somewhat popular in contemporary poetry, perhaps, along with collage and ‘visual poetry’, deriving from Expressionism, Downs himself doesn’t make a strong attempt to describe or define worth. The cynical assignation of worth to ‘money and women’ is a tip-off to the stylistic qualities of the book. Downs is saying, ironically, obviously worth is not limited to money and women, but to try to describe what does have worth, to try to sort it out in a straightforward manner in the face of an unworthy world is too time-consuming and exacting a task for the perhaps discredited, unexpert poet who is in any case ‘passing through’. Even the harshest, most ‘realistic’ description is unsatisfactory. The lines following are “staff that/ three o’clock/ pop to cut/ that duke’s that starch’. These are suggestive, tending away from standard and accepted notions of worth. I don’t read ‘has s.u.v.’ or ‘elected president’ among them. Worth is elusive but essential. It is not a thing but the quality of a thing. It is not a statement but a fleeting quality of a statement. This is the prelude to the rest of the book.

In my opinion, a collection of poetry that seems close to the style of Marijuana Soft Drink is Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. This book is like Kerouac’s in its jumbled, improvised obscurity of a great variety and quantity of words that only in some loony way finds a distant clarity, a brand new connection. Downs doesn’t speak to the reader. He causes the reader to become introspective.

I also think it is interesting to compare these poems to Bukowski. Though one might suspect, from the title for example, a similarity, I think that rather the two poetic styles contrast. Whereas Bukowski revels in the nasty possibilities of life turning out to be some sort of bad joke, Downs is hurt by life’s disappointments. He is not nasty at all but idealistic. I think Downs might find Bukowski somewhat glib and ego-centric. Whereas Bukowski’s only rule seems to have been boredom be gone, Downs might not find boredom an offense at all. He might think it risky to call anyone boring. Without talking about it, Downs seems humble and dutiful in his sense of right and wrong. Whereas Bukowski admits to being life’s crooked, worldly ‘Fool’, Downs seems to be continually picking himself up and returning naively to the fray — in my opinion virtuously so. There is a protectiveness, a high hope in his unwillingness to be explicit, perhaps fearful of interfering with the sacred balance.

fancy little bone wallow
   fun in the middle
   of our flowing    life
      we cannot assassinate
daily     the demands that
forgetting makes
    erase as we become
          mixed together

These lines are characteristic in their circular, clipped reasoning. Where do they lead and what do they mean? Who knows? But thankfully they will do little harm if and when they fall into the wrong hands.

A well-known quote of Ezra Pound’s is that ‘poetry should be at least as well written as prose’. Downs seems to have interpreted this in an inspired way. If prose is to be plain, clear and not needlessly flashy, poetry should be even more so. Not that the poems aren’t well written or imaginative. They aren’t particularly ‘poetic’. They seem to eschew the arena of stylishness. They aren’t ‘high’ or literary or ponderous. They do not try for crystal clarity or insightful turns of phrase, but seem to scamper through optimistically on their own to some sort of approximate, cautioning, non-surface meaning. They are sparing, reticent, as in these lines from ‘Turn Off the Pickle’

there is a lot
of laughter going
on among the

beneath the waves
there could be
a steady under
current  as in
the realization
that the boy wonder
is a regis
tered trademark

I do not want to misrepresent the poems. They can have a liquidity and smoothness unlike official documents, and the words aren’t always selected from the spotlight but are sometimes grabbed in handfuls from the junk pile. The poems are purified on revision. Sometimes a line interestingly will be united with its opposite. Notice the way this line being cut in half goes from a negative to a positive: ‘grieve we never/ saw it coming’. And these lines remind me of Robert Creeley: ‘silence is what/ hearing makes/ across the room/ to listen to’. And these combine static exclusiveness and mobile mundanity: ‘go chase/ each other around’.

Marijuana Soft Drink — published excellently by Edge Books in Washington D.C. both outside and inside — contains about sixty pages of poetry. The table of contents lists the poems backward from last to first. The last poem, titled ‘abortifacient’, is fifteen pages not especially different from the other single-page poems. Perhaps this collection does not have a subject or theme in a traditional sense. But it, on the other hand, does not seem to be about any- and every- thing. It seems to remain close to the experiences and topic of love. The longer last poem is a troubling, bubbling testament of emotion and thought that seems to emerge from basic bodily physicality. I think the reason for the table of contents being backwards is that Downs is saying, in several guises, from many ethical points of view, in a way that does not condemn but reflects the moral nature of reality itself, life begins in physicality and becomes spiritual. Thought works backward. Love begins before we are aware of it, in a specific protoplasmic realm beyond the reach of our scientific super-egos to become, with its righteous anger, its philosophies, its memories, its hypocrisies a most liquid and convincing of life’s undiscardable documents.

In my opinion, the overriding sense these poems give is that they are not entirely what they appear. They are deeper than they seem. More literate and more wise. They seem to be written quickly to be read quickly but also, at times, seem pieced together, better read slowly, each line considered one at a time. They are more concerned than they seem. I am told there is too much poetry in our literary world, but a book like this reminds me there is not enough. Poetry in the U.S.A. is in a unique position in that it is so free from commercialism. It should rejoice more in its privilege.

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