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Nicholas Birns reviews reviews

Look Slimmer Instantly
by Jerome Sala

128 pp. Soft Skull: US$12.95. ISBN 1-932360-72-7. Paper

This review is 1,200 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Exposing the Idols

Followers of the New York poetry scene certainly know the work of Jerome Sala, but the publication of Look Slimmer Instantly should increase appreciation of his winsome voluble creativity. Sala’s book may be part of a new trend. One thinks of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s recent Funny — where humor is not just a facet of a book of poetry but its unifying theme. It is not just that individual poems are often funny, as is true in the poetry of, say, Mark Halliday or R. S. Gwynn, but that the poetry evinces a philosophic stance with respect to humor. There are some one-shot tours de force in this book, such as “Hollywood Alphabet” where Sala finds a celebrity to go with every letter of the alphabet, and managing, with a Kenneth Koch-like verve, to mention Freddy Krueger and Jürgen Habermas in virtually the same breadth. Sala, less overtly ‘intellectual’ than Hecht, writes with an astonishing lightness, full of nimble, skittering percipience. The reader is dazzled by the irreverent acuity to be seen, for example, in a fairly long sequence of poems on the Dick Van Dyke Show of the 1960s, which goes through the characters on the show and the real-life fortunes of the actors who portrayed them, finally ending with this bravura rendition of art’s flow into ongoing reality:

Carl Riener makes
movies with Mel Brooks

Where cowboys sit
Around the fire
And fart

But his son, Rob
(named after his favorite

does turn out to have talent
He makes This is Spinal Tap,
The Princess bride,
And when Harry met Sally.

Carl is devastated.

Sala is being puckish here. For one thing, Rob Reiner was born well too early to be named after Rob Petrie, the role played by Dick Van Dyke in the show, and Sala is, as the media would say, “not necessarily” implying that Carl Reiner was despondent at his son’s good fortune. What Sala is doing is playing with the overlay of reality and fiction that televisual media ecology (especially the constant availability and reprogramming of reruns of old shows) promotes. The borders of reality and imagination are undefined. Indeed, the Dick Van Dyke Show itself was an ostensibly ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the making of a television show. Sala is not introducing self-referentiality into the tableau; he is observing and further ramifying his latent presence. He thus, en passant, avoids any overly bardic or salvific role for the poet.

It is because Sala’s discourse is so suffused in self-referentiality that this is not a nostalgic poem about past pop culture; it posits the Dick Van Dyke Show as a riddle to be solved, not just an artifact indexically invoked to conjure a sanitized image of a temps perdu. Sala shows himself as skeptical of the ‘future’ as of the past. The book’s title satirizes the easy promises of advertisements claiming to solve all our problems; in several poems in the volume, Sala excoriates the equally anodyne euphoria of the late 1990s about globalization and prosperity. Sala was un-bedazzled by the end of history even before the chimerical nature of this ‘end’ was full revealed in 2001.

“What I Learned at Harvard and Yale” says it all. The speaker of the poem is working as a hired writer for the scams that tell people they have won a million dollars in a sweepstakes. A “Harvard man” corrects the speaker’s manuscript, deleting the phrase “begin payment” from the sweepstakes pitch, as, presumably, the effectiveness of the scam depends on illusion so thorough that even a mention of an actual series of payments would disrupt them. Another colleague, a ‘Yale guy’, opines:

we should forego
the million dollar prize
and offer
Bon Jovi’s house

It is not just the cynicism of the scam that is revealed, but the utter cynicism of a hierarchical elite determined to fool and patronize those less fortunate, tantalizing them with the allure of working-class successes, like Jon Bon Jovi’s achievement of fame and celebrity, which (unlike money in the aggregate) they loathe. The Juvenalian fire of Sala’s scorn is spot on. Salas is exposing the idols of our contemporary complacency. And, for all his irreverence and self-mockery, he, very inferentially, gives
us a heroic figure, somebody unsusceptible to suasion, who cannot be taken in by the siren song of Yuppie self-celebration.

It seems, at least from internal evidence, that Sala did actually work for a sweepstakes-writing company. In “Lunch at the China Grill” the speaker talks to another sweepstakes writer; they are lunching at the China Grill, a pricey Chinese restaurant in midtown New York City. The speaker tells the story of a client who offered him a job advertising tapes of old Star Trek shows. The dining companion then says:

We all got that lunch
he said
But I only got taken
To The Dish of Salt

The Bourdieu-esque emphasis is on micro-distinction, the narcissism of small differences between one midtown Chinese restaurant and another.

Sala is delicious in attacking the feverish hype about globalization. Glimpsing an educational institution’s new catalog, he comments:

On the cover
We are promised
“a world of ideas”.

We need a world
I guess
In a “global economy”

A nation
or neighborhood
Would not
do the trick

The bromides incarnated by the savants of currently hegemonic ideologies are revealed as mere advertising slogans. And what would Benedict Anderson say to the last stanza quoted? Is the ‘imagined community,’ to use Anderson’s famous phrase, now the nation, or the globe?

Sala is married to the poet Elaine Equi, and he shares some of Equi’s ability to put a lot into a little, although, on the surface at least, his poetry seems less gnomic and oracular. Sala’s language sometimes seems uninflected. But this actually indicates a flexible quality that allows him to shift registers with astonishing speed. For instance, Sala goes between writing satiric poems about a self-help teacher and reviews of fictional self-help books, such as “The Free Lies of the Bare Intruder” by Bart Trueblood and “The Luck of a Hack,” by Harry Rossy, written with a sage, wry mock-seriousness. Sala is not mocking people’s need for self-improvement; that would put him in the category of the Ivy League types who wants to knock down those who aspire to emulate Bon Jovi. Rather, he is excavating the corruption of those who seek to prey on people’s inherent need for self-improvement by commodifying it into convenient, packaged truisms.

Some of Sala’s poems in this book are more overtly philosophical. “On Means and Ends” may remind us most immediately of Machiavelli but its sensibility is ultimately Aristotelian:

We don’t know much about the end
except it’s usually pretty mean
And that to get there it takes even meaner means
Until it seems the whole notion of the end is ended

The next three stanzas continue our tour through every possible verbal rendition of ‘end’ and ‘mean’, delighting in the polysemy of language, of parts of speech and their different employments, braided with a meditation on process and result. The stanzas Aristotelian in spirit, and leave us with, if not a metaphysics at least a physics.

Sala plays; but he plays seriously. He is agent provocateur as well as jester; he is a rollicking revolutionary. Just because he does not take himself too seriously does not mean that he is only joking.

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