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CA Conrad
The Book of Frank
reviewed by
Eileen Myles
Chax Press , 2009, 151pp ISBN 9780925904 66 9 US$16

CA Conrad, photo by Pam Brown

CA Conrad, photo by Pam Brown

The Frank Poems


I’ve been obsessing all year about C.A. Conrad. For me, he’s the poet who always changes the room he enters. He’s poetry’s answer to relational aesthetics. Which is the movement camped out now at the center of the art world in which the audience becomes the inevitable workings of the piece. Just by walking into the gallery and agreeing to participate we make it happen. So a piece about Iraq might include a former member of the Iraqi army sitting on a couch in the New Museum ready to take questions. Yet relational aesthetics falls down sometimes in its unwillingness to keep seeing the space politically, to not pose questions to itself about the extent to which an intervention has actually occurred. That part seems to be “our” problem. Does installing a soldier in a gallery do anything we wonder at a time of war. Or was the goal of the piece always just to make us feel good. In the work of CA Conrad neither such deliberate intention is in play. The space he enters as a poet — on the page or in the room where he reads is invariably radically altered yet to specifically vague social ends. Yes he’s queer. But aren’t you? Conrad is undeniably a gay man who is reacquainting us in a quiet time (quiet about almost everything except the money — everyone’s busy moaning about the money) with the wildness and inclusiveness of the original impulse behind the gay liberation movement, and even the implicit possibility it carried then and now that even you, yes even fuddy duddy, uncategorizable, rich, poor, young, old you are welcome here. I center my CA Conrad enthusiasm on his magnificent book, The Frank Poems, which he wrote over the course of eleven years then culled from a heap of them to produce this tight volume that is now tearing a hole in the aesthetic time line of the poetry world. Conrad, a man in his 40s, hurtles towards us from a Black Mountain New York School In the American Tree Russell Edson Richard Brautigan Leonard Cohen Audre Lorde kind of present past. Like postmodernism itself the pastiche of his work proposes that all styles not only apply but need each other in order to explain the day. In order for us to fully exist in it. Conrad demands of his reader that we get in there viscerally with the awkward stuff. His first poem tells us:


when Frank was born
Father inspected the small package
the nurse handed him

“but where’s my daughter’s cunt?
my daughter has no cunt!”

Mother leaned from the bed
“this is your awful son Dear
your son has no cunt”

“why doesn’t my son have a cunt?
what has happened?
what a WICKED world!
and spinning
on its one
good leg!”


This poem (like all the others that follow) is untitled. Something is in motion. The gyre of the wrongly gendered kid spins like the tablet flung into the air at the beginning of 2001. Wyrd I think is how you would spell it, the gestalt of his opening sally. It’s a weird emblem, the patch on the pocket of a wyrd family. It’s Goth, Gorey, Russell Edson — himself an influential barnacle on the 70s heyday of the prose poem, of arch surrealism that has long since become sort of taboo. Surrealism, for many, screams novice. Teenager. Cheap effects. But it gave us Bill Knott, it gave us early Codrescu and much of our connection to Europe and South America in the first part of the 20th c. in poetry. Surrealism implied among other things the disassociative and destabilizing states of sex. Like what is this thing I’m sucking on. Surrealism was part I think, of a pattern of wildness that gradually became expressed in an ever more controlled and minimal way. Till like Stein says “it went away.” I think it was replaced by technology. Surrealism reigned when poetry was cool, so it had to be “weird.” It was a creaky stage, a late one, the Cheshire cat grinning just before all the writing programs. Conrad’s taken a page from that carny moment of poetry and reinstalled it in ours where it’s holding its own eerie glow. I mean what is it about a world spinning on its one good leg. Decrepit and demanding yet we can’t help but also observe “the world” ‘s agile perversity. You are wrong, the child is told. But you are also very much worth staring at. A feeling prevails, both dissheveled and fantastic. Because rather than ever setting itself aright our attention keeps having its object replaced by the impossible proposition of the next poem. It’s an entirely cinematic approach the way a film never stays still or wants to. And the visual sameness of the poems here is bracing — if you flip through the frank poems which are all about a page long — flipping it becomes a field of them. Haikus, almost.


Which are another dismissable item of poetry history. Hey we’re doing haikus today in my workshop! Conrad’s haikus are reports from an unfinished floating world — America, the family, hetero and homosexual deviancy lushly exposed, Disney-like. In one poem Frank’s mother begins to grow tentacles and drips pools of ink. She picks him up at school in a cape (echoes of Carrie) then burns the principal with her eyes. The trail of events that follow in this tiny poem move Frank to this utterance:


“when I die” Frank prayed
I will never return

if I must
it will be as
it will be as if I had not”


What’s jaw dropping here is how well-tweaked kitsch yields such quiet profundity. Maybe this is the site of his true distinction from some of the earlier surrealists. Conrad or Frank’s own agony makes him unwilling to end his poem on an eye-fluttering and mysterious note. No corpse and key and uncertain direction fill these poems. Nor are they mundane. To return as one abortion would be vulgar, but coming back as a sea of them constitutes a community of loss. Whether Conrad has read Giorgio Agamben isn’t the point. He is saying something more interesting about poetry in poetry than Agamben has. He’s saying it in American through the mundanity of stuff. That cluttered place is indeed Conrad’s academy. He’s a connoisseur. He is like a professor of stuff. He knows it.


Frank ate clear around
the sleeping worm
of the apple

“any life saved in this place
is magic” Frank said
“it’s life coming back to you”


The sleeping worm of course is cartoony. Saturday morning fun. But is “life coming back to you” that. In concert with the circular motion of the eating in the first stanza it’s a mannered arrival at a simple feeling of awe, a visual mitzfeh, a gift. The gift is that it seems so easy — is a cartoon — makes it simple like Charlie Chaplin is simple. Each return visit to this poem yields a little more. These pop conflations seem to me to be the poems of a contemporary master.


Mother breaks Frank’s paintbrushes.


This is the first line of the very next poem in the book. In a reading the one before it would have extracted a quiet ooh from a poetry audience. He made a bump in the air. The atmosphere is now strangely dewy. And he follows it up like this:


Mother breaks Frank’s paintbrushes.

forces his head
through the canvas
“FRAME ME! He shouts
“FRAME ME! take the copyright
from God! FRAME ME!”


Is this funny. I think we’re talking about family violence. Whether a painting was busted or not — or a brush. The casual destruction of childhood creativity in families of all classes, and the casual and monstrous destruction of that deeper art in a child which is the self, that sense of pure originality to which each of us are entitled, that’s the subject here. To address that Conrad has inverted the meanings of “frame,” “copyright” and “god,” driving over it back and forth, hurting everything in order to dredge up freshly the reality of child abuse and foisting on the reader a sensation of hearing that you don’t matter. You can’t make or exist, that you can’t be. You aren’t there. This kind of Herzog screaming to God is a demand for the most primary honorific of having a name, a frame — access to a sense of self in the world. Religion gets sneered by artists and intellectuals I think because there’s so little understanding among (who have escaped, kind of) us of how God is finally the only institution many humans can imagine themselves being witnessed by. Only prayer is offered in the end to the poor — and the rich too I believe. If we want people to imagine themselves freer than that then we must take them (in some manner) out of their homes, and schools and speak to them in abling language. Would that not be poetry. “Frank” is an ardent howl. In elegant six, and eight and twelve lines bursts.


Also there’s a scarlet (meaning bloody, not tepid) even scary feminist consciousness operative here.


Frank tries to ignore
the girl living inside
his mattress

she never shouts

never makes demands

he would talk about
the Mets with her
but he’s afraid she
might never shut up

Frank can’t masturbate
as it is


I call it feminism, even outrageous feminism at work in this one because he sees her. Because the girl simply is. I might contrast this poem with the work of Tony Oursler, a video artist who makes mannequins with blank faces for his installations and places them under toppling couches then shoots a moving human face onto the blank oval of the dummy. She’ll be screaming and whining and emitting plaintive cries. Sometimes his figures are men, but it’s women mostly. There’s this commonplace in male art where the gimmick of monstrosity is usually enacted by a female form. I guess cause that’s who he’s looking at mostly. Not men. Really? I mean that’s the story one is generally told. It’s just the male gaze going on there. Nothing else. So when men work with men, and share their ideas with each other they’re not looking. When they learn from other men it all takes place in the realm of the invisible. Just like in sports. I find that unbelieveable.


I’m saying what’s different here is that CA Conrad includes himself (the Frank character) in the performance. He knows she’s there. When he imagines talking to her about the Mets I think he’s suggesting that he knows he probably should perform masculinity “for” the girl. That’s his job. But is he a man. That comes into question. And also it’s acknowledged he has his own tawdry (or life giving, perhaps) desires he is not willing to forgo them in an exchange with her. And she might never shut up. That’s the main problem. He knows just how monstrous she is. (Which I am weirdly honored by.) Though interferes with his needs. He’s probably gay, this narrator. He wants to jerk off that’s all. And she will ruin it. I mention gayness here because the Frank poems are a triumph of multi-positionality.


These are not men’s poems, any more than they are women’s poems. They’re not straight poems any more than gay ones. The writer is male, and the writer is homosexual. And the writer comes it seems clear from a less than privileged background. But the scope of the book includes so many kinds of ventroloquized selves, an abundant puppetry. Like that field of haikus waving. An active and morphing fictionality amends, abets and broadens the scope of the poetry inside “Frank” and even out there.


I imagine a certain kind of reader assigning to “Frank” one position: queer, weird, funny because I think we are urged to read narrower and narrower all the time. So that taking a variety of positions gives the reader the opportunity to pick the weirdest one as the “true” position of the author. And dismiss it as that. Because the demand is to write middle class work in a failing empire overrides all else and unless it’s clear that we laugh at the other, or have judiciously picked one (other) as people generally do in fiction and stick with that mask for the entire ride, then you leave yourself wide open to the lowest sort of critique posing as high. Imagine Whitman having to limit himself to one of the above, or below. It’s our good fortune especially at this moment of quiet cultural crisis to have this marvelous book by C.A. Conrad — one following Whitman and Stein and Allen Ginsberg who came to us horny and abundant in their different ways demanding that he or she be construed as all men.


pig says to Frank
“this fence keeps you in your world”
Frank says to pig
“this fence keeps you in your world”
pig says to Frank
“this fence keeps you in your world”
Frank says to pig
“this fence keeps you in your world”
pig says to Frank
“this fence keeps you in your world”


In Conrad’s world the parameters are deliberately unknowable because that is the nature of our time. In piecing together, configuring and releasing his extreme miniatures — agonized fables, poems about America. C.A. Conrad includes us all in the enormous outside of his heart. Which is the world in all its possibility.

Eileen Myles, St Marks Poetry Project, 1 January 2010, photo by David Nolan

Eileen Myles, St Marks Poetry Project, 1 January 2010, photo by David Nolan

Eileen Myles is a poet who lives in New York. Her novel The Inferno will be out by the end of the year. She is teaching this spring in Missoula, MT.

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